Melco N50-S38 Music Library Review

Posted on 10th February, 2022

Melco N50-S38 Music Library Review

Michael Evans sounds out this high-end media player/streamer, or so-called 'digital music library'…

Melco

N50-S38 (Silver) and N50-S38B (Black) Music Library

US$5,499

Melco N50-S38 Review

All but the most diehard hi-fi enthusiasts will not be familiar with the name Makoto Maki, but those who are hold a loyal following for his company and products. The founder of Melco Holdings – along with the better-known peripherals manufacturer, Buffalo Inc. – died in 2018. Maki san's Buffalo connection gives us a big clue as to why he has played a significant role in the modern hi-fi world…

He was a philanthropist who believed that everyone should get to fulfil their academic potential, as well as an engineer and an audiophile. It was the latter that inspired him to form Melco (Maki Engineering Laboratory Company) in 1975. Melco started its journey into hi-fi with some incredibly futuristic-looking turntables, renowned for their industrial-strength build quality and accurate reproduction in their native Japan.

As the computer peripherals market exploded, Melco was able to take advantage of the products manufactured by its parent company Buffalo – which was soon to become the largest computer peripheral manufacturer in Japan. It used its expertise to transform its hi-fi product range from analogue to digital. Melco's expertise in routers, switches and storage devices duly put it in a perfect position to manufacture cutting-edge network storage and then streaming devices.

Fast forward to 2014, and Melco introduced its first 'digital music library'. This didn't use off-the-shelf components like many other similar products, but rather audiophile-grade components focused on sound quality. The latest incarnation is the N50-S38 that you see here, which is billed as the company's middle-range solid-state drive-based digital music library – which is a long-winded way of saying 'high-end SSD streamer'!

Melco N50-S38 Review

IN DEPTH

Melco's secret is to utilise a very high specification 3.84 terabyte solid-state hard drive to store digital music files, which for the brand's aficionados is their delivery method of choice. It removes any losses introduced from streaming via a service – say Qobuz or Tidal – and provides the most straightforward signal path from source to DAC.

That's not to say that streaming services, and other connectivity is not available. In fact, the Melco is more adept than most in accepting multiple sources. For example, you can plug in an external hard drive or USB stick, stream from almost any service via various apps such as Bubble or Lumin. It even has its own app, which is only available if you are an Apple iPad owner at the time of writing. The Melco N50 can also be used as a certified Roon endpoint, allowing Roon's elegant interface to access the Melco digital music library – which is a big bonus for many of us streaming fans.

Furthermore, the N50 is DSD compatible. A really nice and well-executed touch allows it to access the Qobuz downloader and the highresaudio.com download site to enable direct downloads without a computer. Thumbs up for this feature; I can't tell you how much it will mean to some of us digital diehards!

From a technical standpoint, the N50 is housed in a substantial, 1.7mm-thick full-width chassis, with inbuilt noise filters. The SSD is coupled to a rigid, layered SSD cradle, and external vibrations are minimised through special damping feet. For the purposes of this review, I used the N50 on a Pro-ject Ground-it isolation platform too, as a belt and braces measure.

It's a veritable king of connectivity. There are four USB ports, two of which are used to expand the disk space should you run out, one is there to back up your hi-res digital library, and the final USB socket lets you connect directly to a DAC. The latter, of course, lets you pipe out hi-res music to your favourite digital to analogue converter without having to worry about the built-in limitations of old school coaxial or TOSLINK digital connectors.

Speaking of digital output, the N50-S38 handles 16 to 32-bit PCM, up to 384kHz, and can automatically downsample to suit the DAC you have connected to it. It supports gapless PCM and DSD and also number-crunches 1-bit DSD up to 11.3MHz, i.e. Quad DSD. It supports markerless DSD and even has the ability to transcode DSD to 32-bit PCM if you so wish.

Melco N50-S38 Review

GETTING GOING

The Melco is actually pretty straightforward to use. It's not quite iTunes-easy, but the system's software is very well thought out all the same. There is no configuration required to add music to your library; simply plug in and follow the simple on-screen instructions.

When starting out, my advice would be to import one file to begin, to make sure it is mapped directly into your main library and hasn't got lost in any subfolders. Once you have managed this, then the subsequent imports are straightforward. Equally, importing from CD is also stress-free. I used a powered Blu-ray drive to rip tracks into the Melco's library without any problems at all. However, the ultimate way to import your digital collection would be to use the Melco D100 optical drive if you want the full matching 'train set'!

If you are in danger of running out of disk space, Melco also offers the E100, a 3TB expansion drive, with the same high-quality SSD found in the N50. To complete the Melco accessory suite, you could also add the S100 Data Switch, for a serious upgrade to a regular network switch, and even connect it all together via Melco's own high-end C1AE Ethernet cables. Thus equipped, you'd qualify as being a true Melco fanboy or fangirl! Speaking of which, the N50 has two Ethernet ports, one is a dedicated 'player' port, and the second is the standard LAN port to connect to your network.

From start-up, the N50 takes a couple of minutes to boot – but it found my USB DAC straight away. In my case, I was using a Chord Qutest, plugged into my reference Exposure/Linn system. At this point, it's worth noting that the N50 only utilises USB out; there are no optical or coaxial digital outputs – so it won't play ball with most DACs made before around 2010 and some after.

Accessing the music library via the Melco's front panel buttons is possible but not practical, particularly if you have a large music library to scroll through. I am sure that Melco is not too concerned about this, as the company realises that a supported app will primarily drive the N50. Still, this functionality is there if you need it.

