NETWORK DEVICES

 

NETWORK DEVICES

Trying to keep up with the latest formats, codecs and tech on the AV receiver front seems nigh impossible, thanks to an ongoing quest for performance enhancement. Yamaha’s latest flag bearer links loads of muscle to a long list of features and robust build quality. What more could one ask for?

By Deon Schoeman

Versatility, power and tech – those are the cornerstones on which Yamaha’s Aventage AV receivers have always been built. They are the royalty of the brand’s home theatre product range, designed to meet the demands of fastidious home theatre fans.

These days, those demands extend much further than sonic urge and the latest surround sound codecs, though: AV receivers are also expected to perform network and streaming functions, deliver multizone and even multiroom functionality, and provide wireless connectivity.

With so many talents, it stands to reason that a user-friendly interface is vital to accessing all those features, as is an intuitive room calibration system that allows the receiver’s performance to be optimised for specific acoustic environments. Finally, stereo fans will want their AVR to deliver on the two-channel music front, too.

It’s the kind of jack-of-all-trades expectations list that can trip up some AV receivers. However, Yamaha’s top-flight Aventage models have always managed to juggle most of those AV balls successfully – and that’s certainly true of the current top-of-the-range RX-A3080 model.

Yamaha RX-A3080 AV receiver

AT FACE VALUE

As much as Yamaha tends to introduce a new line-up of receivers every year or so, those with familiar with the brand’s AVRs will instantly recognise the RX-A3080, and its range-topping status.

It’s a large, robust-looking beast of a home theatre receiver, but with some sleek sophistication mixed in for good measure. The execution is almost minimalist, with just two rotary controllers (for volume and source selection), small buttons for power and Pure Direct mode, and a large, bright LED display.

A secondary set of switchgear, inputs and outputs is concealed behind a hinged cover. The control set essentially duplicates the key functions provided on the remote control handset, together with a headphone input, USB Type A port, and the minijack for Yamaha’s YPAO room calibration microphone.

Secondary switchgear set hidden behind hinged flap on front fascia

At just short of 20kg, the A3080 is hefty machine, supported on no less than five feet, including a fifth, centrally mounted wedge meant to further reduce mechanical interference and resonance.

Predictably, the rear panel is a busy place. Besides the usual array of HDMI inputs and outputs, supported by component and composite video for legacy components, two aspects are particularly noteworthy.

Firstly, there’s an MM-compatible phono input for those keen on dabbling in some vinyl playback. Also of note are the XLR balanced stereo input and output sets, which promise a lower noise floor, as well as greater tolerance of longer cable runs.

Comprehensive facilities underscored by busy rear panel

Depending on the number of active channels in use, the A3080’s amplification can be configured to bi-amp the main, front left and right speakers – useful in installations where the main speakers are challenging to drive, or where stereo-mode fidelity is a priority.

Similarly, the Yamaha can be set up two additional zones. And then there’s MusicCast, which allows any source linked to the A3080 to be wirelessly shared with other MusicCast-compatible devices on the same network. You can out more about MusicCast here https://europe.yamaha.com/en/products/contents/audio_visual/musiccast/index.html

Finally, the A3080 comes with a slim and sexy, all-metal remote control handset with soft-touch controls and intelligent backlighting. But the best way to control the receiver’s considerable spread of capabilities is via the Yamaha AV Controller app, which puts the full spectrum of features at your fingertips.

Classy components and close attention to detail are Aventage hallmarks

UNDER THE COVERS

As befits a range-topping AV receiver, the RX-A3080 has been designed and constructed to exacting standards. I’ve already mentioned the robust, all-metal casework and the fifth, wedge-shaped support to further address resonance and vibration.

The big AVR gets the circuit components to go with its lofty aspirations, including a generous power transformer, and the latest ESS Sabre ES9026Pro DAC chipset. It also features advanced digital signal processing, and carefully selected and vetted circuit components.

The Yamaha can play back almost every conceivable lossy and lossless audio file, including WAV, FLAC, AIFF, ALAC, WMA and MP3. It copes with PCM data up to 384 kHz/32-bit, and plays back DSD up to 11,2 MHz.

On the video front, the A3080 offers upscaling to 4K and native 4K pass-through, HDMI eARC, and compatibility with HDCP2.2, HDR10, Dolby Vision and BT.2020

SETTING UP

The Yamaha was set up in a 7.1 configuration, using our usual Atlantic Technology 7.1 speaker system. I also hooked it up to our studio network via Ethernet, and once the resulting Internet connection was established, the receiver automatically identified and downloaded new firmware.

Next, I ran the latest version of Yamaha’s YPAO room calibration system, now featuring multipoint measurement and 64-bit equalisation. The brand has always been a top performer in this department, and the latest version is both easy to use and effective.

It also has so-called 3D capabilities to operate in conjunction with object-based surround formats such as Dolby Atmos and DTS:X.

Mic-based YPAO calibration/room correction system includes a dedicated stand

Fortunately, you don’t need to be a rocket scientist to run YPAO: just plug in the supplied microphone, initiate the automated measurement regiment at up to eight different points, and the Yamaha does the rest.

As has been my prior experience with YPAO, the results were both accurate and effective, and certainly allowed the RX-A3080 to show off its sonic talents to impressive effect.

SOUNDS LIKE

The good thing about the RX-A3080 is that it can be as brutal or as refined as it needs to be. Put it in command of an action movie, and it creates an almost combative sonic landscape that completely immerses its audience in a torrent of sound.

Fortunately, the big Yamaha also has the refinement and the composure to effortlessly maintain control, projecting dialogue and presenting detail with an incisive clarity of purpose that adds to the realism and immediacy of its performance.

Quality components contribute to the Yamaha’s considerable capabilities

It’s certainly able to to harness all that audio muscle for a more noble sonic cause when required, happily swapping its more usual surround role for stereo music duties. In that mode, it can be a subtle and perceptive performer, never overstepping the mark and always remaining in unruffled control, while capturing the essence of the material it’s presented with.

The Yamaha AV Controller app makes it easy to access and enjoy the A3080’s comprehensive feature set, underlining how vital the intuitiveness and functionality of a control app is.

Because of the colourful and logical user interface, finding and playing and Internet radio stations is a simple affair, as is navigating the music content of a NAS device.

You can also log into streaming services such as Tidal, or hook up your iDevice using Apple AirPlay, or non-iOS devices using Bluetooth. There’s even voice control via Amazon’s Alexa system.

But the RX-A3080 shines brightest when required to do what it’s likely to be tasked with most of the time: making movies come alive. I usually tend to watch selected scenes from a spread of moves when reviewing an AVR, but the Yamaha’s performance was so compelling that I ended up watching more than a few from start to finish – it’s that good!

One of the stand-out titles during these extended auditions was Mad Max: Fury Road – a movie where the effects are system-challenging, but don’t serve to simply dress up a thin storyline or poor cinematography.

The Yamaha always retained firm control over proceedings even under the sustained onslaught and often almost physical impact of the battle scenes, the snarling machines, the gunshots and the explosions.

It created a solidly focussed, expansively rendered surround sound image that was utterly immersive and convincing, even without the benefit of any height speakers or object-based surround decoding: just plain old 7.1 DTS-HD Master Audio.

The audio perfectly and precisely mirrored the on-screen action, adding to an addictive sense of engagement that had me riveted to my seat for the duration.

Moving on to David Gilmour’s Live At Pompeii performance, a reprise of the legendary Pink Floyd concert, the Yamaha underlined that its talents extend into the stereo realm.

I deliberately selected the two-channel audio option, and was rewarded with a generously dimensioned, precisely imaged performance. The A3080 believably captured the ambience and energy of the concert, faithfully portraying every aspect of the detailed mix.

The front-biased staging of the stereo mix made for greater authenticity without losing the ambience and atmosphere of the ancient arena, nor the electricity of the performance. As a result, it was easy to become part of the audience, rather than simply watching the Blu-ray.

The receiver’s muscle and pace ensured that the momentum and flow of the music was sustained: Gilmour’s guitar had just the right amount of bite and grit, and the percussion were delivered with punch and slam.

The soaring keyboards and passionate backing vocals were the final ingredients of a soundstage saturated with glorious sound.

THE BOTTOM LINE

Modern AV receivers have to be multifaceted, multi-talented components to compete in a crowded, price-sensitive segment. The RX-A3080 is a cut above in functional and sonic terms, presented in robust casework, and intuitively accessed via Yamaha’s excellent control app.

This latest version brings further improvements to the YPAO calibration system, which ensures the Yamaha performs to its full surround potential, even in difficult environments, while it also steps up a notch in terms of its stereo capability and overall musicality.

Add multizone and MusicCast-based wireless multiroom capability, an extensive features list that includes a catalogue of digital signal processing-induced sound fields, as well as a measure of future proofing via firmware updates, and the Yamaha RX-A3080 easily warrants its flagship positioning.

