Review - iFi Audio Zen Stream

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Also available on YouTube in Spanish: Acho Reviews YouTube

The iFi Zen Stream has been kindly loaned to me for this review by DeCine, the official distributors of iFi Audio in Spain. They have not requested anything specific, not even a link, due to the fact that they are distributors and do not sell to the public, therefore, as always, this review will be as sincere and as unbiased as possible. However, it is always good to consider that it hasn’t cost me anything to try out the iFi Audio Zen Stream.

For further details on the Zen Stream, you can check out the iFi Audio page here: https://ifi-audio.com/products/zen-stream/

Preamble…

This review is going to be a little different from the usual reviews as the Zen Stream is a product that is aimed at providing all the necessary streaming and playback options in one device. Everyone's use for this device is going to differ from the next person, as each person has specific roles that they would like the device to cover, so I can only really look at this from my own personal use case perspective. I will explain more as I go on.

Intro…

The iFi Audio Zen Stream is basically a WiFi (and/or wired) streaming device that provides an easy solution for streaming many services, along with local files, all in one small package.

The reason that I am very interested in this device is that it is a “plug and play” replacement for the Raspberry Pi set up that I currently use, or at least that is my hope. So, as I mentioned above, I will be looking at the Stream from the point of view of replacing my current Pi system, seeing how it lives up to my own preferences for this kind of device.



Presentation…

Starting with the usual look at how the product is packed and what it includes, the Zen Stream arrives in the typical iFi Audio packaging, inside of which we find the Zen Stream, the power supply, the WiFi antenna (which attaches to the unit of course), a very short but sturdy network cable, a small tool for adjusting the “Exclusive Modes” (more on that in a moment) and a couple of instruction and warranty cards.

There is not a huge amount of content but then again, what is actually missing? Nothing as far as I can think of. If I had any complaint (which I don’t) it would be about the inclusion of a network cable that is only 50cm long, which means that either you will need to have a network port very close or buy another cable, but this is not a complaint, at least they included a network cable and no matter what length they would have chosen, it wouldn’t be good for everyone.


Build and aesthetics…

The Zen Stream follows the same build and aesthetics as the rest of the Zen line. I have always liked the fact that iFi usually breaks from the norm in this regard and the Zen series is proof of this. The aesthetics are obviously something very personal to each of us, some will love the Zen series, others won’t, such is the case with designs that have their own unique touches. In my case I like them but that is irrelevant to you!

As far as build quality, again, it follows the Zen series of being very well built, with complete metal casing, and I certainly have no complaints as far as build goes. 



Functionality…

Before I jump into my personal use case, I wanted to briefly go over what the Zen Stream actually does as a unit, some of which is not actually relevant to me personally.

As far as the actual layout of the hardware, on the front of the unit we have two buttons and four lights (two small and two large). The button on the left is for powering on or off the unit, with the small LED at the side of the button showing the status. The button on the right being used to enable the hotspot function, with another small LED at the side of the button to again show status. The two large lights are to show the network status (LED on the left) and the frequency LED (on the right), which basically gives visual feedback on the format of the music being reproduced.

Moving to the back of the unit, from left to right, we have:

Wifi Antenna - Pretty self explanatory

Exclusive Modes switch - This allows the choice of setting the unit to do a specific task, giving the choice of:

1. All in one
2. Roon only
3. Tidal only
4. Network Audio Adapter only
5. DLNA only
 
This basically means that the unit will automatically adjust itself to each person's use case by setting it to the specific task or, if you have multiple uses for the device (as is my case) then it can be set to “All in one”. The idea behind using an exclusive mode is to close down unused programs reducing “software jitter”.

SPDIF / Coaxial output - Allowing a DAC to be connected via Coax instead of USB

2x USB 3.0 ports - One can be used to connect a DAC while the other can be used to connect local storage, such as an external hard drive.

USB C port - This is reserved for Firmware updates

RJ45 Connector - To connect to the network via cable.

