Melco N1A High Resolution Digital Music Library

Device Type: Network Player/NAS
Input: 2x Ethernet, 2x USB 3.0, USB 2.0
Output: Ethernet, USB
Dimensions: 436x70x352 mm (17.2 x 2.8 x 13.9 inches)
Weight: 7kg (15.5 pounds)
Availability: Authorized Dealers
Price:$1999
Website: melco-audio.com

Let's Talk Melco
Did you know that Buffalo Inc., makers of Wireless routers, Ethernet Data Switches and storage devices including NAS drives (and much more) began as a hi-fi company called Melco (Maki Engineering Laboratory COmpany)? Makoto Maki started up his company in Japan in 1975 "to design and manufacture the finest audio components of the time". Today Melco Holdings Inc., the parent company of Buffalo Inc. and 13 others including Melco, is the largest computer peripherals manufacturer in Japan.

Melco's flagship product back in the day was their 3560 Turntable Sytem which is similar in approach to the original Platine Verdier 'table from the 1970's. Melco, the audio company, was put on hold in order to build Melco Holdings Inc. only to be reintroduced as a networked audio component manufacturer, combing Maki-sans hi-fi roots with the Holding company's high tech, R&D, and manufacturing chops. I love that story.

The Melco N1A High Resolution Digital Music Library can function as a music server or a NAS directly feeding your network player of choice. There are two Ethernet ports on the N1A's backside labelled LAN and Player. The LAN Ethernet port connects to your network (router, switch, or hub) making the N1A's internal 4TB of storage available to network-attached devices including computers and network players. The Player port connects directly to your network player of choice. While in Player mode, the N1A acts as a DHCP server and assigns an IP address to your network player. In Player mode, you cannot connect to the N1A from your computer or copy files to its internal storage via Ethernet. The company recommends using the unit's USB for that purpose.

The N1A's 4TBs of internal storage comes courtesy of two 2TB Hard Disk Drives (HDD). The company's flagship N1Z sports "Audio Grade SSD (512 GB x2)". In addition to the 2 Ethernet ports on the unit's back panel, there are 3 USB 3.0 ports; one labelled "USB 3.0" for importing music from external USB storage, another labelled "Expansion" for adding additional USB storage if 4TBs is not enough, and one labelled "Backup" for backing up all your Melco music and data to an external USB storage device. Any of these USB ports can also be used to connect to an external DAC. Finishing out the rear panel is an IEC inlet for the included power cord.

Up front from left to right is the on/off switch (the boot process takes about 20 seconds), a USB 2.0 port for playing music from connected USB storage devices, the display panel (shows status and settings), and four buttons for scrolling through the unit's menu commands (Back, Enter, Scroll Down, Scroll Up). Everything that lights up on the N1A including the front display and every LED can be dimmed of shut off. Firmware updates are handled over Ethernet. The N1A's chassis is made of metal while the front panel is a nice chunk of aluminum and I find the overall look and feel to be sturdy and workman-like. No nonsense, bottom of the rack looks.

Setting up the N1A and getting music into it was a breeze. You can get the skinny on all that and more in the N1A manual including the gazillion possible tiny icons that show up on the unit's display depending on the gazillion possible playback options.

Melco has also gone to some lengths to keep noise out of the data path. These include a separate and isolated power supply for the light-piped LAN ports, which offer complete electrical isolation (ALT Series Pulse Transformers from TDK are employed). The N1A also re-clocks all incoming data (using NDK's ultra-low-jitter clock) before sending it on its way.

The N1A runs on Twonky 7 and supports all file formats as well as PCM resolutions up to 24-bit/384kHz and DSD (5.6MHz at present and will be extended to 11.2MHz). It will also convert DSD to PCM for USB connected DACs if your DAC doesn't dig DSD (this option is not available via Ethernet streaming). If you want to play DSD files via DoP over Ethernet, the company recommends installing MinimServer on the N1A. There's also a Downloader app that allows you download music you've purchased from HIGHRESAUDIO.com and OTOTOY.jp directly from the N1A. The 4TBs of internal HDD storage comes configured as one big Spanned drive but you can also format yours as a RAID 0 or RAID 1 array right from the front panel controls. I would just keep it as one big drive and use an external USB drive(s) as backup.

