Zidoo Neo S Media Player Review

A genuine bit of AV?

by Ed Selley
SRP: £1,099.00
9
AVForumsSCORE
OUT OF
10

Zidoo Neo S Media Player Review

The Neo S is an impressively flexible bit of kit that warrants consideration as an audio player alone, even before you take into account the video side of the performance. Once some detailed control niggles are ironed out, this has the potential to be a truly outstanding bit of kit.

Pros

  • Outstanding specification
  • Sounds extremely good
  • Very well made

Cons

  • Some database building issues
  • Streaming service support not as intuitive as rivals
  • No shortage of competition

Introduction - What Is the Zidoo Neo S?

The Zidoo Neo S is a network audio player and server. There’s nothing terribly unusual about this although the nature of how we get content to our systems has changed over the years and is in something of a state of flux at the moment. The Neo S arrives in the market at a similar price to Arcam’s ST60; a device that trades an absolutely do it all software and specification to perform the functions you need very well indeed.

The Neo S is at once the same but different. Where the Arcam relies on an outside source for its content, the Zidoo is capable of being its own server. The ST60 prescribes what it can and can’t do fairly tightly, the Neo S offers very considerable scope for customisation if you know what you’re doing. The two devices have some initial similarities but go about doing what they do in rather different ways.

Where the Neo S really differs from the Arcam - and pretty much everything else - is that it takes a lead from Zidoo’s other products and streams rather more than audio. This is in fact a fairly capable video player as well an audio one. For anyone who has a two channel system that acts as the audio for their TV as well, the Neo S offers an intriguing amount of scope to kill two very different birds with one stone. Of course, there could be a very good reason why this combination hasn’t been seen before so we’ll need to work out if Zidoo has built a miracle or a monster.

Specification and Design

Zidoo NEO S

Something that should probably be covered right at the beginning of our discussion of the Neo S is that, even if it didn’t play video, the spec would still be quite something for your £1,100. The decoding hardware and analogue output are nothing if not ambitious in terms of what they offer and there is a lot to like here. The Neo S is fully balanced front to back. A pair of ESS 9068 DACs feed a circuit which is carefully and deliberately balanced throughout. An XMOS interface ensures that the Neo S can handle PCM to 768kHz and DSD 512. MQA is supported too.

There are some other nice touches too. The Neo S uses split clocks, one for 44.1 and one for 48kHz which is not always a given (both for reasons of economy and designers being swayed by promises of one oscillator to rule them all which has yet to come to pass). The circuit features selected components from well regarded suppliers, not quite to the level of name dropping that iFi gets up to these days but impressive nonetheless. The PSU is a toroidal design with separate windings for the analogue and digital sides and there is a complete secondary PSU for the video side.

As befits a balanced device, you have the choice of XLR and RCA connections on the back and these can be used in either fixed or variable out modes. Around the front, you’ll find 4.4- and 6.35mm headphone connections. The volume increments are numerous and linear enough to ensure that you can set the volume you need rather than something adjacent to it. The volume ramp is usefully quick too which does make the Neo S a genuinely usable preamp should you need it.

Zidoo NEO S

The media player of the Neo S can access content stored on libraries on the same network, via USB storage connected directly to the player and the internal storage. The Neo S ships with a 256GB SSD on board and an additional drive up to a terabyte can be added to that. The interface can read material spread across multiple locations and combine it into a single library too. Supported file types are biblical. Every audio format I can think of, save for WMA, is supported (and if you’re using that, it might be time to give up on it) and video support looks no less comprehensive. Additionally, the video support is augmented by multichannel audio support on the HDMI connection it offers to the outside world. Do be aware though that this connection is the only digital out on the unit.

In terms of digital inputs though, the news is much better. The Neo S has a single USB, coax, optical and AES connection, supported by AirPlay and Bluetooth with aptX. It can also be used with a CD-ROM drive to act as a CD ripper. In short, it gives away nothing to any rival I can think of at the price in any increment of audio I can think of, and that’s without considering the video side.

Zidoo NEO S

Of course, hardware and functionality aren’t the whole story with streamers so it’s time to cover the interface and here the news is a little less glowing. Some of this is down to the sheer amount of things that the Neo S can do but it is necessary to make comparisons to how some rivals function too. There is a dedicated control app for the Neo S which has been stable in use. In some regards, the closest thing I have tested to it is the Lightning interface from Auralic. Like Lightning, the Zidoo can read a UPnP library as presented by a NAS or it can assemble its own database. The catch I have had is that no attempt to get it to scan the shared folder on my Melco NAS drive has been successful; it has errored out each time (putting some files on the internal drive has worked fine though).

This is partnered with the Neo S being an Android derived device. As standard, it has Spotify Connect and, in theory at least, you can install pretty much anything you fancy via apk. The catch is that, compared to that Arcam ST60 we mentioned at the start, it’s a rather more involved process to get your preferred streaming service up and running. A theoretical exercise I often run when testing equipment such as this is asking whether I could leave my father (67, not stupid, prepared to read manuals under sufferance but absolutely not invested in the technology) to set a device up. In the case of the Neo S, I’m not sure he could.

This is a shame because some of the details of the Zidoo’s streaming interface are very good indeed and they’ve been effortlessly stitched into the video control in a way that is impressive. No less usefully, the Neo can display this information on the app, on the colour touchscreen on the front and on your TV. There’s some real thought and thoroughness in the album information and it’s quick and logical to use. The potential saving grace is that Zidoo products are in the process of gaining Roon certification and the Neo S is in the queue. When that has been added, it’ll be a very handy extra control point.

