Arcam rPlay Network Streamer Review
It’s Play time
What is the Arcam rPlay?The Arcam rPlay is the first dedicated UPnP media streamer from Arcam and joins a new family of rSeries components that are being updated for 2017 and taking on new roles. The rPlay is significant because it is the first dedicated streamer that Arcam has released to market. “Hang on” I hear some of your say “Arcam has made devices that work as UPnP streamers before.” The answer to this is “sort of.” The original AirDAC, the CDS27 CD player and the AV Receivers all have a degree of UPnP functionality built in but it isn’t their primary focus as products. The rPlay is the first dedicated streamer to wear the Arcam badge.
Developing a streaming platform from scratch is no small undertaking. Developing a good interface with the bells and whistles we now demand as consumers is harder still. This being the case, Arcam has decided to go with a third party interface for the rPlay and one that I have not previously encountered. We’ll cover the mechanics of what this interface is and what it does in the relevant section but it asks the interesting question – can the Arcam feel like an Arcam when some of its interface is from elsewhere?
The other question worth asking is does the £400 rPlay drop into a clear spot in the market with a spec that is going to impress or is it in a no man’s land between affordable devices hitting the market in increasing numbers and true high end devices that appeal to the more limited market of hardened audiophiles? Read on and find out.
SpecificationsThe critical part of any network streamer is the software and control. They live or die on the ease with which owners can control them and many a fine sounding product has fallen by the wayside because rivals were altogether more pleasant to live with. This has a particular relevance to Arcam because while some of their previous streaming interfaces had reached the heady heights of ‘alright’ or sometimes even ‘perfectly useable’, they weren’t things I’d swim rivers and climb mountains to use.
As such, Arcam has dispensed with their own interface and the rPlay uses the DTS Play-Fi system. Having faced more competition from a resurgent Dolby in recent years, DTS has branched out into other areas and Play-Fi is a system that can be licensed by third party users for use on their products. One immediate benefit to this is that Play-Fi is already supported by multiple manufacturers and any suitable equipped devices will appear on a roster of selectable hardware on the app. Arcam is never going to challenge Yamaha for the breadth of products that MusicCast now covers… but theoretically Play-Fi might.
The capabilities of Play-Fi are entirely competitive with the requirements we generally have of a streamer in 2017. You get sample rate support up to 24/192kHz, the usual clutch of supported formats and integrated streaming service support. In this case, a lot of service support. The rPlay arrived with Deezer, Spotify and Tidal and in the time it’s been here has added Qobuz, Amazon Music, Pandora and Juke. All of them are selectable via a control app that is supported on iOS, Android and (unusually) Windows desktop devices. It does feel a little odd to select a third party app to control the Arcam – not least because I discovered an old Arcam app on my iPad while installing this one – but there’s no question that the DTS effort is a very good app. It’s fast, stable and intuitive. It also does things that on a personal level make me very happy, like omitting a queue function.
The Arcam bit of the rPlay is no less considered. The decoding is built around a Burr Brown PCM5102 and the architecture of the rPlay is bespoke to this unit. The connectivity of the rPlay is relatively limited but reflects the requirements of a streamer. You get the option of wired and wireless connectivity and analogue outputs with a solitary coaxial output. The most interesting fitment is there are two analogue outputs. One is a fixed level connection while the other is a variable output. What is notable is that the preamp functionality is carried out entirely in the analogue domain and volume is carried out via a variant of Arcam’s resistor ladder volume control.
DesignThe rPlay is a member of the rSeries components that have been undergoing a recent revision and expansion. Unlike the FMJ components, they are half width units that share almost all their metalwork. The good news is that this metalwork feels solid, looks good and is extremely well finished. Arcam’s decision to simply rubberise the base and do without feet means that the rPlay is simplicity itself to accommodate. If you don’t want it on display, it would be simplicity itself to squirrel it away.
There is a catch to this approach although it isn’t specific to the Arcam. The rPlay is only capable of showing information via a pair of lights on the front curve. This means that while network connectivity is pretty easy to establish, some of the other functions are a little more esoteric and, unless you commit a lively library of different hues to memory, are generally not that easy to distinguish. The only physical controls are a pair of volume buttons which work well but leaves an owner without a quick way of silencing the unit. This is a common enough phenomenon with affordable streamers but the Arcam is starting to move into categories where some of the competition have physical controls and displays. In fairness, it’s hardly the end of the world to have to reach for an app but depending on the amp you use the rPlay with, it might be a pain to mute and do other things you’d otherwise take for granted.
An area where the Arcam is on much stronger ground is the setup and basic configuration. This is logical to a fault and works brilliantly. If you have a WPS enabled router, it is utterly straightforward but even if you don’t, it’s still logically arranged and very easy to do. The rPlay also feels slick and together in a way that some streamers – even ones rather more expensive than this – can fail to do. Even if you are coming off the back of Sonos or the like, the rPlay is going to meet your expectations.
