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Streaming Audio Devices: review and information thread (Updated 4/23 with JF Digital review)

post #1 of 142
Thread Starter 

 

 

INTRO

It’s commonly stated that physical media is on the way out. Soon we will operate purely in the digital realm, with all of our music being downloaded and stored on hard drives. We are already there when it comes to portable systems – it’s exceedingly rare to find anyone using portable CD or minidisc players. Back at the house, most of us have at least some computer involvement in our system; from simply backing up our physical media for archive purposes to full on media servers. A growing number of folks have gone all out and no longer own a dedicated CD player.

 

I agree that physical media will eventually be replaced but I question the timeline put forth by most media outlets. Audiophiles in particular are a special case – they are more than willing to put up with the inconvenience of physical media if there is even the slightest chance of improved sound quality. For that reason I expect CDs to be around for a long time to come, even if they do become somewhat of a niche market.

 

There has been much progress lately with respect to USB DACs, and it is easier than ever to get a high quality connection to your computer. So what’s all the fuss about? Part of the problem that many people have with making the switch is the computer itself. Many people just aren’t comfortable with the thought of having their computer integrated into their audio system. Your average computer is still a cumbersome, unattractive, noisy box with very little focus on audio. Laptops are smaller but how do you fit them into an audio rack? Yes, there has been some progress in this area, but I still believe it is a hindrance for many people.

 

One solution to this problem is to use a dedicated device for playback of your audio files. It might simply be a frontend that pulls files off a network, letting you store the computer itself in a different room. Or it might actually be a complete replacement, a sort of purpose built computer dedicated to audio reproduction. I’ve long been interested in these types of devices. So I set out to test a few of them and write up my experiences. That idea has snowballed into a larger project than I anticipated but has also been a lot of fun. This is just the beginning of what will eventually turn into a large thread documenting my reviews of multiple devices as well as compiling helpful information for anyone interested.

 

One of the most important aspects of these devices is the way a user interacts with it. A device can sound great and have every feature you can think of, but that won’t matter if it is frustratingly difficult to navigate through the menus. I’m not big on shooting videos, so the best way I can think to share the user experience with the reader is by showing pictures. Lots of pictures. I apologize in advance if someone is viewing this on a phone or other bandwidth-limited device. My photography skills are poor (at best), but I hope to use quantity to make up for the lack of quality.

 

Note that I’m posting this in the “Computer Audio” section. Despite the fact that these devices aim to replace your computer, we are still in the realm of hard drives and networks rather than the traditional “Dedicated Source Components” type stuff.

 

REQUIREMENTS

There are plenty of devices out there that can play audio tracks, either by streaming or else reading them directly off a hard drive/SD card. But my focus here is on dedicated audio only devices. No Blu-Ray players with SD card slots, no Western Digital TV or Roku style boxes. Not that there is anything wrong with those devices. They just don’t fit with my focus.

 

I went into this with basically three main requirements:

 

1) The device needs to handle FLAC files. I consider this the standard for serious listening.

 

2) It needs to have a dedicated display, capable of file navigation and most other basic functions. The majority of us don’t have (or want to have) a monitor in our listening systems.

 

3) The device must have a digital output for use with an outboard DAC. It can be toslink, coaxial, or AES/EBU. It doesn’t matter as long as it is digital. This will keep it relevant should the user ever want to upgrade.

 

With those requirements in mind, I compiled a list of devices to test. Some I purchased. Some I borrowed from friends. Some I got on loan from the manufacturer. All were treated equally no matter how I got a hold of them. I intend to keep testing more devices when possible. I’ll also compile a list of qualifying gear that I don’t yet have access to, and I would appreciate any suggestions that I’ve missed.

 

I was torn about how to handle certain devices that barely missed the requirements. The most common issue was the display – many products rely purely on iPhone/iPad/Android devices as the sole means of control. I decided to exclude these for now, since I feel like it adds an extra requirement to what might already be an expensive device. I’m all for Apple/Android support as an optional enhancement, but I’d rather it not be the only method. Speaking of Apple – I’m similarly divided about whether or not to include something like an iPad. When used with a digital dock like the inexpensive Pure Audio i-20, it meets two of our three requirements. The remaining issue is the fact that iPads do not have native support for FLAC files. Option one is to use a third party app (FLAC Player or Golden Ear) to accomplish FLAC playback, but the interfaces on both are fairly limited. Option two is to convert your FLAC files to Apple’s lossless ALAC format which would then play natively. That seems ideal except for the prospect of converting hundred of gigabytes worth of music. Still, I might explore the iPad option down the road, since I already have one anyway.

 

 

EQUIPMENT

This is the associated equipment used for listening. This is a long term project so I’ve used almost of all of my gear at one point or another. Clicking the device will bring up my review thread, where applicable.

 

DACs: Violectric V800, Anedio D1, Audio GD Reference 7, Matrix Quattro DAC, Kao Audio UD2C-HP, Yulong Sabre D18, Lars Audio DAC-1 MKII

 

Headphone Amps: Violectric V200, Analog Design Labs Svetlana 2, Matrix Quattro amp, Yulong A100, Matrix M-Stage

 

Headphones: Sennheiser HD800 and HD600, Lawton Audio LA7000, Grado PS1000, Audio Technica W1000 and W1000X, AKG K701, Unique Melody Merlin, JH Audio JH13, Westone ES3X, 1964 Ears 1964-T

 

I also used a speaker setup with my Octet Matrix DE7B monitors on Sanus NF30 stands. When using the analog outputs of a player I paired it with my Analog Design Labs Svetlana 2 as a pre-amp, and used a Parasound 2125 amplifier. When using the digital output I paired it with a Lead Audio LA-200 integrated DAC/amp.

 

All cables used were Signal Cable, including Analog One and Analog Two interconnects, Digital Link coaxial and Optical Link toslink cables. Power conditioning was done by a Furman Elite 15pfi.

 

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All equipment was burned in for well over 100 hours prior to auditioning. I don’t think this makes much difference but I recognize that other people do.

 

 

 

MUSIC

I listened to a wide range of music, from humble internet radio channels to amazing Reference Recordings HRx hi-res files, and everything in between. I’ll outline exactly what sort of capabilities each device has in terms of hi-res playback.

 

Obviously a key source of music is your own CDs that have been ripped as FLAC files (or whatever format your choose, I prefer FLAC). You can also purchase music from various locations. I’m going to focus on quality sources that offer lossless music; there are numerous other sources out there if you just need MP3 files. The following are some good places to find high quality music. Many even have free sample downloads. Most of these let you buy and download the files, but a few (Chesky 192/24, Soundkeeper, Reference Recordings HRx) require a physical disc because the files are so large. In that case you would copy the hi-res WAV tracks to your hard drive once you get the disc in the mail.

 

2L Records  http://www.2l.no/

B&W Society of Sound  http://blog.bowers-wilkins.com/music/society-of-sound/

Blue Coast  http://www.bluecoastrecords.com/

Chesky   http://www.chesky.com/

Classical Shop http://www.theclassicalshop.net/Default.aspx

Deutsche Grammophon    http://www.deutschegrammophon.com/

eClassical  http://www.eclassical.com/

Gimmell  http://www.gimell.com/

HDtracks https://www.hdtracks.com/

Hifitrack  http://www.hifitrack.com/en/

iTrax  http://www.itrax.com/

Linn  http://www.linnrecords.com/

Naim  http://www.naimlabel.com/

Passionato http://www.passionato.com/

Pristine Classical  http://www.pristineclassical.com/index2.html

Reference Recordings  http://www.referencerecordings.com/default.asp

Soundkeeper http://www.soundkeeperrecordings.com/index.htm

Unipheye Music  http://www.unipheyemusic.com/Results.cfm?category=6

 

 

 

 

CAPABILITIES

There are a few different options to look for when shopping for a device like this. I’ll briefly explain them here. Not every device does all of these, nor will every person have a need for all of them.

 

Network streaming: This means that you store your music on a computer or a Network Attached Storage aka NAS drive, and the device connects either through a LAN cable or WiFi. It streams the files from the computer and thus requires no local storage. Many devices accomplish this by adhering to standards like DLNA and UPnP  . A notable exception is the Logitech Squeezebox line, which relies on Logitech Media Server. In my experience, wireless streaming is easily done with standard 16-bit/44.1kHz audio. Many devices can successfully do up to 24/96 audio but it requires a fast network and sometimes a bit of luck. I’m not aware of any situation where files above 24/96 can be successfully streamed over WiFi.

 

Direct connection: This is an option on most every device you’ll see. It will often be an SD card slot, USB port(s), or sometimes a slot for an internal hard disk to be installed. USB ports can almost always accommodate memory sticks and often support hard drives as well. Sometimes there is a limit to what sort of hard drives can be used; either a size limit, or a requirement for external power in addition to the USB connection.

 

Internet Radio: The majority of streaming devices out there will support internet radio in some way. Many of them use a 3rd party portal like vTuner or Reciva to provide a robust list of radio channels, sorted by things like genre, location, bitrate, etc. Others use their own proprietary database which usually isn’t as good. Internet radio can range from sub-FM to very reasonable quality. Many stations are simply rebroadcasts of actual FM or even AM radio stations, sometimes complete with static. Others are dedicated internet only stations. They are usually done in MP3 format but you do see some WMA and even more rarely AAC. Bitrates can range from 32k (barely adequate for talk radio) to 320k (arguably CD quality). Some stations, such as Linn Classical and Linn Jazz, sound excellent. Others are not as good, but still listenable. The average quality seems to be 128k MP3 which can be good enough for background music in my opinion.

 

Music Services: Many of these devices support one or more 3rd party streaming services. Pandora, Aupeo!, Last.fm, and Slacker Radio are just a few of the possibilities for streaming radio style services. Spotify, Rhapsody, and MOG are the main options for On Demand style listening. See my article over at InnerFidelity for more information about those.

 

You’ll need to decide which features are important to you.

 

OTHER FEATURES

Some devices offer some random feature that the others don’t. Some of these include AM/FM radio, a built in CD player, iPod support, an integrated amplifier for powering speakers, digital inputs for use as an outboard DAC, a built in headphone amp, ability to act as a digital picture frame by displaying photos, etc. These may be handy at times but I don’t consider them core requirements.

 

OTHER OPTIONS

A list of devices that qualify based on my requirements, yet I have no experience with at the moment. When there is more than one model from the same company (Sonos for example) I won’t be listing all the options – merely the lowest priced choice. This is just a good starting point for someone to research these things. Again, feel free to point something out if I don’t have it listed.

 

Bryston BDP 1 - $2195

Cambridge Audio NP30 - $599

Sonos –starting at $698 for basic unit plus remote

Olive – starting at $599 for a basic model

Aune mini player - $320 (eBay)

Dugood HDAP-01D - ~$350 (eBay)

Sooloos Control 15 - $7500

Marantz NA7004 - $799

Denon DNP-720AE - $499

Cyrus Streamline - ~$3200

Naim UnitiQute - ~$2300

Musical Fidelity M1 CLiC - $1999

PS Audio Perfect Wave DAC with Bridge - $3799

 

 

There will be more of these devices being released as time passes, and I’d like to maintain this database as much as possible.


Edited by project86 - 4/23/12 at 9:29pm
post #2 of 142
Thread Starter 

 

Grace Digital Tuner

 

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BACKGROUND

I was familiar with Grace Digital (not to be confused with Grace Designs, maker of the m903 DAC/headphone amp among other studio oriented equipment) as a company that makes somewhat low cost internet radio devices. But one day I noticed that they sell a model called the “Tuner”. It is a full sized component that seemed to meet all the criteria I mentioned earlier, so I decided to give it a try. While not having much history with high end equipment, Grace Digital does seem to be very experienced with the network audio side of things. So I figured it would be worth a shot. It sells for $219 direct from the manufacturer, and sometimes slightly less from other vendors.

 

Here is the product page from the manufacturer.

 

 

OTHER MODELS

This is the only device in their lineup which has a digital output, so the only one worth talking about here.

 

DESIGN

The Tuner is a full size component that integrates well into an audio setup. It reminds me very much of the older models from Oppo Digital – their discontinued BDP-80 Blu-Ray player is very similar in appearance. The front is dominated by a monochrome LCD display, a few buttons, a rotary knob that doubles as a selection button when you push it, a ¼”  headphone jack, and an SD card slot. The rear panel has a full suite of connections: LAN port, RCA outputs, coaxial and optical digital outputs, plug for the included FM antenna, USB port, and connection point for the external “wall wart” style power supply. There is also a dedicated on/off switch on the rear to supplement the “standby” type button on front, and an adjustable WiFi antenna.

