Melco N1A High Res Digital Music Library Review
Searching for the Rolls Royce of network storage? Look no further.
What is the Melco N1A?Network attached storage is not, generally speaking, an especially glamorous category. We usually don't find ourselves on the edge of our seats or besides ourselves in excitement over developments from manufacturers and there seems to be more than a little sense that provided the basic boxes are ticked, they are all much of a muchness. This is odd in some ways because we make considerable demands of our NAS drives. Few other products in a household and even fewer with moving parts are expected to spend their entire lives powered on and there are few that we lament the passing of as much - especially if your backup routine wasn't quite as routine as it should be.
As such, there are NAS drives and there are NAS drives. Beyond their capacity there are differences in file handling, speed of operation and indeed their longevity and resilience. Where the ground becomes a little more uncertain is their absolute performance with a specific file. With most aspects of performance defined by the standards that the product is certified to, surely any claim that one NAS drive can sound better than another has to be firmly in the realm of the impossible?
Melco would beg to differ. The company is not a household name (although it is more well known than you might initially think) but they have arrived on the market with two models designed from the ground up to offer the highest quality performance possible with audio files. This is a bit of a departure for the NAS drive category and will raise more than a few eyebrows, especially when the asking price is taken into account. Can the N1A deliver on the claims?
DesignThe N1A is the more affordable of the two Melco designs to hit the market but 'affordable' is a word that needs to be used carefully when the subject is a 4TB NAS drive that retails for £1,600. While this sentence alone will have been enough for some of you to hit the back button on the browser and go and look at something else, there are some indicators that the Melco might have some substance to it.
The first is that although you might not have heard of Melco, the company has more of a reputation than you might think. In the 70s and 80s, Melco was a high-end Japanese audio manufacturer of some repute. Their equipment was exceptionally well built, exactingly designed and capable of impressive performance. As the market started to change in the 80s, the company began to migrate into IT and networking accessories and adopted a new name to do so. The name is one you might be more familiar with -
This means that under all the specialised engineering, the N1A is built by a company that knows the basics of the category inside out. This being said, the Melco is not a bog standard NAS drive in a nice box. The entire principle on which it functions is subtly different from a conventional drive. Around the back of the Melco are a pair of RJ45 sockets instead of the more usual one. The Melco is connected to your router via the conventional NAS connection that makes it visible and accessible to your network. There is then a second connection that attaches directly to your streaming device. The thinking goes that this dedicated connection doesn't suffer from additional and unwanted data on the line and reduces the amount of reconstruction and rationalisation that the streamer needs to do with the data. Interestingly this connection is not especially high speed. Audio- even in the latest and greatest high res form - is not an especially taxing load for an RJ45 line to handle so the Melco doesn't make any great efforts to break speed records with it.
This pair of sockets is then partnered with a quartet of USB connections. Three of these - one on the front, two on the back are USB 2.0 connections and can be used to augment the already fairly hefty 4TB capacity and to transfer material to and from the N1A. You can also set various back up options to keep your precious data in the land of the living. The USB 3.0 connection is more interesting. Like the recently reviewed Innuos Zen, the Melco is a Linux based design. This means that the USB output can be connected to a USB DAC and with no messing about with drivers or other software will play any file that the Melco supports.
And be under no illusions, the Melco supports all of them. The N1A will handle anything from 32kbps WMA to DSD 256 without so much as a murmur and nothing I tried on it caused any issues at all. Where the Melco gets seriously clever is that if you are using it via USB, it automatically knows what the format support of the connected product is. If you send a DSD file to a product that doesn't support it, the Melco will convert the file on the fly to the best supported option. Another potentially useful feature is that the N1A can be set as the destination for your downloads meaning that your purchased material can be bought anywhere and will be on your drive ready to go when you get home.
All this cleverness is then encased in a chassis designed to both reduce noise and vibration and, in turn, make the N1A look more at home in a hifi rack. Both intentions have to be seen as successful. The Melco is silent - not pretty quiet - silent. All tests with an SPL meter, even when right up next to the Melco cannot separate it from background noise in my room. It also looks very smart. The N1A is beautifully finished, handsome and is totally at home even in some decidedly exalted company. The front display is well executed and handy for showing what the N1A is up to at any stage. Even over and above the sturdy and well appointed Innuos, the Melco feels like a piece of high-end audio equipment and you won't feel compelled to hide it out of sight.
What's good about the N1A?Whether you buy into the claims of improved performance or not (and more on that in the audio section), the Melco is a truly impressive piece of equipment. The operating software is genuinely excellent. For stability speed and flexibility, the N1A is better than anything I've seen from more mainstream models. Because it isn't trying to do a million and one other things it feels focussed and well sorted without being overly complex. Setup is a breeze and stability is to all intents and purposes unconditional. Finally, the N1A is the fastest booting NAS drive I've ever seen with startup to network availability taking eighteen seconds.
