When it comes to high-end network music players, the smaller specialist audio companies have led the market.
Linn and Naim are perhaps the best-known examples, with Cyrus joining the party somewhat later – the larger mass-market brands have been cautious in this area, and only now are we seeing signs that the whole music-streaming idea may be in some danger of going mainstream.
The two arms of the D+M Group, Denon and Marantz, were a bit ahead of their rivals in this sector of the market, with the former’s DNP-720AE and the Marantz NA7004 each slotting into their manufacturer’s respective ranges. Meanwhile their streaming systems, such as the Marantz M-CR603 – just replaced by the M-CR610 – and the CEOL systems from Denon, offer all in one solutions.
Only now are the likes of Yamaha and Sony joining in the party: though both have had proprietary streaming systems in the past, now they’re conforming to the same industry-wide standards adopted by their rivals.
Those original Denon and Marantz streamers, while popular, have had a somewhat rocky ride in the market: features from the essential – gapless playback – to the fashionable – Spotify, AirPlay and the like – were missing when the products first appeared, and have been added in later updates, while the prices of both units have fallen to a fraction of their launch levels.
The Marantz NA7004, when it first appeared, was around the £700 mark, and can now be had for around £300 without too much Googlage, while the Denon DNP-720AE launched at over £400, but is now around £250. With the latest firmware updates, that makes either pretty much a steal.
However, lurking in the background of the D+M range has been the Marantz NA-11S1, a high-end network music player in the company’s Reference Series line-up, and designed to match the S3 versions of the SA-11 SACD/CD player and PM-11 amplifier.
I describe it as ‘lurking’ because the product first broke cover at the 2012 High End Show in Munich, Germany, alongside the likes of the Consolette all-in-one music system (which also took its time coming to the shops).
That was in May 2012, but by the time we got to that year’s annual D+M dealer conference, held in Valencia, Spain, the word was that, while other Marantz products previewed in Munich were on the way in the following few months, the NA-11S1 was on hold.
Intrigued, and keen to get my hands on a review sample – at £3499, the Marantz looked to have the makings of a serious rival for the rather more expensive Naim NDS/555PS and Linn’s Akurate DSM, one of which I am currently using as a reference, and the other the subject of a recent Gramophone review – I asked why, and got the usual Marantz answer: ‘Oh, you know Ken…’.
New readers start here: Marantz Brand Ambassador Ken Ishiwata (above) is not only the company’s travelling advocate, opening up new markets and giving his celebrated demonstrations worldwide, but also very heavily involved in the tuning of a wide variety of Marantz products.
Frankly, while I wouldn’t mind his air-miles balance, I’m not too sure how he keeps it up: every time I email him to ask a question about a product, it seems he’s in China or some other far-flung place promoting Marantz products or giving interviews. He’s based in Belgium, not too far from the Marantz offices in Eindhoven, Holland, but I’m not too sure how often he sees home!
Anyway, Ishiwata has something of a reputation as an inveterate tweaker, always nagging away at a product in the belief some more can be screwed out of the performance: as someone high up in Marantz said to me when I asked why the very cute Consolette system had taken a while to get to the shops, ‘There came a point when we had to say “Right, that’s it – let’s make it.” If we’d left it to Ken he’d still be tweaking it now’.
When Ken’s not happy…
What soon became clear about the NA-11S1 was that Marantz – and more to the point, Ishiwata – wasn’t happy with the product, and so the decision was taken to hold it back until it could be made more competitive.
It seems that some of the concerns were around functionality, in what is a fast-developing market seemingly, almost as driven by the need to have the latest widget as is the AV receiver arena. And Ishiwata clearly thought work was needed on the sound of the product, too.
As he put it in an email to me: ‘Premature information was given to sales before the design was finalised, and I had been discussing with the engineers in Japan the problems of computer audio, and especially noise.
‘As you are well aware, a computer is just a noise generator from a pure audio point of view! Therefore, we have to take extra care of every connection you have between the network audio player and PC – otherwise you’ll end up having all those nasty noises coming into your audio system!
‘Of course it requires specific technologies and know-how to avoid that interferences from the PC, and I requested certain things in the NA-11S1, but the original design application was simply not the standard we wanted…. NA-11 is our first high-end network player!
‘This meant large changes to be made in the original design, and consequently more time was required…. However, in my opinion, it was the right decision, and the proof is in the product, which has been getting rave reviews all over the world!
‘The funny thing was, before we came up with NA-11S1 our Japanese organisation was saying, ‘Oh, there isn’t a market in Japan, we won’t be able to sell such an expensive network audio player!’
‘When they started, they got the shock of their lives: it immediately became reference in opinion leader’s systems and received amazing reviews, with the end results that now they simply can’t supply enough.’
So there we have it: the Marantz NA-11S1 finally got demonstrated at this year’s Munich High End show, and then again at the 2013 D+M conference in Sorrento, Italy, as part of the company’s 60th anniversary celebrations (about which I have written elsewehere).
What’s immediately strikes one about the product is that it’s as solidly, and slickly, built as the company’s other Reference Series products. Mind you, that’s a sense of quality Marantz also seems able to percolate through to its less expensive products, too: even one of its entry-level amplifiers or CD players has that same feeling of precise, high-quality engineering.
Copper-plating and HDAMs – of course
The NA-11S1 is hefty, too: this ‘no moving parts’ product is still a 14.6kg lump of equipment, complete with signature Marantz design elements such as a substantial copper-plated chassis (above), strengthened with an extra metal plate for increased stiffness, a substantial toroidal transformer shielded in its own copper-plated housing, and the company’s HDAM and HDAM SA2 Hyper-Dynamic Amplifier Modules.