Reset Button - In case of the need to reset the unit to factory settings.

Power Connection - For connection of the external power supply.

That covers all of the connections, which are quite a few, so I will touch briefly on what this unit is aimed to do.

The Zen Stream sits connected to your network and your DAC and basically, in simple terms, serves to connect your DAC to your network. This then allows you to control music playback (from anyone of many sources) while the Zen Stream actually does the work of taking the stream and sending it to the DAC. There is obviously much more complexity to it but that is basically what it does.

For those who use Roon, the Zen Stream serves as a Roon endpoint. For those who use HQPlayer, the Stream can be set as a Network Audio Adapter. For those who use streaming services such as Tidal, Spotify, Qobuz, YouTube Music, etc., the stream will appear as an optional output from inside the app(s). For those who want to stream music from their networked drive, the Stream can be set as a DLNA renderer and finally, if you just want the Stream to play music locally, you can attach a hard drive with your music and control it from the app (more on that in a moment).

 


My personal use case…

I have kept the previous section relatively short because, as I said at the beginning, the use case will depend very much on each person's needs for the unit. Here I am going to focus on my uses for the Zen Stream and how it compares to my current system.

Obviously, before I start, I need to give at least a little background on how my system works and is set up currently. First let me point out that I do not use Roon or HQPlayer, so modes 2 and 4 are irrelevant to my setup and I had no way of testing them.

As far as streaming services, I do use both Tidal and Spotify but the majority of my music listening at home is done with FLAC files on my server, either directly to a DAC from my PC (using Foobar) or via DLNA, although my wifes listening is mainly Spotify. In this case, mode 1 “all in one” is the setting that I have been using for the device.

I also do not play MQA much and currently do not have an MQA compatible DAC, therefore I cannot comment on the functionality of MQA. As far as DSD, I only have a few test tracks which I have tried and work, end of test.

The way my home audio network is set up is that I have a PC that acts as a server, with approximately 4tb of music. I then have a Raspberry Pi 4 that is running RopieeeXL and is connected to a Topping D10s, from which the analog output goes to an RCA switch (that feeds my headphone amps), the Coaxial output of the D10s goes to an SU-8 and the optical output of the D10s goes to a powered optical splitter, one side feeding various speaker set ups in different rooms and the other side running into an optical switch (allowing me to switch between multiple optical sources, such as Pi4, satellite TV, gaming console etc.) that then runs to the SU-8 and headphone amps also.

Focusing just on the Pi, which is what the Zen Stream would replace, it’s use is to be an always available streamer that can be controlled by any of the multiple PCs and Android devices that I have in my home. Easily accessible from inside the Spotify app (very important for my wife) and also inside Bubble UPNP (very important for me). As the audio network is distributed via optical, it means that my wife can just press play in spotify, turn on the amplifier of whichever room she is in and listen or, in the case of moving around the house, she can turn on multiple rooms and they are all in perfect sync with each other. I do have access to the files and streaming also in each room individually, in case I (we) want different audio sources in different rooms, but that is irrelevant to the Pi or the Zen Stream.

So, incorporating the Zen Stream…

First, the connections. As I have said before in other reviews, I am someone that prefers connections via cable when possible. I did connect the Zen Stream via WiFi (I only tested the 2.4GHz connection, it also supports 5GHz) and it was fine but I connected it via cable to my network due to preference.

The Zen Stream is obviously designed to be used with an external DAC, which is the same as the Pi, it does have a Coaxial output, although it doesn’t have an optical output. If an optical output had been included on the Stream, I could have replaced the Pi and D10s directly with the Stream, as I really don’t need the analog outputs in my case, but as I needed an optical output, I would need to use the D10s (or similar) with the Stream as well.

My first test was to just use the Zen Stream in my office, connected via coax to a DAC, sending music either from Foobar (via DLNA) or from my phone (both via DLNA and direct from the Tidal app). The setup was very easy. It was a case of plugging it in, turning it on, giving it a minute or so and away we go.