The Melco feels like a piece of high-end audio equipment and you won't feel compelled to hide it out of sight.
What's not so good about the N1A?There is no escaping the fact that the N1A is a pricey option compared to more mainstream rivals. You could buy a massive amount of conventional network storage for £1,600 and have change left over. The Melco is always going to be a specialised product for people with a serious interest in network and USB audio. This interest can't extend to a need for a ripper though as in contrast to a number of specialised audio storage options, the Melco will require you to maintain another means of ripping material.
How was the Melco N1A tested?The Melco was used on a closed network with a Netgear DGN2200 router which, along with the N1A, was connected to an IsoTek Evo 3 Aquarius mains conditioner. It was tested via ethernet with a Naim ND5XS with XP5XS power supply and a Cambridge Audio CXN connected to a Naim Supernait 2, running from an IsoTek Evo 3 Sigmas Mains conditioner and powering Neat Momentum and PMC twenty.21 speakers. USB audio was tested via a Chord Hugo. For comparison, the Innuos Zen was available as an example of a very good conventional NAS drive. Material used included, MP3, FLAC, AIFF and DSD at various sample rates.
How does it sound over a network?Thanks to the slightly different connection pattern between the Melco and a normal NAS drive, I have found that for the best results and stable operation you should fully restore the factory settings before connecting it up. Once you do so, in control terms the N1A is totally indistinguishable from either the Innuos or my long suffering Western Digital and handles the moderately large 1TB library of my own material and the supplied test music without issue.
The $64,000 question of course is whether the Melco sounds better than run-of-the-mill rivals. Having tested the N1A extensively this time out and also for some time for a previous review, I can say that yes it does but there are some minor caveats that I'd be remiss not to point out. The first is that the difference that the Melco makes over a conventionally connected NAS drive is subtle. If your system is currently too bright, too warm or in some way not delivering the sound that you want it to, it is highly unlikely that the N1A will rectify this. The second is that I suspect the difference is going to be rather greater on a network that isn't closed off but due to my main router being some considerable distance from the equipment rack, that isn't possible to test here.
Where the Melco's presence can be consistently felt is in a sense of effortlessness and fluidity that takes a further feeling of the 'digital' out of the performance. As someone that tries to at least give a nod to a scientific reason why this might be happening, I can only surmise that the receiving streamer is having to do less work to the incoming data prior to decoding it. Both the Naim and the Cambridge Audio have truly excellent clocking and processing built in but it doesn't hurt to use it less.
An interesting additional note to this effect is that the Melco gives the same lift to material regardless of the sampling rate with all other things being equal. The phenomenal Making up a changing mind by Pretty Lights is only available as a 320kbps MP3 but it manages to sound a little more fluid and natural via the Melco than it does via the Innuos. Right at the other end of the scale, the sumptuous 24/96 FLAC of Craig Armstrong's It's nearly tomorrow - one of the very best recordings I have - still gains a touch of naturalness and fluidity.
How does it sound over USB?If you are looking for a means of running a USB DAC without having a computer in action all the time, the Melco's benefits are more clear cut. Simply put, this is a bulletproof means of sending content to a USB DAC. Connected to Chord's peerless Hugo, the Melco sorts a connection in seconds and really shows what the Chord is capable of as a line level source. You don't have to worry about what playback software to choose or driver to install, the Melco just looks at the connected option and away it goes. It responds happily to the Bubble UPnP app on Android for control purposes and the result is slick, stable and sounds as good as the connected DAC. If you have a seriously high-end DAC, the Melco is a 'fit and forget' means of getting the absolute best out of it.
Simply put, this is a bulletproof means of sending content to a USB DAC.
- Outstanding feature set and stability
- Beautifully made
- Yields a worthwhile sonic benefit
- Fairly large
- Not a magic bullet for all systems
Melco N1A High Res Digital Music Library ReviewThere is no sense in being coy here. The Melco is vastly more expensive than a 'normal' NAS drive of equivalent storage and the performance improvement it makes to a network streaming system is subtle rather than grabbing you by the ears and sitting you bolt upright. If you are just starting out in streaming and you aren't sure if it is the medium for you, this is not the product you have been looking for. This is a piece of equipment that should be added to a system you are already delighted with, in order to take the aspects you love and make them better.
Where the Melco justifies its existence beyond this sense of finishing a system is that it is the best audio focussed NAS drive I know of. Ultimately, I have a system designed to listen to music with - mine without exaggeration runs almost dawn to dusk. What the Melco brings beyond performance is 'fit and forget' stability, effortless file handling and the sort of fit and finish that places it in happy company with other expensive audio products. Furthermore, if you have a high-end USB DAC, the effectiveness of the N1A makes attaching a normal computer to it look pretty pointless. The Melco gains a recommendation not because it is a universal solution but because for a smaller group of people it is the perfect solution.
Suggested retail price when reviewed: £1,600.00
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