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Novafidelity N15D Network streamer

Novafidelity N15D Network streamer

Changing a brand name can sometimes be tricky. When ‘BackRub’ decided to become ‘Google’, for example, it worked out just fine–mostly because no one had the first idea what ‘BackRub’ was (or ‘Google’ at first, for that matter). When ‘Prince’ became ‘The Artist Formerly Known As Prince’, on the other hand, everyone just kept on calling him ‘Prince’.

The reasons for ‘Cocktail Audio’ to become ‘Novafidelity’ in the UK don’t all concern just how dicey the word ‘cocktail’ is when it comes to spam filters. Nevertheless, it seems reasonable to expect a transition like this to be smooth–but try Googling (or BackRubbing) the word ‘Novafidelity’ and then try to look beyond all the ‘Cocktail Audio’ results. But nevertheless, for the purposes of the UK (a country which seems to think it’s a special case at every turn) what we have here is a Novafidelity N15D network streamer.

It’s the entry-level product in a fairly comprehensive range of network audio streamers. And as the ‘affordable’ Novafidelity option, it’s a combination of quite lavish specification and some fairly understandable cost-cutting.  

The ‘merit’ column is the more extensive, though, so it’s probably best to start here. The N15D is a compact, all-aluminium network streamer/USB DAC into which it’s possible to slot a 2.5in hard disk or solid state drive. It’s able to access DLNA network attached storage devices (it’s also Roon ready, which is useful), and has a Giga Fast Ethernet socket for just that purpose. It can incorporate accounts from many of the planet’s more discerning streaming services (such as TIDAL, Qobuz and Deezer, for instance) into its Music X Neo control app. Internet radio is available directly, from the i-Radio app. There’s Apple AirPlay connectivity (rather than Bluetooth), and it will accept a connection from a Spotify account via Spotify Connect (albeit as ‘cocktailAudio N15D’).

Music X Neo control is both better than before and better than most, if not all, small-to-medium sized companies’ alternatives. But it’s not flawless–and its readiness to reset the volume level to ‘uncomfortably loud’ when moving from track to track on the internal hard drive is at once startling and annoying. Novafidelity suspects this issue is restricted to Android control devices and is working on a fix. iOS controllers don’t exhibit the same eccentricity and, given the UK’s fetishisation of Apple smartphones and tablets, it may not be a deal-breaking fault. But out in the wider world, where Android rules and Cocktail Audio is still a thing, it could make all the difference.  

There’s also a USB type B input–which, along with the Ethernet socket, is about it for physical connectivity. No matter how music gets on board the N15D, though, it’s dealt with by an ESS Sabre ES9018K2M DAC–this is a 32bit/384kHz device, with DSD256 and DXD 32bit/352.8kHz capability. The digital outputs, however, are capped at 24-bit, 192kHz resolution. It can handle all popular file types (including MQA) and most of the unpopular ones too.

There are a single pair of stereo RCA analogue outputs for connection to an amplifier, and–in the unlikely event you have a system with a more capable DAC than this and yet are in need of a digital audio streamer–digital optical and digital coaxial outputs too. At the front of the N15D is a 6.3mm headphone output, and a big volume/mute control.

Conspicuous by their absence are a display on the device itself or a remote control with which to operate it. All functionality, in fact, is taken care of by the Music X Neo app, which is generally a fair bit better than most control apps from companies of equivalent size. Typing in the IP address into a browser on the network also controls the N15D.    

As luck would have it, there’s three-and-a-half-grand’s-worth of Naim Uniti Star network streamer/amp up and running when the Novafidelity arrives for testing–so in the spirit of experimentation the N15D is attached to one of the Naim’s digital optical inputs using a QED Performance optical cable. At the other end, the Uniti Star is hooked to a pair of Acoustic Energy AE1 mkIII SEs (still one of the most accomplished and likeable stand-mounting designs of this century) using Chord Company Rumour X speaker cable.

 

As well as having access to TIDAL Hi-Fi and Spotify Premium accounts, the N15D is also able to access some networked audio files and has been fitted with a hard disk drive loaded with a selection of Novafidelity favourites in a range of formats. Out of politeness more than anything, then, the hard drive is used to select the first tune: a PCM file of The Beta Band’s The Three EPs [Regal].

