Arcam ST60 Network Audio Player Review
- Sounds excellent - a fine example of the trademark Arcam sound
- Very well made
- Stable and easy to use
- No DSD or exotic sample rate support
- Not that attractive
- No Amazon or Apple Music
Introduction - What Is the Arcam ST60?
The Arcam ST60 is a network audio streamer. This is a relatively unusual product in 2021. Network streaming has managed to become pre-eminent in two channel audio (and video for that matter) but has done so without creating as much dedicated hardware as you might expect. Streamers are not CD players. Companies can fit a streaming board to an amplifier without taking any significant space or energy away from the amplifier itself. Arcam is no exception to this. The SA30 is a fully equipped network audio player - which is how it conspired to win the 'Best All in One System' in the 2020 Editor’s Choice Awards despite Arcam being keen to describe it as an amp.
This makes the ST60 a slightly unusual addition in the context of the Arcam range but, as it will happily work with other amplifiers, one that could be rather beneficial for a few people. Of course, the ST60 has its work cut out. It is more than twice the price of the Bluesound Node and the functionality is at first glance quite similar. With this lurking like a £549 wedge of excellence and the whole concept of a dedicated network audio player looking threatened by devices like the iFi Zen Stream, is the ST60 a slightly pricey anachronism or is there a reason to choose the big standalone streamer?
Specification and Design
The Arcam presents a specification that occupies a special hinterland of ‘not that impressive on paper but is realistically everything you need.’ I am aware that AVForums and its membership are - with every justification - concerned with ensuring that the products that the buy both support the features that they have an immediate need for and that offer a degree of future proof functionality as well. This also tends to bleed into how two channel audio equipment is viewed and, while this is understandable, it’s not completely analogous.
The reason why I’m painstakingly laying this out is because the core specification of the ST60 is not in any way remarkable. It will support PCM to 32/192kHz if encoded as any of the commonly encoded lossless formats (that is to say WMA lossless and Ogg fans will need to look elsewhere). Being blunt for a moment, this is not only the same as the Bluesound Node… it’s the same basic hardware proposition as the original Naim ND5XS I reviewed in 2013 (but had already been in existence for two years by that point). If you want exotic sample rates or DSD, you will need to go elsewhere.
Arcam has augmented that specification with MQA support. This makes the inclusion of Tidal support something that is effectively ‘fully supported’ although Tidal Connect is yet to appear. This is alongside Qobuz, the specialist but supremely high quality High Res Audio service Deezer, Napster and internet radio. Spotify Connect is not supported but this is because the Arcam has both AirPlay2 and Google Cast (meaning it is seen as a connection option over Cast in the Spotify app). There is no Bluetooth fitment - something I think is completely correct in the context of the presence of both AirPlay and Cast.
What this means is that, the Arcam lacks exotic and headline grabbing feats of sample rate and format handing. Technically, this leaves it open to some great leap in available format that some rivals notionally aren’t. The caveat to this is that such a change in the audio sector is extremely unlikely. It goes against the AVForums natural state of being but my position on this as the person reviewing it is that the ST60 does enough even if the spec itself is not that radical.
The platform that performs this work comprises the same balance of real world capability rather than bleeding edge radicalism. The ST60 uses an ESS9038K2M DAC. This is naturally fully balanced and Arcam has fitted it with both RCA and XLR outputs. Four digital inputs, two optical and two coaxial are also fitted. This ensures that the ST60 can handle the signal from a TV but there’s nothing as slickly integrated as would be the case if HDMI ARC was present. The Arcam allows for you to select digital filter settings from a list of choices (standard boilerplate that if you’re looking for radical differences you’re likely to be disappointed) and you can also engage a 99 step volume control, turning the ST60 into a digital preamp. As the HDA range to which the ST60 belongs also includes a pair of stereo power amps, this gives another system building possibility.
One reason why I’m prepared to be accommodating to some omissions to the bells and whistles count of the ST60 is that there is a strong helping of real world practicality to what Arcam has included. There is a large, full colour display which, together with a decent if slightly underwhelming remote handset, ensures that using the Arcam is pretty straightforward even without firing the app up. When you do select MusicLife (not, I confess my favourite named app but these things are not life and death), the impression is pretty good too. MusicLife is, in some ways, a digital avatar of the ST-60. It’s not showy and there are very few surprise-and-delight features on it. It does however work with what appears from testing to be unconditional stability and it is well laid out and easy to use.
Something that’s also fairly important to stress is that the Arcam also has considerable under the skin compatibility too. It has the means to work as a Roon Endpoint (including the volume control) and then goes on to offer a considerable amount of custom install flexibility as well. It has RS232 and you will find various control protocols on the website. In short, you can get the ST60 working in situations where many rivals simply won’t. There is admittedly an element that some of these bells and whistles are no less irrelevant to day to day use as esoteric format support but it shows Arcam does at least have some clear priorities.
What this has meant under test is that the Arcam has been completely painless to use. If we take the Bluesound Node to be a textbook example of this, the ST60 has given no ground to it. It’s well made too. None of the HDA series products go in for the ‘hewn from iron’ feel but the ST60 is solid and feels reassuring in use. I have become less and less concerned with the presence of a display over time - Roon has taken some of the priority out of it for me - but the one on the ST60 is nice to have. This is a pleasant looking and extremely easy to use device that has impressed from the outset and has, if anything, grown on me further in that time.
