There is no shortage of music servers, streaming players, and other such devices on the market today. It’s a booming category which I’ve seen go from relative niche to mainstream in a rather short time – no surprise given that standard PC or Mac playback is necessarily limited by the general-purpose hardware involved. True, an off-the-shelf computer can be improved via special software like JPLAY – not to mention various tweaks for power, USB or networking – but at some point, folks looking for superior audio quality will see their PC or Mac hit a glass ceiling. That ceiling can only be sidestepped by enlisting a dedicated player.
When you get right down to it, most of these devices are fairly similar: a box which mimics the functionality of a CD player or disc transport, but using file-based playback rather than physical media. In that sense, it makes little difference whether those files are stored on an internal hard drive, retrieved from a local network, or even streamed over the internet e.g. Qobuz or Tidal. It’s still a black (or possibly silver) box which sits in an audio rack like any other piece of gear, shuffling bits around from here to there. User interaction is mostly handled via smartphone or (preferably) tablet, and the box itself demands about as much attention as a dedicated amplifier… which is to say, little or none after initial setup.
I’ve always found this to be a generally acceptable state of affairs. That is until I added the Nativ Vita (US$1599) to my system.
The Vita takes the concept of music server and turns it on its head – quite literally; especially if we consider the form factor of the device. Picture a reassuringly chunky Microsoft Surface Pro, built with audiophile-quality components, standing upright by way of a handsome wooden base instead of Microsoft’s integrated kickstand. The hi-res touchscreen is the obvious focal point, but equally important are the numerous digital outputs hiding underneath that walnut stand. There’s the requisite USB output, capable of DSD and hi-res PCM playback, but also S/PDIF in its AES, coax, BNC, and Toslink variants. Cabling is tastefully routed under the base and out the back, making the Vita’s clean industrial design the centerpiece of an audio system – no add-on tablet controller necessary.
The 11.6 inch 1080p touchscreen facilitates easy library browsing and rewards users with large, crisp looking album art once a selection is made. Said library can be stored elsewhere on a NAS, or via internal storage – an easily removable rear panel cover exposes space for dual 2.5″ drives. These can be set for RAID1 mode for data redundancy or just pooled together for maximum storage. Spinning-platter drives offer lots of storage for the money, but SSD prices have dropped significantly over the past year — that’s what I’d recommend if your budget allows.
Looking beyond local content, Vita supports a plethora of streaming services – including some which have great music but aren’t typically considered “audiophile approved”. The list of available options is more extensive than I’ve seen from any competitor thus far: Tidal, Qobuz, Spotify, Apple Music, Google Play Music, Amazon Music, SoundCloud, Bandcamp, Youtube and Youtube Music, plus many other offerings which may be fairly obscure in some regions yet well known in others. The last update added support for Idagio which I had never heard of but now very much enjoy. Berlin’s Idagio is focused on the lossless delivery of classical music, with more classical-specific metadata than rival all-genre platforms. Vita even does Audible, which I find surprisingly interesting despite the shift in focus from music to literature.
Pundits might scoff at the relatively low quality of some of these services but in my view, that’s the wrong approach. I figure any source of potentially interesting music discovery is welcome, and I can always try to hunt down a better source when I get the chance. I’m firmly in the same camp as our publisher in that I would consistently choose lossy-yet-interesting music from Shai Hulud, Crystal Castles or Dengue Fever, rather than suffer through Hotel California in pristine hi-res/DSD. But in the end, Vita helps users have access to everything from obscure gems to “Keith Don’t Go”, from garage band recordings to reference caliber releases and everything in between.
Exhaustively covering every aspect of the Vita’s extensive feature set in detail would be an exercise in tedium. A quick summary includes support for Apple Airplay, Google Cast, Spotify Connect, Sonos, Denon’s Heos, aptX Bluetooth, and of course UPnP/DLNA/SMB via WiFi or Ethernet. The HDMI output mirrors Vita’s display as well as carrying the audio signal, meaning the system can easily integrate into a home-theater situation (but only for music or Youtube – this isn’t a movie server). Then there’s a set of inputs in coax digital and stereo RCA, allowing Vita to take signals from other devices and network them to various zones. Want to stream from your turntable to various smart speakers around the house? Vita can make that happen. All of these seemed to work as advertised though I confess my usage was more of the typical music server and Roon endpoint variety.
