This review, witten by Malcolm Steward, first appeared in Hi-Fi Choice (UK) magazine in 1012.
I always think it is heart-warming when a well-recognised Japanese manufacturer becomes involved in a ‘new’ technology: their presence gives that technology credence and piques the interest of the mainstream customer, both of which can be seen as excellent news.
I was, therefore, especially pleased when Pioneer launched its Elite series N-50 networked audio player: first, most people will have heard of the brand, and, second, the company is full of hardened audiophile listeners. The hope, as a result, is that people will recognise not only the N-50 but also the product category it represents.
Pioneer decided that the N-50 should satisfy audiophiles who want to enjoy playback from their whole music library as well as online media, “in the best possible sound quality.” Keeping that in mind, the N-50 and the junior N-30 players were developed to offer a new listening experience, providing access to music files wherever they are stored — on PC, NAS, HDD, iPod/iPhone/iPad, or USB— as well as internet radio programmes from around the world. For the N-50, Pioneer has also integrated asynchronous USB DAC functionality and DSP processing, along with audiophile parts and construction to make sure the requirements of “even the most demanding audiophile” are met.
The N-50 can be regarded as a source just like any other: in fact, its multiple DAC connections make it a useful digital input expander for an integrated or pre-amplifier. The unit offers analogue and digital output connections and so can be connected to a line-level analogue input with a pair of RCA cables, or it can be digitally connected, using coax or optical leads, to an appropriate input on a DAC or AV receiver.
The N-50 inspires a definite pride of ownership, perhaps more so than others in its price-band. To begin with, it is a weighty beast that uses a ‘rigid under-base’ construction to provide rigidity, stability, and heightened damping that aim to eliminate the influence of external vibration. Inside, the componentry is split into digital and analogue sections with separate power transformers for each. This separation, says Pioneer, is to prevent interference “thereby drastically reducing causes of sound deterioration.”
As one might expect there is a delightful degree of over-engineering about the N-50: the thought that the engineers did everything the budget and their brains would allow to refine its performance shines through in the sturdy, careful build quality alone. There is also the Sound Mode function, which allows the user to use, or defeat, various facilities such as the Auto Sound Retriever or Hi-bit 32 mode. These, like the Auto Level Control, are, I consider, best ignored. My advice is to stick with the ‘PURE AUDIO’ setting, which uses the shortest signal path and completely bypasses the DSP circuitry to deliver the most accurate performance
“With its ability to download at up to 7 times the quality of CDs, the N-50 stylishly allows you access to on-line audio content from any room in your house,” says one retailer advertisement: a retailer whose writer, I would suggest, has inadvertently created an erroneous impression of the unit. His words suggest to me that the N-50 will download and store music at seven times the quality of CDs: that is clearly nonsense as the N-50 has no hard disk or ability to divert music files to external storage.(It all depends upon how one interprets “download.”) It is worth being scrupulous about one’s advertising with a format that is still in the process of being adopted by audiophiles and the general public: especially when so few people have the faintest clue of what it is all about. Be ultra careful that you can back-up what you appear to be saying!
Having seen it advertised for sale at £499, the N-50 looks to be in competition with other network players such as the Cambridge Audio NP30, the Marantz NA7400 and the Denon DNP720AE. Potential buyers might also look at the Logitech Squeezebox Touch, which has become the de facto standard lower-end streamer, priced highly attractively at around £200.Popular upgrades will see that price rocket skywards quickly to join the likes of or overtake the Pioneer. I have to admit that the N-50 is definitely the most attractive looking of this collection, even if its tiny front panel lettering will have you switching your usual reading glasses for a magnifying telescope. Even though the front-panel display is only a 2.4-inch OLED, it is a colourful and comfortable device, which sets it apart from all but the Squeezebox in the appearance department. Regardless, the display and its ergonomics still had me reaching for an iPad to control the N-50 functions. Nobody yet seems to have found the ideal way to ’drive’ popular UPnP (DLNA) servers like Asset and Twonky, especially when they are fronting a large library and being viewed on a typical machine fascia display. Thus far, the Apple iPad seems the best option, provided there is an app available for the streamer. Pioneer provides one free on the iTunes store.
What truly sets the N-50 apart from the rest is its input roster and its facilities. The device is copiously equipped, starting with its DLNA Certified UPnP server that will allow the player to retrieve music from sources such as NAS drives or network attached computers. Using this protocol, the N-50 will handle a variety of formats and play MP3s, CD-rips and 24-bit/192kHz high resolution FLAC and WAV files. The unit also has a USB-enabled AK4480 DAC that enables a direct asynchronous connection to be made between the unit and a lap-top computer: in this mode, the N-50 master clock provides the timing for the file-transfer to give the best achievable audio results. The N-50 can also act as a DAC for a CD player or other digital source such as an iPod or iPhone. It will further play music files sourced from a USB storage device such as a memory stick or a USB disk drive.
The N-50 is equipped with Apple Airplay and Bluetooth facilities, although you will need to purchase an adaptor to enable the latter. The device is only equipped for wired LAN connections but there is a wireless adaptor, available too, if you feel the need for wi-fi: not that you should consider it if you are looking for the finest audio performance, but it should be okay for listening to compressed music.
Listening to the N-50 running off a UPnP source – on a Vortexbox Appliance – the sound struck me as being refined and pleasant but there were no sharply defined leading edges to reinforce any rhythmic urgency and jolt me out of my lethargy. The player demonstrated a perfectly decent sense of timing but it was not what one would call exactly invigorating on albums such as Albert Lee and Hogan’s Heroes upbeat “Like This”. Some years ago it might have been described as laid-back.
This was regardless of whether I was using the internal or an external DAC, although, in all fairness, the N-50 perked up after some serious and prolonged running-in, even though it never fully scaled the heights in terms of being a compelling listen. The internal DAC seemed to be a fine little performer even if it was unable to match the Naim n-DAC for temporal dynamism and ‘urgency’, which one would not expect it to be able to do, in all honesty (the n-DAC does cost four times as much as the N-50, after all.)
I felt, at times, that the Pioneer DAC diminished leading edges and slightly reduced dynamic contrast, which lent the music a ‘warm’ and softened feeling. These effects were minimal because the N-50 maintained timing well but it could demonstrate a lack of rhythmic urgency and compulsion. This was a positive benefit on some occasions, such as with low-bandwidth internet radio where it rendered stations as easily listenable provided one did not wish to listen too critically. The best audio performance seemed to come from inserting a quality USB memory stick with a few FLAC albums on it into the fascia panel USB port. The music had a marked crispness, great detail, humanity and a rhythmic clarity that encouraged vigorous toe-tapping. Somehow it seemed the most compellingly natural sounding input. It had believable chiaroscuro; there was a genuine gradation of tone from guitar generated by the pressure of the player’s fingertips on the fretboard and the attack of his right hand on the strings, along with its placement relative to the bridge. These shifts in tonal colour moved the playing from being just playing to performing with sincere expression.
This balance – which is considered rather than cutting edge – is one that many listeners will happily enjoy. Certainly, you can extract more from networked and computer audio but that step further can be a little too much for some listeners and require a whole lot of fine tuning, expertise and expense elsewhere. You have to be truly committed to inhabit the bleeding edge: and truly committed means exhibiting a near maniacal urge to extract that last percentage point of performance from recorded music. Just stick with the PioneerN-50 if you’re after more than acceptable performance and a regular life!