If you get ten computer audio experts drunk – I mean really, tongue-looseningly, inhibition-dropping, just pre-unconscious honesty drunk – you’ll likely hear the same complaint; the problem is the computer. A computer has amazing advantages in the acquisition, storage, allocation, and replay of music, but it’s a little bit too flexible for its own good. A lot of the current trend in floating earths and isolation through power conditioners and regenerators comes about in an attempt to keep at arm’s length EMI and RFI generating components, such as the relatively cheap power supplies, graphics processing cards, and screens that go into a typical laptop. Many companies go some ways toward compensation, by building more dedicated audio computers, but few go down the whole ‘computer-less computer audio’ route. Melco is the exception.
OK, so in reality ‘computer-less computer audio’ is an oversimplification; the architecture inside the Melco N100 is still very much that of a digital computer; it has inputs, outputs, memory, storage, a processor, and it operates using a series of programs running along an operating system. None of this reinvents the wheel, and the technology used comes from the computer world, not from Area 51. However, the difference with the Melco is every circuit pathway, every board, bus, and byte are tasked to home audio use. Put it this way; armed with a USB stick and malign intent, you could reprogram most music servers to act as a personal computer. But not here; the Melco’s architecture is too musically-directed.
The same has held with every Melco device since the first models appeared five years ago, but the N100 is the smallest and most affordable in the range; the half-sized device that manages to cram a lot of architecture into a very small box. What’s also shared with all Melco models is an ability to cope with tracks up to 32bit/384kHz PCM, or DSD 512. MP3, WMA, and OGG fall into the ‘squirt, not play’ category. There is a matching D100 CD/DVD/BD transport/ripper, and a E100 external 3TB hard drive (you can also use your own external USB hard-drives). There is also a bigger brother called the N10, which beefs up the size of the hard drive (from 2TB to 3TB) and comes with an external power supply. Both limit the number of inputs and outputs (one front and two rear USB sockets, and two LAN RJ45 connections).
Both the N10 and N100 are very much designed to have digital pathways ‘in’ and ‘out’ rather than the bi-directional connections usually seen in computer-based systems. In USB, that means there are front and rear USB inputs for memory sticks or hard drives, and an external USB out for a DAC alone, while for Ethernet there is one connection designed to link the Melco to a local network, and another connecting it to the relevant player. While there has to be some bi-directionality involved (if you connect the N100 to a player via Ethernet, that player needs to access whatever’s upstream of the Melco), the advantage here is the Melco acts like a semi-permeable barrier between the noisy world of Ethernet and the more sensitive souls in an audio system.
Instinctually, I like this way of doing things – the Melco is just another link in the chain providing good sounds but can be a means whereby sounds from networked sources can be heard with some of the noise of that network stripped away. The number of USB inputs could seem limiting at first, but in fact Melco has been smart here, too. Each device in the Melco chain has two USB 3.0 connectors, allowing a daisy chain of devices. So the lone input of the N100 attaches to a D100 drive, which then attaches to an E100 hard drive extension. Or vice versa. Even if the D100 is powered down, the E100 drive will still speak to the N100, and there’s always the front-mounted USB device. I’m sure there’s a finite limit to the number of units you could daisy chain this way, but as the two-box N100/E100 combination already gets you to 7TB of storage, and yet more accessed through UPnP on an Ethernet store, I think you run out of tracks and shelf-space before running out of Melco road.