Marantz Reference NA-11S1 Network Audio Player/DAC
The older an audiophile becomes, the faster time flies. Has it really been 60 years since Saul Marantz founded the company that bears his name? Has it really been almost 50 years since that company was acquired by the Tushinsky brothers and Superscope? Has it really been 33 years since Superscope sold Marantz to Philips, just in time for the launch of CD? Has it really been 13 years since Marantz Japan acquired the brand's assets and, a year later, merged with Denon to form D&M Holdings? And more significant in the context of this review, has it really been almost 35 years since Ken Ishiwata moved from Japan to Belgium to act as Marantz's European technical director and, now, "Brand Ambassador"?
Ishiwata has been based in Belgium ever since. Marantz celebrated his first 30 years with the company in 2009 with the release of the Limited Edition KI Pearl components, but I first met Ishiwata in the early 1980s, to discuss the forthcoming launch of the Compact Disc. Even then, I suspected that I was talking to more than the typical corporate spokesperson when Ishiwata showed me the circuit of a quasi-complementary, all-balanced, all-tube, preamplifier he had designed. When he began to talk about his veneration for and the intimacies of the circuits of Marantz's original 7c preamplifier and 8b power amplifier, I knew it for a fact.
A new era
In March, to celebrate Marantz's 60th anniversary, the company launched the subject of this review, the Reference NA-11S1 network player ($3499), which Ken Ishiwata described to me as "a new start, a new era" for Marantz. Michael Fremer attended the European press conference announcing the NA-11S1, and I subsequently talked to Ishiwata via Skype.
"Really?" I asked. "A new era?"
"We are witnessing the end of packaged media," he replied, adding that the NA-11S1 embodies Marantz's legacy of sonic excellence and leadership in digital audio in order to meet the future well prepared. The two-channel player has a type-A USB connector on the front panel that can be used both to connect an iPod and to play files of up to 24-bit/96kHz resolution and sample rate from a USB memory stick. A rear-panel type-B USB2.0 port allows the NA-11S1 to decode high-resolution audio streamed from a PC. (Windows machines need a driver program, supplied on CD; Macintoshes work without a driver.) Coaxial and optical serial digital inputs are provided, though not a balanced AES/EBU port. There are also coaxial and optical S/PDIF outputs (on XLR jacks), as well as balanced and unbalanced analog outputs (on RCAs).
Most important, the rear panel sports an Ethernet RJ-45 jack, to allow the player to be connected to a local area network. The NA-11S1 can accept audio data streamed from any uPnP-compatible music server it finds on the network, as well as allow access to Spotify, Pandora, Sirius/XM, and Internet radio stations. The player lacks a WiFi connection, but if the local network has WiFi, audio can be streamed to the Marantz from portable audio devices and from computers running iTunes using Apple's AirPlay protocol.
The NA-11S1 is smartly finished in black-anodized aluminum, with Marantz's traditional copper-plated rear panel. Its front panel is dominated by a large white-on-black, Organic LED display, with the usual five-button navigation array to its right. Individual buttons awake the player and put it to sleep; adjust the level of the 3.5mm headphone output on its front-panel; switch between inputs; adjust the display brightness (three levels and off); and control playback (Play/Pause, Next, Back, Stop).
All front-panel buttons are duplicated on the remote control, with additional buttons to select between two digital reconstruction filters, and to directly access: Internet Radio, Online Music Service, the front-panel USB jack ("USB"), the rear-panel USB jack ("PC"), the Music Server (if one is found on the network), and the setup menu. This menu includes on/off toggles for noise-shaping and a DC filter with a 1.7Hz cutoff. The former, called Marantz Musical Mastering, increases a signal's word length up to 48 bits. All of the NA-11S1's functions and controls are also available on a dedicated webpage that can be accessed using the browser program of any computer connected to the same network. An iPod/iPhone/iPad can also be used to control the NA-11S1 and any music-server software on a network-connected computer using the Marantz Remote app, available free from the iTunes store. There is also an Android version, I understand.
Inside the NA-11S1's hefty case, the digital circuitry is based on a DSD-capable DAC, the analog circuitry on Marantz's high-speed HDAM-SA2 and HDAM modules. Passive components, such as silver-topped audiophile-grade capacitors from Nichicon, were chosen after extensive listening tests. In our Skype conversation, I asked Ishiwata what had been his criteria in selecting components.