The Stream appeared immediately in the Tidal App and playback was instant as soon as it was selected. I did not have as much joy with Foobar as the Stream appeared but did not seem to play back any audio. To be honest, I don’t use DLNA on my work PC, so, even though I do have the correct components installed and it works to other renderers, I did not pay much attention as it is probably a setting that I have wrong on in Foobar.

I actually really enjoyed having the Zen Stream in my office. It is a great option for those who want (or need) to keep their music separate from their phone or PC. Hooked up to a DAC that feeds both a headphone amp (or two) and a ceiling speaker set up, it is very easily controlled by anyone in the office (that is on the office network of course), allowing people to override the current music with music of their own.

As I keep a backup of my music files on a couple of 2TB drives in the office, I decided to try playback from local storage also. I connected a 2TB HDD of FLAC files (probably around 90% full) to the Stream and opened the iFi app (which is only available in a browser for now, although iFi do say the Android app will be available soon). As soon as the HDD was connected, the Music Library showed it was updating, however, it took a while and I needed to leave so I ended up cancelling.

While I enjoyed having the Zen Stream in my office and will most probably think about getting one to have there permanently, my real interest was how it would work in my home system, so I then moved it to my rack at home.

The set up was just as easy as in my office, especially because I use a cabled connection as I said, so I didn’t even need to worry about WiFi. As I have two D10s, I connected one to the Zen Stream and the other to the Pi, although I already know the Pi well enough to not have to test things side by side.

As was the case in the office, control from PC and android devices was flawless. There are a few issues when arguing between Tidal and Spotify but when sticking to the same app, changes between Android devices were very quick and smooth. In other words, if I streamed Spotify from my phone and then tried to stream something from Spotify on my wifes device, it would immediately switch to her device. One thing to note is that each time a new Spotify starts streaming to the Zen Stream, the volume level drops to 50% and you need to raise it again from the device.

The issues were actually when trying to create a new stream from Tidal while Spotify is playing, Tidal always loses the battle and until the Spotify device is disconnected, Tidal will not start to play (it will show as though it is playing in the Tidal app but it is actually not). I don’t see this as a flaw really, as it is common for these kinds of issues to appear with Tidal in my experience. Also, if playing something from Tidal and then closing the Tidal app, the Stream will continue to play and if you reopen Tidal to stop it, Tidal does not see that it is already playing, something that Spotify does do immediately. Spotify is just better developed in my opinion, but I digress, back to the Zen Stream.

The Zen Stream also had no issues with the D10s (or any of my other DACs) via USB but I did find out that you can only choose to have output via USB or Coaxial, not both at the same time. This is not an issue as I have the D10s connected via USB, which has both optical and coaxial outputs, but I did hope that both USB and Coax could be used simultaneously so I could feed the Coax to another DAC.

I then moved over to my player of choice which is Foobar. Yes, I am old school, I like Foobar and have it set up exactly as I like it. However, exactly as I like doesn’t seem to be exactly how the Zen Stream likes it.

I said that in the office set up that I probably didn’t have Foobar configured correctly, however, at home I have it configured to stream via UPnP and it streams without issue to the Pi set up. The Stream appears in the list of outputs, when selected, Foobar does show as though it is playing to the Stream, however, no sound is output via the Stream. I spent a fair bit of time trying to resolve the issue but without luck. In the end I decided to not spend any more time on it. It is quite possible (probable?) that it is user error but I have no issues streaming to any of the other UPnP compatible devices in my house (which there a plenty of!).

So then I fired up Bubble UPnP from Android to see if there were any issues streaming from my server via UPnP. Bubble worked flawlessly, with the current content also showing up without issue on the iFi browser app. I was also surprised to find that I could control Bubble from the iFi browser window, although the play/pause function didn’t work, I could skip tracks or go back etc.

Finally, I decided to load some music onto a drive and connect it to the Stream. This time, rather than connecting 2TB of music, I opted for around 200 songs (in FLAC) on a flash drive. The Stream read these in seconds and then I could play them back from inside the browser window.

