Pioneer Elite N-50 Network Audio Player
Input: (2) 24/192 S/PDIF (Coax, TosLink), 24/192 USB/DAC, 10/100 Ethernet, front-mounted USB-A 2.0 For USB Mass storage (only FAT16 and FAT32 file systems are supported)/iPod/iPhone/iPad digital, optional Bluetooth adaptor, optional Wi-Fi with Wireless LAN converter
Output: (1) pair RCA, (2) S/PDIF (Coax, TosLink)
Dimensions: 435mm W x 99mm H x 330mm D (17 3/16" W x 3 15/16" H x 13" D")
Weight: 7.3kg (16.1 lbs)
Availability: through Authorized Dealers
There's A World Of Music Out There
The Pioneer Elite N-50 is chock full O features meant to submerge you into the growing stream of digital music. And it can let you drink from many sources. You could say the N-50s musical appetites are, as with most like-devices, voracious which is good news since people considering something like a Pioneer N-50 are voracious lovers of music as well. The N-50 also has a few extra musical tricks up its sleeve.
Of equal or greater importance, depending on how you feel about these things, is the N-50s ability to play music in most every instance in such a way as you'd be happy to just go on listening and exploring until, well, until you have to give it back (in my case) or go to bed (also in my case). You can, in fact, play music in so many ways through the Pioneer N-50 you may take some time just floating.
Let's start out by taking a walk through each of the N-50s inputs and outputs and then we'll hit on the main features so you know what you get when you get an N-50.
Rear Panel Outputs
On the straightforward side there are a pair of analog RCAs which is how and where you connect the N-50 to your hi-fi. There is also a pair of S/PDIF outputs (Coax and Toslink) capable of 24-bit/192kHz output just in case you'd like to use an external DAC. The N-50 does not come with Wi-Fi capabilities but you can add it by buying the Pioneer AS-WL300 wireless network adapter ($149) which plugs into the rear "DC Output for Wireless LAN" for power.
Rear Panel Inputs
The N-50 Network Audio Player gets its name mainly from the fact that its got a 10/100 Ethernet port so you can connect it to your home network. What this buys you is the ability to play music files up to 24-bit/192kHz from any UPnP/DLNA network-attached storage device. These can include a computer, a laptop, an external hard drive connected to one of these or to the "share" port on your router, or a Network Attached Storage (NAS) device.
There are a pair of S/PDIF inputs (Coax and Toslink) and a "Digital In / USB" which you can think of as an Asynchronous USB DAC (because that's what it is) all capable of playing back up to 24-bit/192kHz files. There's an "Adapter Port" which is used to connect the optional Pioneer AS-BT200 Bluetooth Adapter ($99) which allows you to stream music from any Bluetooth-enabled device like an iPhone or Android-based phone. Last but not least in terms of function is the AC input where I connected the included AC cord. I'm certain some audiophiles will feel that you can change the sound of the N-50 with a different power cord but seeing as equating a positive affect on a perceived change in sound is a question of taste, I'll leave the power cord shootouts to others.
Front Panel Input
Around front we've got an "iPod/USB" input where you can attach and play songs from your iOS device, USB thumb drive or USB hard disk drive (HDD). This is also how you update the N-50s firmware using a FAT16 or FAT32 formatted USB thumb drive. I do wonder why firmware updates are not handled via Ethernet/Internet which would make this a simpler and less time consuming exercise. The front panel also hosts the power switch and five buttons including Function which acts as a source selector and four playback controls including Play/Pause, Stop, Forward and Previous.
Front Panel Display
That 2.5-inch full-color LCD display will show at a minimum your current Connection Source and Device Name, and in most cases the Sample Rate. When playing back music from the Music Server, you'll also see the Track Title, Album Artist, Album Title, File Type, Sample Rate/Bit Depth, Duration/Time Elapsed, and Album Cover Art (11/16" square).
The Pioneer Elite N-50's Music Server (Ethernet) and front USB input will play MP3, WAV, WMA, AAC, and FLAC files. That's it. No AIFF, ALAC, etc. If you use the Asynchronous USB DAC input, these file format restrictions do not apply. I was able to play AIFF files up to 24/192 via USB from my MacBook Pro or my PC which accesses my iTunes library on another NAS (Seagate BlackArmor NAS 220). This playback option also lets you use iTunes with add-on apps like Pure Music, BitPerfect, and JRiver Media Center. You can also play AIFF and ALAC files via Airplay and Bluetooth.
