In the summer of 2014, Alan Ainslie, someone I have known for around 20 years, mentioned that he was working with Buffalo on a new and radical audiophile storage device.
Now, Alan knows stuff. His technical expertise is deep and, when in full flow, he can explain complex theories with such devastating clarity that I feel I am actually grasping things. This is an illusion, sadly. The moment I try to share this new-found knowledge, the limits of my understanding become painfully evident. In addition to his technical prowess, it has to be said that Alan also knows his music and the recording world intimately. He can remember the most astonishing levels of detail. I think the term is Polymath. For someone who is either simply dim or suffering from memory tagging issues, it can be a dispiriting experience 🙂
When I first met him, Alan was a Director at ATC (the speaker people) but prior to this had been running Technics in the UK. There, he was part of the origination of the ‘Red Book” CD standard. After ATC, he spent several years at Naim Audio, being instrumental in development of their streaming systems, most particularly, the ripper / servers. Subsequent to that, he has been (and remains) a consultant with Chord Electronics and, of course with Melco Audio. The upshot is that his involvement in and excitement over this new Buffalo project caught our attention.
With Buffalo a well-known manufacturer of computer ancillaries, their decision to pull the name Melco Audio out of mothballs makes perfect sense. In fact, there is some proper audiophile heritage to this Japanese company. The products are built in Japan too, curiously reassuring!
So now we have a Melco N1A hard drive server sitting here. There is a more expensive SSD version available too but, hey, this’ll do for starters! Priced at £1600, it’s a clever NAS drive with benefits. For a start, power supplies are proper audio grade linear affairs. It has 3 tb of internal storage but can also access external devices. For now, silver is the only choice but black will be an option for the N1A in June and for the SSD equipped N1Z around September.
We have always been aware that the UPnP serving device can have a significant impact on the audio quality. The Naim servers, Uniti Serves mainly, have been the staple of our streaming system here because nothing we’ve heard has bettered them.
The Melco has a special dedicated LAN port for the streamer. Simply routing our existing ethernet feed through the Melco to the Naim NDS (NAC552/NAP500/Titan system) brought an immediate improvement slightly reminiscent of the gains we had been hearing with the Super Lumina speaker cables that a customer had just borrowed for a couple of days. Given that our 7m pair of cables cables costs £4200 … result!
Next phase is to locate the data directly on the Melco. The results were genuinely surprising. Even greater reduction in ‘glare’ (glare that we had not really noticed before!) and a significantly more musical and colourful rendering of voices, instruments etc etc. Even more ‘hear through’, it’s simply better.
Having the hard drive in the system rack does not seem to be an issue since it is very quiet indeed.
There are some minor negatives at the moment though. The in-built UPnP software is a bit limited in its handling of WAV files. A new “Super UPnP” application is promised soon. It’s promised to be open to Naim-derived rips too. For now, the sonic gains are worth the pain.
Full integration with the Naim ripper is offered. After all, the products share a bloodline of sorts, so this is not seen as a full-on server replacement. With the Naim rips being regarded by Alan as the best in the business, his ideal is to combine them. Having said that, there is nothing to stop rips being made on a computer and simply dropped into the Melco share folder.
We are pretty phobic about playing FLAC or ALAC files directly on the Naim streamers. The UnitiServe (and other UPnP software) does a fine job of transcoding to WAV format and it was interesting that we found ourselves preferring the transcoded Naim files via the Melco’s ‘conditioning’ than direct but in raw form from the Melco. An inbuilt UPnP server that transcodes will be very welcome.
As well as the audio grade Ethernet feed, there is the option to control the Melco from a third party application on, say, an iPad and feed the audio through an asynchronous USB equipped DAC. Something suitable arrived the day before the Melco in the shape of the new Chord Hugo TT.
And yes the combo is. Very!