NETWORK DEVICES

 

NETWORK DEVICES

Streaming is the new audio buzzword – but how do you add streaming capability to an existing system without reinventing the wheel? The dCS Network Bridge is an attractive and sonically revealing solution

By Deon Schoeman

Navigating the often stormy digital waters of an audio system can be a treacherous affair. Over and above the PCM vs. DSD debate, there are file formats such as WAV, FLAC, AIFF and more to consider, together with the different sampling rates and bit depths on offer.

Lately the question of physical media versus digital libraries has become increasingly relevant as music lovers and audio fans realise the convenience of streaming digital content from a local server (or streaming service) to their system.

Add content management software such as Roon to that equation, and it becomes both intuitive and enjoyable to explore both new and existing content, often stumbling across long forgotten albums and artists in the process.

An essential element of the streaming process is how to actually access and play the digital content you have stored on a laptop, computer or network. An increasing number of universal transports, AV receivers, integrated amplifiers and pre-amplifiers offer network connectivity and UPnP capability, which allows them to identify and access storage devices containing digital content.

However, in the high-end stereo context, a standalone streamer that creates a dedicated link between the stored digital content and a digital-to-analogue converter, is the preferred route to follow. The dCS Network Bridge is just such a device.

It stands to reason that the Network Bridge was conceived primarily to serve the needs of existing dCS DAC owners. The British brand’s high-end D/A converters have an established reputation for sonic excellence, and owners seeking a streaming solution will demand similar levels of technical and sonic integrity.

Thus, in the first instance, the dCS Network Bridge has been designed to operate in conjunction with both legacy and current dCS DACs. For that reason, it also offers both word clock connectivity and SDIF-2 (which separates clocking and music data) compatibility.

Of course, that doesn’t preclude the Network Bridge from being used with DACs from other brands, while benefiting from the fastidious design and technical prowess dCS has become known for.

AT FACE VALUE

The dCS Network Bridge is a minimalist, all-alloy component that’s slightly smaller than normal DIN-sized components. The front panel is devoid of any switchgear, and is populated by a sole, blue LED indicator to confirm power on status.

The rear is populated by an all-digital output array comprising a pair of AES/EBU outputs, a SPDIF output over RCA, and a pair of SDIF-2 outputs over BNC. Two more BNC connectors allow the Network Bridge to be linked to a dedicated word clock device for reduced jitter.

There’s also a USB Type A input for convenient connection of a USB hard drive or flash drive, and the dCS is even compatible, with Apple AirPlay. Network connectivity is provided via an RJ45 Ethernet jack or 802.11 Wi-Fi, but using the latter imposes a 96 kHz/24-bit limit, so a hardwired network connection is very much the preferred option.

The two AES/EBU outputs can be used individually, or combined in Dual AES configuration (as catered for by some dCS DACs). Individually, output is limited to 192 kHz/24-bit PCM and DSD64 in DoP format, but in Dual AES mode, this increases to 384 kHz in PCM, and DSD64/128.

The dual-BNC SDIF-2 interface does PCM at up to 96 kHz/24-bit and DSD64, while the single SPDIF over RCA digital output delivers up to 192 kHz and DSD64.

To ensure compatibility with older DACs that may not support higher resolution data, downsampling is also offered all the way down to 96/24 or 88,2/24 depending on the resolution of the source file. Similarly, DSD can also be downsampled to either 176,4 kHz or 88,2/ kHz at 24 bits.

Key to operating the Network Bridge is the dCS app, which offers intuitive control of the device itself (including firmware updates and clock settings), but also acts as the interface between the bridge and its data sources, including two integrated streaming services – Tidal, and Spotify Connect.

Since the Network Bridge is a UPnP renderer, it will identify any UPnP-compatible storage device available on the network it’s linked to. It will index the content on that device and allow searches based on folder, artist or album, as well as displaying artwork where available.

The good news for Roon users is that the software management programme recognises the Network Bridge as a Roon endpoint. And the latest firmware update, released in May, also allows the dCS to do a first-stage unfold of MQA-encoded files, upping the standard 44,1 kHz resolution to 88,2 or 96 kHz.

UNDER THE COVERS

The dCS Network Bridge uses a field programmable gate array (FPGA) platform which performs all the upsampling and downsampling, as well as auto-reclocking incoming digital data.

