Own a laptop without a CD-ROM? You might need to be more Zen.
What is the Innuos Zen?One peculiar rite of passage for many people of around my age was the ceremonial ripping of your CD collection. In my case, this was for compressed purposes first of all- I had no intention of moving away from CD as one of my two quality sources- and was done via the mighty triumph of software that was Windows Media player for Windows XP. When I bought my first iPod, I switched to iTunes and continued in much the same way. Then- once I belatedly realised that network streaming was the way that I wanted to handle my digital from here on out, I did the process again using dBPoweramp. I have, when I stop and think about it, spent a very long time ripping CDs.
One thing that was common to all of these ripping processes was that my computer took centre stage. I used software installed on it and the CD-ROM drive that the manufacturer supplied to get the job done. As my current laptop is still fitted with a drive, this has been how I add the small amount of CD based material I still receive to my library. This is not something that everybody can do any more though. The CD-ROM drive is something that is increasingly rare and a great many of the sleeker and higher performance designs of the moment aren't fitted with them. Now obviously, if you are buying these devices, it is likely you may have already stopped buying CD's but if you haven't, your ripping options are rather more limited.
Into this breach steps the ripNAS. This is a device designed to offer all of the storage and network functionality of a network drive but additionally offer the ability to rip and store CDs directly. The device you see here, the Innuos Zen, takes this a stage further. As well as being a NAS drive, the Zen can act as a standalone playback device using both its internal 2TB library and as a hub for additional storage. This is an extensive array of attributes- can the Zen deliver on all of them?
The Zen is the middle of three models in the music server category. In addition to these, Innuos also makes music and video servers and a collection of music and audio players. All Zen products are fitted as ripNAS devices- Innuos rather wisely noting that there is very little you can add to the functionality of a basic NAS drive that will really justify value added in this context. The drive itself is a TEAC slot loader which is a pretty respectable bit of hardware in the context of this sort of device. The test model is the basic Zen rather than the operationally identical but larger capacity Zen XL.
Internally, the Zen runs of Logitech Media Server. This software is something of an evergreen in the network audio sector. Originally part of the Slim Devices product portfolio and designed to run the Squeezebox, it was integrated into the Logitech product family when they took over the Slim Devices brand. Since then, the Squeezebox range has been removed from the Logitech portfolio but Logitech continues to offer Media Server (hereafter shortened to LMS) as free to use software for both individuals and companies. The use of it here is logical although- as I'll try and explain later- not without some consequences. CD metadata is handled by FreeDB and the Zen rips as standard to FLAC.
The standard Zen is a 2TB model (the XL offers 3TB) and the drive is a Western Digital Red model. This puts it firmly in the mid table of ripNAS capacity but there are two comments to be made here. Firstly, if the Zen is not acting as your main NAS drive and is only handling music, 2TB is a lot of capacity for audio so you'll have to work fairly hard to fill it. Secondly, the Zen offers the ability to attach additional storage and run it as a single library so it can easily be expanded.
These USB connections don't simply work with external drives either. The Zen can be used as a conventional NAS drive but can also be used as a sort of USB transport to send material to a USB DAC. As the Zen is a Linux based platform, these USB connections don't require a driver to be installed to function in the manner than a Windows device would. This means that if you have a DAC with all singing and dancing file handling capability, you can simply rely on the Zen to send any file you like to the DAC while being controlled over network. This is an interesting option as I've previously disliked the computer DAC method for replay simply because it requires me to have a computer open to do it and the Zen neatly bypasses this.
There are some other interesting options too. The Zen can be setup to work as the server for Sonos products, notionally negating the need for a Bridge and if you have it constantly connected to the outside world, you can run certain streaming services on it meaning that it also serves as a one stop shop for audio you own and audio you don't. These are not specific to the Zen and are instead functions of LMS. I don't know how many people will make use of these options but it is nice to know they are there.
Externally, the Zen is a half width metal box that should not look too out of place in a rack of audio electronics. The chassis is all metal and finished to an acceptable standard for the asking price. Black and silver finishes are available in the further pursuit of domestic acceptability. Another welcome touch is that the Zen is pleasingly free of flashing lights and other gaudiness and looks extremely unobtrusive in use.
