Streaming Music…..A Rough Guide featuring Melco!

New to streaming music? Confused about the latest buzz-words and phrases?

I converse with lots of people on the phone and via email about ‘streaming music’ and ‘network audio’. I repeatedly get asked about the differences between ‘servers’ and ‘streamers’ and suchlike and I thought a blog post about the differences/similarities could be useful and how a Melco Digital Music Library can easily be classified into all of the above categories in one way or another.

There is definitely some cross-over and confusion between some of these terms and some people use different terms to describe exactly the same thing!

Streaming Music & Network Audio

Streaming music can mean a variety of things to different people. The most common usage of this term would be describe playing music using an Internet music streaming service such as Tidal & Qobuz, controlled by your phone or tablet. In order to do this it typically involves a component such as a streamer or network audio player connected to both your hi-fi system and your router/network.

Spotify are generally considered the market leaders in terms of streaming services, but their streams are heavily compressed and are nowhere near CD quality. Tidal and Qobuz on the other hand both offer CD quality streaming and even 24 bit streaming depending on the level of subscription you have. Tidal sounds very good in general, but for me Qobuz has the sonic advantage. Their library of music is perhaps a bit less mainstream than Tidal, but I’ve yet to catch it out with anything that’s of interest to me!

Many people will also consider themselves to be streaming music when they play their own music collection that they have ‘ripped’ from their CD’s onto a NAS drive (NAS = Network Attached Storage).

A streamer/network audio player typically will play music from both Internet Streaming Services and from a NAS drive which is connected to your home network.

You can also purchase 24 bit music from a variety of websites, download them onto your computer, then copy/paste the download onto your NAS drive and play them back as well.

Any device which can play back music from an online subscription based service or from a NAS drive could easily be described as a streamer or a Network Audio Player, as you are streaming music from another location – either locally on the home network with a NAS drive or externally via the Internet using Qobuz/Tidal.

NAS DrivesAs mentioned above, NAS stands for ‘Network Attached Storage’ and is basically a hard drive (in many cases multiple drives) contained within a box that is connected to your network. The NAS drive makes itself visible on the network so any ‘streamer’ or ‘network audio player’ on the same network can see the music and you can play it back through your hi-fi controlled via your phone/tablet using your ‘streamers’ control app. NAS drives can be configured so they automatically have a back up of you music on a second drive so if a drive fails you don’t lose your music.

Servers (or Network Audio Server)

A server will typically fulfill the function of a streamer/network audio player, you can playback music from Tidal/Qobuz and playback music from other storage devices, but most importantly a server will contain its own hard drive storage to hold your ripped CD collection. In theory a server can still technically stream music!

Computer Audio

Many people will simply connect their laptop into a USB DAC  which is connected to their hi-fi and use software on their computer (such as Amarra and Audirvana) to playback music either stored on the computer or from a NAS drive. Of course, a computer can also stream from services like Tidal & Qobuz. When set-up and configured properly results can be pretty good. I guess the downside to computer audio is that they can be buggy and require restarts for updates and suchlike. Because computers do so much they will never get the very best out of your audio files as there is always processing power getting in the way of the best sound. I also guess it depends on how computer literate you are as well!

I hope that brief overview of streaming, network audio, servers is useful if you are starting out in digital audio and the jargon makes sense. If not, please get in touch – I’d be more than happy to go through any questions anyone may have.

So where does Melco fit into this? Melco @ Audio TherapyTo quote Melco…… ‘the world’s first audiophile grade source component to access, store, deliver and play HiRes Digital Music without the compromise of computer hardware and peripherals, was debuted by Melco in November 2014. Since then our uncompromised audio NAS components have been the talk of the awards. Regularly used by leading audio manufacturers to showcase their devices, they are the defacto HiRes audio storge and player solution’

Melco produce a range of 3 products which they describe as a ‘Digital Music Library’. All 3 models contain built-in hard drives so you can store your music collection on the Melco itself, so it could be described as a Server.

You can read more about the 3 specific Melco models and their differences on this page

Melco also produce a dedicated CD ripper, called the D100. Connect this to one of the Melco’s 4 USB sockets and you are guaranteed to achieve a bit-perfect rip of your CDs, more accurate than any other drive or computer program can achieve, complete with perfect meta-data and artwork – all without the need for turning on your computer.Melco D100 Diagram @ Audio TherapyIf you already have a digital music collection stored on an existing hard drive it is really easy to import this onto the Melco via the USB 3 input on the rear panel.

