Innuos ZENith MkII music server

Music servers and computer audio
Innuos ZENith Mk II

The web browser approach to music loading proved less straightforward than it might have done, so I used my computer to put music files into the ZENith’s auto-import folder and went to the webpage for the server (a simple case of typing into the URL bar) and opted to import from computer, which went smoothly for the most part. It had a bit of trouble with some albums and if I had known to press the report button at the right moment it would have told me exactly what caused this. Essentially, the ZENith uses a series of rules that allow it to identify and categorise all the metadata required and it doesn’t like importing files that break these rules. However, you can copy your music straight onto the ZENith’s unsorted folder and it will be available on the control app. But, because that bypasses its filing system, it can be harder to find the songs you want when it comes to playback. At present, Innuos has not finished its own control app but recommends two that were designed for the Squeezebox: iPeng 9 for iOS and Orange Squeeze for Android. There is also an option for Windows devices. I tried iPeng 9 and found it to be a well thought out and intuitive controller, with good graphics and a lot of functionality. I liked the fact that you can search for radio stations or podcasts, which is still quite a rare facility. You can also stream various music apps directly from the Innuos such as Tidal and Spotify, but I wasn’t able to access my Qobuz account because I got the password wrong and at present the Innuos/Qobuz set up doesn’t spot errors like that. Just like any computer based server system Innuos regularly updates its software and niggles like this are being ironed out on a monthly basis.

When it came to performance, initial listening was done via a Cyrus Stream X renderer between the ZENith and a Primare DAC 30, using the direct Ethernet output. This revealed that the ZENith delivers a highly coherent, vibrant, and engaging sound that hangs together very well indeed. It delivers instrument timbre, reverb, and more importantly does so in such a fashion that it sounds like musicians playing together. This is not something that streaming systems do as a matter of course, or arguably digital audio as a whole for that matter. With Gregorio Paniagua’s La Folia [Atrium Musicae De Madrid, Harmonia Mundi], which combines ancient and contemporary acoustic instruments, the vivacity of the sound was inspiring, the tonal colour rich and varied, and the spirit of the music very much in evidence.

Moving from the networked streamer connection to the USB output and using Vertere’s rather splendid HB USB cable resulted in greater precision combined with a cleaner sound as expected. What caught me by surprise was that it seemed to ‘time’ better as well. This is something of a first in my experience: as a rule Ethernet connections sound more musically coherent because they keep time better, so the USB output on the ZENith must be pretty serious. It comes down to focus; there is less smear which makes for a less diffuse sound that clarifies both spatial and temporal detail. Going back to the Ethernet/streamer/coax to DAC route sounded brasher, louder, and bolder; it was not unappealing in truth but did seem more obviously coloured. On some tracks the Ethernet route seemed to have an advantage but overall best results were achieved with the direct connection. Keith Jarrett’s solo piano on Paris/London – Testament [ECM] rolls along in very convincing fashion, with plenty of the instrument body in evidence and a good solid groove from the left hand. James Blake’s ‘Radio Silence’ [Colour in Anything, Polydor] is revealed to have fabulous spatial dynamics; the production is quite remarkable and as good an indication that modern producers care about sound quality as you will encounter.

I contrasted a rip made on a Naim UnitiServe with one performed on the ZENith to see if there was any difference, and you may not be surprised to hear that it was too close to call. However, the Naim has proved itself superior to my iMac in the past, even when using XLD software, so rips can differ. The playing field was not however very level, the UnitiServe rip was a WAV against the ZENith’s FLAC (this cannot be changed at present), and both were played on the ZENith itself which should favour the native rip. It’s safe to say that this server is capable of making a decent rip and it was clear from the library that identifying the disc in question (La Folia) was not a problem. I did a few others and they also came out well. I also made life difficult by giving it a compilation recorded from vinyl that it wasn’t impressed with, the complete lack of metadata making it too much trouble to identify. That had to be done manually on the Mac.

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