The Top-Flight of Melco Music Library Servers Review &
Interview with Allan Ainslie [English]
The Melco N1ZS20/2 Music Library
So clean, so clear…
It was inevitable. The computers are in our lives in so many ways that it was a matter of time (I know people that use them for at least 10 years as their main source) that the PC/Mac based music sources became one of the basic and accepted music choices for a music source, even in high end systems. I am using one for more than I remember after my first comparison – S/PDIF mother-board out of a carefully assembled tower PC vs a highly modified (to Forsell sound standards for those that remember that back) Theta Data Basic II transport. The sound was so much more lifelike and solid that then I had a glimpse of the future. The two reasons that I did not use it from then on was a. the noise of the fans (and that was a low noise PC, mind you), something that 6-7 years ago (and so much more evolution from the PC industry) I managed to overcome with the fanless netbook I bought and b. the inconvenience of the size of that tower, screen, keyboard etc., again something that got solved with the purchase of that aforementioned netbook. But that netbook used Windows 8 as OS which was good enough (with the help of Fidelizer free version at the time) but not as good as what a Mac OS based machine was, in the sound quality department. Also then I used Foobar2000 as my player, a good enough solution at the time but not the best, as I found out when I met, at a Hi-Fi Show in Athens, the person behind MusiCHI suite, Philippe Watel (related article here). With that as a music player things got so much better.
Around the same time (probably earlier) the high end audio industry was working its own magic with designs that were based on Linux (free, extremely versatile) OS, and their designs were pretty much revolutionary, in the sound and innovation departments. You see Linux based systems use inherently way less processes than any regular Windows based PCs for control of the player plus they don’t need drivers to connect to outboard DACs and other noisy things that are needed in every PC/Mac based machine (power supplies, noisier clocks etc.). Those who have in the past used drivers for their DACs know very well how different these drivers sound depending on their version. One of the audio industry players was Melco, a subsidiary of Buffalo Industries, a major Japanese IT manufacturer. Their first attempt was greeted with success but they did not stop there. Their second, way more advanced product line was born, and with that came probably their biggest gun, till now that is, the audio grade SSD. This is very specialized product that only a giant of the industry (that could spare the funds and personnel) would design and produce. The N1ZS20/2 that I am testing (actually having fun listening my favorite music through it is a more accurate description) is their best design, using two of those audio grade SSDs!
The Melco unit I got my hands on, and that goes for all of them, looks clean and actually very beautiful to my eyes. Its proportions border on the perfect side, being big enough so that you …respect it, but small enough to be almost “jewelry” like. Its weight is almost analogous to its size, maybe a little on the heavy side and it is very robust due to the thick slabs of aluminum that it is made throughout. Actually, when you lift it up feels like it is made out of a concrete slab of metal not pieces bolted together. That said, construction quality is of the highest possible order as is the fit and finish (bead blasted that feels almost velvety to the touch, just magnificent!).
In the front panel we find the power button that works exactly like any power button found in any other high-end audio device, chosen so that it takes the feeling of the unit being a PC based machine away. In the center there is a medium sized OLED screen that provides information about the state of the device. On the right we find four buttons with positive click function for easy operation as the company describes them in their site. These enable the user to control the unit on stand-alone operation. On the rear of the unit we find a filtered power inlet (IEC), a dedicated Neutrik USB 2.0 port for a DAC, three USB 3.0 ports for Easy backup, Easy Expansion, Easy Import of CD or from USB drives, Easy Play without import from USB drives or CD loader so that a legacy CD collection can benefit from the latest DAC technology (Melco’s words) plus a grounding post should you want to include your Melco in the external specialized grounding scheme you got going in your system. Also, we find two LAN ports, one for the usual Ethernet (network) connection and one specially isolated and dedicated to connect an external Network Player. This last one, as Melco mentions “unlike PC based systems, allows connection directly to the network Streamer or Player without any data switch in the signal path which would damage the music data. This direct connection concept we call Direct Streaming Music – DSM – and it is unique to Melco as in conjunction with the Ethernet purifier between the LAN and PLAYER ports DSM ensures that the Player receives only clean and accurate data, all packets are timed with low-jitter precision and all unwanted traffic is blocked. LAN lights can be disabled for highest possible data integrity.” So there you have it.
