iFi Audio NEO Stream Review

Posted on 25th May, 2023

iFi Audio NEO Stream Review

Rafael Todes samples this interesting new compact streaming DAC…

iFi Audio

NEO Stream

US$1,299 | S$1,899 RRP

iFi Audio NEO Stream Review

A subsidiary of Abbingdon Music Research, iFi Audio has recently garnered considerable critical acclaim and a strong following among audiophiles seeking compact, high-quality digital front ends – especially portables. Everything it has done has shown real design flair, as exemplified by the hip flask-shaped Hip DAC. The NEO Stream you see before you continues the theme; it's a compact table-top streaming DAC that packs a lot of tech and functionality into a small space…

Using a powerful 16-core processor, the NEO Stream has 3-fold MQA decoding as well as full Roon compatibility. Interestingly there's no bespoke iFi app, so you'll need to download a DNLA/UPnP compatible app such as Bubble if you're not using Roon for streaming or NAS playback. Of course, TIDAL and Qobuz work directly.

iFi Audio NEO Stream Review

One unique feature is the OptiBox, a special optical LAN connection for Ethernet which reclocks the signal from the router and sends it optically to the NEO Stream. This removes a major source of noise, as an optical connection is galvanically isolated – this is a great feature, in my view. As you'd expect, this little bit of kit comes with a choice of digital filters to suit most tastes – GTO (Gibbs Transient Optimised), Minimum Phase and Standard.

iFi Audio NEO Stream Review

Under the bonnet is a hi-res DAC that runs up to PCM 768kHz and DSD 512, plus a smattering of fancy audiophile components, including Panasonic OS-CONs and Tantalum caps, and a Femto clock for low jitter. There's a welter of connection options, and interestingly the NEO Stream can be operated both horizontally and vertically. Its high-resolution TFT screen clearly displays what music you're playing. To navigate around the menu, you pull down a switch and rotate to find your menu choice. Vital statistics are 214x151x41mm and 1kg. Overall, this is a classy feeling, user-friendly device.

THE LISTENING

The NEO Stream is a most enjoyable-sounding DAC streamer. For a product at this price point, it has an impressively expansive soundstage and a good amount of detail and musical insight – all of which are essential for any mid-price digital source to succeed. For example, its soundstage depth proved to be considerably better than the Blusound 2i that I had to hand, which may be considerably cheaper but is still a benchmark for many. Better still, the OptiBox improves it yet further.

iFi Audio NEO Stream Review

My reference system comprises VAC 200iq valve power amps, a VAC Master preamp and B&W 802D4 loudspeakers. Listening to Simon Rattle conducting the Berlin Philharmonic playing Haydn's Symphony no 88, I heard a useful improvement to the sound when the OptiBox was used, with better stage depth, a more relaxed musical performance and a sense of greater realism. There seemed to be less getting in the way of the music, which in turn let the orchestra breathe more easily. The result was a very enjoyable rendition of this seminal piece of music. So this little widget should not be treated as a gimmick, and it will be interesting to see if other manufacturers follow suit in future…

Tonally the NEO Stream throws plenty of light on the recording. This isn't a sultry, dark-sounding performer – and is certainly more well-lit than, for example, a Chord Mojo and Poly combination. Many will enjoy the iFi's bright and breezy presentation, which may 'pep up' some of the more bland-sounding budget loudspeakers it could be used with. The NEO Stream is great with tracks like Kraftwerk's The Robots, where it breathes life into this beat-driven electronic music and throws its keen gaze on this vintage recording, unpeeling its many layers. Given the iFi's modest price, it's an accomplished music maker.

iFi Audio NEO Stream Review

THE VERDICT

There is a lot of competition at this price point for streaming DACs, and iFi's new NEO Stream has just made life more difficult for all the various products on offer. Its sheer all-round ability is its great strength; it does so much so well and even introduces new functionality like the OptiBox too. For example, it has a far superior feature count and connectivity than the similarly priced Chord Qutest DAC, which doesn't even come with a streamer. All things considered, this is an attractive package at the price and should prosper even in this crowded market sector.

Visit iFi Audio for more information

    Rafael Todes's avatar

    Rafael Todes

    Gifted violinist Rafael is one quarter of the Allegri String Quartet, playing second fiddle. Once a member of the CBSO under Sir Simon Rattle, he now teaches at London’s Junior Royal Academy. A long-time audiophile, he’s still on a quest for the perfect sound.

    Posted in:Applause Awards 2023 DACs Sources Streaming Hi-Fi
    Tags: ifi audio 

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