As with all dCS products, meticulous power regulation, including isolating digital and clocking circuitry is a feature of the Network Bridge.

The FPGA-based architecture also allows for future-proofing via firmware updates containing new features or improvements, as witnessed by the addition of MQA first unfold capability via a recent firmware update.

SETTING UP

The Network Bridge was hooked up to my dedicated listening room network via Ethernet and a gigabyte switch. My PS Audio DirectStream DAC, fitted with Bridge II, was on DAC duty, and was linked to the dCS via single AES/EBU.
I loaded the dCS app onto my ageing iPhone 5S running iOS 11.4 from the Apple App Store. Once installed, it instantly saw the Network Bridge (which was brand new), which had already recognised and connected to my network.

The app determined that new firmware was available, and proceeded to download and install the latest version. Thereafter, it also recognised the Synology NAS on my system and was able to display the around 2 000 albums on the server.

Once I’d provided my subscriber credentials, Tidal also became available as a source, while Spotify Connect used the existing access info on my iPhone to add it to the source choice list.

I used Roon with all upsampling and DSP functionality disabled as the primary interface while using the Network Bridge, as it remains one of the most intuitive, and neatly integrates NAS-based and Tidal content.

It also allowed convenient, direct comparisons between the dCS, and the bespoke Conversdigital-supplied Bridge II network card installed in the DirectStream.

However, I also used the dCS app on its own to source and play back content, and to control the operating parameters of the Network Bridge.

The remainder of the system comprised a Mark Levinson No.26 pre-amp (review pending), PS Audio M700 monoblocks, and a pair of Vivid Audio V1.5 loudspeakers.

SOUNDS LIKE …

The dCS Network Bridge contributed to a very spacious, airy and accessible sound that brought greater focus and clarity to the music. Particularly prevalent was the heightened dimensionality and presence of the delivery, allowing both enhanced insight and greater engagement.

Also notable was the precision of the delivery, at both macro and micro detail levels. There was a sense of greater realism and believability, driven by the ability to making each instrument and each voice sound more plausible, without losing sight of the overall cohesion of the performance.

The dCS didn’t enforce a dispassionate analysis of the music, but rather afforded the listener a closer connection with and a deeper understanding of the material.

The deceptively simple, blues-tinged ‘Boogie Stupid’ from John Scofield’s Überjam Deux is always entertaining in a foot-tapping kind of way, but the dCS brought a more pervasive sense of scale and dimension to the music.

Scofield’s brilliant guitar still sounded commanding, but it was better spatially defined on a more expansive, more accessible soundstage that also afforded the other instruments greater scope and thus more prominence.

That was as true of the rhythm guitar on the right channel as it was of the incisively executed drumwork, and the almost squawky keyboard on the left.

Despite opening up the soundstage and bringing more definition and precision to the overall performance, there was nothing clinical nor surgical about the way the dCS opened up the music. Instead, it was a case of the Bridge being able to deliver improved focus and enhanced clarity – like polishing the lenses of a pair of spectacles that have become slightly tarnished.

Compared to the dCS, the DS Bridge II sounded a little more constrained and conservative, with a soundstage that couldn’t match the dCS for depth and ambience. The sound was tidy and linear, with fine pace and clean detail, but there was not as much spatial splendour: the music had greater presence and substance under the dCS’ care.

That same sense of atmospherics, of soundstage depth and authentic ambience, was prevalent when listening to Ry Cooder’s The Prodigal Son.

On ‘Straight Street’, Cooder’s almost plaintive vocals are set against a rich backdrop of a male chorus, precisely detailed percussion, and expressive banjo and guitars. The song starts simply, then gradually adds tonal hues and textures until the result is a rich tapestry of sound.

The dCS was able to offer a keen view of the entire performance, allowing the listener to pick out individual elements – the fine picking of strings, the metallic ring of the snare, the sonorous presence of the backing vocals, the slightly echoed rhythm guitar. The result was a persuasive sense of accuracy and realism, which added to the believability and the enjoyment of the music.

Interestingly, the DS Bridge II managed to sound even more cohesive and musically engaging, but it couldn’t match the dCS for outright clarity and detail.

The DirectStream’s staging was broad and generous, but lacked the layered dimensionality which allowed the dCS to accurately place individual elements on that soundstage. And it couldn’t replicate the sense of space and ambience achieved by the dCS.

