Sunday, 10 January 2016

MELCO High Resolution Digital Media Storage/Player: For The Purist










Digital media player have been around for a number of years now. For yours truly, it all started back in 2007 with the basic Apple Airport Express, streaming CD quality ALAC, WAV, MP3 from my laptop to a mini hifi in the kitchen. Laugh all you want, but most of the digital audio system owners out there, at one point, have played around with iTunes. After going through two laptops screen turning blue, I wanted to have a computer free based system. From mobile phones to tablets to ipods, I went through several revamps. The hifi and music market have slowly getting onto the bandwagon with the introduction of high resolution music and also so called PC free media player. Naim, Olive, Cambridge Audio, Musical Fidelity are among the first companies that introduced their players. The music industry on the other hand have started to introduced higher resolution music in FLAC and DSD format. I settled with a Musical Fidelity M1 CLiC digital media player, streamer, DAC, pre amp all in one.

After the media player 'standard' have been established, the industry have started to look into the quality of  streaming and also physical storage of the digital files. I have tried both wireless and wired set ups. While CD quality files are OK, I still prefer wired set up for high res files playback. Same goes for the medium storage type. I store my music and movies on both a Western Digital HDD toaster connected via USB and a NAS connected to my home router via a network cable.

Now, 8 years down the road, I am introduced to 3 new enhancement elements in this CD-less digital playback.
1. Linux based operating system
2. Audio dedicated hard disk
3. Network port filter

And all these came in this unit by Melco.

WHAT IS IT?

Melco calls it High Resolution Digital Music Library. I call it The Next Breakthrough in Hi Res Audio. What can it actually do one may ask. It stores and plays any digital audio files including DSD.

HOW IS IT CONNECTED?

Two main methods are available:

1. Via network cable to a media player where Melco only acts as storage device and do some network filtering.

2. Via USB cable to a media player with built USB DAC where the Melco does the playback and send digital signal to the USB DAC.




I have connected the unit in both ways to my Musical Fidelity M1 CLiC.

PRODUCT FEATURES
  • Dedicated LAN port for Player (Streamer) connectivity - optimum data integrity and simple setup.
  •  Light-piped Ethernet ports - complete electrical isolation totally removing possibility of interference and noise.
  •  LAN LED off function - ensures the highest possible data integritY
  • No PC required for setup and installation - no specialist knowledge needed.
  • Specific IP port for Streamer / Player with additional Network port for Control and Ethernet. Simply creates robust network for streaming high resolution music and control even on complex networks.
  • Pre-installed media server - no configuration required.
  • Supports multiple specialised media servers - currently shipping with Twonky 7 with DSD support.
  • Informative OLED front panel display - displays current streaming track data, system status, and setup,
  • Simple menu navigation structure and track selection
  • Simple front panel on-off switch - just like Hi-Fi.
  • 15 seconds only to full power-on.
  • 5 seconds to full shut-dowN
  • Safe against unintended power down - no requirement for UPS
WHO IS MELCO?

Melco was known to be a turntable manufacturer. They now have turned into data storage giant that has built an audio oriented NAS drive that gives streamers a real shot in the arm.

Melco actually stands for Maki Electronics Laboratory Co. They were set up in 1975 to make high mass turntables with outboard motors and silk thread drives along with line level preamplifiers.  They then moved into IT and computer products and became Buffalo. 

THE SET UP

  • Melco N1A with 2 x 2 TB HDD
  • Musical Fidelity M1 CLiC DAC and Pre Amp
  • Musical Fidelity M1 PWR Power Amp
  • 1 TB Western Digital NAS
  • Full range DIY bookshelf speakers
  • Siltech RCA interconnect between CLiC and PWR
  • Supra USB cable between Melco and CLiC
  • Stock network cable
  • Apps on Android
    • Bubble UpPnP
    • Linn Kinsky
    • Project Streambox
THE TRACKS

  • Sibok Kitak Nangis by Zee Avi (MP3 48/320kbps) - on WD NAS
  • Have You Ever Seen The Rain by CCR -  24/96 FLAC on 16 GB thumbdrive and Melco N1A
  • Enter Sandman by Metallica - 24/96 FLAC on 16 GB thumbdrive and Melco N1A
  • You're My Best Friend by Queen - DSD on Melco N1A

THE SESSION

Zee Avi's masterpiece sounded airy with more evidence of detail and clarity when played via the Melco N1A. The soft percussion sounded fuller compared to playing it directly from WD NAS via CLiC. By feeding it through the Melco via the network cable, it somehow opened up the track to more detail and free flowing airy sound.  

