Audio Streams #10

For a growing number of people, music is free, or virtually so. If you don't want to deal with ads, $9.99 a month buys you unlimited, ad-free access to millions of tracks. At least at present, streaming from services like Spotify, YouTube, and Pandora is where music consumption is headed—and it's really all that most people want.

You and I are different. We collect music, and care about the quality of our listening experience. We care because listening to music is something we do while not doing anything else. This makes us: a) an increasingly rare species, b) not content with lossy streaming, c) on the road to complexity, and d) simultaneously richer and poorer.

For collectors, digital music means discs or files. Removing the spinning disc from digital playback opens us up to an endless stream of music—a dream come true. While the fulfillment of this dream entails a certain amount of added complexity compared to popping a CD into a player, a music server can offer a nice, relatively simple, one-stop shop.

Of course, any computer can function as a music server, even if computers weren't designed for that purpose. The reason to consider a purpose-built device should be obvious—it's designed to do one thing really well: serve your music.

Melco N1A High Resolution Digital Music Library ($1999)
In 1975, in Japan, Makoto Maki founded the Maki Engineering Laboratory Company (Melco), "to design and manufacture the finest audio components of the time." Melco's flagship product back in the day was their 3560 Turntable System, which was similar in approach to another 1970s 'table, the original Platine Verdier. Then, at the beginning of the 1980s, Maki put his audio company on hold in order to build Buffalo Inc., which has since become Japan's largest manufacturer of computer peripherals.

Now Melco has been resurrected as a maker of networked audio components, combining Maki's audiophile roots with the high-tech manufacturing chops of Melco Holdings (footnote 1). I love stories of resurrection inspired by passion.

Melco currently offers two products: the N1A and the N1Z, each of which is called a High Resolution Digital Music Library. These servers were designed for music collectors—they won't play from Internet streaming services. One difference between the two models is that the N1A uses hard-disk drives, while the N1Z uses solid-state drives. The subject of this column is the N1A; owing to what Melco describes as licensing issues, the N1Z is not yet available in the US.

Simple Version (Sorta)
The Melco N1A has 4TB of internal storage. If you currently store your music on a USB drive, all you need do is plug it into the N1A, then answer "OK" when it asks if you want to copy the drive's contents to the Melco. You can also drag and drop music into the N1A using a computer: When the N1A is connected to your network (router, switch, or hub) with an Ethernet cable, it'll show up on your network as a shared storage device.

If you want to use a USB DAC to convert the Melco's digital output to analog, just use a USB link to connect your DAC to any of the three USB ports on the N1A's rear panel. If you want to use a network player instead, and have already connected your N1A and player to your network, you're good to go. Melco recommends using the PlugPlayer remote app for iOS and Android devices to operate the N1A, so you'll also want to have an iOS or Android device to use as a remote.

Once you've connected everything, loaded PlugPlayer, moved your music into the N1A, and used the front-panel controls to tell the N1A where to send your music, you're ready to play. See? Simple.

Sorta.

Less Simple Version
Inside the Melco N1A are two 2TB, low-noise hard-disk drives made by Seagate, configured and delivered as a single drive, which is how I like it. You can also opt to configure these drives as a RAID 0 or RAID 1 array (RAID=redundant array of independent disks), but because a RAID array provides fault tolerance only in the event of disk failure, I recommend sticking with the entire 4TB for your music, and getting an external USB drive for true backup.

The N1A's outputs all reside around back and include three ways for its internal music library to be output in digital form: by connecting one of the rear-mounted USB ports to a USB DAC, by connecting the Ethernet port marked LAN to your network (router, switch, or hub), or by connecting the Ethernet port marked Player directly to your network player. The preferred method obviously depends on whether or not you want to use a USB DAC or a network player. If you opt for the latter, you then need to decide if you want your network player to reside on your network, allowing you to use your favorite Universal Plug and Play (UPnP) remote app to control playback. (Think of UPnP as the language these devices use to talk to one another.) If you choose to connect the N1A directly to your network player, that player must offer a hardware-based means of controlling playback since, it's not accessible from a remote app.



