iFi Audio NEO Stream streaming D/A processor Page 2

Whacking weeds
In a recent chat with Stereophile Editor Jim Austin at a listening event in Manhattan, Jim mentioned something he'd been hearing from audio retailers: that the biggest product-support challenge they face these days is customers' networking problems. I am right there with that demographic. Plugging in the replacement NEO Stream, though, my karma seemed to improve. The unit started up and connected just as the online user manual said it should. Time spent reviewing other streaming hardware prompted me to use a wired Ethernet connection for setup, direct from my home router, because it's more stable than Bluetooth or Wi-Fi.

I recently upgraded my internet service here in Cooperstown to gigabit speed. However, auditioning the NEO Stream in my New York City rental, when I went to choose a Wi-Fi network, literally dozens of competing networks popped up. This isn't just confusing; so much network traffic can cause a Wi-Fi network to be slower and less stable, with many errors and error correction that can degrade sound. A wired connection is preferred in all cases due to its superior dependability, but it's especially important if your Wi-Fi signal is weak or if there's lots of other networks in the vicinity.

If you intend to get serious about streaming-to take full advantage of all the technologies a box like this offers-I recommend you upgrade, too. Exit the horse-and-buggy era. A streamer isn't a record player.

Even after the replacement NEO Stream appeared to be functioning as it should, I still faced a learning curve to get it up and running. It is one thing to scan the neatly laid-out online user's manual-the NEO Stream manual is unusually brief-and another thing to get the pieces of the puzzle arranged.

Earlier, I mentioned a Bluetooth antenna-but the NEO Stream doesn't do Bluetooth for music. It only does Bluetooth for setup. From the manual: "NEO Stream's hotspot has no external network functionality and is only used to connect the phone to the NEO Stream setup network."

Stream of consciousness
Q: What is a streamer? 1. A lightweight lure made of feathers, intended for flyfishing; 2. An electronic box that plays back media content delivered over the internet. Writing at the start of the flyfishing season, in the flyfishing mecca that is upstate New York, I'm all for angling metaphors. But today it's not trout bites I am after but gigabytes.

iFi is on a fast path in terms of software development. The NEO Stream's streaming software is a significant upgrade of software first offered last year with their Zen Stream streamer. That software runs on top of a Linux-based, open-source operating system, which in turn runs on a powerful, quad-core ARM Cortex processor. The NEO Stream's audio specifications are cutting edge: Show me another DAC near this price that can convert 32/768 PCM data or DSD512. Specifications are impressive even over Wi-Fi, because the NEO Stream creates its own Wi-Fi network. Still, as other designers have done recently, Luke recommended a wired connection: "As a general rule, hard-wired is always better than wireless." So that is what I started out with.

With the NEO Stream wired, I was able to dial in (with the front-panel rotary Multi-function Knob) the "dedicated" (ie, you can select them separately on the NEO Stream display) music streaming services Tidal and Roon. I could also use Qobuz, as it is incorporated in Roon. Currently, Qobuz is not native to the NEO Stream, but software specifications have a way of changing rapidly (footnote 2).

Right away, via both Tidal and Roon, my desktop Mac could "see" the NEO Stream, so it was time to listen to some music!

First, I cued up a recording I knew should sound great: the Shostakovich Symphony No.11 "The Year 1905," conducted by Andris Nelsons, live, with the Boston Symphony Orchestra (24/96 FLAC, DG/Qobuz). (Is there a composer who speaks more directly to the troubled times we live in now?) Utilizing the NEO Stream's balanced output and its XLR-terminated splitter cable, the opening of Part 1, "The Palace Square," fully possessed the dark sense of menace contained in this recording of this chilling programmatic masterpiece. The soundstage was as wide and deep as "the autumn night is black as the tyrant's conscience," to quote Shostakovich. Incredible low-end basses and percussion were fully realized by the NEO Stream with my Wilson Sasha DAWs.

I have occasionally been an "early adopter" of tech, but not MQA. Until now, I've never had a DAC in the house that could decode it. With the iFi NEO Stream in place and Tidal Connect, I was finally able to get a taste of the controversial codec.

I think I am developing a sweet tooth. Something just felt "right," to pick one simplistic word, about the sonic product MQA achieves. Played back via Tidal Connect, the sound on Coleman Hawkins Encounters Ben Webster (24/96 MQA, Verve/Tidal) was startlingly fine. With Norman Granz producing and a band consisting of Oscar Peterson, Herb Ellis, and Ray Brown, this music is as good as it gets. The sound, too, was just about as good as it gets. I heard some of the best saxophone reproduction I've heard, on "It Never Entered My Mind."