The dCS easily maintained its talent for lucidity and insight when confronted by the scale and majesty of Beethoven’s Symphony No.7, performed here with energy and vigour by the Vienna Philharmonic under Carlos Kleiber.

Arguably one of the seminal performances of the work, the recording captures all the drama, the pathos and the grandeur of the work.

The dCS again displayed its talent for scale and immersion, allowing the listener to delve deep into the essence and passion of the music. The recording places greater emphasis on width than depth on a soundstage that can sound congested on lesser systems, but was allowed ample scope and dimension here.

The attention to detail was exemplary, again without diluting the focus and integrity of the performance, which did much to draw the listener into the performance. The dCS also conveyed the power and urge of the music with authority, and easily tracked the recording’s significant dynamic swings.

The Bridge II was not quite as expansive as the dCS in sound picture terms, nor could it match the British device for finely focussed microdetail and ambient information. But again, there was a pervasive sense of cohesion and balance that made the listening experience compelling and entertaining.

The sound picture may not have been as clearly layered nor quite as three-dimensional, but scale and presence were well represented.

Ultimately, the dCS Bridge provided the bigger, more detailed and more engaging sound – and I have no doubt that when partnered with a dCS DAC, the combined performance potential will be significantly greater still – especially where the dual-AES interface can be employed.

That said, the Network Bridge elevated the performance of the DirectStream to new heights in terms of outright dimensionality, detail retrieval and atmospherics. That the Bridge II sounded as good as it did by comparison should not come as a surprise, either: it benefits from the direct signal paths and specifically engineered-in compatibility that are synonymous with a bespoke, integrated solution.

Using the dCS Network Bridge outside the Roon ecosystem, with the dCS app controlling playback, resulted in a sound that could be considered marginally clearer still, with subtle improvements in transients, dynamics and high-frequency resolution.

Again, this might simply be a system-specific trait, given that in my set-up, Roon uses a headless Mac Mini as the core, while playback via the dCS app would result in a less complex signal path.

A quick word on the dCS app: while it worked perfectly on the iPhone 5S with its below-standard 4-inch screen, the user experience was far more satisfying when running on an iPad.

The extra screen real estate makes using the sometimes tiny virtual buttons a lot easier (especially if you have clumsy fingers like me) and artwork displays more vividly, too.

THE BOTTOM LINE

The dCS Network Bridge exploits the company’s considerable experience with FPGA platforms, careful power supply management and superior engineering to deliver an impressive and hugely competent streaming solution..

For dCS DAC owners, it allows the addition of fuss-free, intuitive streaming functionality with no compromise to sonic quality, while owners of other quality DACs will also benefit from its considerable talents, even where dual-AES or SDIF-2 facilities are not on offer.

VITAL STATS

Platform: FPGA-based
Connectivity: Gigabyte Ethernet
Digital inputs: USB Type A
Digital outputs: 2x AES/EBU, SPDIF RCA, SDIF-2 BNC
Clocking: Auto reclocking (internal), 2x word clock BNC
File format compatibility:
– FLAC, AIFF, WAV up to 384 kHz/24-bit PCM
– ALAC up to 192 kHz/24-bit PCM
– AAC, MP3, WMA, OGG up to 48 kHz/24-bit PCM
– DFF, DSF and DoP up to DSD64 and DSD128
– Apple AirPlay up to 48 kHz
Control: Dedicated dCS Network Bridge app
Dimensions (WxDxH): 360 x 254 x 67 mm
Weight: 4,6 kg
PRICE
R69 000
SUPPLIED BY
Fundipoint.

SOFTWARE
John Scofield – Überjam Deux (Emarcy 44/16 FLAC)
Ry Cooder – The Prodigal Son (Universal 44/16 FLAC)
Beethoven – Symphony No. 7 – Carlos Kleiber/Vienna Philharmonic (DG 44/16 WAV)

ASSOCIATED EQUIPMENT
PS Audio DirectStream/Bridge II DAC
Mark Levinson No.26 pre-amplifier
PS Audio M700 monoblocks
Vivid Audio V1.5 speakers
Synology DS213+ NAS
TelluriumQ Black speaker cables and interlinks
PS Audio P5 power conditioner

The latest Bryston BDP-3 digital player is exactly that: a device that plays back almost any digital music format from any source: NAS, USB hard drive, flash disc or streaming service. But does that versatility include remaining true to the music?

