The Primare NP30 is perhaps a mark of just how fast network technology is spreading through audio now. Not because it is a ‘me too’ product – far from it, in fact – but because this is the kind of product that would have been met with luddite-grade suspicion six years ago, it would have been a headline-grabbing product three years ago, and now it’s the kind of product expected of a serious audio company. And arguably, a serious audio company making a network streaming player like the NP30 today could be viewed as a backwards thinking organisation.
Primare adopts a timeless aspect to its industrial design, which is another way of saying that the NP30 looks almost identical to its DAC30 DAC, not dissimilar to its R32 phono stage, and has a lot in common with all of Primare’s range of CD players, preamps, power amps, and integrated amplifiers. And the look has remained broadly the same since at least the turn of the century. To some, this might seem like lazy product design, but the other way of looking at this is it’s a classic look, and one that allows existing Primare owners a way to keep their products current without having a new device looking unacceptably different. Given that higher-end audio owners tend to keep their equipment for decades rather than years, I think this consistency of design makes a lot of sense for a company like Primare. If we are also being truly honest with ourselves (and simultaneously dishonest with our respective other halves), high-end products with a similar look can slip in under the home radar, and it’s sometimes easier to sneak a new device into your system if it looks similar to the one it replaces.
The NP30 is in many ways the Swiss Army Knife of networked audio, in that it can also support S/PDIF and TOSlink digital audio connections, and USB-B for direct connection to a computer, as well as playing through a network over LAN and wireless LAN connections. It is a full UPnP/DLNA-compliant device, using the Audivo SeDMP3 streaming module from Germany. The good news is this is perhaps one of the more rare, but best liked streaming client systems available, but the bad news is it is not designed to have an interface component, so companies need to ‘roll their own’ app to navigate the system. Fortunately, Primare has its own free app for iDevices and Androids. If you don’t have – and don’t intend to have – a suitably equipped smartphone, phablet, or tablet, my advice would be to start looking at other devices; the NP30 then just becomes a DAC, and cannot rise to the streaming occasion without app support.
However, with the app, things transform. It becomes a fully functional streamer; internet radio and Spotify can be accessed either through a connected computer or via the app, and the controller is simple, straightforward, intuitive, and doesn’t crash. In short, it offers all the things you need, without the fluff sometimes associated with such devices.
If, to Primare watchers, this all sounds a little familiar, it’s because the NP30 is the standalone version of Primare’s MM30 media board, which is designed to slot into the company’s I32 integrated amp and PRE32 preamp. The NP30 adds power-supply, buffered output stage, and that Primare-standard casing, to those who are starting down their Primare or streaming road, don’t have the relevant integrated or preamp, or who just like things in their own boxes. As the MM30 is £1,200 in its own right, and the NP30 costs £2,000, this does not seem like an elaborate expense for the additional electronics and casework.
The NP30 (and for that matter, the MM30) features a Burr Brown PCM1992 DAC, capable of 24-bit, 192kHz precision. This can be from both Ethernet and USB, the latter using the popular Xilinx asynchronous connection. It outputs in both single-ended RCA and balanced XLR connections (although unlike the DAC30, there’s no AES/EBU input). It’s a true 21st Century digital product, too, in that toroidal transformers and linear power supplies are a thing of the past, and the NP30 features switch-mode throughout. This allows a sophisticated series of precise and isolated power feeds to six individual sections of the NP30 without needing a transformer the size of a run-flat spare. This will undoubtedly send a few die-hard transformer fans into something not far from apoplexy, but in the real-world where such things don’t matter, such things don’t matter!
There is a distinct sense of the pragmatic to the NP30s performance. That doesn’t mean ‘compromise’; it means ‘pragmatic’. This isn’t like most streamers, which seem to emphasise leading edge detail; instead, it’s a more balanced, natural sounding presentation. It’s best run single-ended and it will highlight the attack of musical notes, but only when that aspect is emphasised in the mix, and is equally adept at reproducing the sustain, decay, and release of notes, which some streamers often lack. This is a mature sound, indicative of digital audio’s next phase growing up.