Let's talk a bit more about the different modes of operation before we get into the listening. If you plan to use the N1A as a server with internal storage connected to your USB DAC, the company recommends PlugPlayer for iOS devices as the control point/control app. Of course, I wish the N1A was Roon'd so I'll keep my fingers crossed on that count. PlugPlayer, like every other cheap or free app, offers serviceable performance and features, imo. It does the job, albeit in a down and dirty way especially when you've been spoiled by Roon.

If you go with Player mode, you'll obviously use your network player of choice. One (big) issue is you cannot use your remote app to control playback when in Player mode since the network player is no longer connected to the network.

Correction from Melco:
The Player / Streamer / Renderer control app works as normal – it is connecting to the Router / Access point. That is connected to the LAN port of the N1.

The Streamer connects to the player port and the control passes from the LAN port to the PLAYER port and then to the Streamer.

Melco'd
Let's get the easy part out of the way. The Melco N1A buffaloed my MacBook Pro + Synology NAS. It destroyed them, embarrassed them, and gave them a good schooling to boot. Music sounded frighteningly obviously comparatively more refined, more spacious, and more natural. End of story. I cannot imagine anyone in this universe who listens to music as an activity unto itself making the same comparison and not hearing the difference.

You can obviously torture yourself, and everyone else, by trying to suss out the logical pieces of this better-sounding puzzle. Is it X? Or Y? Or XYZ and ABC? From my way of thinking, unless you plan on building your own, why fret? The proof is in the listening. I listened to the Melco as server using a number of DACs including my reference Auralic Vega and the Metrum Musette and the differences noted were clear regardless of who was converting my bits.

I also used the Melco's storage feeding the T+A MP 2000 R network player which allowed me to do a few things. I could easily switch from serving up my music via the Melco, the review sample Antipodes DS server, and my NAS (Synology or QNAP). I also used the Melco in Player mode which I'll talk about in a minute. In order of sonic preference, I'd say the Melco nudged out the Antipodes DS, which is quite a feat seeing as the Antipodes is no slouch in terms of sound. With the Melco, music was that much more crisp, refined, and natural sounding. While the Antipodes does things the Melco doesn't (it has an on on board DAC for one), which we'll talk about in more detail in the upcoming Antipodes review, the Melco comes in at $1,500 less than the DS' price tag. Can you spell Buffalo Inc.? How about Melco Holdings Inc.

Compared to either NAS, the Melco pretty much creamed them too, albeit not to the same extent as the MacBook/NAS. Music just opens up more, sings out more truly, allowing you to get into it that much more. Everything from solo violin, OK I really got into Bach's Complete Sonatas and Partitas for Solo Voilin as performed by Arthur Grumiaux. I also danced to Tom Waits and The Birthday Party, grooved to the US Girls' latest Half Free, and got all down and funky with Fille Qui Mousse. Jazz sounded jazzier with Cecil McBee and Jacques Coursil sounding more solid, weighty, and life-like. The Melco N1A stripped away layers of digital's nastier stuff including harshness, flatness, and unnaturalness, which equals niceness.

Using the Melco in Player mode with the T+A doing player duties offered better performance than doing pretty much the same over my network. If I were to hazard, and I do mean hazard, a guess as to why this was the case, I'd throw noise out there as one potential reason. But again, let's not fret over theories and instead revel in the pleasures of listening. Player mode delivered the most appealing sonic goods, no doubt. But, and it's a big but, I can't live without a real GUI interface to my music. Turning knobs or tapping next on a remote is no way to browse a thousand plus album library for this music lover. I could see this kind of behavior leading to some new twitch, like a baseball player at bat waiting for the next pitch.