Many music lovers have transformed their music collections into digital libraries residing on network servers, thus obviating the need for traditional CD/SACD players. The benefits include ease of access and the availability of content-rich metadata.

Accessing and playing back these libraries can be done in several ways. One of the most popular is using third-party software such as Audirvana 3 Plus, JRiver Media Player or Roon to access, manage and play back those digital music files.

The downside is that this route involves the use of a computer linked to the network on which the music server resides. And as we all know, computers aren’t typically audio-friendly: they’re noisy and vulnerable to interference, among many other problems.

There are workarounds, of course: using a network bridge to manage the music data stream, for instance. Or, locating the offending computer in another room, and using remote software. But not everyone is comfortable with these solutions, or the networking know-how that it presupposes.

AT FACE VALUE

The Bryston BDP-3 represents another option: a dedicated digital music player with the sole task of acting as a high-quality, intuitive interface between a digital library (and other devices containing music files) and an audio system.

It still needs to be connected to a dedicated DAC, which makes sense, since most potential BDP-3 buyers are likely to already own one. But while it’s a digital playback powerhouse, with a raft of features, its application can be as simple or as complex as the user chooses.

It’s true that there’s something reassuring about a device that looks the high-end audio part, and the BDP-3 matches the appearance and feel of Bryston’s product family. The slim all-metal enclosure, thick alloy faceplate and function-driven styling aptly illustrate the Canadian marque’s DNA.

A central display is flanked by two USB inputs on the left, while transport controls, menu navigation buttons and a power switch are located to the right.

At the rear, the input array includes a further three USB 2.0 and three USB 3.0 sockets. Two of the latter are located on a separate bus, which allows compatibility with the Streamlength protocol required by some DACs.

The USB sockets are bi-directional, which means they can act as inputs to accommodate USB drives and memory sticks/flash drives, but also as outputs to link the BDP-3 to a USB-capable DAC.

The BDP-3 also provides an Ethernet socket for network connectivity, as well as a RSR232 serial port and 12V triggers for custom installation environments. As the Bryston doesn’t include an internal DAC, its outputs are purely digital, and comprise a choice of HDMI, BNC coaxial, and AES/EBU, in addition to the USB ports.

It’s important to note that the highest resolutions are only available via USB: SPDIF and AES/EBU are limited to 192 kHz/24-bit resolution, and not compatible with DSD at all. USB can cope with resolutions of up to 384 kHz/32-bit, as well as DSD64 and DSD128.

The HDMI output is audio-only and is compatible with 192 kHz/24-bit PCM files and DSD64, but as far as I could tell it will only work with some DACs, such as Bryston’s BDA-3. It does not appear to be I2S-compatible, as my I2S-equipped PS Audio DirectStream DAC would not recognise it.

UNDER THE COVERS

The BDP-3’s high-end pedigree is underscored by its internals, which feature a Celeron-powered motherboard with 8GB of RAM, a high-current linear power supply and a proprietary, low-jitter Integrated Audio Device (IAD) ton host the digital outputs.

You can order the BDA-3 with a 2.5-inch internal drive, which allows a relatively large library of music to be stored on board. As the player is UPnP and DLNA compliant, it will also recognise and access files from network-attached server (NAS) devices, and you can populate the internal drive (if present) via the network or directly from attached USB devices.

Control is either via a conventional (but optional) remote handset, or via the BDA-3’s own web-based control interface. The interface can be accessed using the web browser on any computer, tablet or smart device on the same network.

For those who couldn’t be bothered with the extra cabling of an Ethernet connection, or don’t have access to an existing home network, Bryston also offers a Wi-Fi adapter that establishes a dedicated Wi-Fi connection to allow use of the control interface.

The interface is intuitive and works like an app. It incorporates system set-up, a full-featured digital music player, access to Internet radio, and Tidal streaming.

It’s also worth noting that the BDP-3 can be operated as a Roon endpoint, which brings all of the benefits of rich metadata, ease of content access and DSP-based tweaking – if you’re a Roon subscriber.

SETTING UP

The BDP-3 was used in two distinct systems. In the first, it was partnered by Bryston’s BDA-3 (see review here http://www.avsa.co.za/bryston-bda-3-da-converter/), together with a Primare PRE32/MM30 pre-amp/streamer and our regular Parasound Halo A21 power amp, with KEF R500s on speaker duty.