I’ve no complaints with how the Neo S is bolted together either. The all metal casework is finished to an exceptional standard and it looks and feels like a premium product. The display is clear and easy to read; perhaps not as impressive as the HiFi Rose RS201E (which, lets face it, is mostly a vehicle for the display) but still a very fine example of the breed. The app is supported by a remote handset that works via Bluetooth (and does so both effectively and consistently) so has no need of line of sight. My only request would be that the longest screen saver interval of 30 minutes is too short for an audio player. If I want the display to stay on with album and artist info, I should be able to.

Zidoo NEO S

In short, it gives away nothing to any rival I can think of at the price in any increment of audio I can think of and that’s without considering the video side

How was the Neo S tested?

The Zidoo has done the bulk of its testing reading a library off a Melco N1A NAS (which also donated content for the internal drive), as well a taking a USB feed from a Roon Nucleus. It has been connected to an IsoTek Evo3 Aquarius for power and wired to a PlusNet router for data. The bulk of listening has been via XLR into a Cambridge Audio Edge A with Focal Kanta No1 and Neat Majistra speakers. Some additional testing has taken place running as a preamp with an XTZ A-2 400 power amp and the Neats. The Focal Clear MG has been used for headphone testing. An LG 55B7 OLED TV has been used to test the on screen interface and undertake a limited amount of video testing. Material used has been FLAC, AIFF, DSD, Tidal, Qobuz, Spotify and some streamed video content.

More: Audio Formats

Performance

Just so we’re clear from the outset, the testing section of the Neo S warrants the header ‘sound quality.’ I have tested the video side of things but only to the extent of confirming that the comments made in the Z1000 review are applicable here. Nothing in the literature suggests a difference on the Neo S so the two are effectively interchangeable. I’m not a video reviewer anyway so my comments would be largely useless. The Z1000 is impressively capable and the Neo S is too.

I also need to make it clear that even if the Neo S had none of the video functionality that it does, this would still be a seriously good audio streamer. It didn’t take very long into Four Tet’s Pink to realise quite how good it is. Zidoo has avoided the belief that simply parking a great DAC chip (or two) in an otherwise standard circuit is ‘enough’ and the care and effort that has gone into the Neo S is reflected in the way it works with the ‘analogue dance music’ that Kieran Hebden goes in for. The result is that the human quality of the track shines through but is underpinned by real weight and scale.

This weight is different to outright bass extension but it means that when the unique ‘whun whun’ noise of Locked, the opening track sounds, it positively resonates in the rib cage. There’s a simple heft to everything you play on the Neo S that cannot be found for much less money than here (iFi’s Neo iDSD being cheaper but needing an interface of some description to function). It’s one of the few last real step ups between ultra affordable DACs and more expensive ones. There is a level of pure and simple grunt to what the Neo S does that is a genuine pleasure to experience.

Zidoo NEO S

At the other end of the frequency range, the top end of the Neo S is detailed and spacious but avoids the slightly ‘etched’ quality that can affect some ESS based designs. It’s never warm and certainly never soft but I’ve done some very extended sessions listening to the Zidoo and never found myself fatigued at the end of it. It reflects a maturity; a desire to avoid the superficially impressive and instead focus on a sound you will want to listen to for extended periods.

This also extends to it being usefully forgiving. I can (and did) enjoy Placebo’s eponymously titled debut album on the Neo S which is not something that is always possible on other machines. In return, it perhaps doesn’t scale the audiophile heights of something set up for a true ‘warts and all’ presentation but, as my own collection has a fair bit of rough around the diamonds, this is a balance I would always choose personally. Across a varied evening’s listening, it doesn’t miss a beat.

It’s not devoid of personality either. It avoids the potential downsides of the ESS presentation at the top end but the forcefulness and dynamics they can bring to the presentation are all present and correct. This obviously works a charm with electronica but there’s an effortless timing and energy to everything you play on it. The seven glorious lo-fi minutes of Tonstartssbandht’s What Has Happened is something that the Neo S revels in. It never forces the track but finds the rhythm in there and it’s a genuinely invigorating experience.

As you would hope and expect, the performance as a preamp is utterly transparent. It keeps much of its personally into the XTZ and forms a genuinely enjoyable partnership with it. The headphone amp is similarly a reflection of the basic traits of the player as a whole. It’s not perhaps as muscular as it is via the XLR outs but the space, refinement, transparency and general effortlessness continue as before. It’s more than good enough to undertake late night listening tasks when required.

Zidoo NEO S

There is a level of pure and simple grunt to what the Neo S does that is a genuine pleasure to experience

Conclusion

Zidoo Neo S Media Player Review

There’s always the slight temptation when a company out of the blue says “We’ve made an audiophile product!” to adopt my best Thor meme face and go “Have you - really?” but be under no illusions that the Neo S is a superb piece of digital hardware. There’s no showiness or gimmicks, it simply plays everything and sounds excellent with it. The fact that when you’re done with audio you can watch a film/TV show/carefully curated pornography (your mileage may vary) on it too is faintly mind blowing.

At the moment, this is an excellent product and, with some further tweaks, it stands to be very disruptive indeed. I would like the database builder to be more robust, I think that it might be wise to start adding some of the other streaming service APKs to the internal drive before sale and I would like it to gain the promised Roon certification. The resulting product would effectively be an Auralic Altair G1 for half the price with video support and you can’t say fairer than that. Even as it sits though, this is a fine device and one that comes Highly Recommended.

Highly Recommended

Scores

Build Quality

.
9

Connectivity

.
9

Sound Quality

.
9

Ease of Use

.
.
8

Features

.
9

Verdict

.
9
9
AVForumsSCORE
OUT OF
10

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