VITAL STATS

Channels: 9.2
Power output: 150 watts/channel (8 ohms, 20 Hz – 20 kHz, 0,06% THD)
Surround sound formats: Dolby TrueHD, DTS-HD Master Audio and below
3D surround sound formats: Dolby Atmos, DTS:X
Audio DAC: ESS Sabre ES9026Pro Ultra
Frequency response: 10 Hz – 100 kHz (+0, -3 dB)
Signal-to-noise ratio: >110 dB
HDMI inputs/outputs: 7/3
Analogue video inputs: 2x component, 3x composite
AV inputs: 4
Audio inputs: 1x RCA MM phono, 3x RCA line-level stereo, 1x XLR balanced stereo
Audio outputs: 1x 7.2 pre-out. 1x stereo front XLR out. 1x stereo RCA Zone 2 out, 1x stereo Aux (front panel) 1x stereo headphone jack (front panel)
Digital inputs: 3x RCA coaxial, 3x Toslink optical, 1x USB Type A (front panel)
Connectivity: Ethernet, 802.11 Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, Apple AirPlay2, MusicCast
Dimensions (WxDxH): 435 x 474 x 192 mm
Weight: 19.6 kg
PRICE
R48 880
SUPPLIED BY
Balanced Audio

ASSOCIATED EQUIPMENT
Marantz SR-6011 AV receiver
Oppo BDP-95EU universal player
Atlantic Technologies 7.1 surround speaker system
Epson EH-TW5500 projector
Synology DS-214se NAS

SOFTWARE
Mad Max: Fury Road (Blu-ray)
Blade Runner 2049 (Blu-ray)
David Gilmour – Live At Pompeii (Blu-ray)
Various – Crossroads Guitar Festival 2013 (Rhino Blu-Ray)

Primare has been revamping its entire range of specialist audio components, and the i15 Prisma is the Scandivian firm’s all-new integrated amplifier. But don’t be fooled by the amp’s compact dimensions …

 

By Deon Schoeman

The Swedes know all about stylishly minimalist design. Theirs is a pared-down approach that frowns on frippery, and focuses on the essentials only.

It also demands that those essentials are perfectly, meticulously executed, and exude an honesty of purpose that vindicates the apparent simplicity of the design. It’s a classic case of form remaining consistently cognisant of function.

Primare is a brand that epitomises the Swedish design ethos perfectly. Immaculately understated, its components exude a timeless aesthetic that is distinctive, with a hewn, crafted solidity to match.

The i15 Prisma is part of Primare’s all-new range, and introduces a more compact form factor for ‘entry-level’ models. At 350 mm wide, it’s scaled down about 25 percent compared to the typical DIN-sized components we’ve become accustomed to. But smaller by no means suggests inferior in this case.

AT FACE VALUE

Size apart, the i15 Prisma remains true to Primare’s design ethos. If you’re familiar with the marque’s products, you’ll recognise the solid, all-metal casework, and the prominent, round-cornered fascia, with its central OLED display, and the small, round soft-touch buttons.

The look is, as already mentioned, minimalist in the best Scandinavian tradition. The i15 rests on a trio of chrome-trimmed isolating feet, and since this is the Prisma model, you’ll also notice a pair of antenna protruding from the rear.

Those antenna look after Wi-Fi and Bluetooth, and join a fairly crowded rear panel – one drawback of the smaller form factor. If you’re a committed analogue source fan, you might also be disappointed by the presence of just one pair of RCA analogue inputs.

There is also a dual-purpose 3,5 mm minijack input that can operate as both an analogue and a digital input, but yes, if you have a long list of a analogue gear to hook up, the i15 Prisma is not for you.

That aside, this is an immensely versatile little amp (and by little, I’m referring to the unit’s physical dimensions, not its sonic signature). It offers four digital inputs, plus the dual purpose minijack already mentioned.

The presence of a Wi-Fi antenna and Ethernet port also confirms the Primare amp’s ability to be linked to a network, which provides Internet connectivity for access to Internet radio and streaming services, as well as to the content of any NAS devices on the network.

The i15 offers fuss-free Bluetooth connectivity, as well as Apple AirPlay playback. It also comes with integrated Chromecast, which allows access to an extensive catalogue of music streaming services, Tidal and Qobuz among them, via the Google Home app.

Chromecast means the i15 will be able to communicate and share content with other Chromecast-integrated devices, opening the door to multiroom applications. There’s even voice control via Google Assistant.

Finally, the i15 is compatible with Spotify Connect, further extending its list of potential sources.

UNDER THE COVERS

The i15 might be compact, but it packs 60 watts of power per channel, thanks to a pair of Hypex UCD 102 power amp modules. These Class D devices differ from Primare’s own UFPD 2 amplifier modules, but offer keener costing thanks to greater economies of scale.

Power is delivered by a fast switch-mode power supply offering stable voltage despite demand swings, while capacitors add a buffer that allows the i15 to cope with sudden transient bursts.

On-board digital to analogue conversion is provided by the AKM AK4490EQ chipset, offering 32-bit processing and supporting sampling rates of up to 768 kHz and DSD at 11,2 MHz, albeit via the USB Type B input only. Coaxial and Toslink inputs don’t reach beyond 192 kHz/24-bit PCM signals.

Most of the popular lossy and lossless music file formats are supported, including WAV, LPCM, AIFF, FLAC, ALAC, MP3, MP4 (AAC), WMA and OGG. DSD128 is supported by the USB Type B input as well as via WiFi, Ethernet, and storage devices connected via the USB Type A input.

SETTING UP

The i15 was used to power a pair of KEF LS50 bookshelf speakers, with much of the listening done using the amp’s streaming capabilities to access Tidal high-res files, as well as music stored on a Synology NAS.

The Primare was linked to our network via Ethernet to ensure a stable connection for high-res files. However, it worked perfectly well using a WiFi connection instead. Bluetooth pairing was easily and seamlessly achieved, too.

The evaluation unit arrived brand new, and was allowed to settle in for the first 100 hours or so before the review was embarked on in earnest.

While the i15 is supplied with a conventional and well executed remote control handset, I found the Prisma app offered an intuitive and informative gateway to the i5’s features and capabilities.

SOUNDS LIKE

As already alluded to, don’t be fooled by the compact footprint of the i15 – it doesn’t sound anything like that at all. Instead, it has a big, and generous, and visceral delivery– more like one of those big and beefy, defiantly analogue amplifiers we all used to like so much 20 years ago (and still do).

It’s clear that the 60 watts per channel that Primare rates this most junior member of its amplifier line-up at is conservative, even taking the efficiency of the partnering KEF LS50s into account. Indeed, as a quick aside, the Primare/KEF combo is a marriage made in sonic heaven.

There’s a richness of tone and texture to the Primare’s performance that endows the music with presence and body. Acoustic guitars are presented with a fullness of timbre and a clarity of character that is goose bump-inducing, pianos display just the right balance of percussive intent and lyrical flow, and vocals sound, well, authentic and downright real.

In that sense, the Primare goes about its business with distinctly un-electronic approach: this is an amplifier that focuses on making the music come alive in all its emotive, charismatic, all-embracing glory.

Part of the i15’s magic is its ability to make the most of what it’s being offered – to musically contextualise the analogue and digital information it is being presented with.

Yes, there is loads of detail, and a wide-open soundstage provides full and unencumbered access to the music. But it’s the sense of authenticity – the joy of being able to savour the performance as a whole, rather than seeking out and isolating specific elements – that makes the i15 so compelling.

On ‘The Nearness Of You’, from the Tsuyoshi Yamamoto Trio’s Midnight Sugar, that sense of immediacy and ‘being there’ was perfectly illustrated. The piano sounded splendidly vital, thanks to the recording’s ability to grasp the instrument’s bright and cheerful approach, while also capturing the dynamics and percussive impact.

The stand-up bass may be in a supportive role here, but it was presented with verve and clarity, allowing the listener to closely follow and enjoy the dialogue between piano and bass. The lower registers were delivered with surprising power and intensity, yet never threatened to overpower the piano’s sparkle.

The lucidity of the recording also allowed the articulate percussion to come into its own, so that the subtlest brush of the snare and every cymbal’s shimmer were done full justice, with the kick drum’s steady, solid thump providing the rhythmic backbone.

The remastered, SACD version of Roger Waters’ classic, if somewhat self-indulgent Amused To Death remains not only musically immersive, but also a stern test of system staging and imaging. It’s a challenge the i15 passed without breaking a sweat.

The amp managed to make the most of the music’s sonic panoramas, enveloping the listener in a 360-degree soundscape that often creates an almost surround sound-like impression.

It’s also a busy recording, with loads of effects and spurious voices, and yet the Primare was never intimidated, always remaining in control and presenting the various elements with composure and clarity.

‘Late Home Tonight’ showed off the amp’s ability to find just the right balance between the sleek acoustic guitars, the sweeping synths and the soaring strings spread wide and deep across the soundstage, and Waters’ centrally focussed vocals.

It also easily coped with the various effects and the eventual, climactic explosion at the end of the track – the latter delivered with enough intensity to get you jumping right out of your seat.

The Trondheimsolistene’s superbly recorded rendition of Mozart’s Violin Concerto in D Major really propels the listener into the very soul and intent of the music. The Primare convincingly captured the tempo and the pathos, the sheer power and the technical splendour of the performance.

I enjoyed the way the music was afforded the freedom to fill the room with sound, making the most of the LS50 speakers’ generous sweet spot and superb transparency to unshackle itself from the electronic bonds.

The amplifier’s timing was exquisite, allowing the agile, eloquent strings to shine and sparkle, while it wasn’t in the least intimidated by the recording’s often challenging dynamic swings. It’s focus on the music remained unwavering and convincing.

At the same time, the Primare created a sense of space and immediacy that allowed the ensemble and soloist Marianne Thorsen to come to sonic life, and to weave a vivid, emphatic and ultimately engaging music picture.

THE BOTTOM LINE

Primare components have a tradition of over-delivering on their sonic promises, and that’s certainly the case here.

Any concerns that the use of the generic Hypex amplifier modules, or the reduction of the amplifier’s footprint, would impact negatively on the i15’s performance are quickly and emphatically dispelled: this is a gutsy, lively and compelling amplifier.