The player was also used in conjunction with a PS Audio DirectStream DAC, partnered by a Naim Uniti2 operating in a pre-amp role, with a PS Audio Stellar S300 power amp providing the muscle. Speakers were Vivid Audio Oval V1.5s.

In both instances, the BDP-3 was hooked up to an pre-existing network using its Ethernet wired connectivity. The supplied Wi-Fi dongle was used as an alternative, specifically in the dedicated network role.

This option will be particularly attractive to users who will only use the wi-Fi connection from a control perspective, and have no inclination to access streaming services or NAS devices. That said, I’d consider wired network and Internet connectivity a must to fully exploit the BDP-3’s considerable capabilities.

The review unit was supplied with a 1 TB internal drive already populated with a substantial library of music, but in both systems, it was also used to access a Synology NAS with a further selection of music in various resolutions. Tidal access was also enabled.

I also connected up a Western Digital My Passport 2TB 2,5-inch USB3.0 drive to one of the USB 3.0 ports. In addition, the BDP-3 was configured as a Roon endpoint and used in that role in the PS Audio/Naim/Vivid system.

I tried both the USB and the SPDIF interfaces in both systems to hook up the player to a DAC, with AES/EBU the preferred interface in the case of the latter. XLO Reference digital cabling was used for the SPDIF signal transfer, while the USB connection was made via a Furutech GT2 Pro cable.

As the unit had been used before being submitted for review, no running in was required. Set-up was quick and seamless, with the BDP-3 recognised by our LAN. Using a web browser to access the control and media player interface was an equally simple affair.

I used my MacBook Pro for much of the initial set-up and playback, as the larger screen estate made understanding and using the player more convenient. However, once everything was up and running, the player worked as well on my iPhone 5S, despite the much smaller display.

Using the media player was easy enough. It recognised both directly connected USB drives and the NAS, and adding music to the playlist was a matter of selecting albums or individual tracks, which would then be displayed in the play queue.

That queue can be edited at will, and then saved as a playlist for later recall.

SOUNDS LIKE …

I tend to consider the sonic impact of the D/A converter in the digital playback chain more meaningful than that of the originating source. Much of the final result has to do with signal integrity, jitter control and clock timing – all elements usually under the DAC’s control.

The BDP-3’s role in a system is a little different, though, in that it provides a central, convenient gateway for an array of connected and on-line sources, before relaying the selected data stream to the DAC. It also ensures the integrity of the source signal before it’s transferred to the DAC.

Its ability to centralise and direct the data from the various sources in an environment specifically designed for high-grade sonic applications should have a meaningful and positive impact on sound quality.

In the absence of another, similar device to compare it to, the BDP-3 was judged on its ability to retain or even enhance the sonic characteristics of the original recordings under its auspices.

In broad terms, the BDP-3 delivered a sound that was smooth, clean and musically truthful. There was an overriding sense of unconstrained clarity and air, ensuring that both the rhythm and dimension of the performance were retained.

At the same time, the accompanying ambient information, as well as the music’s dynamic shifts, were portrayed with authority and realism, adding to the overall credibility and enjoyment of the Bryston’s performance.

USB might be preferred by many because of its broader resolution scope, but while there seemed to be a slightly stronger emphasis on detail retrieval, the overall treatment was starker and slightly more aloof.

That’s obviously subjective, and I’m sure there will be BDP-3 owners who prefer the keener focus and cleaner detailing delivered via USB, as well as the compatibility with DSD files that the SPDIF connection is unable to offer.

However, to my ears, using the AES/EBU digital interface resulted in a more accessible, more enjoyable and more emotive listening experience. The same level of detail was available, but perhaps slightly less focussed, while the sound was more cohesive, and more emotively gripping.

Tonal depth seemed more incisive when relying on SPDIF, but tonal balance was a smidgen more linear in USB mode. And the latter also delivered a greater sense of precision.

However, we’re not talking massive differences here: the distinctions are subtle at best, and the nuances may also vary relative to the DAC partnering the BDP-3. Not surprisingly, I found the BDA-3 a better match for the BDP-3 than the PS Audio.

