Melco shook up my reference system last year when they leant me an N1A music server with USB as well as a direct Ethernet output, a spinning disc hard drive with linear power supplies that meant I no longer needed a network switch in the system. Having both outputs from the one device means it’s possible to use it as the music source with a network streamer or a regular USB input equipped DAC. The competition at the time offered a single Ethernet connection that meant signals had to be routed through a network switch, some had a digital output but not much in the way of control software that could be run on a tablet. Melco was and remains dependent on third party control apps but these are not hard to come by and some, like Audionet MM and Bubble UPnP, work very well. Melco is working on its own app I’m told but I wouldn’t hold your breath because they are clearly focussing their efforts on broadening their range of servers.
The N1ZH is the mid price option in the range at around half the price of the SSD equipped N1ZS. It runs HDD spinning drives with 6TB of storage space but has higher quality casework and rather more serious power supplies than the entry level N1A. Its compact shape is a reflects the fact that it was designed to work with Linn streamers, a product that had a problem on the Japanese market where the idea of using a computer peripheral in an audio system, or for that matter running it on a network, was and to a large extent still is an anathema. Buffalo started building the Melco range because of this resistance and some dedicated enthusiasts run it on a closed network in order to avoid the potential of a general use network to pollute the signal. This approach makes operation less straight forward but you have to admire its purism.
While you can use a regular NAS drive in a network audio system they are highly compromised devices that emit large amounts of electrical noise that audibly distorts audio signals. They are universally run on switched mode power supplies, and while these can be replaced with linear types the fact that they are built for speed rather than electrical quietness of operation undermines their audio potential. An audio server does not need to be fast, its job in computational terms is easy, so the Melco servers do not make very good NAS drives in the wider sense. Instead they are built for minimum noise rather like a preamplifier or CD player, and this is why the main internal difference between the N1ZH and N1A is a power supply difference. Power supplies are the lifeblood of any piece of electronics, the quieter they are in electrical terms the lower the distortion of the signal they amplify or process. The power supply is what differentiates most active audio components.
The Melco range has been updated so that you can attach a peripheral disc drive for both importing and real-time playback of CDs, this connects to one of the three USB ports on the back. These drives can be as inexpensive as £20 although Melco recommends Blu-Ray drives because their ultra violet laser is significantly more accurate than conventional red lasers and results in better sound quality. However, being computer peripherals they are powered by switch mode supplies which is ‘a bad thing’, so Melco will be producing its own disc drive with linear PSU early next year. Being high speed devices they do multi pass disc scanning that is said to result in bit perfect imports. The default format is uncompressed FLAC, which results in a large file size like WAV but with the advantage of portable metadata. You can use WAV or compressed FLAC if preferred. When used as a CD player you get a CD style display on the Melco but accessing the controls requires that you to delve down into the menu. A software update is due that will make accessing play, stop etc easier.
The Melco N1 models can download directly from the HighRes Audio site (a German online retailer) once you have linked it to your account, which means that if you purchase an album from HighRes the Melco will import it into the library without the need to involve a computer. It doesn’t offer direct access to music services such as Tidal or Qobuz but with an app like Bubble UPnP (android only) it’s possible to route these and other services through the N1ZH and achieve the same result but with greater flexibility and future proofing.
As per the N1A you can use this server with a network streamer by connecting Ethernet to its dedicated RJ45 output or take a digital signal out of the USB output and connect it to a digital to analogue converter, the majority of my listening was done in the latter mode with a Primare DAC30 and Vertere HB USB cable. But I also used it with an Auralic Aries Mini streamer, see review.
Changing the guard
The sonic difference between the N1A and N1ZH is space, the acoustic space or simulation thereof in a recording. Reverberation, echo, 'air', it has many names but whatever you call it the N1ZH can extract it from a recording with greater ease than most digital servers. It has to do with lower noise which manifests as cleaner treble, space is for the most part defined by high frequencies, reflections of treble sounds map out a space and define its reverberation time, effectively defining it's size in the process. You need a large room to reproduce very low frequencies but a good loudspeaker can present high frequency information in any space. It's lovely to hear so much space in well known recordings, the vibrancy and air on Ross Hammond and Sameer Gupta's Upward is a good example. These musicians play acoustic guitar and tabla and the recording is anything but high end, more likely it was made with a digital recorder in a regular room, because you can hear the space in the harmonics and reverb of the instruments. You can also hear the lo-fi in the less than pristine treble, as we well know you need a well thought out power supply to get sweet highs out of a digital system be it a recorder or player. But the Melco doesn’t let that undermine the performance which remains as entrancing and real as ever.
Doug Macleod's ‘Too Many Misses’ was captured by someone who fully appreciates the importance of power supplies, Keith O Johnson of Reference Recordings. So the highs are smooth as silk, with a polish that you only get with very clean electronics, and image depth that's to die for. On Joni Mitchell and Herbie Hancock's ‘The Man I Love’ (Gershwin’s World) the singer is placed clearly in front of the piano and both sound very solid and real in the room. The drums and sax that accompany them are soft but not blurred, just smoothly played and totally vibrant in an understated way. There is a danger with polished sounding systems that they lack energy and attack, and sometimes when you compare the N1A with the N1Z this appears to be the case, but further listening reveals that what has disappeared is distortion. That's the problem with distortion, it doesn't necessarily sound bad, it can be euphonic and add something appealing to the sound. But once you get rid of it there is more variety in the music, greater subtleties come to the surface and it's possible to immerse yourself more fully. The Japanese are renowned for their preference for what can seem like an over refined sound but I suspect that this is because their products are used out of context in systems that don’t reveal the full transparency that this approach produces. A gritty, punchy component sounds good in a system that’s not too revealing but emphasizes dynamics or timing, but once you have a low distortion, high resolution system those shortcomings will be obvious.
Playing the first movement of Beethoven's 7th Symphony the openness, clarity and dynamics revealed when the N1ZH is connected to a CAD 1543 MkII DAC is astonishing. This is a great DAC but you need a server of this quality to make that so patently obvious, this track is much more vibrant and colourful than I realised, and it has sense of musical flow that is compelling, it really brings the drama back to the music. You get a degree of stereo solidity that makes other servers sound flat by comparison, the space it creates allowing instruments and voices to expand both side to side and back to front. It's also excellent at delivering presence, the tabla on Bugge Wesseltoft's ‘Sharanagati’ is so precise on tempo, neither fast nor lazy but neutral. It doesn’t have as much immediacy as some might crave and wouldn’t suite a Naim system as well as that brand’s own servers, but it is appealingly relaxed and rather better at defining imagery. A track like ‘Bermuda Blues’ (Henry Threadgill Sextet) has a real presence in the room and no shortage of controlled energy, the kick drum producing lovely low end with clear shape and reverb. The trumpet sounds fabulous, clear and bright but not hard.
Playing CDs on the attached drive delivers a bit more edge and drive, it’s not as clean but is surprisingly engaging so long as the material isn’t too challenging. It was easy to enjoy Tom Waits’ Swordfishtrombones but Kamasi Washington’s rather more dense The Epic proved far more accessible when played from the HDD.
The Melco N1Z is a lovely piece of kit, very well built and thoroughly thought out, all it needs is a dedicated control app to make it irresistible to those after a genuinely refined digital audio experience. The option to add a peripheral disc drive means that you can import a CD library without resorting to the computer and the dedicated USB output negates the need for a network streamer. All in all a very fine piece of kit indeed, I want one!