Digital Music Library
Melco are not a new company in the hi-fi marketplace – far from it. If you have been into hi-fi for a long time you may recall the classic Melco turntable from around 1980, which was a bit special in its day. From those early beginnings in the 1970’s Melco evolved into one of the largest suppliers of computer peripherals, manufacturing NAS drives and networking equipment.
Audiophiles the world over are familiar with the well-used phrase “garbage in-garbage out” and that the source component is the most critical in any hi-fi system. The best amplifier and speakers in the world are rendered useless if the source component is unable to reproduce music to a high standard.
Over 30 years after it was launched, the CD as a format is as strong ever, although it has taken many years for the best performance to be extracted from the disc. However, there were always limitations with the CD, largely in the amount of data it could store.
With the introduction of high resolution digital downloads we can now overcome this limitation of the CD and can access music files exactly as the artists and mixing engineers intended.
Unfortunately, the concept of a serious streaming/storage source component has been lost, with many hi-fi users storing their beloved music collections on your typical IT based NAS drive solutions, which are fine from a storage point of view but are flawed with regard to obtaining the maximum performance out of your ripped CD collection or your downloaded “Hi-Res” files.
This is where Melco came into the fold. They decided to manufacture the world’s first genuine High Definition Digital Music Source, with none of the compromise of traditional computer peripherals.
With a high end source component to store and deliver music, Melco offers the music lover the opportunity to enjoy greater than CD quality playback without compromise for the first time.
How it All Works
Melco produce 3 models in their ‘classic’ range which are the N1A/EX (£2749), the N1ZH/EX (£5250) and the flagship N1ZS/EX (£9999 now with 4TB of SSD storage). They also have 2 compact models, the entry level N100 (£1999) and the brilliant 2 box N10 (£6999)
The N1A/EX and the N1ZH/EX both have 6 terabytes of storage and the N1ZS/EX has 4 terabytes of audio grade SSD storage, comprised of 2 x 2TB SSD.
The N100 has a single 2 terabyte drive and the N10 has a single 3 terabyte drive.
There are a couple of different ways the hard drives can be set up on the N1A, N1ZH and N1ZS. Regardless of the Melco you own and the way the drives are formatted, buy yourself a large external USB hard drive (6TB is around £100-£120) connect it to the back up port so you have an external back-up of your music.
On the N1A/EX and N1ZH/EX you can opt to have 3TB of usable storage with the 3TB utilised as a mirror image (On the N1ZS this is 2TB and 2TB).
With this configuration, in the rare event of a drive failing – you lose no music, which is good! However, I must stress that this is NOT a back-up of your music. Any action you perform on the main drive is automatically duplicated on the mirror, so if you accidently delete an album on the main drive, it is also deleted from the mirror. Back up with an external USB hard drive!
The best option is to configure the onboard storage in a spanned array (giving you the full storage of whichever machine) you just need to remember to back up! Backing up is quick and easy, you simply leave the USB drive connected and run a back-up every time you add new music.
Here’s a few important points regarding the Melco models.
- No computer required for either set-up or installation
- No specialist knowledge required in any way
- Simple set-up from front panel OLED display.
- Specific DSM IP port for Ethernet Streamer/Player with separate LAN port for Control and network.
- Informative OLED display with just 4 navigation buttons, displays all relevant settings, connected devices, capacity, setup, format and current song playing.
- Simple Backup – music is secure with a USB connected Backup in a single button press.
- Simple Expansion – when the music collection outgrows the internal storage capacity a USB drive connected to the Melco will extend capacity without any setup being needed.
- Simple music import from USB drive in just one button press.
- Simple music download from High Resolution vendors direct to Melco without the need for a Computer.
