There are those who consider network music servers as little more than glorified NAS drives in nice boxes, and it’s not hard to see why given that both do a the same job and contain the same basic elements. Which is some kind of disc drive or solid state memory that’s controlled by a computer running server software, yet there is a clear difference in the sound quality offered by NAS drives compared with audio specific servers. And this comes down to the way that they deal with noise.
The more we learn about digital audio systems the clearer it becomes that noise is the enemy of good sound. High frequency noise that you don’t hear directly creates a noise floor or threshold below which it is very difficult to hear the signal, as a result quiet sounds, the ones that create a sense of space and nuance in a recording get lost. When you consider that the server (and drive) are effectively the source in streaming systems it becomes apparent why they need to be as good as possible to achieve a great result once the signal has been converted to analogue and amplified. The server is like the turntable in an vinyl playback system, or more accurately it’s the cartridge and phono stage, the data storage system is the turntable, be it spinning or otherwise.
Melco is a part of the Japanese Buffalo corporation which makes hard drives for computers, so it could easily have taken one of its peripheral products and put it in a nice box to create the N series of servers. But as I discovered when the N1A came my way several years ago, you don’t have to listen for long to discover just how the work that they put into reducing noise and distortion results in a clear increase in musical enjoyment when it’s the source in a streaming system. And it wasn’t my first dedicated audio server either. Melco go to great lengths to keep noise away from the signal and eschew standard computer parts in their servers. The N100 for instance has an anti-vibration system built in as well, revealing that they fully appreciate the detrimental effect of extraneous vibration on disc drives.
The N100 is the smallest model in the range, it runs a 2TB spinning disc drive and incorporates twin ethernet ports so that you don’t need to use a conventional network switch. Just connect the N100 to the network and send the signal directly to the streamer without passing go, or using a switch for that matter. Alternatively it can be directly connected to a USB DAC and controlled using the Melco app, which also enables access to popular lossless streaming services but not apparently internet radio. Unusually it supports direct downloads from High Res Audio a German site with a strong catalogue of classical titles. This half width unit uses the same processor and architecture as the N1Z series that represents the top strata of Melco’s music servers and can playback PCM at up to 32/384 and DSD up to 8x. It will deliver all the relevant formats albeit the playback side is not quite as broad in capability as the server side. MP3 for instance cannot be streamed from the USB port, nor WMA for that matter, but whether compressed formats would benefit from this quality of playback is open to debate.
One feature that is unique to Melco servers as far as I know is that they can be set up and run entirely from the front panel display, operated in effect like a CD player. Which means you don’t actually need a network connection to play music stored on the drive, but if you have more than a few dozen albums this seems like an odd way to run a server because half the benefit of such devices is the ability to pick music with a tablet or smartphone. However there are a number of features that can be switched off that benefit sound quality at smaller cost to flexibility, turning off SMB for instance stops file sharing which is not necessary unless you want to move albums on or off the server.
The other tweak that seems a bit more practical is that the outboard power supply can be upgraded with third party units such as those made by SBooster. Melco makes a variation on the N100 called N10 that comes with a matching power supply but apparently this is not available for use with the N100 as the two servers are not as identical as they look.
I kicked off with the N100 connected to the MSB Discrete DAC via a CAD USB cable, the pairing delivering a pretty hot rendition of ZZ Top’s fabulous ‘Enjoy and Get it On’, with lots of vibrancy and power. The rather smoother Macy Gray song ‘Annabelle’ has a lovely languor to it with good image width and strong depth. I contrasted some DSD recordings at different sample rates and discovered extra low frequency detail that produced tangible improvements to the scale of the image when going from standard DSD64 to double that (DSD128). I was impressed at just how dramatic the change was in terms of low level detail. Going over to a 24/192 PCM version of the same piece, which seemed louder, the sound became more present, live and vibrant, going back to the DSD128 brought a more relaxed analogue vibe. I also contrasted the N100 with the Mk1 N1A I use as a reference and found the two to be very close in performance, the N100 is not quite as sophisticated however and the N1A had the edge in timing terms. The full width N1A is a few years older and doesn’t have the advantages of the R&D that went into the smaller unit but it’s current incarnation is a step or two up in the Melco range.
Using the ethernet connection with a streamer the N100 is a very neutral and even handed server with very little character of its own, it’s also appealingly relaxed which is a sign that very little noise is getting into the signal. It could have a little more zip at times but that’s something that you can do with a DAC so long as plenty of detail is coming off the drive. It can also be enhanced by the right choice of USB cable, a length of Chord Co Sarum T proved this quite clearly with a slick version of ‘Walk on the Wild Side’ that had excellent vocal projection, a taut bass line and shimmering strings. It is also capable of great delicacy, which does great things for flutes and strings, without undermining the power of bass and the image scale that results from getting both ends of the spectrum right. There are more pacey sounding servers but at this price they usually sacrifice some finesse which is where the N100 scores. It also has a freshness that enlivens the music allied to excellent separation of instruments and voices that means you can listen right into the mix. All of which indicates that it delivers a lot of the signal in a coherent and natural manner.
There is naturally a bit of competition for your hard earned cash at the N100’s price point, the Naim Uniti Core is £100 more and doesn’t come with a hard drive, nor does it offer USB out but build quality is high. The Innuos ZenMini Mk3 is £999 (2TB) and has both analogue and digital outputs and looks to be the one to beat although as yet there is no dedicated control app.
The Melco N100 is a nicely put together and well thought out network server that’s usefully compact and has a highly informative display. Unlike other brands you don’t actually need a computer to set it up or load music, albeit you do have to have the music on a drive of some sort to get it onto the Melco, which usually involves a PC. I didn’t directly compare it with a NAS drive but have done so with the N1A in the past and the difference is not subtle, especially if it’s playing through a revealing system. I still prefer the sound when a streamer is involved in the playback chain but the results via USB are pretty impressive which makes things both simpler and less expensive if you are new to streaming. The N100 is also a thoroughly reliable piece of kit if the N1A I have been hammering since 2015 is any indication, and that counts for a lot in this fast moving sector. It is also easy to load with music from the desktop, much more straightforward than some in fact. Combine this with high build quality and excellent sound capability and you have a desirable source for any streaming system.