Do I really need a music server like the Innuos Zen Mini Mk. 3 at this point in my life?
I’m still pretty old school when it comes to physical media. I have large CD and LP collections, and I’ve envisioned keeping them until the day I die—at least the LPs, anyway. The CD collection is starting to lose its charm because it has doubled or even tripled in size over the last few years thanks to my chores as a jazz reviewer. They’re all over the place. There is something incredibly appealing about putting my entire collection of digital music on a hard drive and accessing everything through an app on my iPhone. I think about it all the time, in fact.
It goes back to my days as an import and distributor, when I’d see other exhibitors running the entire show from a seat in a corner in the back of the room. I was always the guy who had to float near the front of the room, next to the system and yet somehow out of the sound field to avoid distraction, swapping out CDs and LPs after nearly every track. No wonder my feet hurt so badly at the end of the day. I wish I had my Fitbit back then, or better yet something like the Innuos Zen Mini Mk. 3.
When it comes to music servers, I’ve had a troubled history. My first one was software-based and wound up stealing all of the memory in my laptop. Besides, all the files were MP3, and I quickly lost interest and chucked/deleted the whole thing. The second music server incident involved me making a deal with someone—my entire CD collection for a music server, with all those titles of mine already ripped and stored. The deal fell through, but not before my CD collection was plundered, with crushed jewel boxes everywhere and scratched up discs and, of course, all of the truly rare and valuable titles missing. It took me a long time before I could even say the words “music server” out loud.
My interest in music servers was resurrected at the 2019 Rocky Mountain Audio Fest, however, when I met the Innuos crew at the bar and adjacent outdoor patio at the Gaylord. Before I knew it I had made an appointment to visit their room, where I listened to every single music server and device manufactured by this Portuguese company, all through headphones. I moved through the line, the Innuos Zen Mini Mk. 3 with and without the external power supply all the way up to the flagship Innuos Statement ($18,000!). Though I liked the sound from each unit, it was clear that the sonic benefits grew as you moved on up.
When it came time to discuss which one was right for me, I kept stressing my need for simplicity, for working with something that was going to operate effortlessly and not hold me up with one technical glitch after another. That’s when I was led back to the Innuos Zen Mini with the optional external LPSU. Some time passed after the show, and a couple of months ago I received an email from Amanda Castro of Innuos.
Was I ready to play with the Innuos Zen Mini Mk.3? After playing around with DACs and streaming services and other seemingly random facets of digital audio over the last couple of years, I decided that yes, I was.
And Now for Your Moment of Mini Zen
The Innuos Zen Mini Mk. 3 music server retails for $1399. The LPSU external power supply costs another $799 (plus $50 off when you buy the two as a package). That’s not bad at all, especially considering Innuos’ reputation for being at the vanguard of music servers. When I first started investigating DACs and music servers for review, I saw a lot of big numbers when it came to price. While my current system, supplemented by the constant parade of swanky review gear, has reached a somewhat lofty level of performance, I didn’t want to start off at the top and get overwhelmed. I wanted something that was easy to use and sounded great. It could be an entry point, or it could be a endpoint.
The Innuos Zen Mini Mk. 3 seemed to be the exact product I would search out if I suddenly had to go out and choose a new music server for my needs—and maybe my budget. It’s compact and simple enough, and once I downloaded the app onto my iPhone I was off to the races. I had one glitch, and it involved my Roon account, or my apparent lack of one. Some suggested that I use Roon with the Innuos because they worked gloriously well together. I have a Roon account, I thought, downloaded a couple of years ago and unfortunately not maintained. I did not know this. I just thought Roon was deep undercover, doing things I’d never understand.
Nuno Vitorino, director of Innuos, explained that you do not need Roon in order to run the Innuos Zen Mini and you could circumvent it by using the recommended iPeng (iOS) or Squeezer (Android) apps. “Innuos expects to launch innuOS 2.0 around end of May which will then bring its own app–more details on the app on the Innuos Blog Inn-Sights.”
By that time my Roon account was renewed and set up, so I went with it, and once that wrinkle was ironed out the Zen Mini became a huge part of my music-playing life. I did want to integrate the Innuos Zen Mini into my reference system as much as possible, and sample all of the things it could eventually do.
But ultimately, I saw myself using it for two reasons. First, I wanted to create those killer digital playlists that I would have loved to use back when I was exhibiting at high-end audio shows, and I wanted to entertain friends and family while playing all sorts of fun stuff from a big cushy chair in the corner. Let’s throw in streaming as well, so I could play everything in the world for my peeps if needed. Oh yeah, and I dig wandering around on internet radio, so include that under Reason #1 as well.
Second, I wanted to explore, once again, the possibility that I might commit all my digital music to a hard drive and lounge happily in my new minimalist listening room. That’s another tricky objective because it implies the importance of ultimate sound quality. This had better sound great if you truly want me to sell of all those truly great-sounding hi-rez titles from 2L Recordings, Analogue Productions, Blue Note, FIM and much more. That’s a lot of pressure on the diminutive and affordable Innuos Zen Mini Mk. 3.
Little Black Boxes
The Innuos Zen Mini Mk. III with the LPSU power supply is a basic core server with a built-in CD ripper. It’s designed to fit into a number of systems: it can be used as a Roon Core and Endpoint, it can be integrated into Sonos or UPnP, and you can even stream from local network storage such as your laptop or an external hard drive. (You can also stream through Qobuz, Tidal and Spotify Connect, of course.)
