With digital audio being more popular than ever, and high res audio files slowly becoming the standard for high quality 'lifelike' audio reproduction, many people are looking for ways to integrate digital audio with their traditional analogue hi-fi system.
The ‘DAC’ (Digital to analogue converter) is a device that does just that – it takes a digital file from a digital source (TV, smartphone, games console etc.), and converts it to a high quality analogue signal which can be output to a traditional stereo amplifier.
Most modern DACs, such as the Rega DAC, Cambridge Audio DACMagic, and Audioquest Dragonfly offer a USB input that allows you to connect your computer and bypass the inferior computer sound card. Many of these DACs go 1 step further, and through the use of a driver (well, on windows anyway… mac OSX doesn't require them) allow you to stream up to 192KHZ high-res audio files.
Another type of product that is quickly gaining popularity is the ‘streamer’, sometimes referred to as the ‘network player’. As well as being a DAC, these devices also offer streaming functionality to enable you to stream audio from various sources, such as USB drives, NAS drives, DLNA media servers, online streaming services such as Spotify, or internet radio. Many of these devices also support Bluetooth, so you can stream audio from devices such as smart phones, tablets or any other Bluetooth-enabled device.
Most streamers also have digital inputs that allow you to enhance the quality of other digital sources, and a USB input for your computer. You can think of a streamer as a DAC on steroids.
The Cambridge Audio Stream Magic 6 does all this and more. Crammed within its relatively compact chassis is a wealth of advanced digital audio conversion and streaming technology, and audiophile grade components to give you the best sound quality possible. There's also an iOS and android app, which gives you complete control of the stream magic 6.
As with all Cambridge audio components, the packaging is simple but effective – it’s similar to the packaging of the 651T tuner. The stream magic is wrapped in a cloth bag, and supported on each end by 2 thick pieces of polystyrene that keep it firmly in place. Included are some documentation, power cable, Wi-Fi Antenna, an infrared remote control, and a remote control cable (more on that later). No interconnects are provided, which isn’t a surprise and actually a good thing- at this level, you should invest in some decent quality interconnects.
My only complaint about the packaging is the polystyrene does break up rather easily, meaning you’ll be getting the hoover out after unpacking your new streamer – it would’ve been nice to see foam used, like that found on the 851a and 851c. Also, it would’ve been nice to see a computer USB cable included.
The device itself feels well put together – it features a wrap-around top cover which wraps around at the sides and screws on at the bottom. This gives the streamer a nice clean look and also helps to suppress mechanical vibrations – tapping the top yields a dull 'thump', rather than the ringing often associated with cheaper devices. The unit also features thick rubber-damped feet, and a thick aluminium front panel.
Some of the bottom screw heads were stripped on my unit from the factory – this isn't something I'd expect to see when unboxing a £700 streamer. The same could be said for my 851c cd player though – perhaps the screwdriver in the Cambridge factory had been accidentally switched to 'high speed' on the day my components were manufactured.
Around back you have several high quality input/output terminals. Balanced XLR and unbalanced RCA audio outputs allow you to connect the streamer to your amplifier – enabling a setting in the streamer's menu system allows you to have the unit operate as a preamp and connect it directly to a power amplifier (such as Cambridge Audio's recently announced 651w) for an all-digital setup.
Optical and coaxial inputs are provided, as well as outputs too, enabling you to use the streaming functionality of the stream magic 6 with an external DAC if you so desire. There's a USB A input for connection of a USB drive or Cambridge Audio's BT100 Bluetooth dongle, and a USB B input for your computer, along with an associated ground lift switch. There's an Ethernet port for connection to your home network, and a screw for the wireless antenna. There's also an IEC power socket – a nice touch which makes taking the unit in and out of a rack a snap.
Rounding out the connections are an RS232 port for use in custom installations, remote bus in/out jacks for connection to other Cambridge audio equipment, and a 3.5MM jack used for receiving IR signals.
The remote bus connections allow you to connect the streamer to other Cambridge Audio equipment, for example the Azur 651a/851a amplifiers, or Cambridge's range of AV receivers. You are then able to control features of your stream magic from those devices or vice versa. One of the main uses for this is the ability to control the volume of your Cambridge amp or av receiver from the stream magic app – When this feature is enabled, you can choose between 2 modes – Amp mode or AVR mode – and control the volume on the respective Cambridge audio components using the controls in the app.
The front is clean and simple. A power button switches the receiver in and out of standby. Alternatively, by enabling a setting in the menu, you can have the streamer enter a low power mode when powered off. This keeps core hardware such as the main CPU, and networking hardware running, which enables you to bring the streamer out of standby using the app. With this mode enabled, holding the standby button for 2 seconds will shut the device down completely.
There's a second USB A input for connection of an external storage device such as a hard drive or USB drive. A rubber cover is provided to keep the dust out when not in use – a very nice touch! A button to switch between the 3 DAC filters are provided, as well as LED indicators for each to let you know which is selected. There's a large central display, used for navigating the streamer and for displaying information about the currently playing file.