"Other than humans, African Cape buffaloes have few predators aside from lions and are capable of defending themselves." Wikipedia
If it was me, and it is for now, and I had the Melco N1A, I'd rid myself of all NAS and hook the N1A up to my DAC of choice via USB—when and if the Melco implements Roon as their control app. I cannot live without Tidal HiFi integration and I've come to rely on Roon for much more than that. That said, if I was looking for a server with 4TB of internal storage, or a similarly equipped NAS to feed my favorite network player, or all of the above, I'd move the Melco N1A to my must audition list, pronto. In my experience, its price-performance one-two punch makes it hard to beat.


Associated Equipment

Also in-use during the N1A review: Antipodes DS

COMMENTS
CG's picture

Wow...

Wonder what the N1Z is like.

Michael Lavorgna's picture
...is not coming into the USA due to "licensing" issues.
CG's picture

Hmmm... That's very intriguing.

Michael Lavorgna's picture
;-)
fritzg's picture

Are the hard drives upgradeable?

Michael Lavorgna's picture
.
mtymous1's picture

...it costs $2K and doesn't have a single DAC chip??? Am not claiming to be an EE, but I find it incredulous that a considerable portion of the cost is attributed to isolating throughput from EMI (which is probably negligible).

As a media server and HTPC DIY'er, you can certainly build something comparable for WAY less, that has many more features.

CG's picture

You might not be able to build something comparable.

Can you find a suitable motherboard with the right level of EMI control features? Usually, motherboards and other computer hardware are built around feature set, processing performance, and low cost. EMI and other noise aspects are reduced just enough to pass FCC and other regulatory tests while keeping costs down. Those may or may not be adequate for high performance audio reproduction.

Since relatively fewer want low noise performance, it costs more - simple economics. The price of a suitable filter here, extra PC board trace layers there, and so on adds up, not to mention the additional amount of development resources that goes into lower noise design.

As you expressed yourself, many if not most customers for computer components are skeptical over the benefits of a low noise approach, so it isn't highly valued in the mass market. Certainly not like faster graphics performance or more features.

(Note: I am claiming to be a EE who has to deal with such things on a daily basis. No, not PC motherboards for DIYers, but complex designs for telecommunications use...)

mtymous1's picture

Apparently GIGABYTE uses something called USB DAC-Up which "...provides clean, noise-free power delivery to your Digital-to-Analog Converter. DACs can be sensitive to fluctuations in power from the other USB ports, which is why GIGABYTE USB DAC-Up takes advantage of an isolated power source that minimizes potential fluctuations and ensures the best audio experience possible."

GIGABYTE USB DAC-Up also allows the port to be configured in BIOS for enthusiast system configurations which do not require USB power to the DAC. This makes it suitable for high-end audio enthusiasts building extreme fidelity audio systems."

That said, if the overarching intent behind the Melco's design is to provide clean throughput to a DAC, wouldn't such a mobo plus a USB add-on like the UpTone Audio USB REGEN or the AudioQuest JitterBug suffice?

Check it out and let me know what the EE thinks:
http://www.gigabyte.com/products/product-page.aspx?pid=4485#ov

CG's picture

They certainly feature enough "audio" oriented components, don't they?

No idea how well it works.

Clean power is but one necessity. If it was the entire solution then the dedicated power supplies for DACs would banish the problem, wouldn't they?

As good as they are, the Jitter Bug and the Regen really are filters in a very broad sense. That's really helpful, but isn't quite the same as not generating the noise - broad definition of noise - in the first place. But, external measures are often the best one can do.

BSO's picture

I agree you can build something less yourself. I can too but I don't want to - I like listening to music, writing for money, playing music and other hobbies. When I was a wee lad, people who couldn't afford Fisher or Marantz or were just hobbyists were buying Heathkits , Harmon-Kardon kits and so on - get out the soldering iron! Like ham radio. For cheap, I like USB sticks myself that I insert in my OPPO 105.
I think was Melco has done is put together a low-noise system for storage that has h-speed Ethernet, USB3.0 and 2.0. So it is a purpose-built server - it has plenty of bandwidth, capacity, low-noise features and you can store 192/24 or DXD/DSD files on it.

