Positioning a review can sometimes be difficult. Not so much this one. The NAD CS1 is a standalone streamer selling for £300 / US$349 / €399. It appears very similar to the £150 WiiM Pro that performed well when we reviewed it recently. Is it worth the extra for the CS1?
If yes, stress if, I thought it would be down to its analogue performance. WiiM sees the Pro being used mainly with external DACs, the sound quality of its analogue output passable at best. Fine, that’s a design decision, in part to keep the price down. If you lavish attention on both analogue and digital outputs does that give us the NAD CS1 though?
Which assumes a) their digital outputs sound the same and b) the two streamers have similar functionality. Both of which I explored. No need to debate form though, the WiiM Pro and CS1 look like twins.
The CS1 is a simple streamer with both wired and wireless networking, plus optical & coax digital and RCA analogue outputs. Its USB-C socket is for powering the device, a 12V trigger allows the CS1 to switch some other devices on. And the streamer has no inputs, it can’t play your TV/CD/turntable.
On the rear is a hole of the stick-a-paperclip-in-it variety, used to reset the NAD to factory status (fine) and to pair Bluetooth devices (clunky). You might want to use the CS1’s NFC (near field communications) capability for Bluetooth pairing.
There’s no companion app, the NAD relying on a mix of Airplay 2, Chromecast, Bluetooth and Spotify/Tidal Connect for its music. It also has DLNA to play files on your home network (and other sources) using apps like BubbleUPnP. And the CS1 is Roon Ready, acting as an endpoint for the excellent (albeit expensive and complex) Roon music software.
And that’s it. Apart from a small standby button on the front panel there are no other controls or connections.
The CS1’s DAC uses a Texas Instruments PCM5141 chip that handles up to 24-bit/192kHz and can pass MQA through the digital outputs (if your DAC supports it). There’s no MQA on the analogue output though – arguably less of a problem now the company behind MQA is in administration.
Finally, the CS1’s build quality is perfectly fine, if unremarkable. Physically it’s a small black box measuring 14×5.5×14 cm (WHD) with round vertical edges. Had I said 4.3 cm tall I’d have described the WiiM Pro.
All the above nixes my first assumption, there are functional differences between the NAD and WiiM. That the CS1 lacks the WiiM’s inputs matters less – I imagine most people using the Pro as a simple streamer, not a system hub.
More significant is the lack of a control app on the CS1. Linkplay simplifies how the WiiM Pro is used, and supports more music services directly, which could be important.
Particularly when it comes to volume control. Long story short, I’d only use the CS1 as a fixed-output device, with your amplifier handling volume control. I spent a frustrating few hours trying to get the CS1 to reliably change volume through various music apps. I failed. Which, to be fair, NAD acknowledges in the manual: –
Some of the apps for mobile devices will allow adjusting volume through the Volume Up/Down buttons on the controlling phone / tablet for the NAD CS1 analog audio output.
Although this can be very convenient, in many cases there will also be a separate volume control on the amplifier or receiver the NAD CS1 is connected to. When using the mobile device’s volume control, ensure the volume level of the amplifier or receiver the CS1 is connected to is not set too high.
…for the highest level of audio quality, it is recommended to set the volume control of the phone or tablet to maximum and then adjust the volume level on the amplifier or receiver the NAD CS1 is connected to.
That reads to me like the NAD is meant as a fixed-output device, hence my recommendation. Get it wrong and you’ve bought a brick.
Listening – digital outputs
And so to listening. I started with CS1 and WiiM’s digital outputs playing via the coax input of the DAC in the ‘Big Rig*’ system. The aim being to really highlight any differences between the streamers.
Before long my second assumption fell; the digital outputs didn’t sound the same. Very similar, both fantastic fronting a five-figure system. The WiiM Pro was slightly better though. Bass was marginally firmer and the WiiM was better organised, separating out the different strands of music better. Treble was also more extended, expanding the soundstage and giving the music more pizazz.
‘Ai No Corrida’ from Quincy Jones’ The Dude was a case in point. An 80s mix, it’s slightly bright as per Quincy’s normal style (like the Michael Jackson albums he produced). There’s also a lot going on. The WiiM Pro confidently got on top of the complexity. In comparison the CS1 sounded busy, some of the detail hidden in the mix. The WiiM pro also had more verve; where the CS1 shouted ‘party’ the WiiM hollered ‘P-A-R-T-Y’!
