Melco N50 Digital Music Library Page 2

I connected the N50 to my Okto DAC8 Pro multichannel DAC. With stereo tracks, the N50/Okto combo was just super. I then selected some multichannel files just to see what would happen. I heard music, but the tracks were not routed to the proper channels/speakers and there was noise in unused channels—the Melco N50 is not a multichannel device. I then tried connecting my exaSound s88 to the N50, also by USB, but the two devices failed to communicate. The Melco requires that the attached DAC be UAC2 compliant. The Okto is, but the exaSound is not. Melco has a long list of compatible devices on its website.

The "Player" network connection
One of the N50's more interesting features—it's found, I think, on all Melco Music Libraries—is the dedicated Ethernet output labeled "Player." Computer-based server devices (including, for example, the Roon Nucleus and Nucleus+) have a single Ethernet connection, so they must be connected to a network-capable DAC via a network switch. That means the server device cannot guarantee the integrity of the Ethernet signal. Because it provides a second, dedicated Ethernet port, the N50 can ensure the integrity of that digital waveform.

But when I tried connecting the exaSound s88—the only network-enabled DAC I have in the house—it didn't show up on the Melco app. Investigating, I found a note on the download page for the app at the Apple App Store: "This free App is designed for the MELCO USB Local Player. If you need an App to control a Network Player (Streamer) connected to Melco this App is not suitable—please consider to use the Network Player own app, or mConnect Player HD app. MELCO USB Local Player is compatible with many other UPnP/DLNA/OpenHome app also, not only this Melco app." I searched for another Melco app, one that did support the network connection, but I didn't find one.

So, while the N50 Music Library, with its dedicated library, looks very much like a networked music server, it doesn't work as I expected. See Jim Austin's sidebar.

Accessing music
For local files, including files on USB-connected drives, content can be organized with a Melco-optimized version of SongKong, "an intelligent music tagger app designed to make the task of managing, organizing and cleaning up your digital music collection easy." This retagger is downloaded onto the N50 and, after customizing it or using one of several "standard" options, it will repair and reconfigure your library.

SongKong doesn't function with external libraries. For those, the N50 relies on embedded metadata, which may not match up with the N50's display structure. Navigation of music stored on those external libraries was adequate, but not as convenient as with the resident N50 library. This is good to know but perhaps not important: If you're going to buy a device with 3.84TB of internal storage, you might as well use it.

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The Melco also offers access to internet music sources: Tidal, Qobuz, and vTuner Internet Radio. In the Melco app, I logged on to my Qobuz account and gained instant access to my Qobuz Favorites. From the razor-clean voice and guitar and the charged atmosphere of "Keith Don't Go" (Nils Lofgren, Acoustic Live, Vision Music VMCD1005) to the rich chorus and resonant space of Fauré's Requiem (Mathieu Romano, Ensemble Aedes, Les Siècles, Aparté AP201), everything impressed. The clarity moved me to compare that version of the Fauré with another favorite version (Laurence Equilbey, L'Orchestre National De France, Accentus, Naive V5137), movement by movement. I was fascinated by the effect on the mood created by subtly different balances among instruments that underpin the singers on the two performances.

Playing to the N50? Up to now, I have described situations in which the Melco N50 is in control of operations, whether I operated it from the front panel or the app, and whether the accessed files were sourced on the N50's internal library, external libraries, or the web.

My Baetis Server running JRiver Media Player saw the N50 on my LAN and identified it in two ways. First, it showed the N50 as source "Library" available for playback. Second, it showed the N50 (and its attached DAC) as an output "Zone" to which it (JRiver and the Baetis server) could send files—that is, together with a locally connected DAC, as an endpoint. This all happened automatically, without adjusting any settings on the Baetis or the Melco.

The N50 is also a Roon Ready device. To use it as such, I had to change the Controller Mode setting from its default, "UPnP AV/DLNA," to "Roon Ready." As soon as this change was made, Roon (running on the Baetis server) identified the Melco among the available playback zones, with all the features available on the attached DAC, and including Qobuz and Tidal.

Playing music from JRiver or Roon through the N50 was a piece of cake, although doing it this way seems redundant in that it uses existing hardware and software whose functions the N50 (or the server and DAC) can handle on its own and complicates the signal path. Few people would use it this way, but it works, and that demonstrates the N50's impressive compatibility. The N50 with a direct-connected DAC works well as an endpoint.

Playing with the N50? The N50 has several functions supplemental to its role as a "Digital Music Library" or "Music Store and Stream."

• You can supplement the N50's internal storage by attaching a suitable USB drive to one of the USB 3.0 ports. The contents of this drive are indexed with the internal music library and can be edited, accessed, backed up, or deleted along with files on the internal SSD.

• The N50's Downloader automatically downloads purchased files from streaming sites (footnote 5). You can even set it up to scan sites periodically for purchased files.

• You can play and rip CDs from an optical drive. The N50 supports access to a USB-connected optical disc drive; it's not included, but Melco sells a matching one. I connected my ASUS Blu-ray Writer and inserted a CD. The N50 asked if I wanted to Play or Copy the CD (in WAV or FLAC format). Both options worked well. Metadata and artwork were downloaded automatically from the Gracenote database.

