Review - HZSound Heart Mirror Pro

Review - iFi Audio NEO Stream

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Also available on YouTube in Spanish: Acho Reviews YouTube

The NEO Stream has been sent to me on loan by iFi Audio for me to try it out and for me to share my opinions by means of this review. As always with iFi, they have not requested anything specific, therefore I will do my best to remain sincere and unbiased throughout this review. It is always good, however, to take into consideration that it has not cost me anything to try out this device.

You can find the official page for the iFi NEO Stream here: https://ifi-audio.com/products/neo-stream/

As always, this is a non-affiliate link.


Intro…

The NEO Stream is a streaming device that offers a lot of functions in one device. I reviewed the Zen Stream a while back, which is also a streaming device from iFi, however the NEO Stream is what could be considered the high end streaming device from the brand.

Now, before I go into details, let's mention the price, as this step up from the Zen Stream does come at a price. The NEO Stream comes in at just under 1300€, which means it is not a cheap device by any means but at the same time is quite a bit lower priced than some of the other alternatives from the high end manufacturer names.

Let me warn you that this review is going to be quite a long one, as there is a lot to go over. I will break it down into the usual categories but please forgive me if there is any jumping around as I realize I have missed something 🙂


Presentation…

The packaging follows the usual iFi standard, a simple white box with the logo which is inside a white sleeve with the product image and details on the exterior.

Inside the box, everything is packed in a simple but effective way, making sure it is well protected during shipping.

The contents we receive are:

- iFi NEO Stream

- iFi 9v power supply

- 5v USB power supply

- WiFi antenna

- RCA to RCA cable

- USB to USB-C cable

- Stand

- Ethernet cable

- iFi Opti Box 

- Fiber cable

- Instructions card

- iFi Sticker

That is quite an array of contents. It’s possible that certain things will go unused by some people and there will be things that some wish were included but to be honest, with the amount of connection possibilities that the NEO Stream has, it would be impossible to cover every scenario.

Personally, this is just a wish and not a complaint, I would have liked a balanced connection cable to be included. But again, in my case, the perfect cable would have been a 4.4mm to dual XLR cable, whereas other people may need a 4.4mm to 4.4mm balanced cable, so again, it is difficult to cover all possibilities. 

In general, no complaints with the presentation of the NEO Stream, it keeps up with the usual standard that iFi has set for themselves.


Build and aesthetics…

At first glance, you may think that you have seen this device before. That is because it matches the build and aesthetics of the NEO iDSD DAC/Amp that iFi released in the past and that I reviewed previously on here. A closer look and you will notice that the headphone outputs of the NEO iDSD have been replaced with a USB-C port and that the screen is a little larger (only noticeable with the unit powered on), other than that, the form factor and build quality is identical.

Personally I really liked the aesthetics (and build) of the NEO iDSD and the NEO Stream is no different. Of course, aesthetics are a very personal preference and each will have their own opinions but I like the fact that iFi always have their own designs that move away from the typical black boxes that we see over and over again.

Another feature of the build that is shared by both devices is that they can be used both horizontally and vertically, with the screen automatically adjusting to the orientation chosen. There is a small stand included in the box that allows the NEO Stream to be stood on end (vertically) in a more secure manner than if it was just on the device's side. This is something that can be very useful for those that have space constraints.

As with the previous unit, the build quality is good and I have absolutely no complaints.


Functionality…

This is going to be probably the longest section out of all of them, as there are so many things that can be done and so many ways of connecting things.

Let's start off with a look at the connections and layout of them on the unit.

On the front, from left to right, we have the screen, a large (and very nice) volume wheel in the center which is also a push button, the settings and input button, the power button and finally the USB-C port.

Moving around to the back of the unit, again from left to right, we have the 9v power connection, an M12 network connection, an RJ45 network connection, a fiber optic network connection, a reset button, a USB-C connection (for system upgrade only), 2x USB 3.0 connections, an I2S output connection, a 4.4mm balanced analog output, an analog RCA unbalanced output, an optical audio output, a digital coax audio output, an AES output and finally the connection point for the WiFi antenna.

Now that is a lot of connectivity! I really can’t see most people needing more than a couple of these connection points but whichever the connections you need are, the NEO Stream has them available.

I am not going to go into details on what all of these individual connections do as most of them are self explanatory (such as the S/PDIF outputs or the RJ45 network connection etc.) but I am going to briefly mention what some of these connections that are not so commonly found on home HiFi equipment are for.

M12 Network connector: This is a connector that is very rarely found on even pro audio equipment, even if it has been around for quite some time. In fact, the only time I have come across these connectors is in the industrial sector, when using sensors and other machinery via network.

As far as I am aware, the only difference between an M12 connector and an RJ45 connector is that the M12 is more durable (standing up to industrial use) and can also be IP rated. As far as network benefits, I am not aware of any (that doesn’t mean they don’t exist, just that I don’t know of any).