DACs are always increasing in power so unless you have a socket for the chips your DAC will soon become "obsolete". Even that doesn't assure STOA - Example: Intel changes its CPU sockets every generation or so. Throw this MQA into the mix (does it need a hardware or not? Yes but...) and these decoder rings are changing rapidly.

hltf's picture

Michael:

You say the Melco nudged out the Antipodes DS. How about the DX which you wrote about some time ago. Is the DS significantly below the DX? Presumably the Melco would be behind the DX?

I have to say the range of choices in the server/streamer space is expanding rapidly and I am more than a little confused as I start to think about moving from my MacMini to one of the following:
(1) Melco N1A with Berkeley USB
(2) Sonore Signature Rendu with external NAS perhaps powered by something like Uptone JS-2
(3) MacMini with all the Uptone upgrades - fan controller, DC conversion, JS-2 power supply, Regen (which I already have) going into Berkeley USB and perhaps NAS also eventually powered by JS-2.

I have been told that powering a NAS with Uptone's JS-2 has a very positive impact on sound quality - almost as much as powering a MacMini with a JS-2. Then I see that Melco's N1Z (which you didn't write about yet) powers the streamer section and the storage section with separate power supplies, while the N1A powers both sections with a single PS unit. So this makes me wonder whether a modular approach such as the MacMini with the various Uptone bits and bobs is the best. The advantage of a modular approach would seem to be that it would allow modular upgrades as things evolve.

Wonder if you have any thoughts on this...

Thank you

Michael Lavorgna's picture
I'd need to have the DX here in order to offer a comparison with any real value.

In terms of a general approach, I'd recommend putting the bulk of my digital budget into the DAC. Next, it has been my experience that a purpose-built server or streamer can outperform a standard computer. If it was me, I'd go with a purpose-server since it eliminates lots of unnecessary and potentially sonically degrading variables.

For me, the control app, whether we're talking about a server or streamer, is also an important part of the happy-to-use-it equation. This is why I'm very much looking forward to Roon implementation in devices like the Melco, when/if that time comes.

CG's picture

The variables certainly are the killers. Components like the Jitter Bug and the others do their best to address that problem, but it's really a moving or vague target with each system being a little different.

fritzg's picture

Yep. Can an end user swap out the hard drives?

Paul E.'s picture

Unfortunately the entry price for Antipods was enough to scare me away if Melco was available I would've considered it but instead I took a Dell desktop that I already had with a 240 GB SSD drive and a 3 TB SATA drive, all I had to do was upgrade the audio card to a Asus Xonar STX2 which has a built in DAC, cost me not even $300, loaded up files and connect it to my Pre/Pro with optical cable and I'm very happy with the sound, it's not as pretty as a Melco or Antipod but does a great job.

Michael Lavorgna's picture
...is the name of the game.

This category of products is no different than any other. You can buy an external DAC for $50 or $30,000+. Either one will do the job.

mtymous1's picture

...complete with specs and measurements is located here: http://www.stereophile.com/computeraudio/asus_xonar_essence_ststx_soundc...

I wonder how the STX2 stacks up against its predecessor.

mtymous1's picture

Paul E.: have you ever tweaked the STX II's op amps? If so, would like to hear about your findings.

A thread was started over on Stereophile:
http://www.stereophile.com/content/asus-xonar-dgx.

Paul E.'s picture

I haven't swapped out Op Amps, I'm very happy with the current set-up and it's so convenient, although I did replace the power supply for a more robust and quieter one at a nominal cost

hltf's picture

Definiitely very helpful response. Thanks Michael. Sounds like Melco is the way to go.

