Let’s be clear from the outset. There’s no way to do a true apples to apples comparison here. On the one hand we have a software transport where it can be running on thousands of different devices all generating different EMI profiles. And on the other a dedicated hardware transport. So my Audirvana isn’t necessarily the same as someone elses. However, all other system variables remaining unchanged, I can say that observed differences are at least attributed directly to the two transports and nothing else.
Why the change?
In a nutshell, Audirvana and/or the use of a computer as a transport bothered me greatly. Having used a Uniti Qute 2 and NDX for many years I was used to that smooth experience for NAS streaming. I tried to replicate that with a fanless Lenovo m75 PC configured in a way that wouldn’t apply updates and would load Audirvana on boot. The goal was to set it up carefully once and hopefully rarely if ever need the keyboard and screen again.
That didn’t work out. Left running 24/7, Audirvana got stuck every few days necessitating a restart. Any manual security patch to Windows reversed all my registry setting that turned off updates wasting time. And the app was a glitch ridden load of rubbish.
Then Audirvana moved to the subscription pricing and left release 3.5 to fester. It was the last straw.
Luxman D-N150 DAC feeding an SQ-N150 tube amp driving Omega Junior 8 XRS speakers. Both Audirvana and the ifi Zen Stream feeding the DAC via the same Luxman JPU-150 USB interconnect.
I’ve posted about this system at length on another thread so no need to be that verbose again. Suffice to say, the strengths are unchanged:
- Beguiling separation.
- Great tonal linearity.
- precise soundstage.
But I noted before that the system didn’t have the same aggressive attack or visceral in-the-room feel as my Naim/PMC system, and that was probably to be expected. The clarity and insight though more than made up for that. After all, there’s a limit of what to expect from a 10w amp and single driver speaker right?
ifi Zen Stream
Functionally it passed with flying colours. Two weeks in and never crashed or wasted my time once. The GUI is ugly but fast and responsive and consistent on different devices (web UI). It blows Audirvana out of the water in this respect.
Now what was unexpected, was just how different it sounds compared to Audirvana. By different, I mean really different. So much so I started questioning my assumptions about the root cause for how the system behaves. Let me be specific.
- Noticeably extended frequency response at both ends of the scale. There’s some serious weight at the bottom and some added attack at the top.
- More of a front to back soundstage.
- Audirvana had extremely well defined placement. but on a 2D axis. It’s separation could give the feeling that instruments were incredibly high resolution cardboard cutouts. Zen Stream presents as less pristine objects but prejected into the room. Like lower resolution images but in 3D.
- Starting to get some of that visceral in-the-room feel back.
- While the Omega speakers don’t have world’s greatest off axis response, the broader frequency response at the top of the scale definitely lessens some of the Dr. Jeckyl and Hyde nature of their presentation outside of the sweet spot. The illusion holds together in a much wider area than with Audirvana. This is a major bonus.
Attributing the change
Ultimately, I do not know what to attribute the change to. Both transports are reading the same tracks off the same NAS running Asset UPnP. That really leave just two possibilities:
- The EMI loading from the Zen Stream and the Lenovo m75 is massively different and affecting the analogue stage of the DAC via the USB cable. Or…
- The processing done by Audirvana on the source data isn’t as benign as claimed. In truth, I’ve always been suspicious of what Audirvana does to the audio data. So many updates claiming “improved sound quality” have always made me wonder what Audirvana is adding/subtracting.
In the end, the presentation of Audirvana is very good. It’s smooth. Very linear and has incredible separation albeit on a 2D plane. Zen Stream is, by comparison, less smooth but also less bandwidth limited. Less music under the magnifying glass and more raw energy and presence.
It’s a surprising outcome and shows more of the presentstion of the system was governed by transport than I’d have expected.
Audirvana = airbrushed perfection.
Zen Stream = real emotion and energy.