There’s also in-house DSP and digital filtering, used in association with the high-current DSD1792 digital conversion to create Marantz Musical Mastering, which uses a combination of oversampling, noise shaping and dithering to get the purest possible analogue sound.
There are also switchable digital filters available for some more tinkering with the sound if you get bored: the standard setting lets the signal through as is, while the second allows slightly longer post-echo than pre-echo, giving a smoother sound. I have to say the difference were very minor, and in the end I stuck to the first filter position.
Like other Denon/Marantz network products, the NA-11S1 is capable of streaming a wide range of music formats from a computer, NAS drive or whatever, handling content at up to 24-bit/192Khz over a wired Ethernet connection – there’s no Wi-Fi here – as well as having internet radio, support for streaming services such as Last.fm and Spotify, and AirPlay when suitable devices are connected to the network on which it’s sitting.
There’s a remote control in the box, natch, the NA-11S1 can also be driven using the Marantz Remote App, which is available for both iOS and Android devices (or you can just type the player’s IP address into a browser window on a computer on the same network, and get control from your desktop), and outputs are provided on both balanced XLRs and conventional unbalanced phono sockets, as well as optical and coaxial/electrical digital connections.
It’s a DSD DAC, too
However, that’s only half the story: the Marantz is also a high-quality DAC, with the usual digital inputs plus asynchronous USB. And it’s through the USB input that it can handle music files up to and including ‘double speed’ DSD5.6, the higher-resolution version of the original DSD2.8 format used for Super Audio CD.
Getting the Marantz optimised for those DSD files was another reason its launch was held back: there may be a relatively small library of DSD recordings out there – from the likes of Norway’s 2L, Channel Classics and Blue Coast Records, as well as e-Onkyo in Japan – but it’s growing, and Ishiwata is also an advocate of upconverting existing CD-quality files to the DSD format in the computer, and then playing them back through a DSD DAC such as the NA-11S1.
Why so? Ishiwata says his enthusiasm for DSD ‘has nothing to do with the original recording format or quality – it’s simply due to the fact that the majority of today’s D-to-A converter chips are utilising Delta/Sigma technology.
‘DSD can by-pass certain processing within those D-to-A converter chips, so you …. get a less processed signal with DSD compared to PCM, which of course will influence the sound quality.’
Playing such files through the NA-11S1 isn’t just a matter of firing up iTunes: dedicated software is needed on the computer to play the tracks. On PCs, Ishiwata recommends JRiver, while for Macs he’d go for Audirvarna, and he also suggests trying Korg’s AudioGate for playing DSD files.
Suitably kitted up on the software front, with Audirvarna and AudioGate already loaded on the MacBook, connected to the Marantz with a 5m run of Chord USB cable, I tried a wide range of source material, from speech internet radio through to DSD files from both 2L and Channel Classics – thanks to both labels for content used in this review.
It sounds very – well, Marantz
It’s easy to hear the hand (and ears) of Ishiwata in the sound of the NA-11S1: the balance is big, rich and powerful, with no shortage of bass extension and slam, making for a real room-pounding ability provided your amp and speakers can do the job, but listen for a while and you start to appreciate just how much information is being delivered, and how well it’s being organised to make effortlessly enjoyable music.
From classical music to lovingly-recorded acoustic jazz, the Marantz is capable of delivering glowing, vibrant instrumental textures while at the same time keeping the music motoring on with a real swing. It isn’t a matter of a series of admirable audio tricks being laid before one to be marvelled at in the manner of a magic show – rather the NA-11S1 does all the clever stuff, but employs it to make you concentrate more fully on the performance, not the hi-fi.
The smallest nuances are clearly delivered, and yet the player has all the power required to crash out big orchestral climaxes or motor through rock discs with a real sense of ‘go on, then – turn it up a bit more’.
The leading edges of notes have real attack and impact, decay naturally, and performers occupy a stable position in the soundstage picture – which has its characteristic Marantz three-dimensionality – when the recording requires.
True, I think the NA-11S1 gives away a little to the Naim NDS/555PS combination when it comes to absolute involvement, detail and power, but then it does cost less than a third on the ticket on the British-built player, and have the benefit of that DSD capability.
So, was the NA-11S1 worth the wait? I think so: the Marantz joins a small, very select group of high-end dedicated network music players, and also manages to bridge the gap between what some perceive as a European bias towards streaming over a network and the American preference for ‘Macs and DACs’. The NA-11S1 does both, and does both very well indeed, giving it an appeal for the serious computer music enthusiast way beyond its use in an all-Marantz system.
Network music player | £3499
Formats played WMA, MP3, AAC, WAV (to 192kHz), FLAC (to 192kHz), Apple Lossless (to 96KHz), DSD 2.8/5.6 (via USB PC input)
Other audio options Spotify, Last.FM, Apple AirPlay, Internet radio (including podcasts where available)
Audio inputs Optical and coaxial/electrical digital, asynchronous USB (for computer), USB (for memory devices or iOS devices)
Audio outputs Optical/electrical digital, balanced or conventional stereo analogue, headphones
Other connections Remote control in/out, external infrared sensor, Ethernet, RS232
Remote control via handset supplied, Marantz Remote App for iOS/Android, or web browser
Dimensions (WxHxD) 44×12.7×41.7cm