Once you have music on the Melco there are 2 ways you can connect it to your hi-fi system to get music playing.

The most important connection (after power!) is to connect the Melco to your router via the LAN port. Once you have done this the Melco can see the Internet (for software updates and control).

The Melco has a second Ethernet socket (labelled Player Port) so if you have a Network Audio Player (like a Naim, Linn or Cyrus for example) this would connect to the Melco’s Player Port. This Player Port acts as a switch to isolate your current player from your network and by doing this you get a great upgrade in performance. In a good system this benefit is not subtle.

Melco N1ZH/2 Rear Panel @ Audio TherapyHowever, all is not lost if you do not have a Network Audio Player. The Melco has 4 USB sockets, one of which is specifically for a USB DAC, once connected the Melco will effectively ‘stream’ the music stored on-board to your DAC. Melco do not yet (watch this space!) have a dedicated control app, but if you use either Linn Kazoo or the Lumin app and you are connected to a USB DAC you have the option to stream from either Tidal or Qobuz.Melco USB Connection @ Audio Therapy

The Melco’s USB DAC socket is heavily optimised for the best performance and in my experience connecting to a USB-DAC is very best way to get the most out of both the Melco and your music collection! The Melco in effect is a high end bit-perfect digital transport.

If you have a D100 CD ripper connected to your Melco and you are connected to a USB DAC you can also use the D100 as a high-performance CD transport – on a good system it is difficult to tell a CD rip apart from a CD being played back, it is very good!

One of the USB sockets on the Melco is labelled back-up, simply connect a USB hard drive to this socket, format the drive on the Melco and perform a back up. No data loss should a drive fail. Subsequent back ups are incremental so they do not take long at all! Again, no computer needed to back up or archive your music.

So, you can use the Melco to stream music off its internal hard drive to either a network audio player via the LAN port or to a USB DAC via the dedicated USB socket. If you want to stream Tidal or Qobuz you can do it via the Melco if connected to a USB DAC.

The Melco is easy to use, very intuitive and most importantly performance is truly outstanding. Take the entry level N1A/2 and connect it to a £500 Arcam ir-DAC2 and you get great results. Step up to a better DAC and the performance jumps up accordingly. Moving to the N1ZH/2 the jump in performance is audible pretty quickly, even if you do an A/B demo with an N1A/2 on a relatively modest DAC, but when you put the N1ZH/2 onto a bigger, better DAC it really stretches it legs. The flagship N1ZS/2 is another story altogether, I would consider it to be a truly world class transport. 

The ease of use, superb performance and the fact you can get the very best out of a Melco without needing to turn on your computer makes it an incredibly popular choice. If you are looking for a streamer, server and network audio player all combined in one box one of the three Melco models could be just the ticket!

Melco @ Audio Therapy

Get Ripped with Melco!

After a rather long wait the Melco D100 CD Disc Drive has finally arrived and I’m delighted to report that it has been well worth the wait!

Weighing in at rather healthy 3.5kg the feel and sumptuous build quality is the first thing that will strike you when you pick a D100 up. It looks and feels superb, certainly not a cheap plastic computer peripheral! Melco has introduced a highly modified CD drive which has been optmised for audio playback and data transfer as opposed to high speed burst transfer like you get on traditional computer drives. The drive itself is mounted directly to the chassis using Melco’s anti-vibration system which they use on their hard drive mountings. It ensures the drive is isolated from any external vibrations which ensures the laser can read the disc as accurately as possible.

The remit of the D100 is quite simple, rip your CD collection in the most precise and accurate way possible to ensure there is no loss of data compared to your typical IT optical drive. If your Melco is connected to a USB-DAC the D100 can also be used to play CD’s as well and this is something is does particularly well. Not every Melco owner will use a D100 this way, after all the whole point of having a Melco is to your entire library ready to play at the highest possible quality. But, I do have a handful of clients who will use their D100 in this manner and they will be absolutely delighted by the results.

My demo N1ZH/2 has had a Buffalo BRXL drive connected to it for ripping purposes and it has done a very good job. In order to make a comparison between the 2 rippers I simply selected 5 tracks that I know really well and used SongKong to edit the track names so I could easily identify which were which. I then proceeded to rip those 5 albums again to the Melco using the D100 (in the same format – WAV).  The D100 does rip a little slower than the Buffalo, but that is no bad thing. The lens is taking its time and really focussing on the disc to ensure 100% of the data is extracted correctly.

I simply created a simple playlist of all the tracks (old and new rips) in a completely random order. By using track forward and back I could easily cycle through the 10 tracks without looking at the iPad so I wouldn’t know which rip was playing.

The 5 tracks were

Leonard Cohen – Almost Like The Blues (Popular Problems)

Damien Rice – 9 (9 Crimes)

Radiohead – Everything in its Right Place (Kid A)

The xx – Lips (I See You)

Crowded House – Private Universe (Afterglow Deluxe Edition)

Melco D100 CD Disc Drive @ Audio Therapy

The system I was using was fairly revealing and transparent (Vitus/Avalon/Melco/Exogal with a Tellurium Q Black Diamond cable loom, everything Stillpointed and Entreq’d). I’d had a brief play with a D100 before so this was my first real opportunity to give it a proper run out in a system I know inside out.

The difference between the 2 sets are tracks was audible on every track within about 5-10 seconds of playback starting. Digital is digital, it’s all 0’s and 1’s, an uncompressed rip is an uncompressed rip – I hear it all the time and I can totally understand the comments. I hear the same thing when talking about USB and digital cables. The reality of it is quite different.  The D100 delivers so much air and space around everything. Subtle details in tracks that were previously there but a bit subdued in the mix were now standing up front and centre, but without taking over anything else that was going on.  I spent quite a bit of time going backwards and forward through the 10 tracks and everytime it was obvious which tracks were ripped on the D100. The differnece in performance isn’t revelatory or as significant as changing a DAC or upgrading from an N1A to an N1ZH/2 but the improvement certainly justifies the price the admission. For a top flight system £900 to get rips as good as this is almost a no-brainer.

CD Transport Mode

Like I mentioned above, this aspect of the D100 isn’t neccessarily going to be relevant for everyone, but there’s a few. So, using the same CD’s as above we went into playback mode to see what happen. I’ve tried a couple of different CD drives into the Melco (the aforementioned Buffalo and a Sony) and both were fairly lacklustre at playing CD’s. The D100 playing a CD is in a completely different league altogether. Performance from CD playback is indistinguishable from thr rips the D100 made, which is really saying something. For those Melco owners who no longer have a CD player but have their Melco connected to a USB the D100 offers truly superb performance. I haven’t got a CD transport or player here to directly compare but it will comfortably compete with some proper CD players.

I recently had a customer buy an N1ZS20/2, an Exogal Comet Plus DAC and a Buffalo drive. Rips on the Buffalo sounded better than his £10,000 CD player which was swiftly part-exchanged. The D100 rips better than the Buffalo and CD playback is easily as good as a D100 rip.

Melco D100 Diagram @ Audio TherapyWhat about non-Melco owners?

Anyone with a Linn, Naim, Cyrus or Lumin UPnP streamer who uses their computer to rip their CD’s should seriously consider upgrading to a D100. I have dbPoweramp on an iMac which very rarely gets used. But in the interests of comparisons I dug out my Sony CD drive and ripped an album, then ripped the same album again, but this time using the D100. Both albums were put on a USB stick and moved to the Melco. The difference this time was even bigger than before. Greater levels of air, space, more texture. Music was simply more engaging to listen to, less strained and certainly less ‘digital’ in its presentation.

Anyone with a Naim ND5 XS, NDX or NDS or similar from the Linn DS range should seriously think about putting a D100 on their desk next to their computer. An instant upgrade in performance – the only downside is having to rip all of the collection again!

Available to buy now for £999

 

 

 

Upgrading from a Melco N1A to an N1ZH

Melco Logo @ Audio TherapyOver the past couple of months we’ve had a number of enquiries from existing N1A owners who are curious about the next model up in the range, the N1ZH and what does it offer over and the above the brilliant N1A. Many customers have initially been sceptical about the N1ZH, which I take as bit of a compliment toward the N1A – after all it is brilliant sounding piece of kit and many people wonder, just how can it get better?Melco N1ZH/2 @ Audio TherapyIn reality, the difference in performance between an N1A and an N1ZH is pretty significant, the better the DAC or network player the Melco is attached to the bigger the difference are as well.