Opening the unit to inspect its innards was easy and another testament to its high quality of construction. Fit of the metal cover is pretty much perfect. Inside the unit, left and right, we find two separate power supplies of the switching type, 30W each, with extra audio grade smoothing capacitor banks, shielded and separated from the delicate electronics parts by the H frame chassis. These isolated power supplies with extra separate noise reduction stages provide all the energy needed to the motherboard that runs the custom made Linux program that controls everything, plus powering, again separately, the two audio grade SSDs in such a way that they do not affect the other stages at all. The motherboard that contains all the vital electronics is designed and made by Melco, thus ensuring absolute control on all the parameters that are vital to the performance of the unit (handling of data, very low jitter clocks etc.). The two audio grade SSDs are specially made by Buffalo for such an application and are housed in a separate compartment bolted on a massive (looks like) bronze slab. These drives are very different from the normal SSD drives that you can buy for computer use from a store in the sense that they create very low noise plus need less processes to control which is, as it looks, essential to the very high quality sound the N1ZS20/2 achieves. The unit uses four feet made by TAOC, a very respected Japanese manufacturer of stands and other vibration control devices. All in all the N1ZS20/2 is built to very high standards in the most specialized way from top to bottom.
It’s in the way that you use it.
The N1ZS20/2 was used in two systems. One at the local dealers studio (Obscure Audio) with other very high quality equipment as its partners, where it was compared to the more “regular” N1ZH60/2 (that uses selected HDDs and not the special SSDs) plus a way less expensive Aurender model (N100), just to get a handle of things. In this set up I compared it also to my stand alone fanless netbook PC (Audiophile Optimizer 2.2, Fidelizer Pro 7.5, Win10 OS, MusiCHI suite 64bit beta player, battery operated). The DAC that was used was the Bakoon DAC.
The other system the N1ZS20/2 was connected to, was my personal one in my dedicated studio. There it was connected directly to another USB DAC (Ideon Audio Ayazi SE), and that was also without any problems at all. In this setup its sound character changed ever so lightly (but not so much as it would affect my findings) every time I changed a USB cable between them, something you have to address in a highly transparent system. Finally, all my listening was done with either a Furutech USB GT2 Pro or a Kimber Silver B-Bus USB cable, each one of them sharing its own strengths plus some with my own USB cables. The N1ZS20/2 got its power from a Lab12 Gordian AC Filter unit and a Supra DC Blocker (connected before that), both of them using Lab12 Knack and Abbey Road power cables (they have a very relaxed and quiet sound). The LAN cable that I used to connect the unit to the router (Linksys) was Supra (Cat8) which I have found to be the best at suppressing exterior noise, and the app I used with the tablet that was provided by the dealer was BubbleUPnP. That app even if some users find it to be more than adequate felt, to my very high standards that come from the use of the MusiCHI suite in my PC, like going from a Ferrari to a …bicycle. I admit I am not that experienced as an Android user but still the functionality of the app is not up to the standards I am used to. Sorry, but I think Melco should seriously consider making something way more powerful and flexible especially dedicated to their amazing machine. It deserves it (see Interview later on about what Melco thinks about that). Also the company states that “No PC is required for setup and installation – no specialist knowledge needed”. Sorry, I respectfully disagree again, especially the latter is so wrong in my opinion in practical terms, I cannot emphasize the importance of some basic file and folder tree structure knowledge the user of every computer based machine should have, and I will tell you why. First of all when you connect a USB disc or stick at its back ports and import music from it to the internal SSDs make sure you have no other non-music related data in there since it will copy them all and the discs become a mess full of all kinds of nonsense or personal data (it happened in my case and I found out only when I connected my PC to actually see the contents of the music files in the Melco SSDs). Then, how do you set up properly your library in there without the use of a computer? How do you keep track of what is in the SSDs and avoid copying the same stuff later on (from somebody else’s storage media that has the same music stored with/or in a slight different way)? In the machine I got my hands on I found all these “problems” and the only way to put them fast in the proper order was to use, imagine that, a computer. But enough of me complaining about things that the dealer/installer should take care of with each and every customer (probably because my unit is the demo unit that has been in many users hands it got so messy). Let’s get to the important stuff…
The Melco sound!
