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A revolution in quiet digital sources: Innuos ZENith Mark 2

Digital Transport and Roon Ripping Music Server    
   

Digital Audio?

The time at which something is most powerful and successful is the dictionary definition of the word Zenith. For branding purposes Innuos capitalise the first three letters, making it a ZENith. This ZENith Mark 2 has some of the components of a computer to take care of playing music files from its internal ‘solid state’ (non moving) hard drive.

To some audiophiles, ‘computer’ and ‘most success’ might not be mutually compatible terms, with swathes still not having taken the plunge on streaming or server set ups and the reticence of anything that needs computer knowledge.

It’s with this in mind and on this occasion, that it’s time to subdue the usual pretentiousness that goes with making assumptions that people understand all streaming jargon. I’m therefore writing an informative review in layman’s terms to hopefully guide more on a streaming journey. Here goes…

Multi-faceted

Described in one sentence, the ZENith is an audiophile solid state hard drive server which can rip (transfer) music from CD onto its hard drive, play music from music streaming services over the internet such as Tidal, and via music stored on network attached storage (NAS) drives connected to your router.

You can either use the benefit of the ZENith’s hard drive as a server, to send the music to a HiFi streaming music player over an Ethernet cable, from where it can be supplied to your HiFi. Alternatively you can use the ZENith as a hard drive server and streaming music player in one box, and send music to your HiFi DAC or integrated or pre amplifier DAC via USB cable. The ZENith doesn’t have a digital optical or coaxial cable output connection. However if your DAC or amplifier has the usual coaxial connection Innuos recommend trying a £160 M2TECH Hi Face 2 USB to Coaxial adapter which I also tried when writing this review.

The ZENith does use a commercially available computer board called a motherboard which has been chosen to achieve a balance in terms of performance and power requirements. The idea is that it should not produce too much heat and the least amount of power noise as possible. In this sense and contrary to the myth regarding audiophile servers, the ZENith isn’t just a box with any commercially available computer hard-wear, but is designed to be very electrically quiet for audiophile use. Not least as the ZENith has a quiet triple linear power supply, designed and manufactured in house, with each individual supply serving different internal components. Providing three independent power supplies is useful, to the extent it prevents the power noise the components generate, from contaminating the power circuits of the USB and Ethernet outputs. The adage being the lower the noise, which is so critical in effects on sound quality, the better is performance.

But it doesn’t stop there on the low noise front. There is a medical grade mains filter for filtering out common and differential mode noise from the incoming power. In simple terms the former is noise created by all electrical appliances – everything with a power supply and the latter is noise often referred to as RFI (Radio frequency interference)– transmitted frequencies that surround us but cannot be seen, and more common in an internet wi-fi world.

Rip your CDs from your HiFi with the front loading slot

4GB of the internal memory ‘buffers’ the music sent from the solid state hard drive meaning it’s not playing in real time of being sent from the drive. The ZENith’s solid state drive is already electrically quieter than conventional spinning NAS hard drives for even more gains to sound quality, because it’s not moving and creating electrical and mechanical noise.

Isolation transformers on the ethernet ports help with high frequency electrical noise which can emanate from cheap switch mode power supplies. These cheap ‘switchers’ are commonly used with routers and attached NAS drives that aren’t designed with audio grade power supplies in mind. Also you have the undesired effects of noise on the audio chain from internet connected devices and their power supplies. This high frequency noise is so damaging to audio in very good systems and it’s clear with all these design elements what Innuos are trying to achieve. Innuos also use an ultra low noise USB 2.0 output which I have read is of a galvanically isolated design, which means that power usually transmitted along USB is separated from the USB’s music signal by using a transformer and hence the two signals don’t conflict electrically.

Roon or not to Roon?

If need be the ZENith can be used as a Roon ‘player end point’ or Roon ‘core server’, or both.

Roon interface on iPad

It’s important to discuss Roon here as it’s one of the major benefits of the ZENith. Roon is a searchable integrated music player which can be installed on computers, laptops and tablets, to act as the controller. Somewhere in the chain, whether it’s on the PC or Mac, you must install the Roon server, which does all the cataloguing. Roon requires large demands in computer processing power to catalogue and search music very fast and seamlessly. This Innuos, as a quasi PC, also comes pre configured as a Roon server and its processing power is of sufficient capability to make the Roon experience seamless – in fact 8GB of RAM and Quad Core 2GHz intel CPU seamless capability!  You could install a Roon server on a PC or say a Mac or Mac Mini, but chances are if you’ve had no prior experience of Roon you will use the Innuos as an all in one Roon player/server. If you want to use it just as an end point player,  you’d need to have prior experience of Roon with a Roon server computer on your network.