The latter was consistently more analytical and highlighted the differences between the interfaces more distinctly, while the BDP-3/BDA-3 partnership was slicker and easier on the ear, regardless of interface.

Even then, both set-ups were musically appealing. On Bettye Lavette’s atmospheric ‘Crazy’ (from her hugely enjoyable Thankful ‘N Thoughtful set) the sparse instrumentation layered across a wide soundstage was rendered with a richness of ambience that filled the room with sound.

While Lavette’s husky vocals dominate the song, they’re a perfect counterpoint to the relaxed riffs and tremolos of the electric guitars, the splashy keyboard, the laid-back but bone-thrumming bass and the almost dainty percussion.

The walk-in dimensionality of the recording made for enthralling, foot-tapping listening, with the sheer immediacy and realism of the performance making it impossible not to become thoroughly engaged by the music.

The Chick Corea and Steve Gadd Band’s Chinese Butterfly is a much busier, more densely arranged set, with Gadd’s intricate drumming and Corea’s equally agile and inventive keyboards making for a mesmerising musical collaboration.

Opening the set, ‘Chick’s Chums’ is as good an example as any, spotlighting drummer and keyboardist, as well as their almost intuitive, fusion-laden interplay, to compelling effect. But it also illustrates the tautly structured performance of the entire band, captured with admirable clarity – even in the more densely arranged sections.

Again, I enjoyed the honesty and accuracy of the BDP-3, coupled to an unerring talent for pace and impact, while never losing sight of the music’s overall message. It reflected the substance and impact of the music, but never to the detriment of the finer sahdes and subtleties.

THE BOTTOM LINE

Versatility, ease of use and an intuitive web-based interface are all highpoints of the Bryston BDP-3. And while its feature set may appear daunting, its application can be as straightforward or as complex as the owner demands.

While the player’s network-related features are comprehensive, it can also be used as a pure and simple digital player focused specifically on direct access to music files on its hard drive and linked USB drives.

Regardless of source, the Bryston consistently treats the music with respect, delivering high levels of precision and exploiting the resolution on offer. But it never allows analysis to overcome musical cohesion, revealing the finer details and nuances in a way that always benefits the heart and soul of the music.

While I remain convinced that the impact of the associated DAC is more significant in the final delivery, it’s also true that the sound can only be as good as the quality of the source – and the Bryston BDP-3’s credentials in that respect are impeccable.

Deon Schoeman

PROS
Superbly constructed, highly versatile and sonically honest.
CONS
All those features may be overwhelming- but don’t be intimidated!

VITAL STATS

Operating system: Custom Linux-based
Motherboard: Intel Celeron, 8GB RAM
Control interface: Web-based, smart device-compatible
Playback: Proprietary, integrated digital media player
Inputs: 3x USB 3.0, 5x USB 2.0,
Outputs: USB, BNC coaxial, AES/EBU XLR, HDMI
Connectivity: Gigabyte Ethernet, Wi-Fi (optional), RS232 for control systems
Storage: 2.5-inch HDD (optional)
Dimensions (WxHxD): 430 x 70 x 283 mm
Weight: 6,4 kg
PRICE
R48 099
SUPPLIED BY
Aeolian

SOFTWARE
Bettye Lavette – Thankful ‘N Thoughtful (Anti-/Epitaph 44/16 AIFF)
Chick Corea and Steve Gadd Band – Chinese Butterfly (Concord 96/24 FLAC)
Steven Wilson – To The Bone (Caroline 44/16 FLAC)
Hiromi – Another Mind (Telarc 176/24 FLAC)

ASSOCIATED EQUIPMENT
PS Audio DirectStream/Bridge II and Bryston BDA-3 DACs
Naim Uniti2 and Primare PRE32/MM30 pre-amps
PS Audio Stellar S300 and Parasound Halo A21 power amps
Vivid Audio V1.5 and KEF R500 loudspeakers
Synology 213+ and 214se NAS
XLO Reference XLR and coaxial interlinks
Furutech GT2 Pro USB cable

Fewer boxes, more functionality: that seems to be the mantra of modern hi-fi. Take Marantz’s new ND8006: it’s a network player, a CD spinner, a D/A converter and a pre-amp, too. But how successfully does it juggle all those roles?

The audio industry’s quest to reduce the number of components that make up an audio system has not only resulted in the ubiquitous integrated amplifier, but various variations on the one-box-does-all theme.