I'm also curious, are either the Jitterbugs or the Uptone USB Regen still helpful with the N1A?

ctsooner@alumni.ou.edu's picture

I have an Empirical Audio OSDE/SE with a purpose built Mac Mini with Paul Haynes LPS that Steven Nugent of Empirical built for himself. It'd loaded with all hi res on his internal SSD drives he installed. The unit is stripped down of everything and runs Amara. The sound is very very good, however it's now beaten by the Aurender N10 which I've been looking into. I noticed the Melco recently (before this review) and have spoken to Audio Connections about getting them in. The owner knew all about the company from years ago and has spoken with Melco. Looks like they are ramping a dealer network, which to me is important.

It sounds like this would be the perfect product for me as I've been pricing out the new Qnap audio NAS that's pretty powerful etc. I'm running a Linn Kiko in my bedroom and want to go the NAS route. I am trying to learn, so bear with me please. Can I use the N!A connected to my Empirical DAC via usb in my main system and then plug it into my ethernet connection to use it as a NAS for my Kiko also? Can I still use Tidal on it even though it doesn't support Roon yet? (I am still trying to learn about Roon and don't have it). Heck, I just signed up for Tidal yesterday for my Kiko and it sounds promising.

Thanks and sorry for being late to the party, but I have MS and my cognitive is off at times and it's not as easy learning this stuff, lol.

ElBusteros's picture

Great review Michael, many thanks!

Your review prompted me to pay a visit to my local HiFi dealer here in the UK, and I managed to get the N1A for a home demo over the Christmas period. Owning a Naim NDX, and having also auditioned an Aurender N100H, I find the Melco to be superior in all aspects, with the Naim streamer sounding "noisy" and less detailed in comparison, and the N100H lacking a bit of bass heft if the truth be told. The Melco was definitely the most musical and enjoyable to listen to of the three.

Using Bubble UPnP as my control point on an Android tablet I managed to stream not only music from my exising NAS drive using the Melco as a renderer, but also from both Qobuz and Tidal with no problems at all. Just wanted to get that out there for anyone who wonders whether this is possible or not. It is, and sounded sublime.

drdkey's picture

I have tried the Aria music server, Aurender N100H and I am currently demoing an Aurender N10. The N10, IMO, leads the pack so far as a replacement for my Mac mini. How does the Melco compare to the Aurender N10? From a price point it would certainly be more tolerable.

Victor Sam's picture

Dear Sir:

I have a Wadia Intuition and I am looking to pair it with a friendly music server, I wonder Melco N1A is a good choice?
Regards
Victor

Gene Parmesan's picture

New member, amateur here (translated, "low knowledge") but am so encouraged by how patient and helpful these strings are - so I'm giving it a shot.

ISSUE: songs skip on a regular basis - sound is okay, but I've had this setup in place for 6+ years - time to solve the skipping and upgrade sound.

Current equipment/setup: DROBO NAS --> Netgear Prosafe 8 port switch --> Mac Mini (Audirvana) --> Musical Fidelity V Link 192 --> Musical Fidelity M1DAC to pre amp (Vincent pre amp and power amp out to Focal Electra 1008 BEs.)

Targeted equipment/setup: Based on lots of reading (understanding half of it), I'd like to consider replacing the Drobo and Mac Mini and adding the Melco N1A NAS, the sonicTransporter and microRendu - but I have the feeling some of these may overlap? I am fine moving over to Roon/Tidal as long as it will read 45k music files off the Melco N1A.

Add'l questions - want to keep the MF M1DAC if possible - will microRendu --> MF V Link 192 --> MF M1DAC work? Make sense? Is M1DAC compatible with the hardware/software we are talking about here? Any need to keep the Mac Mini in the system or get rid of it?

Again, thank you for your patience with the amateur nature of the question above, but it's been a challenge for me to plan the new system only half understanding what each piece does.

Any/all help, suggestions, guidance or even "Just do this, it'll work/sound great!!" is hugely appreciated.