The Prisma functionality is a major boon, adding a comprehensive and well-integrated package of streaming and network playback capabilities, together with Chromecast-aligned features, to the Primare party. Control and ease of use via the Prisma app is admirable, too.

The smaller form factor makes for a less obtrusive shelf presence that will please some, and is certainly more easily integrated into lounges and living rooms, while still exuding a sense of Swedish style.

Most of all, the i15 always compels, regardless of genre, delivering its musical wares with an expressive enthusiasm and truthfulness that makes it a joy to listen to.

VITAL STATS
Power output: 2x 60 watts (8 ohms), 2x 100 watts (4 ohms)
Frequency response: 10 Hz – 20 kHz (-0,5 dB)
Signal-to-noise ratio: >80 dB
Analogue inputs: 1x stereo RCA set, 1x 3,5 mm minijack
Analogue outputs: 1x stereo RCA set
Digital inputs: 1x coaxial RCA, 3x Toslink optical, 1x 3,5mm jackplug,
USB Type B, USB Type A
Digital outputs: 1x Toslink optical
Connectivity: 802.11 Wi-Fi, Ethernet, Bluetooth, Apple AirPlay, Chromecast
Dimensions (WxDxH)|: 350 x 329 x 73 mm
Weight: 6,4 kg
PRICE
R32 990
SUPPLIED BY
Sky Audio

ASSOCIATED EQUIPMENT
KEF LS50 speakers
Electrocompaniet P2D integrated amplifier
Lumin D1/L1 network streamer/NAS
Marantz SA-KI Pearl Lite SACD player
Bryston BDA-3 DAC
TelluriumQ Blue cabling

SOFTWARE
Tsuyoshi Yamamoto Trio – Midnight Sugar
Roger Waters – Amused To Death
Mozart – Concerto in D Major KV218 – Marianne Thorsen/Trondheimsolistene

The notion of a sleek soundbar making movies and music sound great is entirely feasible, even if it’s unlikely to be as immersive as a true multi-speaker sound system. The Yamaha YAS-408 adds some clever features of its own

 

By Deon Schoeman

Soundbars are popular alternatives to conventional surround speaker systems, mainly because not everyone wants, or needs, a multitude of surround speakers scattered around their living room.

But soundbars have their limitations. Some use digital signal processing to emulate surround sound, with varying degrees of success. Others are simply aimed at improving the typically thin sound of your average TV in a slim and unobtrusive package.

The Yamaha YAS-408 is not one of the digital sound projector soundbars that Yamaha is renowned for. Rather, it’s a more conventional sound bar with multiple drivers, although it does use DSP to create virtual surround using the DTS Virtual X codec.

The Yamaha is slim and elegant, and is easily accommodated in either a shelf-mounted or wall-mounted configuration. Even better, it comes with a separate, wireless subwoofer that is easy to place and connect.

But what really makes the YAS-408 different is that it’s part of Yamaha’s MusicCast ecosystem, which allows extended functionality that goes beyond usual soundbar capabilities.

There are two aspects to this. Firstly, there’s the interoperability between MusicCast components, which allows the YAS-408 to become part of a bigger MusicCast multiroom system and to be controlled accordingly, as well as sharing content from any MusicCast source.

The second aspect is the system’s wireless capabilities. The subwoofer operates wirelessly and it’s possible to link compatible standalone lifestyle speakers such as the WX-051 and WX-051 (see our review here) wirelessly in a surround role, which greatly enhances the dimensionality of the soundstage in surround sound applications.

AT FACE VALUE

The YAS-408 may be almost a metre long, but it measures only 60 mm high and 110 mm deep. If your TV set is positioned on an AV stand, the Yamaha will easily and unobtrusively fit in below it. It can also be wall-mounted below wall-located TV screens.

The all-black finish is smart and functional, while a closer look reveals a fine-perforated metal grille, which conceals the six-driver speaker array. The top panel has a sleek, semi-glossy surface that’s home to touch-sensitive switchgear instead of conventional buttons and controls, as well as indicator lights that illuminate to confirm its operational status.

There’s also a compact remote control handset, which duplicates the most salient switchgear. But users should opt for the dedicated MuscicCast app, downloadable free for both Android and iOS smart devices,

The app not only provides intuitive access to the YAS-408’s comprehensive feature set, but is also the recommended way to set up the soundbar, especially since it makes linking up the soundbar to a home network a relatively simple affair.

The rear panel is home to a power socket, an HDMI input and HDMI output (the latter with ARC audio return control), a Toslink optical digital input, a 3,5 mm analogue stereo input jack, and an RJ45 Ethernet network socket.

The soundbar can also be hooked up to a network via 802.11 Wi-Fi, and is compatible with both the 2,4 GHZ and 5 GHz frequency bands.

The accompanying wireless subwoofer has been designed to be positioned vertically, and features a side-firing 160 mm drive unit, powered by a dedicated 100 watt amplifier. It’s small enough to be discreetly positioned in even smaller rooms – even next to the soundbar, if need be.

UNDER THE COVERS

As mentioned, the YAS-408 promises to deliver a big upgrade in sonic performance when compared to the on-board audio offered by your average TV set.

The soundbar contains six drivers, arranged in a mirror-image configuration, with a 25 mm tweeter flanked by a pair of 46 mm mids on the left and right extremes of the bar. The wireless subwoofer adds a welcome low-frequency foundation.

The soundbar can operate in stereo or surround mode, with the surround effect created using DTS Virtual X. The codec employs digital signal processing to simulate surround sound through selective time delay and level variations, as well as by emphasising certain frequency bands.

The Yamaha’s feature set is a lot more extensive than you’d expect. I’ve already mentioned MusicCast, which effectively allows the YAS-408 to become part of a multiroom system.

Briefly, MusicCast is a multiroom ecosystem that allows compatible devices (AV receivers, soundbars, standalone Bluetooth, amplifiers speakers, and more) to communicate and share source material. They can also be synchronised to play the same source simultaneously, or operate completely independently from one another.

In the case of the YAS-408, MusicCast can also be used to link it to a MusicCast speaker such as the WX-051, and to configure it as a rear surround speaker. You can find out more about MusicCast here.

In addition to playing back connected sources, the YAS-408 can stream content from several music streaming services, including Spotify, Deezer, Qobuz and Tidal, and offers access to a vast selection of Internet stations via TuneIn.

Then there’s Bluetooth and Apple AirPlay 2, both of which can be used to connect a source such as a smartphone to the soundbar, and stream content from that device. And finally, intuitive voice commands are possible if you’re an Amazon Alexa user.

SETTING UP

The YAS-408 was installed in the AVSA listening room, with our regular Oppo BDP-95EU operating as the primary source via HDMI, while our Epson EW-TW5500 provided the pictures via the soundbar’s HDMI output.

The subwoofer and the soundbar recognised each other on switch-on and required no specific pairing regimen. Once linked to our network via Ethernet, the MusicCast app also identified the soundbar, which then made it possible to set up and control it via the app.

As I had a Yamaha WX-051 wireless speaker at my disposal during the review period, I was able to add the speaker to the same virtual ‘room’ in the MusicCast app, and then link it to the soundbar in a rear surround role.

My iPhone 5S easily identified and paired with the Yamaha via Airplay too. Finally, the YAS-408 was able to recognise the NAS server on the network, and navigate and play back music data stored on it.

On that subject, the soundbar is compatible with a wide array of music file formats, ranging from lossy file types such as MP3 and WMA, to AAC (up to 48 kHz), ALAC (up to 96 kHz) and WAV, FLAC and AIFF (up to 192 kHz/24-bit).

SOUNDS LIKE

As the slim enclosure determines that the drivers are small too, I was expecting the sound to be pretty much mid-biased. However, the accompanying subwoofer actually delivers a wide slice of lower mids and bass frequencies, filling out the sound nicely.

Bass notes had good density and presence, with plenty of oomph and sufficient drama to create an overall sound that was always bigger and bolder than expected. Admirably, that fullness was achieved without muddying the sonic waters as far as detail and dialogue projection were concerned.

The Yamaha managed a pleasingly smooth transition from clean and incisive mids to clear and well defined trebles. The soundbar also resolves an ample bounty of detail, which added to an overriding sense of realism.

Staging was quite expansive, given the soundbar’s centralised position, and it managed to create an illusion of space and air that was impressive, opening up the sound and allowing for a real sense of dimension.

Where the soundbar falls short, at least without some extra help, is in the surround department. Invoking DTS Virtual X certainly opened up the soundstage, benefiting both dialogue projection and detail resolution, as well as extending the width and depth of the soundstage.

However, it was less successful at delivering front/back steering or an immersive ambience. Rather, the performance should be considered in the context of a 2.1 system – which, quite frankly, would more than suffice most of the time.

But for those who demand the surround experience, the solution lies in adding one, or even a pair, of Yamaha WX-051 MusicCast speakers.

These, as mentioned, link wirelessly to the YAS-408, and even one WX-051 positioned in a central location behind the listening position created a quite compelling sense of surround space that was as startling as it as effective.

No, it’s not in the same league as having dedicated surrounds, surround backs and ceiling-mounted height speakers, but it does create a believable sense of multi-directional steering that makes for a more immersive listening experience – and with a minimal hardware presence.

Effects-rich movies such as Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol were portrayed with pleasing punch and intensity, with enough dimensional steering to create a believable engagement with the action.

That said, I often felt that using the soundbar without the virtual surround engaged sounded more emphatic. David Gilmour’s <Live at Pompeii>, played back in stereo seemed more focussed and incisive, if not quite as airy, and also linked up better with the on-screen action.

