The Pro-Ject Stream Box DSA ($1699 USD), from Pro-Ject Audio Systems of Austria, combines more features into one box than I’ve ever seen in a component designed for stereo operation. Yes, a multichannel home-theater receiver might do more. But for a two-channel stereo component, this little guy has it all . . . and the kitchen sink.
Known mostly as a maker of turntables, Pro-Ject introduced their Box Design series of microcomponents at the High End show in Munich, Germany, several years ago. As of this writing, I count over 25 Box Design models on the Pro-Ject website. They seem to be multiplying . . .
What it is
The core of the Stream Box DSA (SB DSA) is an integrated amplifier claimed to deliver 40Wpc into 8 ohms or 60Wpc into 4 ohms. Like many integrateds these days, it also includes a digital-to-analog converter capable of resolutions of up to 24-bit/192kHz. The DAC chip is the Texas Instruments PCM1796. The SB DSA is compatible with AIFF, FLAC, WMA9 lossless, ALAC, and AAC files.
The SB DSA’s digital inputs include two USB 2.0 and two S/PDIF inputs (RCA and TosLink). There are also a coaxial digital output for connecting the Stream Box to an external DAC, fixed analog RCA outputs for connection to a preamp or integrated amp, and variable RCA outputs for connection to a power amp. A pair of analog inputs on RCA jacks rounds out the hardwired connection options and can accommodate, for example, a CD player that lacks a digital output.
Here is where the SB DSA starts to differentiate itself. First, an Ethernet connection is available for connection to a local area network (LAN). You use this to connect to your home network -- in my case, through a router in my downstairs living room (my listening room is upstairs). You can also wirelessly connect the SB DSA to your network (an included antenna screws into the DSA’s rear panel), or to any other wireless device compatible with 802.11/b/g/n protocols. Clearly, wide-ranging connectivity has been designed into the Pro-Ject, and for good reason: If you can get to computers connected to your network and have Internet access, a whole world of musical content is available at your fingertips.
I listened to the Stream Box DSA in several configurations. First, I connected it to my Sony BDP-S185 Blu-ray player’s S/PDIF RCA digital output. To this connection I fed the soundtracks of many movies, and enjoyed 2.0-channel home theater through the Pro-Ject. I also streamed Slacker and Pandora Internet Radio streams from the Sony. Second, I connected an Ethernet cable from my home network. This way, I was able to, among other things, directly access Internet Radio stations from around the globe. This is the best way to discover new music -- even with its limited resolution, Internet Radio is now a staple of my music-enjoying activities. Third, I loaded a goodly number of music tracks onto a thumb drive and plugged it directly into the Stream Box’s front-panel USB jack. This gave me the highest-resolution sound I was able to hear through the Pro-Ject. And fourth, I connected the SB DSA wirelessly to my network. This was a simple process: Enter Network Setup on the SB DSA’s menu, choose the wireless device, and enter the network key. Done.
It was time to explore the SB DSA’s capabilities. The front panel is dominated by a 3.5” color display that neatly displays cover art, logos of Internet Radio stations, and other things. To the right of this display are five buttons (Up/Down and Left/Right arrows, and a central Enter button) for navigation of the menu. Below these are two buttons for Volume up/down, and to the left of the screen is the Power button.
A few words about the various ways you can use the Stream Box DSA: The fixed and variable analog outputs make it obvious that Pro-Ject expects some people to use the SB DSA as a conventional source component connected to the analog inputs of a typical stereo system. Of course, the digital output can connect to your DAC, too, giving you almost every conceivable way to interface with a conventional stereo. While I applaud those options, I think the Stream Box DSA is most attractive as the all-in-one heart of a small stereo system. It would be perfect for a desktop system, for instance.
With such a device, functionality is as important as sound quality. What’s the use of buying a component designed to simplify your setup if it’s a pain to use or glitchy in operation? Thankfully, that wasn’t the case here. I found the Stream Box easy to use and completely reliable.
Operating the menu system was intuitive and required little reference to the manual. When you turn on the SB DSA, it displays the menu screen, whose root menu shows all source inputs and functions. The inputs' labels -- for instance, S/PDIF RCA -- are like those found on any other DAC you might come across. Push Enter to select a source, and you’re presented with whatever options are available with that source. Pushing the right arrow takes you deeper into the menu, while pushing the left button brings you back one screen -- just as you’d expect. The functions are treated like inputs; for instance, if you choose Internet Radio via the Ethernet connection, you’re choosing the function and the label on the input. This makes sense to me, and results in not being more than one button-press away from almost anything you might want to do.
The credit-card-sized remote is easy to use. The one Enter and four directional buttons mirror those on the front panel. These, the Power button, and the volume control will be used most often. There’s also a control app that can be used with Apple and Android devices.
