Cambridge Audio Stream Magic 6 Network Music Player
Device Type: Network Music Player/Preamplifier/DAC
Input: Ethernet, USB (Type B for Audio), USB (Type A for USB storage device), S/PDIF Coax, Toslink, RCA Control Bus for use with other Cambridge Audio components, Wi-Fi Aerial
Output: 1 pair RCA, 1 pair XLR, S/PDIF Coax, Toslink
Dimensions (H x W x D): 3.4 x 16.9 x 12.2”
People looking to play hard drive and Internet-based music without a computer have one choice—a network player. You could argue that a network player is a computer but that's missing the relevant point which is some people don't want to tie up their computer for use as a music server. They'd rather use a computer as a computer. So a dedicated device is their solution. The Cambridge Audio Stream Magic 6 gives you most everything you'd expect from a network player including the ability to play up to 24/96 music from Network Attached Storage (NAS), USB-based storage, the Internet, and it throws in a 24/192-capable USB DAC to boot.
The Stream Magic6 can handle WAV, FLAC, AIFF, WMA, MP3, AAC, Ogg Vorbis, and ALAC file formats and its Dual Wolfson WM8740 24-bit DACs can accept 24/192 data through the USB and Coax S/PDIF inputs. The Toslink, Network/Ethernet, and USB inputs handle up to 24/96 data. The default setting for the USB Audio input is USB Class 1.1 for a 24/96 max input and I'm sure Cambridge sets this as the default so Windows users don't have to load drivers to get the USB audio working out-of-the-box. To change this, I did, you just have to go to Settings > USB Class > and select 2.0 which will get you up to 24/192 playback without drivers if you use a Mac and with a PC when you download and install the Cambridge Audio USB Audio Class 2.0 drivers from the Cambridge website. 24/176.4 data is not supported so all incoming 24/176.4 data is downsampled to 24/88.2.
The Stream Magic 6 has a black and blue front panel text-based display, front-mounted controls, a remote, as well as the Stream Magic OS/Android app for controlling all functions. That big knob on the right side is also a switch when pushed and I found it generally easy to navigate using that knob more so than the remote but the iOS app was my preferred controller especially when navigating my NAS-based music. You can also use the Stream Magic 6 as a digital preamplifier by turning on this feature under Settings > Advanced and when you do that big knob also functions as a volume control. The volume is DSP controlled and Cambridge claims there is no related bit reduction when used in preamp mode. The Stream Magic 6 also upsamples all incoming data to 24/384 for playback using a DSP from Analog Devices. The digital outputs provide bit-perfect pass through.
Since I have my music stored as FLAC files on the UPnP-enabled Western Digital MyBook Live 2TB NAS in the Shared Music directory, all I had to do after connecting the Stream Magic 6 to my network with an Ethernet cable was browse to the "Media" option on the Stream Magic 6, hit "Enter" and select the "MyBook Live" directory. After that, you can browse by Album, Artist, Genre, etc.
The Stream Magic 6 also works with Internet Radio and streaming services including Rhapsody, Pandora, and Sirius XM. For Internet radio, there's a web-based app (www.stream-magic.com) that allows you to add stations to your favorite list that will then show up on your Stream Magic 6. I very much enjoy Internet Radio and find its thousands of stations endlessly fun to browse through and even more fun to listen to. Radio is a great way to discover new music and its free and endless. You can also connect a USB hard drive or flash drive to the two USB Type-A inputs (one on the front, one on the back) and play back your hard disk-based music. The Stream Magic 6 supports FAT32 and NTFS file systems.
There are user-selectable filters that include Linear Phase, Minimum Phase, and Steep. The current selection is displayed on the front panel and you can select these filters from the front panel or the remote. Nice. The remote can also control other Cambridge Audio devices. The Stream Magic 6 is also Wi-Fi enabled and there's an optional BT100 aptX Bluetooth adapter ($109.00) that would come in handy for those looking to play back music from their mobile devices.
Playing with Magic
Once you've got all of your connections made, disks attached, Internet radio stations selected, streaming services set up, its time to play. I found the Stream Magic 6 a breeze to use regardless of the source. Browsing through my NAS-based music library using the Stream Magic app for the iPad was very responsive with album art displayed (for all of the albums I have album art for which is most but not all albums). Moving between sources was also seamless, from NAS to Internet Radio just a few taps away. I never once had to look at the manual for playback options including saving stations to the preset list (just click "M+").