 

Internally, the Tuner shows the reason for its humble price point. The case is largely vacant, with the PCB taking maybe ¼ of the available space. This is definitely consumer grade stuff rather than high-end audiophile equipment. The heart of the unit is a Samsung ARM-based microcontroller. An AKM AK4103 digital audio transmitter passes the signal to a Wolfson WM8711B for D/A conversion. It’s a surprisingly simple design – the Wolfson chip has an integrated line driver so it directly feeds the RCA outputs with no additional processing required. In addition, it has an integrated headphone amplifier with digital volume control. That seems to be what Grace is using to feed the headphone jack. Elegantly simple or not, this DAC is listed as having a 97dB SNR in a best case scenario (which this probably isn't), so we aren’t talking state of the art by any means. Still, without the need for a separate analog output stage, there is potential here.

 

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Wolfson and AKM

 

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Main board with Samsung CPU, Nanya and Hynix memory

 

 

BUILD QUALITY

As I mentioned, the Tuner looks and feels like a mildly upscale DVD player. Only the light weight gives it away as not being a more expensive product. Even the “feet” on the bottom have a quality look and feel to them. The unit had a tendency to slide away from the user when operated by the front panel controls. But sitting on a shelf and being used via remote control, it looked significantly more upscale than I would have guessed.

 

The remote control is very basic. It’s plastic, non-backlit, and fairly generic overall. It did an acceptable job, but I really wish it had thumbs up/thumbs down type buttons for use with Pandora and Aupeo! radio services. But I’ll discuss that later.

 

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Small wall-wart style power supply

 

 

FEATURES

The Grace Tune has a surprisingly full feature set for such a low priced device. It uses the Reciva portal to access thousands of internet radio stations. It does free or premium versions of Pandora and Aupeo!, with the paid versions having no commercials and higher bitrates. It can also do Sirius/XM radio, Rhapsody, and Live365 services for a small fee. There are a bunch of other free services such as CBS, NPR, and WeatherBug, which I didn’t really use.

 

The Tuner also supports streaming audio from a computer or NAS via UPnP. I had no trouble getting connected to my desktop system or my laptop. Buffering was very minimal and only occurred before the song started; I don’t recall any dropped connections or interruptions for buffering. Obviously this would vary based on your WiFi setup.

 

Direct connection for playback can be made either using the front panel SD card slot or the USB port on the rear. There are a few limitations though. The SD card reader is limited to 4GB as it does not support larger SDHC cards. The USB port is limited to flash-based drives only; it can’t do portable hard drives. The rep I spoke with said that it supported drives up to 2TB, but I now realize that he probably meant 2GB… the T and the G being so close to each other on the keyboard. Since I only had 1GB and 2GB thumbdrives available to try, I can’t confirm that 4GB or larger models will work. Either way, there is a requirement for FAT32 formatting and a maximum of 2500 files. The helpful rep explained that the SD/USB slots were not really the main focus here. They were mostly added for convenience, since their research showed that iPod devices were not as ubiquitous in Europe as they are here in the USA. Apparently folks there commonly use USB drives and SD cards to carry music around so these slots were necessary. But the main focus was placed on UPnP streaming and internet sources. He did mention an updated model possibly being released next year that would handle up to a 32GB SDHC card.

 

One issue that I ran into was with support for high resolution files. The Grace website claims “Up to 24bit / 96K sampling rate via digital outputs” so I assumed I’d be playing hi-res FLACs without issue. That turned out not to be the case. The limit for sample rates is 48kHz, which I later confirmed with the Grace rep. The files appeared to play like normal but the only sound produced was a loud intermittent static. This happened whether using the digital or the analog outputs. I’m not sure what this issue is caused by, because the Wolfson DAC is capable of handling 24/96 material and the AKM digital transmitter goes all the way to 24/192.

 

The Tuner does have dedicated apps for iOS and Android devices. I only tried the Android version. Here are some screenshots to give you an idea of how it looks. Notice that it sometimes has a hard time with album art - in some cases it might be the fault of Windows Media Player (or possibly me, for not keeping on top of my library) rather than the Grace. 

 

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Here I'm using Aupeo! with the genre tuning option

 

 

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Album art didn't always look the best. That may be due to my

using a rooted Nook Color. This art would look better on a

smaller phone screen

 

 

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Here is me using Pandora, showing some stations I made

 

 

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Pandora album art looked great

 

 

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Some internet radio stations have their own logo, and some

do not

 

 

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This one doesn't

 

 

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The screen can get somewhat busy when selecting files

from a UPnP server - also notice the album art is not showing

on every single track

 

 

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Building a playlist involves selecting the songs you want

 

 

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Missing album art, even though it had showed up in the small

thumbnail when I chose this song

 

SETUP

Getting the Tuner up and running was a surprisingly easy task. It picked up on my wireless network right away, and prompted me to enter my WPA2 key. Choosing letters and numbers was a little slow due to the way the menu works, but I was up and running soon enough. From then on I could easily access my files on both computers with no extra steps required.

 

The Reciva portal allows you to log in from a computer and manage your radio stations and streaming services. The Tuner gives an ID number which you then link to your account. This makes it much simpler to add radio stations to “favorites” as well as getting set up with Aupeo! and Pandora.

 

USE

I found operating the Tuner to be pretty straight forward most of the time. The screen was large enough and bright enough to be seen from across the room. It only really shows two lines of text at a time, so scrolling through a large list of artists of songs could sometimes be tedious. In addition, if an artist name or song title was longer than roughly 16 letters, you have to wait for it to slowly scroll across the screen in order to read the whole thing. This seems like a deliberate compromise – ease of readability was prioritized over all else. I did like how it showed the compression type and bitrate for each playing song (except FLAC – it just says “FLAC lossless”, since bitrate is irrelevant in that case).

 

Navigation was very self explanatory. Most folks should be able to get the hang of it within the first few minutes. I found it easy to find whatever I was looking for, although again it could take a while to scroll up or down from a large list of choices. The one area that I found somewhat confusing was when selecting tracks for playback from an SD card or other source – the unit forces you to maintain a sort of running playlist, with no real option of just selecting and playing a single track. You can go in and delete the playlist, and then add more songs, but I would have liked this process to be easier. Many times I tried to play an album only to be presented with the songs I had been playing the day before.

 

The Android app helped a little, but didn’t completely fix the problem. It did solve the issue of browsing through large lists though. It was a little sluggish at times but worked well enough overall. It did a good job of displaying my album art – assuming Windows Media Player was properly organized. Though not a requirement, the Grace app enhances usability enough to make a significant difference. Note that using the app is the only way to make use of the thumbs up/thumbs down features in Aupeo! or Pandora.

 

Speaking of those two streaming radio services, they worked very well on the Tuner. Free accounts work right out of the box, and premium accounts were easy to configure. It handily lists the bitrate – free accounts do 128k and premium accounts are 192k (interesting sidenote: Pandora stays locked at 192k, Aupeo! is constantly adjusting from 188k to 196k or so). I did find it bothersome that Grace neglected to put thumbs up and thumbs down type buttons on the standard remote. A user is not able to take full advantage of these services unless they are able to give feedback about the songs being chosen. As it stands, the only way to do so is through a smartphone via the Grace app. For many people this omission doesn't mean a thing. But I can see someone buying this device solely to get Pandora into their listening room, and for that person it is disappointing. Grace shouldn't just assume that everyone has a smartphone (although realistically many people do).

 

One thing I found that I did like was the speed at which the unit operated. The only delay I experienced was streaming FLAC files over the network. Even then, it only took a few seconds to get started, and I don’t recall a single experience of breakups or buffering once the song started. Pretty impressive for such a simple budget device.

 

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Choose genre

 

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Then choose sub-genre

 

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I didn't use Windows Shares much, it seemed to work the same as UPnP on my

Windows 7 system

 

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Loading internet radio stations was fairly quick

 

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Here I'm actually playing a 24/96 track. It appears to be working fine, but the sound

is all garbled.

 

 

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Display alternates between showing bitrate/format and artist info. The top line is the 

current track being played. 

 

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SOUND QUALITY

Since this is HeadFi, I’ll start by discussing the quality of the headphone output first. Unfortunately I don’t have many good things to say about it. It sounded soft, flat, and generally uninspiring. Despite an overall softness, it did have somewhat of a sharp emphasis on the upper mids, which made certain headphones sound overly harsh. I didn’t care for the sound at all when using any potentially bright headphones such as Audio Technica or Grado. Darker headphones like Sennheiser HD650 and even the Kenwood K1000 sounded less objectionable, but still not great. It vaguely reminds me of the sound you would expect to hear when listening straight from the headphone jack of an iPod. That’s a valid comparison because several of the prior generation iPods used slight variations of the same Wolfson DAC. I don’t want to overstate things – this is far from the worst headphone output I’ve ever heard. But it isn’t impressive either.

 

Next, we move to the RCA outputs. The Tuner fared a bit better here. Though still not on the level of even “entry level” audiophile gear, it was certainly listenable. The softness that I heard from the headphone jack remained, but this time the glare was absent. It made for a less objectionable performance and actually fit well considering some of the lower quality streaming sources it might be playing. But when listening to good quality material, the limitations of the budget design become clear. To put it another way – If I purchased a $160 Blu-ray player and it sounded like this, I’d be fairly pleased. If I purchased a $350 entry level model CD player from Cambridge or NAD and it sounded like this, I’d be fairly disappointed.

 

The real fun began when I started using the Tuner as a transport, connecting an outboard DAC to one of the two SPDIF outputs. I’ll preface this by saying that I’m not a huge advocate of high end transports as a necessary requirement for good sound. I’m not saying they are all the same; I realize that there are measureable factors (jitter being the primary concern) that can cause one transport to sound better than another. I’ve experienced this myself, but perhaps not to the same extent as others claim. I do think that a bad transport can drag down a system. But once you reach a certain threshold, I don’t think the transport matters all that much. Obviously some DACs are more sensitive than others due to their jitter rejection capabilities.

 

With that being said, the Grace Tuner made a fine transport. I played a lot of FLAC files and 320k internet radio streams (mostly the Linn stations) and I felt it did a great job getting out of the way of the music. With a DAC that has excellent jitter reduction circuitry (Anedio D1, Violectric V800) I could not tell much difference between the Tuner and a high end CD based transport from Lexicon. When I used a DAC more sensitive to jitter (Audio GD Reference 7, Hot Audio DAC Wow) I did notice a bit of difference. Somehow it made things both softer (in terms of attack and decay) and more edgy (that “digital” sound that is so often complained about). This was something that required critical listening to uncover, and it didn’t bother me during normal use. Overall I find the Tuner to be at least as good as an entry level CD player from one of the big players like NAD, Cambridge, or Marantz, when used as a transport.

 

CONCLUSION

First off, it needs to be said that the quality of the headphone or analog outputs is not an issue when working with low quality streams. Playing a 128k mp3 internet radio station or even a 192k Pandora station, the limiting factor is still the lossy audio. Only when moving to higher bitrates or lossless files does the hardware start to really matter. With that in mind, I have zero reservations in recommending the Grace Tuner to people looking for an easy way to add streaming internet radio functionality to an existing system.

 

Things get a bit trickier when considering the overall package. The Logitech Squeezebox Touch (which I’ll cover in-depth in a later review) is not much more expensive, and has numerous advantages in both sound quality and usability. But there’s a key advantage the Tuner has over the Touch: the traditional size and shape. The Touch is an oddly proportioned little device, and I’ve spoken to people who would not consider using it because it wouldn’t integrate well into their audio rack. Some of these same folks were also not fans of the touchscreen style interface. The Tuner avoids all this by looking like a standard piece of audio gear, as well as being very easy to interact with using knobs and buttons. If you are too young or too tech-savvy to comprehend why anyone would be put off by a touch screen, just think of your parents (or even your grandparents) – I suspect that they would choose hardware buttons whenever possible.

 

On sound quality: The headphone jack is more of a convenience than a serious listening tool. The analog outputs are passable for casual use but certainly won’t win any awards. The real draw here is the digital outputs – pair this device with a decent outboard DAC and it will deliver a solid performance that is more than acceptable for an entry level device.

 

This review might seem overly negative, but keep in mind that this is basically the cheapest model out there that satisfies my criteria for being a useful streaming device. At just over $200, you really shouldn’t expect miracles. The fact that the Tuner doesn’t sound great from the headphone or analog outs is expected; the reasonable quality digital output and (mostly) pleasing user experience is a bit of a surprise. For anyone wishing to dabble in streaming playback, this a great low cost way to start, assuming you either own a decent DAC or plan to buy one soon. You can certainly get more features and better sound, but you’ll pay accordingly.  