It was time to pull the plug-to go off wired life support and switch to Wi-Fi mode. On planet Earth circa 2023, Wi-Fi is probably the networking method of choice for music streaming for most consumers. I understand why people wouldn't want a bunch of cords running around their living spaces if they aren't strictly necessary.

I noticed no difference in audio quality in direct A/B comparisons between wired and unwired connections (footnote 3). To my ear, the NEO Stream does not "prefer" one to the other. (Note, however, that the Wi-Fi connection uses AirPlay 2, which limits resolution, and see the note above about suboptimal Wi-Fi environments. I didn't do critical listening in my Wi-Fi–busy New York apartment. If I had, it's possible that the wired connection would have sounded better.)

Expert tip: In order to connect to other Wi-Fi devices (laptops, desktop, tablets, smartphones, and so on)-as opposed to just connecting it to a Wi-Fi router-you need to set the NEO Stream to its nonexclusive AIO ("All-In-One") mode.

The "Stream-iFi" app operates locally, connecting to the NEO Stream via Wi-Fi. USB hard drives connected to the NEO Stream and network-attached storage devices on your local network can be displayed in the app, and music played from them. Internet radio works the same way. The app does not, however, access or display subscription-based music streaming services; you need to use their apps for that, after the connection is made.

Like a homing pigeon, once the "Stream-iFi" app was installed on my iPhone, I pulled up the "Web Radio" function page and dialed in WWOZ New Orleans. It was a Sunday morning, and the Gospel music coming from down there was just the ticket, sounding solid streamed at the just-average internet radio rate of 128kb/s, according to my iPhone display.

Despite having a high-quality DAC, at $1299, the NEO Stream will probably be used in some systems as a streamer only, sending music data to much more expensive DACs. "Yes, audio guys want to be able to try this, try that," Luke said during our chat. "Try it with their own DAC, their friend's-whatever."

I plugged the NEO Stream back into my Ethernet/LAN network again. I connected the AES3 output of the NEO Stream to my longtime reference Bricasti M1SE DAC. I pulled up a new recording of two great works by Bartók performed by the Netherlands Radio Philharmonic Orchestra, conducted by Karina Canellakis (24/192 FLAC, Pentatone/Qobuz). This new live recording joins the never-ending parade of recordings of the Concerto for Orchestra, paired here with Bartók's earlier Four Orchestral Pieces.

Wow, this sounded great. The opening Introduzione of the Concerto was like Pat the Bunny (footnote 4), with a visceral sense of tactile softness from the muted strings. I am a sucker for musical openings that "back into" a piece, as my composition teacher John Adams once described it to me. This is a great example.

New growth
This new thing from AMR/iFi Audio, the NEO Stream, offers very strong inducements for discerning audiophiles. It's particularly well-suited to those who are happy with their traditional hi-fi rigs and are looking to add state-of-the-art streaming to the mix. Its sturdy, all-aluminum construction belies its modest price. The sound quality is beyond reproach, its versatility is impressive, and it's presented in a compact physical package-small enough for placement on a desktop if so desired, for use with a headphone amplifier or a pair of powered speakers. The iFi NEO Stream punches way above its retail price, bringing complex high-end audio down to earth.

Footnote 2: Qobuz is currently developing a "Connect" capability like those already deployed by Tidal and Spotify.

Footnote 3: There was, obviously, a bit of a delay between A and B as I changed connection methods.

Footnote 4: Sasha is referring to the children's books, not the independent musician known for songs about drugs and alcoholism.—Jim Austin

AMR/iFi Audio
105 Professional Pkwy., Suite 1506
VA 23693
(800) 799-4342

Anton's picture

Great review of what seems to be a great product!

Makes me want to shop!

partain's picture

No hardware remote sounds a lot like no remote at all , or am I missing something ?

DaveinSM's picture

I was going to ask the same thing. Assuming there’s at least some sort of app for smartphone or tablet to function as a remote. This is the most likely scenario these days.

There has to be some sort of remote control functionality available.

Currawong's picture

.... so you can access it with a web browser. If you're just using it as a Roon or similar end-point, then that is unnecessary.

Sasha Matson's picture

Like so many devices these days, an available app from iFi installed on your phone functions as the 'remote.' As I noted above: "The 'Stream-iFi' app operates locally, connecting to the NEO Stream via Wi-Fi."

DaveinSM's picture

for those of us unfamiliar with Ifi "stream-iFi" app, I didn't catch this part because it didn't include the word "remote". And more information on the functionality of such app and how it works as a remote would've been nice. Thanks!

LTig's picture

as I deduct from the measurements, is actually no filter at all. Frequency response looks close to what comes out of a DAC chip which has no reconstruction filter.

Bluesbob's picture

Why no spdif input?