Digital music has largely moved away from packaged media formats like CD, DVD-Audio, and SACD. Nowadays, online downloads of MP3s or high-resolution tracks from websites such as HDtracks are the norm. For playback of MP3s, Apple and other consumer-electronics giants have you covered with iPods and other portable media players. Many companies now make docking stations to connect those iPods to low-end boom boxes as well as to high-end amps from brands such as Krell and McIntosh.
At the other end of the scale are 24-bit/96-192kHz high-resolution files. Companies such as Linn and Meridian make music servers to play these files that sound fantastic but cost a mint. For a middle-of-the-road guy like me, there aren’t many good options. One way to listen to these tracks is to connect a laptop to a DAC, as I did for my review of the Cambridge Audio Azur DacMagic Plus. This is a great solution if all of your music is stored on your computer. But I soon realized that if I wanted to rip all of my CDs to a hard drive, I would have two problems: data security and lack of storage space.
One solution to both problems is to rip CDs to a network-attached storage device (NAS). Many of these come with two to four hard-drive bays; as your music collection grows, the NAS can be expanded by adding more and/or higher-capacity drives. They can also be configured in a RAID array (redundant array of independent disks), in which one drive backs up the other. Then, if one drive fails, you have the backup. But once all of your music is centrally stored and backed up, what’s the best way to play it through your audio system?
One means would be to use media-center software, such as JRiver, to stream from the NAS to your system -- but you still need a computer to do that. Another, more elegant solution is the subject of this review: Cambridge Audio’s Stream Magic 6 upsampling network music player ($1149 USD).
Unlike their half-sized Azur DacMagic Plus, Cambridge Audio’s Stream Magic 6 is a full-sized component measuring 16.9"W x 3.4"H x 12.2"D. It should fit in nicely with your other audio gear in a standard audio rack. The faceplate is dominated by a large (4"W x 1.5"H) central LCD screen, with a control knob to the right. This screen displays only text, no graphics. You navigate the Magic 6’s extensive menu by rotating or pushing the knob.
Surrounding the screen are buttons for Play, Stop, Pause, Fast Forward, Rewind, Enter, Information, and Memory (presets for Internet Radio stations). Like the DacMagic Plus, the Stream Magic 6 has a button for toggling among three digital filters, to tailor the sound to your liking. The same button also allows you to invert the phase. Also on the front panel is a USB port for connecting a flash drive or external hard drive.
Around back are connections for a Wi-Fi antenna (included), USB (one for a storage device, one for streaming from a computer), Ethernet, coax and TosLink digital inputs (one each), coax and TosLink digital outputs (one each), and left/right balanced XLR and unbalanced RCA outputs. The second USB output is a type B connection configured in asynchronous mode; when music is streamed through it from your computer, the signal is clocked by the Stream Magic 6, which eliminates many of the timing errors, or jitter, that can be present in an audiostream.
The Stream Magic 6 shares much of its DNA with the Azur DacMagic Plus, but for $500 more you get a lot more flexibility and functionality. The guts of the Stream Magic 6 are the same as the DacMagic Plus. Featured are two Wolfson WM8740 24-bit DACs configured in what Cambridge calls Dual Differential Virtual Earth Balanced filter topology. This chip supports sampling frequencies up to 192kHz and word lengths from 16 to 24 bits. From the Wolfson DACs, the signal is upsampled to 24/384 by a 32-bit Analog Devices DSP using what Cambridge calls ATF2, developed in conjunction with Anagram Technologies. The result, says Cambridge, is dramatically reduced jitter.
Like many other Cambridge Audio components, the Stream Magic 6 boasts jack-of-all-trades versatility. Like the Azur DacMagic Plus, it can be configured as a digital preamplifier, in which case its large knob becomes a volume control. However, the Stream Magic 6 is infinitely more useful as a digital preamp when used with the supplied remote control. The remote is no cheap plastic device but an elegant masterpiece of brushed aluminum. All functions are available through the remote, from changing digital filters and selecting new tracks to turning up the volume and switching among different digital inputs. If you have only digital sources, you can hook up the Stream Magic 6 to a power amp for a truly minimalist system. One caveat: The volume control attenuates the signal through the DSP, which results in rather coarse increments of adjustment; you might not be able to hit the exact volume level you want.
