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Testing Ground

Melco N50-S38 Test: A digital audio server with integrated streamer dedicated to the world of HiFi

By Alban Amouroux |

MELCO N50-S38 test: The N50 is the latest addition to Melco’s range of audio servers. A mid-range product, it incorporates both storage and playback for digital music. This device is all about versatility thanks to its multiple configurations and comprehensive management tools.

MELCO Audio exclusively manufactures digital audio devices that also offer storage. However, these are so much more than powerful external hard drives. Firstly, they contain traditional drives or SSDs specifically designed for avid music lovers. Buffalo Technology, a subsidiary of MELCO, is a well-known manufacturer of computer peripherals such as NAS servers. Creating a NAS server dedicated to music is at the very heart of the Melco Audio brand.

Secondly, Melco products don't just store music files. The storage drive is accompanied by select HiFi-specific components. Melco audio servers, such as the N50-S38, share music over your network to a streamer. However, they also serve as a streamer with a digital audio output. Melco never uses digital-to-analogue conversion.

Specifications

● Audio server and streamer
● Price : £4999
● High Resolution Audio : 384 kHz/32 bit, DSD256
● Storage : 3.8 TB SSD
● Supported file formats : DSF, FFD, FLAC, WAV, ALAC, AIFF, AAC, MP3, WMA, OGG
● Connectivity : 5 x USB ports including one dedicated to audio output, 2 x Ethernet ports
● Accessories : Optional RF remote control
● Dimensions (w x h x d) : 436 x 70 x 352 mm
● Weight : 7 kg

Melco N50-S38 Overview

The Melco N50 is a modest product with a front panel that’s surprisingly minimalistic considering the price tag. When it comes to HiFi devices, the higher the price, the more striking and imposing the equipment tends to become. This isn’t the case with the N50, which has opted for a classic chassis. This is hardly surprising since MELCO predominantly focuses on their products’ capabilities.

On the left of the front panel, there’s a mechanical power button that doesn’t support standby mode. It features a micro-LED which indicates the status of the device. Next to this is a USB port suitable for USB memory sticks and external hard drives. These can be used to transfer files onto the N50’s internal drive. In the centre, a simple monochrome screen displays information. You can navigate through the menus using the four navigation keys on the right.

The N50-S38 is first and foremost a networked server. It’s therefore equipped with an ethernet port, accompanied by a second RJ45 PLAYER jack. This allows for direct connection to an external streamer without having to pass through a network switch. To the left of these are three standard USB ports for various uses, such as adding accessories. Finally, there’s an isolated USB port specifically for audio output in streamer mode. As you can see, there’s no typical audio sockets here, just computer sockets dedicated to end-to-end digital audio playback.

Traditionally, Melco separates the circuits within its products, providing one for power, one for control and one for data. With every new product, this Japanese manufacturer consistently improves its electronic boards and power supply, and the N50 has an IEC socket with true electrical ground and an internal powerline noise filter. The SSD is housed in a rigid, multi-layered cradle to prevent mechanical noise. The N50 also rests on insulated, anti-vibration feet.

Using the Melco N50-38

The Melco N50 is easy to set up, whether in server mode or not. The connections are intuitive and a simple link to the network ensures the device is quick and easy to use. You’ve probably noticed that there’s no option to connect to Wi-Fi. The N50 ensures seamless stability by opting for a high-quality networked audio installation that depends on an Ethernet connection. This is a better option than Wi-Fi which is less stable.

Once the N50 is connected to the network, it obtains its IP address through DHCP. This can be changed in the menu if you need to use a fixed address. The N50 hard drive will then become visible on the network via UPnP/DLNA. This allows it to share its music with all networked audio players that support the same protocol. There are several ways to add music to the N50-S38 hard drive. The first option is to use the front and rear USB ports to temporarily connect an external drive or memory stick. The on-screen interface will guide you through the transfer steps. You can also transfer music from a computer to the N50 server over the network. By typing the IP address of the N50 into your browser, you’ll get the same interface displayed on your screen.

You can connect a USB CD drive to the back of the N50. This allows you to rip your entire record collection onto the N50 server whilst retaining the best audio quality possible. The USB ports on the rear panel can be used to permanently connect an external hard drive. This will expand the storage capacity of the N50 and securely back up your library, so you’re never at risk of losing your files. The N50 uses two internal applications for intelligent library and song metadata management: SongKong and MinimServer. The former takes care of identifying tracks and adding information (you can manually add any missing information from your computer), and the latter indexes and delivers the music.