Ripping your CD Collection
This is a labour of love, no one really likes doing it, but it has to be done………
You simply connect an external CD ripper to the USB3 socket on the rear of the Melco, insert a disc, a couple of button pushes on the front panel and the CD will be ripping, bit-perfect, in either uncompressed FLAC or WAV (with meta-data retrieval from Gracenote). When the CD rip has completed, the disc automatically ejects so you can load the next one. Nice and simple.
I must stress though, that not all external CD rippers are created equally. You can plug any old external USB CD ripper to the Melco and get a pretty good result, but when used with a better drive the quality of the rip carried out by the Melco is second to none.
If your Melco is connected to a USB DAC you can also use the CD drive as a CD transport if you ever want to simply play a disc, when you insert a disc the menu asks you if you want to import the disc or play it.
Melco D100 Optical Disc Drive
The D100 is Melco’s own high perfomance CD Ripper, weighing in at 3.5kg this is an extremely well built, heavily customised design – using a proprietary Melco circuit board it holds capacitors for the power supply and uses a high quality clock generator, it is not an off the shelf IT drive in a nice case!
Ripping a CD using the D100 is no different to any other drive, it takes its time to rip ensuring there are no errors and it can extract the maximum amount of data from the CD. Since its launch the D100 has been incredibly popular, lots of scepticism from people who argued that a rip is a rip and they are all the same – everyone who has had a home demonstration of a D100 has bought one, in a good system its benefits are obvious, I blind tested a number of customers by taking control of the iPad and playing in sequence the same tracks ripped using a D100 vs a pre-existing rip and the feedback on the D100 was consistent.
The D100 can also be used to rip CD’s directly to a computer as well – so if you don’t own a Melco but have something like a Linn, Naim or Lumin network player and a conventional NAS you can use the D100 to rip your collection ensuring you get the very best rip possible!
Melco E100 Expansion Hard Drive
The E100 is an audiophile 3TB expansion drive. The reason behind this is quite simple. All of the Melco models have a USB expansion port, so should you fill the internal storage up you can easily expand it by connecting a hard drive to the expansion port. Unfortunately, there was a downside to using any old USB drive – it never sounded as good as music stored on the Melco itself.
The E100 was designed from the ground up as a solution to this issue. The drive is a carefully selected 3TB hard drive, this drive is physically supported internally using the MELCO Highly Stable Storage System (HS-S2), the same as found in the N1ZS
Melco S100 Data Switch
Then of course there is the S100 Switch, priced at £2099, the S100 has 8 ethernet ports (4 ports are 100mb and 4 ports are Gigabit, there are also 2 SFP optical ports. Not everyone uses their network to move audio, but if you stream using a subscription service like Tidal or Qobuz, you are a Roon user or you are using your Melco with a Linn, Naim or other network based streamer the benefit the S100 offers is not subtle. It offers a massive upgrade in performance and the better your system the better the results will be with an S100 in play.
Read more about the S100 here.
Back Up! Back Up! Back Up!
As mentioned above backing up your music collection is vital. If you look at the rear connections on the Melco you will see a USB socket labelled ‘back up’. Get yourself a large external USB hard drive and plug it in to the back up socket. Format the drive on the Melco itself, once done run your first back up, depending on the size of your library this could take a while, but subsequent back-ups are incremental and don’t take long at all. Incremental back ups only work if you format the back up drive on the Melco itself, if you format the drive on your computer every back-up is a full one.
Downloading 24 Bit Music
There are quite a few websites where you can purchase and download 24 bit Hi-Res music; this link has a decent directory of the various sites. Typically you browse online, find something you want to buy, download it to your computer and then copy and paste to your NAS drive; eventually you can play your download!
Melco have gone one better. They have teamed up with the German company High Res Audio. Simply visit the site and set up an account (which is free, no subscription needed).
On the front panel of your Melco enter your email address and password from High Res Audio and any purchases you make from them are downloaded automatically onto the Melco – no messy files transfers needed, it’s all automated. High-Res Audio even looks at the quality of the download and if it feels it isn’t up to the job it will reject it and start again, all without you knowing. It’s a slick process and works incredibly well. Technophiles love it because it’s cool. Technophobes love it because it’s simple and easy. If you have a sensible internet connection it takes about 20 minutes from purchase to playback.