A vertical line of 4 small buttons are situated either side of the display – these help you to navigate the streamer's menu system and perform basic functions. It would've been nice if these were input selection buttons, to enable you to jump directly to a specific digital input. Finally, rounding out the controls is a reasonably large scroll wheel – it's a nice size and feels smooth to tern with a decent amount of resistance to stop you turning it accidentally. The wheel is used for navigating the streamer’s user interface – pressing it selects the currently highlighted option.
The stream magic comes with a typical Cambridge audio remote – the remote is similar (though not identical) to the one supplied with the 651t. It feels decent enough, though due to the plastic front it's not quite as weighty as the remote for the flagship 851 components – a metal fronted remote would've been nice to see. That being said most will use the app with this device anyway, and that's exactly what I do – I only removed the remote from the packaging for the purposes of this review.
The Stream Magic app, available for both iOS and Android, gives you complete control of the stream magic 6 and NP30 network music players. It's the best apps I've seen for any streamer – it's easy to use, clearly laid out and provides access to all the features of your streamer, plus the ability to display album artwork. In fact, I only ever use the app – I never interact with the device itself at all.
It also enables you to stream music from the music library of your device, which is a nice touch. The buttons are properly labelled, and in the unlikely event you do experience any issues with the app, you can use the feedback button to send your comments/bugs/suggestions directly to the guys at Cambridge audio.
The only feature I’d like to see is the ability to change all of your devices settings from inside the app – the app gives you access to basic settings, however changing the Wi-Fi network, changing the name of your device, and initiating a firmware update still has to be done from the device. Over all though it's a joy to use.
The stream magic 6 has several advanced technologies under the wrap-around top cover. 2 Wolfson WM8740 24-bit DACs are used, 1 for each channel. This gives superb stereo imaging and sound staging (more on that later). Wi-Fi 802.11 N is supported out of the box, and can support networks using the WEP, WPA or WPA2 encryption. 10/100 base-t Ethernet rounds out the networking options – I was surprised to see the stream magic 6 doesn't support gigabit Ethernet. However, I've never had any issues with the speed of the built-in networking hardware.
The stream magic 6 also features Cambridge audio's 2nd generation ATF2 (adaptive time filtering) upsampling technology, which upsamples all incoming audio to 24-bit, 384KHZ. Developed in conjunction with Anagram Technologies of Switzerland, ATF is designed to upsample all incoming audio using an advanced 32-bit analogue devices DSP. This virtually eradicates digital jitter, giving a much cleaner, more life-like sound.
There are 3 filters that can be selected to suit your preference and your setup – the differences are subtle. I preferred the linear phase filter – it offered a slightly warmer sound which suited my test system.
Being a streamer, the first thing the device does when you power it up is begin searching for networks – if you have the device connected via Ethernet, the device will take you straight to the home screen. If no Ethernet connection is detected, the unit will search for and display the selected Wi-Fi networks. Connecting is as simple as selecting your Wi-Fi network, entering your password and waiting for the success message to appear. The first time you power up your streamer, you may be prompted to upgrade the firmware – unlike other devices, this is a painless process. Press yes, and the device will download the new firmware, automatically install it and reboot. No clicking through endless prompts and questions that require user input.
For the rest of this review, I used the stream magic in conjunction with the stream magic app on an iOS device. Therefore features may differ slightly depending on how you operate the device.
The stream magic gives you access to a library of over 20,000 internet radio stations. You can browse the stations by location or genre, or manually search for a station either by name or keywords.
As you would expect, selecting location brings up a list of almost every country you can think of. Selecting your country gives you the option to display all stations, or select stations by genre. There are many genres available to you, so I won't detail them all in this review.
One downside to using the stream magic with a Wi-Fi network is the inability to stream high res stations – this can only be done via Ethernet. This is a minor annoyance for those of us with fast Wi-Fi networks.
When playing a station, you can view the bitrate and format of the stream – some stations also offer multiple bitrate streams, which enables you to use a lower quality stream if you have limited bandwidth or a slow connection. You are also able to see the current track which is a nice touch.
There are 20 presets for your favourite stations, and a function that allows you to find stations similar to the one you're listening too – which again, can be browsed either by location, genre, or 'most popular'.
Sound quality of internet radio stations is as good as expected – the overall quality of the sound will depend on the bitrate and bit depth of the stream, as well as the compression and loudness equalisation the station uses. Many stations sound as good as, if not better than either DAB or traditional FM radio. There are a few high res stations available which sound pretty stunning. However, the sheer number of stations available is incredible – if you just want some background music, or a platform to discover new music, there's something for you here.
Media and external devices
The Stream Magic 6 has the ability to stream from several media sources. UPNP media servers such as NAS drives can be accessed – the same goes for pretty much any pc with a UPNP media server enabled.
The stream magic had no problem finding the external hard drive connected to our Asus router. When selecting the drive you're given the option to brows folders, search for music or pictures, or perform a manual alpha-numeric search.