Every piece of equipment that is man-made has a sound signature, a specific sound character, it is inevitable, they ARE machines after all. So is the Melco N1ZS20/2. And it is so, so very easy to describe the sound character of the audio grade SSD equipped Melco Music Library. Its sound is very clear (makes almost every nicely recorded album, even 16/44.1 sound like an HD recording), bold, very dynamic, fast, very natural, with crisp edges and amazing 3D rendering of the images. But the biggest difference from other (usual or not) sources if I had to pick one, is the so called “blackness” of the background. It is the “blackest” I have ever experienced (a term that everybody that was ever involved with projector evaluation would understand). That makes everything that exists in the background so much more easily discernible, so much more easily understood by the listener (of course you have to have a very quiet room – lower than let’s say 45dB noise floor- to experience that quietness in all its glory), all those instruments that are most of the time kind of in and out in the background noise (or sound like they are afloat the waves of noise) with the N1ZS20/2 exist on their own, they appear fresh and real, just deeper in the soundstage, smaller in dimensions, but still so clean, clear and real. That “deep in the soundstage” clarity is the biggest difference of the Melco with any other (that I have experienced) “normal” or not source. The N1ZS20/2 sound was clearer, quieter and mostly way more fluid that the sound of the N1ZH60/2 and so much better, in every respect than the, truth be told way less expensive, Aurender. It was also at least one step above my netbook source which at the time was using as a basic setting Sound Signature mode 2D (more on that later). But I am not using a “normal” source, not anymore. So I had to check it out in my system…
So, how does the SSD equipped Melco compare with my “ubber double PC based with special ultra low noise peripherals” source that I use in my studio? You have to understand that my two-PC based source is not only maximally sound wise optimized (Audiophile Optimizer 2.2 Ultra mode, Fidelizer Pro 7.7, which both offer a huge improvement over “untouched” PCs and/or Macs) but it also utilizes the latest Client/Server edition of the MusiCHI suite (64bit), and most importantly uses as OS the Windows 2016 Server edition which is a much “quieter” OS compared to the already very good at this Win10. It also uses low power, lower noise CPU that do not generate a lot of noise with the clocks running at insane speeds. Also, both my PCs in this setup (client and server), the external HDD with my music library which is galvanically isolated from the server via an Intona USB isolator, my LAN optical isolator between the client and the server –direct connection local network-, and all my Ideon Audio 3R USB redrive/regenerate/reclock devices are all powered by separate ultra-low noise linear PSUs (a total of six, physically separated from each other) that keep the noise at the source at a very low level indeed and the data as clean as possible. Plus I use some special grounding techniques and other tweaks. All of the above ingredients are vital and absolutely necessary to achieve the results I am getting. The cost of that …project? A little less than 1/2 of the cost of the top Melco unit, a lot of work from all parties involved, with square footage that is x3 or maybe more compared to the area the compact and amazingly finished Melco box occupies, that feels to me (and so many others that have visited my studio) so desirable. So, back to the most important question, how do they compare sound wise?
Well, they sound very similar indeed in so many ways, and a little different in some. As they should as sources that reproduce exactly the same material on the same DAC the best(?) way possible (there is always room for improvement). They do indeed have their small differences, i.e. the black background is a somewhat “blacker” in the Melco (as it should in a unit that was designed to be a dedicated audio source from the ground up, unlike a PC no matter all the tweaking) but on the other hand the lower frequencies come out a little clearly defined with my PC based rig plus the contrast of the instrument images comes out as somewhat more intense. Pretty much everything else is in the same level or so close that the need to mention it is really mute! It is important to mention that this result was made possible with the sound signature setting in the Audiophile Optimizer at 3D. I mention that because with the 2D setting that I had before (and I had to live with the sound of the N1ZS20/2 for a while to figure out that I needed to do some more research on that subject), the differences between the two were bigger and pretty much the same as they present themselves when you compare let’s say the highest quality film picture (PC and MusiCHI Client/Server based system) with the highest quality 4K image (Melco). That is less crisp, with lower color saturation, basically softer presentation vs. crisper, bigger macro dynamic, more vivid, with definitely lower noise. Now, as an exercise I substituted my “big” PC rig with a simpler regular PC (without Audiophile Optimizer, or Win2016 server edition OS, or Fidelizer Pro, only with MusiCHI with the free Fidelizer version) and the comparison, against the Melco, proved to be a futile attempt, the Melco N1ZS20/2 sound is so much better in all respects that it is really embarrassing for the PC. It is like putting a well thought, mind you, sports car against a Formula 1 car for a 10 lap race. Really, that embarrassing!
