Most audio specialists have a tough time breaking into the network audio sector. With their expertise in traditional analogue electronics or mechanical engineering, the world of hard-drives, network protocols and the associated software engineering is often way outside of their comfort zone.
The obvious solution, one taken by all but the largest companies, is to partner with a specialist that can do all these things and buy-in a complete, configured, ready-made module to do the job. It was much the same in the days of compact disc, where most specialist hi-fi companies ended up buying in the transport, display and associated software from the likes of Philips or Sony.
But Melco is a different proposition. Essentially the hi-fi wing of Buffalo – a huge player in the computer world, known for its storage solutions and network products – that gives the Melco N100 something of an advantage.
The Melco N100 packs 2TB worth of storage (around 3000 CDs, less with higher res recordings) and includes both the MinimServer and TwonkyMedia server software. Knowing how important it is to get the right metadata tagged onto your music files, there’s also dedicated software that references multiple databases to ensure that every file is categorised as accurately as possible, with specific treatments for the requirements of different types of music.
For example, in classical music where multiple works are included on a single album, it’s important to identify them as well as the album. The same applies to information about the composer.
Type Music server with HDD storage
Streaming services supported Qobuz, Tidal
Dimensions (hwd) 6.1 x 21.5 x 27cm
We’ve used a number of music servers over the years, and the Melco is probably the slickest and least obtrusive we’ve come across. It just gets on with its job quickly and without fuss.
The front panel control layout is simple, but together with the small but clear display, the N100 is easy enough to set up. The supplied manual deserves a mention for being well laid out and easy to understand.
Connectivity is limited but covers all the essentials. There are three USB 3.0 sockets and two of these can be used to connect the N100 to external storage in the form of sticks and hard drives or optical drives for ripping CDs. The third is intended for use with an external DAC.
This Melco doesn’t have a built-in DAC, so if you want to use it as a streamer, playing music from its internal storage, for example, you’ll need to add one. We partner the N100 with Chord’s excellent Qutest (£1195/$1895) for this test and it proves a good match.
There are two ethernet ports, one of which is used to hardwire to your network and the other connects to a stand-alone streamer. There is no provision for going wireless here, and that’s fair considering the additional stability hardwiring gives. Network audio set-ups normally use a dedicated network switch, but the N100’s arrangement makes things cleaner and more direct.
Melco has a dedicated app, but it currently only works for the iPad. If you use an Apple or Android phone, you’ll have to use third-party alternatives, such as mconnect Player or similar, which work well enough.
Build quality is good with a solid casework finished to a high standard. The chassis is made of 2mm thick steel with the rest of the panels using aluminium. It’s a fan-less design to minimise unwanted noise and proves quiet during use. It’s clear that Melco takes a great deal of care over how its products are made.
We connect the N100 into our test room network and use our reference Naim ND555/555PS music streamer to compare its performance as a server to our usual Naim Uniti Core HDD unit (cheaper at £1899, but you’ll need to add the hard drive). The other main difference between the servers is that the Naim includes a disc drive for ripping CD while the Melco doesn’t.
The company makes a dedicated unit called the D100 for £1099, but if that feels a little excessive, there are plenty of more affordable USB optical drive alternatives on the market.
We load the same music files (hi-res and CD quality) on both the N100 and Uniti Core and listen through our reference system, which includes a Burmester 088/911 Mk 3 pre/power combo and ATC’s SCM 50 speakers.
The differences aren’t massive but they are consistent, whether we listen to a Shostakovich symphony or Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp A Butterfly set. The files from the Melco sound crisper and cleaner. Leading edges are more precise and the overall presentation is a touch more stable. It’s not all one-way traffic though.
Those same music files have greater body and fluidity when using the Naim and flow better rhythmically. But as for the question of which one is better, that’s down to taste and system.
We also use the N100 as a stand-alone streamer, listening to the music from its own storage and that of the Uniti Core. It can cope with pretty much everything from 32-bit/384kHz PCM to DSD512 and also supports Tidal and Qobuz. The Melco works well when partnered with the Chord DAC, and is right up there with the best streaming solutions we’ve heard at this level when partnered this way.
We listen to Leonard Cohen’s You Want It Darker and the Melco/Chord combo does an excellent job communicating the brooding mood of the track. There’s plenty of detail and it is well organised, with Cohen’s rough tones coming through with the right amount of gruffness and authority.
There’s a good amount of drive to that menacing bassline, giving the song a solid foundation. It all sounds impressively detailed, but with enough in the way of dynamic expression, punch and drive to prevent things sound too analytical.
The story is similarly positive when we play Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony. The Melco/Chord pairing delivers a forceful yet controlled sound, one that has an expansive and precise sound stage that exploits the scale of the recording well. We have no complaints when it comes to outright sonic authority or punch.
Tonally, things are even and open, with a decent dose of natural warmth to convince. It’s a refined sound, one that never veers towards undue aggression or harshness.
The Melco N100 is an excellent choice if you’re looking for a high-quality streamer with storage built-in and already have a capable DAC. The company’s computer heritage shines through in the slick, fuss-free operation, making the N100 highly recommended.
- Sound 5
- Features 5
- Build 5