The hi-fi landscape is changing and, not surprisingly, it all revolves around Apple if this high-end piece of kit from Japanese brand Marantz is anything to go by. The Marantz Melody Media was crowned as the, “world’s first AirPlay certified music system” when it was announced last summer, though the Apple AirPlay functions didn't go live until firmware updates were issued in November.
Amusingly, the Melody Media’s forbear was described as a “DAB microsystem”, but despite this sleek and solid “networked CD receiver’s” inclusion of a digital radio DAB tuner this is so much more than a simple radio, with streaming, web radio Napster and Last.fm included. Is this just Apple TV without video? No way - it offers some serious audiophile quality that, at its best, breathes new life into any crumbling collection of MP3s of varying quality - though its preferred diet is CD or lossless WAV files.
If you’re in any doubt that this a serious slab of hi-fi kit, take a glance at the Melody’s ample rear. Back there you’ll find connections for stereo speakers alongside three auxiliary inputs (two phonos and one optical digital audio) and some phono outputs. There’s also a subwoofer pre-output, a link to an M-XPort (for adding an optional wireless Bluetooth audio module), and a full suite of antennae ports, though the key connection is wired Ethernet LAN. Providing a direct, wired link to a home network means there’s no fussing over entering WEP keys and suchlike, though it does mean that the unit must live near a broadband router. In our test it immediately found both a PC laptop running Windows 7 and a Mac installed with TwonkyMedia.
The front is visually user-friendlier, housing a CD drive (something of a rarity on gadgets we review these days), a USB slot (that is capable of charging, too), a 3.5mm jack input for non-Apple MP3 players, and a headphones jack.
Getting the Melody onto a home network is no problem, and nor is streaming from computers sitting on that network wirelessly. Streamed from a Mac, stereo imaging within Björk’s Homogenic is seriously impressive, and though the Melody can't quite remove the sharpness of treble highs in this 192kbps track, it does an immaculate job at the other end of the frequency range. Swap to Radiohead’s The Bends at 320kbps and that CD drive suddenly seems rather pointless.
Trouble is, finding songs stored on a computer isn’t easy - it's never going to be with such a small screen and a couple of clickwheels. In steps Apple AirPlay, which enables iTunes on a PC or Mac to output audio straight to the Melody Media (the AirPlay icon pops-up in the bottom right-hand corner of the iTunes software).
Using Apple AirPlay also negates the need for a messy third party app by offering immediate, lossless playback directly from an iPhone, iPod touch or iPad. Routing audio from an iPhone to the Melody is simply a case of selecting it as the output source on the “now playing” screen in Apple’s iTunes software, though it totally relies on a Wi-Fi network and does involve a small delay (around 3 or 4 seconds). Note that audio can’t be streamed from an Apple gadget while it’s syncing with its mother ship.
Streaming audio quality is excellent. With a pair of Monitor Audio BX2 bookshelf speakers hooked-up, Radiohead’s The King Of Limbs LP as lossless WAV files sounds exquisite. Those without an Apple device aren't ignored, with a comprehensive remote control that, sadly, resembles something you might operate a TV with. It’s not nice to look at, but it does contain shortcut buttons, including internet radio (complete with weighting to BBC stations), music server (computers or NAS drives on the same network), online music (from Napster and Last.fm, though both require existing accounts and the long-winded input of login details), iPod/USB (if one is attached to the front slot), M-XPort (optional Bluetooth streaming - much quicker than AirPlay), tuner (DAB, FM or AM), disc (an in-situ CD) and AUX (anything plugged-into on the front or back’s analogue ports).
It's great to see such a haul of features accessible via the remote (the unit itself is bereft of these functions, so don't lose it), though it can also be operated by two apps; Apple's own Remote App and Marantz' Wizz app, which looks like a remote control onscreen and works on all of its networked products (mainly its AV receivers). There is, however, the absence of Spotify to think about - after all, Sonos has it, and even builds it into its own custom-made app.
Marantz has beat a lot of its competitors to the prize of developing Apple AirPlay-empowered products, and the Melody Media is a serious networked hi-fi. Streaming audio quality is excellent if you pair it with some top notch speakers, with an easy set-up and impressive integration with Apple products.