Footnote 1: Melco Holdings, Inc., Nagoya, Aichi, Japan. Web: www.melco-audio.com. US distributor: The Sound Organisation: 159 Leslie Street, Dallas, TX 75207. Tel: (972) 234-0182. Web: www.soundorg.com.
ARTICLE CONTENTS

COMMENTS
doak's picture

...from my Aries??
Thanks for easing some of the confusion.
Fascinated with this Melco unit. Simpler=Better,IMO.
Very informative discussion here: http://www.xtremeplace.com/yabbse/index.php?topic=214799.90
Watching Melco's progress with great interest.

deckeda's picture

A good hardware-based player would be critical for me as well. I'm currently drawing a blank at an example of what that would be right now, which everything that's not a Roon solution depends on (for me.)

On the other hand, if there's a way to make something like this work really well with an iPad and configure/add/edit music from the computer I'd gladly allow it on the LAN. I don't care how it sounds if the experience sucks. Can anyone suggest whatever it is I'm overlooking for the solution this box apparently depends on, given my stated priority?

And don't say "CD player."

lardog's picture

Why would music sound different on the same system by using two different devices delivering the same exact digital files? I don't understand that.

Also: can't I just use a NAS as a music server and save my bank account $2000?

michaelavorgna's picture

If you read the 4th paragraph under the "Bits and Bolts" section, you'll see a brief answer to your question. I'd also recommend reading John Atkinson's review of the Antipodes DX Server (http://www.stereophile.com/content/antipodes-dx-reference-music-server) and my review of the Bel Canto REFStream (http://www.audiostream.com/content/bel-canto-refstream-asynchronous-ethe...) where their manufacturer's talk about this in a bit more detail.

You'll notice that all of these devices, including the Melco, re-clock the data. According to Bel Canto, "We have found that providing the lowest possible jitter audio stream into the DAC is critical to achieving the best sound quality. Our ultra-low noise clocks remove layers of digital grunge and low level noise that impinges on the musicality of the DAC."

In addition, all of these devices address other issues including power supply isolation and noise regulation.

While you could certainly use a NAS for storage, at present you will also need a ControlPoint and a Renderer to play back your music because you cannot simply connect a DAC to a NAS. Many multi-bay NAS also house a fan and in my experience you can typically hear the drives when active so you'll want to keep a NAS away from your hi-fi.

As I shared in this review, the Melco bettered the performance of my NAS/MacBook Pro combo.

Michael Lavorgna
Editor, AudioStream.com

mtymous1's picture

An example of how music sounds different on the same system by using two different devices delivering the same exact digital files, is (drum roll please):
hi-rez streaming via AirPlay vs. via DLNA/UPnP

Depending on the protocols used for streaming, it might even sound different using the SAME devices (more on that in a moment).

It's common knowledge that AirPlay downsamples 96- and 192-kHz files, so obviously this $2K gizmo doesn't use AirPlay to stream your files -- it uses UPnP (http://www.melco-audio.com/technology/). Therefore, the response to your first question is: if you stream a hi-rez file using AirPlay devices, it will sound different than if streamed via the UPnP-based Melco, on the same hi-fi. (Will the Melco make a system sound "$2K better"? Frankly, I do not know -- too many variables and subjectivity to answer.)

RE: "...use a NAS as a music server and save [your] bank account $2000?"
By specifically enlisting DLNA/UPnP protocols, you might be able to do it with your existing equipment. If you need some initial direction on getting DLNA set up, would need to know the make/model of your NAS, as well as the equipment in your stack/rack. (Echo Lavorgna's comment above about a control point and renderer.)

Now, back to my placeholder about different sound using the SAME devices... I have personally experienced qualitatively better sound from *my* equipment when I use DLNA instead of AirPlay. This is especially noticeable when streaming hi-rez files. (Recall AirPlay's downsampling.)

Special note to the trolls and measurement-obsessed:
FWIW, am NOT trying to open up the "bits-are-bits" nor “HDMI vs. USB” nor “jitter” nor any other delivery stream can o' worms here. (There's already PLENTY of that on Lavorgna's Audiostream.) Since I don't own a Melco (nor anything similar to it), I do not have any empirical evidence whatsoever, to either refute or confirm claims about improved SQ by utilizing such a device. The intent of this post is to provide lardog an example of how music sounds different on the same system, and also provide a response to the question of "can't I just use a NAS as a music server and save my bank account $2000?"

