Innous Zenith Mk3 Music Server
MyAudioPhrenia gives the Innuos ZENith MK 3:
5 Ears for Sonics
5 Ears for build quality
4 Ears for usability (see review)
Extreme efforts in noise reduction pays off big time!!
I have a friend that loves to reduce things down. A Bentley is ‘just a car’, a Patek Philippe is ‘just a watch’, The Beatles were ‘just a band’, Marilyn Monroe was ‘just an actress”, that kind of thing. To him, a music server is ‘just a computer’. Any of my arguments to the contrary fall on his deaf ears. My ears tell me something else!
I’ve spent enough time playing around with Raspberry Pi’s and Windows10/J-River machines to know that this stuff matters, but what is the difference between a music server and a computer? Why buy a music server when a laptop or Raspberry Pi or Windows machine will do the same job? After all, bits are bits, and it shouldn’t matter where they come from.
A music server is a computer but it’s a computer specifically designed to do one thing: serve up music files. Unlike a ‘computer-computer’, it is not simultaneously running a zillion different processes, each of which consumes system resources and generates noise. Also unlike ‘computer-computers’ (and lower-end music servers) which operate from noisy switching power supplies, better quality music servers run from high-quality linear supplies. Computer guys are fond of saying bits are bits inferring that all digital devices are the same and some audio guys buy into this but not me, not anymore. Bits may be bits and they don’t get lost, but they don’t teleport themselves from one place to another; they have to be carried. A high quality, low noise carrier is essential for good audio reproduction.
Which brings us to the Innuos ZENith Mk3. The Innuos ZENith Mk3 is a modern high-end music server. Solidly constructed in a heavy gauge metal chassis, the ZENith features a Triple-Linear PSU with Mundorf Capacitors, a custom-treated Solid State Hard Drive, mechanical damping, and isolation. A large part of the ZENith is the aforementioned Triple Linear PSU with over-engineered linear power supplies which feed different parts of the motherboard ensuring noise-free operations and minimal interactions.
The Innuos ZENith is specifically built to serve up digital audio files as cleanly as possible. Serving up these noise-free files allows you to get the most out of your DAC so it can do its job. Give the DAC a better feed and it will give you better sound.
I know describing unboxing can be deadly, but I immediately got a good feeling when I opened the sturdy outer shipping box and then the inner box to reveal a specially molded styrofoam shell that allows nothing to move during shipment. After all, this did come from Portugal. The foam is press-molded which leaves a smooth surface with rounded edges. Very classy. The “Quick Start” manual is right there on top with an ethernet cable. Lift the top shell off and you find a black cloth bag covering the machine. Carefully lifting this bag out, I noticed the heft of the unit. The ZENith Mk3 weighs over 18 pounds. It exudes quality.
Does any of this matter? Not really, but it does show a corporate attitude that tells me a lot about Innuos. They are serious about their products. This just adds to the anticipation. I carefully pull this unit out of the cloth bag, place it on the top shelf of my audio gear rack. I take in the flat black, subtly pebbled surface with the subtly printed logo. On the right side of the top is a series of small holes laid out in a triangular shape (actually five sides) for what I suspect is for cooling over the power supply within. The front bezel is very thick, almost 10mm (3/8 of an inch) on the left side tapering to 6mm (1/4 of an inch) on the right side, and is sculptured to carry over the angular theme of the cooling holes on the top. There is a CD loading slot on the left side and an on-off switch with a LED on the lower right. The effect is one of subtlety and understated elegance. The whole visual and tactile sense of this product keeps adding to a good feeling about owning this music server.
On the rear left is the AC inlet using a typical IEC power cord and mains power switch. Also on the back are the inputs for Ethernet, USB DAC, Streamer, a USB Backup, which I have to learn about, and an HDMI jack for service. Innuos paid a lot of attention to the three supporting feet which are made of a proprietary composite, each with three small embedded silicon balls to isolate the Zenith from its physical environment. That’s it my friends. No display that would add noise to the system. Everything here is designed to keep the backgrounds silent, pushing the noise floor to the center of the earth.
The included “Quick Start Guide” has a very simple (including 8X10 pictures with circles and arrows) set of instructions to get the ZENith Mk3 into your Audio system.
As mentioned in the opening paragraph the ZENith Mk3 is a computer. A specifically designed computer that is optimized to live in the audio world (Before owning this product I made sure my music server/computer was as far away as from my music system as the limits for USB allowed; to keep its noisy environment from contaminating the sound). It is designed to “serve” up digital files for translation into audio signals by your DAC. It is also a web-aware device that connects to streaming services and serves up those digital files noiselessly to your DAC. The operative word here is “noiselessly”. We have read many times about what a noisy electrical environment a computer is. Since the USB receiver in your DAC depends on the 5V power from the computer to complete the “handshake” to make a connection so the data will flow, Innuos has gone through heroic efforts to make the 5V as noise-free as possible. Inside you see a computer motherboard with a statically cooled CPU (no noisy fan here), laptop memory, a solid-state hard drive, and CD transport. The motherboard, Hard drive, CD transport, and power supply are all shock-mounted to minimize vibrations. Taking up almost half the chassis is a very robust and sophisticated linear power supply. Three independent power supplies on a single board each with three voltage regulators, so no less than nine power supplies in all. This lowers the noise floor by supplying each part of the system with clean, stable power and minimizing crosstalk and interactions between them. The server only draws 12 watts (about 0.1 amp) and the power supply is overbuilt and looks like it can supply many times that.