What the Stream Magic 6 plays
So far, I’ve described the Stream Magic 6 as a DacMagic Plus with Wi-Fi and Ethernet capability, but from there the two devices diverge. Its Ethernet connectivity means that the Magic 6 can play files from the Internet or your LAN. I used it with my NAS: two hard drives with 2TB of storage, one backing up the other. On the hard drive, a folder named Music contains all of my music files. The Stream Magic 6 could play those files without my needing to have a computer connected -- to me, the most secure and useful way to play digital files. Since my NAS is on all the time, when I want to listen to music, I just turn on the Stream Magic 6. That’s it. I don’t have to turn on my computer, launch a program, or plug a laptop into the Cambridge’s USB port.
The Stream Magic 6 plays a slew of music files from the NAS, such as MP3, FLAC, WAV, etc., used with UPnP (Universal Plug and Play) servers. The only files it won’t play over the LAN are 24/192 FLAC or WAV files. When I tried to play these, they stuttered badly. These 24/192 files also didn’t play well directly from a USB hard or flash drive, though they sounded fine when streamed from a PC. Also note that the Stream Magic 6 will play only non-DRM files, which shouldn’t be an issue nowadays -- iTunes has been DRM-free since 2009. However, this may be a problem with some of your other downloads.
The Stream Magic 6 will also play Internet Radio stations and podcasts. Living here in Canada, I found that some US stations wouldn’t play, though all of the BBC stations did -- perhaps because Canada is part of the British Commonwealth. At any rate, the BBC’s podcasts also consistently worked well. If you live in the US, the Stream Magic 6 will also work with on-demand music-subscription services like Pandora and Rhapsody.
If you own an Apple iOS device or an Android tablet, Cambridge Audio has a free app you can download that opens up a whole world of interaction with the Stream Magic 6. Not only can you control the volume (in digital preamp mode), you can see the album art and set up playlists for your tracks just by pointing and dragging on the iPad screen. Another cool trick with this app: If you have a Cambridge Audio integrated amplifier, such as the Azur 851A, you can connect it to the Stream Magic 6 with the supplied orange RCA cable and have analog volume control of the 851A
When I used the Stream Magic 6 with a wired connection to my LAN, I had no problems -- the Stream Magic 6 started up and immediately found my network. There were a few things I had to do to get the Stream Magic 6 to communicate with my NAS device, a Netgear ReadyNAS Duo v.2. I made sure that the UPnP discovery service was turned on, the appropriate file-sharing protocol CIFS was checked off, and the file folder with my music was shared. Occasionally, when I copied music to the NAS, the Stream Magic 6 wouldn’t see it right away. The solution was to reboot the ReadyNAS; the files then appeared on the Stream Magic 6 as if by magic.
Once you get the Stream Magic 6 working with your NAS, download the Cambridge Stream app to your iPod Touch from the iTunes store. If you don’t have an iPod Touch, buy one -- the Stream Magic 6 works so well with it. When I selected tracks, there was no lag -- it was instantaneous. You get album art, setting up queues is easy, and scrolling through Internet Radio stations is effortless. My satisfaction with the Stream Magic 6 went up ten times when using it with the iPod Touch.
I listened to the Cambridge Audio Stream Magic 6 extensively with a variety of tracks, mostly through the network connection. For my listening impressions through the USB connection, please see my DacMagic Plus review: the Stream Magic 6 sounded identical. The Stream Magic 6 proved to me again and again that ripping my entire CD collection to NAS is well worth the time and effort. This wasn’t just for the obvious convenience of having my entire music collection in one place -- CD tracks ripped to NAS and played through the Stream Magic 6 sounded better.
That sonic superiority showed through when, having connected the components in various ways with analog and digital connections, I compared the sound of the Stream Magic 6 with that of my Oppo BDP-83 Blu-ray player and the internal DACs of my Emotiva UMC-1 preamplifier-processor. Before I sat down to listen to music, I thought there would be little, if any, sonic benefit to ripping CD tracks to NAS compared to playing the discs themselves in my Oppo player. Boy, was I wrong. Purists might argue that the best DACs are those that process a signal in its native resolution. Boy, are they wrong -- in my experience. In fact, whether it was the reduction in jitter or the polynomial curve fitting of the ATF2 upsampling algorithm, music simply sounded better through the Stream Magic 6. Listening to Holly Cole’s Temptation (16/44.1 FLAC, Alert), I immediately noticed a lower noise floor compared to the CD played through the Oppo. The central image of Cole’s voice in "I Don’t Want to Grow Up" was more sharply defined with the streamed file.