 

EDIT: I just discovered out that Grace Digital will be releasing a firmware update in the next 2 weeks. This simple update will enable 24/96 playback on all Tuners. With that in mind, I have a somewhat higher opinion of this device.

 

The more I think about it, the more I realize that the sound quality issue is mostly irrelevant. People who will care about the sound quality will likely be pairing it with an outboard DAC anyway. So they won't be using the analog outs or headphone jack. The Tuner is by far the cheapest traditional looking device to accomplish streaming playback. Even the $800 NAD C446 that I currently have in my audio rack does not do everything that the Tuner does. With expectations properly set, I think the Tuner is a great choice.

 

As far as I know this is the most advanced and feature-packed single component ever sold by Grace Digital. It's good enough to make me keep their website in my favorites, just to see what else they might do in the future. 


Edited by project86 - 12/12/11 at 9:38am
post #3 of 142
Thread Starter 

 

NAD C 446

 

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BACKGROUND

NAD has been around for a long time – next year marks their 40th anniversary in the audio biz. Many an audiophile got their first taste of “proper hi-fi” through the NAD 3020 amplifier, and there have been literally dozens of highly significant models released since then. Today you can buy a wide range quality gear from NAD, from the $379 C316BEE to the $6,000 M2. And that’s just the integrated category – they also do CD and DVD players, dedicated amplifiers, and other types of gear.

 

Link to the C 446 on the NAD website.

 

 

OTHER MODELS

This C 446 is a new release from NAD. The “C” stands for “Classic Series”, which means it matches aesthetically with the other C-series disc players and amps. NAD recently unveiled some higher end components from their Master Series - The M50 ($2500) is the playback device and the M52 ($2000) is the storage device. These are so new that they aren’t yet on the NAD website as a write this, and are obviously geared towards a different market than the C 446.

 

DESIGN

The C 446 is a full size component that will look right at home on an audio rack. It is roughly the size and shape of a good integrated amplifier. If you already have some NAD components in your system from the Classic Series, the C 446 will be a perfect match. Even if you don’t it should still blend very well with your equipment. I’ve always appreciated the balance NAD has achieved with the C series – they look somewhat upscale yet still understated.

 

The C 446 has a nice clean front panel that still allows control of most functions. Select your source, scroll through various stations or files, play or pause; it’s all there. The display is a VFD type similar to what you would find on a decent CD or DVD player, though is a bit taller to accommodate the extra lines of info needed here. Many devices in this category have large icon driven displays, and often show album art, but NAD sticks to a more classic styling.

 

Out back we find plenty of connectivity options: antenna connections for AM and FM radio, analog RCA outputs, Toslink digital output, LAN port, RS232 port, NAD iPod dock port, and finally connections for a 12V trigger and IR flasher. There is also a spot to attach the included WiFi antenna. Many of these connections are things that you typically find on higher end gear, in order to integrate into a custom installation. I personally didn’t use the 12v trigger, IR input, or RS232 port, but I appreciate the fact that NAD included them. Power is connected through a standard detachable IEC cable.

 

Internally, we find lots of spare room in the case, though not as much as we saw with the Grace model. NAD certainly could have made this into a more compact unit, but that would mean A) it would no longer take up a full spot in a standard audio rack/shelf, and B) it wouldn’t match up with any of the other Classic Series components. So I think they made the right choice. If this were a CD player, much of the empty space would be occupied by transport components, which the C 446 obviously doesn’t need. So I don’t think it is totally fair to complain about the space inside the case.

 

There are basically three main parts to the design: power supply, main board, and radio tuner. The radio tuner is an enclosed part so I can’t see inside. It sends the signal to the main board where a TI PCM1808 ADC converts the analog data into digital.

 

The power supply uses a somewhat small transformer as part of a more complex design, flanked by over a dozen capacitors of various sizes. NAD has long been known for their quality power supplies, and although this model doesn’t appear to be as robust as the supplies used in their power amps, it doesn’t really need to be either.

 

The main board of the device is where we find the various bits that make the C 446 tick. The heart of the design (as far as audio reproduction is concerned) is a Cirrus Logic CS4392 DAC and twin NE5532 opamps. Neither of these are considered cutting edge at this point, yet both have been used in numerous high end designs. The CS4392 was once popular in audiophile disc players from such companies as Luxman, Myryad, and Unison. And the venerable NE5532 shows up everywhere -  from expensive CD players like the Exposure 2010S to the new Cambridge 751BD universal player, as well as the Music Fidelity M1 DAC (a Stereophile component-of-the-year runner up). I don’t mean to imply that the C 446 is on the same level as those units simply because it uses the same DAC or opamps. My point is that these inexpensive components can and are used in a variety of applications, from low end to high.

 

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This is the "empty space" I mentioned - If this was a CD player, there would be a big square transport section taking up most of the leftover area

 

 

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Cirrus Logic CD4392 Delta-Sigma DAC

 

 

 

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AM/FM tuner

 

 

 

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Power supply

 

 

 

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Power supply top view

 

 

 

 

BUILD QUALITY

The C 446 seems rather well built and certainly meets my expectations for an $800 component. It isn’t fancy, but tolerances are tight and finishes are well done. The gold “feet” on bottom are a nice touch, adding a bit of class to an otherwise low-key design. Despite the case appearing somewhat empty, the device weighs in at over 10 pounds, which is fairly substantial.

 

I really enjoyed the included remote control. It felt good in my hands and seemed to be laid out well. The only complaint I had: I didn’t end up using the number keys or transport keys much, so I was a bit disappointed that they took up so much real estate. Aside from that it was about as good as it possibly could have been.

 

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FEATURES

The C 446 aims to be the heart of your system, and has enough features to support that goal. It can play AM/FM terrestrial radio. It can access thousands of internet radio stations using the vTuner content portal. It can stream audio tracks from a computer or NAS using the UPnP protocol. It can play tracks directly from a USB stick or portable hard drive through the front panel USB input. It can also access Last.fm, which requires a paid account at $3/month. Euro versions support DAB and DAB+ radio. That is a lot of options for getting content.

 

Breaking those features down into more detail:

 

AM/FM – A unique feature here is that the stream can be passed out in digital form through the Toslink output. This could make system setup easier, though for most folks it won’t matter.

 

Internet radio – vTuner works quite well for organizing your favorite stations. It is much easier to do all that legwork on your computer and then access it through the C 446, rather than do it all from the device itself. I have a “favorites” menu setup, and inside I keep things organized into different genres: classical, jazz, rock, pop, world, Christmas, electronic, reggae, etc. It is easy to search for stations and add them to the proper section. Since vTuner allows filtering by bitrate (they label it “fastest speed”) I was able to quickly find high quality 320k mp3 stations for most genres, which sound pretty darn good.

 

UPnP playback – The C 446 can play FLAC, MP3, WAV, AAC, and WMA files, up to 24-bit/48kHz. That limitation means it doesn’t handle what we usually consider “Hi-Resolution” tracks, though one could argue that tracks such as the Bowers & Wilkins Society of Sound releases at 24/48 qualify as Hi-Res. They certainly sound good enough. Still, this limitation means that some care is required when organizing or selecting files for playback. When I accidentally select the 24/96 version of “Paper Airplane” by Alison Krauss & Union Station, the C 446 gets stuck on “Buffering” and never finishes.

 

USB playback – I tried a few flash memory drives, as well as a 500GB Seagate portable hard drive, and had (mostly) good luck with all of them. I did run into an issue though: when I power down the C 446 with a USB stick or hard drive plugged in, it sometimes fails to recognize the drive when I later power back on. A quick unplug-then-plug-back-in maneuver rectifies this situation. NAD likes to use the term “USB memory stick” when talking about the USB port, as if to discourage use of an actual spinning-platter hard drive. My first try was to add a dozen test albums to the Seagate drive, and it all worked out perfectly. That drive has since been paired with a different streaming player and loaded full of hi-resolution files. I later tried plugging it back in to the C 446 and it recognized the drive by saying “Attached”, but went no further. This is probably caused by some issue with the amount of files or possibly even the sizes of the files - some of the Reference Recordings HRx 24-bit/176.4kHz tracks are simply massive. But I don’t have the time or energy to erase the drive and try it again. Portable USB hard drive support is almost always a bit touchy in my experience, so I really can’t predict if your particular drive will work or not.

 

The manual gives some limitations to watch out for: FAT32 format, maximum of 65,408 total files in a maximum of 128 folders. As long as you work within those parameters most drives should theoretically work. Some drives may require an external power source (like a powered hub) but mine didn’t. Surprisingly I found that I didn’t use USB as much as I had anticipated. UPnP worked well enough so I usually stuck with that. Your needs may differ.

 

Last.fm – The literature on the NAD website says the C 446 features “ …support for cloud music services such as Last.fm”. That implies that Last.fm is only one example of several. But in reality it is the sole choice. It also requires a $3/month premium account in order to work with the NAD (Last.fm free accounts work with computers only). I hope that NAD has plans for adding more services in the near future. MOG or Spotify might be a challenge due to their more complex user interfaces, but Pandora and Aupeo! would be a perfect fit here. Both offer free services so C 446 users could get up and running without spending extra money initially. The remote already has buttons for Like/Dislike so it should be a perfect match.

 

Interestingly, NAD chose not to design a specific App for Android or iOS users to control the C 446. Instead, users can choose from any one of a large number of existing UPnP remote Apps. I’m personally using Skifka on my Android Tablet and iMediaControl on my iPad. Both are free and both do a reasonably good job of handling basic remote functions. Other options include Smartstor Fusion Stream for iOS (free) and PlugPlayer for Android or iOS (not free). I do wish that NAD had offered some suggestions for what programs they like. I suspect the target market for C 446 includes folks who aren’t extremely computer savvy, and some tips on which options to try might have been appreciated.

 

 

SETUP

The C 446 was quick and easy. After plugging it in and telling it to use my network, I was prompted for a password, and was up and running from there. I used www.vTuner.NADelectronics.com to start a vTuner account and register my unit. Since I already had UPnP running well with my Windows 7 based PC, I was all ready to go.

 

 

 

USE

The C 446 was easy to get the hang of. Using the left and right Source buttons on the remote or the front panel, one can quickly cycle through the various functions. The screen was well laid out and generally bright enough, though sometimes difficult to read from across the room. This is not due to any deficiency in clarity or brightness but simply the font size. I see no way to avoid this while still presenting a similar level of information, and as it stands it is certainly no worse than most disc-based players.

 

The top line of the display always tells what source you are listening to. The next level down gives you specific information about the song: each push of the “info” button switches this line to show something else – song title, artist, album, then compression type and bitrate. There are variations based on what source you are using but it is generally similar. The bottom level shows status such as “playing” or “paused”, along with elapsed time. I tried to capture the display in action as that will probably give you a better idea than my attempted explanation.

 

Moving through files or radio stations is fairly easy. The remote control has a nice 4-way rocker plus an “enter” button in the middle, and that’s what gets used 90% of the time. You can list music by the usual criteria such as artist, genre, album, etc. As with any device of this nature, the results depend on how well your library is tagged. My one complaint here was that scrolling through a long list could take a while. There is a search option but it is inconveniently located at the end of the file list – by the time you scrolled down to it, you would have already passed whatever you were looking for. It would make way more sense to place it on top instead.

 

This issue was solved through the use of an iOS or Android device as a remote. Scrolling through your list on a big touchscreen device is by far the easiest way to deal with a large music library. The addition of album art is a small benefit as well, but it is mainly the navigation that I’m concerned about. If you have a smaller library (or just more patience than I do) the standard remote is perfectly fine, but for huge collections a smartphone really upgrades the experience.

 

In terms of speed, the C 446 was pretty impressive. Boot up takes a little longer than I’d like, but once it was up and running things moved along quite well. Selecting my large library from a networked computer caused just a short delay, and it would probably be shorter if I had a faster network. Playing songs from USB was near instantaneous, and UPnP playback was quick too. Internet radio stations took a second or two to load, occasionally longer when they are very far away. I never ran into any buffering issues, and had no interruptions once playback had begun. I did occasionally get errors when selecting internet radio stations: A message saying “Media Invalid” would display and the unit would just sit. I found that the solution was to simply back out to the prior menu, then reselect the same station, and it would always work fine the second time around. A minor annoyance at worst.

