The network player from Arcam’s new Radia range, the ST5 matches the styling of the latest amplifiers and CD player, complete with those yellow ‘go faster’ highlights, but the new look is presented in a greatly simplified form. None of the Radia models is anything other than clean-looking, with physical controls minimised, but the ST5 takes this to the next level: not only is it more compact than the amplifiers in the range, at just 57mm tall, but it also has nothing at all on the front panel beyond a hidden display, which lights up when the unit is in use to show a large single-line readout.
Controlling the ST5 is thus very much hands-off, using either the remote handset supplied or the Radia app, available for iOS and Android devices. That’s both a good thing and a bad one, as we’ll see, but at least a remote connection between the streamer and the new Radia amplifiers allows the ST5 to control the volume of the amp when connected, using the RJ45-type cable supplied.
That’s a neat touch, but less clever is the fact that you need both the app and the front-panel menus to get into the detail set-up of the ST5, and delving into those menus is somewhat tiresome with a lot of scrolling using the remote-control handset involved. Arcam makes a virtue of the fact the ST5 uses a simplified processor compare with that in its previous streamer, the ST60, and that all the processing power here is devoted to the sound of the new unit, but there’s no denying that a larger touchscreen control panel on the front of the ST5 would make set-up simpler, even if it wouldn’t really fit with the slimline aesthetic here.
Also notable is that the high-resolution audio capability here tops out at 192kHz/24bit, whereas many network players now go up to higher bitrates and even multiples of DSD. True, such files are harder to find, and are probably the preserve of audiophile fanatics like me rather than the kind of newcomers to high-quality audio Arcam is targeting with the new Radia line-up, but in a competitive market products like this can tend to be specification-sensitive, even if most buyers will hardly ever use that extended file-handling.
That aside, the ST5 is pretty well-equipped: it can connect to your home network using either Wi-Fi or wired Ethernet, and also has a rear-panel USB Type A port to which storage devices containing music can be attached. You could use a mains-powered HDD to hold a complete music library, or perhaps run a short USB extension cable to the front of the ST5 for easy hook-up of smaller thumb-drives, to save having to reach round every time you want to change drive. The Arcam manual advises against this, saying you should only use the USB straight into the rear-panel port, but it worked fine for me using a short (1m) extension that cost me less than £5. The USB port is also used for any firmware updates the company chooses to release.
Outputs here run to stereo analogue and optical/coaxial digital, but if you’re using the streamer with a Radia series amplifier there’s little advantage in connecting it up digitally, since all the products in the new Arcam range use the same digital-to-analogue conversion technology, in the form of the ESS Sabre ES9018 chipset, which is proving pretty much universal these days. You can choose in the menu system which outputs are enabled on the ST5, as well as details such as the choice of digital filter employed by the conversion system: having tried the options and found them to make minimal difference to the sound on a consistent basic, I stuck to the default ‘fast’ setting.
As well as playing music stored on my network storage, the ST5 can handle Apple AirPlay 2 and Chromecast for wireless streaming from portable devices, as well as the ‘Connect’ versions of Spotify and Tidal. It’s also Roon-ready, should you be using that file-management system.
Via the Radia app, you get that playback from USB media and network storage, along with access to Internet radio and podcasts. However, the Spotify and Tidal implementations aren’t built into the app, so you need to do a bit of app-swapping if you want to use those services.
Not surprisingly, the balance of the ST5 is well-matched to that of the Radia amplifiers: it’s a little on the warm and rich side of neutral, but that ensure that everything from low-bitrate Internet radio stations to hi-res streams sound full and generous, with the slight lack of detail in the midrange and treble more than compensated for by the lush bass.
But these effects are subtle rather than overstated, and will work well with the ‘maximum appeal’ presentation of the amplifiers, as well as flattering the smaller speakers with which many will partner the Radia electronics, by making their bass sound richer and taming any treble brightness. It won’t be the hardest-charging sound you’ll ever encounter, but it’ll be well-suited to a wide range of musical styles, and should never leave the listener feeling short-changed.
The ST5 is certainly stylish, with its slender looks and simple display, complete with characters easy enough to read across the room. By keeping things simple, from the looks to the information presented on the display, the company has created a design that’s as easy to use – especially with the new Radia app – as entirely modern in its styling, while the communications link to the amplifiers increases that convenience. And the sound, while not setting any new standards, is both easy to listen to and highly involving.
While the new streamer will work perfectly well when connected via Wi-Fi, if you’re going to be streaming a lot of high-resolution music – i.e. at beyond CD’s 44.1kHz/16bit resolution – or have a house full of wireless devices, or are surrounded by neighbours’ networks, you might want to connect the ST5 direct to your broadband hub using an Ethernet cable. It won’t give you any better sound, but it will ensure complete stability, with no dropouts.
Sophie Ellis-Bextor Hearing in Colour
From the Kitchen Disco queen’s highly personal Hana album, this is one of those big, cinematic dance tracks she does so well, the Arcam delivering its wall of sound persuasively
Recently remastered, U2’s Under a Blood Red Sky live set sounds fiercer than ever, and this energetic album opener captures strikingly what made the band such a draw in those early days
Gabor Varga Jazz Quartet When We Dance
If the one thing your collection’s always lacked is a Hungarian jazz tribute to the songs of Sting, look no further than Varga’s My Favourite Stings album: it’s all a little odd, but both the musicianship and the recording are stunning
All that being said, there’s no lack of competition for the Arcam at this price as well as above and below, and it’s worth having a look at what’s around, especially in the budget streamer arena. You may find a model offering more flexibility, and a crisper sound, for less outlay – but then it won’t look as good beside your new Radia amplifier, nor offer the remote convenience. And that’s part of the appeal of the ST5.