Also, it must be mentioned that the sound quality of the N1ZS20/2 improves even more, making it even more appealing (not much but still worth it, which is an amazing accomplishment by itself if we take into account how high it already is) when you use it as a stand-alone unit (not connected to a network at all) and controlling it with the buttons on the front of it (way less user friendly and a pain in the neck if you have a big library as I do, but worth it if you are able to put up with the inconvenience)! And I trust Mr. Ainslie (see interview below) about his claims when he mentions that the Melco presents a way better result (sound quality) for those that do streaming, when it is used (and connected properly) to a Streaming Player through the special LAN port for the player. Something that I did not manage to check since in my studio I avoid any kind of network devices (lower EMI/RFI noise floor). Plus I have, let’s call them, “philosophical” doubts about the sound quality of the material and the production quality of that material that you get (without any way to check its origins or version –remastered or not- most of the time) from streaming. But that’s only me…
Finally a small glitch that probably applies only to my application of the Melco. When I tried to connect the N1ZS20/2 to my local network through my optical LAN isolator device (that works with everything else, PC, etc.) I failed to make it connect. When I asked the company if there was a special reason for that they told me that there shouldn’t be a problem since the Ethernet ports are of total standard connectivity. They are transformer isolated with special TDK magnetics, and the LEDs are light pipe isolated, but the connectivity is real TCP/IP, so they were surprised by that. Well, since this is only a review, and my set up is a specialized one, and the connection worked with a standard LAN cable, I did not pursue a solution further more. I am sure that if someone faces the same problem they will get full support from the company to solve it.
Amazing? You betcha!
So, there you have it, the Melco N1ZS20/2 is an amazing digital sound source for those that will use it as a Server directly connected to a USB DAC (actually it’s the best complete and non-normal PC based solution that I have come across up till now) but also takes care of business in the most proper way as a Network player companion. And the price (9.000 euros in Greece including 24% VAT) is not that crazy if you consider that this unit offers top quality sound, top built quality and the support security of a giant (Buffalo Technology) and it is capable of successfully joining even the highest quality equipped systems. Well done and highly recommended indeed!
Interview with mr. Allan Ainslie of Melco
[ EXCLUSIVELY FOR HIENDNEWS.GR & mr. THANASIS MORAITIS – ATHENS, GREECE ]
Mr. Ainslie has worked in the past for Naim Audio (Naimnet General Manager) and Chord Electronics (Business Development Manager) before he became the General Manager Audiophile Storage products – Melco division (Buffalo Technology). I would like to thank very much Mr. Ainslie for his time and effort to answer all our questions as he was recovering from surgery at the time of the interview.
- What is Melco? Please give us a little history behind the brand that makes so interesting products.
“MELCO Syncrets are BUFFALO people AND “Hi-Fi industry professionals”. Buffalo is the market leader in Japan for IT storage and peripherals. But it was originally in 1973 a boutique Hi-Fi Manufacturer called Melco Maki Engineering Laboratory Company. Most famous product an amazing turntable.
In Japan the mass population are not very computer literate – was a closed market and did not have Sinclair spectrum, Commodore 64 etc. – and so Digital Music using IT devices was not so easy for them as in the West.
Buffalo were asked to help several manufacturers of Network Streamers to help with this problem by making an Audio NAS – the hope was to modify an existing IT NAS.
Because of the Audio heritage and the fact that the Chairman, Mr. Maki, is still understanding the HiFi Business, the engineers carefully studied the real requirements for Network Audio – and realized that modification of IT NAS would not solve all the problems and would still leave a basic Sound Quality problem. Similar research they realized that anything using conventional computer in a box, with fancy PSU etc., would still have basic SQ limitation.
MELCO is the brand which represents Hi-Fi quality IT products, driven by MELCO Syncrets Inc. Core people of MELCO Syncrets are from BUFFALO, which is the market leader in Japan for IT storage and Wireless networking products. In addition, Hi-Fi industry professionals were joined to MELCO projects to make unique products.
So Melco project was born with two objectives
- Sound Quality only limited by source data files and the DAC.
- Extreme simplicity of use for Japanese market with no confidence of using IT products.
The result is totally completely new architecture which is dedicated ONLY to high res digital music playback, bit at sensible costs but also in the realms of cost-no-object extreme high end systems.”
- The Melco Music Library is a unique product, in more than one way. Please describe in a few words what makes it more capable than other servers/renderers in delivering better sound quality?
“The architecture is based on high integrity low jitter data buss, like a high end CD player in many ways. A NAS or PC would be optimized for speed and data throughput.
Also all processing takes place in a manner to create minimal system noise – digital data, although pulses by nature, is really analogue, and system noise disturbs the data timing and causes jitter and loss of integrity. So the MELCO is an electrically and mechanically silent environment.
Your questions relate mainly to USB-DAC – maybe half our users use DAC. But half use Ethernet Streamer. In this case the streamer connects DIRECTLY to the Melco using the PLAYER port. There is no data-switch. This means that the Melco can carefully present the Packet data with all packets in the correct order and precisely timed – knowing that no data-switch can then mess things up. Whatever the make of Streamer – it always sounds better!