• Backup. The N50 has functions to back up and restore music files and settings—including files stored on the directly connected expansion drives (but not files stored elsewhere—for example, on a NAS). The Melco also offers many database- and storage-management operations that make for good security and reliable operation.

The only criticisms I have of the Melco N50 are confined to ergonomics and the vagaries of Wi-Fi. Front-panel operations would be easier if the up/down buttons were replaced by a rotary control knob placed between the back and menu/enter buttons; I found it easy to hit the wrong button at the wrong time while navigating menus, resulting in an unwanted setting or being dumped out of the menu.

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The only other annoyance was with the Melco app's sluggish Wi-Fi operation—more sluggish than I've experienced on the same network with other Wi-Fi control apps. During the course of this review, the LAN addresses of the various components never changed, but sometimes the app was slow to locate the N50, and occasionally it lost connection during a listening session.

Conclusions
This review may seem more like a catalog of features and procedures than a review, seasoned here and there with a few musical illustrations. I chose this approach due to the nature of the device: the Melco lets you engage with the music and does nothing to intrude on that engagement. That's its role, and it performs it well. Crucially, it does nothing to degrade sound quality. Especially when playing from its internal storage, the N50 is responsive.

The Melco N50 can also be used in many other ways by interacting with external file storage and external streaming sources. Automated file downloading and well-facilitated CD ripping are useful additions to this already multitalented device.

Even after using it for several weeks, the Melco N50 remains a bit of an enigma. Its dedicated "Player" Ethernet seems important, and yet it is not fully supported. But once you figure out what it does—it's a networked music-storage device and a USB server—it's very easy to use right out of the box. You can also explore all its other options for playing, ripping, storing, and streaming ad lib. It's all very appealing.


Footnote 5: Currently, Melco supports automated downloads from HIGHRESAUDIO and Qobuz plus a number of Japan-based sites.
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COMMENTS
cognoscente's picture

I always wonder "what's wrong with using the iPhone (which you already have, like in my case) as an iPod with the Onkyo HF player app. for the Hi-Res files and an USB cable?"

Kal Rubinson's picture

I cannot answer your question because I detest using my iPhone for anything except phone calls and texting. Screen size is too small and navigation is torturous.

trynberg's picture

This seems to have less functionality than my i5 NUC, running Roon ROCK, which is controlled by either Apple or Android tablets, plays multi-channel music, and cost under $400 to build.

I fail to see why anyone would purchase any of these ridiculously priced streamer devices.

Brown Sound's picture

I totally agree. It is way overpriced, indeed.

Brown Sound's picture

I kept reading to see how this thing sounded. I figured it must sound pretty damn good, for it to warrant a Stereophile review. But nope, and Kal confirmed it, there was very little audio comparison. So this $5500, glorified music server, with all of the listed fussiness and being locked behind the Apple wall, it somehow deserves a pass and positive review? Sorry, but for that kind money, it should be close to flawless and hell, make breakfast too. I have been reading Stereophile for over thirty years, and this one really has me shaking my head. I am sorry, you got stuck with this one, Kal.

T.S. Gnu's picture

“Computer-based server devices (including, for example, the Roon Nucleus and Nucleus+) have a single Ethernet connection, so they must be connected to a network-capable DAC via a network switch. That means the server device cannot guarantee the integrity of the Ethernet signal. Because it provides a second, dedicated Ethernet port, the N50 can ensure the integrity of that digital waveform.”

In case you are uninformed, the server NEVER guarantees the integrity of the Ethernet signal; that guarantee is provided by the TCP/IP protocol that is used to transfer the packets from server to client (and, NO, it is not UDP for audio streaming from any NAS or computer). The client ACKnowledges the receipt of each packet, hence this is a bidirectional communication wherein the protocol compares the ACKnowledgement with what it sent; if there is a mismatch, the packet is resent thus ensuring the integrity of the “signal” (as you put it), although packet would be the more appropriate terminology. Hence, the N50 does not do what you claim it does; rather it is the transport protocol that does so…as it does for any two devices communicating for the purposes of this discussion.

It would be tremendously useful to the reader if these misstatements were clarified now that you ARE informed of the same. Even better yet if there were some effort made into preventing them in the first place. If you are not claiming this, and simply repeating marketing material, it would behoove one to confirm the veracity of these claims before repeating them. Considering the relative permanence of your words on the internet, it would be a good way to minimize any unfortunate decline in the credibility of your columns.

Regards

Kal Rubinson's picture

You would be correct if you presumed that the statement was an assertion of the product manufacturer and should have been placed in quotes for proper attribution.

FWIW, my personal Baetis server does have two Ethernet ports and have never found that using both of them (so that the output is direct-wired to the streamer) has never made any operational or audible difference as compared with using a single port and switch for input and output.

Thanks for bringing this up.

T.S. Gnu's picture

if, as mentioned in my earlier comment, the assertion of a manufacturer were verified even if and when it is included in quotes; mere repetition of the information may be viewed as a tacit endorsement. Assuming that this isn’t the case, the propagation of incorrect information is simply misinformation or (worse) disinformation and part of the responsibility of disseminating information is indeed ensuring that it is correct information.

Again, this a good way to minimize any unfortunate decline in the credibility of your columns, especially with their relative permanence online and in print. Thanks for the response and clarification, including the example of your Baetis.

Regards

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