Melco, the Japanese manufacturer of the N50 music library featured in this review, is not a household name among US music fans. Veterans may remember the Melco 3560 turntable, which was considered pricey when it was launched in 1978, in part because it supports three tunes. Confusing, many giant affiliates kiritsu Mitsubishi is called MELCO (for “Mitsbeach Theectric Sharerporation”), but the N50 maker is not one of the those Milko. This “Melco” is rather an acronym for “Maki Engineering Laboratory Company”, and although it started in hi-fi, its most popular products these days are networked RAID arrays made by Melco’s US division, Buffalo Americas.
Melco’s audio division, known as Melco Syncrets, sells products similar to those made by Buffalo Americas but tuned for hi-fi, including servers that include all the digital stuff that takes advantage of an object in one box. The new N50 lacks only a DAC to be a full digital source.
The front end of digital audio is made up of several parts, and in the age of broadcasting, these parts can be grouped together in different ways. It starts with a digital audio file, stored locally or elsewhere – anywhere else on the entire Internet – and ends with a DAC. The trend among audiophiles and manufacturers is to improve every step of the process. Start with NAS drives, servers or streaming devices, switch to digital-to-digital converters, network audio devices, USB re-lockers, isolators and signal conditioners, all perhaps with upgraded power supplies and improved couplings, and you end up with a variety of, high-quality DAC , refusing to shiver. It evokes a nightmare for music lovers, and the Achilles and tortoise Zeno paradox for modern audiophiles.
In the end, one hopes the data will become music and end up in your ears. But as the complexity increases, so does the cost, and the chance of incompatibility increases. This is part of the challenge for digital audio streaming.
Another part: Many audiophiles have huge libraries of rip CDs, SACDs, and hi-rez music downloads, and these days most of them subscribe to at least one streaming service. Somewhere on the front end there should be an app that manages that library and allows easy access to the music.
Clean and simple look
When unpacking the N50-S38 ($5499, footnote 1), I was impressed by its clean, simple look. Starting at the left of the front panel, Melco’s signature brush line logo is just above the on/off button with an LED indicator. To the right is a USB 3.0 port — you can insert a flash drive full of music here, for playback or transfer to the N50’s SSD — and a central alphanumeric display. The four little buttons on the far right are for moving between the controls and the setup menu (back, menu/enter, up, down). On the rear panel, left to right, is a USB 3.0 enhanced port for sending music data to a USB DAC and then three more USB 3.0 ports, designated for connecting an optical drive (not included) for CD burning and playback, a USB drive for library expansion, and a backup drive . To the right of the USB ports are two RJ-45 Ethernet ports, one for connecting Melco to your local network, and the other a direct output to a network-enabled “music player” – more on that later. Finally, there is the IEC power connector (footnote 2).
In the complex world of modern digital frontends, it can sometimes be difficult to know what part a particular component plays. Melco calls the N50 “Digital Music Library” or sometimes “Music Store and Stream”. Neither of the two terms told me exactly what to expect. Even after I’ve read the quick setup guide, which outlines all the controls, connectors, and menu/display operations, I’m still not sure how to get it to play music. Downloading the full user manual from the Melco website has taken me in the right direction, with a full detailed description of each process and function. Some puzzles remain.
Using the guide and my iPad, I found that the N50 provides just about everything needed to stream local and web-based music. The front-panel controls and a small, easy-to-read alphanumeric display work well for setup and basic music selection, but I quickly realized that using a tablet — an iPad only; No Android support – and Melco Music (note 3) is essential to make music selection easier and Melco fun to use.
play From N50? At the heart of the N50 is a custom circuit board from Melco. Its job is to retrieve music files, from the rigidly installed internal SSD, or other sources, and send the output directly to the local DAC via the USB Type-A port on the circuit board or to a dedicated Ethernet port that connects directly (not, as with most These devices, via a network switch) to the Ethernet DAC connected to the network. Everything – hardware, firmware and output – is tightly controlled by Melco.
There are many ways to listen to music with the N50, but the simplest and most obvious is to load the music files into its internal memory and attach the USB DAC. You can mount the SSD in different ways. With USB 3.0 ports, you can connect an external hard drive, SSD or flash drive filled with music files and import files. What I did was simpler: Once I connected the N50 to my local network, I accessed the N50 using my desktop computer. From there, I drag and drop files from my main NAS storage directly to the N50. Over 12,000 tracks downloaded seamlessly and took up less than 8% of the N50’s internal storage. Then you connect a file Mytech Brooklyn + DAC to N50 via Melco’s dedicated USB output port.
I was immediately able to play any of the files now stored on the SSD using the N50’s front-panel controls and display, but no one wants to use the device that way: it’s cumbersome, and there’s no album art. The iPad is clearly the way to go. So I installed the Melco app on my iPad and connected it to my Wi-Fi. He immediately “watched” the N50, so I selected it (and a Mytek DAC connected via USB) as the device for “Play to” and “Library”. I can then access the library, sorted by album, genre, artist, etc. Navigating was easy.
I sampled all supported file formats, except for AAC, to make sure the N50 would handle them. I did – including MQA, although it is not listed as a supported format. As for DSD, the N50 has three user-selectable operating modes. “Standard Mode” plays DSD as the original DSF/DFF if the DAC supports it; If not, DSD files will be played as DoP (DSD over PCM). “DSD over PCM Priority Mode” plays all DSD content as DoP, even if the DAC supports the original DSD. PCM Mode forces the conversion of DSD to PCM, for use with DACs that do not support DSD at all.
Among the files I copied to the N50 was a classic Stravinsky recording Listoire de Soldat It was recorded in 1956 by Westminster Records, with Robert Mandel leading Ars Nova (All-Star Ensemble) and Stanley Drucker and Herbert Sorkin playing the clarinet and violin parts, respectively. It is a 2-channel tape transfer to digital (24/96 FLAC High Definition Tape Transfers HDTT10464, footnote 4). This is an amazing performance and recording. No dialogue to distract from the music, and the recording captures the instruments with clarity, precision, and accuracy. Played by the N50 via Brooklyn+, the HDTT 24/96 FLAC coils provided one of the most compelling “they’re here” experiences I’ve had with classical music.
The Melco N50 is a networked device, so once I connected it to my local network, the Melco app’s “Library” options included every device on my LAN, including the small library on Exa sound s88 And my JRiver server, which in turn can access everything on my NAS. The NAS was of course directly accessible, but only after I installed MinimServer on the NAS, a simple procedure. I was able to play any track I had anywhere, sometimes in more than one way.
Note 1: The S38 specifies the specific model of the N50, with a specific processor and storage. The S38 includes 3.84 TB of storage space on an internal SSD.
Footnote 2: Also at the bottom of the back panel on the far right is a simple unlabeled screw described in the manual and quick start guide as a “grounding port”. Its function is not mentioned, but it is supposed to handle any hum that may arise. I haven’t encountered anything.
Note 3: or an application other than the Melco application.
Footnote 4: “The Rare Recordings Remastered in the Audiophile’s Voice.” The label HDTT performs hi-rez conversions of open-reel tapes for “forgotten shows of historical interest”. We see highdeftapetransfers.ca/pages/about-us.