The same went for music: content from Tidal and Deezer sounded perfectly wholesome in stereo, with good imaging and detail.

THE BOTTOM LINE

While the YAS-408 is competent and enjoyable sonically, it is the combination of a slim and sleek form factor, extended wireless capability, and membership of the MusicCast clan that sets it apart from more conventional offerings.

Not only can it stream content from an extensive array of services and sources, but it also becomes part of an even more versatile multiroom system when linked to other MusicCast devices – an aspect that can also form the basis of a future upgrade path.

Add the prospect of regular firmware upgrades delivering additional capabilities and features, and the Yamaha YAS-408 also has a measure of future-proofness on its side – all for a value-added investment.

VITAL STATS

Type: 2.1 soundbar with wireless subwoofer
Drive units (soundbar): 4x 46 mm midrange drivers, 2x 25 mm tweeters
Drive unit (subwoofer): 160 mm woofer
Output: 50 watts x 2 (soundbar), 100 watts (subwoofer)
Connectivity: Bluetooth Class 2 V4.2, A2DP and SPP
Inputs: HDMI (with ARC), 3,5 mm stereo minijack, Toslink optical digital
Output: HDMI
Soundbar dimensions (WxHxD): 980 x 60 x 111 mm
Subwoofer dimensions (WxHxD): 180 x 417 x 405 mm
Weight: 2,7 kg (soundbar); 9,4 kg (subwoofer)
PRICE
R11 880
SUPPLIED BY
Balanced Audio

TESTED WITH
Oppo BDP-95EU universal deck
Epson EH-TW5500 DLP projector
Atlantic Technology 7.1 surround sound speaker set
Marantz SA-KI Pearl Lite SACD/CD player

SOFTWARE
Mad Max: Fury Road (Blu-ray)
Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol (Blu-ray)
David Gilmour – Live At Pompeii (Blu-ray)
Diana Krall – The Girl In The Other Room (Verve SACD)

The KEF LS50 Wireless is already a popular active loudspeaker choice. The LSX offers similar benefits in an even smaller, more affordable package. But can it still deliver the sonic goods?

 

By Deon Schoeman

When KEF launched the LS50 bookshelf speaker, it caused something of a sensation. It combined appealing looks, clever tech and giant-killing performance in a compact, user-friendly package.

The British speaker maker’s next masterstroke was creating an active version of the LS50 dubbed the LS50 Wireless. With on-board amplification and performance-enhancing digital signal processing, the LS50W could straddle both lifestyle and specialist audio roles.

Late last year, KEF introduced the LSX – for all intents a scaled-down version of the LS50, with a scaled-down price to match, while offering even greater convenience. However, it raised the question whether the LSX had become too lifestyle-orientated.

Could a speaker standing less than 25 cm tall still sound good enough to satisfy critical audio fans and music lovers? Or was the LSX merely trading on the reputation of its larger LS50W sibling?

AT FACE VALUE

The LSX is indeed compact, but it packs a lot of tech. These diminutive active speakers are designed to operate as a wire-free stereo set with no need for ancillaries such as separate amplifiers or source components.

They certainly look the lifestyle part, with a choice of bright colours and innovative, fabric-clad enclosures that are likely to polarise opinion, but will have the fashionistas and trendoids ooh-in and ah-ing in delight.

Even from my own, arguably more pragmatic viewpoint, the LSXs look and feel appealing. The rear-ported reflex enclosures have a reassuring heft that promises both physical and sonic substance. And yes, those bright colours add eye candy appeal, together with KEF’s equally eye-catching Uni-Q concentric driver.

As mentioned, the LSX is reminiscent of the LS50 and LS50W, but it’s about 30 percent smaller. The stereo set consists of a master and a slave unit, but unlike the LS50W, the slave can be wirelessly paired to the master, making for an almost completely cable-free set-up.

I say almost because the LSX speakers still need to be tethered to power cables, which also means you need to site them within reasonable proximity of a power outlet.

Linking the two LSX speakers wirelessly also limits audio performance – at least on paper. Resolution is restricted to 48 kHz/24-bit resolution – which is still better than CD quality. Those who want higher-res 96 kHz/24-bit operation need to link the two speakers with the CAT5E cable provided.

The LSX can be connected to a home network via Wi-Fi or Ethernet, and while the former is attractive from the no-wires perspective, and works trouble-free as long as there is a strong signal, those who habitually play back high-res files from a NAS may find a wired Ethernet connection more reliable.

The master speaker offers a rear control panel that has connections for Ethernet, Toslink optical, and an analogue stereo minijack input, allowing the wired connection of sources such as a turntable or a CD player, for instance. There is also a subwoofer output.

Don’t be fooled by the USB socket, though: it’s not an input for storage devices, but rather serves as a way to charge mobile devices – useful if you’re actually using that device to stream music to the KEFs.

Talking of streaming, the LSX offer integrated support for Tidal and Spotify, and can source music files from NAS devices. Bluetooth 4.2 utilising the aptX codec allows smart devices to be connected wirelessly, opening the door to playback from other streaming sources such as Deezer and Apple Music, for instance. Apple AirPlay is also supported.

Control is via a pair of cellphone apps – a bit of a clunky arrangement, and KEF would do well to look at ways to merge the functionality of the control and streaming apps into one – after all much of the user experience relies on the intuitiveness of the apps.

For those who have discovered the multiple benefits of the Roon music management system, the good news is that the system recognises the LSXs as a Roon endpoint, which means you can effectively use Roon and Roon Remote to stream directly to the KEFs.

UNDER THE COVERS

The LSX may be small, but it’s big on tech and innovation.

The Uni-Q driver array, effectively a coaxial speaker with both mid/bass driver and tweeter aligned on the same axis to enhance coherence, focus and imaging, is a well-established KEF development, and has been specifically tailored for its application here.

Here, it consists of a 115 mm mid/bass driver utilising a magnesium alloy cone, coupled with a 19 mm vented dome tweeter. Each LSX gets a pair of Class D mono amplifiers, driving the tweeter and mid/bass individually.

The amps are paired with dedicated D/A converters operating at up to 96/24 as mentioned, or 48/24 if master and slave are linked wirelessly. Of course, the LSX will accept higher-res data streams up to 192/24, but will downsample those accordingly. DSD is not supported.

The LSX is equipped with a proprietary digital signal processing system that uses bespoke algorithms to enhance performance.

Included is a series of selectable EQ settings, either accessed via easy-to-understand presets based on how and where the LSXs are positioned, or directly via adjustments to parameters such as high-pass and low-pass filter points, phase, treble trim, and subwoofer-specific settings.

SETTING UP

The LSX review pair was shelf-mounted, and positioned quite close to the room’s side walls, about 3 metres apart. Network connection was via Ethernet, although I also tried Wi-Fi, which worked perfectly.

The master and slave units were linked wirelessly throughout, and while tethering them allowed higher-res playback, I never felt that the slight audible improvement (a bit more air and detail) was worth the hassle of the extra Ethernet cable.

Installation and set-up was painless and easy, although as mentioned, I found the two-app arrangement – one for control, one for streaming – clunky and counterintuitive.

I also experienced problems when trying to stream Tidal natively via the KEF streaming app: playback was intermittently interrupted, regardless of whether the KEFs were hooked up to the network via WiFi or Ethernet.

Spotify showed no such issues, and Tidal streamed perfectly via the Roon app, including high-res MQA-encoded files. Disappointingly, a support request logged with KEF remained unanswered.

The glitchy Tidal was the only functional shortcoming experienced. All other services operated seamlessly, including navigating and sourcing content from the Synology NAS on my network, and hooking up an Apple iPhone to the LSX via Bluetooth and AirPlay.

SOUNDS LIKE

Sonically, the LSXs exceeded expectations at every level. They delivered their musical wares with an enthusiasm and generosity that made them sound much bigger and bolder than their diminutive dimensions would suggest.

Not only that, but the tonal spread was generous, too: shelf-mounted and positioned close to side walls but away from corners, the bass response was pretty impressive, if not exactly in the window-rattling league.

I was particularly impressed by the imaging, which was pin-point accurate and finely focussed, allowing the KEFs to create a large and well defined sound picture with plenty of definition and a real sense of depth and dimensionality.

The LSX’s mirror their larger LS50W siblings in their ability to become invisible as point sources, adding to the sound’s sense of seamlessness, and creating an inviting, engaging performance that easily draws the listener into the music.

There’s ample oomph from the on-board Class D amplification, too – the KEFs were happy to deliver the goods at higher listening levels without any sign of impending clipping, and lacked nothing as far as pace and momentum were considered.

Kick drums had plenty of slam, bass guitars were rendered with ample power and precision, and there was an inherent energy and brio to the delivery that made the music come alive.

On actor-turned-bandleader Jeff Goldblum’s sassy and enchanting The Capitol Sessions, the KEFs easily accommodated the swinging scale and lilt of the band, while capturing the enthusiasm and appreciation of the live recording’s audience.

The LSXs never sounded like small speakers trying to sound big, delivering a tonally rich sound and a surprisingly powerful and succinct bass performance. Staging was expansive, and imaging so detailed that it was easy to pick out the exact positioning of individual performers.

Paul Weller’s True Meanings sounded lifelike and incisive, with the little speakers delivering loads of pace and momentum. On ‘The Soul Searchers’ the articulate bass underpinning the song was delivered with as much verve as the sleek guitars and boisterous synths, with Weller’s reflective vocals closely examined.