You can add a Tidal streaming service account to Roon and integrate your ripped music server tracks with Tidal tracks to create cross source playlists. Tidal and Qobuz, the most widely used CD and high resolution quality services can be used. Using Tidal, the ZENith can support both CD quality streaming and MQA high resolution content (in Roon mode). If your DAC can deal fully with MQA it will be passed on by the ZENith. Music is very well recommended in the smart graphical Roon interface. At the time of writing it’s definitely the best intuitive music player software you can use. Rather than being limited by the inflexible linear layout of artist, track, artist/album from the servers installed on many conventional PC peripheral NAS drives such as Twonky, Roon adds much better flexibility to searching your music and online content.

A subscription costs $120/£120 per year or $500/£500 for a lifetime subscription. It’s sensible to choose a year only subscription since a lot can change in 5 years and it is conceivable Roon might be licensed to manufacturers such that it’s added as a cheap or free benefit. Innuos offer a 2 months free Roon trial with the ZENith too, which is necessarily better than the 14 day trial from the Roon website. Just make sure you get your free code from Innuos when you buy.

Everyday Use

To connect the Innuos to your network you plug an ethernet cable from the ‘LAN’ port into your router and another ethernet cable into the ‘STREAMER’ port if using a separate network streamer. If using the ZENith as a server/streamer, you connect a USB cable from the ‘DAC’ port to your USB DAC or integrated amplifier or preamplifier with onboard DAC. An ethernet connection to the router is needed too.

USB to DAC, Backup USB port, and x2 Ethernet for Quiet operation

You first find the ZENith dashboard over the network by typing my.innuos.com into the web browser of an Android/iPhone/Windows 10 tablet or Mac/PC. This is a very flexible way of accessing the Innuos dashboard without necessarily having to sit at your desktop computer, and with the ZENith in situ with other HiFi components. In settings you can set options for if you want the server to act as a UPnP (universal plug and play) server for use in conjunction with another streamer as the end point player. For instance a UPnP streamer such an AURALiC Aries could be used in this configuration. Alternatively you can choose to use the ZENith as a Roon player and/or server. You can make choices between WAV or FLAC file CD rips. I selected the WAV option which uses around 500mb per album on average and enough for around 2000 albums on the 1TB Samsung EVO solid state drive in the standard model ZENith. Selecting FLAC or WAV, file sizes are roughly equal. You can spec it with a 2TB drive or larger with a price jump and Innuos will install a bigger drive later too if the need arises.

It’s worthwhile experimenting with the quality of lossless WAV and FLAC files as depending on the system, it may be possible to discern slightly more positive sound quality benefits of WAV, which I certainly found. WAV and FLAC are lossless audio files which means they contain the same information as that which is on the CD. Innuos use a zero compression setting for FLAC files noting too that the FLAC ripped albums are nearly the file size of their WAV siblings. It’s the way a system deals with different files types and the noise generated which often results in FLAC’s not sounding as good, and could be a reason for using the WAV format. The ZENith rips the CD at its same ‘native’ sample and bit rate – 16bit 44.1khz sample rate.

You can use the automatic rip setting to rip CDs as soon as the CD is inserted – which is ejected afterwards. Alternatively you can set assisted mode so you can make sure all the metadata is correct, add music genres and change album cover pictures, and album / artist names, before you start ripping. It’s also useful to assign the year of the albums, if you like to select music by year in your interface software. Annoyingly, a lot of the time I found the ZENith didn’t pick up the album year, so I kept to assisted mode to check dates were present and entering manually if necessary. It would be nice if this were sorted in a firmware update. The ripping software is very smart and recognises compilations by placing these albums into a various artists folder. Also where there are multiple artists in an album, the Innuos software selects the main album artist for browsing in an album artist type view in your interface. It doesn’t annoyingly sort with all sub artists, who you don’t know, filling up your artist folder. The Innuos keeps these artists as composers hence not cluttering album artist views.

