Melco N10 45th Anniversary

Hardware Review

Melco N10 45th Anniversary
Friday, June 25, 2021
network server
Jason Kennedy

How’s this for Japanese logic, the smaller a Melco music library is in purely physical terms, the more expensive it can be, less is clearly is more in Nagoya. The N10 is the most expensive HDD equipped music server that Melco makes, yet it inhabits the same size chassis as the N100 (the entry level model) or should I say half of it does, because the N10 is a two box server with the power supply in a second near identical chassis. It doesn’t look as serious as the N1Z which comes in a bigger case and it’s only half the width of an N1A. The moral of this is clearly that server covers like those on books are no indication of what lies within.

This N10 is a little bit special, it’s a celebration of Melco’s 45th anniversary and comes in a champagne finish in an edition of 50 units that are only available in Europe, so it’s a genuine limited edition. It has a 5TB hard drive whereas the regular N10 runs a 3TB HDD, and that extra 2TB only adds £500 to the price which in the world of high end servers is great value. Unlike an N1Z there is no option to have a solid state (SSD) drive but Melco is of the opinion that spinning discs sound better than their inert cousins. If this unit is anything to go by I’m inclined to agree.

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Melco is associated with Buffalo technology, a large scale manufacturer of ‘networking and storage solutions’ so it’s safe to say that they know more about hard drives than most and definitely more than any audio company. They are of the opinion that an HDD made to provide fast access in a computer is not what’s best for audio applications where accuracy and low noise are the goal rather than speed of data access. Even the highest bit rates required for audio, quad or higher DSD, 32-bit/768kHz are nothing compared to the data rates needed in gaming or image rendering. As audio systems are designed to be as revealing as possible any noise produced by a server will be audible. Usually this takes the form of a raised noise floor which masks or distorts quieter sounds so that the end result doesn’t have the low level resolution that it should but does have the grainy, edgy character we associate with digital audio.

Putting the power supply in a separate box is an old trick that’s very popular with phono stage designers because it removes the vibrations and radiations of a power transformer from the vicinity of the low level signal coming from a turntable. Despite its apparently binary nature a digital signal is just as easy to corrupt, it’s just that the effects of that corruption are different, but by keeping the noisiest part of the circuitry away from the digital signal processing side Melco gives the N10 a clear advantage. 

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There are two ways you can use a server like this, the most straightforward is to connect its USB output directly to a DAC and use Melco’s app or Roon (plus a few other options) to ‘push’ the data to the converter. The other approach is to use a streamer to ‘pull’ the data from the digital library via its ethernet connection and either send it on to a DAC or convert it onboard. As a rule the second approach is usually the best sounding but when you have a server of the N10’s calibre this rule depends on the quality of the streamer, the Aries G1 I use did not manage to improve on the results with the Melco connected directly to the DAC, in fact the N10 did a far better job on its own. But the Aries G1 is not in the same price league so it’s perhaps unfair to expect it to do so.

Sound quality
Initially I kept the digital system as it was with the Aries G1 between server and DAC as this is the way I use the Melco N1A EX that is the current reference of my server options. In this situation the N10 proved to be a clearly superior piece of kit as you might hope, delivering music with an ease that is rare in digital audio and bringing a clarity to the sound that can only be achieved with very low noise source components. Don’t forget that where your own music collection is concerned the server is the source, and any audio specific server sounds better than a streaming service. It timed really well and offered up low level sounds that while they may be there on the more affordable server don’t have the clarity required for them to become tangible parts of the music. Directly comparing these two servers reveals that the N10 is more expansive in its imaging, exposes a lot more of the timbre or character of each instrument or voice and clearly improves timing as a result of reducing the digital grunge that smears this quality. You get energy with less grain, dynamics that never threaten to become shrill and an immediacy to the playing of great musicians that’s addictive. Extended use reinforced this impression many times over.