Again, the KEFs impressed with the generosity and dimensionality of the soundstage, linked to their absolute transparency, to create a room-filling, thoroughly engaging sound.

The title track from the late great guitarist Jeff Golub’s Train Keeps A Rolling set is a fast-paced, fusion-laced jazz piece, filled with Latin-styled percussion, lyrical synths and Golub’s clean, fluid riffs.

The LSXs again showed off their propensity for sonic generosity, spreading the music wide and deep, and creating a sense of three-dimensionality quite at odds with their compact physical presence.

THE BOTTOM LINE

Big on tone and big on momentum, the KEF LSX are the biggest small speakers I’ve heard in a long time. Their size and wireless capabilities makes them easy to accommodate, even in smaller spaces, and they don’t need special stands or isolating platforms either.

Whether you choose an unobtrusive colour or a brighter hue, the LSXs have strong llifestyle appeal, and they look good in any setting.

But it’s the sound these tiny tots deliver that makes them the sonic showstoppers they are. Wide, deep and dimensional, with loads of impetus and a decent dose of bass, they can boogie with the best of them.

However, there’s also the kind of detail, refinement and transparency that will keep even critical listeners happy, which makes these KEFs good enough to be considered for primary listening, and not just as a lifestyle system for background music.

Add the convenience of the active configuration, streaming capability and wireless operation, and KEF has created a winner. Yes, they are small, but the LSXs offer a big musical package for the money.

VITAL STATS
Enclosure type: Bass-reflex, rear-ported
Drive units:
– Uni-Q array: 19 mm vented aluminium dome tweeter
– 115 mm magnesium alloy cone mid/bass
Amplification: Dual-mono
– Tweeter: 30 watts RMS.
– Mid/bass: 70 watts RMS
Resolution: Up to 192 kHz/24-bit, input dependent
Analogue inputs: 1x 3,5 mm minijack
Digital inputs: 1x Toslink optical,
Connectivity: 10/100 Ethernet, 802.11 Wi-Fi (2,4/5 GHz), Bluetooth 4.2 aptX
Frequency response: 59 Hz – 28 kHz (standard setting, ±3 dB)
Maximum output: 102 dB
Dimensions: (HxWxD): 240 x 155 x 180 mm
Weight: 3,6 kg (master), 3,5 kg (slave)
PRICE
R19 990
SUPPLIED BY
Sky Audio

TESTED WITH
Synology 213+ NAS
13-inch MacBook Pro/MacOS 10.13.6/1 2,7 GHz Intel Core i7, 8GB RAM
iPhone 5 SE, iPad 4

SOFTWARE
Jeff Golub – Train Keeps A Rolling (eOne 44/16 on Tidal)
Jeff Goldblum – The Capitol Sessions (Decca/Universal 96/24 MQA on Tidal)
Paul Weller – True Meanings (Parlaphone
Van Morrison – The Prophet Speaks (Exile 96/24 MQA on Tidal)
Tchaikovsky – Piano Concerto No.1 – Ivo Pogrelich/Claudio Abbado (DG 44/16 on Tidal)

At face value, the Yamaha WX-021 and WX-051 look like stylish wireless speakers. But as it turns out, their talent set extends well beyond that description: they’re part of the MusicCast ecosystem, and they offer some clever surround capabilities, too.

By Deon Schoeman

 

Wireless, Bluetooth-capable lifestyle loudspeakers have become all the rage. They come in a broad range of sizes, applications and capabilities, ranging from small and basic to smarter, larger and more expensive offerings.

The Yamaha WX-021 and WX-051 are relative newcomers to the brand’s product line-up and also join the burgeoning MusicCast ecosystem. The latter fact provides some indication that these compact, elegantly styled units are capable of more than their appearance suggests.

As you can see from the accompanying images, the smaller WX-021 is a compact, cylindrical device, while the larger WX-051 has an oval shape. Functionally, the two share virtually identical feature sets.

The major difference relates directly to their size. The WX-021’s more compact form factor makes it easier to place, even in smaller spaces, while the larger WX-051 has a bigger footprint and is heavier too.

However, the WX-051’s more generous dimensions allow it to accommodate different and larger drive units, and more powerful amplifiers, which translates into a bigger sonic performance – better suited to larger spaces, in other words.

It also offers the ability to connect ancillary components via a pair of auxiliary analogue inputs and a Toslink optical digital input, further boosting its versatility.

AT FACE VALUE

Both Yamahas are available in white or black, with the former perhaps the more glamorous choice, while the black looks smart, but in a pragmatic and businesslike way.

A glossy-finished top panel is home to a touch-sensitive control set, while much of the speaker body is enclosed by a fine metal mesh to protect the driver complement.

Concealed at the rear of the base is a receptacle for the supplied AC power cord, as well as an Ethernet port for wired connection to a home network. There’s also a USB port, but it’s meant for service use only, and won’t accept any USB-based storage devices.

As already mentioned, the WX-051 gets additional input options. These include a stereo minijack socket and a stereo RCA input set, as well as a Toslink optical digital input, allowing connection of ancillaries such as a TV set or a CD player, for instance.

Despite their compact size, the two Yamahas are surprisingly heavy, endowing them with a reassuringly solid, quality feel. The bases have a rubberised outline to ensure stability, even on smooth surfaces.

The WX-021 can also be wall mounted, thanks to the provision of a mounting aperture on the rear panel. But given its 2,2 kg weight, make sure the wall mount is sturdy, and screwed deeply enough into the wall to support the speaker.

As mentioned, the WX-21 and WX-051 belong to Yamaha’s MusicCast ecosystem, which means they’re part of a dedicated, networked multiroom system that allows any number of MusicCast-compatible devices to be linked, wired or wirelessly, across a home network.

They can be used to seamlessly share source content, and to be controlled either individually or collectively via Yamaha’s MusicCast app, available for Android and iOS devices.

The MusicCast ecosystem is being expanded continuously and not only includes wireless speakers such as the duo under scrutiny here, but also AV receivers, soundbars and even subwoofers.

Already, it’s possible to put together a completely wireless AV system comprising a MusicCast-compatible AV receiver, soundbar, subwoofer and surrounds – an appealing prospect that I managed to put to the test during this review.

That system could then be one of several MusicCast zones in a home also featuring more WX-021s and WX-051s in other zones around the home.

You can also link two WX-021s or WX-051s together, forming a stereo pair operating in a single zone. Frankly, the possibilities are endless, while the app-based control system is seamless, and user-friendly.

UNDER THE COVERS

One of the reasons for the WX-021’s substantial mass relative to its size is the fact that it contains no less than four drivers: a 30mm soft-dome tweeter, a 90mm mid/bass driver, and a pair of passive radiators.

The bass radiators are a more accurate and effective alternative to a conventional bass port, especially in the context of the compact enclosure, and the fact that it’s also crammed with 40 watts worth of digital amplification.

Each driver gets its own amplifier – a 15-watter for the tweeter, and a 25 watt amp for the mid/bass driver, for 40 watts of total system power.

The WX-051 ups the output ante by linking a pair of 100mm woofers to a duo of 30 mm soft-dome tweeters. Two 35 watt amplifiers – one for the tweeters, one for the woofers – deliver a combined system power output of 70 watts.

Both enclosures feature a lot of sturdy, solid and acoustically inert composites, which ensures the drive units operate off a stable, resonance-free platform.

Remember, this is not a portable, rechargeable speaker, but an altogether more sophisticated device, designed to deliver room-filling sound despite its compact enclosure.

Also not apparent is just how extensive the feature set of these two MusicCast speakers is as far as connectivity, source selection and music file compatibility are concerned. Network connectivity is either via the 10/100 Ethernet port, or wirelessly using the 802.11 Wi-Fi protocol.

I’ve already discussed the Yamahas’ membership of the MusicCast family and the possibilities that opens, but source versatility is impressive.

Unlike the WX-051, the WX-021 can’t be physically connected to any source components such as a CD player or a TV, but the MusicCast app does allow both speakers to be linked to a host of on-line and network-linked sources.

These include Tidal, Deezer and Spotify Connect, as well as Qobuz and Napster (which are not available in SA). Internet radio is well supported, including a powerful search engine, and the ability to store favourite stations.

Since the WX-021 and WX-51 are DLNA and UPnP compatible, they will recognise and play source material saved on network-attached storage (NAS) devices on the same network, as long as the files are compatible with the speakers’ capabilities.

File types supported include WAV, MP3, WMA, MPEG-4, AAC, FLAC, ALAC and AIFF. Lossless formats are supported up to 192 kHz/24-bit resolution, but the Yamahas aren’t compatible with DSD files.

Bluetooth 4.2 using the AAC and SBC codecs (but not apt-X, sadly) makes it easy for any Bluetooth device (smart devices, audio players, laptop computers) to stream content to the Yamaha. It’s also AirPlay2 compatible, which allows iOS devices to serve the Yamaha with content.

Finally, the WX-021 can be controlled using Amazon Alexa voice commands, as long as you have a Connect ID and an Alexa-enabled device.

SETTING UP

I ran the WX-021 and WX-051 in various configurations. Local Yamaha importer/distributor Balanced Audio provided a pair of each of the speakers, which allowed me to try them individually, in different zones, and together as a stereo pair.

I was also able to check out their capabilities in a surround sound role, wirelessly linked to a Yamaha RX-A3080 AV receiver (review pending) via the MusicCast app, with the YAS-408 MusicCast-capable soundbar/subwoofer combo (review also pending) taking care of the front and LFE channels.