Internally, the Vita sports purpose-build hardware: custom motherboard, fanless quad-core Cortex A9 processor, 4GB RAM, extensive inline filtering to keep system noise in check, as well as galvanic isolation for all outputs. This puts it firmly in the Aurender/Lumin/Auralic camp, all of whom similarly have their own custom hardware designs. Contrast this with numerous competitors – see the Playback Designs Syrah server for one recent example – using off-the-shelf computer platforms at heart. I’m not saying that can’t also result in superb performance, but it’s nice to see Nativ go all out with audio in mind. Starting from the ground up like this helps avoid pitfalls which otherwise must be overcome via complex workarounds, which are often expensive and can be limited in their effectiveness.
The Nativ Vita started out as a crowdfunded project in 2016 and I confess to having paid very little attention at the time. The company used lots of buzzwords and promised an extensive feature set, but all I could think of was prior debacles in the audiophile world’s own slice of crowdfunded history. Despite Nativ offering a seemingly unique product concept, it would take more than rendered pictures and big aspirations to get a buy-in from me. [And from me! – Ed]
Step forward three years, and we find an established company which has outgrown whatever crowdfunded roots it may have started with. Dozens of dealers on multiple continents make for a robust sales network, though orders can still be placed directly through Nativ if one prefers. The product line now includes the Vita music server, Wave DAC, Pulse power supply, and a CD ripper appropriately called Disc. All four products are meant to be used together as a system, though Vita and Wave can be paired with gear from other brands, just like any other music server or DAC. And most importantly, all products are finished products which can actually be ordered today – not lofty concepts which Nativ promises to build if enough folks pre-order.
My journey with the Vita started when I purchased the unit just to check it out for myself… yes, most of us in the industry still buy gear for fun. There was no review in mind at the time, and I haggled a slight discount on an open-box unit from a reseller just as any other customer might – no special reviewer discount involved. This, along with nearly a year of use by now, makes for a more comprehensive experience than the typical review-loaner situation. That’s handy with a device this feature-laden, not to mention constantly evolving (via firmware updates).
First impressions were somewhat underwhelming. At the time, the UI was sharp looking but somewhat sluggish in terms of navigation. I installed a pair of solid-state drives, loaded up nearly a terabyte worth of material, and found that the Vita sometimes struggled to parse such a dense collection of albums. I also got the occasional crash when streaming via Tidal or Spotify, which was rare but definitely frustrating whenever it happened. Things were not looking promising in those early days, despite the actual sonic performance being very impressive.
As time passed, Nativ delivered one firmware update after another, ultimately bringing stability, new features, and significant speed improvements. The user experience is now satisfyingly responsive, and the system suffers only the occasional hiccup (as do nearly all computer-based audio devices of all types). There are still some very minor bugs to be ironed out, and some promised (smaller) features that have yet to materialize, but it isn’t anything that impacts my daily use. And based on their track record thus far, I’m confident the Nativ team will continue regularly improving things into the future.
One of the most welcome additions has been Roon integration. In the early days, Roon was added as an app, but implementation was sub-optimal. The resulting audio output passed through the OS mixer whilst being resampled to 48kHz regardless of the original sample rate. A later update brought full Roon RAAT functionality with bit-perfect output as high as the connected DAC could handle. Note: the Vita acts as endpoint and controller only – it requires another device on the network running Roon Core. However, be advised that at time of writing the Nativ’s Roon Readiness remains uncertified.
I’m a huge fan of Roon, particularly since they added support for Qobuz. So while Roon ends up being my primary method of interacting with the Vita, I’d say Nativ’s own playback solution is also quite well executed. I prefer it to Aurender’s Conductor control app – the Vita has proven more reliable and responsive, not to mention subjectively more aesthetically pleasing. Nativ offers an old school remote control, as well as apps for iOS and Android which do the basics, but you really want to get in there and interact with the Vita directly. Since the Vita’s operating system is Android-based, Qobuz, Tidal, and the other apps all look and feel the same as they do on a typical Android smartphone, which means some are great and some need work… but that’s not up to Nativ.
