Marantz Reference NA-11S1 Network Audio Player/DAC Page 2
Finally, I connected one of the Mac mini's USB ports to the NA-11S1 and streamed audio data to it using Pure Music. Now I could play everything in my iTunes library with the Marantz, including the AIFF and 192kHz ALAC files it had stuck up its nose at with the other inputs! Even DSD-encoded DFF filesbut see later.
A word on controlling the NA-11S1. Its display is too small for me to see from my listening seat, which made using the remote control awkward. It was also a pain to use the remote's numeric keypad to type search keywords the first time when looking for Internet Radio stations. And while the Marantz Remote app on my iPhone worked if I left the room and went upstairs, closer to the WiFi router, I couldn't get a reliable WiFi connection at my listening seat. Oh, the travails of our Modern Age!
So I ended up controlling the NA-11S1 from my laptop, using my Web browser. (This is easy to do: Switch the Marantz's Network Control setting to On, check the player's IP address with Network Information, and manually enter the address of your unit in the browser's address box.) I was presented with a Top Menu page showing all input options and DSP settings. Selecting, say, Internet Radio or Media Server brought up a submenu that I could browse to select what I wanted to hear. Very civilized. And I could also control Pure Music running on the Mac mini from my laptop using Screen Sharing. Very civilized.
I was using the Marantz's balanced output, so I selected Phase Invert from the Audio submenu to correct polarity. In the NA-11S1's manual, Marantz says of the player's Noise-Shaping feature that "Digital feedback is used to improve the low-sound linearity and the noise characteristics of the audible band. Although no difference is observed in the measured values, the sound quality is changed, allowing users to specify a favorite sound quality." I have to admit that I could hear no difference with Noise-Shaping engaged, so I left it off. However, I did feel that with violinist Arturo Delmoni's performance, with pianist Yuri Funahashi, of the first Brahms violin sonata (ALAC ripped from CD, John Marks Records JMR 2), Filter 2 was more dynamic, while Filter 1 was sweeter, with a better feeling of the violin and piano in space. This was also the case with an unreleased recording I made of Ida Kavafian performing the same sonata at the 1996 Santa Fe Chamber Music Festival. I used Filter 1 for most of my listening.
I then compared the sounds of the USB connection (using Pure Music on my 2.7GHz i7 Mac mini) with the Ethernet connection (using the Twonky uPnP player, again running on the Mac mini). In the bass aria "Gerne will ich mich bequemen," from John Butt and the Dunedin Consort's recording of J.S. Bach's St. Matthew Passion (24/88.2 Studio Master download, Linn CKD 313P), the unison violins obbligato and the walking bass line were slightly more forthright via USB, with a better sense of the space surrounding the instruments.
I've been using the Internet Radio function of my Logitech Transporter almost exclusively for listening to NPR spoken-word broadcastsbut what a joy to be able to review the Marantz during the UK's Proms season. These concerts are streamed live on BBC Radio 3 at, I believe, 320kbps. Played back on the NA-11S1, a gripping concert performance of Daniel Barenboim conducting the Staatskapelle Berlin in Wagner's Götterdämmerung was reproduced with a rich, warm, spacious balance that eminently served the music. Yes, the solo singers were a little too upfront for my tastethey were as loud as the entire chorus in Act 2but it was hard to believe that this was lossy compression. And the hardwired network bypasses the sonic compromises of a Bluetooth linkpace Sam Tellig!
When the Marantz arrived, I was using the fully loaded MSB Diamond DAC IV ($43,325) that Jon Iverson reviewed in the October 2012 issue. Setting up the NA-11S1 ($3499) and comparing the sound of its analog outputs with the sound of the MSB driven by a coaxial S/PDIF connection, I was astonished by how close the two DACs sounded. (Levels were matched to within 0.1dB at 1kHz, and music was streamed from Twonky.)
Listening to Bruce Hornsby's "The Way It Is," from a July 2011 Noisemakers concert at the Portland, Oregon Zoo, with Béla Fleck guesting on banjo (24/44.1 ALAC file transcoded from FLAC with Max), I was hard put to hear any difference. The high frequencies of both processors were very similar, and only with repeated hearings could I determine that the Marantz's upper bass was warmer than the MSB's. With "Still Water," from Daniel Lanois's Acadie: Gold Top Edition (ALAC files ripped from CD, Opal/Warner Bros. 25969-2), the soft-toned bass was again slightly warmer through the Marantz, the MSB better defining the leading edges in the instrument's sound.
In the long term, the MSB was a little more dynamic, with a better sense of pace. But considering that the MSB costs more than 12 times the Marantz's price, the NA-11S1's sound was too close for the Diamond DAC IV's comfort.
Much closer to the NA-11S1's price is the Arcam FMJ D33 ($3200), which I reviewed in February 2013, since which time I've used the Arcam as my reference for a reasonably priced DAC. The FMJ D33's Filter 2 setting measuredand soundedvery similar to Marantz's Filter 1. However, Lanois's voice was slightly more sibilant through the Arcam, and with my recording of Mozart's Flute Quartet, also recorded at the 1996 Santa Fe Chamber Music Festival, and released on our Serenade (ALAC files transcoded from CD masters, Stereophile STPH009-2), the FMJ D33's overall sound was slightly more forward than the NA-11S1's. In my review of the Arcam, I had actually preferred its minimum-phase Filter 1but even then, with "Get Lucky," from Daft Punk's surprisingly good-sounding Random Access Memories (24/88.2 ALAC files, Columbia/HDtracks), the NA-11S1 revealed slightly more air and a more forceful upper bass, which better preserved the track's essential sense of rhythm.
Direct Stream Digital
Although I have a comprehensive collection of SACDs, until the arrival of the Marantz I had no way of playing the small number of DSD-encoded two-channel DFF files I've acquired from the 2L, Blue Coast, and Channel Classics labels. Currently, only the NA-11S1's rear-panel USB input permits playback of DSD files, which is just as welluPnP music-server programs that play such files are rare. Twonky doesn't support streaming of DSD audio files over an Ethernet connection; JRiver Media Center for Windows will play DFF files, but appears from my very brief trial to transcode them to hi-rez PCM when connected to the Marantz via the network; and while MinimServer for the Mac allows DFF files to be seen on the NA-11S1's display, it won't play them.
Ken Ishiwata recommends Audirvana for streaming DSD audio data to the Marantz via USB. I found that Audirvana Plus v.1.5.4 will play DFF files correctly, "DSD 2.8224MHZ" appearing on the NA-11S1's display. Similarly, when I played the DFF files with Pure Music 1.89, "64FS NATIVE DSD PLAYBACK" appeared in the program's info window, and the Marantz display confirmed that it was receiving DSD data at 2.8224MHz.
While I've been skeptical about the 1-bit sigma-delta encoding format used by DSD, the sound of these files streamed to the Marantz was among the best I have experienced in my system. As I finish writing this review, I'm listening to the final movement of Ivan Fischer and the Budapest Festival Orchestra's recording of Mahler's Symphony 1 (SACD/CD, Channel Classics CCS SA 33112), which Kal Rubinson enthused about in his July 2013 "Music in the Round" column. The NA-11S1 is set to Filter 1 and the soundstage is spacious. More important, there's a silky smoothness to the sound of the strings very reminiscent of the real thing in that it is not accompanied by mellowness. It's difficult to resist the sheer beauty of the orchestral sound in DSD, to keep myself from abandoning the laptop to pay the appropriate attention to Mahler's marvelous scoring.
"I think you will have a lot of fun playing with the NA-11S!" predicted Ken Ishiwata when I interviewed him at the end of March. I did. The Marantz Reference NA-11S1's multiplicity of source options was a joy that almost outweighed its incompatibility with AIFF and 192kHz ALAC files. Even without considering its capabilities as a media player, this is a first-rate D/A converter that offers sound quality competitive with the best at a relatively affordable price.
But it is the Reference NA-11S1's ability to play DSD files that makes it a clear recommendation. Thanks for the fun, Ken!