One reason why I’m prepared to be accommodating to some omissions to the bells and whistles count of the ST60 is that there is a strong helping of real world practicality to what Arcam has included.
How Was the ST60 Tested?
The Arcam has been connected to an IsoTek Evo 3 Aquarius mains conditioner and, while tested for stability over wireless, it has mainly been used connected directly to the router. It has been used accessing a Melco N1A directly and as a Roon Endpoint via a Roon Nucleus. It has been connected to a Chord CPM 2800 MkII integrated amp via both XLR and RCA cables and run into the Bowers & Wilkins 805 D4 speakers. Material used has been FLAC, AIFF, DSD, Tidal and Qobuz with a limited amount of internet radio, AirPlay and Cast testing, mainly via an iPad Pro which also served to run the app.
More: Audio Formats
Arcam has built some great digital sources over the years. Many of the Alpha CD players; the Alpha 9 especially which used a variant of the exotic Ring DAC technology that continues to power dCS equipment, were extremely good and both DIVA and FMJ devices had their moments too. There’s an impressive familiarity to sitting down and listening to the ST60 and it takes very little time to start to impress.
Let me be clear, I do not believe that there is something magic going on inside the Arcam and it doesn’t render the competition irrelevant or any bluff and bluster to the effect. The Arcam takes good quality decoding, implements it in a good circuit and fleshes it out with decent components and power supply. The result is a product that takes a piece of silicone that will always do a decent job and helps it to do a great one. Listening to Repo Man, the fabulous opener to Ray LaMontagne’s God Willin and the Creek don’t Rise, the Arcam fizzles with energy and dynamics that turn a presentation into a performance. LaMontagne himself sounds sensational; the gravel in his voice and his distinctive tone are nailed with an assurance that is deeply impressive. It’s not ‘good digital’ it’s ‘good sound.’
It’s also - despite the move to ESS decoding and away from CD - a very Arcam sound. The ST60 is not about tiny details (although everything in the recording tends to be there) that Chord manages and it doesn’t really go in for the same propulsive energy that Naim (and the Node) goes in for. Instead, it flows. It handles things like Robert Plant’s Little Maggie, a track that is half folk, half scuzzy electronica in a way that does justice to both. When the big kick drum that underpins the track comes in, it has the heft it needs to convince. There is a ‘goldilocks’ quality to what the Arcam does that has consistently appealed to me. There are moments when listening to something, you think “I wonder if x or y might be better” but it’s the consistency across multiple genres and albums - that Arcam strength of old - that truly impresses.
Bear in mind that throughout testing, the Arcam has been working with the 805D4; a speaker that - while perhaps a little more forgiving than some 800 speakers of old - will still take no prisoners. The ST60 can’t match the resident digital source here but it is around one sixth the price. Something else that’s worth noting too is that, run into the balanced input of the Chord (which is a balanced design), even when levels are scrupulously matched, the Arcam takes a step forward in terms of the perceived space in the presentation. I won’t insult anyone’s intelligence by suggesting that £1,200 is ‘cheap’ because I don’t have £1,200 lying around right now either but… this is a piece of source equipment that could be realistically seen to be punching above its weight.
Also notable, is that this is a device that gets better with great recordings rather then concentrating on flattering poor ones. No less usefully, it does this without rendering poor ones unlistenable but when you really give it something with some dynamics, it steps up and delivers them. The 24/88.2 version of Dead Can Dance’s Song of the Stars is simply sublime. The technical accuracy of what you hear is pretty much unquestionable but there’s that same ‘Arcam flow’ to it that does a fine job of getting under your skin and encouraging you to keep listening.
There is a ‘goldilocks’ quality to what the Arcam does that has consistently appealed to me
Arcam ST60 Network Audio Player Review
Your perception of the Arcam will (aside from obvious things like whether you actually need a streamer) is whether you feel that its specification is a little lacking in terms of DSD support or more exotic sample rates. It is not a matter of contention that you can buy something that does more than the Arcam for the same price (or indeed, by combining the iFi ZEN stream with some of the more exotic DAC options doing the rounds, possibly even less).
This needs to be balanced against the reality the DSD is niche and will remain so. Widely available Hi-Res is settling on 192kHz as a maximum (and after the compressed years, we should thank various deities that we’re anywhere near that). The Arcam handles every format it needs to. It does everything else it needs to as well. Sure, Amazon and Apple Music support would be nice but Qobuz is still the best service of the bunch and that’s present and if you are a Tidal and MQA advocate, this is a good implementation of that too. Also, and in the context of Arcam reviews, this matters. I’ve not had to make excuses or allowances or be perceived as doing so. Everything the ST60 does, it has done reliably at the first time of asking.
With all the basics covered, the ST60 then goes on to do the thing that matters. It sounds brilliant. This is an Arcam product through and through but it is one that will partner with a vast selection of amplifiers and make for an exceptional system when you do. The ST60 is not a radical product but it is an exceptional one and for that reason, it is an unquestionable Best Buy.
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