The Stream Box DSA’s sound quality was a bit of a surprise -- not that it was pretty good, but that it could drive my 4-ohm, 86dB-sensitive Magico S1 floorstanding speakers ($12,600/pair) as well as a small set of bookshelf speakers. Via the thumb drive, I listened to the title track of Alicia Keys’s Girl on Fire (16/44.1 AIFF, RCA). The sound was far more impressive than I’d expected, given the Pro-Ject’s small size. The bass and midbass were weighty and full, and the voices soared, projected clearly and prominently within the soundstage. This pop song energized my room nicely -- the Stream Box DSA had enough grunt to ably control the Magicos’ woofers and propel the music forward. This type of music is all about energy, and the SB DSA was up to the task.
Sources of lower resolution scaled back the sound quality, as you’d expect. As I sampled Internet Radio stations from around the world, I was greeted with a thinner, less weighty sound. This was, of course, no fault of the Stream Box DSA, but reflected the quality of the source. But for me, listening to Internet Radio isn’t about assessing sound quality, but exploring music I’m not familiar with. In this respect, the Stream Box DSA was a joy because it was so easy to use. Via Slacker, I jammed with “In Between the Raindrops,” from Lifehouse and Natasha Bedingfield. It was a blast.
With the Magico S1s, I did reach the Stream Box DSA’s limits of output power. The S1s will actually play louder than you’d think for slender, two-driver speakers. Those drivers are robust, however; the speakers will produce a fair amount of quantity to go along with their superb quality. Once I hit a certain point on the volume control -- around -15 -- the sound got a bit hard and brittle up top. But remember, my room measures 23’ x 20’ x 9’ and is well treated. This is perhaps an extreme case of how one would use a Stream Box DSA. The fact that it could drive floorstanders and keep them under control for most reasonable volume levels says great things about the robustness of the Pro-Ject’s amplifier section.
I also connected the SB DSA to Sonus Faber’s Venere 3.0 speakers ($3498/pair), certainly a better match for the Stream Box in terms of price. The Veneres are three-way, four-driver floorstanders, and the SB DSA had no problem driving them. The sound was more forgiving than with the Magicos -- purely reflective of the differences between the speakers. I was impressed that the SB DSA could not only drive but also genuinely control the Sonus Fabers in an impressively high-fidelity manner. The sound was smooth and refined, and let through a good amount of detail and bass power. I recommend this combination -- I think Sonus Faber designed the Veneres to be used with home-theater receivers and smallish integrated amplifiers. The combo produced a more big-system sound than you’d think possible, given the SB DSA’s size, and the sound was forgiving enough to make listening to Internet Radio more enjoyable.
The Stream Box DSA’s DAC section is also capable of playing hi-rez signals. Listening to “Please Read the Letter,” from Robert Plant and Alison Krauss’s Raising Sand (24/96 AIFF, Rounder/HDtracks), I could hear a subtle but decided uptick in sound quality from the CD-resolution version, which I’d also loaded onto the thumb drive: a deeper, more pronounced soundstage, and voices that were better separated in space. Bottom line: The SB DSA was good enough to make listening to hi-rez files worthwhile.
The Stream Box DSA can be used in so many ways that it’s worth exploring in a little more detail. I didn’t test all of the Pro-Ject’s functions -- to me, its real strength is as a complete product. For instance, although you could use an SB DSA only as a standalone DAC, via its digital output, I don’t know why you would, as you’d lose so much in the process: a preamp with digital and analog switching, a power amp, etc. If all you need is a D/A converter, buy a product designed to do only that.
The SB DSA’s strength is that it can serve as the all-in-one electronics heart of a small stereo system. And if you download the control app from Apple’s App Store, you can control the Stream Box with your iPhone. This capability is indicative of how Pro-Ject sees the user interacting with the SB DSA -- that is, as a product that the tech-savvy as well as those wanting fewer boxes in their living rooms will find inviting and flexible, while providing very good sound quality.
I found the simplifying aspects of Pro-Ject’s Stream Box DSA an attractive proposition. While I’m not yet ready to give up my separate components, I can tell you this: If I were moving into a condo and retiring from the sort of big-rig systems I’ve enjoyed for years, I’d consider the Stream Box DSA as a prime candidate, along with a pair of good bookshelf speakers -- KEF’s LS50 comes to mind. That would be a sweet little setup. And with the Stream Box DSA’s networking capabilities, I’d have a world of music at my fingertips. Ultimately, that’s the point: simplifying your life while expanding your entertainment horizons.
. . . Jeff Fritz
- Speakers -- Sonus Faber Venere 3.0, Magico S1
- Sources -- Apple MacBook running iTunes, Amarra 2.4.1; Apple MacBook Air, Apple iPhone 5, Sony BDP-S185 Blu-ray player
- Cables -- Nordost and AudioQuest
Pro-Ject Stream Box DSA Integrated Amplifier/Network Player/DAC
Price: $1699 USD.
Warranty: Two years parts and labor.
Pro-Ject Audio Systems
A Division of Audio Tuning Vertriebs GmbH
2431 Fifth Street
Berkeley, CA 94710
Phone: (510) 843-4500