Fiber Optic Network port: Now this is something that many more people will be familiar with, although it is still not something that is commonly found on home audio equipment (it does appear on some equipment in the pro field but RJ45 running from a fiber network switch is still much more common here also). However, in this case, as far as I can understand from the documentation, the NEO Stream has a proprietary network protocol for the optical port, in other words, you can’t just connect it to a fiber optic network.

In this case, iFi includes the “Opti Box”, which is labelled as a high speed optical transceiver. Now iFi states that “The LAN signal from the router is regenerated, reclocked and rebalanced by the OptiBox; true galvanic isolation is applied, with zero parasitic capacitance and inductance”. 

It is great that they could offer all those benefits by using the Opti Box to convert your RJ45 to Fiber before connecting to the NEO Stream, however… Seeing that it is actually a proprietary protocol and the only way to use the fiber network port is by using the “Opti Box” transformer first, and that the use of it creates so much improvement, wouldn’t it have made more sense to just mount the internals of the “Opti Box” inside the NEO Stream and just have a singular RJ45 connector on the unit?

I understand that there probably isn’t much space left inside the unit but I feel that the M12 and the fiber network ports are something that could have been left out and maybe made room for the “Opti Box” to be internal?

Dual USB 3.0 Ports: Now there is nothing strange about having USB 3.0 ports on a device, however, the NEO Stream has two because one serves as a connection point for external storage (hard drives etc.) while the other port serves as an output, allowing you to connect the NEO Stream to an external DAC via USB. There is also a USB-C port on the front of the device which can be used for either of the above (storage connection or digital output).

I2S & AES connections: These are more commonly found on audio devices, specially in the pro world (in the case of AES) but are also becoming more popular in the HiFi world. These are basically two digital protocols/connections that allow the NEO Stream to be connected to external DACs digitally (these can also be DACs built in to speakers like on some of the Genelec models, for example).

According to the documentation, the AES (along with the Coax Digital output and the Optical output) are run through the built in iPurifier. The USB ports use the iFi ANC II noise cancellation technology and the digital signals also use the built in “femto-precision GMT” (clock) to reduce jitter. These is much more information about this on the iFi website (and other resources) if you are interested in learning more, let’s just say that I have experienced no issues 🙂

So, let’s get on with how all of this works and what the NEO Stream is capable of…

First off, this is a device that can stream Ultra-res digital (in other words, up to DSD512) over the network from your central music server. The NEO Stream is Roon ready, so it will appear as an output device in Roon.

Personally I do not use Roon but that is only one of the possibilities with this devices, as it also supports DLNA/UPnP, Tidal Connect, Spotify Connect, Apple Airplay along with being able to play back from a locally connected hard drive or even NAA (Network Audio Adapter, for use with something like HQPlayer).

All of that is great and you can set up the device to work specifically as whichever you prefer (set it to be a Roon endpoint only, for example) or you can just choose AiO (All in One) mode and use it however you feel at the time.

For the purpose of this review, I have been using the NEO Stream as an AiO, streaming music from my home server, from Tidal and also from Spotify. So please forgive me for not going into details on the other options, I am going to focus on what I have found with said setups.

Before going into this though, let me quickly mention how you can control the NEO Stream from its own webpage in your browser. 

Once you have the NEO Stream set up and connected (I am not going to go into details on how to do so as I feel this review is already going to be extremely long, but you can find the info on the iFi web page), you will see an IP address on the screen, which you can type into your browser and access the control page for the NEO Stream.

On this page you will find basic playback controls in the center, with a list at the top left that allows you to browse your personal media servers, deal with playlists, search, etc. There is also a Web Radio option which allows you to listen to live radio streamed via the web.

Please note that if you are using any streaming service, such as Tidal or Spotify, controlled from your phone or PC etc., the page will not show any information on what is playing or even that it is currently playing. In other words, streaming to the NEO Stream from an external device cannot be controlled or monitored from the web browser.

Also available from the browser page are the settings. From the settings page you can choose what mode you want the NEO Stream to work in, set up networks, change appearance (of the page, not the device), choose outputs etc.

Although it is common, it is worth noting that you can only choose one output “group” at once. That is, you can select Analog (so RCA and 4.4mm are active), USB (USB ports are active) or digital, where all of the digital outputs are active. As I said, this is common on all similar devices but I am still hoping for an option where I can have both USB and Digital outputs at the same time. This is probably a scenario that is very specific to my use case but I would love to be able to feed (for example) the EF400 DAC (USB only)  at the same time as sending digital audio to my other processors and systems.

But anyway, let’s get on with functionality and talk about streaming services, starting off with Spotify.

The NEO Stream appears without fault in the Spotify Connect devices and is very quick to start playback once selected. The same goes with changing tracks etc., it is quick to respond (not instant but almost) and doesn’t usually have any problems. It is possible to confuse the device by making fast and random track changes very quickly but I have yet to see a Spotify Connect device that doesn’t struggle when you try to confuse it 🙂

The screen is also fairly quick to update, showing the album art, along with the track title. The only negative here is that the track title does not scroll, therefore you will only see the first 12 characters of the track title on the screen. At the bottom of the screen, you will see the audio format that is being played back (such as PCM 44.1 KHz).