The server is connected to your network via an ethernet cable. No wifi here. Innuos believes to get optimum quality the digital files need to be “served” over an ethernet cable. The server is connected to your DAC via a USB type 2 cable which is not supplied. A typical mains power cord is supplied. I think most audiophiles like to choose their power cords and USB cables.
When I first set up my Qobuz account I had to stop taking notes and just listen. For a lark and not my usual choice, I selected “Reggie/DUB Qobuz US”. It was just jumping. I had to turn it up and get out of my chair and dance. Mark Sosa of Well Pleased AV the US distributor of Innuos told me to let the ZENith Mk3 settle in for 200 hrs. Forget that! This already makes my RasPi server sound like a tin can…..
Now if you are just going to rip CDs to the built-in solid-state hard drive (I ordered mine with the 1TB drive but one can order larger storage, now up to 8 terabytes) internal library, then that’s all you have to do. Just start feeding CDs and the Zenith takes care of the rest. It takes about five minutes per CD.
To take advantage of the other features requires delving into the Control App that is available over wifi from your Android, Apple, or Windows device provided it’s on the same network as the ethernet connection. Type “My.Innuos.com” into the browser and you are directed to a web portal that has all the settings. Again the “Quick Start Guide” is your friend. I am sure your dealer will assist if needed. A bit confusing is that you rip your CDs, configure your streaming services, select your DAC and connect to your network storage from this control app but you cannot use it to select and play music. You can browse your library, but that is all. Selecting and playing music files is from a downloadable program. There are programs for Android, Apple, and Windows devices. These are at a nominal charge of less than $10. At this price point of the ZENith Mk3, I think they should be included. Maybe the licensing agreements might have been too much of a nightmare for Innuos. Rumor has it that Innuos is in beta testing with its own software. Let’s hope they get this out soon.
I downloaded iPeng for the Ipad and SqueezeControl for Windows. Both are fairly easy to use, but I like SqueezeControl better. There is also a downloadable user manual for deep diving into the workings of this unit. One example is one can set up two DACs and switch between them through the control app (My.Innuos.com). You can also set up a folder on your home computer that is the “My Music” folder of the internal hard drive in the Zenith which you can drag and drop music files to.
So with everything set up, I turn on the mains switch on the back, wait ten seconds, and hit the front on-off button. The LED indicator starts flashing white and after 30 seconds turns blue which means the computer booted successfully. The LED colors can be changed in the setup to match your other equipment. As described above, I followed the “Quick Start Guide”. You can check for updates to the systems operating system and such. Next on the list is the setting up of how CD’s are ripped and how they are saved. In this section, you can configure Sonos, Roon, and set up any streamer accounts. I needed to connect up my NAS music files and let the Innuos build the database and with over 10TB (230,000 files) this took several hours. The Innous found my BorderPatrol DAC automatically. I set up my Qobuz account quite easily on the “Music Server”s setup page. There are sections for setting up for Qobuz, Spotify, and Tidal. I selected the Qobuz tab and typed in my Qobuz account credentials. Very easy.
I set up the Zenith to play random files from my NAS and shut down the amps to let it run in. During the first 200 hrs, I flipped on the power amps to check every day to check all was going well. As a side note after 24 hrs, I played some of the same first tracks I played, the Reggie playlist, and could detect the slightest smoothing of a few edges and blacker backgrounds. I do not think this is going to take 200 hours.
I ripped a couple of CDs to make sure that worked. This certainly was the easiest ripping I have ever done. Now the 200 hours of burn-in are over and time for critical listening.
Nothing had changed in my system since the review of the BorderPatrol DAC SE-i so as a “bits are bits guy” (which I was) nothing should have changed. What I was using as a music server before was either the Win10/JRiver computer or a Raspberry Pi server. I was quite happy with this setup thinking it was all I needed for my digital side because digital is digital and “Analogue” was the only way to do serious listening. Then came the BorderPatrol DAC SE-i. This was an ear-opener. With the BorderPatrol DAC, I was hearing into the music as if I was listening to my analog rig. I finally had emotion, depth, and air on my digital side. Going back to the Win10/JRiver computer to serve up tracks instead of the Raspberry Pi and I could get deeper. The BorderPatrol DAC was allowing so much more clarity, I could hear significant differences between the two. There was a layer of fog lifted when going from the RasPi to the Win10 /JRiver. I could hear further into the music. I do not know why. Bits are Bits, right? But the Win10/JRiver, there is more processing power? Well, maybe but it was there. With the Innuos ZENith Mk3, there was another layer of fog that was lifted, a deeper black between notes. It was like removing a soft-focus filter from a lens. All the elements are there but so much more cleanly and clearly. The ZENith Mk3 is as much a revelation to me as the BorderPatrol DAC was. The combination is pure magic. I see my analog set-up getting very dusty.