For instance, a growing number of integrated amplifiers now incorporate a D/A converter with digital inputs, obviating the need for a standalone DAC. Taking it a few steps further, Naim’s Uniti components combine the functions of an integrated amp, disc player, streamer and DAC in a single, elegant box.

The Marantz ND8006 is a network player first and foremost, but adds the convenience of a CD player. To that, it adds the further benefits of an ESS Sabre-based DAC, and the ability to accept music streams via Bluetooth and Apple AirPlay. Plus, it can fulfil pre-amp duties, too.

AT FACE VALUE

Despite all that apparent complexity, it’s an elegantly handsome machine with a deceptively simply control layout that suggests ease of use. The all-metal casing features the recessed fascia and curved ‘cheeks’ that have become a Marantz hallmark.

The centrally mounted transport tray is accompanied by a large, easily legible display, while two round, multidirectional controllers on either side look after key transport and menu navigation functions.

Of note is the full-sized headphone jack, complete with adjustable level control, and a USB Type A input for flash drivers and external drives.

The rear panel provides a more obvious indication of what facilities the ND8006 offers. Firstly, there are both fixed and variable line-level outputs, confirming that the Marantz’s pre-amp capability.

The array of digital inputs spans coax, optical and USB, the latter offering both Type A for flash drives and asynchronous Type B for linking up a Windows PC or Mac. You’ll also note the Ethernet port for wired connectivity, and a pair of fold-up antennae for both 802.11 Wi-Fi, and Bluetooth and AirPlay.

The ND8006 also caters for custom installations, offering RS232, flasher and remote in/out jacks.

UNDER THE COVERS

Providing the D/A conversion capability is an ESS 9016 Sabre32 Ultra DAC, offering PCM conversions up to 384k Hz/32-bit and DSD256 compatibility (USB only). It operates in conjunction with a dual-crystal clock for reduced jitter and enhanced accuracy.

Features such as a thoroughly shielded, beefy toroidal power supply, and Marantz’s HDAM-SA2 op amps confirm a commitment to sound quality, as does the separate headphone amplifier.

From a streaming perspective, the ND8006 is uses the HEOS ecosystem to offer integrated access to services such as Spotify (now also in SA) and Tidal, as well as a full catalogue of Internet radio stations and podcasts via TuneIn.

It’s also UPnP compliant, allowing it to recognise NAS devices and the music libraries stored on them. A free HEOS app for Android and iOS makes accessing the comprehensive functions of the Marantz a simple and intuitive affair, but there’s also a conventional remote, which works with other Marantz components, such as the PM8006 integrated amp.

Let’s not forget that the ND8006 also incorporates a disc transport. While it’s sadly not SACD-compatible, it will read CDs and all CD-based recordable and re-recordable media.

SOUNDS LIKE …

The ND8006 sounded open and inviting, with a real talent for making the most of the source material it had access to, while getting out of the way of the music itself. It didn’t inject any obvious character of its own, preferring instead to ensure a clean and unencumbered pathway from source to listener.

DSD material sounded downright marvellous, regardless of whether it was being played directly from SACD, or streamed from our NAS. There was real depth and lustre to the sound, linked to a sense of transparency and accessibility.

‘Unca’s Flight’ off the Opus DSD Showcase 3 compilation, was delivered with agility and coherence, so that the close interplay between guitars and strings never became overwhelming, but invited the listener into the very heart of the performance.

The soundstage was always wide open and inviting, creating ample air and space for each instrument to come to its full right, but without losing the intimacy of the performance, nor the close interplay between the artists.

The Marantz wasn’t in the least phased by the cinematic splendour and sheer scale of the Minnesota Orchestra’s rendition of Rachmaninoff’s Symphonic Dances. It’s a taxing recording with huge dynamic swings, and presented in high-res in 176/24 WAV format, but the ND8006 always remained in effortless control, rendering the music with both power and finesse.

The player also achieved exceptional levels of transparency in partnership with both the amplifiers I tested it with, making the listening experience simultaneously exciting and engrossing, and placing the focus firmly on the music.

Macy Gray’s almost visceral performance of ‘Annabel’ (from Stripped), was presented with such impetus and conviction that singer’s presence became almost tactile. The reverb-rich electric guitar and almost percussive bass provided a suitably evocative accompaniment, while the subtle brushed snare kept perfect pace. The result was thrilling to say the least.