Connecting and activating the speakers was relatively simple, although getting the Wi-Fi connection to work in the AVSA listening studio was made more difficult by the poor Wi-Fi connectivity. Still, I eventually got it all to work – and in situations where the Wi-Fi signal isn’t compromised the process is quick and simple.

The MusicCast app is intuitive and reasonably well laid out, but enjoys being viewed on a larger screen than my regular iPhone 5S – an iPad Mini 4 was a far better choice, offering ample screen real estate to browse the app’s varied controls and functions.

The app allows rudimentary tone adjustment via sliders for trebles, mids and lows, as well as the choice of a bass boost function. I ran the tone settings flat, but ended up using the bass boost for the extra low-end authority it provided, without muddying the sound.

SOUNDS LIKE

Starting off with the smaller WX-021, I was taken by surprise by the speaker’s rich, full sound which belied its compact size. It delivered its wares with a real sense of presence that’s unusual for a standalone speaker, let alone one as diminutive as this one.

There was plenty of volume potential for the Yamaha to be used in even larger rooms and open-plan spaces.

The WX-021 is inherently a forgiving speaker, making the most of what it’s offered – including MP3 files, and lossy, low-bandwidth Internet radio. By the same token, it rewarded quality source files with a sound that took on a distinctly hi-fi-esque nature in terms of tonal breadth, headroom and pace.

Indeed, the WX-021 never really sounded like a small, single point-source speaker – there was an omni-directionality to the delivery that allowed for a substantive, tonally saturated and authentic performance.

Of particular note was the ability of the speaker to establish a more than adequate low-frequency foundation, linked to a fattish but well controlled midrange and sweet but detailed tops.

Sound quality apart, it was the sheer ease of use, and the Yamaha’s ability to draw from a wide range of on-line sources, as well as its ability to communicate with other MusicCast components, that made it an impressive example of the wireless music art.

Predictably, the WX-051 eclipsed its more compact sibling in every sonic department – which is saying something, given just how engaging tonally expansive the WX-021 turned out to be. It certainly played louder when required, and reached lower too, while delivering an even fuller, more generous and more immersive sound.

Again, I was struck by the substance of the sound: the fact that I was listening to a single speaker instead of a stereo pair never got in the way of enjoying the music.

There was plenty of pace, too, with good rendition of even finer detail, and an overall sense of clarity that allowed unhindered access to the music’s essence.

If stereo is a must-have, you can pair two WX-051s or WX-021s together to create a compact, stylish and completely wire-free stereo system. The results were astonishingly good, with fine focus, excellent imaging and generous staging.

In smaller spaces, a pair of WX-021s configured in stereo made a compelling case for replacing a more conventional, bulkier and cable-connected set-up. The inconspicuous presence of the two speakers, the convenience of wireless operation, and the versatility of the MusicCast system further added to their appeal.

Replacing the WX-021s with the larger WX-051s further strengthened the concept’s attraction, offering more urge, more muscle and more headroom, together with a meatier sound that ensured enhanced presence, but retained the airy imaging and clear detail of the WX-021s.

Both WX models performed satisfactorily in a wireless surround role, although their appeal relies more on the convenience of their wireless status any specific sonic prowess. Certainly, they were up to the surround job, but in voicing terms, they didn’t seamlessly match the front channel performance of the YS-408.

Granted, the surround sound role is arguably less critical than the front channel delivery, but a system where the WX-021s and WX-051s would be able to perform LCR and surround roles would offer a more sonically seamless performance.

For now, though, the WX speakers can only be implemented in a surround role.

Setting up the WX-021s and WX-051s as individual rooms or zones in a multiroom system – a core feature of the MusicCast ecosystem – was a quick and easy process, and once completed, allowed centralised control of each room/zone from the app.

The only proviso is that all the speakers have to be connected (wirelessly, or via Ethernet) to the same network. You can get all zones to play the same source material simultaneously, or choose different source material for each zone, while also controlling the volume of each room independently.

Again, it’s a case of an elegant solution offering convenient installation and intuitive operation, while delivering decent sound, too.

THE BOTTOM LINE

The Yamaha WX-021 and larger WX-051 changed my perception of single-speaker sound in primarily background music applications completely. Both speakers sound dynamic and substantial enough to enjoy the music they’re playing, without feeling short-changed on the sonic front.

Yes, the delivery isn’t stereo, but then, you’re not analysing soundstaging and imaging while pottering around the kitchen, relaxing on the patio, or reading in the family room. In a single-speaker role, they have more than enough presence and momentum to make the music enjoyable.

However, as MusicCast speakers, the ability of these WX models to be linked as stereo pairs, operate as surrounds, and to be incorporated into a user-friendly and aesthetically pleasing multiroom system, elevates their appeal far beyond the single speaker role.

Add to that their ability to draw material from a variety of sources – including Bluetooth and Apple AirPlay – as well as their compatibility with Amazon’s Alexa voice command system, and the Yamaha WX-021 and WX-051 emerge as innovative home entertainment solutions with convenience, versatility, appealing aesthetics and satisfying sonics on their side.

VITAL STATS

Yamaha WX-021 MusicCast
Power output: 40 watts (1 kHz, 10% THD)
Drive units:
– 1x 30mm soft-dome tweeter
– 1x 90mm mid/bass driver
– 2x 90mm passive radiators
Connectivity: 802,11 Wi-Fi, 10/100 Ethernet
Wireless: Bluetooth V4.2 and Apple AirPlay 2
Supported file formats: WAV, MP3, WMA, MP4 AAC, FLAC, ALAC, AIFF
Dimensions (WxHxD): 150 x 186 x 130 mm
Weight: 2,2 kg

Yamaha WX-051 MusicCast
Power output: 70 watts (1 kHz, 10% THD)
Drive units:
– 2x 30mm soft-dome tweeters
– 2x 100mm mid/bass drivers
Connectivity: 802.11 Wi-Fi, 10/100 Ethernet
Inputs: Toslink digital optical, stereo minijack, stereo RCA
Wireless: Bluetooth V4.2 and Apple AirPlay 2
Supported file formats: WAV, MP3, WMA, MP4 AAC, FLAC, ALAC, AIFF
Dimensions (WxHxD): 400 x 112186 x 200 mm
Weight: 4,5 kg
PRICING
WX-021: R5 380
WX-051: R8 080
SUPPLIED BY
Balanced Audio

Don’t judge this book by its cover! The Yamaha WXAD-10 might look like an innocuous little box, but its feature set is impressive: it adds streaming capability to anything from existing stereo systems to lifestyle mini-systems, and delivers the sonic goods, too

 

By Deon Schoeman

Streaming is the new buzzword. Whether that entails streaming music from network-attached storage, from on-line services such as Tidal, Deezer or Spotify, or from the thousands of Internet stations, it opens up an almost unlimited catalogue of material.

The Yamaha MusicCast WXAD-10 offers a quick and convenient way to add streaming capability to existing endpoints. Those endpoints could be an existing stereo or home theatre system, or even a smaller, all-in-one lifestyle set-up.

The Yamaha will also work with active speaker systems, as well as headphones. And if you own other networked Yamaha MusicCast devices, the WXAD-10 can share content with those devices, too.

Finally, the Yamaha will accept wireless data streams from iOS devices using Apple AirPlay, and from any device capable of transmitting audio using Bluetooth.

AT FACE VALUE

It’s had to equate all that functionality with a small, lightweight box that measures just 13 cm high wide and 11 cm deep. The front is adorned by three LED status lights that confirm power on, as well as active Wi-Fi and Bluetooth connections.

At the rear, you’ll find a 3,5 mm analogue minijack output, a stereo RCA output set, an RJ45 network socket, and a 5V DC power input. Power comes from a wall wart-type supply, included in the package.

The base of the unit has four rubber ‘feet’ and recessed buttons marked power, connect, and option. These are used during the initial set-up phase, but should not be needed thereafter, unless you change the installation.

The WXAD-10 is operated using Yamaha’s free MusicCast Connect app, available for iOS and Android smart devices. It offers an intuitive interface that makes access to the Yamaha’s extensive feature set a simple affair.

The app allows for streaming from a variety of services, including Deezer, Qobuz, Spotify and Deezer, as well as Juke and Napster. Depending on the country you’re in, some of those won’t be available.

In addition, the app will allow music playback from network-attached storage devices: you can select from compatible NAS devices on the network, and then navigate and select content. Then there’s Internet radio, searchable by type (music or podcasts) and then by various categories: location, quality, trending, etc.

Finally, if you have a device that can play back using Bluetooth (Android smartphones and many high-res digital audio players, for instance), the Yamaha will accept Bluetooth audio streams. For iOS fans, there’s AirPlay compatibility, allowing content from an iDevice to be sent directly to the Yamaha.

As the WXAD-10 is part of Yamaha’s MusicCast network family, it can share content with any MusicCast device on the same network, which opens up some attractive multiroom and sound distribution possibilities without any additional investment.

UNDER THE COVERS

It might look almost too plain and simple to be true, but the Yamaha conceals some sophisticated electronics under that basic casework. Notably, it employs a Burr-Brown PCM5121 DAC to support a broad array of lossy and lossless digital audio files.

Thus WAV, FLAC and AIFF files are supported at up to 192 kHz/24-bit resolutions, and ALAC up to 96 kHz/24-bit. In addition, the Yamaha will also play back WMA, MP3 and MPEG4/AAC at up to 320 kbps levels.

According to Yamaha, signal paths have been optimised to prioritise sound quality, while circuit components have been selected with the same objective in mind. The network module includes a high-precision, low-jitter clock to make the most of high-res sources.