The capabilities of Play-Fi are entirely competitive with the requirements we generally have of a streamer in 2017
How was the rPlay tested?The Arcam has been used connected to a Naim Supernait 2 and Cambridge Audio 851A integrated amplifiers – the latter also via the variable output to test it. Most testing has taken place on the main wireless network with connection to the outside world and a Western Digital MyBook but additional testing has taken place via wired connection with a Melco N1A NAS drive. Material used has included lossless and high res FLAC and AIFF as well as Spotify, Tidal and a quick check of Qobuz.
Sound QualityHaving performed the simple setup procedure and connected the rPlay via the fixed output, the news is almost exclusively good. Arcam might have made use of third party software to make the rPlay work but it undoubtedly sounds like an Arcam. Thanks to the use of decoding and design practise used on other products, it has a house sound that is unmistakeably Arcam. Like a number of brands, this sound has evolved gradually but discernibly over the years to adapt to modern tastes. This means that the Arcam is impressively dynamic – more of which in a bit – but hasn’t lost a very slight warmth and refinement to the presentation which helps it across a wide selection of music.
Listening to the 16/44.1 rip of Yello’s Flag, the Arcam is rather lovely. The opening track Tied Up is a riot of big band sounds and an almost carnival rhythm. The Arcam sounds lush and rich but this warmth and scale hasn’t been bought at the price of any sense of softness or bloom. While some digital devices can sound ultra detailed but a little ‘etched’ as if the voices and instruments had been cut out of the background. The Arcam by contrast is big inviting and natural.
The most readily apparent area of this is the bass. The Arcam is one of the most affordable devices that has genuinely convincing and full bodied low end. Listening to the Arcam via a pair of speakers capable of extending to the 30Hz region, there is simply better definition and presence to the information at this point that simply isn’t there with more affordable rivals. This gives the Arcam the ability to be felt as much as heard.
High res material gives the Arcam even greater chance to shine. Listening to the 24/88.2kHz download of Dead Can Dance’s Spiritchaser gives the Arcam the chance to show its tremendous scale and realism. The relationship between the performers and the positioning relative to one another is so effortlessly three dimensional and self-explanatory it ensures you stop listening to the device and concentrate on the music. While these exceptionally mastered files give the rPlay a helping hand, even the 24/96kHz version of Nirvana’s Nevermind has the same space and realism to it despite this being a thin and edgy recording.
The only real wrinkle in this otherwise deeply impressive roster of talents comes from the streaming service implementation. As noted, the app integration is good – very good in fact. Sonically, the results are a little more mixed. Listening to Tidal via the rPlay is not as convincing a prospect as it should be. Listening to an album on Tidal versus a 16/44.1 rip on both the resident Naim ND5XS and the rather more sympathetically priced Musaic MPL gives a performance that if you forensically sit and pull it apart, you can probably have a fighting chance of identifying correctly. The Arcam for reasons I don’t fully understand, sounds thinner and less at ease via Tidal than it does playing a rip – even if the connection is also made wirelessly. I don’t know why this is the case but if you’re a heavy Tidal user it might be worth taking this into account. It’s also worth noting that Spotify seems to be unaffected.
If on the other hand, you are looking for a streamer that works as a preamp, the Arcam needs to go a long way up your shortlist. Switching to the variable output and locking the input of the 851A to allow the streamer to work as a preamp, the Arcam shows that adjusting the volume in the analogue domain still has some tangible benefits. The performance at different volume levels is entirely consistent and there are enough volume increments to ensure you get the volume level that you want rather than something close to it. The Arcam working in combination with an affordable pair of active speakers would make for a serious talented – and usefully compact – system. As a minor point of detail, the performance via the digital output is entirely transparent but so is the Musaic MPL, so if you need a digital front end for a DAC, you might as well go for the one that saves you £150 unless the PlayFi functionality really appeals to you.
Arcam might have made use of third party software to make the rPlay work but it undoubtedly sounds like an Arcam
- Refined but punchy sound
- Excellent feature set
- Compact and well built
- Streaming services sound a little thin
- Limited physical controls
- No display
Arcam rPlay Network Streamer ReviewArcam’s decision to build the rPlay around a licensed platform rather than one of their own (however it might have come into being), was not without risk but having spent some time with the rPlay, I think they made the right decision. Minor quibbles about the performance of streaming services aside, this is a well thought out, flexible and attractive platform that works with the levels of slickness and stability that this software now needs to stand out. If it becomes something that is widely taken up, it augers well for multiroom use too.
More importantly, the Arcam still looks, feels and, most importantly, sounds like an Arcam. This is a wonderfully capable all-rounder that brings things to its performance that more cost-effective streaming platforms can lack. If you have decided that UPnP streaming is the digital method for you, this is a device that punches above its weight, combining great functionality with sparkling performance. For this reason, the rPlay comes highly recommended.
Suggested retail price when reviewed: £400.00
Ease of Use8
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