Moving on to Tidal, functionality is also good and seems to have improved from the Zen Stream, where there were some issues swapping between Spotify and Tidal. I don’t know if this is something that iFi have improved or something that Tidal have done (my guess is on the latter, due to their software not being the greatest).

The NEO Stream can passthrough MQA to your DAC (if that is something that interests you) and in general I found Tidal to be just as responsive as Spotify. In fact, it tracked better than Spotify when trying to “confuse” it (which is a step forwards for Tidal 😉 ).

The only issue I found with Tidal was when leaving the track on pause for an extended period (such as to answer a phone call while working), it was impossible to get Tidal to play again. It needed the Tidal app to be closed and reopened before it would work. Again, my money would be on this being an issue with Tidal as Spotify doesn’t suffer from the same issues.

When streaming from my home server (which is where the NEO Stream would get most use), I have to say that it was pretty flawless. The main ways I stream while at home are either from PC (using Foobar) or from an android device (phones, tablets, etc.) using BubbleUPnP. In both cases, there were no flaws and everything seemed to work fine.

The majority (99.9%) of my music is in 44.1KHz FLAC and this is absolutely no issue for the NEO Stream at all. I did try a couple of DSD256 test tracks that I have and they also seemed to work fine over my gigabit (wired) connection. I tested out the Opti Box briefly but to be totally honest, I did not notice any change in performance between the normal RJ45 connection and the “converted” connection.

I'm afraid I don’t use HQPlayer, so I couldn’t comment on using the iFi NEO Stream as an NAA with upsampled tracks over the network.


Sound…

What can I say about the iFi sound that I haven’t already said before, I think I have already mentioned many times that I am a fan and the sound from the analog outputs of the NEO Stream are no exception. They have that typical subtle warmth that keeps things from being harsh but still maintains details intact.

I have tried feeding my usual amplifiers (Echo, Asgard, THX, etc.) with the NEO Stream and have absolutely no complaints with the pairing with any of them. It is another iFi DAC that I would be more than happy to use in my system.

As far as feeding my DAC digitally from the NEO Stream, I’m afraid that I am going to say what I have said many times in the past, even if I do receive plenty of comments saying that I am wrong. I feel that if a digital player does its job correctly and outputs exactly what it should output, then there are no differences between the sound from one transport device or another. This is obviously not the case when something is deliberately manipulating the signal (such as EQ or resampling etc.) but when everything is set to be an exact reproduction of the file, then that is what should be expected, an exact reproduction of the file. In this case, in my opinion, that is what the NEO Stream provides.

I suppose what I am trying to say here is that, if you are going to use the analog outputs, then you will get the benefit (if you like it of course) of the iFi house sound. However, if you are planning on using it to digitally feed another device, then focus on functionality and performance, not on sound.

And I think that I can actually end the sound section here, short and sweet 🙂


Conclusion…

I have absolutely no doubt that the iFi NEO Stream is a great piece of equipment. It does a lot of things and it does them well!

When testing some other iFi devies in the past (such as the Zen Stream), there were a few issues that needed to be ironed out with firmware updates, however, the NEO Stream seems to have addressed these before release. Well, to be honest, I did update the firmware as soon as I set it up, so I am running version 2.15.17 (from October 11th 2022) and I can only comment on how it stands at this point in time. If there are any strange connectivity quirks, I didn’t come across them.

But the one thing that is not easy to ignore is the price. 1300€ is a lot of money for many people and, while I know there are much more expensive alternatives out there, it does make me focus a little more on certain things that are not really issues but I would prefer to see at this price point.

One of them is the network connection I mentioned earlier, where I don’t see the need for the multiple network connectors and the external box, I would much rather it do its “magic” inside the device and just give me one network connection (and one device… and one power supply). I know manufacturers get good pricing on the items they purchase but I can’t help but feel that the M12 connector is something that is not useful on a device like this and just takes up space and increases the cost (again, I would love to know if there is any performance value to the M12 connector).

Another thing I would have liked to have seen is a headphone output. I know that this device is meant to serve other devices but I feel that a headphone amp would have made this a truly incredible all in one. I am not asking for a headphone amp that has the levels of the Diablo, even a single ended amp capable of running efficient headphones and IEMs would have been nice. The savings from the M12 connector, fiber connector, fiber cable and aluminum enclosure of the Opto Box may have even covered the cost 😉

But then I guess people would complain if it wasn’t balanced, or if it was, that it didn’t have IEMatch, or XBass or something. So I guess they would never have won anyway, unless they included it all and put the price up by a fair bit, and then I’m sure we would find something else to complain about.

I feel that the wrap up to this review is that the NEO Stream is a great piece of equipment that lives up to the iFi way of doing things and is something that I personally would get a lot of joy out of using, being able to replace a PC and a DAC from my current system.


All FR measurements of IEMs can be viewed and compared on achoreviews.squig.link
 
All isolation measurements of IEMs can be found on achoreviews.squig.link/isolation

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