The N1ZH is smaller, heavier, with an additional power supply. The 2 hard drives are mounted in a proprietary non-magnetic foundation to minimise vibration and noise. The hard drives themselves in the N1ZH are specially selected small form factor drives, which electrically are a lot quieter than the conventional drives that are used in the N1A.

The functionality and software that drives both players is absolutely identical.

Melco N1A/2 @ Audio TherapyN1A vs N1ZH – how do they sound?

First off, they both sound excellent, an N1A in isolation will easily outperform other devices costing more money – but when you stack it up against an N1ZH it doesn’t take long for the differences to present themselves.

Greater clarity and transparency are pretty obvious from the off as is a bigger soundstage (wider and deeper). Speaking of deeper – the bass response on the N1ZH is phenomonal, it’s never in your face or aggressive but is tight and controlled and incredibly cohesive.

The better the system, the bigger the improvements are, but don’t assume you need a “high-end” system to get the very best out of the N1ZH. Even with a sub £1000 DAC the differences between the 2 Melco models will easily present themselves.

One of my customers very recently made the jump from the an N1A/1 to one of the special offer N1ZH/1 machines and is absolutely delighted with the improvements it made to his system and more importantly his enjoyment of his music!

He very kindly offered to put pen to paper (more like fingers to keyboard!) to express his thoughts over the upgrade process…….

Melco N1ZH/2 @ Audio TherapyThe Melco N1A is a stunningly good player, I had only had it for a short time when I decided that I no longer
needed to keep our otherwise excellent Musical Fidelity CD player.  Once digitised I really couldn’t tell the
difference between ‘ripped’ CDs and those played live on the CD player. The convenience of accessing my
entire collection so easily rather than looking for something on the shelves had meant that I had gone back
to listening to recordings I had honestly forgotten having!

So, the CD player went to pay towards some of the loving kindness being lavished on the system as a whole
in terms of cables and grounding with some very clever
Entreq products.

Working with David gave the chance to try each of these steps and invest only when the differences were
obvious, though with David’s direction I have to say this
was always the case!  In a very short time the Melco
N1A got to sound better and
better, this always left me wondering if one of the higher models in the N1Z range
would add just a little more.

Tempted though I was to purchase the N1ZH Mk2 the opportunity of getting a Mk1 version for considerably less
money suddenly became available it took only a few
seconds to say yes!

So, what was it like?
Well firstly the N1Z is narrower than the N1A which is what I was expecting, but the black N1Z has a much nicer
anodized finish than the junior model, and overall
feels and looks more expensive – so far so good!

And the performance?
Well there were no doubts, even fresh out of the box the sound was more noticeably better than its junior sibling.
I have to say I was surprised (and delighted) by
how much better it was.

It is difficult to know how best to describe the differences.  In a way there was ‘more of everything’ in recordings
I knew well, I was hearing things for the first
time and the bass was certainly more solid.  Overall though the sense
of a greater
musical presence is perhaps the best way to describe the change, the three-dimensional imagery
was greater both in terms of width and depth.

Even now, a couple of weeks or so later and with a lot of listening hours under the belt the differences are quite
dramatic and I almost feel myself reaching out
and ‘touching the music’.

I am sceptical enough to wonder with most upgrades how much is a placebo effect and how much is real, this has
meant my upgrading pathway has been cautious.
Upgrading the Melco has been quite different, perhaps best
summed up by my wife
who’s ‘ears I trust’ but can a very critical observer of our hi-fi development.

A few days after the upgrade we were playing some music that we have been listening to a lot over last few
weeks-  after 5 mins she just announced
“I have to admit this sounds a lot better”. When asked further she used
the terms
‘more solid, bigger and much more musical’ She then went onto say there are times when I have talked
about changes making t
he sound better, and yes perhaps, but this is so much “obviously better’.

So there you have it!

If you have an N1A and were curious about the benefit of jumping up to an N1ZH please get in touch, I’m confident you’ll be delighted with the improvements in performance the N1ZH will offer over the N1A. Of course, there is also the N1ZS as well!

Don’t forget your can always part exchange your existing Melco as well!

Melco N1ZH/2 @ Audio Therapy