SETTING UP

Getting the WXAD-10 up and running is pretty much a plug and play affair. I connected the stereo RCA outputs to an Electrocompaniet EC4.7 pre-amp, plugged in a network cable and the power cord, and pressed the ‘Connect’ button on the base of the unit.

That allowed the MusicCast app to recognise the unit, after which there were options to name both the network and the ‘room’ (In the MusicCast universe, each MusicCast device occupies a ‘room’ or zone).

If you prefer a wireless connection, the Yamaha is 802.11 Wi-Fi capable. Once it recognises the network as wireless, the app will use the logon credentials on the smart device running the app to hook up to the Wi-Fi network.

Next, you can enter logon details for those streaming services you have access to (Tidal and Deezer, in my case), while Spotify is accessed using the Spotify Connect app, which then sees the WXAD-10 as an endpoint and streams content to it.

Similarly, if you want to stream music from your iDevice, you simply open the app you want to stream from (Apple Music, for instance) and select the Yamaha as the playback device from the list under the AirPlay icon.

Any Bluetooth audio device that can stream to a Bluetooth receiver will work with the Yamaha: I used my Astell & Kern AK Junior for that purpose. It quickly recognised and paired with the WXAD-10, and was then accessible via the Bluetooth source setting on the MusicCast app.

As mentioned earlier, the Yamaha comes equipped with a 3,5 mm stereo input jack, which accepted a pair of Sennheiser Momentum on-ear headphones. Using the jack conveniently cuts the output signal to the RCAs, while the volume level can be adjusted via the app.

Yamaha don’t make a song and dance of the WXAD-10’s ability to accommodate headphones, but it certainly had enough muscle to drive the Momentums with ease.

Admittedly, at 18 ohms, the Sennheisers present a fairly benign load, and the WXAD-10 might well struggle with less efficient headphones.

In all, it took less than 10 minutes to get everything up and running, after which operation was seamless and intuitive.

SOUNDS LIKE …

The Yamaha delivered a sonic performance that was satisfactory and enjoyable throughout, but was predictably reliant on the quality of the source signal. Thus, best results were achieved from high-res lossless WAV files stored on the NAS.

Eugene Istomin’s measured but majestic reading of Mozart’s Piano Concerto No.21 is immaculately captured as a 176,4 kHz/24-bit WAV file on the Reference Recordings label, and the Yamaha treated it with deference.

To be fair, it lacked some of the sparkle and tonal intensity that I was used to when listening to the same recording using my reference PS Audio DirectStream DAC, but then the DirectStream is a lot more expensive and sonically sophisticated!

The WXAD-10 sounded more polite, and more constrained in staging terms, but in a purely musical context, the sound was still engaging and inviting. It provided an articulate rendition of Istomin’s piano, and managed to believably capture the scale and presence of the orchestra.

‘Madrugada’, off the Yellowjacket’s A Rise In The Road set, was delivered with plenty of spunk and pace. The incisive drumwork and textured tenor sax were confidently expressed, while ensuring that the often subtle piano passages weren’t glossed over in the process.

Streaming The Jayhawks’ Back Roads And Abandoned Motels from Tidal as a 44/16 FLAC file showcased a sound that was certainly entertaining and engaging. ‘Bitter End’ sounded clean and open, with loads of detail that allowed the slick interplay of the vocal harmonies to come to the fore.

Material drawn from Deezer was also presented with a sense of clarity, given that the stream was delivered as a lossy MP3 file – in fact, from that perspective, the sonic results were admirable.

The same Jayhawks track sounded a little flatter in the upper trebles, and lacked some spatial dimension, but it remained both listenable and enjoyable. Bluetooth and AirPlay streams were not only reliable, but also came across with enough vigour and conviction to make for pleasing listening.

THE BOTTOM LINE

The Yamaha WXAD-10 is a small box with a big heart. It brings a wealth of streaming capabilities to existing systems and set-ups in a package that is easy to set up and simple to use.

It’s a competent and capable performer in sonic terms, too: it treats high-res material with deference, and makes the most of lossy formats and streams. The result is a device that gets to grips with the music well.

That said, it’s a pity that Yamaha haven’t endowed the WXAD-10 with a digital output, which would provide a useful upgrade path, and extend its appeal even further.

Still, given the modest outlay required, and its extensive functionality, the Yamaha WXAD-10 represents solid value, and provides a user-friendly and versatile gateway to full-featured streaming.

VITAL STATS

DLNA version:1.5
File formats:
– MP3, WMA, MPEG4 AAC: up to 320kbs
– WAV, FLAC, AIFF: up to192 kHz/24-bit,
– ALAC up to 96 kHz/ 24-bit
Connectivity: 802.11 Wi-Fi, 10/100 Ethernet, Bluetooth 2.1 + EDR
Dimensions (WxHxD): 130 x 45 x 106 mm
Weight: 226 grams
PRICE
R1 980
SUPPLIED BY
Balanced Audio

ASSOCIATED EQUIPMENT
PS Audio DirectStream DAC + Bridge II
Astell & Kern AK Jr DAP
iPhone 5SE
Electrocompaniet EC4.7 pre-amp
PS Audio Stellar M700 monoblocks
Vivid Audio V1.5 speakers

SOFTWARE
Mozart – Piano Concerto Nos. 21 and 24 – Eugene Istomin/Schwarz/Seattle Symphony (Reference Recordings 176/24 WAV)
Yellowjackets – A Rise In The Road (Mack Avenue 96/24 FLAC)
The Jayhawks – Back Roads And Abandoned Motels (Legacy/Sony Music 44/16 FLAC)

High-end audio and designer aesthetics don’t necessarily go hand in hand. But French marque Devialet has managed to combine sculptural design with top-class sonics, with some clever electronics added for good measure

By Deon Schoeman

It’s been a good six years since Devialet first burst onto the high-end audio scene with an all-in-one device that not only looked like a work of sculpted art, but promised exceptional sonic performance, utilising several innovative technologies.

That first-generation Devialet was called the D-Premier, and if anything, the sheer beauty of the slim, shiny enclosure counted against the newcomer: ‘serious’ audiophiles wrote it off as just another expensive example of lifestyle audio.

As it turned out, nothing could have been further from the truth. The Devialet sought to deliver true high-end performance from an all-in-one device, harnessing the benefits of short signal paths, innovative technologies, painstaking build quality, and a user-friendly interface.

Since that first D-Premier, the original Devialet has benefited from an ongoing development process. The range now consists of three stereo and three dual-mono models. The stereo versions can be upgraded to dual-mono status, and multi-amp configurations are also possible.

The version under scrutiny here is the Devialet Expert 220 Pro, which sits between the more affordable Exert 140 Pro and the more expensive Expert 250 Pro in the stereo line-up.

AT FACE VALUE

Crafted from a single billet of aluminium and polished to a mirror finish, the ultra-slim Devialet still looks as futuristic as the original. The all-metal enclosure is almost completely devoid of any switchgear, except for a power button on the front, and a circular digital status display on the top panel.

The remote control is also more objet d’art than handset. Designed for desktop use, it’s a solid aluminium device consisting of a plinth which is home to a rotary controller. Buttons above and below the controller offer power on/off, mute, source selection and tone adjustment.

For more convenient handheld use, there’s also a free Devialet Expert app, which also offers volume control, source selection and mute functions.

The rearmost part of the Devialet’s top panel can be removed to gain easier access to the rear panel. Because the enclosure is so slim, the rear panel facilities are crammed together quite closely, requiring some care when making the various connections.

Overall execution is exemplary in both visual and quality terms: the mirror finish is flawless, the rear panel cover fits precisely, and the remote control’s level adjuster operates with a heft and precision that is very much upper league.

The only visual flaw? That shiny, reflective finish gathers fingerprints with alarming alacrity …

UNDER THE COVERS

I don’t want to spend too much time dissecting the finer technical details of what makes the Devialet tick. Those who want to delve deeper into its patented technologies can visit the Devialet website here.

However, its worth considering at least some of the 220 Expert Pro’s core technologies. For starters, there’s the hybrid Class A/Class D amplification, dubbed ADH Intelligent, which has been further refined for its use here.

Those improvements include an upgraded ADH Intelligent amplification section, featuring new Class A and Class D amplifier modules, a new power supply, and upgraded temperature management.

It effectively offers the best of Class A (musicality) and Class D (efficiency) by running the two technologies in parallel. The result is the pace, agility and low heat levels of Class D, linked to the tonal bandwidth and musical soul typical of Class A.

As for rated power output, the Expert 220 Pro is credited with 2x 220 watts into 6 ohms.

One of the core design principles of Devialet is the use of short, integrated signal paths, allowing more efficient signal transfer between pre-amplifier, power amplifier, digital-to-analogue converter, analogue-to-digital converter and phono stage.

All of these modules would usually be separate components in a traditional high-end audio system. Here, they’re all located in one enclosure, allowing fast and direct signal transfer from source to speaker binding post.

The Expert 220 Pro also features the latest version of Devialet’s so-called SAM system. Short for Speaker Active Matching, it uses digital signal processing to match output performance to the particular characteristics of specific loudspeakers, measured for that very purpose.

The list of SAM-calibrated speakers is already an extensive one, with more being added regularly.

AIR is another Devialet technology, this one referring to the Expert 220 Pro’s ability to stream audio content at up to 192 kHz/24-bit resolutions, using either Ethernet or Wi-Fi. It does so regardless of format or streaming service: for instance, it’s compatible with Tidal and Spotify, is Roon-compliant, and recognises MQA-encoded music.

The phono stage comes as a bit of a surprise in such a digitally orientated, futuristic product. It offers exceptional adaptability to a wide range of MM and MC phono cartridges, with preset settings for many of the better known high-end cartridge brands and models already included.

