When it comes to the bleeding edge of digital audio file streaming is where it’s at and servers are the most important part of the system, they are after all the source. We have had DACs for long enough now that progress is incremental, even streamers, which lest it be forgotten come from the low fi but tech driven world of custom installation, are advancing at a restrained pace. Now that those two elements are revealing so much it is becoming apparent that the server is the most important element in the digital replay chain.
Digital streaming started out with computer NAS drives, these provide inexpensive storage and network access but are compromised in many respects when it comes to providing a clean, low noise data stream. You can improve NAS drives with better power supplies but ultimately they are designed for high speed data supply which is the opposite of what’s required in audio. Melco from Japan, a division of Buffalo Technology, was one of the first to recognise that the server is the weak point in streaming systems and started manufacturing its N1 series in 2012. I reviewed N1A in 2015 and was so impressed that I ended up buying one to use as a reference, it’s still going strong despite heavy usage in all sorts of set ups.
The N1ZS/2A is the company’s latest and best model, it inhabits a smaller chassis than the N1A but no stone has been left unturned in the quest to make it the best server that Melco can produce. Capacity is relatively low at 2TB, this is provided by single SSD drive which is considered by most to be the best approach for sound quality, but it does mean that those with large music collections will probably need some kind of expansion. Last year Melco announced to peripheral products for its servers, an expansion drive called E100 containing a 3TB HDD and in-house circuitry not to mention a nice case, and the D100 optical disc drive with which you can import CDs onto the server. Melco had modified its software so that some peripheral disc drives could be used for this purpose but built the D100 in order to do the job as well as possible and to provide an answer to competing servers that have onboard rippers.
Being the top dog in Melco’s roster the N1ZS/2A incorporates some serious technology in its quest to deliver maximum resolution from stored files. A lot of attention has been paid to the SSD itself which is more like a bundle of flash drives than an IT SSD because the latter are designed for speed and multiple overwrites, neither of which are relevant to music streaming. The drive is protected by a heavy brass non-magnetic foundation and a non-magnetic stainless shield cover, it naturally has its own dedicated power supply, probably the most crucial part of the whole machine. A lot of work has gone into reducing noise in the series two N1 range and that’s doubly the case here, with two medical grade power supplies using film capacitors, a luxury only afforded to high end electronics. Melco have also revised their firmware with new processing logic designed to maximise data retrieval. The data can be output by two routes, a direct ethernet connection for network streamers or a dedicated Neutrik USB port for DACs. The former means you don’t need a network switch in the system just a link to the router for control purposes, which removes a major source of noise from the network.
D100 disc drive, blossom optional
One of Melco’s original aims was to build a server that didn’t require any form of computer interface, so the display and buttons on the front panel allow all the operations you are likely to need including software updates, importing music from USB and controlling an external disc drive. You can of course use a computer to load existing files onto the N1ZS/2A and this is probably the easiest approach, but it’s appealing that you don’t need to. The server software installed is Twonky Media which is extremely stable and reliable, there are those that prefer alternatives like Minim and it’s possible to use this instead but I have never felt the need. One thing I particularly like about Melcos is that they don’t try to organise your library for you, experience with other systems that require complete metadata in order to display the library as you expect it has made me appreciate the simplicity of this arrangement. You can just dump your library into the Music folder provided and it will come up on your control app of choice.
If you are playing directly from the Melco via its USB output you currently need to use a third party app to control what you play, I use Audionet MMS but it’s also compatible with Bubble UPnP and the Linn control apps. However, Melco plan to launch their own control app before the end of the year, probably in the autumn. At present the Melco servers are not Roon compatible but there is a big update coming that will not only let them operate as Roon endpoints but also incorporates SongKong software which is designed to sort out metadata issues (how this will affect the current ease of loading remains to be seen). SongKong is tremendously powerful and flexible software that currently exists for sorting out libraries with a PC and is particularly good for dealing with the extra complexities of classical releases. Its sheer flexibility makes it tricky to get started with however so it is genuinely exciting that Melco are incorporating it into their machines.
Initial listening was done with the Naim Uniti Novausing a direct ethernet connection, a combination that made it clear that this is a very high resolution server with a sense of immediacy that is stunning. Speed is what makes music sound real, an electric guitar and speaker/amp combo has a raw immediacy that is hard to match, but this Melco allows you to get closer to it than most. Its balance seems to be on the lean side with many DACs and this would help the sense of speed, but I also experienced the opposite with a particularly revealing active DSP speaker system from Kii Audio, so it’s hard to say whether the N1ZS/2A has any character of its own or if it’s a case of hearing more of the DAC, amp and speakers when it’s providing the signal. The result with the Kii Three was particularly spectacular, this is one of the most revealing DAC/amp/speaker combinations I have ever heard and with a direct connection to the USB output on the Melco it was truly revelatory. Very well worn pieces of music offered up new details and not just nuances, sometimes words that had always been vague became clear. It actually made Thom Yorke (Radiohead) sound clear, something I have not previously encountered on any system.
A more conventional set up using the USB output connected to a Chord DAVE DAC produces an unusually open sound for digital with good brightness and nice even timing on Micheal Wollny Trio’s ‘Big Louise’, here the piano literally shimmers while the bass of the drums and double bass has a power and expansiveness that is rare. A Vivaldi piece played on original instruments, ‘Bellezza Crudel’ (Tone Wik, Barokkanerne, 2L) sounded extremely refined and subtle, not as exuberant as it can but full of minutiae that gave the instruments a realistic timbre. Saying that this is a quick or immediate server doesn’t mean that it’s hurried, almost the opposite in fact, it means that notes stop and start precisely when they should which leaves space for the reverb to be exposed right down to the lowest level. You also get big differences between recordings with the N1ZS/2A, always a good sign of neutrality and transparency. Van Morrison’s ‘The Way Young Lovers Do’ is a little on the thin side but it’s very compelling musically, and ‘Slim Slow Slider’ from the same album (Astral Weeks) is nothing short of magical in its emotional impact thanks to the way the Melco trawls so much detail from the depths of the recording.
Used with an Auralic G2 Aries streamer and the same Chord DAVE DAC playing Radiohead once more results in a smoother version of events but even greater musical engagement, with a stronger sense of presence. The sound being more open than some of the competition and delivering fine detail in spades, ‘Decks Dark’ has plenty of deliberate distortion on it but this does not get in the way, if anything the Melco’s ability to separate the various elements makes it easier to understand what the musicians are trying to communicate. It certainly makes you listen longer and the way that depth is rendered is particularly effective.
Going back to a direct USB connection this time to the CAD 1543 MkII DAC makes a good case for this non-oversampling, multibit converter. Here the snare drum on Alfa Mist’s ‘Keep On’ is very convincing indeed and the tonal colour of the organ and bass are given full rein. This proved to be compulsive listening thanks to the quality of hardware and music, those guys know how to lay down a righteous groove. With extended listening you get the impression that this server adds nothing and takes nothing away, it delivers the signal in a neutral and comprehensive fashion. This means that you don’t get the boom and tizz of servers that have been tuned to sound impressive, instead you get something extremely close to what the artist and engineer heard in the studio, loudspeakers allowing. With high res material and DSD files this is even more obvious, the low noise floor of a serious server for means they can’t be beaten when it comes to making the best of higher resolution formats. This Melco reiterates just how important the source is in a digital system, by reducing the various sources of distortion that corrupt data it delivers such a comprehensively rich and detailed bitstream that the results with a good DAC or streamer are astonishing. It leaves computer audio sources in the dust and brings an ease of use that makes listening to great music a more entertaining experience than you might imagine is possible with digital audio.