As mentioned, the ND8006 can access a variety of streaming services, including Deezer, Tidal and Spotify, as well as TuneIn’s vast catalogue of Internet radio stations and podcasts.

Control is via the supplied remote, or the free Helios app

The second collaboration between Ben Harper and Charlie Musslewhite, No Mercy In This Land (Tidal 44/16 FLAC) sounded powerfully persuasive, with the fuzz-edged guitar and melancholy harmonica on ‘When I Go’ a particular highlight. The delivery was emphatic and vivid, endowing the music with an almost three-dimensional presence and intensity.

Led Zeppelin’s recently remastered (and masterful) live set, How The West Was Won (Tidal 48/24 FLAC) was equally compelling: the Marantz served up Robert Plant’s piercing vocals and Jimmy Page’s expressive guitar on the classic ‘Stairway To Heaven’ with a dazzling clarity, while John Bonham’s inimitable drumwork was presented with thundering intensity.

Even compromised sources sounded pretty good: Radio Paradise delivered via Bluetooth or AirPlay from my ageing iPhone 5S had plenty musical  presence and dimension, with good tonal range and a decent stereo focus. Yes, it lacked the finesse and outright upper-treble clarity of Tidal or music-serve-based material, but it was by no means lacking in entertainment value.

Like most Marantz components, the ND8006 is available in black and champagne silver

THE BOTTOM LINE

The Marantz ND8006 is an exceptionally versatile piece of kit that offers intuitive streaming access from a wide variety of sources, together with the added convenience of CD playback, a high-res DAC, and pre-amp functionality.

The sonic approach is neutral and lucid without resorting to clinical aloofness, while focusing on offering listeners unencumbered and enjoyable access to the music instead.

The HEOS app ensures that access to the player’s extensive features set is an intuitive affair, while the pre-amp capability makes the ND8006 an ideal partner for active loudspeakers such as the KEF LS50 Wireless, to create a minimalist but full-featured set-up.

The result? A lot of functionality and musicality for the money. Indeed, the Marantz ND8006 is not a jack of all trades, but also manages to master them all convincingly.

–    DEON SCHOEMAN

PROS
A lot of features, functions and sonic talent crammed into a single, handsome enclosure.
CONS
Not everyone needs a do-it-all.

VITAL STATS

Digital conversion: ESS Sabre 9016
Digital filter: 192 kHz/32-bit
Frequency response: 2 Hz – 50 kHz (-3 dB)
Signal-to-noise ratio: 110 dB
File formats: DSD64, M4A, WAV, FLAC, WMA, MP3, AAC
Analogue outputs:
– 1x stereo RCA (fixed level), 1x stereo RCA (variable level),
– 1x 6,35mm headphone jack
Digital inputs:
– 1x SPDIF coax, 1x Toslink optical,
– 1x USB Type A (front), 1x asynchronous USB Type B (rear)
Digital outputs: 1x SPDIF coax, 1x Toslink optical
Connectivity:
– Ethernet, 802.11 Wi-Fi, Apple AirPlay,
– A2DP Bluetooth 3.0 + EDR
Compatibility:
– Up to 384 kHz/32-bit PCM and DSD256 via USB Class 2.0
– Up to 192 kHz/24-bit PCM for all digital inputs
Dimensions (WxDxH): 440 x 369 x 106 mm
Weight: 8,0 kg
PRICE
R24 990
SUPPLIED BY
HFX Systems

TESTED WITH
Marantz PM8006 integrated amplifier
Electrocompaniet PI-2D integrated amplifier
Marantz SA-KI Pearl Lite CD/SACD deck
KEF LS50 loudspeakers
KEF R500 loudspeakers
Synology DS214se NAS

SOFTWARE
Various – Opus DSD Showcase Vol 3 (Opus SACD)
Macy Grey – Stripped (Chesky 192/24 FLAC)
Rachmaninoff – Symphonic Dances – Stern/Minnesota Orchestra (Reference Recordings 176/24 WAV)
Ben Harper/Charlie Musslewhite – No Mercy In This Land (Anti 44/16 FLAC via Tidal)
Led Zeppelin – How The West Was Won – Remastered (Atlantic/Rhino 96/24 FLAC via Tidal)