Audirvana to ifi Zen Stream - unexpected revelations

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.

The system
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.

Audirvana
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.

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I should note that ifi don’t supply their own power supplies in many markets. My Zen Stream came with a no name bit of rubbish that died in minutes of first use. Concerned it might be a bootleg, I contacted ifi support who confirmed it was the official package for my region. They offered to replace the lot but I’d still end up with the same crap PSU I have no intention of using. I now run the Zen Stream with an 9v linear PSU.

Well my friends in Au and UK got an actual ifi iPower supply. So I was doubly miffed and hence the suspicion. But sadly that bundle is only select regions.

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My zen stream came with an ipower, and latter updated with an ipower elite, is a very good unit I use it with roon exclusive mode.

Is a musical little streamer with great image, not the most textured or detailed streamer, but the image is big and 3d and that is amazing for this unit at the price. Pair it with a good usb cable and a good dac and the zen stream could be a great surprise.

The supplied software is not very interesting and IFi has had some issues with it, but they are trying to do their best to make their user base happy with the supplied software.

As a roon endpoint is very good, you can do better but need to invest a little more.

Another good one is the sotm SMS200 ultra with a good power supply.

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I have been using a Zen Stream for a couple of months now, I am located in Canada. The power supply it came with works good on mine,but I have ordered an Sbooster for it,just to see what that adds.
At first I struggled getting it to work with their App using my music plugged into the back of the Zen. Tidal connect worked from day one for me.About a month ago I signed up for Roon,$2.00 for a 3 month trial. Now everything works flawlessly from within the Roon App.
Sound wise,it is a BIG step up from the Laptop I was using before it,using USB into my Dac. Honestly, I am now considering keeping this thing long term,and sinking all my money into a high end Dac.

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I’ve actually found the built-in web app to be flawless functionally. As mentioned, the default GUI style isn’t mobile device compatible so the more basic classic GUi is used but so far it is instantly responsive.

I think if someone had an older Naim NDX/NDS and wanted newer funtionality, adding a Zen Stream would be the cost effective way to go.

In terms pairing with a pure DAC I’m not sure how high end I’d really go. The match with my $3k D-N150 seems about right.

I’ve since paired mine with a third party linear 9v PSU and not had any issues.

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I am seriously considering it to be used as a Roon endpoint or NAA with HQplayer (which I already own).

My DAC/Streamer is a Linn Klimax DSM/3 which is already superb with the input from optical ethernet, but I want to explore and take advantage of the upsampling capability of the HQPlayer, its hires output can be used to feed my Linn streamer via noise-suppressed USB or SPDIF.

Quite a few people report that they find a huge SQ improvement when they change from PC or MAC to ifi Zen Stream feeding the same DAC via the same USB interconnect.

Yes, and for me, my speakers really needed the upper frequencies to not be rounded off as much as Audirvana was doing. Since changing to the ifi they suddenly have an acceptable off-axis response. Months in and the ifi has been 100% reliable. Utterly rock solid consistency of functionality.

My only gripe is that the fanless Lenovo was physically engineered much better, it totally disappeared in the rack. The ifi is a bit of a child’s toy deisgn-wise. A bit like a Chord product if I’m honest. Funny curves and too big lights.

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Almost bought one of these zen streamers

Waiting for a hopefully a major firmware update

Is there a specific problem you’re aware of that needs a fix? My use is just local NAS streaming and internet radio. I’ve had absolutely zero issues so far. And using the web interface instead of the app is instantly responsive.

Are tidal connect, Spotify and upnp working fine

If so I might go ahead

However it’s built on a very old operating system which volumio itself doesn’t use anymore

Only wanted to mention that I was totally surprised how much sound difference there was between Audirvana, Amarra, iTunes software from a Macbook into a DAC-V1. As in completely different, much like CD players from different brands. So I read your journey here with the iFi with interest.

upnp ia flawless. I don’t use spotify or tidal so can’t say. I’m not aware of any users reporting issues.

I am using Tidal connect right now, works great. I have not tried Spotify, isn’t it still lossy? Roon makes all the software problems disappear. Give one a try Analogmusic, nothing to lose really, and I bet it sounds better than your Chrome cast.

I am using an allo digione signature with another I fi purifier.

Still very tempted by the zen

I’m quite satisfied with my source now especially after adding the I fi purifier

So not sure I’m going to buy the zen

The ifi zen stream is not that expensive, but I still have not made up my mind to get it, simply it looks ugly (just like the any Chord DAC).

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Sure. If what you have works for you then why fix what isn’t broke. The Zen for me exists in the context of a system that has a DAC but no native streamer and replaces software (Audirvana) that was fairly unreliable from day one. So in my case, the Zen is the right product at the right price for the system and is most definitely fixing a problem.

My other Naim systems, even on the old platform, don’t give me any grief so I’d not be looking to replace their streamer either. It would just be a change for the sake of change.

@yellow-banana It is ugly. I think I’ve said as much. And the giant lights are kind of hard to ignore. Visually, my Lenovo m75 was miles better. OTOH… it works.

I think you can turn the lights off with a quick press of the right side button. I have not tried yet,the lights don’t bother me.
You could also hide it behind an amp if you run it wired,like I do.