The Zen Mini also has 1TB of storage. That’s funny to me, because I have a 1TB external hard drive storage unit around here somewhere, and it’s larger than both the Zen Mini and the LPSU—by far. (If you’re an experienced IT person used to dealing with stubborn boomers, go ahead and roll your eyes at me now.) Innuos also provides extra storage, up to 8 TB, for an uptick in price.
By the way, some of you may have an older Innuos Zen Mini, and you might be wondering what improvements you get in the Mk. 3 version. One of the most important changes is the new custom motherboard with dual ethernet ports, which is claimed to provide better sound quality than before. You also get optical and coaxial SPDIF digital outputs.
Finally, you get that latest LPSU (Linear Power Supply Unit) as an option. As Nuno explained, “The main benefit of the LPSU is actually improving the sound quality of the ZENmini. It will not be quieter nor consume less power than the standard power adapter.”
When I asked Nuno Vitorino if I needed a DAC to run the Innuos, a perfectly newbie question, he said no—the Zen Mini is the only music server in the Innuos line-up that actually has its own 24-bit/192KHz DAC. As Nuno explained, it’s not a fancy, state-of-the-art DAC, but a basic decent model that allows the Mini Zen to be more of a complete product for those new to digital. You can also use the Zen Mini with a more ambitious and expensive DAC—I had both the Merason Frerot and the inboard DAC of the Rotel MICHI X5 integrated available, as well as Dave McNair’s BorderPatrol DAC SE-i. (While the superb Merason and BorderPatrol DACs provided a distinct edge in three-dimensionality, the MICHI DAC sounded almost exactly the same as the Innuos.)
But the first time I got everything rolling with the Innuos Zen Mini—all those CDs burned, all the streaming services integrated, every inch of the app explored—I sat down and listened to a CD I had just burned. Not just any CD, mind you, but the FIM hi-rez version of the Jacques Loussier Trio’s Play Bach, which has to be one of three or four best-sounding CDs I own.
I was so surprised when I heard the first few notes of Loussier’s piano coming through the speakers, and downright shocked when the rest of his trio entered. The sound was simply right, what I would expect when I play this CD directly from my Unison Research CDE CD player. Anyone else smell an A/B comparison? Well, suffice it to say that the CDE is a tubed CD player with dual-mono custom DACs, so I felt a little more warmth and space than with the Innuos Zen Mini.
At the same time, I felt the sound of this album played through the Innuos server was balanced, detailed and not at all lean—like the last few DACs that have spent time in the reference system. If the Innuos Zen Mini Mk. III was just a $2000 CD player, I’d say it was an excellent sounding CD player. So it’s a very nice DAC, and Nuno was just being modest. I think its inclusion with the Innuos Zen Mini Mk. III is a wise move.
Life with the Innuos Zen Mini Mk. III
I started off ripping CDs into the Innuos’ library. I even got a little carried away, installing most of my favorite audiophile CDs as the sort of playlist I’d use as an exhibitor at a high-end audio show. The Zen Mini ripped CDs so quickly and efficiently (yes, there is more than one ripping mode so I chose the one that provided the best sound quality) that I built quite the musical program in just a couple of hours.
Once done, I set about to integrating the Innuos Zen Mini with Roon and Qobuz. The app, of course, walks you through everything which is nice because, in typical digital streaming fashion, the owners’ manual is pretty basic and designed to get you started on your journey.
That’s pretty much how I do things when it comes to digital. I master one task, feel comfortable with using it, and then I go to the next. If I hit a dead end, I stop, come back to it later, and usually I can figure it out. It can be a genuine slog at times, but I’ve learned to trust this method. While the Innuos Zen Mini Mk. III didn’t anticipate my every move, which is my secret wish for all computer-based audio, it made perfect sense to me along the way. (The Roon misadventure, as I mentioned, was completely my fault. I apologized to the Zen Mini on numerous occasions for my sometimes apoplectic profanity.)
I ripped CDs and built a killer playlist, the kind I’d play at audio shows once upon a time. I streamed Qobuz. I listened to the latest amazing sampler from Stenheim, sent to me by Dwight DiMartino of Fidelis AV, on a cool-looking thumb drive by just sticking it in one of the USB ports on the rear channel and going to the app. Played beautifully.
Finally, we were able to have a house guest (everyone fully vaccinated and still observing social distancing) and I got to show off the Innuos and play DJ for the night. It was fabulous. I had a great time. That’s around the point I started looking at these CD racks all over the house, and I said those four words.
Your days are numbered.
Is the Innuos Zen Mini Mk. 3 with LPSU the music server for me? Probably, although I wouldn’t mind exploring further up the line now that I have my bearings. I could also continue to explore DACs in the various price ranges, which I seem to be doing as we speak. The Zen Mini, however, was so enjoyable to have in the system that I’ll have to use it as a benchmark for everything else that comes along.
Here’s my wish: I could rip all my CDs—not every single one, of course, because like any large collection there’s just a ton of worthless garbage in there—and then sell my collection of CDs for enough money to buy the Innuos Zen Mini Mk.3. That sounds a lot like the deal I tried to make all those years ago, but now I feel as if much of the mystery of music servers has been solved for me and I wouldn’t go into the deal so blind. I’d do it gladly.
In other words, the Innuos Zen Mini Mk. III with the LPSU was the last hint I needed to enter a world without physical media, at least the digital kind. I see the path I need to travel with a little more clarity, and the Zen Mini is just the searchlight I needed.