Melco N50 Digital Music Library

Melco, the Japanese maker of the N50 Music Library featured in this review, is not a household name among US audiophiles. Veterans may recall the Melco 3560 turntable, which was considered extravagant at its 1978 launch, in part because it supported three tonearms. Confusingly, several subsidiaries of the giant keiretsu Mitsubishi are called MELCO (for “Mitubishi Heectric withrporation”), but the maker of the N50 is not one of those MELCOs. This “Melco” is, rather, short for “Maki Engineering Laboratory Company,” and though it got its start in hi-fi, these days its best-known products are network-attached RAID arrays made by Melco’s American division, Buffalo Americas.

Melco’s audio division, known as Melco Syncrets, sells products similar to those produced by Buffalo Americas but tuned for hi-fi, including servers that incorporate all the digital elements that benefit from being in a single box. The new N50 lacks only a DAC to be a complete digital source.

The digital-audio front end has several parts, and in the streaming era, those parts can be put together in different ways. It starts with a digital audio file, stored either locally or anywhere else—anywhere else on the whole internet—and ends with a DAC. The trend among audiophiles and manufacturers is to optimize every step in the process. Start with NAS drives, servers, or streamers, and go through digital-to-digital converters, network audio appliances, USB reclockers, isolators and signal conditioners, all perhaps with upgraded power supplies and optimized connecting links, and ending up at a versatile, high-quality, jitter-rejecting DAC. It conjures an audiophile’s nightmare, Zeno’s Achilles-and-the-tortoise paradox for the modern audiophile.

Eventually, one hopes, the data will become music and end up at your ears. But as complexity grows, so does cost, and the chance that incompatibility creeps in increases. That’s part of the challenge for digital audio streaming.

There’s another part: Many audiophiles have vast libraries of ripped CDs and SACDs and hi-rez music downloads, and these days most subscribe to at least one streaming service. Somewhere in the front end, there must be an application that manages that library and allows easy access to the music.

A Clean, Simple Appearance
Upon unpacking the N50-S38 ($5499, footnote 1), I was impressed with its clean, simple appearance. Starting at the left of the front panel, Melco’s distinctive brush-font logo is directly above an on/off button with an LED indicator. To the right are the USB 3.0 port—you can insert a flash drive full of music here, for playback or to transfer to the N50’s SSD—and the central alphanumeric display. The four small buttons farther to the right are for navigating the controls and setup menu (Back, Menu/Enter, Up, Down). On the rear panel, from left to right, are a USB 3.0 port optimized for sending music data to a USB DAC and then three other USB 3.0 ports, intended for connecting an optical drive (not included) for ripping and playing CDs, a USB drive for library expansion, and a backup drive. To the right of the USB ports are two Ethernet RJ-45 ports, one for connecting the Melco to your local network, the other a direct output to a network-enabled “Music Player”—more on that later. Finally, there’s an IEC power connector (footnote 2).

In the complex world of modern digital front ends, it can sometimes be hard to figure out what part a particular component plays. Melco calls the N50 a “Digital Music Library” or, sometimes, a “Music Store and Stream.” Neither term told me exactly what to expect. Even after I read the Quick Setup Guide, which identifies all the controls, connectors, and menu/display operations, I still wasn’t sure how to get it to play music. Downloading the full User Manual from the Melco website got me pointed in the right direction, with fully detailed descriptions of every operation and function. Some mysteries remained.

With the manual and an iPad, I found that the N50 provided almost everything needed for streaming local and web-based music. The front-panel controls and the small, highly legible alphanumeric display worked fine for setup and basic music selection, but I quickly realized that the use of a tablet—iPad only; there’s no Android support—and the Melco Music App (footnote 3) is essential for easing music selection and making the Melco enjoyable to use.

playing from the N50? At the core of the N50 is a custom Melco circuit board. Its job is to retrieve the music files, from the rigidly mounted internal SSD, or from other sources, and send the output directly to a local DAC via the Type-A USB port on the circuit board or to the dedicated Ethernet port that connects directly (not, as with most such devices, via a network switch) to a networked DAC’s Ethernet connection. Everything—hardware, firmware, outputs—is tightly controlled by Melco.

522melco.bac2

There are many ways to listen to music with the N50, but the simplest and most obvious is to load music files into its internal memory and attach a USB DAC. You can load up the SSD in different ways. Using the USB 3.0 ports, you could connect an external hard drive, SSD, or flash drive filled with music files and import the files. What I did was even simpler: Once the N50 was connected to my local network, I accessed the N50 with my desktop computer. From there, I dragged and dropped files from my main NAS storage directly into the N50. More than 12,000 tracks loaded smoothly and took up less than 8% of the N50’s internal storage. Then I connected the Mytek Brooklyn+ DAC to the N50 via the Melco’s dedicated USB output port.

I was immediately able to play any of the files now stored on the SSD using the N50’s front panel controls and display, but no one would want to use the machine this way: It’s cumbersome, and there is no album art. Clearly, an iPad is the way to go. So I installed the Melco app on the iPad and connected it to my Wi-Fi network. It immediately “saw” the N50, so I selected it (and the USB-connected Mytek DAC) as the device to “Play to” and as the “Library.” I could then access the library, organized by album, genre, artist, and so on. Navigation was easy.

I sampled all the supported file formats, except AAC, to confirm that the N50 would handle them. It did—including MQA, although it wasn’t listed as a supported format. For DSD, the N50 has three user-selectable playback modes. “Standard Mode” plays DSD as native DSF/DFF if your DAC supports it; if not, DSD files will be played as DoP (DSD over PCM). “DSD over PCM Priority Mode” plays all DSD content as DoP, even if your DAC supports native DSD. “PCM Mode” forces conversion of DSD to PCM, for use with DACs that do not support DSD at all.

522melco. Stravinsky

Among the files I copied to the N50 library was a classic recording of Stravinsky’s L’histoire Du Soldat recorded in 1956 by Westminster Records, with Robert Mandell conducting Ars Nova (an all-star ensemble) and Stanley Drucker and Herbert Sorkin playing the crucial clarinet and violin parts, respectively. It’s a transfer from two-channel tape to digital (24/96 FLAC High Definition Tape Transfers HDTT10464, footnote 4). This is a spectacular performance and recording. There’s no dialog to distract from the music, and the recording captures the instruments vividly, precisely, and closely. Played by the N50 via the Brooklyn+, HDTT’s 24/96 FLAC files provided one of the most convincing “they are here” experiences I’ve had with classical music.

The Melco N50 is a networked device, so, once it was connected to my local network, the Melco App’s “Library” choices included every device on my LAN, including the small library on my exaSound s88 and my JRiver server, which in turn has access to everything on my NAS. The NAS was of course directly accessible, but only after I installed MinimServer on the NAS, a simple procedure. I was able to play any track I had anywhere, sometimes in more than one way.


Footnote 1: S38 designates the specific model of N50, with specific processor and storage. The S38 includes 3.84TB of storage space on an internal SSD.

Footnote 2: Also, on the bottom of the back panel on the far right, is a simple, unlabeled screw described by the manual and quick-start guide as a “grounding port.” Its function isn’t mentioned, but presumably it’s for addressing anyone that might arise. I didn’t experience any.

Footnote 3: Or some other, non-Melco app.

Footnote 4: “Rare recordings remastered in audiophile sound.” The label, HDTT, makes hi-rez transfers of open-reel tapes of “forgotten performances of historical importance.” See highdeftapetransfers.ca/pages/about-us.

Leave a Comment

%d bloggers like this: