Pioneer Elite N-50
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.
Optional wireless unit
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.
Top side of analog section - the good stuff is facing down
Hard to see, but this is the Cmedia 6631 asynchronous USB receiver
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.
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.
Basic play screen
For some reason it only uses half the screen
for listing files
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.
Airplay is easy
Airplay again, through another program
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.
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.
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.