Hi-fi manufacturer Marantz has experimented with home media streaming for several years, but until now it has been mostly proprietary. The NA7004 Network Audio Player is perhaps the company's first attempt at creating an open digital entertainment hub, which not only incorporates DLNA and AirPlay media streaming but DAB+ radio and a DAC.
The NA7004 maintains the look Marantz debuted in 2009 with its '003 range of components. The rounded edges feature a resin construction, while the front of the unit is brushed aluminium. The unit features a blue, three-line OLED display that is visible from across a room, which is handy because the unit doesn't feature any sort of on-screen display (OSD) for your television.
The display is surrounded by a smattering of handy controls including Play/Pause and so on, as well as a Menu and direction pad. At the bottom of the unit you also get a headphone output and corresponding volume control.
The remote control is well laid out and features direct selection of all inputs. If you have a Marantz receiver it will also provide limited control of that too.
If you're looking for a music player that will spin anything short of a physical disc, then the NA7004 is essentially a one-stop shop. It offers internet radio with thousands of stations at your fingertips, digital radio in the form of DAB+ (for the city slickers), in addition to AM/FM, a high-quality DAC with USB, direct iPod/MP3 player connection, DLNA media streaming from computers and compatible devices, and Apple's AirPlay standard. Just be aware that registering for AirPlay costs an additional US$50.
Upgrading the NA7004 to include AirPlay via the three-line OLED display (Credit: CBS Interactive)
The Marantz features support for a number of different audio formats including MP3, WMA, AAC and FLAC up to 24-bit/96MHz. While the player will relay the sound of video content via AirPlay, the player doesn't support picture or video files.
Marantz offers its M-DAX system on the NA7004, which is designed to "put back what compression takes out", but most people will find this needless. The switch simply adds extra treble to the mix and given the likely quality of the target market's audio files it's redundant.
As the unit can be used as a stand-alone DAC, you'd expect it to feature some cutting-edge digital processing, and, according to Marantz, it does. The player uses the Cirrus CS4398 chipset, which may not be the household names that the Burr-Browns and the Wolfsons are in the audiophile community, but Marantz also uses the DAC in its AU$2500 flagship CD player.
The system offers a number of inputs and outputs befitting a high-end digital player. For inputs you get USB, digital coaxial and optical, antenna and, of course, Ethernet. On the output side, the Marantz features both optical and coaxial (just in case, say, you own an even higher quality DAC) and stereo outputs. The only thing we miss is the lack of any video output and feel this limits a user's ability to navigate through long lists of content.
While the system also supports Last.FM and Napster, unfortunately these won't (currently) work in Australia.
In the bad old days of networked music players, getting them to work was always a little bit science, a little bit voodoo. But Marantz's latest player was quite easy to set up — simply hook in an Ethernet (no wireless, unfortunately) and the network set-up wizard does the rest.
The NA7004 found the content our DLNA-compliant NAS served up without a problem and we were able to play our music with the benefit of the Marantz's high-quality DAC. As we mentioned, the NA7004 has no OSD and the only issue we had at this early stage was that navigating through long lists was quite slow despite a small amount of acceleration. The ability to choose the first letter of the artist or song would help greatly here.
Instead, we found it much easier to use our iPhone via AirPlay or DLNA-compatible Windows PC to choose from our collection and serve it straight to the player. But no matter which way the digital music went into the sausage machine, the resulting meat parcels were certainly delicious. Even with low-quality files the player was able to dig up plenty of detail and bass weight, and was indeed the equal of the wireless Arcam rDAC we were using as a comparison. In addition, we found little difference between listening to a file through AirPlay and one delivered from the network server through the on-board media browser. Unlike a system based on Bluetooth, such as the aptX system used on the Creative D200, the file is seemingly delivered without being compressed. Having used AirPlay on several playback devices, we can now say that this is one of the best ways to deliver wireless music from your Apple device. While Marantz still offers the AU$499 IS301 wireless iPod dock, the addition of AirPlay to its devices supersedes it. No longer do you need a fussy iPod adapter, which can get lost behind the couch, as it's just a wireless network.
One interesting caveat is while the Media Player supports most file types it won't serve up Apple Lossless files, but of course you can still play them through the AirPlay service.
Comparisons between the on-board DAC and a dedicated sound card, such as the Creative X-Fi Titanium HD, were also positive. If you don't feel confident rooting around in the innards of your desktop computer this is an even better way to deliver high-quality audio from your PC.
Next we connected an Oppo BDP-83 to the NA7004 in order to decode a copy of Nick Cave's "Red Right Hand". The Marantz was able to capture the track's intimate, yet malevolent atmosphere and didn't let the bass become woolly and out of hand. When compared to the Arcam rDAC and the Cambridge Audio DacMagic, we were impressed by how well the Marantz performed against the two highly regarded DACs. If you have an old CD player with a digital out, the NA7004 could become the new centrepiece of your system.
While digital radio has been with us around 18 months, there are still very few "hi-fi" components available that receive it. We were quite taken by the optional UP-DT1 DAB+ tuner (AU$399) for Onkyo receivers and believe it's the best-sounding unit we've heard. So if you were to add a high-quality DAC to this, does it mean the Marantz is a sure-fire winner? Unfortunately, no. Like the Cambridge Audio Azur 650T DAB+ the Marantz digs up a little too much of the digital hash on low bitrate broadcasts. Yet, it's still listenable, and the unit's bright OLED screen and general usability makes the experience enjoyable.
Devices such as the NA7004 are designed to appeal to the "digiphile" who wants to do away with flimsy, expensive physical media and explore the wealth of content at their fingertips. While you can hook this unit up to a home theatre system, it would probably be better suited to a stereo set-up where the lack of an OSD isn't an issue.
While AU$1500 may seem like a lot, if you tally up all the cost of a separate DAC, DAB+ tuner and media streamer the Marantz NA7004 begins to make more sense. Great sound, the convenience of a single box, plus the addition of AirPlay makes this one of the best stereo components we've come across in a while. If you've resisted laying Ethernet cable around your house this is one of the best reasons to reconsider.