Please note: If there is a piece of 24 bit music you want to purchase from another download site you can do it in the traditional way – download it to your computer and then drag/drop into the Melco via your computer, it’s just a little more labour intensive! One other important thing to know about HighResAudio is their authentication process for 24 bit files is as stringent as your will find anywhere, you will find not albums on their site that are simply upsampled CD version ‘pretending’ to be 24 bit!
Connect a Melco to your Hi-Fi System
There are two ways a Melco can be integrated into a hi-fi system. The most popular way is via USB; the latest generation of Melco models all feature a dedicated socket for connecting to a USB DAC as shown below. This is always my preferred way to way to hook up a Melco from a performance point of view.
In terms of which DAC, there are lots of options available depending on budget and what level of performance you are looking to achieve. The first standalone DAC at Audio Therapy is the Gold Note DS-10 which is £2370 and we have 3 or 4 different models until you get to the mighty SD-025 from Vitus at £19,000.
You will also require a good USB cable as well; please don’t overlook this as it does make a quite a difference to performance. Entreq and Tellurium Q are the 2 brands I work with and you can get excellent but quite different results from using them
The Melco website has a compatability list showing tested USB DAC’s, but don’t worry if your DAC isn’t listed, the list isn’t exhaustive. To be fair, I don’t think I’ve ever come across something that doesn’t work, although some legacy DAC’s may only play limited sample rates which is a restriction on the older DAC design. Perfect excuse to buy a new one!
The other way to connect a Melco into your Hi-Fi is via the Ethernet socket. You may have noticed looking at the rear panel, that both Melco offers 2 Ethernet sockets, one labelled LAN, the other Player.
The method is ideal if you already have a dedicated Network Streamer, like a Naim, Lumin or Linn for exanple.
The Melco connects to your router/network via the LAN port and your Streamer plugs into the Player port of the Melco. By doing this you are in effect isolating your streamer from any noise/interference which will be present on your network, and subsequently improving sound quality. Your streamer will still be connected to the Internet for updates and Internet Radio though and will still be controlled via the same app you have always used so nothing really changes in terms of usage.
What file formats can it play?
The list of formats the Melco will playback is pretty extensive to say the least. If you have your Melco connected to a USB dac the following file types and sample rates are supported:
Supported file types – USB : DSF, DFF, FLAC, WAV, ALAC, AIFF, AAC
Sampling frequency – USB : 44.1K, 48K, 88.2K, 96K, 176K, 192K, 384K, 2.8M, 5.6M, 11.3M
If you are connected to a dedicated network streamer via Ethernet the following files types and sample rates are supported:
Supported file types- LAN – DSF, DFF, FLAC, WAV, ALAC, AIFF, AAC, MP3, WMA, OGG, LPCM
Sampling frequency – LAN – 44.1K, 48K, 88.2K, 96K, 176K, 192K, 384K, 2.8M, 5.6M, 11.3M
Controlling your Melco
If you are using your Melco in conjunction with a dedicated UPnP Streamer (like a Naim or Linn) you simply use the appropriate brands app to playback your music as you always have done; nothing changes from that point of view.
However, if you are using your Melco with a USB DAC, you will need to use a app to download an app to your tablet or phone to control the Melco.
Melco have their own app (iPad only) and there are plenty of excellent apps available from brands such as Bubble UPnP, Lumin, Linn and MConnect to name but a few. They are all slightly different in the way they look and perform, so I would always recommend having a play with a few different ones and see what works for you. The Melco app, Linn Kazoo and Lumin are all excellent apps. If you use Android, Bubble UPnP and Hi-Fi Cast are very good plus you get the Linn app as well.
