Melco HA-N1A/2EX-H60 Music Server Review
Patrick Cleasby gets to grip with the latest and greatest iteration of this popular music server…
Melco has had great success in establishing its own brand of network music servers and associated peripherals in the past six years, in markets as diverse as the UK and Japan. The company – Melco Syncrets Inc. – is an offshoot of the familiar disk enclosure manufacture Buffalo of Japan, and that pedigree is apparent in the sweet internal build of the products.
The HA-N1A/2EX-H60 combo you see here is Melco’s entry-level offering, designed for people who perhaps are not quite yet – but fully intend to – get serious about networked audio. The N1A (for short) has attractive full-width CD player dimensions, and costs a not unreasonable £2,749. For those with deeper wallets the £4,999 flagship N1Z variant has a more discrete power supply, and there are variants of both in different form factors.
This particular model has two 3TB drives in a non-mirrored configuration, giving over 5TB of useable storage, enough for all but the most deranged music obsessive! It’s a nifty bit of kit that has recently got niftier still, thanks to the more intuitive and powerful software suite now bundled with it. Indeed, all the company’s existing devices have been badged with a removable EX-series flash on the front right corner, to denote the almost total replacement of the internal software package…
The term used for the new offering is Melco Intelligent Music Library, or MIML to its friends. As this new platform takes hold, it will bid goodbye to the venerable Twonky Server software that Melco hitherto recommended. It’s replaced by the much-favoured Minimserver, along with the addition of the similarly innovative SongKong from JThink – makers of Jaikoz. Having been a paying user of both products for the past seven years, MIML was therefore of particular interest to me.
Alan Ainslie, previously General Manager at Melco and currently Managing Director of its European distributor ADMM, essentially pioneered the concept by persuading Simon Nash, the Minim developer, of the inherent worth of the Melco hardware platform. Alan wanted a better sounding, more classical-capable server software and Minim fitted the bill. As he was aware that many users had a mess of poorly tagged audio data, he also saw that an automated metadata correction ability would fit the bill too. As he was aware of Jaikoz, he pulled in Paul Taylor of JThink to add his automated variant SongKong. There then followed two years of integration effort that have borne fruit in MIML.
MIML should very much appeal to existing Melco users. The quickest way to gain an understanding of the whole proposition is found in a four-page PDF here (obtained by clicking on ‘More Info’ beneath the EX Series logo on the ‘Range’ page). There’s also a Melco blog which relates the options for those updating existing units, a primarily software-only process that could involve a disk reformat and rebuild.
One key strand of the MIML innovation is the existence of shared, more elegant classical metadata solutions in both elements of the software. Some of that integration effort went into making Minim and SongKing speak each other’s language on this front, and some into the streamlined update routines. Both also now embrace the concept of profiles – configurable ways of handling classical and jazz metadata and navigation trees, as distinct from your basic rock treatment. Both start with basic Melco versions, with more powerful full versions available by obtaining a license direct on the web.
If you’re an existing user who is reluctant to update to the new software, then a simple demonstration and/or audition should do the trick. Many of the uninitiated may, like me, be stuck in the zone where we first arrived with networked music – maintaining our collections on unspecialised server platforms like Synology and QNAP. To fast forward ten years or so and see where the technology has arrived is a marvel. Unlike those old faithfuls, this a fanless and silent unit designed to go straight into your hi-fi rack – and this is precisely the product’s appeal. It is effectively advanced hi-res networked digital without the pain, a serious stepping stone out beyond your carefully alphabetised Compact Disc collection…
In hardware terms, a Melco EX family device isn’t too dissimilar to the Mark 2 series that preceded it, so the real performance gain of this latest model isn’t particularly related to hardware spec bump-ups. Rather, it’s about the ingenious use of software to maximise the platform’s potential, getting the most out of those Mark 2 modifications inside its compact 436x62x352, 7kg case.
Chief among the tweaks is a USB 2.0-only Neutrik USB socket that best provides for USB DAC hook-up. Other than that, the unit has a front fascia USB 3.0 socket and more on the back for both expansion hard drives and backups as well as transitory file-dump hookups. The Neutrik port is there because some of the potential receiving DACs are not expecting a USB 3.0 generation connection, and USB 2.0 is all you need in bandwidth terms.
In many ways, the weakest link in previous iterations of the Melco platform was the use of Twonky Server to enable playback. I have never found it to sound anywhere near as good its audiophile-dedicated competitors. But at least a familiarity with Twonky will have made the Melco customer accustomed to server settings administration via a web client, as both elements of the software are best run this way. (Minim users can employ Minimwatch too).
In common with the other members of the Melco server family, this unit is ready to receive a USB CD spinning drive – and as we all major on some form of streaming it seems ideal to have the option of a bus-powered device on the front port of the unit, rather than having it built-in. I used a Buffalo Blu-ray drive I had to hand and was soon accurately ripping recent CD arrivals onto the system. You can even play from the drive if you want to be really old school!
The key thing to appreciate about any Melco server device is that it is actually two things in one. In classic DLNA tier-talk, this is both server and renderer. So if you use it in what is pretty much the ‘recommended’ way – by feeding a high-res capable USB DAC (all sensible DSD and PCM formats are supported) – you’re actually cutting out one of the most fraught steps in the whole networked music scenario. By this I mean all those digital music bits dashing around your home network between your commodity server and your network player. In other words, with a Melco, there’s no longer any need to have a player at all – just so long as you have a DAC. By the way, if you have a player with an Ethernet connection, you can just use the Melco as a dumb server via Minim or an SMB share, but in absolute audio quality you’d almost certainly be missing out.