Thanks and Happy Listening!

mtymous1's picture

Some very interesting comments associated with yet another Greatest Bits network streamer:
http://www.audiostream.com/content/aurender-n100h-caching-network-streamer

James.Seeds's picture

The Melco NA1 certainly looks like an interesting piece of equipment and the entry at $2000 is somewhat reasonable considering how much more the Antipodes DX and DS starting at ($6500) sounds like a bargain. I took an even less expensive route by going Apple Mac Mini with a Cambridge DAC at less than 1k it sounds better than I anticipated breath new life to a system that was still kicking after a number of years, power supply or fan noise is none existent as a bonus I have it connect to my TV through HDMI for movies and shows, it's worked out well

davidcarr's picture

Hi All,

First and foremost, Michael, thank you for your very thoughtful review, and many kind words!

I thought it might help to clarify one point regarding the behavior of control point software when using a Melco server and an ethernet equipped network player:

The recommended hookup is to use the rear "player" ethernet port connected to the network player directly, and your home network connected to the "LAN" ethernet port. In this configuration, the Melco creates a small internal sub-network for the player that isolates it from the network, thereby improving performance. Your app-based control point software (such as PlugPlayer or the like) will still operate normally, so long as the mobile device used is connected to a WiFi network that is on the same LAN that the Melco is attached to.

Here's the confusing part: Melco offers a misleadingly titled "Player Mode". This is designed for users that want to completely eliminate the need for a home network, using the front panel buttons or optional IR remote to select music instead. While this potentially delivers "ultimate" performance and/or might be suitable where no network is available, we feel that the limitation of functionality makes this mode only applicable to the most diehard listeners. Our recommendation is to avoid the "player mode", and simply connect the Melco to your system as described above. The Melco will still offer far superior performance compared to a standard NAS or laptop/computer-based system, and offer all of the usability features we expect from a file-based streaming audio system.

Everyone is free to email me directly with questions, I'm glad to help!

David Carr
The Sound Organisation- US importer of Melco

david@soundorg.com

AlMaNaAx's picture

Humbly contributing our own two cents. Our music library is stored in ALAC format on a QNAP NAS connected via Ethernet to an Apple Airport Extreme wifi router. We listen to our music by means of an Auralic Aries Mini fetching the audio files through wifi ac, on the 5GHZ band. We never experienced any drops, and we certainly never heard the NAS fan noise interfering with the sound of music playing. The amplifier is an integrated from YBA (french made) and the loudspeakers are Spendor LS3/5a's getting support from a Spendor S-3 subwoofer. It's far from being the world's best, most accurate setup in the world but we still enjoy it every day, several hours per day. It just works and we keep tappin' our feet, kids included.

blugosi's picture

After somehow extensive testing, I have come to the conclusion that the DLNA implementation plays a significant factor.
I keep my 10 Terrabytes library on a Synology 8 bay NAS with 7 hard disks spinning in RAID and JBOD formats. This NAS is located in another room of my house connected to the LAN using Terrabit switches. I am using Jriver MC22 running on an Intel i5 mini PC running 64 bit Windows 10. Its USB output feeds an Antelope Zodiac plus DAC, powered by the proprietary Volticon PSU. The Zodiac connects to my Mcintosh preamp/power amp all tube system and so forth.
The sound quality of that configuration is far better compared to using the DLNA functionality of the Synology. Either from the mini PC, or from my Samsung Smart TV feeding the same DAC via an optical digital link, the sound coming from the DLNA connection is significantly inferior.
The same happens on a different setup, a home PC sending its USB output to my Audeze Deckard headphone amp and Audeze headphones. Streaming through a DLNA connection is not up to streaming directly over Jriver MC.
I can hear no difference when I am streaming the same 24/196 track located on the NAS compared to playing the same track locally from the PC SSD hard disk.
Maybe all these streaming servers improve over non-proprietary links?
I dunno :-)

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