The ever famous Rain song by CCR was even more fun to listen to. The 24/96 FLAC file was transferred onto the HDD on the Melco and I let the CLiC play that file by accessing it via the network cable. Comparing it with the same file but played from a 16 GB thumbdrive connected directly to the CLiC by USB input, I find that playing it from the Melco via the network cable was livelier and present a less digital sounding track. The bassline on this song sounded bold yet still melodious. The vocals of course was naturally growling but in an emotional kind of way. Definitely, the sound is impacted by where the digital file is being stored.



Enter Sandman however was a bit of disappointment. Playing it via network from the Melco, the track sound a bit thin compared to playing it on the CLiC directly from the thumbdrive. Lar's double pedal was little bit too laid back and James's vocal was overshadowing the music. Did not get the Wow factor that I was expecting from this metal masterpiece. It still have that adrenalin factor when Kirk did his solo but overall, I prefer playing metal hi res tracks straight from thumbdrive.

Now for DSD, I had to use the Melco to play back that digital file as the CLiC, being a unit nearly 5 years old, does not have the capability to play DSD files. Hence, Melco played the file and fed the signal to the CLiC via USB DAC and in DoP mode. DSD is definitely a different level of hi res listening. Between the MP3, 24/96 FLAC and DSD, The DSD depth of music is more engaging. The Melco unit did a fine job in playing back the file. This is my favourite Queen's track and it was definitely presented in a more detail manner and with a bigger spatial and depth ambience. The vocal of the late Mr. Mercury sounded more melodic and livelier compared to the FLAC file I have.

HOW DO YOU CONTROL THIS UNIT?

This unit does not come with a physical remote. The front fascia does come with a few buttons to perform setting changes but not to choose track.

For playback, an app needs to be downloaded via Android or iOS. However, Melco does not have it own app hence you need to download either Linn Kinsky or BubbleUpNP. I tried controlling this N1 unit via both Android and iOS with no issues.

Choosing tracks is very convenient as the internal HDD as the directory is set up with various folder options even up to type of file you have on the the unit.




HOW DO YOU GET THE FILES ONTO THE MELCO?

In essence, if you remove all the functions, this unit becomes a dedicated audio NAS. Hence, if you turn on your Mac or Windows PC, you will see Melco as one of the available network drive. From there, it just drag and drop exercise of your available music files.

Secondly, you can also transfer files using a thumbdrive via the front USB port of the unit. Just stick your thumbdrive and the unit will ask whether you want to transfer the files.

Thirdly, Melco also have arrangement with two hi res website companies where you can purchase the music via your tablet, phone or computer and then the Melco unit will downloiad it directly onto the hard disk.

SOUNDS PERFECT?

For a hi res player, I am convinced that this is the best player I have heard so far, sound wise. Bear in mind, I have only heard Linn, Naim, Musical Fidelity, Cambridge Audio, Bryston, Oppo, Logitech and Apple AE.

As there is no perfect hifi in the world (I think we come up with this theory to give us a reason to upgrade :) ), I find that there are a few things that Melco should have included in the design.

  1. Wireless module. Although I agree that wired sounds better, I could not use this unit with my usual review set up upstairs because my NAS and router is downstairs.
  2. Physical remote. If my network is down, there is no other way to control this unit.
  3. Soft touch button on the front would make this unit even sleekier compared to the heavy industry 'clickety' button.
  4. A real shuffle mode playback. I could not shuffle All Track at the main root directory. The unit also requires me to choose tracks and put it in the playlist first before playback. Sometimes I just want to press the play button and let the player randomly choose songs.
CONCLUSION

Purely looking at the audio quality supremacy, now I understand why Melco named this unit as High Resolution Digital Music Library and not a streamer or media player. Its sonic benefit is from the properly engineered and audio dedicated circuitry, HDD and the Linux based system. It is indeed a unit that offers hi res fans a true to date very high quality playback of their precious digital files.

Go for this unit if you are looking for a big step up in your quest for hi res nirvana and maybe give the black disc cult run for their money :). However, if you are looking for a lifestyle streamer, looks elsewhere. This unit is for hardcore and serious hi res set up without the need of a running computer.

I also managed to listen to the SSD model in a very impressive set up of a friend whom is also the person who have made this review possible. The fun part for me is the fact, Melco have yet to set out the plan for introducing this to the Malaysia market at this time of print. Consider this review as a sneak peak of Melco possible plan to be in Malaysia.







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