The majority of my listening here took place with a Naim UnitiServe full of 16/44.1 files (with the occasional 24/96 and 24/192 file obtained for good measure), but some of the testing took place with lossy compressed and streamed lossy tracks, and everyone is served properly by the NP30. It does not sacrifice the performance of the most pampered, hi-res files in order to create a good MP3 sound, but neither does it render lossy files unlistenable. Instead, it does the seemingly harder thing of bringing out the best in both. I suspect this comes down to the way it seems to treat music in general: as music, not as digital audio data. Tracks seem to retain their harmonic integrity and timbral accuracy through the NP30. The Primare is perhaps not the player for those who judge music by soundstage first and everything else a distant second, because although it creates a good sense of stereo focus and stage width, this is more a function of the musical whole than a teased out property of the recording. This becomes especially noticeable on the kinds of recordings audiophiles like to use to show their systems off, such as Massive Attack’s ‘Teardrop’ [Mezzanine, Virgin] or the Eiji Oue/Minnesota Orchestra rendition of Rachmaninov’s Symphonic Dances [Reference Recordings], because although all that sumptuous walk-in soundstage is present, it’s neither exaggerated nor emphasised. It’s just a natural part of the overall sound. The word ‘natural’ in fact sums up the NP30 neatly; it gives the networked audio world a much-needed sense of music being an organic thing, rather than a slightly detached, soulless presentation.
I’m figuring that there will be a small but vocal group of readers ready to proclaim ‘what about DSD?’ in a grumbly manner. Once again, I think pragmatism reigns supreme. While DSD and DXD arguably have merit, they are not yet in widespread distribution. Given this, and with design resources being finite, it makes a lot of sense for Primare to focus first on building a great PCM streamer, since PCM files are what most listeners have and use in the here and now.That being said, I’m concerned not everyone shares Primare’s pragmatism, and the lack of DSD and DXD support will simply exclude it from some shortlists no matter what the argument. This strikes me as a crying shame, as those box-tickers are missing out on a great streamer.
Regardless, there’s an obvious comparison to make, and that’s with the company’s own DAC30. Similarities between the two only exist on the surface; the two are extremely different under the hood (the DAC30 sports a Crystal chip while the NP30 uses a Burr Brown), and the DAC30 is a notably better DAC in outright sound quality terms, but the NP30 wins on greater flexibility. Let’s not overstate this; if the NP30 were only a DAC in its own right, it would be a fine-sounding £1,000 converter, but add in the streamer and its ability to act as an all-up (if basic) digital preamplifier in its own right, and the NP30’s place at the top table is assured.
The second wave of network streaming players is here, and the unassuming-looking Primare NP30 is very likely the best of them. It has arguably the best app in the business, has a sound quality that stresses the music over the technology whereby music happens and it’s at a fair price for the high-end. Very highly recommended.
- Inputs: 3x optical (96kHz) 1x SPDIF (192kHz) USB-A, USB-B (192kHz), WLAN (48kHz), LAN (192kHz
- Outputs: XLR, RCA, Digital (192 kHz), IRout, TRIGout
- Supported Audio formats: WAV, LPCM, AIFF, FLAC, ALAC, MP3, MP4 (AAC), WMA, OGG
- Sample rates: to 24 bit, 32-192kHz
- WLAN: 802.11 b, g, n modes; WEP (64 and 128Bit), WPA &WPA2 (TKIP & AES)
- Output impedance: RCA 100 Ohm; XLR 110 Ohm
- XLR/RCA output: Both 2.2V
- S/N ratio: 120dB
- Dimensions: 430 x 370 x 95 mm
- Weight: 8.5kg
- Price: £2,000
Manufactured by Primare
Distributed in the UK by Karma AV
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