The N-50 is DLNA 1.5 certified and I had absolutely zero issues connecting to a NAS device (the DLNA certified 2TB Western Digital My Book Live) which houses all of my music files saved in uncompressed FLAC format. After initially connecting the N-50 to my network with an Ethernet cable, I powered it on, selected "Music Server" from the remote and my NAS device appeared on the N-50s display. Clicking Enter displayed the "Music" directory and clicking that gives you a list of options for browsing your music including "Album", "Artist", "Genre", "Composer", and more. Of course this browsing structure is only as good as your metadata but that's a story for another day. If you've taken good care of your metadata, it will take good care of you.
"Air Jam" is a Pioneer app that allows you and anyone else that can attach to your Wi-Fi network the ability to add songs from their music storage device (I'm thinking smartphones) to a shared Play List that's playable from the N-50 (requires the AS-BT200 Bluetooth Adapter). The N-50 is also Airplay enabled meaning you can play to the N-50 from any network-connected Apple iOS device or any Mac or PC running iTunes. With iTunes, you simply need to click on the farthest left icon located on the bottom right hand side of the iTunes Window (it looks like an arrow pointing into a rectangle) and select "N-50". Once you start playing a track, the N-50 will automatically switch to this input.
What, No Wi-Fi?
Yes Wi-Fi is optional and an additional cost but do you really need it? If you're going to use the N-50 as your main digital music player, and your music library is stored on a network attached device, you really should be connecting everything up with Ethernet. Since I have a home network that includes a dual-band Wi-Fi router, I can (and did) stream to the N-50 on my existing Wi-Fi network(s) using Airplay. For free. I would go so far as to suggest that for anyone looking to buy a Network Player or Streamer, a wired Ethernet network is a must-have kinda deal whereas included WI-Fi is a nice option I can live without.
The included remote is a handy device but seeing as that display is a mere 2.5", I had to get within a few feet of the N-50 to see it. Beyond the basic functions like source selection and track navigation, there are a few controls worth paying attention to—"Sound", "Pure Audio", and "Hi-Bit 32". "Sound" modes includes Auto Sound Retriever which Pioneer describes as "DSP processing is used to compensate for loss of audio data upon compression, improving the sound's sense of density and modulation." Auto Sound Retriever works with the Media Server, USB, and Internet Radio inputs. Other "Sound" options include Auto Level Control and Hi-Bit 32 which increases the bit depth of all incoming data to 32 bit. Pioneer says, "Creates a wider dynamic range with digital sources. Smoother more delicate musical expression can be achieved by requantizing 16 bit [and] 24 bit audio signals to 32 bit". Lastly there's Sound Retriever Air used to reportedly improve the sound quality for Bluetooth/Air Jam.
The "Pure Audio" button "allows audio signals to be played via the shortest playback circuit without passing through the DSP, thus reducing noise and producing playback sound with greatest fidelity to the original". I mainly used Pure Audio, mainly because that's the kind of guy I am. We'll talk more about the sounds of processing and lack thereof in the listening section.
The Remote App
Pioneer offers a free remote app, the ControlApp, which you can download from the iTunes store. At first, and admittedly for some time, I thought the app only let me view 4 selections no matter the source. So I sent an email to the always helpful and professional Katherine Manning at Pioneer and she replied, "All you have to do is scroll up on the phone and four new albums should pop up." I scrolled up and sure enough 4 more albums popped up. I found the Pioneer Remote App to be a bit slow in rendering the next set of Album titles showing "Unknown #" for a second or so before displaying the actual album name. The app also does not include album cover art which I kinda enjoy when using an iPhone or iPad as a remote. If you have a Pioneer N-50 and you'd like to see your album cover art on your iOS device, you could download the free Twonky Mobile app which worked just fine with the N-50 for serving up music from my NAS.
Odds and Ends
During my time with the N-50 I listened through each and every input option. I used the included remote as well as the Pioneer remote app and the Twonky Mobile app finding the latter two more useful than the traditional remote. Among the various input options I found myself mostly using the Music Server and Internet Radio/vTuner.
I'd imagine that for some people the appeal of a Network Audio Player is the idea that you don't have to use a computer to play your music so you don't have to have a computer within a few feet of your hi-fi which makes the USB DAC an option that may not have mass appeal. That said, considering the price of the N-50 I feel having a 24/196 Asynchronous USB DAC input to be a wonderful option.