Used purely as a digital streamer, the N15D seems content to get out of the way of music and simply hand it over to an external DAC. As a result, the hard drive-derived songs of The Beta Band sound broad-shouldered, carry a lot of low-frequency momentum and enjoy very acceptable levels of detail–especially in the midrange, where the vocals sit in a pleasant little pocket of space while the music seethes and fulminates around them. 

The same is true of a TIDAL Masters stream of Donny Hathaway’s Everything Is Everything [Atco]. There’s credible drive and attack across the board, detail- and character-packed midrange communication, and a pleasing sensation of unity to the individual performances that contributes no end to the overall timing of the recording.

And sure enough, step down in bandwidth to France’s FIP radio station via the i-Radio tuner (a measly 128kbps)  and everything becomes more closed in and round-shouldered. Detail levels fall away and clarity diminishes. This relative lack of positivity and resolution doesn’t prevent FIP being one of the world’s most enjoyable radio stations, mind you.    

Make the obvious switch, and connect the N15D to one of the Naim’s analogue inputs (using Chord Company’s Clearway interconnect) and thus let the Novafidelity’s internal DAC do all the heavy lifting, delivers across-the-board sonic improvements. It may not come as any great shock to realise the N15D’s digital-to-analogue conversion process is more accomplished than that of a Naim Uniti Star, but what is quite startling is just how much more adept and convincing the Novafidelity sounds.  

First things first: the N15D has no problem dealing with a DSD (1bit/2.8224MHz) rip of Bob Dylan’s Highway 61 Revisited [CBS]. And after it’s served the decoded analogue information to the Naim, the resulting sound is wide, tall and simply loaded with fine details of instrument timbre and vocal toil. The leading edges of individual notes are described with absolute certainty, their decay is similarly well controlled, and the minor harmonic divergences are highlighted just as fully as broader dynamic variances.

And there are equivalent improvements in the way the other selections are delivered. The Donny Hathaway album, in particular, benefits no end from the N15D’s greater insight and fidelity–his voice, so warm and pure in its tonality, is given even greater emotional resonance as the Novafidelity brings the listener closer to a true understanding of his technique.  

 

The N15D is capable of significant drive and attack if the music demands it, but it’s just as comfortable being tender as it is muscular. The emptiness of Ólafur Arnalds’ Ljósið [Erased Tapes] carries just as much significance as the delicate instrumental strands, and the Novafidelity gives both the presences and the absences in the recording equal importance.

In short, then, if you’ve a cherished system of let’s say a certain vintage, the N15D is a thoroughly effective way of upgrading it with some high-quality streaming. It’s compact, discreet, well made and, given the right stuff to work with, is capable of very agreeable sound indeed. The lack of Bluetooth connectivity is a minor drawback, but it’s more than balanced out by the Novafidelity’s readiness to incorporate some internal memory. Not for the first time where products like this are concerned, though, the user interface is a cause for concern. 

TECHNICAL SPECIFICATIONS

Type: Solid-state music server with DAC and optional plug-in storage

Storage: Plug-in 2.5in HDD or SSD

Analogue inputs: None

Digital Inputs: USB type B

DAC Resolution: 32bit/384kHz; DSD256; DXD 24bit/352.8kHz

Supported Digital Formats: FLAC; WAV; MP3; WAV; WMA; ALAC; AIFF; MQA; PCM; DSD; DXD; M4A; AAC

Analogue Outputs: 6.3mm headphone socket; unbalanced stereo RCA 

Digital Outputs: One coaxial S/PDIF (via RCA jack), one TOSLink

Frequency Response: Not specified

Distortion (THD + Noise): Not specified

User Interface: Music X Neo app (iOS and Android)

Other Features: Roon Ready; Apple AirPlay; i-Radio internet radio

Dimensions (H×W×D): 45 × 180 × 180mm

Weight: Not specified

Price: £599

Manufacturer: Novatron Co Ltd

URL: novatron.co.kr 

UK Distributor: SCV Distribution

Tel: +44(0) 3301 222 500

URL: scvdistribution.co.uk

Tags: FEATURED

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