Web exclusive: Melco N100 networked music server
- Alan Sircom
- Jul 2019
If you get ten computer audio experts drunk – I mean really, tongue-looseningly, inhibition-dropping, just pre-unconscious honesty drunk – you’ll likely hear the same complaint; the problem is the computer. A computer has amazing advantages in the acquisition, storage, allocation, and replay of music, but it’s a little bit too flexible for its own good. A lot of the current trend in floating earths and isolation through power conditioners and regenerators comes about in an attempt to keep at arm’s length EMI and RFI generating components, such as the relatively cheap power supplies, graphics processing cards, and screens that go into a typical laptop. Many companies go some ways toward compensation, by building more dedicated audio computers, but few go down the whole ‘computer-less computer audio’ route. Melco is the exception.
OK, so in reality ‘computer-less computer audio’ is an oversimplification; the architecture inside the Melco N100 is still very much that of a digital computer; it has inputs, outputs, memory, storage, a processor, and it operates using a series of programs running along an operating system. None of this reinvents the wheel, and the technology used comes from the computer world, not from Area 51. However, the difference with the Melco is every circuit pathway, every board, bus, and byte are tasked to home audio use. Put it this way; armed with a USB stick and malign intent, you could reprogram most music servers to act as a personal computer. But not here; the Melco’s architecture is too musically-directed.
The same has held with every Melco device since the first models appeared five years ago, but the N100 is the smallest and most affordable in the range; the half-sized device that manages to cram a lot of architecture into a very small box. What’s also shared with all Melco models is an ability to cope with tracks up to 32bit/384kHz PCM, or DSD 512. MP3, WMA, and OGG fall into the ‘squirt, not play’ category. There is a matching D100 CD/DVD/BD transport/ripper, and a E100 external 3TB hard drive (you can also use your own external USB hard-drives). There is also a bigger brother called the N10, which beefs up the size of the hard drive (from 2TB to 3TB) and comes with an external power supply. Both limit the number of inputs and outputs (one front and two rear USB sockets, and two LAN RJ45 connections).
Both the N10 and N100 are very much designed to have digital pathways ‘in’ and ‘out’ rather than the bi-directional connections usually seen in computer-based systems. In USB, that means there are front and rear USB inputs for memory sticks or hard drives, and an external USB out for a DAC alone, while for Ethernet there is one connection designed to link the Melco to a local network, and another connecting it to the relevant player. While there has to be some bi-directionality involved (if you connect the N100 to a player via Ethernet, that player needs to access whatever’s upstream of the Melco), the advantage here is the Melco acts like a semi-permeable barrier between the noisy world of Ethernet and the more sensitive souls in an audio system.
Instinctually, I like this way of doing things – the Melco is just another link in the chain providing good sounds but can be a means whereby sounds from networked sources can be heard with some of the noise of that network stripped away. The number of USB inputs could seem limiting at first, but in fact Melco has been smart here, too. Each device in the Melco chain has two USB 3.0 connectors, allowing a daisy chain of devices. So the lone input of the N100 attaches to a D100 drive, which then attaches to an E100 hard drive extension. Or vice versa. Even if the D100 is powered down, the E100 drive will still speak to the N100, and there’s always the front-mounted USB device. I’m sure there’s a finite limit to the number of units you could daisy chain this way, but as the two-box N100/E100 combination already gets you to 7TB of storage, and yet more accessed through UPnP on an Ethernet store, I think you run out of tracks and shelf-space before running out of Melco road.
I have been spoiled here in that I am a user of the Melco N10 and its separate power supply. The N100 brings that power supply in the same box and uses an external 12V power supply to drive that (upgrades are possible, and welcomed). This is very well isolated, but an order of magnitude below the power fed to the N10, and doesn’t include some of the powerful vibration isolation systems deployed in the two-boxer. That being said, the N10 is 3.75x the cost of the N100 and doesn’t deliver 3.75x the performance unless you are really pushing the envelope of audio performance elsewhere in your system. In the context where a £1,800 music library is wholly appropriate, the Melco N100 is a little miracle.