I was again surprised that I could control the Zen Stream from inside Bubble on my phone, allowing me to skip tracks, play/pause etc. However, I could not access the music files connected to the Stream. In other words, I couldn’t open Bubble and select to play music from the USB connected to the Stream. Hopefully this is something that the Android app that iFi says is “imminent” will be able to.

After these tests, I decided to update the firmware (iFi announced there was a new version). For some reason, each time I tried, it would get stuck on 40% and then go to error. The only way to get back to accessing the Stream would be to disconnect power and reconnect (recycling browser did nothing and the power button on the Stream wouldn’t respond). I spoke with iFi Audio about this and it seems they are having an issue with the server (not the device) and that this will be fixed soon. They recommended resetting the device and trying again, usually it will work after a few attempts, seeing that I had already tested the device as much as I needed to, and would be resetting it before returning it, I decided to skip the update.


Conclusion…

You may have noticed that I haven’t said anything about sound. That is because it doesn’t have one. The Stream does not produce sound, it sends data to an external DAC to do the conversion. How it deals with this data and things like jitter etc. are something that I cannot test with my ears. Golden Audio has a review  where he publishes measurements of the device, however, I haven’t read the review (yet) as I try to avoid watching/reading reviews when I plan on reviewing something. So, if you would like to see data and measurements, check out the review on Golden Audio: https://goldensound.audio/2021/07/22/ifi-zen-stream-measurements/

With regards to my personal use case for the Zen Stream, I must say that it is a great little device. Yes, there are a couple of things that stop it from being perfect for my personal set up, which I admit is far from a normal system anyway, but they are not things that I can hold against the Stream.

I would obviously like to get it working from Foobar but I am sure that if I spent enough time and research on it, I would get it working. Foobar is always a pain to set up and get to a point where everything works as I want it to, that is one of the negatives of Foobar though, not necessarily the Zen Stream.

I certainly think that it would be perfect for my office and will probably look at incorporating it into the office system when I revamp it in the near future. It works great for what I need in the office, allowing me to keep my music separate from my PC and phone. In fact, I would probably just connect it to the audio network we have in the building, that way anyone in any of the offices or workshop can stream to it without issue.

In comparison to the Pi set up I currently have at home, there are some very positive things to be said about the Stream. The first major benefit is the fact that it is just plug and play, even though RopieeeXL is pretty straightforward to install and use, it does still take time to set up. As far as cost, the Stream is more expensive than the Pi set up, but it is not really that much more expensive when taking everything into consideration. The Pi4 (8G) costs around 80€, a case is around 20€ (depending on what you choose of course), an SD card is another 15€, then the power supply is around 10€, so the total in hardware is around 125€ (depending on your choice of case). We then need to add the time to set it up, which probably takes around 30 mins when you know what you are doing but if it is your first time, you will need to add multiple hours of research before getting it up and running.

The Zen Stream is closer to 400€ but it is plug and play, looks better than a simple Pi case, and offers various things that the Pi set up doesn’t. For example, having a hard drive connected to the Stream with your local files is something that is not possible with the RopieeeXL set up, so if you are using the Stream as your main source for music, you don’t need to worry about having a NAS or server.

The fact that you can play directly on the Stream via the browser (and hopefully via an Android app soon) is also another big benefit in my opinion. You can create playlists etc. so if you want to just set a BGM stream going, such as in the office, then you can do so and just forget about it.

I experienced no glitches with playback, something that I do experience with the Pi now and again (not often but enough), and the switching between devices streaming to the Zen is simple and stable (except in the case of Tidal vs Spotify that I mentioned but, again, this is to do with the apps not the device).

All in all, I really can’t say anything bad about the Zen Stream. It is a device that will make life very simple for many people and at a reasonable price. Yes, you can get a similar set up for less money but it is a DIY solution, which may appeal to some but certainly not to others. I think that the Zen Stream is a great option for those who want simplicity and quality in a small package.

SenyorC