Peter Gabriel’s latest single ‘So Much (The Dark Side Mix)’ is simpler music, initially just him on vocals and a piano. Yet there were still differences between the streamers, the WiiM having greater clarity, a slight smear removed from the sound. If you’ve ever tried a Raspberry Pi with and without a good external power supply you’ll recognise the improvement. The CS1 sounded as if it was having to try harder (like the guys coming second to Usain Bolt in all those sprints).
To be clear, the differences weren’t large, you had to listen for them. Once heard they couldn’t be unheard though.
* Graham LS6 speakers with REL T/7x subwoofer, Prima Luna EVO 300H amplifier, Mytek Liberty II DAC, Pro-ject Stream Box S2 Ultra streamer. Allo Shanti dual-output 5V power supply. Total circa £12,000
In a HiFi Starter system
Would those differences exist / matter in a price-appropriate system though? Out came a Marantz PM6006 amplifier and Elac B6.2 speakers to find out (£650 total). The streamers played into the amplifier’s coax input.
In a nutshell, the results were the same. The WiiM Pro produced a more measured sound than the CS1; if anything the differences were easier to hear. Particularly on ‘Ai No Corrida’ where the WiiM tamed a slightly splashy treble; add greater refinement to the WiiM’s attributes.
Again, the differences weren’t huge. For those wanting only a digital-output streamer the WiiM takes the honours though. But then the CS1 would have had to go some to overcome the WiiM Pro’s lower cost and Linkplay streaming software anyway.
Onto the all-important analogue outputs. Sticking with the Marantz / Elac pairing I only needed a few tracks before the NAD CS1 triumphed big-time over the WiiM Pro. The WiiM sounded flat in comparison, lacking in detail and dynamics. Switching to the CS1 resulted in a much bigger soundstage, with significantly better depth. All in all it was just more believable.
So, if you need analogue replay (or want the option in the future), the NAD CS1 is the one to choose. As I found previously, the WiiM Pro’s analogue output isn’t an option for critical listening.
Analogue vs digital on the NAD CS1
Back to the CS1 to see how it’s digital and analogue sides faced off against each other. Admittedly a superfluous question, the digital sound being heavily influenced by the DAC being used. But how would the CS1 fare with a ‘typical’ DAC, such as that in the Marantz PM6006?
With the CS1 connected to both the coax and analogue inputs on the PM6006 listening commenced. First up were the Quincy Jones and Peter Gabriel tracks again, and the CS1’s analogue output took the honours. Most notably for it’s handling of treble, which sounded a tad splashier through the digital output; the CS1’s internal DAC tamed the coarse edges. Particularly on the busier Ai No Corrida track, the digital output sounding less in control of proceedings.
John Moreland’s ‘Harder Dreams’ from his excellent LP5 album also preferred the analogue output, the opening guitar a little harsh, a bit twangier, via digital. Tonally the analogue output was also slightly richer, lending a denser air to the music, which suited the Marantz amplifier. Essentially the CS1’s analogue output sounded more analogue, the digital output more digital. And no that’s not stating the b***ng obvious, we’re still comparing two DACs.
The differences were small though. In reality the analogue and digital outputs sounded more alike than apart. NAD does indeed appear to have lavished equal TLC on both .
So, should you pay £150 more than the WiiM Pro for the NAD CS1? If you only need a digital-output on your streamer then the WiiM Pro is a better bet. Likewise, if you need the CS1 to handle volume control itself, best steer clear.
If you need that analogue output though (or want to hedge your bets) then the CS1 is the one for you. As a reviewer it’s been very handy to have around for sure. The CS1 sounds great whether used in digital or analogue mode. And pairing it with an integrated amplifier (or pre-amp) plays to its strengths functionally.
In addition to the systems used above I got the chance to play the CS1 into Acoustic Energy’s AE1 Active speakers, whose time here overlapped with the CS1. Using Roon software – the exception when it comes to controlling the CS1’s volume – the pairing sounded fabulous. One I’d genuinely be happy to live with myself. The bottom line? Used in the right circumstances the CS1 is a great little streamer, fully justifying its price tag.