First, I don’t know how Melco managed it, but that little 2TB spinning drive in the N100 is whisper-quiet in use. Second, it completely nailed the sound of ‘Figure’ by Vök [Netwerk] ripped to the N100 through the D100, giving it that slick Portishead-meets-the-1980s vibe. This was quad-useful, as I could stream it from Tidal, play it from the N100, play it through UPnP from my Naim Uniti Core, and even play it from the original disc, all into the inputs of the Hegel H390. I could also compare N10 and N100, although for sake of trying not to inject too many conflicting shared sources, I did this through an A-B swap. The difference between them through this level of DAC and amplifier were more ‘how do you take your coffee’ than blowing things out of the water. If anything, the slightly compressed and boppy mix benefitted the N100 over its rivals; the even darker, quieter, stiller backgrounds of the N10 are not relevant here and while the Naim made a good attempt at the sound, the N10’s ability to cut through the compression benefitted greatly. Moving from this to Andras Schiff playing Beethoven’s Piano Sonatas [Vol VI, ECM] and the N10 showed where the money was spent in sonic terms in terms of tone and air around the piano, but the N100 was a close second. Flipping from track to track it was pretty clear the Melco products edged ahead, and so much of the N10’s DNA made it to the N100 too.
I found the N100 worked best as a streamer in its own right, feeding a USB DAC. The app (iOS only) is a quick and intuitive controller of the Melco product and, through that, the outside world. If you already have a streamer, the Melco makes for a fine server in its own right too. The Melco’s software architecture is primarily Twonky based (there is a Minimserver port) and every server system has its detractors, but in use its stable, easy to navigate, stable, intuitive (small learning curve hurdle, but no biggie unless you come from something more authoritarian in approach), stable, and most of all stable. The stable thing is worth mentioning several times, although system robustness fortunately now seems to be more of a universal ideal than a guideline worth forgetting.
A word about the D100 drive. It’s a potent device in its own right, and very probably the best standalone ripping transport you can get at the moment. Yes, it’s geared up for coping with more than just CD (but, sadly, not SACD), but even as a ripping device for CD alone, it’s a star. While I have railed against the whole ‘Mac + DAC’ movement in favour of more dedicated solutions, pragmatism has to reign supreme and there are a whole lot of people who use computers as front-ends. And if more of them used the D100 as their USB drive, they might begin to realise just how much more there is to offer in good separates audio. I think in most cases it will be used with Melco systems, however, and it’s a perfect match.
It sounds a little odd, but a device like the Melco is hard to categorise. It’s an increasingly powerful music library in its own right, especially when used with Melco’s own app, but effectively acts as a UPnP server, or even just a high-performance storage device if you want to ‘roll your own’ using something like Roon. In a way it makes it a bit like a butler in an English costume drama (without all the underlying and unresolved sexual tension, or the Jeeves-like dry wit); it does the job almost invisibly, effortlessly, and perfectly. And it’s built like a tank, too!
Type: Music server with HDD storage
Network connection: RJ45 Ethernet
Digital Outputs: RJ45 Ethernet, USB
Back up connection: USB
Formats supported (player): DSF, DFF, FLAC, WAV, ALAC, AIFF, AAC
Formats supported (server): DSF, DFF, FLAC, WAV, ALAC, AIFF, AAC, MP3, WMA, OGG, LPCM
Sample rates: 44.1kHz, 48kHz, 88.2kHz, 96kHz, 176.4KHz. 192kHz, 384KHz , 2.8MHz, 5.6 MHz, 11.3 MHz
Bit depths: 1bit, 16bit, 24bit, 32bit
Streaming services supported: Qobuz, Tidal
User Interface: Melco control application
Other Features: UPnP server, DLNA device compatible
Accessories: Quick Start Guide, USB2.0 cable, Category 6 Ethernet cable, AC adapter
Dimensions (HxWxD): 61 x 215 x 269mm plus inline PSU
Weight: server 3kg
Tel: +44(0)1252 784525
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