Tidal & Qobuz Streaming
In order to stream Tidal and/Qobuz your Melco must be connected to a USB DAC. It will not function if connected to a Network player via the player port, most Network Players offer this function anway.
All you require is a monthly subscription to one of the 2 services and you are good to go. You simply log in your account via the app you use to control your Melco and away you go.
Performance of both services is excellent with their CD quality subscription. Sonically Qobuz is superior in my opinion, on a good system it is quite a bit better. Neither are as good as playing stored music off the Melco hard drive, but they are still very, very good to fair.
Performance – How do they sound?
Make no mistake, all 5 Melco models are superb and they all have their place/relevance in the right system.
The N100 and N1A/EX is are serious source components and when combined with a good DAC either machine genuinely makes for a really compelling front end for any system. I’ve never done a demonstration where someone has not been impressed by the sonic performance on offer.
I’ve used the machines with DAC’s and streamers from Exogal, Auralic, dCS, Arcam, Naim, Devialet and Linn and the performance is consummate with whatever you plug it into; the better the DAC the better the end result in most cases, but please don’t think that if you have an older inexpensive DAC you won’t get great results.
As the N1A has moved through the various generations (EX is a mk3 machines essentially) they have managed to squeeze out a little more performance compared to the previous versions and it’s a good step up.
Moving up to the N1ZH, the improvements they have made with this model over and above the N1A and N100 shows within about 20 seconds of pressing play. It does all of the things the models below do, it just does more of them and does it better. There is an increased sense of scale with lots more weight to the presentation and the soundstage is wider and deeper. The reproduction of timbres is more accurate, instruments start to sound more real and more alive. Tracks where you think there were 2 musicians playing, suddenly uncover a third you’ve never heard before.
You simply get to hear more of the finer nuances in recordings and you can really get lost in the music. If you have a great DAC the benefits of the N1ZH over the N1A are pretty obvious once you start listening. The music simply flows and pulls you in, it’s a seductive and addictive experience! I have had quite a few customers upgrade from N1A to N1ZH and every single one of them has been delighted with the performance boost.
Moving up to the N1ZS the price jumps up from £5250 to £9999 and you get 2 terabytes less storage, so we’re not off to a good start!
Then you play some music!
The improvements Melco have engineered with the N1ZS are pretty obvious right from the off. Improved clarity, more focus and cohesion. There is more bass and I mean that in a good way, it’s tight and controlled but it goes lower than the other 2 models.
If you have a relatively inexpensive DAC/system the N1A is the obvious choice, comparing the N1A to an N1ZH with a DAC costing upwards of £2000 you can pretty much instantly hear the improvements the H has to offer. Likewise with the S, if you have a serious system the benefits that the flagship model offers is audible from the off. Once you have heard an N1ZS there is no going back unfortunately.
I have plenty of customers who have started off with a Melco N1A or N1ZH who have subsequently moved up the range to the flagship N1ZS and everyone has always been delighted with what has happened.
The introduction of the N100 and the N10 has mixed up the range somewhat. The N100 has been really popular due to a number of reasons, largely it’s compact size and the fact it is now the entry level model in the range. Make no mistake though, it is still a serious product and in an A/B demonstration comfortably outperforms an original N1A.
The N10 is interesting, it sits right between the N1ZH and the N1ZS in terms of costing, it is a 2 box design, with the large power supply being kept away from the main head unit where the 3TB hard drive it stored. From a sonic perspective the N10 sounds like a Melco through and through, but in presentation terms it is a little more upfront and lively with the way it plays music, in some systems and for some tastes the N10 could make for a more compelling choice over a N1ZS perhaps.
Don’t underestimate what all of the Melco models are capable of delivering at their respective price points and please don’t fall into the trap of thinking the Melco is simply a NAS drive or Computer in a hi-fi shaped box. Melco uses no off the shelf computer components in any of their products.
All Melco models are available to demonstrate in your own system, get in touch to organise a home visit