The name’s a mouthful, but this little network player has much to commend it
Pro-ject’s 20th anniversary celebrations last year were memorable for several things: one was a concert of Mozart, Haydn and Schubert given by the Vienna Classical Players in the Schubertsaal of the Vienna’s Konzerthaus; another was the inspirational overview of how the company’s trying to drag retailers kicking and screaming into the 21st century; and the third was the potential shown by the fast-growing Box Design sub-brand, and in particular the Stream Box DS streamer/player we have here.
Pro-ject, in case anyone needs reminding, is the company often credited with more or less creating the turntable revival: founder Heinz Lichtenegger tells the story of the Czech girl he met at a party who’d brought along a record player rescued from the skip behind the factory back home where her uncle worked. That turntable, and the factory in Litovel, became key to the whole Pro-ject story.
These days the company sells 40,000 turntables a year – not mention 250,000 of its phono preamplifiers so far – , but it all started because so much music was available almost free in secondhand and charity shops, discarded by people switching to CD.
And just as Lichtenegger identified that potential, so he’s now encouraging his retailers to abandon the ‘serious hi-fi’ world’s prejudice against all things with an ‘i’ at the front of their name, and embrace the new ways people are accessing, storing, and listening to music.
Box Design has a range of Dock Box models, allowing iPods and iPhones to be connected to hi-fi and home cinema systems: the £130 Dock Box Fi is the latest version of the original, with a fixed-level analogue output to run into an amplifier, while £25 more buys you the Dock Box Vi, with remote-control variable output to connect straight to an amplifier or active speakers, and £200 takes you to the Dock Box S Digital, complete with onboard digital to analogue conversion and, should you need it, a digital output to feed an offboard converter.
If you just want to play music from memory devices, then the £249 Media Box will handle USB drives and SD memory cards; if, however, you want to explore internet radio, and music streamed over a home network, then the Stream Box DS, at £699, is the obvious buy.
Compact – it’s just under 21cm wide, a bit less than 20cm deep and not much more than 7cm tall – , the Stream Box DS is built around a large colour display and housed in Box Design’s high-quality ‘S’ series casework.
There’s just one control on the front panel – for on/standby – and the connections are similarly pretty simple: there’s a choice of wired Ethernet or Wi-Fi networking, front and rear USB sockets for memory devices or direct digital connection to iPhones, iPods and iPads, and a choice of stereo analogue or digital audio outputs.
Power comes from a plug-top adapter, and a remote control handset is supplied.
It will play a wide variety of audio formats, from humble MP3s right up to 192kHz/24-bit WAV and FLAC files, and offers built-in vTuner internet radio and gapless playback.
The Stream Box is simple and quick to set up: it found the home wi-fi network and was soon connected, although I stuck to wired Ethernet for most of my listening purely for stability’s sake. It worked well enough with a wide range of file types over wireless, not suffering any drop-outs or losses when relatively close to the router, but with its ability to stream 192kHz/24-bit content, I have to say I’m happier with it connected through a switch to the NAS device using cable.
While the large, clear display makes it easier to use the system across the room with the remote supplied, there’s also a range of alternative methods of controlling the system. You can use the Plug Player app on iOS and Android devices, which will cost you £2.99, or the free SongBook Lite, to set up playlists and fire them at the Pro-ject, and while there isn’t Apple AirPlay compatibility, the free MediaShare Lite 4.0 will let you send music wirelessly from iOS and Android handhelds to the Stream Box.
Finally, Jamcast – available as a free trial, or $29.99 thereafter – will let you send the audio from a PC to the Pro-ject.
It’s worth noting at this point, however, that while the Stream Box DS will indeed play gaplessly when you set an entire album running using its own remote control, setting it to play using these external services gave rather more unpredictable performance, with a noticeable gap between tracks. I suspect this isn’t a problem of the Pro-ject itself, but rather of the third-party software.
There is an iOS/Android control app on the stocks from the company behind the streaming solution used here, so hopefully at some point this can be customized to give full dedicated operation of this player.
However, that shouldn’t detract one little bit from what is one of the more attractive and well-sorted network music players out there, not to mention one of the neatest, occupying only half the shelf-space of most of the ‘full-size’ rivals, and yet having that bright, clear display to show now not just track titles at a decent size, but also album artwork.
And as well as being simple to use, the Pro-ject also sounds rather good: I used it with a wide range of music from low-bitrate MP3 files and internet radio stations all the way through to high-resolution music from the likes of Chandos, Decca, Linn and Norwegian label 2L, and in every case its combination of weight and detail-retrieval served the music very well indeed.
It doesn’t quite have the spine-tingling quality of a much more expensive player when handling a high-resolution file, but there’s excellent weight in the bass, clarity in the midband for voices and solo instruments, and a respectable amount of sparkle in the treble to bring out the ambience of a recording.
That generous, well-controlled balance means the Pro-ject is tolerant of lower-resolution files, smoothing out some of their brittleness, while at the same time more than able to make clear the benefits of shoveling more data into it.
Listening to the Trondheim Soloists’ Souvenir Part I release at a variety of bitrates, from 320kbps MP3 all the way up to 192kHz/24-bit FLAC, there was never any doubt that the Stream Box DS was making more of the higher-resolution files, and doing so to thrilling effect.
This little box is an excellent buy: as well as being compact and classy-looking, it’s a notable step up from the entry-level streaming hardware now becoming available, and in a market where products seem to arrive and immediately have their price slashed, it more than justifies its £699 tag. If you’re thinking of adding streaming or internet radio to your system, I strongly suggest you give it a listen.
DESIGN NOTES Heinz Lichtenegger, Founder and General Manager, Pro-ject, on getting audio priorities right at an early age, and making hi-fi coexist with computers
As you can read above, Pro-ject began when Heinz Lichtenegger discovered a low-cost turntable still being made in a factory in the Czech Republic. But even before that the pattern was set: as a boy he was taught classical music by a teacher who used a quadraphonic sound system, also took his pupils to concerts – ‘so I was in the opera and the Musikverein at the age of 16.
The young Lichtenegger also spent money earned working at a petrol station not on the motorcycles his friends bought, but on audio equipment: ‘Yes, they could take girls out on their bikes, but when it was raining I was indoors with the girl and the music!’
His early music listening was mainly jazz, but those ‘natural recordings’ led to an exploration of Beethoven and Schubert symphonies, and Puccini’s Tosca. These days he says his greatest delights are listening to the Vienna Philharmonic in the Musikverein – ‘each evening’s better than the last’.
Now, he says, the company’s Box Design range is about forming the bridge between computers and hi-fi: ‘Dealers need to demonstrate reasonably-priced systems to fascinate new consumers – systems designed in a small form to suit the new consumer’s micro world.
‘Today, with streaming, we have a chance to once again get people into the hobby of music. It’s not about showing them a system costing several tens of thousands of euros, but an affordable system designed to make the most of their music.
‘That’s what has to change unless all hi-fi is to be lost to the internet, and that’s the trend I am fighting against with Pro-ject and Box Design.’
Pro-ject Box Design Stream Box DS
Type Network music player
Formats played MP3, FLAC/WAV (up to 24bit/192kHz), WMA9-lossless, AAC, Ogg Vorbis 1.0
Internet radio platform vTuner
Network connection Wi-Fi IEEE802.11b/g, Ethernet
Inputs 2x USB 2.0 (for memory devices, and digital connection of iPods/iPhones/iPads)
Outputs Stereo analogue, electrical digital on RCA phonos
Accessories supplied Wi-Fi antenna, remote handset
Finishes Black or silver
Dimensions (WxHxD) 20.6x7.2x19.4cm