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How important is the entire Digital front end, in 3-5k systems ?

ZENmini Mk.II

Utilising a comparison of Innuos’ products

This Friday, with Innuos in the loop, I had the opportunity to undertake a comparison of the ZENmini Mk.II and the ZENith Mk.II. I was in deepest Sussex at a dealer called The Department of Music, where I met owner John Gorodecky.

I wanted to get an idea for what this comparison would achieve in the context of the original question of this article. An NAS is of course a Network Attached Storage drive that you add your music too and connect to your network for your streamer to find.

The ZENmini Mk.II suited those who were after a CD ripper, and NAS. Also a streamer to exploit online streaming services such as Tidal. It was a server but not truly optimised as a digital transport.

On the other hand, even in Mk.II guise, the ZENith is a full blown, top notch, audiophile transport and server with triple linear power supplies. It’s designed to be used as a source component in situ with your HiFi. Beyond common misconception, it is certainly not just a server or NAS drive.

We made the comparison listening to some baby Kudos X2 floor-standing speakers (c.£1500/$1900), a Rega Elicit-R integrated amplifier (c.£1600/$2000), Chord Qutest DAC (c.£1200/$1500) and a Bluesound Node2 (which has now been replaced by the 2i version). This is not an ultra expensive audiophile set up by any means, but an extremely good quality one, no less. The X2’s are very capable indeed.

We ‘sent’ the ZENith into the Qutest using a basic Chord Company C-USB cable. The ZENmini Mk.II was connected to the Bluesound over ethernet, such that the Bluesound could pass through the unconverted digital stream to the Qutest. We could then flick between the inputs of the Qutest to hear the same ripped album playing via the ZENith Mk.II and the ZENmini Mk.II.

By the way, the returns and best value for money in everyday home HiFi are easily at the price of this type of system. Even I’d admit this with a much more expensive set up. Don’t let anyone tell you differently, considering the law of diminishing returns.

System in use with Kudos X2 baby floorstanding speakers

My reservations about only listening at home, to properly ascertain differences, were not warranted here. This is because the sound quality difference is so obvious;

Much wider

The ZENith gives a much more projected and wider sound. All the usual pretentiousness about added detail, soundstage and timbre, could follow. However, I concentrate on the main sound quality traits. It’s true the projected wider sound gives a window into more detail but it’s not what first strikes you. You’ll appreciate these other traits as you listen more. However this difference is not one you’d give up.

The ZENmini Mk.II playing its stored content appears roughly comparable to the Node2 playing Tidal, however I cannot say which is better as this is not the point of this article.

System in use

The rub?

The thing is, this difference between these two Mk.II units is a much bigger one than I was expecting in this system. Before, my attitude was that you could not substantiate a server of the ilk/price of the ZENith, with a system of such price. However this is categorically not the case and the ZENith can easily attain great value for money with this Rega/Chord/Kudos pairing.

Lots of HiFi in the price bracket of this system would use a streamer around the $800/£650 price point and another PC NAS drive at similar or less money, depending if a dual bay type or not. The ZENmini Mk.II will be acting similarly to a conventional NAS in this sense. Admittedly it has been optimised for audio as much as possible too.

Bluesound Node 2

Problems are there of high frequency noise getting into the audio chain from switch mode power supplies used on routers and conventional PC NAS drives, which is not to be understated. Also from other noisy peripherals not optimised for audio, plugged into your router. You can obviate these issues by using, as Innuos do, better power supplies and ethernet isolation, keeping the hard drive away from noise.

What this test so obviously revealed is that a good audiophile HiFi can benefit, in sound terms, from taking an approach of extending quietness all the way from where the music originates – the drive on which it’s stored. Not just starting at the streamer. It’s true that junk in means junk out, but in electrical terms, originating from the location of the digital file and beyond.

The new Mk.III version of the ZENmini can be paired with the Mk.III LPSU (linear power supply unit) so Innuos are clearly trying to take the ZENmini Mk.III to the ZENith’s heights. Incidentally it also has an onboard DAC and digital outputs.

You don’t need a CD player anymore, you get a ripper, great software and Roon capability, a streamer and NAS in one box, and ability to ‘pimp’ the power supply with the LPSU. So you are factoring in all these elements into the price.

Great sound from these giant killers

Admittedly I haven’t heard one yet, but with its great specification I have high expectations and I can’t wait to try a ZENmini Mk.III out.

So source is king in decent systems, however I reiterate that it doesn’t just start at your streamer, but before so too. It takes an average source up to a really great quality one. This is where the ZENmini Mk.III makes so much sense as the Innuos controls sound quality all the way from file origins to sending it onto a DAC like the Qutest (or indeed straight to your AMP using its DAC). Alternatively using it as a quiet server, partnered with a great streamer.

No longer should you consider an NAS drive as an unimportant element in the audiophile chain. It is so incredibly important with great value audiophile systems in the 3-5k bracket and this test reveals it wholeheartedly.

Summary

If you are looking at a new digital set up, think of the whole chain and how it can be affected. When you account these devices would be what you will be spending when you add in CD players and NAS drives, and a streamer, they make more than perfect sense as an entire digital front end. They certainly do show the importance of the whole digital chain and that it doesn’t just start at the streamer.

Prices

Innuos ZENmini Mk.III (1TB) – £899 / $1249 / EUR 999
Innuos ZENmini Mk.III LPSU – £499 / $699 / EUR 549

Deal package (both) ; £1348 / $1898 / EUR 1498

Manufacturer details

www.innuos.com
Tel : 01793 384048

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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!

Romping around in the countryside at ‘The Department of Music’

Sound investment? Best your DAC!