For instance, it offered settings for my Ortofon Cadenza Black, but there were no listings for Van Den Hul cartridges, which meant I had to input the values for The Frog MC cartridge manually – an easy enough process.

Not only can you set loading and capacitance, but also choose from 13 equalisation curves that not include the more conventional RIAA 1973 and 1953 curves, but also various other, brand-specific ones from the likes of Decca, RCA, Columbia, EMI and more.

The Devialet allows firmware-based upgrades to ensure constant improvements and feature additions, all downloadable and user-installable.

On that subject, the Devialet’s array of inputs, both digital and analogue, can be configured, and fine-tuned, depending on the specific end-user’s requirements.

The configuration process is highly intuitive and done using a web-based configurator, then stored onto an SD card which is then inserted into the Devialet to transfer the configuration.

Three stereo RCA input sets can be configured as either phono, line or even individual SPDIF digital inputs. There are also optical digital inputs, an Ethernet socket, a USB Type B connector.

Selecting mono or stereo operation, and choosing the SAM setting for your specific speaker type (or switching SAM off) is also done using the configurator.

SETTING UP

With everything in one sleek enclosure, set-up was simple. I connected my Vivid V1.5s to the rear binding posts, and hooked up the Devialet to my network router via Ethernet cable.

Next, I utilised the built-in phono stage for my Avid Diva II SP/SME 309/VdHul The Frog record deck. An analogue input set was used to connect my PS Audio DirectStream DAC.

I then used the on-line configurator to customise the various settings, including selecting the Vivids from the SAM drop-down menu list, and configuring the phono stage for the Van Den Hul cartridge.

Once stored onto an SD card, the configuration file was then transferred to the Devialet. I was up and running in less than 20 minutes, without any rocket science involved.

SOUNDS LIKE …

Let me say this right from the outset: I have never heard the Vivid Audio V1.5s sound so good! For compact standmounts, they have always impressed with their tonal range, linearity and pace, but the Devialet made them sound bigger, faster and more transparent than ever.

I can only assume that the DSP-driven SAM system is the reason behind this enhanced performance, allowing the 220 Pro’s output characteristics to be perfectly matched to the capabilities of the speakers.

So, just on that level alone, the sound in my listening room was given a substantial boost. With the list of SAM-measured speakers spanning something like 800-plus models from an extensive list of marques, and more being added all the time, the 220 Pro should accommodate a high percentage of quality speakers out there.

I briefly ran the Devialet with SAM switched off, and while the results were still musically and sonically satisfying, the sound lost some of its impact and dimensional precision. A measure of bass extension and speed was lacking, and while staging and imaging remained invitingly realistic, the sonic picture wasn’t quite as finely detailed.

Needless to say I conducted the remainder of the review with SAM activated, and I would suggest that it’s a vital element of the Devialet’s talents.

I enjoyed the way the Vivids became even more transparent on the soundstage, effectively disappearing as point sources completely, and freeing up the music.

The soundstage was vast and all-enveloping, even in my relatively compact listening room, while precise imaging qualified that staging in truly three-dimensional terms. As a result, instruments and vocals were allowed to occupy precisely delineated positions, adding to an overriding sense of realism.

As mentioned, the Devialet managed to extract a broader tonal range from the Vivids than I’ve heard to date. The lower registers were delivered with loads of pace and momentum, but remained in perfectly linear balance, adding vital foundation and urge to the music, but never becoming overpowering.

The midrange was smooth and approachable, but neither soft nor oversaturated, allowing ample insight and detail retrieval. The delivery steered a satisfying path between lucidity and presence, never endowing the music with too much body, but not reverting to clinical analysis, either.

The trebles were clear and revealing, and while those with a predilection for the warm, somewhat rolled-off sound typical of valve amplifiers may consider the tonal signature in the upper frequencies on the aloof side, I enjoyed the way that lucidity revealed fine details and highlighted subtle elements without reverting to a dissection of the music.

Indeed, there was a unity of purpose and an overall grasp of the music’s essence that made spending time in the company of the Pro 220 a thoroughly rewarding pastime.

It also has to be said that the Devialet partners seamlessly with the Roon music management software I run in my listening room – another significant plus point, as Roon not only counts as one of the best-sounding playback systems, but also one of the most intuitive and feature rich.

Since Roon has Tidal as an embedded streaming service, those who believe in the benefits of MQA-encoded music will be able to use the Devialet’s MQA-unfolding capabilities to good effect, further adding to its appeal.

The atmospheric ‘All Is Quiet’, from The Devil Makes Three’s Chains Are Broken set, features bold, Shadows-style lead guitars, a brooding bass and wide-open staging – and it made for riveting listening.

The laid-back percussion and almost casual strumming of the rhythm guitar may take a back seat in the mix, but were brought to full account here. The vocals were allowed to soar high above the accompanying instruments, adding to the sense of immersive dimensionality.

For all its slow-fuse sleaziness, the music was delivered with succinct definition and composure, adding to its overall lustre and appeal.

The recently released remastered version of Led Zeppelin’s rather messy and often underrated original soundtrack, The Song Remains The Same, brings new sparkle and definition to the music, without losing the electricity and ambience of the original live concert.

On the evergreen ‘Stairway To Heaven’, the Devialet was able to dig deep into the heart of the performance, hauling out little snippets of information that I hadn’t heard before.

Jimmy Page’s guitar, which can sound jagged and edgy, gained both presence and definition, while John Bonham’s urgent drumming underpinned the performance in typically boisterous fashion.

By comparison the keyboards and bass pedals of John Paul Jones were an almost understated but no less powerful presence.

Rising jazz star Camille Thurman’s Waiting For The Sunrise, recorded for the Chesky label, shows off a reverberant ambience that can sound almost too overblown on some systems. But here, it added life and vibrancy to the performance.

On ‘September In The Rain’, the sheer power and stature of the double bass was rendered with the kind of vitality usually associated with bigger speakers and bigger systems.

The slap of fingers on strings, and the speed and tonal depth of the instrument sounded, well, just the real thing, while the sax blew and blustered with infectious enthusiasm.

Even so, Thurmann’s deft, agile vocals always commanded centre stage, alternating between lyrical phrasing and delightful scatting. The Devialet had no trouble keeping up with the pace of the music, again delivering a full, deep sound picture that was painted with both passion and realism.

The phono stage of the Devialet is every bit as good as its makers claim: ironically because it is able to digitally define the required cartridge parameters so precisely.

It was able to replicate the bold, sonorous sound of Dave Alvin’s guitar on the title track of Blackjack David to spine-tingling effect, while also doing full justice to the drawling vocals, both spread across and into the vast prairie of the soundstage.

The low frequencies were delivered with loads of presence and impetus, especially when the sound picture fills up towards the end of the song. At the same time, the Devialet maintained its clear, measured adn ultimately realistic approach.

It treated microdetails with reverence, yet never to the detriment of the music’s broader, bolder strokes, while spreading the sound across a dark, noise-free backdrop.

THE BOTTOM LINE

The Expert 220 Pro is easily the finest and most believable expression of the Devialet formula to date. It has loads of muscle and momentum, linked to the kind open-window staging that affords both insight and immediacy.

With so much breathing space, the music is delivered with a vitality and splendour that’s carried through regardless of genre, while the clarity inherent to the Devialet’s approach ensures a full and thoroughly believable harvest of musical information.

The 220 Pro is able to make the most of signals delivered by separate sources, and it even made lossy material from Spotify sound pretty good. It also excelled when employing the in-built phono stage.

But to my ears, it was at its very best when playing high-res digital audio files from my Synology NAS. There was an added liquidity and approachability to the sound which had me listening into the wee hours of the morning on more than one occasion!

The combination of the Devialet, a fast network connection, and Roon music management accessing a NAS-based music library and Tidal’s streaming service is a match made in hi-fi heaven. Simple, elegant and user-friendly it is, above all, magically musical.

VITAL STATS

Power output: 2x 220 watts (6 ohms)
DAC: Cirrus Logic WM8740
ADC: Texas Instruments PCM4202
Digital conversion: Up to 192 kHz/24-bit PCM, DSD64 (via coaxial SPDIF and USB)
DSP: 3x SHARC 400 MHz DSP chips
Signal-to-noise ratio: >130 dB (unweighted)
THD: 0,0005% (130 watts/-106 dB)
Digital inputs: 2x coaxial digital, 2x optical, AES/EBU, USB 2.0
Analogue inputs: 1x line-level RCA, 1x phono (configurable)
Connectivity: Fast Ethernet and proprietary AIR wireless
Dimensions (WxDxH): 383 x 383 x 40 mm
Weight: 5,9 kg
PRICE
R135 900
SUPPLIED BY
Fundipoint

SOFTWARE
The Devil Makes Three – Chains Are Broken (New West 96/24 FLAC)
Camille Thurman – Waiting For The Sunrise (Chesky 96/24 FLAC)
Led Zeppelin – OST: The Song Remains The Same (Atlantic/Rhino 96/24 FLAC)
Dave Alvin – Blackjack David (Hightone/Mobile Fidelity Soundlab LP)

ASSOCIATED EQUIPMENT
PS Audio DirectStream + Bridge II DAC
Avid Diva II SP/SME 309/Van Den Hul The Frog record deck
Sutherland 20/20 phono stage
Electrocompaniet EC4.7 pre-amp
PS Audio Stellar M700 monoblocks
Vivid Audio V1.5 loudspeakers
Synology DS213+ NAS

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)