Also on the practical geographic side of things, you really need to have an Ethernet connection available to make the most of the N-50. While you can buy the optional AS-WL300 wireless network adapter, I do not recommend relying on a Wi-Fi connection as your main listening source and the reason being Wi-Fi can and often will drop out. How often and how annoying this turns out to be is dependent on a number of variables including your Wi-Fi's signal strength, how much traffic there is on your Wi-Fi network, how much interference you suffer from, and how easily you get annoyed.
Since I sat the N-50 on my equipment rack which has a number of Ethernet connections laying in wait and a MacBook Pro and a PC within USB-distance (less than a few feet), I used wired connections for most of my listening sessions except a brief run through of wi-fi and Airplay to make sure they work. And they do but how well depends on those Wi-Fi variables.
The Sound of One Network Streaming
As I said up front, the Pioneer N-50 is a musical-sounding multi-tasker. With music played back from my NAS through the Music Server input using the Pure Music setting, things sounded crisp, clean and nicely resolved. Refreshing. The N-50 threw out a big, open and airy sound with instruments very nicely placed in their respective place (recording allowing). With the USB DAC input, things closed in a bit and the overall presentation felt a tad muddied. We're not talking about a night and day difference but the Ethernet input sounded less processed as compared to USB. More like pure music.
With less than ideal sources like crappily recorded CDs, that "Hi-Bit 32" option helped put everything into the mix so to speak as compared to "Pure Audio" which tended to make things sound a bit harsh (because they do). With Internet Radio and streaming music via Bluetooth or Airplay from my iPhone, I found the Auto Sound Retriever option added a bit of body to the sound, a pleasant boost akin to the Loudness control from the olden days of hi-fi. I'm not going to say much more than that since these options and how much you like them are subjective creatures and music sources like Internet radio stations vary in terms of sound quality. You may find that the stations you like most may not be the best sounding ones in which case the "Auto Sound Retriever" option may be most welcome. But if you find you select your musical sources based on sound quality alone regardless of the music, I'd recommend buying a tone generator or better yet a ukulele instead of a hi-fi.
I did not make full use of the "Air Jam" app but I could see this being a very party-friendly feature. People come over, download the free app and everyone adds some of their favorite songs to the "Air Jam" party playlist. Cool, no? Of course your friends could just copy their tracks to your hard drive, play them for the party, and delete them when they leave which I consider more than fair use. You may want to check with your Copyright attorney beforehand since enjoying music in a group may infringe on someone or something.
I also played music from my iMac via Airplay since it sits on the opposite side of the room from the N-50 and connects to my network via Wi-Fi. While I can see the appeal of this setup, I see the larger Airplay draw aimed at other music listeners beyond the person who picked out and is the main N-50 user. In my experience, family members with private music libraries typically house them on their own computers or portable devices so the Airplay option allows them to play their iTunes and iOS-based music through the hi-fi (and let's stop calling it the "big rig" or no one else will want to play with it) with a few taps of a finger. Nice.
Oh, it's a jolly holiday with...Music
With its multitude of easy-to-use inputs and features serving up music that sounds engaging and fun to my ears, I can easily see the Pioneer N-50 sitting center stage as the family digital music controller; housed on a rack next to the hi-fi in the family room (you do have a hi-fi in your family room, right?), with Ethernet serving up music from a NAS or HDD-resident library, streaming to the N-50 from iMacs, MacBooks, PCs, laptops, iPhones or Androids, friends joining in the fun and sharing some tunes via "Air Jam" or file sharing, Internet radio playing the latest hot tracks from Mali or Malasia or Milford, PA, and even an old disc spinner connected to one of the N-50s digital inputs for Uncle Ernie on Thanksgiving when he wants to hear the soundtrack from Mary Poppins.
Pioneer has loaded a lot of useful and thoughtful features into the N-50 including what I see as a near necessity with this type of device—digital signal processing options. With sources of varying quality, it's more than nice to be able to shape their sound to our liking with the click of a button on a remote. I know some purists may cringe at the idea of pursuing and enjoying less than the absolute sound but some of us also enjoy music for music's sake, sound quality be damned. Besides, you can always hit that "Pure Audio" button if you begin to feel woozy.
There's a world of music out there, waiting, and the Pioneer N-50 can bring it all back home.
Also on hand and in use during the N-50 review: T+A MP 1260 R - DAC/Network Client, Musical Fidelity M1 CLiC, Logitech Squeezebox Touch, and the Resonessence Labs Invicta DAC