 

Last.fm is not my favorite choice as far as music services go, and as I’ve mentioned it is the only music service available on the C 446 at the moment. For one thing, the bitrate tops out at 128k. That’s not any better than the average internet radio station, and actually worse in many cases. I’ve used it before but don’t currently have a premium account. I tried a free account just to confirm that it won’t work with the C 446. Consider it confirmed. I’m hopeful that at least Pandora will be added as an option, but I have no specific information about whether or not that is in the works.

 

Some screenshots of the unit in action. These were difficult to capture due to lighting. Where there is any blur or apparent artifacting, it is because the display was changing at that moment. 

 

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Boot screen

 

 

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Opening menu

 

 

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Favorites folder

 

 

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This is how the screen first displays when a station is selected

 

 

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Hitting the "Info" button shows the genre

 

 

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Push it again for a description

 

 

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Push it again for bitrate and compression format

 

 

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Push it again for song information

 

 

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Using a USB drive filled with music

 

 

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Starting at the top of the list of artists

 

 

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Then scroll all the way down to the bottom

 

 

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Eventually there is a seach function - which would be more easily accessed if it was on top of the menu

 

 

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Last.FM requires a premium account - I tried a free one and got this result

 

 

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Leaving a USB drive inserted would sometimes give me this error

 

 

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Remove the drive, plug it back in, and things are fixed

 

 

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Internet radio sounds pretty respectable at 192k 

 

 

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This error popped up once in a while but was an easy fix

 

 

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Here I try to load a 24/96 track from the Head-Fi/Chesky album "Open Your Ears" 

 

 

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But all I get is this screen

 

 

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Standard 16/44.1 or 16/48 FLAC playback works great though

 

 

SOUND QUALITY

The NAD C 446 has been a roller coaster ride for me in terms of sound quality. When I first plugged it in and used the RCA outputs with my speaker setup, I was blown away by the superb analog-like sound I heard. It had warmth, drive, and a wonderfully smooth top end that seemed perfectly suited for a device like this. Even though I was primarily listening to lossless files at the time, I knew that at least some of my future use would involve lesser quality material – I figured this was the perfect voicing to give the unit.

 

Things changed a bit when I started comparing the C 446 analog outputs with some of my nicer DACs. In direct A/B comparisons, I noticed that the top end on the NAD wasn’t just smooth – it was actually missing some details altogether. The unit still sounded warm and inviting but the glossed over detail was a deal breaker for a while.

 

Eventually I think I got acclimated enough to the sound signature, and swung almost all the way back to my original position. This was just a good sounding unit with its own character, and unless I compared it to a $1k+ stand alone DAC it held up pretty well. It wasn't a detail monster but did an admirable job of balancing strengths and weaknesses

 

Bass reproduction was clearly one of the strong points of this design. From punishing dubstep to slap bass funk to the amazing Gary Karr on double bass, the C 446 handled it all in a very fun yet convincing manner. It can’t quite match the depth or dynamics of the best DACs and players I’ve heard, but the NAD unit is still very pleasing on its own.

 

Mids sounded well defined, if a little on the rich and warm side of neutral. Once again this seems like an optimal choice given the variety of material that will likely be played. Instruments and voices sounded realistic enough and I felt that the balance of technicality and emotion was just right. During really complex passages I noticed that there was a very slight blurring taking place, making it more challenging to focus on individual instrument placement (compared to my reference units). But on the whole this is a minor complaint.

 

Highs were a bit of a stumbling block for me. As I mentioned prior, it took me a while to figure out what to make of the C 446 sound signature, and the highs were chiefly to blame. My conclusion is that with the right expectations, the C 446 has a pleasantly forgiving tone, which will satisfy many but certainly not all potential customers. Everything is still there – cymbals, triangles, and various other percussion instruments are clearly rendered if not quite perfectly lifelike. If you are the type who demands crisp, hyper-detailed sound with sparkling highs, the C 446 (when used by itself) is probably not the best source for you. If you are willing to live with a smooth, flattering sound where poor recordings benefit, occasionally at the expense of hindering excellent recordings, the C 446 sounds pretty good overall.

 

Pairing the C 446 with an external DAC worked out nicely. The sole digital output is a Toslink optical connection – I would have liked to see a coaxial digital connection as well, but it isn’t that big of a deal. The main benefit I see with coaxial is the ability to work with 192kHz sample rates, where optical generally tops out at 96kHz (in practice if not in theory). Since the C 446 is capped at 48kHz this limitation doesn’t come into play. Still, if only for the sake of convenience, a coaxial output would have been nice. In terms of sound quality I didn’t find the C 446 to be a significant factor – which means it makes for a high quality transport.

 

COMPARISON

To help gauge how the unit would stack up against similarly priced competition of the disc-spinner variety, I compared it directly against a few other players. The C 446 seemed easily more capable than the somewhat entry level Denon DCM-390 and Marantz CD6002 players. The Marantz was superior to the Denon but neither could match the dynamics or resolution of the NAD. Stepping up to a Cambridge Audio Azur 650C ($750 when new), the C 446 was different but roughly equal. The Cambridge had a more detailed sound that also seemed more open and spacious. It was less congested during complex passages, and had more pinpoint imaging. In contrast, the NAD seemed smoother, warmer, more rhythmic, less clinical, and overall more inviting for long term listening. I could see either one being declared superior based on listener preference, but I personally think they are more or less on the same level. My choice would depend on what gear I would be pairing it with, and what music would be played.

 

I didn’t do direct comparisons with more expensive units, but I don’t think the C 446 would compete with some of the better ~$1k units such as the Rega Apollo. Obviously high quality speakers or headphones and proper amplification would be required to discern the differences.

 

CONCLUSION

The NAD C 446 is a really enjoyable unit. Expectations run somewhat high at $799 and in my mind the unit really delivers, doing an outstanding job of balancing its wide array of features. It looks suitably high end and is sonically competitive with traditional disc players in this price category. As NADs maiden voyage into the realm of streaming audio I’d say they have done well for themselves.

 

The trick here is going in with the proper expectations: knowing what the C 446 can and can’t do is really key to determining if it will be a good fit for your system. Those seeking a fancy color display complete with album art should obviously look elsewhere.  Folks who judge gear by the complexity and prestige of their individual parts will not find enough bragging rights here. But go in with an open mind and a willingness to judge based on results rather than chip specs, and you are likely to be impressed.

 

Clearly the 24-bit/48kHz limit will turn off some users. And I do think the issue is a valid criticism. But as I listen to Cara Dillon, or Samuel Yirga, or Radiohead, or Ola Onabule, or Tom Petty, or The Unthanks, or others in 24-bit/48kHz FLAC from B&W, Pristine Classical, and other sources, I can’t help but think that I AM in fact hearing what I consider Hi-Res audio. But I agree that it would be convenient to play the rest of my collection and not have to worry about sample rate issues. Especially since many of my other streaming audio players do allow that. At the very least I think NAD should add an error message so users know when they have selected an improper file with too  high of a sample rate. The current "buffering" message gives a false hope that the track is going to play, which is not the case.

 

Further criticism? The lack of Pandora or other streaming services, the single digital output, the failure to provide recommendations for remote control software. None of these are deal breakers in my eyes, and two of them are easy enough to fix if NAD wants to – making the C 446 go from “really good” to “exceptional” with a single firmware update.

 

I see the ideal customer for the C 446 as someone who already has a fairly nice system. They are heavily invested in their current components but want to add a new level of versatility. The C 446 analog output would be fed into their high quality pre-amp, and the unit would fit on their audio stand just like the other components. This customer has no interest in a touch screen interface. They may eventually use iOS or Android for control but will get by just fine initially with the standard remote. The C 446 is a good combination of functionality and simplicity, so even the most hardened Luddite should be able to figure it out.

 

Like every streaming audio player I’ve experienced so far, the NAD C 446 is not perfect, and it won’t be ideal for everyone. But it you find yourself in its target market I highly recommend looking into it. Being from an established firm like NAD has benefits too – you are much more likely to find this model at your local dealer. Play with it, listen to it, maybe even arrange an in-home trial. You might be glad you did.

 

I’d like to extend a big “Thank You” to Peter Hoagland of Lenbrook, parent company of NAD and PSB Speakers, for loaning me this review sample. Your generosity to the HeadFi community is much appreciated. I’ll be sending the unit back soon and I already miss it.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


Edited by project86 - 12/20/11 at 8:43am
post #4 of 142
Thread Starter 

 

TEAC WAP-8600

 

 

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I’d like to thank Teac for loaning me this review unit. I can’t find a local seller that carries this model, but the price on Amazon.de is roughly €400, which currently translates to around $500 USD.

 

BACKGROUND

Younger readers might not know this, but Teac has some serious audio pedigree. Founded in Tokyo circa 1953, the company became well known in the 1960s for their expertise in audio tapes (reel-to-reel and later cassettes). For the next 40+ years Teac continued to have a big impact on the audio world – they started the Tascam pro-audio division, which basically created the entire concept of the “home studio”. They also launched Esoteric Audio, which for over 20 years has been on the cutting edge of high-end audio. I don’t blame people for thinking of them as primarily a company that made floppy disk drives, but there is actually quite a rich history there if you only look.

 

OTHER MODELS

Teac doesn’t seem to market heavily in the USA for their “Teac” branded audio gear. Esoteric of course gets plenty of exposure in the audiophile press, and Tascam is still a big player, but the rest of it is practically non-existent. The website for the consumer electronics branch shows a collection of CD players in a wide variety of styles and focus. There certainly doesn’t appear to be a guiding principal of design theme for much of it, and it can be hard to tell how one model compares to the rest.

 

An exception is with the Teac Reference line. We see a definite family resemblance between them, with a clear split in personality between the solid black models of the past year or so and the latest silver offerings. The older black models had received favorable reviews in The Absolute Sound as well as at 6Moons.com, so maybe Teac is showing renewed interest in expanding their audio division presence in the USA.

 

As far as streaming playback goes, you won’t find much on the USA website. Head over to the European site and you’ll find half a dozen choices, including the WAP-8600 which I’m reviewing here. This seems to be the top of the WAP line, with the others being variations of the same thing but with less features. There are other models that look interesting, such as the portable WAP-R8900 with built in speaker, or the WAP-AX100 and siblings which have built in ICEpower amplification. None of those meet the specific requirements that I’ve set as my focus for this particular series of reviews. There’s also the slick looking Reference 01 series which, though not qualifying for this specific article, looks very intriguing for HeadFi purposes in general. Further investigation may follow.

 

DESIGN

The WAP-8600 has two main components – the receiver unit and the control unit. The receiver appears to be similar across the WAP line, with other models having different remotes or lacking wireless connectivity. Teac also sells additional receivers which can be used as part of a multi-room system, all running from the same controller.

 

The receiver could easily be confused with a standard wireless router: it’s a small black box with a Wi-Fi antenna and an array of cryptic blinking lights. Closer inspection reveals the differences though – a 1/8th inch headphone jack, Toslink digital output, RCA analog output, and several USB ports.

 

The controller consists of a charging base and the actual remote itself. The base holds the remote in such a way that it is tilted for easy viewing. The remote itself is based around a 3.5 inch touchscreen display with just a few hardware buttons on top.

 

I tried to open the receiver unit to get a peek at the innards. It should have been as easy as removing 4 screws on the bottom panel and taking the device apart. Unfortunately one of the screws has a special star pattern instead of a normal Philips head, no doubt to deter curious people like myself from messing around with the guts. This temporary setback would have been easily overcome if not for the fact that I have the unit on loan from Teac… so I don’t want to risk damaging it. For that reason, I don’t have specifics about the internal layout or specific parts used. With 3 of the 4 screws removed, I was able to move the cover just enough to make an opening and peek inside. While the outside of this unit might scream “router”, the inside looks decidedly “soundcard”. I see a bunch of purplish capacitors sprinkled liberally throughout, but I can’t read the brand. I also can’t tell what chips are used for the DAC or opamps. The manual lists signal-to-noise ratio as 95dB, which is something you might find on an entry-level CD player (the $349 Cambridge Topaz CD10 is listed as having the same SNR, though to be fair some of the Denon and NAD models are considerably higher). It’s a far cry from the 120+ range found in my reference equipment. Still, one vague number is not much to go by.

 

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BUILD QUALITY

The receiver portion of the 8600 is simple plastic that isn’t much to look at. As I said, it’s just like a router, complete with wall-wart power. The good part is that it is small enough to fit in the places where routers often go – on top of a bookshelf, under a desk, behind a stack of other gear. The only reason you might need access to it is for inserting a USB drive or using it with headphones.

 

The controller, powered by an identical wall-wart PSU, looks a bit more upscale than the receiver. Notice I used the word “looks”. Where the remote appears to have metal trim, it is really just painted plastic. The rest of it is a sort of textured plastic that has a bit of a non-slip coating. It works well enough but still feels somewhat cheap. The rear battery cover on my unit seems especially flimsy. On the plus side, the remote unit slides into the charging base very nicely (unlike my old Logitech Harmony 880 remote which I’m still upset about). I like how the charger positions the screen at a laid back angle so you can use it without needing to take it out.

 

One negative thing that I can’t avoid mentioning: the controller uses a resistive touchscreen rather than capacitive. In case you are too young to remember resistive touchscreen technology – it was commonly used in early smartphones from HTC and others. Unlike capacitive screens which react to the human finger, resistive technology is based on pressure. Combined with the somewhat small size of the screen (it feels smaller than 3.5” to me, possibly due to being somewhat recessed into the panel), and it makes navigation difficult at times. Picking a main function is easy enough but choosing the name of an artist from a list required fingernail action. Eventually I started using a stylus from my old Samsung Epix smartphone - I did much better with the stylus. Resistive screens were not always bad, but in this case I do feel that it is a compromise.

 

I don’t know the resolution of the screen but I’m guessing it is not very high – I’m guessing it is 320x240. It does not look as clear as my similarly sized LG Optimus screen, nor the larger Squeezebox Touch. There appears to be some dithering as well, like it can’t reproduce the full spectrum of colors. It looks decent enough from arms length, and it isn’t bad enough to render it unusable… but it won’t win any beauty contests. I also notice what appears to be a dynamic adjustment of contrast: the screen gets slightly darker or lighter, ostensibly based on lighting conditions in the room. The problem is that this happens seemingly at random. It isn’t as bad as it sounds, and the difference between light and dark is not all that noticeable. But I don’t have a good explanation as to why it happens.

 

 

FEATURES

The 8600 has all the basic functionality one would expect from a streaming audio player. It uses the vTuner portal for internet radio, it features Aupeo! streaming, it can access content via a UPnP connection to a computer or NAS, and it can play local content through one of the two USB ports. It has built in Wi-Fi as well as an Ethernet port for a hard-wired connection. A 1/8th inch headphone jack rounds out the connectivity options. It’s a pretty robust feature set overall, with all areas represented to some degree.

 

The 8600 handles a good assortment of formats: AAC, OGG, MP3, WMA, WAV, and FLAC. It will accept FLAC files up to 24/96 resolution, but they get converted down to 16/48 prior to playback. This applies to both analog and digital outputs. While full resolution playback would be ideal, I do appreciate the fact that I don’t have to tiptoe around my collection, as was the case with the NAD C 446. On the plus side, gapless playback is supported.

 

The 8600 is unique among the streamers in this roundup, in that the main unit does not have a display or any buttons – that is all handled by the remote unit. Users do have the option of using Teac’s myWAP app for iOS instead of the included remote. No specific app is available for Android, though any UPnP/DLNA control app will do the trick. I’ll show some pictures of the myWAP app in action – it’s a fairly straight forward program, adequate and useful but not amazing.

 

The controller is based around the touchscreen but it does have some physical buttons on top – a power button and dual buttons for volume up and down. Volume adjustment is handled in the digital domain, and affects the analog and headphone outputs but not Toslink.

 

This unit has another fairly unique feature in the ability to record internet radio stations. It won’t work with Aupeo! but any standard internet radio is fine. I didn’t use this function but I could see it coming in handy for fans of talk radio.

 

 

SETUP

Getting the 8600 to work in my system was fairly straight forward. Through the controller, I simply entered my passkey for the network, and I was all set. I do wish it used a QWERTY keyboard layout instead of alphabetical.

 

Insert a USB drive and the 8600 will automatically scan for files. It takes a while but only has to be done once. The 8600 worked perfectly with my 500GB portable hard drive without an external power connection.

 

One curious aspect was how to configure vTuner and Aupeo! with customized accounts. Both will work straight from the box in generic form; vTuner will allow you to browse by categories such as genre or location, and Aupeo! will give you 128k steaming quality. But I couldn’t figure out how to register either of them to get a more personal experience. The manual was no help either. Eventually I discovered that the myWAP application allowed me to enter a name and password for Aupeo!, which didn’t seem possible from the standard controller. I’m still working on getting registered with vTuner so I can build a list of favorite stations. This seems like it could have been implemented better.

 

USE

The 8600 is very easy to use. Upon startup you are presented with a main screen asking what function you’d like to play: USB, Internet Radio, or Audio Server. Choosing one of those will lead you to further options which apply to that function. This is best illustrated by pictures.

 

The “now playing” screen looks very similar no matter what source is being played. I like the fact that it always displays the bit rate and sample rate, though I do miss seeing the compression format. You get album title, track title, and artist information when playing your own music or Aupeo! stations. Internet radio isn’t as informative, though it varies from station to station.

 

The now playing screen does show album art, though I had some difficulty getting it to display consistently. I’m guessing there is some maximum resolution corresponding to the low-res of the display itself. This wouldn’t be a huge deal if the spot remained blank or had some reasonable logo indicating that no album art is available (like the way it is done on the Squeezebox Touch). The problem is that Teac uses a terrible stock photo whenever the album art won’t work – which is quite often. To make matters even worse – after a short period of inactivity, the player switches to a different screen, with larger album art and less details. This is great for a real album cover, but terrible for the stock photo. Scroll down to my pictures to see just how bad this looks. Thankfully most internet radio stations have their own art, as does Aupeo!.

 

The unit was reasonably quick during normal use – navigating through folders, skipping ahead to a new track, loading a new radio station, all was fairly smooth. Volume adjustments had a few seconds of lag, to the point where I wasn’t sure if my button push had registered. But this is one of the only units to have remote volume adjustment, so I shouldn’t complain.

 

The myWAP app was a nice upgrade over the stock remote – not so much for the features, but rather for the fact that it is being used on an iDevice with a better screen. I use an iPad for it and find it much easier to navigate through artists or stations. I’ve also used other programs such as the free iMediaControl, and they all recognized and controlled the 8600 without issue.

 

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Main page

 

 

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Selecting USB

 

 

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Initial file scan

 

 

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Navigating the drive

 

 

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Tagging is key with large collections, as with any device

 

 

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This is the stock photo they use when album art won't display....

 

 

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I expected the lovely Marta Gomez and got this guy instead

 

 

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This is what it looks like when album art works

 

 

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Larger view of proper album art

 

 

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Internet radio portal

 

 

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The usual vTuner options 

 

 

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Finding a station

 

 

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Playing a station

 

 

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Aupeo! station

 

 

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Notice the "love/hate" buttons for rating this song

 

 

 

SOUND QUALITY

I mentioned before that the 8600 shares a similar appearance (internally) with a good quality soundcard. Continuing that trend, it also has a light green 1/8th inch headphone jack, similar to many soundcards. I don’t know anything about the internal design but it’s a safe bet to assume we are dealing with opamps and perhaps an integrated headphone driver chip.

 

Keeping that in mind, the 8600 actually sounds pretty decent. It reminds me a lot of the Squeezebox Touch, which I also found surprisingly good through the headphone and analog outputs. There is plenty of room for improvement but it could also be much worse.

 

Starting with the headphone out: there isn’t a ton of power here. You can forget about driving an HE-6 or even an LCD-2 with any amount of authority. But you knew that already. For somewhat modest loads such as Grado, Audio Technica, Ultrasone, and most IEMs, the Teac sounds pretty darn good. It has a nice even tone, not too warm and not too cold, with a reasonable transparency that allows details to shine through. It isn’t the most refined amp in the world – Grados and Audio Technicas could sound a bit shouty or harsh (as they tend to do) on certain material, and busy passages sometimes came across as congested. It also didn’t sound great with 300 ohm Sennheisers, lacking the proper drive to control their low frequency response. Still, considering my expectations when I saw the green mini-jack, I’m fairly impressed. It actually sounded quite good with the majority of my custom IEMs, easily on the level of a good soundcard from Asus or Creative.

 

The analog outputs are of similar quality, but obviously don’t have the same issues with drive power. They are fairly clear and neutral, with a moderate amount of detail and a good overall balance. Once again I’m reminded of the Squeezebox Touch. Neither will blow you away in terms of absolute sound, but both may surprise you compared to what you would expect from such a small box. This device would fit right in with such gear as the Matrix M-Stage and AKG K701. The term “mid-fi” comes to mind, and I don’t mean that in a derogatory way at all. The sound is noticeably better than the Grace Tuner, roughly on par with the Squeezebox Touch, but not on the same level as the NAD C 446. If I had to choose between them, I think the Squeezebox is ever-so-slightly better than the Teac, but the differences are negligible.

 

The 8600 has an optical output, so it can be upgraded with an external DAC. When I tried some low priced options like the Hot Audio DAC Wow, I got just a modest improvement over the analog outputs. When I moved up to a nicer DAC such as the Yulong D100, I noticed a larger improvement. This means that the 8600 won’t automatically be the weakest link in a system until it gets built up to a higher level. Once there, a user could add a nice DAC and be all set.

 

I did notice that the 8600 sounding better in situations where the DAC has good jitter reduction capabilities. A good test of this is the Matrix Cube DAC with defeatable asynchronous sample rate conversion. The ASRC process helps reduce jitter significantly and it did sound much better when activated. Turning it off resulted in relatively blurred transients, a collapsed soundstage, and less overall realism. If I use a high end, low jitter CD transport like my Marantz SA-1, the ASRC switch is basically imperceptible. What that tells me is that the 8600 has somewhat high jitter on the digital output. Most decent DACs these days have at least some type of jitter reduction capabilities so this is less problematic than it would have been in the past. I’ve noticed similar results with lots of CD transports, even some from “big name” audio companies. Considering the price and target market of this unit, I don’t think it will likely be used in a high end system where this will be a major drawback. 

 

I was curious about the mandatory downconversion process when playing hi-res material. Listening to 24-bit/96kHz tracks and having them drop down to 16/48, then switching to the overall similar sounding Squeezebox Touch (which handles 24/96 tracks sans reduction), I did seem to perceive a small decrease in quality. But it was far from being drastic, and I may not have even noticed if I didn’t know what to listen for. I suspect that the resolving capabilities of the 8600 are just not high enough to make this a big issue. In any case, I’ll gladly take handicapped hi-res playback over none at all.  

 

CONCLUSION

The Teac WAP-8600 is an interesting device. It looks like a wireless router on the outside and a soundcard on the inside, which is basically how it performs (and I mean that in the best possible way). The sound is good enough to use in most real-world systems, and it offers a nice mix of features for the price. In many respects is a viable alternative to the Squeezebox Touch - for someone who prefers UPnP over Squeezeserver, or just wants a stealthy component that they can hide away rather than displaying on their shelf, the Teac might be a better fit.

 

My biggest issue is with the controller unit – it looks like a remnant of the last decade, with its low resolution and resistive touch panel. It is not totally unusable, and it does get the job done, but it isn’t pretty or fun to use. The myWAP application for iPhone/iPad is a good alternative, but not everyone wants to use their iDevice as a remote. Other software can be used for Android or iOS and that works quite well, but the point remains – these are all ways to get around the flawed stock controller. If your tendency is to select an album and play it through then it won’t be so bad. But if you are more the “hands on” type then it is likely to frustrate.

 

Why would a high-tech company like Teac use such an outdated design? Searching for an explanation, I did a little more research. The WAP-8600 is an upgrade of the older WAP-8500. That model used the same controller unit and was released in 2008 or possibly 2007. If you figure it took a little time for Teac to design and release it, then it seems likely that the controller unit was created 5-7 years ago - in a time where resistive touch panel devices were much more common. That helps explain it but doesn’t necessarily excuse the fact that it is still in use.

 

Aside from that, the WAP-8600 is a quality device. I would recommend it, with reservations, if the price was right. But since it sells for roughly double the price of the Squeezebox Touch, I’m not sure exactly who Teac is marketing this to.

 

Or maybe it is just at the end of its life cycle – Teac has a new streaming box, the MP-H01, due out shortly. It does away with the controller aspect, instead relying purely on Android or iOS devices as remote. It features Airplay and DLNA compatibility. It looks very attractive externally, and all signs point to it being far superior to the WAP-8600. I’ve seen various prices translating to roughly $300-350 which seems very reasonable to me. If someone is interested in a streaming device and likes the idea of buying Teac, I’d suggest waiting for the new MP-H01 to become available.

