REVIEW: Pioneer N-50A network audio player
It’s a hefty package, but does it hold much weight? Stephen Dawson checks out the latest network audio player from Pioneer.
There’s something to be said for buying audio gear by the kilogram. The weight doesn’t tell you everything. It may not even tell you a lot. But it does tell you something. If a piece of equipment is physically massive, that’s a strong hint that corners have not been cut, that the maker has gone for quality.
What brings that to mind is the Pioneer N-50A network audio player.
What is it?
Component style network audio players basically take digital audio from the network and turn it into sweet analogue audio for your sound system. Which is what the N-50A does, plus a fair bit more. It will also play back music from USB storage devices and Apple iPads/iPods/iPhones. Plus it supports Apple Airplay, DLNA, Spotify Connect, vTuner internet radio, etc. And, finally, it can act as a high quality digital to analogue converter for a Windows or Mac computer.
It supports just about all the file formats you’re likely to have. Its lossy selection is MP3, WMA and AAC, while lossless support is provided up to 192kHz in WAV, AIFF, FLAC and Apple Lossless (only 96kHz for this one). Plus Direct Stream Digital in both 2.8MHz and 5.6MHz varieties (aka DSD64 and DSD128).
The core of the unit is a pair of ESS ES9011S SABRE32 Ultra DAC chips, one for each channel. The unit offers a ‘Direct’ mode, plus things like 32-bit and 192kHz upsampling for standard resolution material, and a ‘Retriever’ alleged to restore the lost part of lossily compressed music.
Devices of this kind are typically not particularly weighty, so I was surprised when I lifted the Pioneer N-50A out of its carton: 7.5kg. The streamer I normally use, from a respected brand, weighs less than three. Another more expensive one I recently reviewed weighs only 3.5kg. It turns out that the unit features separate transformers for the digital and analogue sections, plus a weighted base for greater stability and rigidity.
Likewise this component is far from diminutive, standing 99mm tall on three(!) tallish feet. I did not like the three leg arrangement since it meant that the whole unit could be easily tipped by pressure on either of the rear corners. The front panel – black brushed aluminium on the review unit – has power controls and indicator lights on the left along with a USB socket, source and playback controls on the right, and near the latter an 89mm colour display which shows what material is being played and allows menu navigation for setup and track selection.
Around the back are the Ethernet port, coaxial and optical digital audio inputs, plus a USB-B socket for your computer. There’s also another regular USB socket for flash memory or hard disks containing music, or indeed Apple devices.
The unit can deliver the music in three ways: coaxial digital audio, optical digital audio and stereo analogue audio (with the left and right RCA sockets quite widely spaced).
The unit can be upgraded to WiFi with the purchase of an optional adaptor. The unit is supplied with a nicely solid-feeling IR remote with specific keys for just about all the unit’s functions.
The hardest part of setting up network streamers is typically the network connection. But since this was Ethernet only (as supplied), it was just a matter of plugging in the cable and switching it on.
About half the time I start reviewing network equipped devices they start things off by upgrading their firmware. That wasn’t the case with this unit since it apparently does things the old-school way, with any firmware upgrades needing the downloaded on a computer and installed via USB. I couldn’t find any upgrades.
In order to use it effectively as a USB DAC with a computer you must install driver software. Not just on Windows computers, but also on Macs. The latter is kind of a pity because Macs natively support the full capabilities of this unit via USB Audio Class 2.0 support. For some reason Pioneer has gone proprietary instead.
I did use the unit for a while as a USB DAC for the Mac and it of course worked very nicely, but it did seem kind of wasted locked into that function. One good thing about in in that role is that its front panel displayed the actual received resolution of the signal so that I could tell at a glance that it was getting the best possible signal quality.
I did the great bulk of listening using the unit’s network streaming functions of my FLAC (both CD and high resolution files) and DSD collections from network storage, and with Spotify Connect. I of course used the lossless network audio for the great bulk of the listening.
Lately I’ve been enjoying some of the remastered Blue Note Records Jazz recordings of the greats, re-released in extremely high resolution 192kHz format. The sound delivered by this unit was first class, the music delivered smoothly and beautifully. But it was not just a matter of the genre and age of the music. The most up to date Blue Coast Direct Stream Digital recordings were delivered with astonishing fidelity. Full blown classical orchestras were clearly laid out and properly layered. Rage Against the Machine pounded out with superb coherence and cleanly realised bass.
The front panel display was bright, colourful and nicely laid out, generally showing cover art, track progress and for local network audio, the format of the signal.
The Pioneer Control App works only in portrait mode, because I suspect it’s primarily intended for phone use. That would explain the large text it used with some screens.
In my first draft of this review I had accumulated around three hundred words talking about this app and how useless it was. I couldn’t get it to even find the N-50A on three different devices (iOS and Android), then one started working fitfully. Just a couple of hours later, when I was conducting a final check, the other two devices announced that they were downloading ‘updated device data’, did so, found the N-50A and started working very nicely indeed.
Those were my two year old LG Optimus G Android phone and an iPad Mini. The app on a Samsung Galaxy Tab S, though, remained fitful. Each option selected required a second swipe of the screen to make it update properly. This is a high resolution device and the text was rendered at an appropriate resolution, so perhaps it had something to do with having to resize things.
The organisation of the app is straightforward, with an input selection screen from which you drill down into the various sources. For example you select Music Server, then a server from the presented list, then ‘Music’, then ‘Artist’ and so on. Likewise for Internet radio (the vTuner system with some twenty thousand stations from all is used). The Spotify selection merely invokes the Spotify app on your device and you choose the N-50A from this as a Spotify Connect device.
The app seemed to work as a proprietary controller for the N-50A, not as a ‘DLNA Controller’. If it were the latter, it would be telling the server to provide music to the N-50A, but in fact it was telling the N-50A to request music from the server.
So what? Well, I also tried the unit with my favourite DNLA Controller app – BubbleUPnP – on Android and it had a couple of weaknesses. Specifically, played this way DSD files could not be paused. If you wanted to interrupt play, a proper ‘Stop’ was required so the place in the music was lost. More importantly, my FLAC files would not play back gaplessly – which is to say, there was a brief hesitation between the end of one track and the next – which was irritating with run-on music.
So, for the most satisfying musical performance on many albums you will be locked into the Pioneer ControlAV app. Just as well they fixed it!
I ran a few tech tests out of interest, streaming the test files from the network rather than using the unit as a computer DAC since, I expect, that’s how it will be mostly used.
With 44.1kHz signals the frequency response was very flat in all modes, except for when the so-called ‘Auto Sound Retriever’ circuit was in play. That boosted the bass (50 hertz) and treble (7kHz) by a couple of decibels, and cut the midrange (500-1500 hertz) and high frequencies (15kHz) by a couple of decibels. This continues the tradition of these kinds of circuits doing either nothing, or positive harm to the signal.
Without that silly thing, the response was down by just under 0.4dB at 20kHz with the sharp filter kicking in at 20.7kHz. The only measureable difference was with the ‘Upsampling’ mode. This kept the high frequencies very slightly higher in level up to 20kHz, and then employed a notably sharper filter right at 20kHz.
With high resolution audio (24 bits, 192kHz) the response extended out to 60kHz at -3dB and A-weighted noise levels were around -108dB.
The Pioneer N-50A is a solidly built, fine sounding audio stream with excellent support for audio formats. The colour display adds a nice touch of class. The only real weakness was the inability to provide music gaplessly with a third party app.