Simple on/off with colour selectable LED

Rip times are comparable to using software such as dBpoweramp on a fast speed PC CD drive and about 3-5 minutes per CD. The ZENith uses an online music database catalogue to find the album details and its artwork so invariably you do not have to manually type track details, but there is an option for changing the album cover picture if you cannot find your cover. Changes with a firmware update have added the flexibility for finding album pictures online avoiding having to copy and paste from a Google search on your iPad to your iPads pictures, and upload corresponding artwork to the ZENith. Finally there is a setting to slow the rip speed so extra noise of the spinning TEAC CD drive and processing doesn’t adversely affect the quality of music outputted from the device, assuming you are playing music at the same time as ripping CDs.

Before I first tried Roon on the ZENith, I used the iPeng app / music interface for iPad which Innuos recommend be used with the Zenith if using it in UPnP server mode with Apple interface devices. This is similar but slightly better in capability to the aftermarket app interface, bubble UPnP, on account of its general layout and ease of operation. Easily adding a Tidal account and finding your Innuos device on the network as a player is straightforward. Whatever the case, iPeng and Roon easily outclasses many older or current in house apps of some manufacturers in my opinion including the Lightning app by AURALiC, Cyrus Cadence app, and Naim’s in house offering, all of which I’ve used. The app interface recommended by Innuos for android phone and tablet devices is ‘Orange Squeeze’ which unfortunately I didn’t get around to trying.

You can also move music files onto the ZENith by plugging in a USB stick or storage drive, with appropriate formatting, into the USB ‘backup port’. It’s indiscriminate with files and just copies the lot even non music files. You can also drag and drop music into the ‘auto-import’ folder of the Innuos folder in Windows Explorer of Windows based PCs, similarly with Apple computers. You then just select the auto import option in the Innuos dashboard. It’s all very intuitive.

It’s possible to add another network attached storage drive (NAS) to your network router which the ZENith recognises by adding a network share path in the software. This makes it possible to keep the ZENith’s hard drive a priority for your music first and add other drives for lesser quality music, or just add another NAS as the ZENith reaches capacity. I had to contact Innuos to input the correct folder path to find my NAS which could have been made a bit clearer in the online manual. Copying your existing NAS drive onto the ZENith offers flexibility to not need to have to go through the arduous process of re-ripping your CDs again.

As well as moving CD files onto the Innuos via the software you can also drag and drop higher resolution music files which have sample and bit rates above that of CD (ie above 16bit/44.1khz). Alternatively the ZENith will also handle DSD high resolution music files up to DSD128 (a standard of DSD quality). In addition if your DAC can handle full MQA high resolution files, then the ZENith will pass it on so long as you use the ZENith as a Roon player and/or server. At the moment MQA music is available on the Tidal streaming platform as Tidal ‘masters’. If your DAC is not MQA capable, the Roon software will do its thing to transcode the masters file so you can still benefit from listening to a initial high resolution unfolded version of MQA. To get the best unfold the DAC needs to be MQA compatible.

There is also a backup USB drive facility to copy the USB files on the Innuos’ solid state drive to a USB storage drive. Settings are available for how periodically this happens in terms of frequency of albums ripped. Again, it’s all very intuitive. I used the facility to backup to a NAS drive and it’s too possible to have the ZENith do this automatically based on CD ripping frequency.

You can choose Sonos integration as another option but necessarily you loose out on ability to use the ZENith as a Roon server or UPnP server for non Sonos devices.

A new Zenith of sound Quality?

Innuos do make light of the fact that if you use the digital signal processing (DSP) functionality in Roon to change frequency response of audio outputted, it can significantly slow down playback. I found that when using DSP, the iPeng app was still counting down the music track, but no audio was output. This is due to the high demands of DSP on memory and processing. However it’s not necessarily a disadvantage as noisier higher power processing will promote degradation in sound quality, hence the balance between keeping the motherboard to a low noise type whilst still coping with all the other requirements of Roon, which the ZENith does faultlessly. If you want to use the DSP features reliably you will need to use the ZENith as a player only (and not server) with a more powerful Roon server PC connected to the network – maybe something like an Intel i7 NUC if going for a compact style PC of the headless (without monitor) variety. Another more expensive option would be a Roon Nucleus server.

