Music in the Round #90: Merging+Player PL8

Merging Technologies' original NADAC Multichannel-8 ($11,500) is an impressive device. (NADAC is an acronym for network-attached digital-to-analog converter.) It has eight channels of high-resolution D/A conversion, and two more for its front-panel headphone jack; a cutting-edge Ravenna Ethernet input (based on the AES67 Audio over Internet Protocol, or AoIP); and, to my delight, a real volume-control knob on the front. It handles all resolutions up to 384kHz PCM, DXD, and DSD256, and, in addition to the Ethernet input, it will accept AES/EBU and S/PDIF digital inputs up to 24 bits and 192kHz, and DSD over PCM (DoP). My review of it, in the March 2016 issue, concluded with this: "I found the NADAC Multichannel-8 flawless. It provided some of the best sound I have ever heard in my home. With Merging Technologies' Ravenna-based network linkage, multiple NADACs can operate independently in different zones without requiring additional wiring or less-reliable wireless connections. I can't see any reason why one would not choose the NADAC Multichannel-8 for a modern multichannel or two-channel system."

Ever since, the NADAC Multichannel-8 has sat comfortably in Class A of Stereophile's "Recommended Components." Now, precisely two years later, I still wonder: What more could one ask for?

Well, one might want to avoid having to buy, install, and maintain another box to run as a player/renderer. I am not such a one, because I appreciate having a dedicated, PC-based player/renderer—in my case, a Baetis Prodigy-X. I like being able to choose among an array of softwares, and update them and the supporting hardware as needed. I also much prefer using a keyboard, mouse, and large screen to control playback, rather than a tablet or smartphone. And I'm an audio reviewer—I need to be able to test multiple DACs and other peripherals on a fair and level playing field, and that means using them with a common source, control, and software.

But that's just me. Normal audiophiles (an oxymoron?) vote with their wallets, and their clear preference seems to be for a proprietary music player, with or without an internal DAC, which the user controls via tablet or smartphone. Commonly, such players have internal file storage, and/or they access files from a NAS on the user's home network. A variant of this is to run the player software on the NAS itself—but high-resolution, multichannel playback demands a much more powerful CPU than most NASes have. Since the relatively noisy NAS is often placed outside the listening room, another small network box might be needed to get the music across the home network to the music system.

Merging Technologies' smart solution is to put the player in the DAC. The Merging+Player, available in stereo and eight-channel versions, is a complete music player in a single box that requires only amps and speakers (or only powered speakers) to play any files stored anywhere on a home network. While the eight-channel Merging+NADAC costs $11,500, the eight-channel Merging+Player PL8 is priced at $13,500 and requires the purchase of a Roon subscription. Externally it's identical to the DAC, save for the addition of two USB Type A jacks for attached drives.

Installation consists of connecting: the analog output cables, RCA and/or XLR, to your power amps; an RJ45-terminated Ethernet cable to the Merging+Player RJ45 jack and your home network; and the AC power cable to player and wall. Switch it on and the Merging+Player is ready to go—but how to control it? Its bright, tiny screen and built-in controls serve only to configure the hardware, choose among inputs, and control volume.

Most users, I guess, would choose a tablet or smartphone, and I did try both of those long enough to confirm that they work just fine. But to use a large display, keyboard, and mouse, all sitting on an adjacent shelf, I first downloaded the Merging software for Apple OS and installed it on a MacBook Pro laptop computer. I then downloaded Roon for Apple OS and installed that. When Roon asked if the MacBook was to be the "core"—the one portion of the Roon software that manages the user's music collection—or the "control" for an existing Roon core, I chose the latter because the Merging+Player has the Roon core installed. The Roon control on the laptop then found the Merging+Player and connected to it. I was good to go—my review sample of the Merging+Player PL8 arrived with a Roon license already activated, but regular purchasers will have to choose either a 14-day free trial, a one-year subscription ($119), or lifetime subscription ($499). This is just a little bump in the road—unless Merging contemplates some other future application for the Merging+Player, I think it logical and appropriate to include a one-year Roon license, at the very least, as part of the $2000 increase in cost over the Merging+NADAC. The Merging+Player won't work without it.

Roon activated, you can then tell it where your files are stored and how you want their information organized in a Roon library. Note that Roon does not actually import the files into a library in the Merging+Player or anywhere else—they remain untouched. Instead, it indexes information from those files, and greatly adds to that information from its own resources, to create a library accessed by means of a graphically sophisticated user interface. How it selects among all the file information and other resources is user-configurable. I don't know how long it took to grab my more than 65,000 files because, after the first few albums had loaded, I was off and listening, and let the library building continue to run in the background.

All user interaction with the Merging+Player is via Roon, whose features, operations, and performance have been widely discussed in these pages, most recently in my column in the September 2017 issue. (Roon was named Stereophile's Accessory of the Year for 2017.) As Roon must now be considered a known quantity, the only real issue is how it and the Merging+Player sound together. Comparing the sound of the Merging+Player PL8 as a standalone digital source with that of its DAC section combined with my Roon-equipped Baetis server, I heard no difference.