You can also play files from USB media connected to either the front or rear USB ports. There's no content-type detection or search facility here; selecting USB in the app presents you with a list of the connected drives, and selecting a drive gives you the directories just as you would expect. The stream magic had no problem playing albums from all of the USB drives I tried, including some portable USB-powered hard drives. MP3 metadata was also identified and displayed flawlessly.
Streaming From a Computer
Streaming from a computer is as simple as plugging a USB a-b cable between your computer and the socket on the rear of the stream magic. Using the default settings, the streamer acts as a plug and play sound card, and is instantly detected under windows 2000 or higher and mac OSX.
When I connected the stream magic to a windows 7-based pc, after it finished installing it automatically set itself as the default audio device. For some people who use their computer whilst streaming, say, internet radio, this behaviour may be undesirable – unfortunately, if you keep the streamer connected to your computer, every time it's powered up it will automatically set itself as the default device. The only way I've found to stop this is to disable the streamer in the sound control panel and enable it when necessary – it's not the best solution, but it's easier than going behind the rack to unplug the USB cable.
If you want to use the USB input for high-res audio under windows, you'll need to download a driver from Cambridge Audio's website. Once the driver is installed, enter the settings of the device and change it to class 2 mode.
Sound quality from the streamer is as good as you would expect – there's no background noise or interference, even using cheap cables. The streamer acts like any other sound card, meaning TV shows, movies, online streaming services, etc. can also be played through your hi-fi.
Streaming From the App
The stream magic app allows you to stream music stored in the library of your iOS or android device over the network right within the app. You can browse your library by album, artist, genre or playlist – interestingly, you can't stream audiobooks stored on your iOS device which would've been a nice touch.
For the most part, streaming from the device library works well – however, there have been a few occasions where the app will simply refuse to stream 1 or 2 tracks, even though they play flawlessly on my phone through the native iOS music player. There's no error, it just refuses to play them. However, 99.8% of my library plays as expected – and the rest is on the network anyway.
The stream magic gives you access to several podcasts, including BBC podcasts and the BlogTalk radio podcast directory. Streaming the Scott Mills daily and Greg James 'That's what he said' podcasts from the BBC worked as expected, and sounded rather nice – easily as good as a DAB radio broadcast.
The stream magic allows you to access several streaming services, including Aupeo, live365, MP3tunes, and the BBC iPlayer radio. (Note: streaming services may differ in your area, some require registration). This list isn't as comprehensive as some – it would've been nice to see Spotify on the list, as well as, perhaps, a few more free services.
Finally, the settings – the stream magic has several settings that you can change. These include network settings, the ability to change the device name, the USB class (more on that later), and a setting to enable the stream magic to act as a digital preamp for connection directly to a power amp or active speakers.
As previously mentioned, it is not possible to alter many of these settings from within the app – the app also doesn't have the ability to initiate a firmware upgrade. Given that the app is designed to be a full featured remote for the device, this is a bit of an oversight.
Thanks to the dual Wolfson WM8740 DACs, the stream magic has a very warm, analogue sound with an open, airy sound stage. Playing 'roving gambler' from the Billy Joe Armstrong and Norah Jones album 'Foreverly' demonstrates the streamers ability to allow a song to naturally flow – positioning is sharp and accurate, but at the same time there's a sense of air and space between the instruments and the panned vocals at the front of the sound stage. The performance sounds effortless, rather than strained or closed in – just as it should.
String instruments have just the right amount of edge – play 'can't take it' from The All American Rejects's 'Move Along' album, and the gentle but powerful orchestral backing is perfectly positioned at the back of a 3-dimensional sound stage, allowing Tyson Ritter's powerful centre-panned vocal to penetrate what would otherwise be a fairly relaxing performance.
There's no lack of detail either – play video games from Lana Del Rey's 'born to die' album, and the stream magic digs out all the detail in the song, from the panned reverb effect on Lana's voice to the movement of the keys on the piano. The vocal harmonies during the chorus of Fleetwood Mac's 'Dreams' are very clear and easy to follow – many players simply can't do this song justice, but the stream magic does a great job.
@The stream magic allows you to combine all of your digital sources into 1 easy-to-use central hub. It gives you access to thousands of internet radio stations, opening up a world of possibilities for discovering new music. The app gives you access to (almost) every function of the device from the comfort of your chair, and most of all – the sound is excellent.
Like all devices, it's not 100% perfect – both the firmware and the app have a few bugs that still need to be ironed out. I'd like to see the ability to change all of the device settings from within the app, as well as initiate a firmware upgrade. I'd still like to know why those few music files on my phone simply refuse to play, and a few more streaming services would be a welcome addition.
A few more digital inputs would be nice – and it would've been nice to see the BT100 bluetooth dongle included in the box. and I'd like to see the ability to stream high-res audio over my wireless network (it's plenty fast enough). A USB A-B cable should've been provided in the box. But most of all… I want the ability to stop it setting itself as the default USB audio device whenever I turn it on!
But apart from those minor points, it's a great device – the guys at Cambridge have done a great job bringing the best that digital has to offer into 1 easy to use and great sounding package.