Why the ZENith is a great quiet source

My tests here were carried out using the Roon interface without DSP and using the iPeng App with the ZENith in UPnP server mode, and partnered with my Cyrus Signature amplification, Chord Qutest DAC and PMC twenty5 speakers. In UPnP server mode I tried the ZENith over Ethernet into a £900 AURALiC Aries LE streamer with a £260 Sbooster BOTW Power & Precision ECO 15-16v linear PSU with a £57 Sbooster Ultra filter. Also with a £1600 Cyrus Stream X Signature streamer with Ethernet in UPnP server mode. I also partnered the ZENith with a range topping Chord DAVE reference DAC via streamers mentioned and to the DAVE directly via USB using the ZENith in both Roon server/player mode and UPnP server mode. Comparisons were also made against the Aries and Cyrus playing music stored from a Western Digital ‘my book live’ NAS into a Netgear Nighthawk router extender.

What’s immediately obvious is that the ZENith’s design in eliminating noise has a dramatic effect in making it a smooth yet detailed source with a low noise floor. This lets you get on with hearing music as it should sound. This is no cliche or exaggeration here and is one of the biggest selling points of the ZENith so far as sound quality is concerned. It’s not just a server and ripper with no influence on sound- on the contrary, the ZENith is very much an audiophile digital source component.

Digital sound has a mythical reputation of being brittle, edgy or sharp. Maybe this is a fair reflection of how early digital music was, but if ever an audiophile source would challenge this with its smooth prowess, this Innuos does. It’s a kind of ‘non digital’ sounding digital source that dispels these perceptions about digital sound. Vinyl enthusiasts would love it.

Using the ZENith over USB into the Chord DACs playing Heart is a drum from Beck’s Morning Phase album, which is recorded with prominent bass guitars, this smoothness is evident and you get a really rounded full bodied sound. This just isn’t present with the AURALiC/Cyrus combinations partnered with the Western Digital NAS, which are markedly flatter and less dynamic and have a grainy treble edginess to music, which the ZENith just doesn’t present. Bass response is more richly accurate and deeper with the ZENith too in comparison, which often epitomises low noise hifi.  The other main noticeable characteristic is a wider more detailed sound. Go back to a higher noise floor of the Cyrus and AURALiC with the paired Western Digital NAS and you get a much less involving experience. On Julie Byrne’s Not even happiness album, the guitar and vocal is much more prominent and focused with the Innuos.

It’s not as if this smoothness cancels out ability to handle electronic music, for the ZENith can cope with all music types equally well. Ultramarine’s signals into space album sounds very incisive and dynamic and when you use a top DAC like the Chord DAVE, where these sound quality effects are even more marked, you realise what a tremendous source the ZENith really is.

With the ZENith used as a server into the Cyrus and AURALiC and not as a pure server/USB source, the sound was certainly not as good in my opinion. Less rich, detailed and full in presentation. However the AURALiC was certainly better in its midrange, and bass smoothness and responsiveness was improved by using the ZENith as it’s NAS rather than the Western Digital, as expected. The change is however not anywhere near as obvious as using the ZENith as a USB source component, which I’d very much recommend using it as, especially if you have a good USB DAC on a par with the Chord DAVE or even Chord Qutest. With the Cyrus the sound was improved too.

There is not any difference to notice between the sound quality of using the ZENith in Roon or UPnP server mode. Some commentators make mention that the different ways of processing music from software can make for a difference, but whether the case or not, it’s not one detectable in my set up.

What is noticeable is how the ZENith is not as good as playing Tidal or Qobuz content than it is playing ripped CDs or hi-res content native to its solid state drive. This encourages you to download the music or buy new or old CDs to rip music as well as streaming Tidal etc ; I’m sure the music industry will love this Innuos therefore. This is due to the fact that streaming services like Tidal utilise FLAC files which can be compressed to quite high compression levels. They are still lossless but it’s the way of dealing with the compression that is of hindrance to sound quality, as explained. Also a file played from the ZENiths solid state storage is loaded completely into the RAM and played from there, whereas a file streamed from a streaming service is being received continuously and can’t be buffered in RAM. The fact the file is being streamed continuously received from the network means that the ZENiths Ethernet controller is always working, which does add its own noise and so has an effect on the audio chain. It’s not a difference that puts you off using streaming services by any means and as I improved on the Qutest to a Chord Hugo TT2 the gap is narrowed further.