It’s difficult to put into words, but somehow it just feels “right” to deal with the Vita rather than an app on a tablet. Vinyl aficionados are drawn into a deeper appreciation for their music partly because of the physical interaction they have with the media itself.
Obviously, such media tangibility isn’t possible with file-based playback, but this is the closest we’ll get. Somehow the mere act of pressing play, pause, skip, browsing through media via album covers, and reading reviews or liner notes via Roon, and doing it on the actual transport itself, feels like a more direct connection. Tablet control from across the room isn’t quite the same.
This finding seemed crazy at first sight so I confirmed it by stashing the Vita in my audio cabinet, using an iPad in its place. Since both have high-quality touch screens of similar size, the result should feel similar if not indistinguishable, right? Interestingly, it didn’t quite work out that way. Aside from the issue of cables, which really made me appreciate the Vita in both connectivity and organization, the experience still wasn’t the same. There’s just something solid about the Vita, which holds firmly in its custom wooden stand under finger fire. The iPad, even with a nice kickstand case, had enough “give” that it didn’t quite mimic the experience of pressing play/pause/skip on a high-end disc spinner. Again, it’s tough to explain, but I really feel this connection is something we lose when using tablet controls – though I couldn’t really identify the issue until I began using the Vita for myself.
Leaving aside the critical user-interaction aspect, the Vita is a superb sonic performer. It ranks up there with more expensive transports I’ve owned or auditioned from the likes of BMC, Aurender, Linn or Music Vault, while offering more connectivity and utility than all of them. The difference between Vita and something like a SOtM sMS-200 or Auralic Aries isn’t night and day. At least, not at first blush, but when we enlist a sufficiently dialed-in system and listen carefully – and over an extended period of time – it becomes abundantly clear. For me, this means Equi=Core 1800 balanced power conditioner, statement headphone amplification in the form of the the Pass Labs HPA-1 or Cayin HA-300 tube amp, and top-tier headphones like the Meze Empyrean and Focal’s Utopia. Cabling was all sourced from Audio Art, including their superb HPX-1SE headphone cables, IC-3 e series interconnects, and Power1 ePlus AC cables.
As much as I love the ModWright Oppo UDP-205, I make the most out of it by feeding it with Vita rather than going network direct for Roon. The ModWright does a stand-up job as an all-in-one, yet I hear subtle improvements in tonality and refinement by throwing the Vita into the mix. It unravels busy drum work with greater ease – see Obscura’s insanely technical Cosmogenesis for a prime example. Breaking out All of a Sudden I Miss Everyone by Explosions in the Sky, there’s a sense of engagement which isn’t captured fully with the 205 alone – particularly on the Four Tet mix of “Catastrophe and the Cure”, my favorite cut on the album. The 205, playing Roon via Ethernet, matches the previously mentioned SOtM and Auralic network players, but – and here’s the kicker – all three fall short of the Vita as a digital transport.
Switching to other DACs shows more of the same. The UDP-205, whether in stock form or heavily massaged by ModWright, makes for a satisfying transport. It generally gives an accurate portrayal of what an outboard DAC is capable of, yet falls a bit short of the absolute best in terms of timing, tonal richness, and overall spaciousness. The Vita bests it in all these areas, bringing high-end DACs from Resonessence Labs, Wyred 4 Sound and iFi Audio up to a higher performance tier. Again, the 205 is certainly no slouch, but after getting used to the Vita it’s hard to accept anything less.
Have I ever heard these DACs sound even better? Just a touch. We’re talking top-dog Innuos, costly uber-spinners from Esoteric or Accuphase, and others of that nature (and pricing). I suspect adding Nativ’s matching Pulse linear power supply would help close that gap and I aim to give that a try as soon as possible, but for the moment I’m more than satisfied with the Vita’s sonic prowess.
