From time to time I’ve gone out on a limb and made predictions about the future of various categories of audio component. Some of my predictions have proved accurate, some not. A few decades ago, when I saw my first demonstration of karaoke, I thought it too ridiculous to ever catch on in North America. I was right about one thing -- it was ridiculous -- but, obviously, it created a stir that has lasted a long time. I hadn’t factored in how effectively alcohol might help fuel the craze.
My latest prediction is about streaming technology, which has to do with playing digital music files over a network -- the biggest network of all being the Internet. A streamer is a product that allows streaming to happen (though sometimes streamers go by other names, the most popular being network player).
Streaming isn’t new -- it’s been around for a few years, and is a staple in such components as A/V receivers. There are also the Logitech Squeezebox products, which have been around for more than five years. But, on the whole, streamers are still rather new to the high end, where few people seem to know how they work or even what they are -- and fewer still seem to realize the potential they have to change the way we listen to music. As a result, I’m not only convinced that streamers will succeed in the high end, I’m willing to bet that, in two or three years, they’ll take the place of the digital-to-analog converter. In other words, today’s streamers are tomorrow’s DACs.
I realized this when Cambridge Audio’s Stream Magic 6 streamer ($1149 USD) stopped by my listening room en route to Vince Hanada’s place for a full review. I couldn’t wait to try it out, even briefly, because I haven’t had as much experience with streamers as I’d like. It didn’t take me long to see that the Stream Magic 6 isn’t much different from an external DAC -- it just has way more features and functionality.
At the heart of the Stream Magic 6 are two Wolfson WM8740 DAC chips, along with upsampling technology, developed by Anagram Technologies of Switzerland, that cranks up the incoming signal to 24-bit/384kHz resolution. The Stream Magic 6 has 24/192-capable S/PDIF, TosLink, and USB inputs, a digital volume control, and a choice of digital filters -- just the sorts of features found in modern-day DACs. If you want to use the Stream Magic 6 solely as a DAC, you can.
What makes the Stream Magic 6 more than a mere DAC (as we think of DACs today) has primarily to do with its Ethernet jack and Wi-Fi capability, which allow you to connect it to your home network (which, presumably, is connected to the Internet). Add to that enough computing horsepower to allow the Stream Magic 6 to accept and process virtually any kind of music file at varying resolutions sent to it, whether by a local- or network-attached storage device, an Internet radio station, or an online music-streaming service such as MOG, and you have an audiophile-grade digital front end that can play a smorgasbord of music files, even hi-rez ones, from pretty much anywhere in the world. The Stream Magic 6 can be controlled via its front panel or remote handset, but the best way to operate it is with an iPad/iPhone app, which provides as good a graphical user interface (GUI) as a regular computer can.
My short time with the Stream Magic 6 taught me that it works extremely well, it’s extraordinarily easy to use (I never once consulted the manual), and once you get used to being able to play music files from so many different sources, it becomes something a music-loving audiophile can’t do without. The logical question is this: If the Stream Magic 6 can do all this, why can’t every DAC? After all, we expect today’s DACs to be able to connect to computers and transports; why not a network? There’s no reason why not -- it’s the next logical step in the evolution of the DAC, which is why I feel the streamers of today represent the DACs of tomorrow. Nor am I the only writer who thinks so . . . and Cambridge Audio isn’t the only manufacturer.
Naim Audio, also of the UK, seems to be betting the farm that streamers are the way to go -- their new NDS Network Player starts at $10,995 (optional power supplies take the price skyward), making it pretty much the most expensive streamer on the planet. (Naim also makes the more “affordable” NDX and ND5 XS models.) The NDS is a statement product, and I think the statement Naim is trying to make is that streamers are the way of the future.
Canada’s Simaudio is heading the same way; in fact, they’ve gone as far as to say that the USB connectivity that today’s DACs have is just a bump in the road to real connectivity via Ethernet -- which makes streamers the next logical step in the development of their products. Simaudio’s game plan centers on their new Moon intelligent Network Device (MiND) streaming technology, demonstrated in prototype form at the 2012 Consumer Electronics Show and to be released this fall as a standalone component (i.e., without DAC) and as an option in Sim’s DACs.
When I visited dCS Ltd. in the UK last December, they more than hinted that they’re developing networking features for their own DAC products -- and Electrocompaniet, of Norway, showed a $3000 streamer at CES 2012 that proved that they, too, are taking this technology seriously.
So get ready for the next wave of high-end digital-audio playback -- streaming DACs. In fact, that next wave has already begun, and you can rest assured that we’re not waiting for it to crest before we start covering it -- look for Vince’s review of the Stream Magic 6 on SoundStage! Hi-Fi in September, and for reviews of many more such products in the months and years to come. Streamers: the future DACs, here today -- something you don’t need to be fueled by booze to appreciate and enjoy.
. . . Doug Schneider