When you add a music containing NAS drive to the network and play music from it via the ZENith, music quality is diminished compared to the same ripped track from the ZENiths solid state drive. The disparity is less marked than the comparison mentioned of playing Tidal/Qobuz against the solid state drive music. We can account differences of playback from another drive to HF switch mode noise on the network which again shows how important a good power supply is.

M2TECH Hi Face USB to Coaxial adapter used on the ZENith to good effect

As well as trying it out in my system, the M2TECH Hi Face 2 USB to Coaxial adapter was tested on another reviewers system comprising PMC Fact 8’s and another Chord DAVE DAC and a £5000 Innuos Zenith SE. It has very little effect on colouration of sound compared to direct USB into the DAVE DAC which is no mean feat considering the Hi Face 2 will impart some changes as a converter of digital audio. It was better not using it with a slightly more involving sound, but the difference was slight and not that significant. I’d therefore definitely recommend using the Hi Face 2 with the ZENith if your DAC doesn’t have a USB input.

The bottom line

Until the more expensive ZENith SE was introduced the Mark 2 ZENith was reputed by some reviewers to be one of the best digital sources you can buy at the price. Innuos have made improvements with the Mark 3 version of the ZENith with upgraded power supplies and a custom motherboard. This said, the Mark 2 is still sold and extremely good value. However what would be worthwhile from the perspective of a value for money test would be trying the Mark 3 ZEN and ZENMINI with a LPSU linear power supply, against the ZENith Mark 2.

What I can take from my review is that the ZENith is not just a server and it shouldn’t be mistaken for being as such, which from comments on forums I’ve seen is a common misconception.

More importantly, the problem with UPnP streamers in the £1000-£2000 price category is they are often designed to be used, or do get used, with noisy PC peripheral type NAS drives and routers with cheap switching supplies. Far from ideal paired to premium price streamers costing as much.

These UPnP streamers are of an ilk to be used with such NAS drives, when streamers were more in their infancy and it was acceptable to pair them up with noisy PC network peripherals. Also when it was more a case of market demand for streaming functionality above sound quality, the streamer fitting around what people have as network gear, rather than the other way around. Nowadays it is no longer acceptable in audiophile circles, and when we can see what we can do alternatively, especially this offering from Innuos.

It is questionable to spend these amounts on streamers and add a PC NAS drive costing £300-£500 when you are then already spending the same as a ZEN or ZENith. Why not put all you need in one box by buying a ZENith to reduce noise and give you better sound quality when PC peripherals muddy the waters? Not to mention factoring in the opportunity cost of a CD player you no longer need, and a great dashboard interface, possibly using Roon too. The ZENith is only going to make sense with very good HiFi, sure, but if you’ve got such HiFi, why compromise on noise and its effects? The ZENith easily out performs a £1000-£2000 streamer used in configuration with a PC NAS and router, so it makes so much sense. In conclusion it’s extremely well recommended. A Best Buy and it attains the 13th Note!

Specifications

  • Digital Transport UPnP/DLNA Server
  • Colour : Brushed black only
  • Samsung EVO SSD (Solid State Drive)
  • Intel Quad Core 2GHZ, 8GB RAM – 4GB dedicated memory playback
  • Audio Formats supported for streaming/playing : WAV, AIFF, FLAC, ALAC, AAC, MP3
  • Audio formats for stored CD : FLAC (no compression), WAV
  • Sample Rates : 44.1kHz, 48kHz, 88.2kHz, 96kHz, 176.4KHz. 192kHz, 352.8KHz, 384KHz, DSD64, DSD128.
  • Bit Depths : 16bit, 24bit, 32bit.
  • USB : 1x USB 2.0 (DAC), 1x USB 3.0 (Backup)
  • Digital Output : Ultra Low Noise USB 2.0 supporting USB Audio Class 1, USB Audio Class 2 and DoP.
  • Dimensions : 70 x 420 x 320 mm (H x W x D)
  • Weight : 9kg

Price

  • £2,299 (1TB Std SSD)
  • £2,899 (2TB XL SSD)
  • £4,599 (4TB XXL SSD)

Manufacturer details

Innuos
Tel : +44 (0) 1793 384048
sales@innuos.com

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Written by Simon Price

I'm an audiophile who likes faithfully reproduced audio and sharing experiences with others. I am primarily interested in products; their looks, functionality and features, and most importantly how they sound! My reviews are not overly technical and I don't use pretentious language, as I believe great audio is non exclusive and to be enjoyed by all! It's all about the music!

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