Even streaming sources like TIDAL or Qobuz Sublime can be rebuilt inside the Melco and the data presented to the Streamer – in this case there is a huge SQ improvement. Similarly any other UPnP server on the network such as on a NAS or PC.”
- How does the N1 handle the music data? From the moment someone imports music to the special SSDs up until it gets out form the USB audio output what is going on? Is there a memory playback function?
“As above, simple extremely low jitter and low noise data bus – not burst data with all the problems.”
- But data transmission through the USB output has to be in packets, it’s the USB transmission protocol I am referring. Do you pay extra attention to the circuit sending the data for transmission?
“Proper 3 wire ground is big benefit for USB. USB is designed expecting high common mode from ‘floating’ devices.”
- Is the audio USB a special output and in what way?
“We have two options for DAC in reality. Directly from a USB data feed 0 this has very fast data edges. But the main output is actually USB2 – the slower data edges are much better aligned to what most high-end DACs expect. USB2.0 port is ideal for high-end audio components – slower edge speed gives less noise and many DACs expect this slower data edge (data speed is of course the same).”
- If someone like me buys the N1ZS/2 he will have 2TB available space in the machine. That gives the best available sound quality. What happens with music that is stored either in a NAS or in an external HDD? Will that music be reproduced with the same sound quality as the music that is stored in the internal SSD HDDs or not?
“- External USB HDD is same SQ as MELCO internal storage provided precautions are taken to ensure the HDD is optimal – we will introduce dedicated USB HDD in the future for this reason.
– External NAS or External UPnP server – the Melco rebuilds the data to be close to that within the Melco. But best SQ is the HDD internal or USB connected.”
- The Melco Music Library N1 is a product to be proud of. Why don’t you offer with it a control App of your own design that does everything a control App should do (provide all the info about the stored media, offer the proper user flexibility and full control) like the MusiCHI software suite does for the PC based sources? Compared to that one pretty much all other control software out there look like a backwards step to me (or more depending on the App).
“We do plan a MELCO App – but at present there is really no need – we support Open Home (Kazoo and Lumin) as well as most other Apps and everyone has their favorite. We will need an App for features that are planned that are unique to MELCO – at that stage there will be a matching Control Point App.”
- Why are the SSD audio hard drives that you use so much better for the sound? What are their advantages compared to regular SSD or other types of HDDs? Is Melco (Buffalo) going to offer them in an external USB package in the future or not and why?
“The Audio Grade SSD is interesting. The initial plan for the Melco was to include a version with IT SSD. It sounded worse than magnetic HDD. Why? Buffalo has huge R&D dept. and are masters of storage products, so they quickly realized that while early IT SSD were simple, worked well, but were costly and too small. Recent SSD achieves offer lower cost and higher capacity by having internal technologies such as data acceleration, compression to improve capacity size, and wear leveling technology to avoid read/write hotspots when used in a PC. All this causes problems for audio – so in fact Buffalo memory Division designed and manufacturer special Audio Grade SSD for MELCO – quiet, slow, and capable of amazing SQ.”
- I am reviewing the N1ZS20/2 and I have compared it to the N1ZH60/2. The sound quality differences are more that obvious. Are these due to the special SSDs that reside in the first one or are there any other special stuff in the more expensive model that are not part of the design of the other?
“The Audio Grade SSDs between N1ZS20/2 and N1ZH60/2 is the major difference but not the only one. N1ZS20/2 is not just a N1ZH60/2 with SSDS fitted. There are some other detail changes of capacitors on main board etc. Plus of course the enhanced mountings for the SSD compared to HDD. These also make a difference.”
- The Melco N1ZS20/2 has all the special ingredients for great music playback from external streamers, locally stored music etc. But I am more of a USB DAC user and I have a very big music library stored in an external storage unit. What would be the best Melco solution for user like me and why? Is the N1A/2 a viable solution and how close would it come the N1ZS20/2?
“All machines have exactly same function and connectivity.
The N1A has single PSU – N1Z has two PSU – one for the HDDs.
N1Z is in 2 versions, 2.5inch HDD and SSD as you know.
For external sources there is only a small SQ difference N1ZH or N1ZS – this is due to the fact that these HDDs are always running because of database etc. and SSD is quieter than HDD.
N1A has single PSU and has 3.5 inch HDD. The SQ difference N1A to N1Z for external sources is due to the power supplies in the main.”
MELCO distribution in Greece by: