Print | posted on Wednesday, August 29, 2012 7:31 PM
In July 2011 I purchased the Cambridge Audio Sonata NP30, a network music player. After about six months of use I posted a detailed review, which was somewhat surprisingly popular. Often people I meet in work related situations will want to talk more about tune streamers than some facet of SharePoint! :) In early May I got me the Stream Magic 6, and again here is a review after a period of extensive use (roughly four months), as opposed to the claptrap you will read in “hi-fi” rags that only used the thing for half a day!
The Stream Magic 6 (SM6) is Cambridge Audio’s first foray into the mid market for network music players. £300 more than the NP30, at £700 it competes with the likes of Yamaha and Pioneer, but not of course the likes of Linn etc. It certainly is a welcome step up from the NP30. In some ways the SM6 could be considered a combination of the NP30 and a DacMagic+. However that is a slightly unfair statement, and there’s more too it than just combining the two capabilities in a single box.
I’ve been using it for approximately four months and have it hooked up to a Sony STR-DA5600ES using the RCA outs and 2 Channel Direct thru to a pair of Sony SSK-70EDs. Here’s the SM6 in situ (in my rather awful rack):
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It’s immediately clear the SM6 is a step up in terms of design and construction from the NP30. Obviously the SM6 is a full width component which makes it much more at home with “serious” gear (the NP30 is really designed to be coupled with other Sonata components). Build quality and finish are far superior. Different (better) materials are used for the front panel and it’s also much weightier. Whilst it’s somewhat similar to the NP30 it just looks and feel more professional and the differences are significant. Alongside the addition of the filter controls (more on that later) the jog shuttle is really good, with excellent tactile operation. Much better than the one on the SM6. And then there’s the display which was one of my biggest gripes about the NP30:
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Whilst it’s still the same overall size this display is MUCH better. A much higher “resolution” is used making it seem a lot less dot matrix, and it is much more readable from reasonable distances. Also it’s a much cooler blue, and in fact it very closely matches my receiver display (and that of a CA One+). When the unit boots there is even some “artwork” which points to this display being able to do more interesting things than what it’s used for on the SM6.
There is also an additional row on the display. This makes a huge difference to usability from the front panel or supplied remote control. One of the biggest drawbacks to the NP30 was the inability of the display to show enough information leading to an almost constant scrolling of the display and having to wait for the scroll. This is now much less frequent as more characters can be shown and the extra row means navigation and selection is far easier. It would be nice if the display was slightly wider for sure, but whereas the NP30 display was just cheap and nasty, this display is quality.
Another of my complaints about the NP30 was the inability to turn the display off when listening. This has been addressed with the SM6 by allowing three levels of brightness, one of which is “off”. It’s not actually off but it’s so dim that from more than about 3 feet you can’t see it:
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So not off off! Which would be nice, but good enough to prevent the display being annoying when seriously listening.
Hook Ups and DAC
Alongside the basics (WLAN, LAN, RCA outputs and SPDIF and TOSLink digital inputs) the SM6 acts as an up sampling DAC for all sources. It effectively has the same feature set here as the DAC Magic+. On the rear is a USB input, which can handle up to 24/192 from a computer (for Windows via a CA driver). I guess this is seen as a neat feature, but I haven’t used it other than to test that it functions. For my needs I don’t care about this capability at all! I won’t be connecting this guy to my laptop very often! There are also XLR outputs should those be your bag.
You can also enable the unit to act as a pre-amplifier for active speakers if you so wish (I don’t). As with the NP30 there is also a USB port on the front to allow the use of memory sticks and so on.
Sound Quality, Formats and Performance
Now for the real stuff. It sounds superb. The majority of my library is 16/44.1 and it really does shine. The ATF2 up sampling is used for all sources. You can clearly tell that a rip of a CD is not quite up to the quality of my SACD player, but it’s also clearly better than the NP30. For £700 this unit seriously kicks ass. It’s very tight, there’s no drop off either at the low end. Extremely good spacing, and vocals and strings are simply stunning.
Feed it some good 24/96 and it gets even better. Anything over that is a bit tenuous especially given today’s mastering approaches, but this player can’t play them anyway. Only the Computer USB input can do 24/192. I would like the unit to support this over the stream, but I only have a very small amount of music in this format. I really don’t yet buy that 24/192 is of any practical use for stereo recordings at present.
Give it some crap MP3 or whatever it also does a great job of making them sound half decent. But if that’s your source material you should just do Sonos anyway! The unit also has some “streaming services” such as BBC etc that I don’t really use. I have setup a bunch of ‘net radio thou for the odd things I like (e.g Candy Dulfer’s friday nite funkathon).
Performance wise it is rock solid, like a brick house. Much better over the WLAN than the NP30 although I use the LAN, and actually this stuff is more to do with firmware updates than the unit itself.
Whilst not initially available, firmware updates provided gapless playback, which really should be considered a pre-requisite feature for a player of this ilk. Thankfully almost immediately after I got the unit I was able to use betas of the firmware. Gapless works just right, no missing stuff, unless you play via digital outs, which you shouldn’t be doing anyway!
The up sampler has three filters, similar again to the DacMagic+ and found on high end CD players etc. The differences are clearly audible and deserve experimentation depending upon the source material. I have mine set using the minimum filter as the default.
As mentioned above front panel and remote control usability is significantly improved. The Android and IOS app is also improved, and now uses the name Stream Magic. I have only used the IOS version on an iPad. It’s a lot better than the previous UuVol. I still wish however that CA would open up application development. I can’t use a UPnP control app like Kinsky, and in the near future I definitely want to control this bad boy using a Microsoft Surface. In the meantime, the IOS app still suffers the odd mishap when it gets confused but overall it’s much more usable.
The SM6 is the best mid market network music player. At a fantastic price it really delivers the goods. The focus on sound quality is very pleasing, other players have better controls/apps, but they simply don’t sound as good. And that is what it’s all about (or at least should be). I’m sure plenty of people will also like the Computer USB feature but that’s not for me.
Here’s a summary of the pros and cons.
- stunning sound quality and musical performance
- exceptional FLAC handling over the LAN
- very high quality build
- great value for money
- zero server side lock in
- no open control app development
- no track remaining time display
- no support for above 24/96 for streamed content
- filter/phase led stays on when display is turned “off” (minor gripe)
If you are in the market for a good value network player, and you care about musical performance I strongly encourage you to listen to the Stream Magic 6!
What have I done with the “old” NP30? Well that’s now in the bedroom hooked up to CA One+ system which is a very nice combination, although perhaps a new version of One+ will be introduced with the capabilities built in. It certainly seems as if CA are leveraging the streaming and DAC stuff across their components more and more over time.