Network audio has expanded as it has become mainstream, offering myriad ways to deliver music to your hi-fi system, amplifiers with onboard streaming to high-end standalone players to plug into an existing set-up. Since it re-entered the audio market, Japanese company Melco – part of a company which had previously diversified from pure hi-fi into computer peripherals from networking devices and storage – has always targeted hi-end network audio enthusiasts, and recently launched its flagship N1-S38 digital music library, selling for a cool £11,995.
Now it’s taken much of the technology of that unit and made it more affordable in the form of the N5-H50, selling for £7995, the reduction made possible by some simplification and the switch from 3.8TB of solid-state storage in the flagship to a 5TB conventional hard-drive in the newcomer. Well, when talking of the storage here, ‘conventional’ is perhaps something of a misnomer: one of the selling points of the Melco range has always been that, as manufacturer of storage solutions, its drives being sold under the Buffalo brand, the company makes its own SSDs and HDDs, enabling them to be optimised for audio use.
Not least is the fact that, while most storage devices, be they solid state or based on mechanical disks, are designed for continuous writing of data and reading it back for use, whereas the typical duty cycle in an audio device is ‘write once, read many’: the music files are copied to the drive, and then accessed many times for playback, rather than the stored data being continuously rewritten, as would be the case in a NAS used for system backup, for example.
Early Melco models had a hint of hi-fi ‘black magic’ around them: they were designed to fulfil the same function as a conventional NAS, but in a more audio-friendly form, complete with a dedicated and optimised Ethernet port to connect to a network player. The idea was that you used the unit between your network router and the player, rather than plugged into the router with data fed over the network to your playback device, the network connection to the Melco functioning purely for control, copying of data to the onboard storage and Internet access for data look-up to identify and tag music being stored.
However, more recently the Melco concept has been refined, and the machines now double as both storage and player, connecting directly to a DAC via a USB output. So, you can now use units such as the N5-H50 as the heart of an audio system, rather than just as a means of storing music on a network. Yes, there’s still that dual Ethernet arrangement, so you could use it into a high-end network player, but the more sensible route is clearly intended to be its connection to a high-quality DAC, with all the playback controlled by Melco’s own suite of onboard software. Indeed, you could even run it without a network connection, although then you’ll be limited to using the front-panel controls, rather than a more convenient app.
At the heart of the N5-H50 just about everything is new, and derived from the development of the N1 flagship model: the chassis and casework, for example, and the hardware/software platform on which the whole thing runs, including a new main circuitboard, and an upgrade audio-type toroidal transformer mounted to the thick chassis of the unit via a ‘cushion’ to minimise vibration.
The master clock, which ‘times’ all the digital data flowing through the player, is also N1-derived, and the Ethernet port via which the player communicates with the user’s home network is supplemented with the option of using an SFP (Small Form Factor Pluggable) fibre-optic connection, which offers superior noise-rejection by breaking the direct electrical path between router and player. Converters to connect between Ethernet and fibre at the router end are inexpensive, as is the fibre ‘cable’; Melco also supports this link via its S100/2 and S10 ‘audiophile’ network switches.
Both network ports are of a high-quality locking design and, as well as the USB3.0 port designed for audio output to a DAC, the N5-H50 has two USB2.0 connections – one front, on back – to allow playback or import of music from storage devices, or just the addition of such a device for expansion or backup. It’s also possible to add on a USB optical disc drive, and use that for CD ripping straight to the N5’s internal storage. Melco sells its own disc drive, the D100 being based around an in-house designed transport mechanism, but it’s possible to do the same thing on a budget with a generic DVD-ROM drive.
Music can also be copied over a network connection from a computer to the N5, but in my experience with several Melcos this is a relatively slow process, as is the re-indexing of the drive contents once the process is finished. That’s not a major hassle, and shows signs of having been improved in these latest models, but there remain rivals much slicker in this respect.
Many will be perfectly happy using a computer into a DAC to provide similar functionality to that offered by the Melco, suggesting with some justification that the method of conversion has the greater effect on the ultimate sound quality, but the benefits of offering a DAC an optimised ‘clean’ datastream shouldn’t be overlooked. Indeed, it’s quite surprising how well the N5-H50 can make even relatively modest converters perform, as I proved to myself using the likes of the iFi Audio Neo iDSD, Chord’s Mojo 2 and – as an extreme example – Audioquest’s ‘DAC in a USB stick’ DragonFly Cobalt, at a very affordable £249.
Comparing the Melco with theUSB output of a recent model Apple MacBook Air, using the iFi Audio Neo iDSD connected feeding a Naim NAC 52/NAP 250 amplifier driving PMC Prodigy 5speakers, resulted in a ‘no contest’ verdict: the dedicate player not only delivered a bass that was better extended and more firmly controlled, regardless of the DAC in use, but also greater resolution across the midband and treble, presumably due to the reduction of electrical noise on the feed to the DAC, and the fact that the ‘computer’ within the Melco is optimised to its task. This is also apparent in the high treble, where the sense of ‘air’ in a recording is conveyed: simply, there seems to be more information in whatever’s being played.
Even more surprising is that these improvements are noted when the Melco is compared with a Mac I have stripped out for USB DAC testing – Bluetooth and Wi-Fi antennae disconnected, internal power supply replaced with a higher-quality external unit, software reduced to just the basics for music playback. Even here that feeling of greater clarity is hard to overlook, whether with CD-quality files or the highest-resolution DSD music the DAC in use can handle.
It takes a bit of mental readjustment to switch from a conventional network player to the Melco way of thinking of a library/player, although the company is less alone in this respect than when it first adopted this approach. For the best results, it would be preferable to use the N5-H50 with a high-quality mains-powered DAC rather than the portable kind drawing its power over USB – the likes of that iFi Audio I mentioned, at around £899 in its latest NEO iDSD 2 version, would be a very good companion. Add on a free-to download UPnP app running on a phone or tablet, such as the Linn-developed Kinsky, or mconnect, set aside some time to get your music collection copied to the Melco, and you’re ready to play.
Melco continues to refine its digital music library concept, and the N5-H50 is certainly impressive for use in a high-end system. Although I suspect one could achieve similar results for less cost with a lot of customisation of a computer, including a fibre network connection, enhanced storage choice and positioning and so on, the beauty of the Melco is that it delivers all this with (almost) plug and play convenience.
That’s always been the appeal of the brand’s offerings, combined with solid in-house engineering and hand-crafted build and finish – and this latest arrival should further that reputation.
Oleta Adams New York State of Mind
Taken from Adams’s less-than-difficult second album, Evolution, this is classy 90s jazz/soul at its finest, covering the Billy Joel classic with a beautifully recorded vocal and fine supporting musicians, all delivered with the Melco’s ‘maximum information’ approach
Prefab Sprout Moon Dog
From Paddy McAloon’s ‘musical that never was’ album Jordan: The Comeback, rich with a diversity of musical styles and given the big, cinematic sonic treatment by producer Thomas Dolby, this is the kind of music full of nuances the Melco is so well equipped to reveal
Lucinda Williams Can’t Let Go
Known for her perfectionist approach to recording, on her Car Wheels on a Gravel Road album Williams delivered a set in which every last detail of vocals and instrumentation was immediately apparent, as is clear with the Melco in the saddle
Provided you have a system with sufficient resolution to reveal what it can offer, the Melco is a sensible buy, not a luxury. Coupled with a high-quality DAC, it makes a persuasive case for computer-stored music, and is capable of a consistently impressive sound. It’s easy to set up and use, immaculately hand-built, and able to store all the music most of us will ever want, or need.