Using the N10’s USB output and bypassing the streamer brought a degree of relaxation and evenness to the sound that was very appealing. The Aries amps up the sense of three dimensionality of the sound but does so by emphasising leading edges, which can be more exciting and with a less revealing system and tends to sound better but ultimately isn’t as transparent as the Melco alone. And it is extremely transparent, you can hear so much in familiar tracks that it’s inspiring, and it does so with a lightness of touch that suggests you are getting the pure musical signal without addition or subtraction by the server. For the most part I used the Melco control app and sent the digits to an iFi Pro iDSD DAC in bit perfect, tube+ mode via a CAD USB cable, a fairly modest converter given the price of the N10 but one which showed how good it is up until a bigger (in all respects) DAC from Aqua came along.

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Regardless of converter the timing was always on the money and there was no sense of added urgency that you often get with digital systems, this can sound great with some music but ultimately masks the subtleties of better recordings and softer sounds. Here all the instruments in practically any ensemble could be singled out thanks to the openness of the soundstage and the 3D acoustic it carved out in front of me. With the Aqua La Scala this was further increased by the extra resolution provided by this rather fine DAC, here there was a degree of extra articulation and depth of image that the iFi (at less than half the price) didn’t reveal. I suspect that this Melco warrants the best DAC you can lay your hands on but in this pairing the results were totally engrossing with just about any piece of music I cued up. The richness of tone it delivers is quite uncanny for a digital source, in fact I’d go so far as to say that it has many of the best qualities of analogue sources without their limitations. You wouldn’t mistake it for a great turntable but nor does it come across as obviously digital in their company.

 

I am particularly impressed by the way that the N10 reveals differences between recordings, differences that should be expected given the variety of recording methods that have been used with the music produced over the last 60 years, differences that should be huge but are often homogenised by less revealing components. Here the contrasts were often enormous and varied from the sublime to the heavily compressed and aggressive, you wouldn’t expect a modern orchestral recording to sound like one from 40 years ago and they certainly don’t. Digital to analogue conversion has been hugely improved in domestic audio since the advent of CD and the conversion of analogue to digital in the studio has likewise evolved significantly. This doesn’t always equate to remasters being better than their forebears but that’s more to do with commercial considerations than those of fidelity.

The N10 Anniversary is one of those components that is so good I didn’t want to take it out of the system, a dangerous habit that requires a painful process of rehabilitation when the affair ends. But it’s better to have loved and lost apparently and my time with this Melco was often quite emotional thanks to the way it delivers the heart and soul of the music. Highly recommended and don’t forget that if you want the extra terabytes and champagne finish of the Anniversary edition don’t leave it too long.

Specifications: 

Type: Music server with HDD storage & separate power supply
Storage: 5TB
Network connection: RJ45 Ethernet
Digital Outputs: RJ45 Ethernet, USB
Back up connection: USB
Formats supported (player): DSF, DFF, FLAC, WAV, ALAC, AIFF, AAC
Formats supported (server): DSF, DFF, FLAC, WAV, ALAC, AIFF, AAC, MP3, WMA, OGG, LPCM 
Sample rates: PCM 44.1kHz, 48kHz, 88.2kHz, 96kHz, 176.4KHz. 192kHz, 384KHz . DSD 2.8MHz, 5.6 MHz, 11.3 MHz
Bit depths: 1bit, 16bit, 24bit, 32bit
Streaming services supported: Qobuz, Tidal
User Interface: Melco control application, Roon
Other Features: UPnP server, DLNA device compatible
Accessories: Umbilical power connector
Dimensions (HxWxD): 61 x 215 x 269mm plus PSU
Weight: server 3kg , PSU 5kg 
Warranty: 2 years (5 years in UK with registration), HDD 3 years

Price: 
£7,499
Manufacturer Details: 

Melco Audio
melco-audio.com

Distributor Details: 

ADMM
01252 784525
www.melco-audio-masters.com

Comments

This is a fantastic, insightful review. To speak of music 'flow' (as best/easily discernable via LP listening), anaudio components ability
to easily follow/reproduce the vast tonal color variations per music/album played is an example of incredibly important, insightful listening
observations. Whoever wrote this piece, nicely done !

pj

By allhifi