A former turntable manufacturer turned data storage giant has built an audio oriented NAS drive that gives streamers a real shot in the arm.
Maki Electronics Laboratory Co was set up in 1975 to make high mass turntables with outboard motors and silk thread drives along with line level preamplifiers. No power amplifiers ever emerged as the Melco Company moved into IT and computer products and became Buffalo. The guy who started it became the chairman of Buffalo the Japanese computer peripherals company that specialises in data storage. With an audiophile at the top it seems that it was only a matter of time before Buffalo began building drives dedicated to audio purposes, and the Melco name was revived.
They could have modified a commercial NAS but instead decided to build a ground up design whose aims were fundamentally different to those required in a computer NAS. A regular NAS is built for speed of data access, it doesn’t need maximum data integrity because it can always re-read the drive if anything crucial is missing. But audio applications do not require speed they require low jitter clocking, low noise and maximum data integrity. The Melco drives are so audio dedicated that they should be used to store video or pictures, lack of raw speed being the main reason for this. They don’t have wall warts but use onboard power supplies, which means that they’re earthed. The supplies are switched mode types but ‘properly designed’ examples of the art, something that both Chord Electronics and Linn have proved can be done. The advantage is that switched mode produces relatively low heat which increases reliability and longevity for the whole device.
There are two Melcos, the N1A that has spinning drives and 4TB of storage and the N1Z with SSD drive and a mere terabyte of space. Having spent time with the more affordable HDD variant I am intrigued about the potential of its big brother. As well as paying attention to the engineering of the drive and the way its managed Melco has devised its own unique approach to signal connection. Commercial NAS drives have to be connected to a switch to get the signal to the streamer, and the streamer has to be connected to the network in order for it to be controlled. This means that the audio signal has to go through a network that is polluted by noise from basic switching power supplies and data for other applications. Melco puts a network connection and a player connection onto its drives and isolates one from the other. So the signal goes straight to the streamer yet the streamer can still ‘see’ the network via this path. This is one reason why the N1A sounds so good, the difference between the two approaches is very clear indeed.
The UPnP server is a heavily modified Twonky build that’s optimised for classical browsing and is DSD capable. Additionally MinimServer, the audiophile’s friend for reasons of metadata and browsing management as well as sound quality, will be shortly available as a very simple installation.
It has another trick up its sleeve in the form of a USB output, another first. This means that you don’t need a streamer but only a USB DAC, which are considerably more affordable and potentially better sounding. The only drawback is that you can’t install driver software on the Melco so it is only be compatible with Class2 USB DACs, there is a compatibility chart on the Melco site. When connected to a compatible USB DAC the Melco appears on the network as a UPnP renderer (player) and so can be controlled by most UPnP control points What’s really clever is that you can still control what’s played with a touch screen app. This effectively tells the Melco what to send to the DAC using the server software incorporated into it. It would be nice if this software could be changed to something like JRiver which provides a really nice interface and offers Photoshop like levels of flexibility (rumour has it that this might well be in the pipeline). The N1A can however send DSD to compatible DACs or convert it to PCM for those that aren’t and even downsample for sample rate limited converters.
If you buy high resolution downloads from Qobuz these can be sent directly to the N1A by configuring the download computer, it can also be used to stream from the Tidal music service using Bubble UPnP on an Android tablet. And if you don’t have a wired LAN (local area network) it’s possible to set up a network specifically for the purpose of controlling playback with a router such as the Apple Airport Express.
The N1A itself has a fairly conventional audio electronics case with a full width aluminium facia. What marks it out as a purist Japanese product is the use of wooden feet, you won’t find them on even the most expensive QNAP or Synology NAS drive. The display shows the track title, format and sample rate which is useful, it also lets you know whether it’s sending PCM or DSD in USB mode.
Close to the edge
Having been encouraged to use the USB output I started out listening via CAD USB cable and the Cantata Music Centre and got a very revealing, relaxed and finessed result. However the combination of a clean and smooth source in the Melco N1A and a USB cable with the same character was a little bit too relaxing, the sound lacking the get up and go required to stir me into note-taking action. Switching to Vertere Dfi DD USB cable improved the definition of leading and trailing edges and provided the snap that I enjoy. The Melco delivers immensely quiet backgrounds as a result of the low noise on its USB output, this means that you can hear the ‘air’ in the studio when Brendel plays The Complete Beethoven Sonatas (Philips) and feel the goose bumps rising in the quiet intro to the Allegretto in Beethoven’s 7th Symphony (John Eliot Gardiner Beethoven The Symphonies, Orchestre Révolutionnaire et Romantique, Archiv). The string tone is superb and the emotional impact of such restrained power is overwhelming. The electronic intricacies of Felix Laband’s ‘Minka (And the Notes After)’ from Dark Days Exit (Compost) produce a huge soundstage with sounds popping out all over the place, it’s a lot of fun.
I also tried the N1A with an Ayre QB9 USB DAC (that’s awaiting review), this is a more subtle and refined converter and it revealed considerable poise and immaculate natural reverb on La Folia by the Atrium Musicae De Madrid under the direction of Gregorio Paniagua (Harmonia Mundi). Laura Marling on the other hand arrives in the room with an uncanny presence when she sings ‘Take The Night Off’ (Once I Was An Eagle, Virgin).
I then switched back to the Cantata via Ethernet, initially taking the traditional route and going through a network switch and this brought with it better low end power and a very slight coarsening of the sound but not so much as to undermine the entertainment factor which was very high with Frank Zappa’s San Berdino (One Size Fits All, Zappa). Moving over to the N1A’s dedicated ‘player’ Ethernet connection adds space, low level resolution and a very similar level of resolution to the USB route, in fact it suited my system rather better. There is better leading edge definition and seemingly less between you and the source, USB sounds sweeter but less revealing although it’s easy to hear why some might prefer that approach. Either way the level of transparency is in another league to that I have encountered with streaming servers in the past, it’s one of those rare components that makes you feel as if the truth is within your grasp. The mythical absolute sound is just a whisker away!
Could it be improved? Presumably the answer is yes otherwise there wouldn’t be a six grand solid state product in the range. But for the money it gets you closer than most of the alternatives, the CAD CAT (a turbocharged PC) is similar but costs a lot more, and there are undoubtedly some pretty slick PC based alternatives around but I doubt that any could make serious gains on this Melco. The fact that the USB side can’t accept different drivers is a fly in the ointment and you should check that the USB DAC you wish to use is compatible. It doesn’t rip discs like most of the audio oriented competition but given that this can be done to a high standard on a PC that’s less of an issue.
What counts is the degree of realism that it can bring to Jeff Beck’s most recent recording of Goodbye Pork Pie Hat/Brush with the Blues (Performing this Week… Live at Ronnie Scott’s Eagle) which is simply mind boggling. Drop this at a proper level and you have Sir Jeff in the room playing for you, it doesn’t get much better!