Innuos Pulsar streamer
Having firmly established itself as a major player in the server market, last year Innuos finally announced its range of dedicated audio streamers with the Pulsar at its apex. Innuos Zen servers are now in their third generation and their flagship Statement is widely regarded as one of the best in the business. In many ways its surprising that it took Innuos founders Nuno Vitorino and Amelia Santos so long to get around to building a dedicated streamer, but they have been very busy and don’t like to do things by halves. The Pulse range launched at Munich in 2022 and the first model, the Pulsemini, became available later that year, it’s only in the last couple of months that the Pulsar has been in production.
Behind the stealth styling of the front panel, which is unusual for having internal as well as external points machined into it, the Pulsar has an ARC6 rectification and capacitor module in a linear power supply based around Mundorf capacitors running off a 300VA toroidal transformer. This drives the main PCB, an SSD for the InnuOS operating system and a PhoenixUSB Lite reclocker via three rails to minimise interference between these elements. We reviewed the PhoenixUSB when it was launched and were very impressed with what it could achieve when placed between a server and a DAC, in many ways it was as effective as a good streamer at enhancing sound quality. The suffix Lite indicates that it has a single power rail rather than the two found in the full fat version.
It means that the USB output, there are no analogue outputs on the Pulsar, should produce decent results. It’s a high spec device capable of 32-bit/384kHz PCM and DSD512, data rates that are near the extreme of what can be done today and as high as most DACs can process, but such figures are more an indication of processing power than the ability to render music files with huge amounts of data. Pulsar sits on three feet which are placed asymmetrically such that they provide damping to the parts of the circuit that will benefit the most, they have an unusually soft pad that is probably good for isolation but makes it very hard to slide the unit into a rack, in fact don’t even try because the sticky feet will peel off (fortunately they aren’t hard to refix).
One reason that Innuos has been expected to make streamers is the Sense app which is one of if not the best in the business from a flexibility and sound quality point of view. It competes with the best of the third party alternatives in all key respects and allows native access to the most popular lossless streaming services. It doesn’t offer Spotify or Amazon Music however which might be a factor for some end users and the radio side could be easier, but when it comes to accessing your own music or anything on Qobuz, Tidal or Hiresaudio Sense is a lovely app. It provides artist images wherever possible and makes it very easy to see what you have already played or what’s coming up in the playlist simply by scrolling left or right from the play page.
There are various smart options including smart mix which will play random tracks from your collection but more useful still is the option to edit metadata from the app. This is a major boon for those of us with less than pristine music libraries, it not only changes what you seen in the app but also writes in new metadata to the source files.
On the connection front Pulsar has four USB sockets for external drives, the latter meaning you wouldn’t need a NAS or music server to get potentially excellent results. The presence of both a LAN and ethernet connection is slightly odd, you need the LAN to put the Pulsar on the network but apparently the second RJ45 allows it to act as a switch or to connect with DACs that have an ethernet input. There is also a 4mm socket marked ground which is an unusual feature on a streamer. That said grounding components is often highly beneficial especially if you have a CAD Ground Control unit or one of Russ Andrews Superrouters, both reduce the noise floor which helps to reveal a lot of detail.
Sound of Pulsar
I used the Innuos Pulsar with an iFi Pro iDSD Signature DAC and both Qobuz and locally stored music, it worked really nicely with both but the latter delivered the best results as is always the case. The Pulsar’s presentation is open and superbly timed, timing is an area where streamers vary quite considerably and is a fundamental when it comes to delivering music in a coherent and engaging fashion. Tonal sweetness and three dimensional imaging are very nice but neither pulls you into the music in the same way as the immediacy and drive of great timing. The Pulsar is a vivacious and thrilling streamer with all manner of music, it is tonally on the lean side but only by comparison with more lush sounding devices like the Melco N5. Whether its tonal balance suits your system and tastes is hard to predict but I suspect that Innuos have judged this side of the sonic equation really well if someone like me who’s as keen on richness of tone finds the Pulsar so easy to enjoy.
It delivers strong depth of image too, on Lumen Drones’ Dark Sea if feels as if you can walk into the field of echo around the music, which is crisp, open and clear. Clarity is a key quality with the Pulsar too and a reason why it can deliver the music in such and articulate and lively way. Even overplayed favourites find a new lease of life in its hands. One thing that surprised me is that while it does this it also sounds calmer than the alternatives, suggesting that the noise floor is already very low, which is why the imaging is precise and there’s a solidity to the presentation that makes other streamers sound rather rose tinted.
The small white dot under the front panel indicates that the Pulsar is alive.
I rather like the bass on the Pulsar, it responds to the recording in such a transparent way. The bass line on Joni Mitchell and the LA Express’s live version of You Turn Me On, I’m a Radio is generally a little thick sounding but here it’s full and rounded but you can also follow the notes played with ease. Something that is generally possible with the vinyl but often gets overblown when streaming. Big Yellow Taxi is also superb with groove, drive and momentum, Joni clearly enjoyed working with that group.
The level of detail that the Pulsar retrieves is very high, it really digs down into the data and exposes what’s going on in every piece of music that you play, this was clear with Arab Strap’s New Birds which is a surprisingly good recording with very wide dynamic range. Hearing the precise phrasing of both vocals and bass is a real treat, it’s where the Pulsar’s transparency shines through, this despite the relatively modest nature of the converter. A better DAC would undoubtedly yield more of the same. It also gets the focus right by which I mean that with intense pieces where everyone is giving it their all and there’s a lot of energy coming through the Pulsar makes sure that the musical message comes first. I found this with a new piece of music by saxophonist Vilhelm Bromander where the title track, In This Forever Unfolding Moment, builds slowly over 16 minutes to a ball of sonic fusion that many streamers would struggle to control. Here the energy was focused and coherent and the raucous nature of the lead instrument made sense in the context of the piece and thus did not shout as is often the case.
This was a little clearer with the much more familiar Decks Dark by Radiohead, here the emphasis was on the voice which is the centre of the piece but isn’t always delivered in the correct perspective. The rest of the composition was easy to appreciate and hear into but wasn’t allowed to mask or distract from this emotional core. The Pulsar makes you want to play more and somehow sparks your imagination to find tracks that warrant hearing another time. As a music reviewer it’s easy to be constantly jumping from one new thing to another and not spend enough time with better known material, but I found this much easier here for some reason. It’s a combination of openness, timing and clarity that makes everything fresh and interesting.
Listening to the pared back playing on Brokeback’s Looks at the Bird inspired the notion of vibrations carved in air, which about sums up the way that the Pulsar can turn a music signal into a solid, three dimensional presence in the room. It’s really very effective when the recording is decent and no less enjoyable when it isn’t, Bobby Hutcherson’s Goin’ Down South on Qobuz is a fairly muffled sounding piece from 1970 but the groove is golden and that’s as clear as day, that and the way that the various musicians played to get that sound. Time travel never will be any easier.
The finest dedicated streamer in the Innuos catalogue is a high resolution device that’s capable of superb results with the right ancillaries, it sounds excellent with a good recording on Qobuz and even better with the same thing on a music server. Add in the quality of the Sense control app and you have a strong contender at a reasonable price, I certainly wouldn’t mind hanging onto it.