The Merging+Player PL8 is based on an Intel i3 CPU with sufficient RAM and storage for multichannel playback. That sets it apart from almost all dedicated music servers, which purport to support multichannel but whose wimpy processors are actually optimized for two-channel recordings. The Merging+Player PL8 is capable of playing in high-resolution multichannel with EQ applied. With any PCM resolution up to 24/352.8 or DSD64, with or without EQ, the Merging+Player was rock solid. Without EQ/DSP, even DSD256 sounded luscious.

Even with the i3 CPU, the Merging+Player PL8 could benefit from more horsepower, if only to improve the user experience. For example, I loaded a 5.1-channel DSD256 recording of Tchaikovsky's Symphony 6, with Manfred Honeck conducting the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra (Fresh! Reference FR-720), and had to convert it to PCM at 352.8 in order to apply EQ, channel rebalance, and speaker-distance compensation. Performing all those tasks, the Merging+Player played, but without much processing power to spare. Roon indicated a processing speed of 1.3x, which means that the processor was just barely keeping up with the music. Roon's response to control commands became sluggish, indicating that its resources were being hogged by the processing and playback operations—a proper choice when resources are limited. When I stressed the Merging+Player further while this was going on—even to adjust the EQ—playback stopped altogether.

On balance, though, in the Merging+Player PL8, Merging Technologies has successfully added full-feature music-player software to its well-received DAC. (I refer you to my March 2016 review to see why the latter is still listed in Class A of "Recommended Components.") Plug it in, boot it up, sit down with your iPad, and you have everything you need for multichannel playback, with all of Roon's bells and whistles. It's a one-box system of the highest quality.

Power Cables
I coexist uncomfortably with cables and interconnects. I try to buy well-constructed connectors from reliable manufacturers and then keep them for a long time. Unless changes in my system demand additions or replacements, I see no need to continually try something new, and I'm happy with my many AudioQuest and Kubala-Sosna cables, some of which have been in place in my system for more than a decade.

supamark's picture

I agree they should include at least a 1 year (and seriously, for this kind of money, lifetime subscription - it's only $500 retail) since the box won't work without Roon. I'm sure they could get it cheaper than retail and fold it in to the price if their margins are so slim.

The other problem with this approach (which would disqualify it were I in the market for this sort of thing) is that you're buying a $14k (w/ tax) piece of equipment that requires software from a third party to operate. When buying high end audio you're always gambling that the company will stay in business and support the thing, but now you've got to hope *two* separate companies stay in business and support their things (just because a company is still around doesn't mean they support all of their products).

Kal Rubinson's picture

There's no assurance that any company will outlive you but the NADAC Player does not become a doorstop if Roon goes belly-up.

First, Roon has stated that, in the event that they close-down, they have a policy of maintaining a download version that will allow the user to continue using Roon forever without needing access to them.

Second, the NADAC Player can, without Roon, still operate as a network endpoint/DAC from any server.

Rlotzkar's picture

Nice series! I've been researching Network Renderers and almost went for NADAC style to avoid USB cables. I chose a different route (Bricasti M5 > Legacy Wavelet & HDPlex 200). So now I need to reconsider USB cables because only 1 of these devices uses a "normal" USB plug (Wavelet uses MicroB & HDPlex uses Type C). So the question arises, do USB cables make a difference...

I've used split cables (have 2 LHL 2G split cables) and can hear the difference vs decent quality straight cables. Now that I'm looking for a custom cable I'm curious about your experience with USB Cables. It seems to be a recipe for flame wars on various audio forums. Bits are bits and don't have sound...

So how did the AQ Coffee stack up against that RAL fire hose?

Thanks for the power cord referral, another one I'm looking for!

Kal Rubinson's picture

I am not particularly interested in comparing cables and only do so if there is a particular feature that seems to warrant attention. I tried the RAL because of it's split config. As I said, it was appreciated with the plain-Jane motherboard USB outputs but offered no advantage over the AQ when used with the externally-powered SOtM tX-USBhubIn.

adrianwu's picture

I have been experimenting with the Microrendu, which allows music data to be streamed over an ethernet based network to be converted to feed an USB-based DAC. The beauty of this gadget is that it allows a direct connection without the need of a USB cable. We have tried different Ethernet cables going from the switch to the Microrendu, and the difference is quite marked. We used a long cable (10 M) so the difference could have been more exaggerated than say a 1M cable. A shielded cable (Cat6a or Cat7) is certain preferable, with noticeable tightening of the bass impact and better imaging. The PS for the Microrendu also matters, and a DIY regulated linear supply gave a darker background and more relaxed, more musical presentation than the ifi wall wart.
We also had the 2 channel NADAC on loan for audition during several sessions over a week. Not impressed at all. Compared to the Lampizator Golden Atlantic/Microrendu, the NADAC sounded clinical, unmusical and uninvolved. This could just be our taste in music reproduction, but the Lampizator was better at expressing the microdynamics and the sound was fuller and had more nuance. Impossible to say which was more "accurate", but for enjoyment, we much preferred the Lampizator.