PositivesFor £600, the Zen is a well thought out one stop shop with some useful extra functionality that you may or may not use that doesn't interfere with the core range of features. It is also a product that meets the needy criteria of hifi as it is completely silent in regular use (ie not ripping) and doesn't register about the normal background noise levels- traffic, wind etc of my lounge. Despite this, it seems to be adequately cooled and does not run hot in use. Boot time is also impressive at sub thirty seconds from hitting the power button. The file handling is also extremely impressive. The Zen can effectively handle any format you can think of, including the current must have DSD, without issue and does so via Ethernet and USB. This means that whatever happens in the future, the chances are that the Zen is going to be up to the job of handling them.
you can simply rely on the Zen to send any file you like to the DAC while being controlled over network
NegativesWhile the file handling of the Zen is extensive, the file creation it offers is less extensive. While I have no issue with FLAC- it is the format I use by preference- I recognise that OSX users in particular might be keen for ALAC/AIFF to be an option to ensure continued use with iTunes. There is an argument that once the Zen has ripped it, your laptop or computer- CD drive or not- can turn it into whatever you need but this is an extra process that isn't strictly required. Additionally, the ripping options in FLAC are not as extensive as those in dBPoweramp or other good quality ripping software alternatives. There is also no dedicated app for the Zen although Innuos lists some sensible options on their website. For me this is not a huge issue- I tend to use the Naim control app which functioned perfectly well with the Zen- but if you are looking to use it as a standalone option, you are slightly at the mercy of it being supported by other people.
Finally, there is the slight elephant in the room that while Zen is competitively priced for a ripNAS, if you don't need a CD-ROM drive, £600 for a 2TB NAS drive- even one with the trick USB connectivity and good build- is on the steep side. Innuos can legitimately claim that the LMS inteface is a cut above a 'normal' NAS but this is not something you'd have to stick to on rivals if you didn't want to.
TestingFor rip testing, the Zen was connected to my main Sky router which communicated wirelessly with a Naim ND5XS streamer and XP5XS power supply, Supernait 2 integrated amp and Neat Momentum 4i speakers all connected to an IsoTek Evo 3 Sigmas mains conditioner. For the bulk of audio testing though it was connected to a Netgear router on a closed network communicating with the same test equipment over ethernet. Additionally, a Cambridge Audio CXN was used to compare UPnP results and a Chord Hugo was used for USB testing. An iPad 3 and Nexus 5 were used to run control apps.
Ripping and storing CDs
The database and ripping page for the Zen is accessed via web browser and while they aren't the most beautiful pages in the history of web interfaces, they are totally logical and easy to use. The end result is very much like using software installed on your computer and the results are broadly indistinguishable. Ripping D'Angelo's The Black Messiah via dBPoweramp and then by the Zen produced two indistinguishable rips although the Zen chose slightly higher resolution cover art. Nothing I chucked at the Innuos seemed to defeat the tagging system suggesting that the database is pretty good.
Once again, there are some quirks that reflects that the Innuos is not a single piece of software and hardware designed from the outset but a collection of good but nonetheless disparate bits of design. If you purchase a download from a site like Bandcamp or indeed redeem a voucher you get in a vinyl purchase and download from their site, the album will download in zipped form to your computer. If you then unzip it and send it to the music folder of the Zen, you must open the LMS interface in the browser and rescan the library before it appears. This isn't the end of the world but both my Western Digital and Synology drives don't need to do this and will update their libraries automatically when material is transferred across. As downloads will be forming more of our purchases going forward, this is a minor black mark.
Behaviour as a serverThe Zen had the interesting job of replacing a Melco N1A in the system which was reviewed elsewhere. The Melco uses a different connection method in the pursuit of squeezing a little more performance of the hardware. Innuos makes no such claims for the Zen and it instead connects to your streamer via a router but in performance terms, the way it performs is entirely positive. In the dozens of hours of use on test, it has been unconditionally stable and never showed any issue with the full range of available formats in the library. It is fast, extremely easy to navigate via a variety of apps and as noted earlier, it is completely silent.
In the dozens of hours of use on test, it has been unconditionally stable
Behaviour as a USB source.Connecting a Chord Hugo to the Zen proved relatively straightforward simple to do. As the Zen doesn't install the driver, it instead interrogates the Hugo to establish the capabilities of the device and prepares a set of permissions based on this. This takes a few seconds but once done, the Zen operates effectively as a USB source. When doing so, I preferred to use a control app like Bubble on Android as it bypasses the LMS interface which as I noted earlier is not my favourite piece of control software. Effectively as a CD generation user, I prefer to listen to albums which I select by browsing. I find that LMS wants to perform any number of funky options that I simply don't use. This being the case though, it is perfectly easy to use the Zen like any other server with the only requirement to use the LMS interface being to rescan the library after material is added. Of course, if you do like this sort of thing, LMS remains one of the most flexible options out there.
- Totally stable under test
- Very flexible
- Limited ripping options
- Some interface quirks
- Relatively expensive compared to standard NAS
Innuos Zen Music Server ReviewThe Innuos is sold on the strength of reliability, user friendliness and flexibility and by and large it succeeds across all three fronts. This is a clever and well thought out product that makes use of well evolved existing hardware and software to perform the dual role of ripper and server extremely well. If you are coming from a situation where you had high quality ripping software on your computer before, it may be slightly more limited and equally, LMS can be a little too iTunes in behaviour for my liking but this should not take the shine off a very versatile, stable and ultimately impressive music server.
Ease of Use8
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