 

 

 


Edited by project86 - 1/15/12 at 10:19am
post #5 of 142
Thread Starter 

 

JF Digital HDM-03S

 

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I’ve been using this device as my main source in my primary headphone rig for months. I’ve had the picture posted and a space reserved for review, yet I just haven’t had the time to get to it. Part of the problem is that I’ve been waiting until I had time to fully explore the network features, as well as mess with firmware updates. But with a newborn baby in the house and plenty of reviews on deck I feel like I just need to finish what I started. This will be my attempt at a more streamlined review.

 

So what exactly is the JF Digital HDM-03S? First off, the JF stands for Jing Feng, with the full name of the company being Shenzhen Jing Feng Digital Technology Co. As far as I can tell they do OEM work for others as well as design their own line of music servers. There is a full line of models ranging from the HDM-01D which is purely a transport only with no analog outputs, to the top of the line HDM-03 which has a host of features. The HDM-03S is sort of a budget version of the HDM-03 – it has most of the same features in a smaller form factor, and omits the output transformers and balanced XLR outputs. Aside from that it uses the same hardware and is really the bang for the buck model in the lineup. I chose it because while I appreciate a good analog section I knew I would mostly be pairing the unit with a higher end DAC. So the full HDM-03 was not necessary.

 

The device is basically a purpose built computer running a custom Linux install. It has no onboard storage but can act as USB Host for a hard drive through a pair of rear panel USB inputs. It can also pull audio over a network, either wired through Ethernet or WiFi (which requires a separate adapter). There are quite a few ways to use the thing – aside from playing FLAC or WAV files up to 24-bit/192kHz, it can also function as a stand-alone DAC via a pair of digital inputs. I use it as a transport with an external DAC by utilizing the coaxial SPDIF output, but it also has extremely capable RCA outputs and even a nice headphone out. Once connected to a network it can stream audio from a UPnP server as well as internet radio through its built in database. It can also stream directly from Foobar2000 over Ethernet. It can even record audio in 24/96 from the digital inputs and save the result as a WAV file. This really is a remarkably versatile device.

 

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Click any picture to expand

 

The HDM-03S sells on TaoBao (a China based site similar to eBay) for 6200 Yuan which equates to about $1000 USD. I had a friend make the purchase for me and he was able to successfully communicate my request for the proper voltage, which is not user adjustable and must be set at the factory. I don’t know how often they sell to US customers as I’ve never heard of anyone else using one of these. The closest option I’ve seen for US buyers is from fellow Chinese hifi company Opera Consonance. They sell a unit similar to the HDM-01, called the D-Linear 7, through Grant Fidelity. I believe JF Digital provided the processing and enclosure, while Consonance handled the audio side of things. The interior looks more simplistic but it may still sound great. That device goes for $1250. It’s a bit more expensive than the JF models but it does come with a warranty and after sales support, and I believe they throw in a wireless USB adaptor as well. Consonance just released another model called the Reference 7. I can tell it is based on the same JF Digital platform but is probably reworked on the inside since it has a balanced tube output stage. Pricing will be somewhere north of $2500. 

 

DESIGN

Externally the device measures 12 inches wide, 14 inches deep, and about 4 inches tall. Weight is roughly 16 pounds. It looks like a slightly scaled down version of an Audio GD Reference 7 DAC since it shares a similar construction including the rounded corners. It’s heavy and seems built like a tank, ready to stand up to abuse. I notice design theme similarities with Classe gear, and I believe the new Ayon S3 streaming audio device uses a nearly identical enclosure. I speculate that Ayon is sourcing the same manufacturer for their enclosure as JF Digital and Audio GD because the similarities are just too close. 

 

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The front panel is dominated by the 5 inch touch screen display. This is the main interface used to interact with the device. It uses a resistive panel rather than capacitive, which generally doesn’t hold it back much since all it requires is simple button pressing. Basic functions are accomplished by touch but for certain things the included remote control is required. A power button is the only physical button on the entire device.

 

The rear panel features RCA outs, coaxial digital out, coaxial and toslink digital in, Ethernet in, two USB ports, and an IEC power cable receptacle.

 

Internally, the design is very ambitious. Processing is handled by a 32-bit dual core 600MHz CPU with a dedicated DSP chip and 2GB of RAM. Because it is a dedicated audio device running a custom operating system instead of a multi-purpose PC or Mac, those specs are more than plenty. A fairly large portion of real estate is dedicated to the power supply section. It’s a linear design utilizing dual shielded toroidal transformers; one for digital with multi-stage post regulation, and the other for analog with a class A high speed active parallel servo design. A Wolfson WM8805 digital receiver handles signals from the digital inputs while the internal playback is sent straight to the DAC section in I2S form. The D/A conversion is handled by a pair of Wolfson WM8741 chips in dual mono configuration. From there the signal is sent out to the output stage built around quad OPA627 opamps and dual AD797 opamps. The DAC chips are supported by a custom made 1ppm precision system clock. Elna and Nover capacitors are used throughout. The headphone stage pulls the signal from the output stage and utilizes a TI TPA6120A2 for amplification. Volume control is accomplished in the digital domain and applies to both the RCA out and the headphone section. As with many designs using the Wolfson WM874x chips, the user has access to 5 digital filter settings, as well as a digital de-emphasis which can be turned on or off. That means plenty of ways to tweak the sound to your liking.

 

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Power supply is robust

 

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Headphone stage

 

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From right to left: WM8805, dual WM8741, quad OPA627, 

dual AD797, TPA6120A2

 

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Main processing section, complete with mystery chips

that have their markings removed

 

USE

The HDM-03S can play nearly any type of file you can think of. FLAC, WAV, AAC, MP3, WMA, ALAC, APE, and probably more that I can’t think of. The front panel says it handles 24/192 streams but I’ve successfully played  up to 24-bit/352.8kHz tracks as well. I assume there is some internal downsampling involved there since the Wolfson WM8741 chips top out at 192kHz. But it’s nice to know that whatever file I may throw at it, the HDM-03S will handle it well. It even supports CUE which can be troublesome to other devices.

 

Operation is best expressed in pictures. So I took plenty of those. As you can see, the main screen lists the song title including the extension (.FLAC, .WAV, etc). It lists the sample rate, time played or time remaining, and has all the basic transport features as buttons for touch operation. Volume level is displayed but it must be adjusted via remote control. After a short amount of time without activity, the display switches to a mostly black screen with just the title scrolling across. In later firmware versions album art is enabled but I didn’t like the way it worked. It seems the device would show any artwork in the folder being played, no matter the size. It took a while to redraw larger files, cut off space for title text, and generally didn’t add much to the experience. I do fine without it.

 

General navigation is a bit different than most audio streamers like this. Instead of selecting by metadata like artist, album, or genre, it simply displays a list of folders. So basically it goes back to a drag and drop style of arranging music on an external hard drive. It seems surprisingly effective though once the number of folders becomes high enough, navigation gets harder. You find yourself scrolling through quite a few before arriving at the one you want. I’ve come to love it though – it reminds me of browsing through a physical media collection. I might set out to find a certain jazz album, but prior to finding it I spot something else I want to try and end up listening to classic rock instead. The device does support the PlugPlayer app for iOS devices, so proper navigation is likely easier to do that way. Which brings me to my big issue.

 

I haven’t been able to get the device online yet. I tried three different USB WiFi adaptors. One ended up being defective all around but the other two do work on my various computers – but the HDM-03S doesn’t recognize them or even seem to give them power. I haven’t been able to figure it out. I could lug it into the other room and use an Ethernet cable but I just haven’t had the motivation yet. Without network connectivity, the device is still very useful for me, but I do need to figure it out one of these days.

 

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Unfortunately my unit shows all incoming data as 44.1kHz

even when they are higher 

 

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First find your album

 

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Then pick a song

 

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Song plays

 

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Screen eventually goes to this mode

 

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Handles most files types: MP3

 

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FLAC from standard Redbook format

 

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48kHz

 

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88.2kHz

 

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96kHz

 

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176.4kHz

 

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192kHz

 

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Even 352.8kHz (which is quite rare to find)

 

LISTENING

I’ll cut right to the chase – this is a top class transport, a very good DAC, and a reasonably good headphone amp.

 

As a transport, it does exactly what I hoped it would, which is sound better than anything else I’ve heard. I’ve had some good to excellent transports around the house and done direct comparisons with many of them - Theta Miles, Lexicon RT20, Squeezebox Touch, NAD C446, Pioneer N50, Marantz SA-1 with extensive Audiomod upgrades, Classe CDP10, Rega Saturn, Esoteric SA-10, McIntosh MCD205, modified Sim Audio Moon CD-1… and I’m sure some others that I’m forgetting. The majority of these devices are highly regarded, with many priced in the multi-thousand dollar range. The Marantz SA-1 was $7500 when new and has another $7K worth of upgrades on it. Yet none of these could quite do what the HDM-03S can in terms of feeding a top quality, pure, low jitter signal to an external DAC. I really do think this device may have maximized what is possible from a standard SPDIF connection. Perhaps some megabuck $30K transport can do a better job but I’m unlikely to ever own such a device. The only competition I can see is one that doesn’t play by the rules of an SPDIF connection – I’m referring of course to asynchronous USB transfer. I believe the potential is higher for a well done async solution compared to even the best SPDIF signal. The hot ticket right now happens to be the $300 Squeezebox Touch with a custom add-on enabling a USB 2.0 output. This can pass 24/192 data asynchronously to compatible DACs with stunning results. I need to do more comparisons to see how much improvement that brings…. for now I can just say that no other SPDIF transport I’ve heard can touch the HDM-03S (in my experience).

 

So what differences do a great transport make compared to a merely good transport? The answer really depends on your DAC. Some DACs are happy with any reasonably good signal, and don’t seem to scale much higher. At that point there is no use in spending more money chasing a better transport. My Yulong D100 is one of those types – I don’t feel it sounds any better being fed by the HDM-03S compared to using a reasonably good transport like the Pioneer N50, Theta Miles, or just the stock SPDIF output of the Squeezebox Touch. So in that case there is not much benefit. But in DACs where it does seem to be more significant, you can expect things like tighter focus, a better defined soundstage, superior imaging, a more natural presentation…. All those “squishy” audiophile type definitions that can be difficult to describe or comprehend. Readers familiar with my style know that I’m not really the type to ascribe night and day differences in sound quality based purely on a transport. Yet it does make sense to me that a superior signal would be an easier “load” for the DAC to handle; even DACs with exceptional jitter reduction capabilities would be working with a more pristine signal right from the start, therefore guaranteeing the accuracy only hoped for by an ideal de-jitter process. So I don’t feel that I’m crossing the line into snake-oil nonsense here. As always, the reader is free to disagree with me.

 

When using the analog outputs, the HDM-03S sounds very good as well. It has a smooth analog feel to it that rivals many of the better stand-alone DACs I’ve heard. I compared it to the Rega DAC recently and to my ears the two sounded nearly identical. The Rega was ultimately superior by a small margin, having a more open top end with less veil, but it was a fairly close call. For those familiar with that unit, you’ll know what I mean when I say the balance of detail and musicality is very nicely done. Perhaps not the last word in ultra-analytical sonic precision but very involving and rhythmically correct. There’s a slight warmth over the presentation and it tends to make all music sound as good as possible. This is probably not the DAC you would use in a mastering session because it would tend to hide flaws in your mix. But for someone merely concerned with listening, it is a very nice sound.

 

As I mentioned the Rega DAC sounded nearly identical with the HDM-03S. I also hear a strong similarity to the Yulong Audio flagship Sabre D18 unit. That machine is the better DAC overall, taking the same recipe a bit farther to maturity. So ultimately the HDM-03S is not quite on par with my reference units like the Anedio D2 or Violectric V800. But those are dedicated DACs costing more than the HDM-03S, and they don’t have nearly as much functionality. If I had to rely solely on the JF Digital machine as my only DAC I would certainly be able to get by happily. I would rank it close to my Yulong D100 MKI or Matrix Quattro DAC in terms of overall ability, just trailing the D100 MKII. I’d also rate it slightly higher than the Pioneer N50 I recently reviewed (and enjoyed).

 

The integrated headphone amplifier is probably the weakest link of the whole device. Not that it is bad – on the contrary, it is generally pleasing with a warm smooth tone reminiscent of the RCA output. It has good performance overall and most people would probably be more than satisfied with it. As a bit of a headphone snob, I have many other dedicated amps to choose from, so I usually prefer one of my reference units instead. Comparing the headphone out to a quality budget standalone amp like the Matrix M-Stage or the Yulong A100, the built in amp is a bit hazy and indistinct, but does have very nice tonality and good low frequency control. Resolution is fair and imaging is clear enough to be convincing. I guess what I’m trying to say is that the amp is very respectable but doesn’t stand out as much as the RCA or digital outputs.