Once you have opened the box, there’s nothing much to look at apart from the unit and a mains lead – and unlike equivalent Sony devices, there is no remote control. There aren’t even your standard play, forward, rewind and stop buttons on the front of the box. In their place, in order, are back (in menu terms), return, and up and down (as in list) buttons. It takes a bit of getting used to, but you’re going to have to use this to do your initial setup (and for the simple data backup process). It’s even possible to play your songs via this route, but I wouldn’t really recommend it.
Here’s where one of the downsides comes in. In theory, out of the box you’re supposed to use the free, iPad-based (i.e. no iPhone capability) Melco HD app. Anyone such as myself who has ended up appreciating Mconnect as the controller for a Chord Mojo:Poly should be able to spot that what we have here is a Melco-badged version of Mconnect. Melco HD is thus not an unpleasant thing, but weirdly it mandates a landscape orientation of the device. Hilariously, if you additionally purchase Mconnect, it works as well except it is portrait-only and also works on iPhone. Either way, you can feed Tidal and Qobuz through the system from this controller.
For my auditioning purposes, I simply connected the Neutrik USB 2.0 audio socket on the Melco to the USB DAC in of my Oppo UDP-205. I also connected up with a short Ethernet lead from the player Ethernet socket on the Melco to the network port of the Oppo, and set the appropriate menu setting to ‘bridge mode’, meaning that the Oppo gets all its connection through the Melco. The USB DAC method sounds the best.
It’s obviously necessary for the Melco to be on the network to receive its control tier commands from the various control apps. It is also useful for accessing CDDB metadata if you are availing yourself of the CD-ripping ability. If you wanted to be ultra anti-network, you could just control playback from the front panel and set the bridge option to off, using static IP setup on the player, but who does that really?
StereoNET’s demo unit came formatted to 6TB, but you will have some choices to make on arrival – this version of the N1A contains two enormous hard drives internally, and you have to decide how you want to use them. Those familiar with disk redundancy concepts from prior home server arrangements will be aware that with two drives, the choice is essentially between mirrored or striped (RAID-1 or RAID-0), although Melco have a variant of the latter called ‘spanned’.
One of the underlying Melco improvements has been the switch to the Linux-oriented EXT4 as the optimum disk format for its drives. If you’re coming in at this point, you don’t need to worry about this too much – although it’s worth mentioning that if you’re moving across from Synology or QNAP to this platform, EXT4 is also the ideal for your transfer drive as the common format.
I used an affordable 1TB SSD external drive to move my audio, and even as SSD this took an overnight off the NAS and an overnight on to the Melco too. It’s a simple matter of a few front panel menu button presses to enable this. So filling the server would be about a week’s work, the results ending up in an ‘imports’ folder. The Melco presents a Samba (SMB) share of your audio on your network (authentication is user:nobody/password:nobody) but don’t operate on your media from there if possible – concurrency can interrupt playback in extreme cases.
If we are being honest, then the elephant in the room when considering the whole MIML eco-system, is that it evidently does things along the lines of what Roon does for so many of us. Aside from the advantage of Minim’s exemplary sound and class-leading classical metadata capabilities, it is probably best left to Paul Taylor of JThink to express the essential difference. He points out that with Roon if you stop paying that annual fee and quit, then it’s all gone, but the results of his corrections are permanent. That’s very difficult to argue with, and SongKong works really well.
Personally having not expected great things of the CD ripping capability, I actually found myself rather taken by it – while only using a very basic device. I look forward to experimenting with the intended D100 Melco solution (£900), and Simon Nash has enthusiastically endorsed the S100 switch to me too. I found the audio qualities of hi-res playback from the machine’s drives to be palpably superior to any other playback method I have yet heard, from my own files on my own servers to the Qobuz hi-res equivalents. By way of example, when listening to Tool’s Fear Inoculum, I heard details and heft in those introductory swooshes that are simply not present in every other version.
Overall, there is very little not to like about the EX incarnation of Melco’s latest servers. The N1A feels solid and reliable in its intended usage, and the only way to upset it is to play the ludicrously over-amped (DSD512 anyone?) formats while abusing the SMB share with various other activities, which is never going to be conducive to optimum playback on any platform.
Standard and sensible users should have no problem happily using this device for many years to come, although do remember to register to get a five year warranty – with three years on the drives. As far as warranty-breaking disk replacements go, certain internet forums will be only too pleased to reveal the information you need. The N1 Melco variants at least have exceedingly accessible disk locations and in-built routines for setting up disks afresh – good for at least a decade I reckon!
Melco’s HA-N1A/2EX-H60 is the best sounding such product I’ve heard at or near its price, and brings the user into a powerful and versatile world of digital file management and ripping. The trouble with such bleeding-edge tech is that what seems sufficient now may not in a few years, which is why people always want more. Some might say it’s a wee bit underpowered for the future, but at this price, I think that’s churlish. Indeed, the new MIML innovations make the whole Melco package even more appealing than it previously was. So if you’re serious about digital music and already have a decent DAC, this is one of the best value digital sources around.
For more information, visit Melco.
Lifelong music collector and technology addict Patrick Cleasby worked in music mastering during the nineties and noughties – and has written on the subject at length ever since, tracing the rise of hi-res digital. He also spent over a decade at the BBC in a senior archiving role, where he was a behind-the-scenes tech boffin.
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