The BBC runs a very popular police drama called Line of Duty, the latest season of which is currently being broadcast on Sunday nights. One of the most common comments on-line and in the press about this gripping series concerns the barrage of acronyms and abbreviations threaded through the dialogue. My theory is that the writer, Jed Mercurio, just likes to keep the audience on its mental toes – it’s a bit like trying to solve a cryptic crossword puzzle. So what, I hear you ask, has this possibly got to to do with a hi-fi review? Well, I am currently looking at the cover of the user manual for the Novafidelity N25 streamer/DAC/tuner and it proudly lists, by my count, 21 acronyms or initials to show what a versatile thing this is. I am not sure whether to be impressed or intimidated.
Let us now turn to the device itself. First impressions when unpacking it are very positive. It looks well made and there is no doubting the quality of the various input and output sockets. This version is finished in a matt black, so looked right at home on my rack, silver is also an option. Having placed the N25 on the shelf, I attached a power cable, an ethernet cable running back to my DLink switch and a digital coax cable out to my Lyngdorf TDAI 3400 integrated amp. The N25 is supplied with two ribbon aerials, one for FM and one for DAB. They are clearly labelled. I selected and fitted the DAB option. I also attached the stubby Bluetooth antenna, although it was only as I was packing the N25 away that I realised I didn’t get to use it. However, based on the rest of my experience I am sure the Bluetooth unit is well conceived and well executed.
The fascia is well supplied with knobs and buttons and a green power LED, with the centre being taken over by a rectangular LCD colour screen. There is also a very comprehensive remote supplied with the N25, although in practice I found that in my usage at least, I really only used the remote to switch the unit on and off, my primary interface was through Novafidelity control app, called Music X Neo. Once I had gone through the straightforward set up process for the N25, I decided to let it warm up with a playlist from Qobuz.
To be honest, it really did not take more than a few minutes for me to realise that what I had here was an extremely musical player. My plan to potter about doing other chores while the N25 settled in was quickly revised and I spent the rest of my first day exploring its various capabilities. As those of you who have read my previous reviews will know, when it comes to music replay preferences I am definitely a child of my generation. My first choice for ‘serious’ listening (does anyone do frivolous listening?(yes; teenagers, the carefree, regular folk etc – Ed)) is usually vinyl. I have been buying records for well over half a century and for all the foibles and shortcomings of the medium I still love them – the ceremony of selecting one, removing it from the inner and outer sleeve, lowering the arm on the turntable and settling back to listen is so natural to me. I love the artwork and the legible sleeve notes of records too. I am also the owner of far too many SACDs and regular CDs, and from time to time I will have a listening day dedicated to those smaller discs, or even to WAV files ripped from them on my Naim UnitiServe.
However, even an old dinosaur like me has to admit that streaming music has now come on so far that if I was staring out afresh, I would probably eschew any of the physical media and concentrate on getting the best sounding digital source and replay system that I could afford. In that context, the N25 makes an extremely compelling case for itself. I have subscriptions with Qobuz and Tidal and between those services I have access to an almost infinite library of music. Through the N25 even the humble 16/44 CD quality files came through sounding really musical and engaging, while the higher resolution files sounded as good as I can ever imagine wanting to hear them. If your preference is for one of the other streaming services like Spotify or Deezer, the N25 also has you covered.
Switching to DAB radio, I found the N25 easy to use for navigation through the myriad stations available and the replay of human voices from BBC Radio Four came through my Harbeth C7ESXD loudspeakers with all the realism that we rightly expect from a speaker with its roots in that organisation. The N25 locked on to the signal and did a fine job in resolving all the detail and subtlety that the studio technicians had intended me to hear.
I know that amongst some audio folk DAB is not highly regarded so I switched out the DAB antenna and attached its FM counterpart. I listened to the four main BBC networks and yes I agree, FM does still have sonic edge. There is almost analogy between switching from a record to a CD when going between FM and DAB – the analogue sources still sound preferable to my ears, but we are talking about subtle differences, not night and day ones. If I was the owner of the N25 I would actually invest in proper roof mounted antenna, because I think any of the (slight) reservations I had about the sound from the radio were probably related to this side of the equation.
The UPnP capabilities of the N25 are also exemplary. It found my UnitiServe right away as well as my two NAS drives, and using them through the excellent Neo X Music app was very easy. Playing ripped WAV files created by the first generation Naim ripping engine was a pleasure. I have only had the N25 in my system for a relatively short period of time, but I have thoroughly enjoyed it. I don’t use a Windows laptop as a source (in fact I don’t use a Windows laptop at all) but if you do, the N25 is clearly designed for you. The user manual gives over most of its pages to how to use it in that context, and it seems extremely well thought through. The front LED screen is not something that I find terribly useful. It displays the artwork of the album being played and the graphics are sharp, but from my listening seat I didn’t find it helpful or necessary. Most manufacturers include a screen like this so I understand why Novafidelity’s designers decided to do so, but in my set up it added little value to my user experience.
During the review period it would have been remiss of me not to have also used the N25 as a DAC, with analogue outputs to my amplifier, and rest assured I did that too. Using a pair of Tellurium Q Silver Diamond RCA interconnects, I attached it to the analogue inputs on the Lyngdorf. I also switched the optical cable from the television from the Lyngdorf to the N25. The latter proved to be an excellent performer in this mode too. Regular readers will know that I am a big fan of the Lyngdorf, so when I say that the N25 sounded as good, you will know that is high praise indeed.
Given that the N25 is clearly a highly accomplished streaming device, the last piece of my review was to try it with the Networks Acoustic ENO replacing the well-regarded ethernet cable. Suddenly the N25 went from being a highly enjoyable listen to a compelling one. What I will say was that using it with the N25 simply confirmed for me what an extraordinary bit of kit it is and well worth considering as a way to lift the performance of any streaming device to another level. It is clearly good enough to deserve the best connections that the user can afford.
Let me finish by returning to the front page of the N25 user manual, home to that alphabet soup of acronyms. It transpires that it is simply tech-speak for ‘this thing will sound excellent with whatever you throw at it’. At the very top of that same front page is a bright red banner, which proclaims proudly “The most advanced Network Audio Player in the world”. Clearly I have only a heard a handful of the players available so I can neither confirm or deny the claim. What I will say is that if there is a better player out there, it must be very special indeed.