The Stream Magic 6 supports gapless playback as of a July 2012 firmware update. Speaking of firmware updates, each time you start the Stream Magic 6 it checks for newer versions of the firmware automatically. You can simply select "Update Firmware" (if there's one available) and the unit will update itself.
I mainly used the Stream Magic 6 to play back NAS-based music, music on my MacBook Pro via USB, and Internet radio. Obviously this last option offers the lowest sound quality (I don't store and play no MP3s) nonetheless it was completely enjoyable. Internet radio stations vary in quality but even streaming at 128kpbs was fine for background listening and exploring. Higher quality files sounded better, of course, and here the Stream Magic does a very good job of playing back CD-quality and better files. The DAC in the Stream Magic is on the smooth and easy side as opposed to the detailed and hard-sounding.
While the Stream Magic 6 is not the last word in resolution, its presentation is pleasantly detailed and its tonal balance leans towards the fat, mid-range rich side. Singers sound nice and physically present, and chesty where appropriate. Bass was fat, full, and fun and tonal colors were nicely portrayed if leaning every so slightly toward the darker side of the spectrum. There was no hint of grain or strain to upper frequencies while there was enough glimmer, sheen, and bite when called for. Overall I kept thinking—nice—when making listening notes. And that's a good thing. I found the differences between the user-selectable filters subtle but another nice-to-have feature especially the ability to switch through them with the included remote.
When playing back music from the USB DAC, you have to use your computer to control playback which makes perfect sense. I'm not sure how many people will make use of this feature since NAS-based playback seems more likely with a network player but having a USB DAC is a nice-to-have feature. The USB DAC sounded ever so slightly less full-bodied as compared to the network-based music but retained the overall sonic character of fat and fun. I did not try any of the streaming services since I don't subscribe but we can base our sound quality predictions on Internet radio which was again just fine. I'll mention this again because its worth noting—the Network connection can play back up to 24/96 data, nothing higher. If you want to play back higher sample rate data you need to do so via USB or Coax S/PDIF.
To test the Stream Magic 6's preamp, I connected it to my Pass INT-30A via the balanced connections and turned the Pass' volume control to its max position. Using the Stream Magic as preamp, the sound seemed less smooth as compared to the Pass as preamp. This is a somewhat difficult thing to gauge since level-matching is mandatory and I just used my ears as guide but with the Pass acting as preamp I could not get it to sound as sharp and biting as when using the Stream Magic's preamp regardless of the volume. The overall presentation also seemed more relaxed with the Pass' preamp, the Stream Magic's preamp closed things in a bit. If I owned the Stream Magic and Pass, I'd be using the Pass' preamp.
I also took the Wi-Fi connection for a walk but it was short one for a few reasons mainly because I have a wired connection available and a wired connection is always better than a wireless one and the wired connection can handle 24/96 whereas Wi-Fi cannot. That said, I was able to play CD-quality files from my NAS and stream from Internet radio with no problems and no dropouts. 24/96 files would not play, experiencing regular dropouts. From the Stream Magic manual, "Note: If you wish to play 24-bit/48kHz or 24-bit/96kHz content from a UPnP server, a wired Ethernet connection will be required as the high data rate of these files is beyond most Wi-Fi networks capability."
Network Players and Screamers
My guess is most manufacturers breathed a heavy sigh of relief when Logitech decided to discontinue the Squeezebox Touch. As it stands, the Stream Magic 6 is a very nice full-featured option for those looking to play music from their NAS, a USB hard drive, a computer, and the Internet. The Pioneer Elite N-50 (see review) for $699 offers up most of the same playback options while adding 24/192 playback via the network connection, as well as AirPlay and iPod compatibility so if you're in the market for a network player, I'd suggest also taking a look at the N-50.
The Cambridge Audio Stream Magic 6 was a joy to play with. The Stream Magic app for the iPad made navigating the various input options a breeze and the app was surprisingly responsive with near-0 lag time. NAS-based music came with its associated Album art, and once I loaded up a few favorite Internet radio stations I was streaming and singing (some might call it screaming) till the cows came home. Having touch screen access to so much music from so many sources is addictive and the Stream Magic 6 adds the all important caveat of making it all sound like its worth listening to.