 

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System takes just over 1 minute to cold boot

 

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Progress bar lets you know how close you are

 

SUNDRY COMMENTS

A downside to the whole experience is the lack of after sales support. It’s not just the language barrier either – I get the impression from the manufacturer website that they aren’t as focused on individual sales as they are on finding OEM partnerships. For example, there are several firmware updates, but there is very little info as to the changes each one brings. Each time I’ve updated I’ve had a nervous feeling like I may be about to ruin the machine. There is also the matter of finding a matching WiFi adapter which has been mildly frustrating. Most companies would have a list of recommended adapters, or a forum where fellow users can post their results, or something to help the situation. Not so in this case. I'm also scared that I may somehow damage the remote, which would be a big deal. Many functions are only accessible with the remote. I'd have to contact the manufacturer and hope I could get a new one. I should hurry up and program my Harmony remote to duplicate this remote, just in case. 

 

There also appears to be a recent upgrade to the main processing module. The website doesn’t really say how one can update to the new version. It does list the specs, which happen to be the same as I already have in the HDM-03S (the newest of all the different models). So perhaps I already have the newest processor installed? To make matters worse, the new module is not quite a plug and play upgrade – each model has a different set of instructions for some hardware modification necessary to support the upgrade. It involves cutting traces and soldering. Since instructions exist to do this process for the HDM-03S, do I then logically conclude that I don’t have the updated processor after all? I don’t know. There are some very recent firmware updates that specifically state they only work with the upgrade. If I try them, will I brick my unit? I need to have someone translate for me to get answers to my questions. For now I’m keeping it as-is with the older but solid firmware.

 

CONCLUSION

The HDM-03S is a quirky device. With a little refinement and polish, it could easily be rebadged and sold as a much more expensive product. The sound quality is certainly there - this is quite simply the best SPDIF transport I have ever experienced. Yet those little quirks keep it from becoming something that has mass appeal for the general user. Lots of folks are accustomed to browsing by artist or genre and would have a difficult time with the folder-based navigation of this machine. But it works for me, and I feel like a bandit having only paid what I did for it.

 

By way of analogy: many people still prefer the experience of vinyl. It may have started with the sound quality but has become something more than that. They maintain expensive turntable rigs that have far less convenience compared to a music server or even a CD player. Yet they have become used to browsing their physical media, organizing it, cleaning it, selecting the particular album they wish to play. And in that way the aspect that is considered detrimental by many, becomes an enjoyable ritual by few. I’ve seen the HDM-03S referred to as a “digital turntable” according to Google Chrome translation. I think it’s an appropriate term. Scrolling through the directories, less than perfect as it may be, has become my ritual through which I have found many hours of enjoyment.

 

I don’t know if anyone else around here will ever own a JF Digital product. But for me this has become the foundation of my fairly substantial equipment collection. I’ve had some great network audio devices come and go through my system and have enjoyed them very much, but nothing has come close to replacing the HDM-03S. It isn’t the perfect device for everyone but it comes rather close for me. I can’t see it being displaced in my system anytime soon, and down the road I know I’ll have to spend an obscene amount of money to do any better.

 

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Edited by project86 - 4/23/12 at 9:12pm
post #6 of 142
Thread Starter 

 

 

Pioneer Elite N-50

 

 

 

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I’ve been covering media streamers, network audio players, or whatever you want to call them, as often as I can around here. I think HeadFi is a great audience for these types of devices – we are generally younger and more knowledgeable about computers than your average “The Absolute Sound” reader. Or at least that’s my assumption; I could be wrong. But I do see a large percentage of folks around here who completely rely on lossless audio files instead of spinning their original CDs. So I’d say we have a pretty good demand for devices that help tap in to those files.

 

But isn’t it easier to just play them straight from your computer? There is already a plethora of excellent choices in the realm of USB DACs, spanning all price points. Why spend extra on a stand-alone device to accomplish what your computer will already do? In my Streaming Audio Devices review and information thread, I lay out the reasons like so: some people don’t want to mess with having a computer in their playback system. The system is probably in a dedicated area, away from their desktop computer. They don’t want the noise associated with the computer, nor do they want a monitor in their system. They don’t want to bother with playback software, configuration, and the inevitable troubleshooting that computers bring. They just want something simple that can act as a relatively foolproof front-end, that will sit next to their pre-amp and other gear and not look out of place. In short, they want the benefits of having their entire library at hand, including hi-res downloads, while retaining the simplicity and ease of use that a regular CD player would have. That’s why I think these types of devices are important.   

 

Pioneer recently launched their first entries into this category. The N-50 (and little brother N-30) aims to compete with the NAD C 446, Denon DNP-720AE, and Marantz NA7004 full sized components rather than devices like the Logitech Squeezebox Touch. I’ve spent some time with the N-50 and think it has some very strong points, along with some smaller aspects that could be improved. But for the right type of user this could be a great match.

 

 

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Optional wireless unit

 

 

DESIGN

The N-50 is branded as part of Pioneer’s “Elite” line of components. Back in the day that meant something very significant. You could count on the Elite line to be far better than your average audio/video components. Somewhere along the way, it seems like the Elite brand got watered down. Instead of classic models like the DV-09 and DV-38a (each costing several thousand dollars), it ended up with gear like the DV-46AV and DV-49AV, each just a few hundred dollars. It looks like Pioneer is now bringing the Elite brand name back to where it belongs.

 

The N-50 is a stand-alone component roughly the size of a higher-end CD player. It has quite a few tricks up its sleeve: AirPlay compatibility, DLNA support for network playback, internet radio, USB port for direct playback from a flash drive, and dedicated remote apps for Apple and Android devices. Another standout feature is the set of digital inputs which allow the N-50 to perform DAC duty: it has toslink and coaxial SPDIF inputs as well as an asynchronous USB input. I’m not aware of any competing device with a high end USB implementation like the N-50.

 

On the front panel, you’ll notice the 2.5 inch LCD display. Next to that are control buttons allowing full control of the transport and menu functions without needing a remote. On the left side you find a power button and a USB port. On the rear we see the array of digital inputs – toslink, coaxial SPDIF, and USB. There is also toslink and coaxial digital outputs along with the single ended RCA analog outputs. An Ethernet port allows wired connectivity, and two separate jacks accommodate the optional add-ons for wireless connectivity. The first (and more important) is a USB port dedicated to providing power to the Pioneer WL300 wireless adapter, which also plugs into the Ethernet jack. The second is a proprietary slot for the ST200 bluetooth adaptor.

 

Internally, the N-50 is fairly complex. Pioneer isolates each section on its own PCB, presumably under the guise of reduced interference. So there is a main board that handles the processing, another board for the power supply, and another for the DAC section. The analog and digital sections each get their own separate EI core transformer. The USB input is handled by the C-Media CM6631, and the other two digital inputs go through an AKM AK4118 DIR. All three inputs can handle up to 24-bit/192kHz data streams. Since the DAC board is facing “down”, I can’t get a look at the design. I know it is based around a 32-bit AKM AK4480 DAC, which Pioneer has recently used in a few other Elite series disc players and surround receivers. It is also used in the Fostex HP-P1 portable DAC/headphone amp device. I confirmed with my contact at Pioneer that the N-50 is a completely new design – it does not borrow elements from the other Elite products.

 

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Top side of analog section - the good stuff is facing down

 

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Hard to see, but this is the Cmedia 6631 asynchronous USB receiver

 

 

BUILD QUALITY

The N-50 reminds me of the old Pioneer Elite disc spinners from back in the day, minus the rosewood side panels (unfortunately). It weighs in at 16 pounds and has a nice thick brushed aluminum front panel. While it is not likely to be mistaken for a product from McIntosh or Accuphase, it nonetheless feels like a high quality unit, more than appropriate for its price range. The remote has a solid feel to it as well. It’s passable from a usability standpoint - long and skinny with a fairly good placement of buttons. But honestly the target user for this device will almost certainly have an Apple or Android device to use as a remote. Pioneer has dedicated software on both platforms for that purpose.

 

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USE

Reviewing a player like this calls for a special section that I don’t normally include when covering a DAC or amp. Since the main function of these devices is to replace the computer or CD player, they become the main point of contact for the entire system. So they need to be relatively easy to deal with during day to day operation. The N-50 succeeds here on most levels. The menu structure is very straight forward – if you can handle an iPod Classic or Sansa Clip, you should easily feel at home with the N-50. I do wish Pioneer had included wireless capabilities out of the box instead of requiring the $150 add on. It took me a few tries to get the WL300 wireless adapter to pair with my router. Once you’ve got it up and running though, it is fairly smooth sailing.

 

My chief complaint with the whole experience is the size of the screen. At just 2.5 inches, there simply isn’t much room to work with. The fonts used are therefore very small, and you get a tiny little square for album art. It worked just fine when used in a headphone rig: the display was adequate when sitting a few feet away, and I appreciated having the transport buttons at hand. But sitting on a component shelf across the room is another story. Even with perfect vision, the display was simply too small to be useful. Obviously if I used my iPad as remote then I had all the info displayed there. But that defeats the purpose of having a display on the device in the first place. I couldn’t help but notice the large area in the center of the front panel that was left unused.  It looks like Pioneer gave more real estate to the “Elite” logo than the screen itself. This seems like a missed opportunity in an otherwise well thought out design.

 

Like many of these types of devices, metadata and artwork is a hit or miss affair. This really has more to do with your files being configured properly in the first place than it does with the N-50. If Windows Media Player finds the art and the tagging, chances are good that the N-50 will display them. But if you just purchase an album from HDtracks, throw it on a flash drive, and plug it in to the N-50, you will probably not get the art to appear. Again, this is common among all the network audio playing devices I’ve tried.

 

The dedicated software for iPhone/iPad is nothing special. It gets the job done by allowing you to power off/on, select your source, switch tracks, etc. But it doesn’t look particularly appealing. You don’t even get album art displayed during playback. Scrolling through long lists of tracks or artists can be tedious because it lacks any kind of search options. Frankly, I ended up using other software to select my music, only going back to the Pioneer app when I needed to power off. But I’m still glad that they included some type of dedicated software, unlike NAD with the C 446 device.

 

 

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Main menu

 

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Basic play screen 

 

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For some reason it only uses half the screen

for listing files

 

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Browsing

 

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Sorting

 

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Airjam is for use over Bluetooth - multiple devices can join in

and stream to the N-50. This would actually be kind of fun in

a workplace or dorm setting as background music.

 

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Airplay is easy

 

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Airplay again, through another program

 

 

 

EQUIPMENT

This is the equipment I used during my evaluation of the Pioneer N-50:

 

Sources (used as transport): Lexicon RT-20, Logitech Squeezebox Touch, JF Digital HDM-03S music server, Acer Aspire One laptop

 

Amps: Violectric V200, Analog Design Labs Svetlana 2, Matrix M-Stage

 

Headphones: Sennheiser HD700 prototype, Audio Technica W1000x, Heir Audio 8.A, Unique Melody Merlin, Aurisonics AS-1b, Earproof Atom, Lawton Audio LA7000

 

I also listened through a speaker setup using the N-50 as source, ADLabs Svetlana 2 as preamp, Parasound 2125 amp, and Octet Matrix DE7 speakers. All cables used were from Signal Cable, with power conditioning by Furman. I burned the N-50 in for over 100 hours prior to doing any serious listening.

 

IMPRESSIONS

The N-50 is simply a great sounding machine. A lot of effort clearly went into the design, and the result is obvious in terms of audio quality. Everything sounds clean, detailed, mostly neutral but not overly analytical. It has a sort of smoothness up top that doesn’t scream “digital!” but retains very good extension. It’s a tough thing to balance and I’ve heard plenty of DACs costing more than this entire device get it wrong. With better headphones or my speaker setup, the N-50 produced solid imaging and a moderately large soundstage. It didn’t have the last bit of realism that comes with much more expensive DACs, though I think all but the most demanding audiophile would be pleased with the overall presentation.