Let’s talk outputs. While I love the ultra-hi-res PCM and DSD capabilities unleashed by Vita’s USB port, I also very much appreciate having all the “legacy” S/PDIF connections as alternatives. I can break out my old Sonic Frontiers SFD-2 mkII DAC which predates USB audio by a few decades, yet still sounds phenomenal via BNC. Or how about that first wave of USB DACs which ended up being hobbled by inferior USB implementations? I’m talking Audio Research DAC7, Bryston BDA-1, Anedio D1, or any number of others from that era. Choosing USB on those models generally gives compromised audio quality, limited sample rate capabilities…or both. The Vita lets me feed those with AES/EBU or BNC or coaxial which gives us a substantial upgrade.
Modern DACs are by no means immune to USB weaknesses. I know plenty of folks who, after trying all inputs extensively, find that their expensive new DAC still sounds best via a good old S/PDIF input. This despite the manufacturer supposedly paying close attention to their USB implementation. This isn’t a problem for disc spinners, but those folks are becoming ever rarer, and file-based playback or streaming is nowadays very USB-centric. The Vita is happy to help us sidestep that issue and for that I am thankful.
Nativ later sent over their Disc device for testing, which features a robust Teac slot-load drive with Nativ’s custom drivers for bit-perfect ripping. The system lets one choose between FLAC, WAV, and MP3 and “for now” handles tagging automatically via FreeDB/MusicBrainz databases – which implies they may expand that in the future. The Disc ships with an upright stand just like Vita, though I prefer their optional “system” stand which lays the device flat and allows for stacking other Nativ components on top – with no display to view, there’s no reason the Disc needs to stand up like the Vita.
I ripped a couple dozen CDs which took roughly 10 minutes apiece and all sounded excellent. Metadata worked well most of the time – it recognized all my fairly mainstream albums as expected, but also hit on more obscure works from Project 86, Israeli pop-punk firm Man Alive, and the album Horns for the Holidays from Reference Recordings – a specialty release if ever there was such a thing. Nativ’s Disc even handled the CD layer of hybrid SACD releases from Marta Gomez and Tsuyoshi Yamamoto, though they ripped more slowly than standard Redbook titles. I did manage to find a few titles which it refused to recognize: soul album Pray for the Lion by Lenny Williams (circa 1974), Horizon by indie band The Rocking Horse Winner and the final release from Cypress String Quartet, the recording of which I had the privilege of attending. These are all admittedly fairly obscure, so it’s hard to say how the tagging will fare from one disc to the next. Nativ does plan on implementing an option for direct playback in a future update, to allow for real-time listening instead of ripping. That seems like a handy feature when dealing with those unrecognized albums, and would negate the need for having a “just in case” CD transport.
Is the Vita perfect? Not quite. I’ve two complaints that I just can’t let slide. First is a physical limitation involving the bottom-mounted output jacks. While Nativ did a superb job cramming in so much connectivity and routing it gracefully under/behind the stand, their system limits our choice of cables to those of a more slender build. My reference Audio Art D-1SE BNC cable won’t fit, as it (like many/most quality cables) has too much heat shrink covering the junction between cable and connector. Either the Vita’s cutout for the connections needs to be deeper, or the stand taller, or perhaps both. An AES/EBU cable from the BetterCables’ Silver Serpent line barely squeaks in there — an extremely close call. USB and Ethernet are not a problem but using the other digital outs may be challenging for your existing cables – something to be aware of.
Second gripe: Tidal, Qobuz, and the rest of the Vita’s streaming apps output 48kHz signals (regardless of the file’s original sample rate), just as Roon did prior to the last update. This means sound is likely passing through the OS mixer and being resampled in the process. I brought this to Nativ’s attention and their crew is working on a fix with an unknown ETA. I admit that even this compromised signal still outperforms my laptop by a decent margin, likely due to Vita’s filtered and isolated outputs. However it will be nice to get this corrected as Vita does support MQA via Tidal and traditional hi-res through Qobuz, and right now I’m not able to fully utilize those benefits.
I don’t consider these anything like deal breakers, and the Vita offers enough elsewhere to dwarf these complaints. Ultimately, I find the Vita far from out of place fronting a rather expensive headphone-based rig, despite it being the most affordable component in the chain. It’s that good. And when you factor in the support for various music streaming services, many of which aren’t found on any other device, irrespective of price, the Nativ Vita is contrasted as something very special indeed.
Further information: Nativ Sound