When I compared 16/44.1 and 24/96 versions of the same recording, the Stream Magic 6 easily demonstrated the sonic benefits of the higher resolution. The soundstages of Norah Jones’s Come Away With Me (16/44.1 WAV, Blue Note CD ripped to NAS) were wider and more defined in a 24/96 download of the same album. The acoustic piano sounded slightly more real, with notes that had longer, more natural decays. Played directly from the CD, the sound was also inferior to the ripped CD version, with some smearing of detail and less precise imaging, which demonstrated to me the audible benefits of ATF2 upsampling. I also have an SACD/CD of this album (Blue Note B00008WT49); I preferred the 24/96 NAS ripped version to the SACD tracks. This may have been partially due to my preamp-processor’s inability to accept a native DSD bitstream -- I had to downsample them to 88.2kHz through the Oppo BDP-83. I suspect that, through its HDMI connection, the BD player also imparts some jitter to the signal that might lower the sound quality.
Although I find that most MP3 files sound harsh and are not compelling to listen to, there’s no denying the convenience of their small size and low price. Much pop music is mixed for headphone or radio listening anyway, so it doesn’t make sense to go with hi-rez downloads. Nevertheless, the Stream Magic 6 will extract a lot of detail from even these tracks. Listening to Cee Lo Green’s The Lady Killer (MP3, Elektra), I was pleasantly surprised to hear the depth of the bass response in "Bodies." I realize it wasn’t the deepest bass, but it was loud and remarkably clean through the Stream Magic 6.
I found it difficult to compare the sound of the Stream Magic 6 with other, similar components of my experience -- the streamer-DAC-digital-preamp combo is an uncommon one. If you’re in the market for a DAC and you play your files from a PC or Apple Mac Mini, I see no sonic advantage in getting a Stream Magic 6 instead of an Azur DacMagic Plus. The latter has a headphone connection jack if you need one, while the Stream Magic 6 has two remote options (included remote control and iPad/iPod/Android app). So pick and choose which better suits you -- though the DacMagic Plus costs $625 less.
If you’re centralizing your music library and are interested in streaming music, there aren’t a lot of great options available. At the low end, a media player like an Apple TV or a Western Digital WDTV Plus would work, but these options are fussy, with differing levels of file compatibility and sound quality. But for only around $100, such options are doable if you’re willing to fiddle around and to compromise on sound quality. As I mentioned in the introduction, Meridian, Linn, and Naim have the 1% covered with multi-thousand-dollar streamers. Which leave us with the Goldilocks of the streamer world: the Cambridge Audio Stream Magic 6, which seems to hit the "just right" spots of sound quality, ease of use, and versatility.
The Stream Magic 6 occupies a unique position in the audio world in being three components in one: a DAC, a streamer, and a digital preamp. Usually, when a component is designed to do so much, it falls flat on its face by not doing anything particularly well. Not so the Stream Magic 6 -- it fulfills its promise as a high-quality DAC, a high-quality digital preamp, and a high-quality streamer by sounding phenomenal in all three functions. To top it off, Cambridge deserves a lot of praise for its slick iOS app, which makes possible whole other levels of interaction with and usability with the Stream Magic 6. Try as I might, I could find nothing else that works as well. Cambridge Audio’s Stream Magic 6 gets a huge recommendation from me.
. . . Vince Hanada
- Preamplifier-processor -- Emotiva UMC-1
- Amplifier -- Adcom GFA-7500
- Speakers -- Monitor Audio Silver RX6
- Sources -- Oppo BDP-83 Blu-ray player, Acer Timeline 1810T Windows 7 laptop
- Cables -- Analysis Plus Blue Oval in-wall speaker cable, Analysis Plus Super Sub interconnects
Cambridge Audio Stream Magic 6 Network Music Player
Price: $1149 USD.
Warranty: Three years parts and labor.
Gallery Court, Hankey Place
London SE1 4BB
North American distributors:
Audio Plus Services (US)
156 Lawrence Paquette Industrial Drive
Champlain, NY 12919
Phone: (800) 663-9352
313 Marion Street
Le Gardeur, Quebec J5Z 4W8
Phone: (866) 271-5689