 

I really enjoyed the capabilities it had to play almost any type of file I threw at it. Listening to McCoy Tyner Quartet’s New York Reunion in 24/96 format, I was struck by the way the N-50 handled Al Foster’s excellent drumming. This is a guy who played with everyone including Miles Davis (for over a decade), and is one of my all time favorite percussionists. On track number one “Recorda Me”, I love the way he seems to take a back seat to his bandmates, supporting their solos with competent but low key grooves. About half way through the track, it strikes me just how much he is actually doing. In a subtle way, without calling attention to himself, he’s being extremely creative with ride cymbal variations and all kinds of clever fills. It’s all there if you want to hear it, but it doesn’t jump out at you. I’m sure there is a metaphor in there somewhere about the performance of the N-50 but I’ll let you make that connection.

 

The 24/192 capabilities over USB came in rather handy. Many DACs stop at 24/96 over USB, which is good enough to play most of my collection. But what about my HDtracks 24/192 edition of Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On? Or my small collection of 24/192 vinyl rips? Those types of files are becoming just common enough in my library to be a nuisance if the DAC tops out at 96kHz. I also appreciate that the N-50 gives me several ways to handle these types: USB from my laptop, coaxial digital from my music server, even streaming via DLNA or Airplay. Unfortunately I ran into buffering issues with both methods of wireless streaming. At times I would make it through several tracks without issue. Other times I got buffering so badly that I had to find 24/96 or lesser files to play (which always worked without any problems). I’ve got a fairly robust 802.11n home network but perhaps others will have better luck. An Ethernet connection may do the trick, though at that point you’ve lost the main advantage of the networking feature since a direct asynchronous USB connection would be just as easy (since you would be in proximity to the computer anyway).

 

A few limitations of note – the N-50 will not play higher than 24/96 from a flash drive plugged into the USB port. I figured USB drives would be faster and more reliable than the network streaming but apparently Pioneer disagrees. Files above 24/96 just show up as an invalid format. Also, the device doesn’t support ALAC or AIFF file formats. I use Windows 7 and store all my music in FLAC format with a few exceptions for WAV and (gasp!) 320k mp3, so this was not an issue for me. With users of the “other” operating system, this would be a serious handicap indeed, quite possibly a dealbreaker. Yet another limitation is the streaming of 24-bit/176.4kHz files through the USB DAC connection. Apparently the issue lies with the Cmedia 6631 USB chip, and it is a driver issue rather than a hardware limitation. The Schiit Bifrost DAC uses the same chip and has the same problem. A friend brought this to my attention after I had already sent the N-50 back to Pioneer. So I didn’t test this myself, though I did play Reference Recordings HRx tracks at 24/176.4 via coaxial SPDIF without issue. This is one problem that should be able to be addressed via software updates to the drivers once they get the bugs worked out.

 

While we’re on the topic of limitations, another one bothered me just a little: no support for hard drive connections over USB. I had success with all the flash drives I tried, from 2GB to 16GB. But a portable USB powered 500GB drive failed to work, as did a self powered 2TB drive. My contact at Pioneer told me that it may be possible to enable this feature down the road but it is not planned at this time. The difficulty is due to the varying power requirements of portable drives. That makes sense to me and NAD handles their USB connection the same way. I’m still not clear on why a stand-alone drive with a separate power connection shouldn’t work though – the Squeezebox Touch is able to read those just fine.

 

But back to the sound - the best sound I heard from the N-50 was when I used it as a DAC through the asynchronous USB connection. Those who are familiar with my style know that I’m not usually one to hear major differences between various digital inputs. In my mind a good design should have little to no audible differences across all the inputs. Every once in a while I come across a product where one of the inputs (usually toslink but not always) sounds clearly inferior to the rest. I believe the N-50 is a bit different – rather than one of the inputs being compromised, it’s actually the advanced nature of the asynchronous USB connection that pulls ahead of the standard SPDIF alternatives. I don’t see any specific jitter reduction techniques applied here aside from what takes place in the digital audio interface receiver and the DAC chip itself. So the asynchronous connection very likely has the better numbers in that regard. Not to say the other two choices sound bad by any means – the difference is slight but noticeable when connected to a highly resolving system. USB also has the advantage of being more consistent. Feeding high jitter SPDIF signals from a cheap DVD player sounds clearly inferior to using a quality transport.

 

Going a step further, I get the impression that the N-50 just doesn’t sound as good playing music through the network. There seems to be a general loss of clarity and resolution, particularly with respect to the “airiness” of the presentation. Imaging and soundstage capabilities suffer a bit due to this loss. It’s not terrible – the N-50 is still a very competent sounding device when streaming over the network. It just isn’t at its best that way. I wonder if this is some issue that could be fixed via software updates, because I can’t think of any good reason why it should be so. When using the N-50 as transport with an outboard DAC featuring comprehensive jitter reduction, such as the Violectric V800 or Anedio D1, the resulting sound is excellent. When I use a more basic DAC I don’t get much improvement over the analog outputs. I suspect that the networking process has much higher jitter than the other inputs. Still, I remain impressed with the sound overall. You would have to step up to something above the level of a Cambridge DACMagic (for example) in order to see any potential improvement.

 

I spent a lot of time going back and forth between the sound modes. Aside from the standard playback, Pioneer gives two main options for tweaking the sound, or three if you could the “sound enhancer” which only applies to compressed files (I didn’t bother with that). The mode which gave the biggest difference in sound is called “Hi-Bit 32”. Pioneer doesn’t go too far in depth about this technology other than to say it “expands the input bit signals to create a natural and analogue-like waveform”. They specifically mention 24/192 signals being “expanded” to 32/192, but also mention standard resolution “CD audio” as well. They show a tiny picture of a waveform – jagged in 24-bit form, much smoother after 32-bit processing. I’m not really sure what to make of that idea. There are plenty of solid reasons why sample rate upconversion can help improve the audio experience. If a 16-bit track is involved, it generally gets padded to a bit depth of 24. But very few companies in the audio world opt to quantize to 32-bit, and I’m not convinced there is really any valid reason to do so. Despite that, I thought I heard subtle changes when switching to Hi-Bit mode. With some tracks there was an illusion of more spaciousness, more air in the presentation. Other times it was completely unnoticeable. It was subtle enough to have just been my imagination though. The other option is something Pioneer calls “Pure Sound”. This is said to bypass the DSP circuit, thus “reducing noise and producing playback sound with the greatest fidelity to the original.” Pure Sound can’t be combined with Hi-Bit 32, and the way things are worded Pioneer can’t seem to decide which is most important. To my ears, Pure Sound did not make any audible difference. I did end up leaving Hi-Bit mode active during most of my listening.

 

CONCLUSION

The Pioneer N-50 is an interesting device. In theory, it is a network audio player that can also be used as a DAC. In practice, it is best used as a DAC that also happens to have network audio functionality. It’s a subtle distinction, one that I’m not sure Pioneer was really aiming for, but that’s how I see this device. It sounds pretty great no matter how you use it – even with network streaming it has a clean and smooth sound that is fairly articulate but not overly analytical. This sort of sound signature should be pleasing for the majority of users. I think it falls just slightly behind the NAD C 446 when used as streaming player, but surpasses that unit when used as a DAC, especially over USB.

 

The fact that it sounds best as a USB DAC might seem strange – if that’s the case, why not just buy a dedicated USB DAC instead of this network device? Realistically, this is a very strong competitor at $700 even if used strictly as a DAC. I can think of several highly regarded DACs with 4 figure price tags which do not perform as well in many respects. In my mind, this is quite an accomplishment for Pioneer.

 

Functionally the N-50 has a lot to offer. There are so many ways to get music in or out of the device that it should fit into any system in one capacity or another. The unit is very easy to operate when playing tracks over a network and even more simple when using Airplay. The biggest difficulty of the whole operation will be organizing your music files with the proper metadata. But that’s not Pioneer’s fault.

 

Ultimately I think the N-50 has a lot of promise, and delivers in many areas. Yet it could use a bit of fine tuning. It isn’t the magic bullet for network audio players (but nothing is at this point). I’d love to see the display expanded to useable proportions. I’d also like wireless connectivity built in. Support for USB hard drives would be also great, as would support for ALAC and AIFF files. Most of all I’d like it if Pioneer was able to bring the network playback sound quality up to the same levels as the digital inputs. With just a few relatively minor yet important changes, this device could become a clear leader in the segment. And if there was an updated model with a larger display, it would be unstoppable. As it stands the N-50 is still a very nice product overall, and worthy of serious consideration.

 

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Edited by project86 - 3/15/12 at 8:02am
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OK, first review (Grace Digital Tuner) complete. This page will be under construction for a while as I complete all the remaining reviews. But in the mean time - any questions, comments, whatever, please post! It doesn't necessarily have to be related to one of the devices I'm reviewing - I'd love to hear what other people are doing in this area. Custom built media server PC? Old school Escient Fireball box? High-end Sooloos setup? Let's talk about it.

 

 

post #13 of 142

This is a great thread, I didn't realize how nice it would be to have another way to:

  • access computer files
  • use a remote
  • have a different interface
  • have the ability to access files from where my stack will be
  • have the ability to access files directly from a NetGear ReadyNAS RAID Storage

 

It just feels like I am not "using my computer" to get to my music and somehow I like that better. redface.gif

 

I picked up a Squeezebox Touch and enjoy using the device so far...

 

JackedSparrowSM.jpg

 

BUT- with regards to RAID Storage and access, I have heard that it doesn't always work well with them.

 

The Squeezebox is supposed to be able to put software on a NetGear NAS and then I won't even have to turn on the computer.

 

I've been eyeing the new ReadyNAS NV+ v2 that aren't even for sale yet.  (4-Bay, 4 Terabyte units are supposed to be $599!!!)

 

From AnandTech review:

nv_03_575px.png

 

I would really be interested in which devices could access and interface with the files on my future NetGear RDN4410 + have optical through-put to my Benchmark DAC1.

 

Thank you very much!

Reply
post #14 of 142

Great article, thanks

 

we are running a survey regarding importance of features for this kind of device. Please have a look and if you have 2 mins you could fill it in.

 

Actually, it would help me a lot to have opinion from the experts : http://www.surveymonkey.com/s/C8BTCDN

 

Thanks

Have a great day!

 

 

post #15 of 142
Thread Starter 
Quote:
Originally Posted by City2011 View Post

Great article, thanks

 

we are running a survey regarding importance of features for this kind of device. Please have a look and if you have 2 mins you could fill it in.

 

Actually, it would help me a lot to have opinion from the experts : http://www.surveymonkey.com/s/C8BTCDN

 

Thanks

Have a great day!

 

 


I filled it out, thanks. Sounds like a good way to solicit input from your target market. 

 



Quote:
Originally Posted by CEE TEE View Post

This is a great thread, I didn't realize how nice it would be to have another way to:

  • access computer files
  • use a remote
  • have a different interface
  • have the ability to access files from where my stack will be
  • have the ability to access files directly from a NetGear ReadyNAS RAID Storage

 

It just feels like I am not "using my computer" to get to my music and somehow I like that better. redface.gif

 

I picked up a Squeezebox Touch and enjoy using the device so far...

 

JackedSparrowSM.jpg

 

BUT- with regards to RAID Storage and access, I have heard that it doesn't always work well with them.

 

The Squeezebox is supposed to be able to put software on a NetGear NAS and then I won't even have to turn on the computer.

 

I've been eyeing the new ReadyNAS NV+ v2 that aren't even for sale yet.  (4-Bay, 4 Terabyte units are supposed to be $599!!!)

 

From AnandTech review:

nv_03_575px.png

 

I would really be interested in which devices could access and interface with the files on my future NetGear RDN4410 + have optical through-put to my Benchmark DAC1.

 

Thank you very much!


The Squeezebox Touch is a great little device. To be honest, I went into this article thinking I would find a replacement for it - something that would blow it out of the water. That has proved difficult. Not that it does everything better than every other device.... that's absolutely not the case. But it does have a nice mix of features for the price, and no one else has the same collection of services (aka APPS, a word which I hate). I use MOG from my Touch quite often. 

 

I haven't heard about specific issues using a RAID NAS with the Touch. But it wouldn't surprise me. Their software, though very powerful and much improved from several years ago, is still pretty confusing and sometimes quirky. The other day I had to factory reset mine because it didn't want to open any of the apps: it kept saying "your device is already registered under a different account" or something like that. 

 

As far as using your future NAS device, most of the devices I linked to should work. The ReadyNAS line seems to be DLNA certified for media streaming, so in theory it will work with any device that can do that. Of the models I have at the moment, the Grace, NAD, and Teac should work without a fuss. All three can spit out a digital signal to your DAC over Toslink. The JF Digital device doesn't have WiFi (need to add a USB adapter) and it only does coaxial digital out. So that's off your list. 

 

 

 

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