If you want to use the N50 as an audio player, you’ll need to use the USB port labelled USB DAC. Of course, you’ll also need a DAC with a USB input and the correct cable. Melco offers two playback modes. The first UPnP/DLNA mode uses the Melco Music HD mobile application where Qobuz is natively integrated. The second mode requires going into the menu and switching the N50 to Roon mode. You can still use Qobuz in this mode, as it’s also integrated with Roon. The N50 screen always displays the current mode: a play icon for UPnP mode or the Roon icon.

We used the UPnP mode first so that we could check out the Melco mobile app (which is only available on tablets since there’s no smartphone version). This app is a customised version of the control app. When you open it, you’ll first need to select the Melco device in the left-hand column. You can then enter your Qobuz login details. The app displays new releases, playlists and recommendations as well as cover art, something made possible thanks to a tablet’s large screen.

The current track and artist’s name is displayed in large letters on the side of the Melco N50’s screen. Just below this, in very small letters, are the details of the audio stream (frequency, bit depth and format type). This information is also present in the app, though you can also find the bit rate here too. The screen allows you to navigate the menu using the web remote to customise the N50 and make backups, copies, updates, etc. The N50 doesn’t come with a remote control, but it allows several radio frequency models with a USB receiver to connect to one of its ports. This controls playback and volume with compatible DACs.

Listening Experience

In our test setup, we used the Melco N50-S38 both as a server and a player. We connected it to our USB DAC followed by a pre-amp, amp and our trusty Dynaudio speakers. Something to bear in mind is that it might be necessary to adjust the output quality in the Qobuz specific settings, since they’re set to MP3 format by default. We therefore used the Melco app with UPnP/DLNA playback.

When we started listening, we instantly felt that the vocals were being highlighted, but without any exaggerated projection. It's impeccable handling of vocals and instruments is one of the Melco N50’s best qualities. It reinforces each instrument’s presence, making the reproduction sound realistic. The weight given to low vocals affords them a natural warmth that’s sometimes lost on other competing devices. The result is particularly striking on Michel Legrand and Natalie Dessay's album, Entre elle et lui.

Tracks with an ultra-wide soundstage are well reproduced and maintain all their original dimensions. The melody is unilaterally distributed across the width of the soundstage and yet doesn’t disturb the background elements. The music fills the space between the two speakers facing us and respects the layering of the composition. The N50 is capable of detecting and reproducing a great deal of micro-information, which leads to a very realistic reproduction of Mahler’s Symphony No. 4 in G major.

The N50 respects tone, without any bias or emphasis on any particular register. Lower registers are controlled, maintaining quality and cadence without ever becoming muddy, even on busy tracks where it would be easy to let the bass take a back seat. On the track Parc des Stars from the album Guédé by Belgian multi-instrumentalist Toine Thys, you can really hear the impact and fullness of the drums. The sound effects of this electro-jazz track swirl around the room, in front of and behind the speakers, without ever disturbing the solid centre.

We then switched to Roon mode to compare the listening experience. In our test setup, we thought UPnP mode was superior, thanks to all the qualities described above (particularly the incredible reproduction of vocals). Roon mode just didn’t have the same magic, since it favours a more classical approach to vocal processing. Although both the Melco and Roon apps provide the same tools for playback, we would recommend the former, even though the Roon app is more modern and aesthetically pleasing.

Pros :
Quality of vocal reproduction and processing
Accurate micro-information
Multiple functions
Qobuz integrated

Cons :
Outdated Melco HD app

Conclusion

The Melco N50-S38 sets the standard for digital audio servers, and it’s designed to be the centre of any high-end audio system. As it stores your music library in the highest possible resolutions, you won’t need a computer to store your collection. The silent 3.8TB internal SSD is ready to store thousands of tracks and albums. The comprehensive copy and data management tools ensure that the library is always neat and well presented with no missing album covers. All these features, which might seem daunting for anyone who’s not a computer whizz, are made accessible to everyone through the Melco server and its various tools for automatic management of an intelligent library. When used as an audio player, it treats us to high-quality reproduction with particularly beautiful vocals, creating a realistic sound. Although Qobuz is fully integrated with the Melco HD control app, unfortunately it’s a little outdated and not available for smartphones.