Intel NUC as Music Streamer

This is about my experience in getting the best out of Intel NUC for use as digital audio transport. After my experiments with Sony HAP-Z1ES and Aune S5 streamers, I am happy to say that a fully-tuned Intel NUC with some external accessories and playback software can be a good digital transport with reasonably good sound quality.

Intel NUC

Intel NUC is a product by Intel. The motherboard footprint is 4″ x 4′, with the CPU soldered to the board. The is a fan for the CPU and it can be loud. The NUC7i5BNH (7th generation Core i5) supports one M.2 SSD and one 2.5″ SSD, like in the pictures below.

2.5″ HDD/SSD tray
Samsung EVO 860 2 TB SSD used for storing music files
SODIMMs inside NUC

A single 19V DC power supply is required. I started using NUC with the supplied SMPS and later purchased 19V 5A DC low-noise linear power supply from China. The improvement in sound quality is very significant. Please note though, even with an external linear PSU, the motherboard uses on-board DC-DC converters to bring down 19V to the required voltages used by motherboard such as 12V, 5V, 3.3V and 1.5V used by SODIMM.

19V 5A DC low-noise linear power supply from China
Inside the China-made LPSU powering the NUC. Please note the R-core transformer
R-core transformer used inside the 19V LPSU for Intel NUC
Intel NUC powered by 19V LPSU

My journey with Intel NUC can be summarized as follows:

  1. Started with the supplied SMPS
  2. Replaced the supplied SMPS with 19V 5A DC low-noise linear PSU
  3. Moved out music SSD out of NUC
  4. Added iFi Micro iUSB3

Let’s talk about (3) and (4). A separate power supply rail (5V) is indeed required to power the 2.5″ SSD. This is not possible with M.2 SSD. One method to power the 2.5″ SSD separately is by using iFi Micro iUSB3, which is actually a USB reclocker. It comes with high quality low-noise 9V SMPS. It can power external USB drive connected to it. Another USB connection goes to the DAC. iFi Micro iUSB3 connects to the NUC through USB 3 cable. The NUC sees the music SSD as an external drive.

In fact I tried powering the SSD outside NUC before I purchased iFi Micro iUSB3. I also use SSD noise filter from Elfidelity. the sound quality is almost the same, but connections using iFi Micro iUSB3 is neater.

SATA cable from NUC to outside NUC
Elfidelity SATA filter used outside NUC
Another view of external SSD with Elfidelity SATA filder
Very messy setup indeed

When iFi Micro iUSB3 is used, the clutter is not there. It is still not as nice as 1-box streamer solution, but pretty acceptable to me. 1 USB connection goes to external SSD, and another 1 USB connection goes to the DAC. The additional SSD below is connected directly to SA10. It must be formatted as FAT32 and consumes less than 1A at 5V. Playing music using SA10 USB drive input is my reference when comparing streamers’ sound quality.

iFi Micro iUSB3 and 2.5″ SSDs right behind SA10

For playback software, after trying a few under Linux and HYSOLID under Windows, I settled with Euphony which is not free. HYSOLID gives one of the best SQ experience under Windows, but it is no longer supported, cannot play gapless, and the mobile/tablet app can only run on old Android or IOS versions. Euphony keeps morphing and becomes better and better over time. There is an active forum in Audiophile Style on Euphony.

Then 1 day I saw Innuos Zenith Mk2 for sale in Singapore. The price was attractive. I did a day trip to Singapore and brought it back home. The Zenith Mk2 then becomes my new digital transport connected to SA10.

By Anwar

Dr. Anwar Ali is a consultant in the area of Operations Research / Decision Science. During his free time and as a side business, he builds high-performance and moderate-cost music streamer.