"It all comes down to harmony," he said. "It's like a football team: you can have the best players in the world, but if they can't work together, if there's no harmony, then no way will the team work. In the same way, there's thousands of electronics components inside [the NA-11S1, and] you have to make a harmony one way or the other. . . . Sometimes you have to select a certain component to counterbalance the character of another. And that's what we do. . . . It all boils down to harmony, and once you have that, then you can enjoy the harmony in music."
Marantz originally intended to launch the NA-11S1 in October 2012, but Ishiwata wasn't happy with the player's performance as a USB DAC. "We did extensive study of the problem of eliminating noise from the USB connection," he told me. "Some things, unfortunately, we can't change because that's decided by the designers of the PC side. Our solution was to isolate everything that we could do with the USB connection."
That goal must have been reached, because Ishiwata's preference, of all the different sources that the NA-11S1 can accept, is now for the USB connection.
He concluded our conversation with "I think you will have a lot of fun playing with the NA-11S1!"
The computers in my basement listening room connect to our home WiFi network, based on a router and DSL modem in the ground-floor kitchen on the other side of the house. This was not of much use with the NA-11S1, so I created a local network in the listening room with a simple Netgear switch, and ran a long CAT5 cable from the switch to the kitchen modem. To the switch I hooked up the Marantz, the Mac mini that serves as my system's music server, the MacBook Pro that lives on my writing desk next to the listening chair, and the PC that I use for music and video editing. The computers all recognized each other, and the Marantz immediately identified the Internet connection and let me know that a firmware update was available. Downloading and installing the update took 10 minutes; I was then ready to play music.
But from what source?
I began with files stored on a standalone hard drive plugged into the NA-11S1's front-panel USB port. First mistake: this was a Mac-formatted disk; the NA-11S1 expects to see either a Windows FAT or FAT32 disk. I tried again, this time with a 4GB USB memory stick. The Marantz recognized all the files on the drive, though it took a little while for the player to index them (a FAT32-formatted stick can hold up to 5000 files); Mac users will be confused by seeing all the metadata files, which are usually hidden and can't, of course, be played. The NA-11S1 can play WMA, MP3, Apple Lossless (ALAC), WAV, and FLAC files from USB sticks, with gapless playback available with WAV and FLAC files, though it's limited to sample rates of 96kHz and below with USB sticks.
The NA-11S1 can't play copyright-protected files from USB sticks, which is understandable. However, a problem for me, as a Mac user, is that neither will it play AIFF files from USB sticks. Yes, it's possible to convert such files to WAV or ALAC using Max or even iTunes, but I don't see why should this should be an issue at all.
Next, I tried playing music over the network. (The Marantz offers DLNA v.1.5 support for audio networks.) When I selected Media Server, the NA-11S1 recognized Twonky Server running on my Mac miniand even found, on my MacBook Pro, Logitech SqueezeCenter, which I use with the Transporter network player I bought a few years back. Using the navigation buttons on the Marantz's remote, I selected Twonky and was offered a menu tree to find and select all the music files Twonky had indexed on the Mac mini's hard drive, including my iTunes library. I also tried a freeware mac program called MinimServer, which worked fine with the Marantz; PC users are recommended to use JRiver Media Center.
Files played with no problem, the Marantz retrieving them, via the network, from Twonky. Well, with almost no problemonce again, AIFF files were neither recognized nor played, and ALAC files were restricted to sample rates of 96kHz and below. Presented with a 192kHz ALAC file, the Marantz displayed "FILE FORMAT ERROR." This was a problem for me, as almost all of the growing number of 192kHz-sampled files in my iTunes library are Apple Lossless. Yes, I could go to the archive hard drive where I keep the original AIFF files and transcode them to WAV or FLAC. But why should I have to? However, I could play, via Twonky, recordings , I'd bought from iTunes, such as Yo-Yo Ma's performance of Bach's Cello Suite 1 (256kbps AAC).
Next up was to plug my iPod Classic 160GB into the Marantz's front-panel USB port. "DIRECT IPOD" appeared on the NA-11S1's display, and I could use the transport buttons on its front panel and remote to control the songs playing. Then I tried using the coaxial S/PDIF input with the digital output of my Ayre Acoustics C-5xeMP universal player. All worked correctly, as it did when I connected the Astell&Kern AK100 hi-rez portable player's optical output to the Marantz's TosLink input.