Listening to the Innous ZENith Mk3
The system for this review includes the BorderPatrol SE-i DAC. Next, the superb LTA MicroZOTL preamp supplying the low-level signal to the EleKit TU-8800 KT88 SET amp. The sound train ends with the Spatial Audio Sapphire M3’s. All reviewed here……
The following tracks were used for this evaluation
Holly Cole Temptation 1995 from Qobuz streaming
Holly on the hot and spicy side. This is a great album found on Qobuz Not the best recording but it does get the juices flowing. The title song is just overflowing with heat. Hearing extreme bottom end and depth of image just superb.
John Waters Amused to Death 1991
I keep coming back to this album from a ripped CD into the Zenith Mk 3 internal SSD, because it is just sooooo much content (some very low level) and it shows off the ability of your system. The low-level content and the spaciousness of the image is just so out there. On a lot of digital systems, these nuances just do not exist.
Joe Bonamassa Live from the Royal Albert Hall 2010
“High Water Everywhere” This hard-driving piece gets every cell in your body up and jumping. Full range fun just pounds you into oblivion.
John Coltrane Giant Steps (60th Anniversary Super Deluxe Edition) [2020 Remaster]
“Cousin Mary” This is off of Qobuz. My 16-bit version off my NAS sounded just a tad recessed. I did not get into Coltrane until just 10 years ago until I picked up a compilation CD at a yard sale. I was so drawn to this music just as I was drawn to the Bach Partitas when very young. It is just compelling.
Susan Wong Close to Me (hr – 24-96 Qobuz)
“Yesterday”. The soft edges of Ms. Wong’s voice just melt your innards You get lost fairly quickly.
Hazelrigg Brothers Songs We Like 2017
“Living In The Past” It would be easy to call this a Jazz album. I think it is just new music. Yes, some of it is based on old music, from Bartok to Jimi, but they take to places you did not exist.
Zuill Bailey Cello Suites 2010 Johann Sebastian Bach
One either loves this music or they run out of the room. I have listened to Bach’s music for solo violin and solo cello for many years. I never tire of it. This recording is most intimate even though you get a sense of the vastness of the room. You become part of the cello, strings, bow, rosin, flesh, blood, and mind of the artist.
The online manual is available here:
The ZENith Mk3 Specs:
USB 2.0 supporting USB Audio Class 2, DoP, Native DSD and MQA
Dedicated Ethernet Streamer Port
2 x rear panel RJ45 – Bridged Gigabit Ethernet
1x USB 2.0 (DAC), 1x USB 3.0 (Backup)
CD Formats Red Book
Disc Compatibility CD, CD-R, CD-RW
Audio format for stored CDs FLAC (zero compression), WAV
Audio Formats Supported for streaming and playing
WAV, AIFF, FLAC, ALAC, AAC, MP3, MQA (with supported DACs)
44.1kHz, 48kHz, 88.2kHz, 96kHz, 176.4KHz. 192kHz, 352.8KHz, 384KHz, DSD64, DSD128, Native DSD up to DSD512 on selected DACs
Bit Depths 16bit, 24bit, 32bit
USER CONTROL INTERFACES
Web Browsers from iOS, Android (4.0 and up) or up-to-date Windows and OS X browsers
App for iPhone/iPad, Android, and Windows 10
CD/DVD drive TEAC Slot-loading drive
Hard Drive 1TB SSD with Vibration and EMI treatment
CPU Intel Quad Core N4200
Memory 8GB DDR3 Low-Voltage RAM (4GB Dedicated for RAM Playback)
STREAMING AND CD STORAGE
Integrated UPnP Server
Qobuz, Spotify Connect, Tidal, Internet Radio
Roon Core and Roon Bridge
5 minutes average CD Storage Time
CD Metadata FreeDB, MusicBrainz, Discogs, GD3
Internet connection to access album metadata when storing CDs, Internet Radio, Streaming Services, and software updates
Network router with at least one available Ethernet port
Premium subscription required for some streaming services such as Spotify, Qobuz, and Tidal
Recommended App (USB Connection Only)
iPeng 9 (iOS), OrangeSqueeze (Android), Squeeze Control (Windows 10)
230V AC / 115V AC – Internal Triple-Linear Power Supply
12W when idle, 15W peak
70 x 420 x 320 mm (H x W x D) (3inX16.5inX12.5in)
Weight 9 Kg
In the box
Innuos ZENith Mk3 1TB Music Server
2m Ethernet Cable
Getting Started leaflet