IFI NEO STREAM MUSIC STREAMER AND DAC
The NEO Stream is the second device to join the NEO Series, iFi’s mid-level mains-powered range for home use, sitting between the ZEN Series and Pro Series. The name ‘NEO’ was chosen because the first device in the series, the NEO iDSD, featured an all-new design and several features new to its product category. The NEO iDSD, a DAC/headphone amp with USB, S/PDIF and Bluetooth connectivity remains current. The NEO Stream’s desktop-size chassis and aluminium casework clearly resemble the NEO iDSD. But while its circuitry builds on existing iFi designs, its internal architecture and attributes are different.
Many audio streaming devices lock users into a specific platform. iFi has developed its own streaming engine, purpose-built to deliver flexibility and performance. Its open-source nature, built on a quad-core ARM Cortex processor and Linux-based operating system, enables it to evolve over time, whilst ensuring users are not locked into a specific platform.
iFi’s streaming engine has been designed from the ground up for the sole purpose of high-quality audio streaming. The firmware at the heart of this bespoke streaming engine was first utilised in the ZEN Stream and has evolved significantly since. The iFi NEO Stream combines the latest version of this firmware with enhanced hardware.
There are multiple ways in which the NEO Stream can interface with online streaming services or music stored on your local network, and these will expand over time. Here are some of the options provided at launch:
- The NEO Stream has Roon Ready certification, which means it’s ready to slot straight into a Roon audio environment and work seamlessly with Roon software.
- Any DLNA/UPnP-compatible streaming app (for example: BubbleUPnP, mconnect, Audirvana and so on) can be used to control the NEO Stream and access audio content from online services and DLNA-certified network storage devices.
- Integrated Tidal Connect and Spotify Connect. Users of these popular online music services can stream directly from the Tidal and Spotify apps.
- Integrated Airplay ensures easy streaming from Apple devices.
The NEO Stream can operate as an NAA (Network Audio Adapter) in conjunction with Sygnalist HQPlayer software. This means it can direct packets of audio data received over Wi-Fi or Ethernet cable straight to the connected DAC without applying processing.
Streaming from local storage with Stream-iFi app. iFi’s ‘Stream-iFi’ app is a simple tool to aid the initial set-up of the NEO Stream and initiate streaming from local storage devices.
The NEO Stream can be used in two ways: connect to an amp and speakers via the onboard DAC stage and analogue outputs, or connect one of the available digital outputs to an external DAC. In the latter mode, the NEO Stream acts as a ‘streaming transport’ or ‘network bridge’, like the ZEN Stream but with a higher level of performance.
Whether the onboard DAC is engaged or not, the NEO Stream’s hi-res audio support covers PCM data to 32-bit/768kHz, all levels of DSD up to DSD512, and single- and double-speed DXD. This level of hi-res audio is not only supported over the LAN and USB cable inputs but over Wi-Fi too. (A stable, full-strength 5GHz Wi-Fi signal is required for 384kHz PCM, DSD256 and above.)
MQA, the hi-res streaming technology, as used by Tidal’s ‘HiFi Plus’ tier is comprehensively supported, with full decoding of MQA files up to 384kHz. This means that the full ‘three unfold’ decoding process can be performed internally, as opposed to only the final unfold in the manner of an MQA ‘renderer’. When the digital outputs are used to connect an external MQA-supporting DAC, both MQA passthrough and ‘first unfold’ are supported.
CUSTOM DAC STAGE
The NEO Stream’s integral DAC stage is based around a Burr-Brown chipset that iFi uses extensively, selected for its natural-sounding ‘musicality’ and True Native architecture.
The NEO Stream incorporates a 16-core XMOS microcontroller, programmed by iFi’s in-house team to optimise sound quality and ensure a perfect partnership with the Burr-Brown DAC. Thanks to the DAC chip’s four-channel True Native design, PCM and DSD take separate pathways and remain ‘bit-perfect’ in their direct-native form, right through to analogue conversion. In the case of DSD, there is no conversion to PCM or application of multi-bit processing.
IFI NEO STREAM CONNECTIVITY
- Dual-band Wi-Fi reception (2.4GHz and 5GHz) with 802.11a/b/g/n/ac support
- Gigabit Ethernet (LAN) – 1x RJ45; 1x M12; 1x Optical LAN (see below for more information)
- 2x USB-A (USB2.0 and SuperSpeed USB3.0 supported)
- 1x USB-C system update port (OTA – Over The Air – updates also available)
- Analogue – 1x stereo RCA; 1x 4.4mm balanced
- Ultra-res digital (PCM 768kHz, DSD512) – 1x HDMI-I2S; 1x USB-A (USB3.0)
- Hi-res S/PDIF digital (PCM 192kHz) – 1x optical; 1x coaxial; 1x AES/EBU
Optical LAN – For those connecting to their network router via cable rather than relying on Wi-Fi, the NEO Stream includes a unique option alongside its RJ45 and M12 ports – optical LAN. This is iFi’s own technology and it works by connecting an OptiBox transceiver to the router, and the NEO Stream to the OptiBox via an optical cable – both the OptiBox and cable are included with the NEO Stream.
IFi says that Optical LAN delivers the highest quality digital audio connection possible between the router and the streamer, enabling ultra-fast data speeds of up to 10Gbps and bit-perfect transmission of ultra-resolution audio, with minimal degradation across distances of up to 1km. 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.
NEO Stream has been engineered to remove noise and distortion from the audio signal. The USB ports, both input and output, benefit from iFi’s ANC II active noise cancellation; similarly, the S/PDIF outputs incorporate iPurifier technology. The digital signal is regulated by the latest version of iFi’s femtoprecision GMT (Global Master Timing) clock circuitry to eradicate jitter. Even the two-inch retina-grade TFT display has SilentLine design, ensuring it generates no electrical noise to interfere with the audio signal.
Carefully chosen circuit components include discrete, high-grade surface-mounted devices such as TDK C0G multilayer ceramic capacitors and inductors from Taiyo Yuden and Murata.
Voltage regulators with high PSRR (Power Supply Rejection Ratio), low idle current and low dropout are used, together with a synchronous 1.2MHz high-speed power supply controller which improves filtering efficiency and ensures power supply noise is vanishingly low. This couples with iFi’s iPower 2 AC/DC adapter, which engenders significantly less noise than other similar devices owing to ANC II technology and is included with the NEO Stream.
Several different settings allow users to tailor the NEO Stream’s performance to suit their system and the way they like to stream. For example, users can select between Exclusive Modes, individual settings that optimise performance by focusing operation on one mode of use. There are specific settings for Roon, Tidal Masters, DLNA and NAA, as well as a general mode for multi-platform use.
Further personal tailoring is provided by four user-selectable digital filters, each of which has a subtle but clearly discernible effect on sound. Users can switch between Bit-Perfect, GTO (Gibbs Transient Optimised), Minimum Phase and Standard, according to personal taste and whichever setting best suits their choice of music.
The NEO Stream’s compact form (214x151x41mm) means it can be accommodated in tighter spaces than network streamers of traditional HiFi separates’ size. It can be positioned horizontally, or vertically on the supplied stand, its display flips automatically to suit the user’s preferred orientation, while a smooth-acting multifunction rotary control ensures the NEO Stream is simple to use.
The two-inch retina-grade TFT colour display may be smaller than the displays found on some other streamers, but iFi believes the advantages of a more compact device that’s easier to fit on a desk or shelf outweigh the benefits of a larger display. Most people will spend far more time looking at the screen on their control device, than the display on the streamer. Even so, the NEO Stream’s display shows a useful array of text and graphics, including cover art.