If you were looking for a way to archive and play your hires audio files without using a PC or a laptop and without having to go through complicated installation procedures, your best choices until recently were the entry level Melco N1A or the high-end model of the same company, the N1S, which comes with a considerably more expensive price tag. Melco's newest offering, the N1ZH60, is now positioned nicely between the to other models.
As reported earlier when I wrote about the latest Melco software update and the Buffalo Bluetooth CD drive, my N1A has replaced my trusted iMac as the digital source in my listening room ever since I first reviewed it. Some might suspect that a sworn fan of analogue audio like me simply didn't want to entrust his music to a computer. But as regular visitors of Hifistatement know, I've long made my peace with digital technology and indeed Computer Hi-Fi has since become one of the mainstays of our magazine. And of course at the heart of each Melco machine there is also a simple computer, as Roland Dietl explained in his first article about the brand. And also aesthetic considerations didn't play any part in the decision in favor of the N1A. Arguably, the Melco's simple and functional aluminum front can't really challenge the iconic design of Apple. No, the one and only reason why the one replaced the other in my system is simply the sound quality the Melco offers.
During the last 25 years many marketing 'truths' have promised that digital technology would make high end music listening available easily and cheaply for everyone. While that may have turned out to be not quite the case, one wisdom from the analogue world still holds true in a world of bits and bytes: Even the best hi-fi components in the world can't make up for whatever sound degradation the source introduces at the beginning of the playback chain. This means that in the digital world – with the possible exception of the software used to rip CDs – the place where you store your music is the first component that has an effect on the overall sound quality. And in my personal experience even the 'small' Melco N1A outperforms any remotely convenient computer-based solution in that area. Roland Dietl sees a potential alternative in his elaborate dual-laptop solution with JPLAY but so far couldn't determine a clear favorite.
For all of you who haven't heard about Melco yet, here's what it is all about: The Melco machines are Network Attached Storage Devices (NAS) that have been optimized for music playback from the first development stages. They store the music on integrated drives – depending on the model either hard disk drives (HDD) or Solid State Disks (SSD) – and use their built-in computers and a specially configured Ethernet network port to serve that music to a streaming player or a streaming bridge. But they can also be used as a renderer themselves, sending out the digital music signal to a DAC through USB. A second network port is used to connect the Melco to an existing network so that it can access the internet, read music from other NAS drives and receive control commands from a smartphone or tablet. When using a Melco directly with a USB-DAC your are currently forced to use a third-party control app like the ones from Lumin, Linn or Kazoo. Those certainly work but until now I was not able to find an app as functional and elegant as for example the apps from Audirva+ or Auralic. Especially the later's Lightning DS app is a very good reason for me to always include an Auralic Aries Femto between the N1A and my Chord DAVE. Even more so as that streaming bridge seems to improve the sound quality even more when used this way.