Brian Kahn is the longest tenured writer on staff at HomeTheaterReview.com. His specialties include everything from speakers to whole-home audio systems to high-end audiophile and home theater gear, as well as room acoustics. By day, Brian is a partner at a West Los Angeles law firm.
Network audio players (aka: streamers) appear to be taking over as the fastest growing category of audiophile gear from the (non-networkable) USB DACs that have dominated the audiophile landscape in recent years. USB and networkable DACs both provide the necessary bridge between computer-based music libraries, which are becoming the norm, and traditional stereo systems; however, the ability to connect the DAC via a network provides many more system options than USB alone.
The NA-11S1 ($3,499) is not Marantz's first network audio player, but it is the first to be part of Marantz's reference line. As physical media is being replaced by computer-based audio files, it is only prudent that Marantz's reference line include a network player. In addition to being a DLNA Digital Music Player / Digital Music Renderer, the NA-11S1 has AirPlay networking capabilities and built in SiriusXM, Spotify, and Pandora support. I know some will be upset by its lack of WiFi; but, for those who need a WiFi connection, you can easily add it through the use of a wireless access point. Users who prefer a more traditional wired connection can choose from USB type A and B connections and coaxial/Toslink optical connections.
Now that we've established that the Marantz can accept digital audio through just about any method you would like to transmit it, we should look at what types of digital audio formats it can accept and how they are handled. The NA-11S1 can accept digital signals up to 24-bit/192-kHz in the WAV and FLAC formats and ALAC up to 96 kHz. AIFF files are not officially supported, but DSD files (both original 2.8-MHz files and double-rate 5.6-MHz files), which are rapidly increasing in popularity and availability, can be accepted via the USB Type B port.
Ken Ishiwata, Marantz's well-known engineer and designer was very active in the design of the NA-11S1. Mr. Ishiwata is known for optimizing and upgrading components to wring out higher levels of performance. Rumor has it that Mr. Ishiwata was behind several changes to the NA-11S1 as the product was being developed. Revisions to the USB section in order to bring it to Mr. Ishiwata's standards allegedly delayed the release of the product. If this is true, I am happy to hear that Marantz would place a priority on performance over release schedule.
Despite the NA-11S1 not having any moving parts or any power amplification, its 17.33-inch by five-inch by 16.42-inch chassis weighs just over 32 pounds and feels remarkably solid. The chassis is dual-layered and copper-plated, with a thick aluminum top cover and die-cast aluminum feet. When I unpacked the NA-11S1 and moved it into place, "solid" was a term that came to mind more than once.
The majority of the NA-11S1's heft comes from a large toroidal transformer that is designed to minimize vibration and magnetic leakage. For what it's worth, I never heard any hum from the component, even with my ear right above the top plate. The power supply's transformer is joined by a large-capacitance block capacitor to form an overachieving power supply system. Marantz's proprietary HDAM circuits are utilized with the HDAM-SA2 devices handling the current-to-voltage conversion and HDAM devices on the outputs.
The NA-11S1 can be controlled by either the included remote or Marantz's control application, which can be downloaded at no charge from the Apple store. The remote is a simple device but is heavier and more solid than the typical plastic remote, making it feel more at home with a higher-end device. That said, I usually used the Marantz app running on my iPhone to control the unit.
The NA-11S1 found a home in the same Billy Bags rack as my PS Audio PerfectWave DAC MkII, both of which feed a Krell Phantom III preamplifier and older Krell amplifier. An Oppo BDP-95 was available for use as a disc transport, and B&W 800 Diamonds were used for all critical listening. I was also able to do some listening through B&W CM10s. Cabling was Kimber Select and Transparent Ultra. Of particular note, the USB cables were Kimber Select.
Related to setting up the unit, I noted that the screen on the Marantz was large enough to easily read the track titles from eight feet away, which came in handy when I wanted to see what I was listening to. No need to place the unit closer just to read the display. Also, the Marantz never ran hot; even after extended listening sessions in excess of four hours, the top panel was never more than slightly warm.
As a music streamer or networkable DAC, the Marantz needs to get the audio files from somewhere. My computer system includes a large Netgear network attached storage device upon which I have several hundred gigabytes' worth of audio files that are served via J River's Media Center installed on both Mac OS- and Windows 8-based machines. I also used a MacBook Air with locally stored files to provide audio files via its USB output to the Marantz's input.
The majority of my listening was done via the networked audio system. In addition to streaming files over the network, I also played music from Pandora, AirPlay, USB thumb drives, the coaxial input, and the type B USB inputs, which all worked without a hitch.
Click on over to Page 2 for the Performance, The Downside, Competition and Comparison and the Conclusion . . .
Norah Jones' album Come Away With Me (Blue Note) was my first choice when I first sat down to do some critical listening. Having heard this album more times than I can recall, I immediately noted that there was more energy in the upper midrange and lower treble, which was most noticeable with the upper registers of the piano. The forwardness in this region was slight but noticeable in comparison with the PS Audio PerfectWave MkII and was more similar to the DAC in the Krell Phantom III. Listeners seeking the warmth and fullness reminiscent of tubes will not be disappointed with the NA-11S1, as those characteristics are present but with a good amount of detail and control. The imaging and solidity of the positioning within the soundstage were extremely good, with the overall size being similar to that of the other DACs mentioned above.
I listened to this album (and others) via the DLNA networked audio system with 44.1-kHz FLAC files ripped directly from the CD, via USB with a copy of the same audio file, and via the coaxial digital output of the Oppo BDP-95 playing the CD from which the files were ripped. The differences were miniscule at best with Redbook files. During the course of my auditions, I noted that at times the backgrounds were not as quiet or "black" with the network connection, but this was not a consistent issue, and thus I believe it to be more network-related than an attribute of the Marantz player.
As I listened, I was able to select which track to listen to next using the Marantz iOS application, which also came in handy for selecting inputs and other control functions. For the most part, though, I ended up using the JRemote application to select tracks and create playlists. I ran through a large variety of tracks stored on the network drive and consistently found the Marantz to be engaging, drawing me in to the music when it was well recorded. I would occasionally find myself thinking that the sound was flat or harsh, only to look at the display and see that it was a low-bitrate MP3 file. Garbage in, garbage out. I tried selecting the different filter options, but it did not seem to make a difference with either the MP3 or full-resolution FLAC files.
Next, I listened to some high-resolution audio files that I'm very familiar with, including two Reference Recordings HRx tracks that feature 24-bit/176.4-kHz WAV files. The first was the Rimsky/Korsakov "Dance of the Tumblers from The Snow Maiden" from the Exotic Dances disc. I paid particular attention to the bells, which were as detailed and natural as I had heard during previous listening sessions, but with more dynamic range. The bells had always had good dynamic energy through other high-performing systems, but they seemed to be even more so through the Marantz, which may possibly be related to the slight forwardness I heard on the piano on the Norah Jones album mentioned above. As before, the soundstage was precise and, with this orchestral piece, was quite large in both width and depth, extending well beyond the confines of my room.
The second HRx track was Saint-Saens' "Samson and Delilah" from the same Exotic Dances disc (Reference Recordings, HRx). This large-scale, dynamic orchestra piece really came alive through the Marantz. The drums were reproduced with great impact and detail that highlighted the system's dynamic range without overemphasis. As with the other HRx tracks from this disc, the instruments were portrayed with a balance of detail and ease that draws one into the recording. The positioning of the individual instruments was easily discernable and solid, but with the strings seeming slightly closer than with either the Oppo (through its internal DAC) or the PS Audio but slightly farther back than the Krell's DAC.
In addition to listening to the Exotic Dances disc, I spent some time listening to other classical-music albums with similar sonic performance, but with the added benefit of enjoying the NA-11S1's gapless playback abilities. Gapless playback may not be important with compiled playlists, but it sure is nice when listening to an album containing tracks that flow into one another.
Not owning much in the way of DSD, I downloaded some sample DSD files in both 2.8- and 5.6-MHz versions from Blue Coast Records, as well as Beck's Sea Change. I also downloaded Audirvana+ to play them back, since Amarra does not (as of now) handle DSD files. I own the original Interscope CD copy of Sea Change, which I ripped as full-resolution FLAC files onto my MacBook's internal hard drive, the same location as the DSD files. "Lost Cause" is a hauntingly, moody acoustic track with Beck's vocals accompanied by guitar. The CD version of this track does a great job portraying natural vocals and unamplified guitar, but listening to the DSD version of the track revealed startling differences. The overused phrases of "removing a veil" or "cleaning the window" immediately came to mind. There was a marked increase of detail which made the soundstage more three dimensional and solid. The only other time I had heard this track with similar clarity and imaging was at CES; I cannot recall the system specifics, but they were using the MoFi version of the CD.
I was not familiar with the sample files that I downloaded from Blue Coast Records; and, since I don't have the non-DSD versions of these recordings, comparisons were difficult. Nonetheless, I listened to both the 2.8- and 5.6-MHz versions of some sample tracks. The Marantz was able to accept both the "single rate" and "double rate" audio files without any glitches. The tonal characteristics remained consistent through both versions, but the "double rate" files, at times, seemed to have more air and better-defined images than the single-rate files. What I took away from this was that the Marantz was capable of resolving the delicate details that are found in high-resolution files, DSD or otherwise.
I would be remiss if I did not mention the front-panel headphone jack and volume control. I used the V-Moda M-100 headphones, and headphone listening through the NA-11S1 was better than through the Marantz AV-8801 preamp, with more nuanced details and better imaging. I am not sure if the headphone circuit is better, or if it is just being fed a better signal.
During my time with the NA-11S1, a question I was often asked was whether or not it could connect via WiFi. No, it does not have built in WiFi. Personally, I'd rather use a wired Ethernet connection; but, in the event that it is not possible, an external wireless access point can be added for less than $100 and reduces the risk of any interference compromising performance.
If you have different music streamers, the ability for each to play any of the main audio file types is important. I applaud Marantz for including FLAC but was disappointed that AIFF was not included as an officially supported file type. If you are building a music library solely around the Marantz, this is a non-issue, as audio files can be saved or converted into compatible formats. However, if you have different devices all attempting to play files from the same music library, it can be an issue. On a related note, the ability to accept DSD only via USB is another limitation for those who primarily play music from a networked library. These users will be forced to connect their computer with the DSD files directly to the Marantz via USB; while this is easy enough to do, it prevents a seamless transition of playback of various music types through the network connection.
Competition and Comparison
The world of network-capable DACs is evolving quickly. A competitor that immediately comes to mind is the PS Audio PerfectWave MkII ($3,290). The PerfectWave is not DSD-capable and does not have built-in Pandora, Spotify, or SiriusXM capabilities, although it is in the process of being replaced by the DirectStream DAC ($5,790) that is DSD-capable. Sound-wise, I found the PS Audio DAC to be more detailed and less forward in the lower treble and the Marantz to be warmer in the midbass.
The Linn Majik DS-I ($4,200) garners excellent reviews as a network-capable DAC but does not have USB capabilities. Another contender is the Bryston BDP-2/BDA-2 combination ($2,995/$2,395), which provides a modular system that may better suit some systems. No doubt, several other high-end, network-capable DACs will be released in the near future, providing even more options.
The "downsides" noted above have nothing to do with sonic characteristics but rather some of the operational capabilities. Sonically, there is no downside to the NA-11S1. Some listeners may prefer another "flavor" of sound, but I personally found the music playback to be engaging, accurate, and never tiring over long listening sessions.
The NA-11S1 grants Marantz access to the world of reference-grade, networkable DACs. The NA-11S1 not only provides excellent sound quality, but does so while also providing comfort features, such as internet streaming services and AirPlay. The ability to accept digital signals from a variety of local, network, and Internet sources provides convenience and flexibility in conjunction with performance.
Having auditioned numerous Marantz products over the years, I have come to anticipate a certain "house sound" from its components. The NA-11S1 shares some sonic qualities with this anticipated sound yet was decidedly different at the same time. The NA-11S1 had the cohesive, organic characteristics that I have heard in other Marantz reference products, but also had more energy in the presence region. Overall the presentation was more forward, akin to sitting in the front couple of rows of the concert rather than halfway back. I suspect that this impression may also be due to the NA-11S1's increased clarity and speed in comparison with prior products. This was particularly noticeable on the leading edges of notes, which were sharper than what I had heard on prior Marantz sources and closer to, if not indistinguishable from, my reference DAC.
The NA-11S1 is a well-thought-out, easy-to-use DAC/network audio player that provided glitch-free performance with all input types. The quality of playback is extremely good and engaging. The energetic and dynamic capabilities of the NA-11S1 make it particularly engaging with more dynamic music, where other high-resolution DACs can seem less vibrant.