The unit itself is pretty conventional-looking and nicely slimline at 436x62x352mm. It weighs 7kg, which is a lot for something with a solid-state drive inside, showing how generally well put together it is. Yet it doesn't quite have the exquisite build quality of old Japanese high-end CD players of yore, which seemed to be hewn from granite and then covered wall-to-wall in silky brushed aluminium. Although nicely made, the Melco feels more utilitarian than that.

Melco N50-S38 Review

THE LISTENING

I began listening using the Bubble UPnP server app. It found the Melco/Chord combination on the network straight away, and I could see my own NAS library, the Melco Library, and my access to both Tidal and Qobuz immediately.

From here, I performed the classic A/B comparison, which I am sure most first time Melco users will also do. I streamed a track I know well from Qobuz and then compared it to the same track stored on the Melco SSD hard drive. In this case, I chose Hey Now by London Grammar. This is a very well produced, close-miked performance that sounds great on most systems but can really come alive when played through the right equipment.

Bearing in mind there is no difference in the hardware being used, just the source, the results were interesting, to say the least. Streaming from Qobuz sounded great, with the Melco/Chord combination delivering a very strong and detailed, dynamic performance. However, switching to the Melco's internal SSD as the source (same track, resolution, bit rate, etc.), the song came to life. It was a sonic unveiling, so to speak. Vocals were more intense and explicit in the mix, the build-up to the song more detailed and dynamic, and when the deep bassline kicked in, it felt physically stronger.

I switched to the track People Let's Dance from Public Service Broadcasting and repeated the exercise, ensuring a like-for-like sample rate version. The difference was not subtle, but distinct and immediate. The song was richer and more textured via the SSD. Dynamics were better, bass was deeper, and the previously hidden detail emerged. This trend continued from Van Morrison tunes to The Rolling Stones, to the Pet Shop Boys and The Police, all showing a clear improvement over both their Tidal and Qobuz versions.

Changing tack, I decided to try streaming from my own NAS drive, a Synology DS 218 Play, which is a competent, affordable drive favourited by many audiophiles. My Synology is connected via a standard Ethernet cable to a regular Netgear switch and, from there, plugged into the N50. Playing some of the tracks again, I honestly expected the Synology to perform better, but it was much more akin to the Tidal and Qobuz streaming services than the Melco SSD. The N50 was again superior in every aspect.

Melco N50-S38 Review

A few N50 menu options later – and dare I say not particularly straightforward with too many sub-menus to navigate – I switched from the UPnP input to Roon. The Roon app spotted the N50 seamlessly as a Roon Ready device and gave me access to all my digital libraries. A quick word of warning here, though, sometimes it can be tricky to import the N50 library into Roon. There is a way, and the trick is when adding a folder in the Roon storage library, you need to specify the N50 address, which will be \\N-0453A\internal, and use the default username (nobody) and password (nobody). You can then add all the folders you need. I feel that Melco needs more work here to make this a truly duffer-proof experience.

Having Roon up and running made comparisons between sources extremely simple, as the interface allows you to choose the version of the track or album you wish to play. I spent ages swapping between Tidal, Qobus, Synology NAS and the N50 with a plethora of music at my fingertips. Each time yielded the same result, the SSD on the N50 was easily the best source.

To many, these findings will hardly come as a surprise. From the mid-nineteen seventies onwards, it has been recognised that the source is the most important factor in music reproduction. If you needed proof of this, then you will find it in every LP record you play, as some will sound great and others dreadful.

The reason for this is simple. If the artist has been badly captured in the studio recording, then no amount of technology will make it better further down the line. Likewise, if the mastering is poor, or the music is taken from a copy master several generations old, it will be sub-par. The less it goes 'around the houses', the better.

It is the same with a digital source like the Melco. Many digital purists think streaming is a long way from the 'source direct' philosophy', and that's why in an ideal world, they go for SSD-based storage rather than streaming. Melco has been at the forefront of this for a good few years now, so perhaps it's not surprising that the sound quality difference is marked. If the signal path can be made as simple and as noise-free as possible before it reaches the DAC, then the sound is better – so a high-quality SSD transport makes complete sound sense.

The other benefit of SSD transports is that the music is there for you forever – providing you periodically back it up, of course. Streaming services may come and go – and recording artists with them – but with SSD storage, it's there for you regardless. Someone can't just come along and take your music collection from you at the push of a button. Finally, the N50 is also very useful for those with limited bandwidth on their internet connection and who cannot stream reliably.

Melco N50-S38 Review

THE VERDICT

The joy of the Melco N50-S38 is that it gives you the best of both worlds, of course. You have a top-notch SSD music library and a very good Roon Ready streamer – with a little 'eco system' of accessories should you need them. Of course, the not-so-great thing is that this is pretty expensive, but then you get a lot of functionality, and the general build is beyond reproach – you can't say that of every SSD-based system. Also, the sound quality is potentially superb – it's a fantastic digital transport, providing you've got the hi-res files to benefit from it. Melco shows here that great results are possible when a product is well thought out and engineered. Makoto Maki would have been proud.

For more information visit Melco

    Michael Evans's avatar

    Michael Evans

    A music junkie who served his apprenticeship in UK hi-fi retail in the 1990s, Mike loves the simplicity of analogue and the complexity of digital. With an encyclopaedic knowledge of the subject, he’s been on a life-long quest for great sound at a sensible price – and is still loving the journey…

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    Tags: melco 

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