Music Streamers Awards – Q1 2013 (Part 1) : Cambridge Audio Stream Magic 6, Pionner N-50, Naim NAC-N 172 XS

3/9/2013 9:07:28 AM

Access your digital library, listen to thousands of internet radio stations, and beam content from a portable with one of these clever boxes

Product of the year

Best streamer: $900 - $1,500

Cambridge Audio Stream Magic 6

Price: $1,050

With the ever-increasing popularity and convenience of digital music, last year saw traditional hi-fi companies taking a confident step towards network audio streamers. One of the brands leading the pack was Cambridge Audio, whose offer of an affordable hi-fi streamer in the shape of the entry level NP30 was so good we made our Product of the Year. So how does Cambridge Audio follow that? Easy: do something even better.

The Stream Magic 6 ‘up sampling network player’ is a talented and ultra-flexible streaming machine that also moonlights as a DAC and a digital preamp. If you’ve got audio on a hard drive or a UPnP-compatible NAS device, the Stream Magic can access it via Wi-Fi or Ethernet.

It doesn’t end there: coaxial and optical digital inputs let you connect products such as TVs, Blu-ray players, games consoles, and improve their stereo sound by putting it through your existing hi-fi system. There’s also optical apt-X Bluetooth streaming and, last but not least, there’s access to a host of internet radio services and podcast too.

The ‘up sampling’ nature of the streamer means that it scales all your music up to 24-bit/384kHz quality, in nearly all popular file formats – FLAC, WAV, MP3 and AAC as well as supporting high-resolution music, although it plays 24bit/ 192kHz only via the USB asynchronous input.

Cambridge Audio Stream Magic 6, the best streamer between: $900-$1500

Cambridge Audio Stream Magic 6, the best streamer between: $900-$1,500

Scarily realistic sound

But what’s most admirable about the Stream Magic 6 is its impressive handling of music, no matter what the file size or quality. It delivers tracks with confidence and ease, and doesn’t shy away from tackling even the more complicated arrangements. Crucially, it can start and stop notes with precision which, combined with oodles of detail, openness and power means it’s a captivating listen – especially with high-res files.

Of course, it also looks great with its high quality finish, the display shows all track information, and the iOS/Android app is a joy to use. This is a box that does everything you want it to do and does it fantastically.

Best streamer up to $900

Pionner N-50

Price: $750

Pioneer has been taking its time observing rival products and trends before releasing a storming debut of music streamer: the N-50.

And that patience has paid off: if you want one box that will play all the music that’s stored, on your computer, NAS device, smartphone, MP3 player or TV or play online radio and other services such as Spotify – this streamer has the UBS ports and digital inputs to do it.

Tonal shifts are conveyed with remarkable ease, while vocals are expressive in a spacious and airy sound field

Pionner N-50, the best streamer up to $900

Pionner N-50, the best streamer up to $900


The N-50 can play uncompressed FLAC and WAV files up to 24-bit/92kHz, along with standard AAV and WMA files, via the front USB socket. It’s also Apple-friendly, so you can charge your iDevice while streaming tracks, and AirPlay is supported too. The only minor inconvenience is that it doesn’t have immediate wireless functionality, but plugging in Pioneer’s AS-WL300 dongle ($105) takes care of that easily.

The N-50 also feels like a quality item: its sturdy build coupled with the aluminum finish and minimalist fascia look elegant and stylish. The high-contrast LCD display is easy to read, too, and provides a wealth of information including album artwork, file format, sampling rate and bitrate. And as for control, it’s up to you whether you use the slender metal remote or the free Smartphone Control App both are easy to use.

Most importantly, the N-50’s sound is in league with its list of features and functions. It’s got toe-tapping rhythmic abilities, its dynamics are fluid and it packs in plenty of bite and excitement. The top end is wonderfully controlled, never straying towards being too bright, and bass notes are grounded with confidence and natural warmth. Detail definition is impressive for a streamer at this kind of price too, with subtle tonal shifts being conveyed with remarkable ease, while vocals are expressive in a spacious and airy sound field.

Pioneer has struck gold with its first network streamer at this competitive price point it’s a superb product in terms of design, features and sonic performance.

Best streamer: $1,500 - $3,000

Naim NAC-N 172 XS

Price: $2,475

Naim has been an Awards staple in recent years with its streaming products: its NDX and Uniti streamers each won an Award last year.

So while it’s not surprising to see a Naim product in this category, what is interesting is the type of product the NAC-N172 XS is. This is Naim’s first streaming preamp, which combines the features of its high-end streaming products with those of a traditional preamplifier.

It’s a great sounding streamer: whether you’re streaming compressed MP3 tracks or high-res 24-bit/192kHz files, the Naim handles all formats with an even hand and no small amount of style. It has a great sense of timing, presents dynamics in a nicely controlled yet engaging way, even at higher volumes, and serves up heaps of captivating detail

The Naim foregoes outright transparence for lively and smooth tone, which will serve you well if you have a library full of varying music styles and file formats. You’ll have to look to something like the Cyrus Stream XP2-Qx for the ultimate in detail definition and openness, but the Naim delivers an exciting and involving performance that is more than worth its asking price.

It has a great sense of timing presenting dynamics in a nicely controlled yet engaging way, even at higher volumes

Naim NAC-N 172 XS, the best streamer between: $1500-$3000

Naim NAC-N 172 XS, the best streamer between: $1,500 - $3,000

A pleasure to use

What’s more, the Naim is easy and unfussy to use, thanks to the free n-Stream control app. It’s an intuitive design, recognizes your sources inputs and all tracks and also displays handy in formation such as the file size, as well offering a digital booklet for albums. All in all, it’s a great user experience that makes the Naim all the more enjoyable to use.

It’s a great, frontier-style time for network streamers at the moment, and with such extensive features and functionality, along with an excellent sonic performance for the money, this stunning Naim preamp/streamer ticks all the right boxes.


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