Arcam ST5 Streamer Review

Posted on 22nd February, 2024

Arcam ST5 Streamer Review

Simon Lucas samples a smooth-sounding new network music player from this venerable British brand…

Arcam

ST5 Networked Audio Streamer

US$799 RRP

Arcam Radia ST5 Streamer Review

Despite the fact that music streaming ceased to be a novelty around the time of the first Arctic Monkeys album, the market continues to expand in all directions - it's possible to pay from (relatively speaking) next-to-nothing for a nice little WiiM Pro Plus, to altogether too much for something like the gorgeous dCS Rossini APEX streamer/CD player combo. But it's between these extremes that the mainstream action is centred, and consequently, where competition is at its fiercest.

Arcam Radia ST5 Streamer Review

Arcam knows this all too well, of course. When the company launched its first hi-res network streamer back in 2020, its competition was almost entirely the product of other established, storied and venerable brands. Fast-forward to today, and the Arcam ST5 music streamer faces rivals from companies of every size, type and provenance. That Arcam has done its darndest with this product is obvious – but the question is, has it done enough?

UP CLOSE

There's a fine line between 'minimal' and 'anonymous' - and which side of the fence Arcam's ST5 lands will depend entirely on your aesthetic preferences. What's not up for question, however, is that this streamer is about as discreet and unassuming a product as you're likely to encounter. It is a slimline, low-rise device measuring just 57x431x344mm [HxWxD].

Arcam Radia ST5 Streamer Review

There's a small 'ARCAM' logo on the fascia, a little LED to confirm the unit is powered up, and a frankly rudimentary single-line display of questionable resolution. Otherwise, the ST5 is largely featureless. There are understated yellow accents along each side of the cabinet to tie this product to the rest of Arcam's new Radia range of components. Yet you know you're dealing with a minimalist device when the most significant design flourish is reserved for its feet. These are bright yellow too, and each one is stamped with the legend 'engineered in Cambridge, UK'.

If you were expecting to enjoy some album artwork, say via an OLED screen like a similarly priced Cambridge Audio music streamer, for example, you are out of luck. Arcam has decided that all of the ST5's processing power is to be expended on the way it sounds. Some will think this is a good thing, others not.

Arcam Radia ST5 Streamer Review

On the rear panel – beneath the 'brow' that's also a part of the Radia design language – is the ST5's only physical control, a power on/off switch. Here is where the Arcam's physical inputs and outputs are grouped, too. Naturally, there's a connection for mains, along with an Ethernet socket and USB-A input, while outputs run to digital optical, digital coaxial and analogue stereo RCA. There are also comms connections in case you want to connect your ST5 to a Radia stereo amplifier.

Arcam Radia ST5 Streamer Review

Of course, you get plenty of wireless connectivity, too. However, Bluetooth – the only wireless streaming protocol that doesn't require Wi-Fi and is all the more convenient for it – is notable by its absence. Dual-band Wi-Fi is available, and as well as being Roon Ready, the ST5 is compatible with Apple AirPlay 2, Chromecast, and the Connect versions of Spotify and TIDAL. You'll need to open the native app of these streaming services, though, as only Amazon Music and Qobuz are embedded in the free Radia control app for iOS and Android.

The app itself also covers off the basics of playback control – volume up/down, play/pause and so on – and gives access to internet radio, podcasts and any UPnP devices on a common network. It is where you can access up to six presets, but these are for radio stations only, though; confusingly, you can't designate a favourite podcast or playlist. You can also check for firmware or software update availability.

Arcam Radia ST5 Streamer Review

The ST5 is also supplied with a little remote control handset; for some inexplicable reason, it has access to some controls that the app doesn't. By using the remote in conjunction with the menus accessible via that single-line fascia display, you can select your choice of DAC filter (slow or fast), your preferred output type (digital or analogue), choose between fixed or variable volume output, and so on. The remote control handset is a superior example of the type, and its yellow accents are quite pleasant, too. But why Arcam has gone to the trouble of developing a control app and not allowing it complete control over the ST5 is, quite frankly, beyond me.

Arcam Radia ST5 Streamer Review

Numbers are crunched by the ESS Sabre ES9018 DAC chipset, which has achieved the sort of popularity customarily reserved for the best-looking member of a boy band. Here, it's ready to handle every worthwhile digital audio file type up to a resolution of 24-bit/192kHz and DSD128. Sure, some listeners who take their streaming seriously will find these figures a little tentative, but they are more than adequate in the real world.

THE LISTENING

The ST5 absolutely laps up good hi-res recordings, such as a 24-bit/192kHz FLAC of REM's You Are the Everything via Qobuz. The overall tonality of the presentation is on the warm side of neutral, which suits the organic nature of the recording down to the ground. The low end of the frequency range is subtly on the strong side, which gives a big, comfortable bed for the rest of the song to rest on. Control of the bottom end is decent, so there's never any danger of the recording getting bogged down or losing momentum, but there's no denying the Arcam's frequency response is slightly pear-shaped.

Arcam Radia ST5 Streamer Review

The midrange sounds well poised, with plenty of textural information being revealed about singer Michael Stipe's most characterful of voices. Despite their generous nature, the low frequencies don't impact on the amount of room the midrange has to do its thing, and the ST5 is able to conjure up a soundstage that's large and organised enough to allow the vocalist plenty of breathing space. It's a very enjoyable listen.

At the top end, treble is not as forward as some streamers I've heard. In practice, this means the ST5 has more wide-ranging system compatibility than most, as, otherwise, many budget systems that it's likely to be used with would sound shrill and 'in your face'. Yet some may find the reduction of bite and attack in the upper frequencies to the detriment of the overall picture. This isn't a fatal flaw, you understand, but it underlines the Arcam's slightly over-smooth sensibility. All the same, detail levels are high, and there's real dynamic potency on display where harmonic variations and major shifts in intensity are concerned. Rhythmic expression is good, and in this streamer's hands, the song is never less than engaging – which is the essence of a successful product at this price.

Arcam Radia ST5 Streamer Review

The ST5 tends to work better with more laid-back, easy-listening programme material. Find a recording that favours drive and attack, or one that has a slightly punkish, 'up yours' attitude, or a rough-and-ready production, and some of the natural energy falls away thanks to the Arcam's polish and finesse. The indie rock strains of Who Makes the Nazis? by The Fall is one such example. The ST5 doesn't lose sight of the details, stays in control of the rather gimpy rhythm, and gives the inimitable 'singing' plenty of weight too. But on a fundamental level, it engages in a power struggle with the recording, trying to impose order, buff out the scratches and round off the sharp edges.

THE VERDICT

Arcam's new ST5 is a significant new contender in the affordable streaming sector. It is well-made and has an interesting visual look. Under the skin, it's a quality design, and the user experience is generally very good. Sonically, it is polished and sophisticated at all times, but some might find it too much of a smoothie. A capable, enjoyable, informative and engaging listen, this stylish new streamer is well worth auditioning if you can.

Visit Arcam for more information

    Simon Lucas's avatar

    Simon Lucas

    Simon was editor of What Hi-Fi? magazine and website and has since written for Wired, Metro, the Guardian and Stuff, among many others. Should he find himself with a spare moment, Simon likes publishing and then quickly deleting tweets about the state of the nation (in general), the state of Aston Villa (in particular) and the state of his partner’s cat.

    Posted in:Sources Streaming Hi-Fi
    Tags: arcam 

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