Melco N1A High Resolution Digital Music Library
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
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. For this review, I used the T+A MP 2000 R network player, which offers playback control from its front panel and the included remote.
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.
Also in-use during the N1A review: Antipodes DS