Why Melco? Hi-Res Audio: a customer perspective by Chris Baillie
My first experiences of hi-res audio Hi-res music has been around for some time now. Personally, I wasn’t too interested initially as I’d been lucky enough to own fairly high-end CD players, which certainly outperformed the SACD (Super Audio CD) players of the early discs I had when played on Universal DVD players. Indeed, it was rare to find any definitive reviews, stating preference for the early disc-based formats.
However, when I finally hooked up my first decent Blu-Ray player to a decent DAC, I noticed music had a more solid foundation and a very dramatic presentation, compared to CD. Eventually, I took the plunge, bought a Chord Electronics Mojo and bought a few hi-res downloads from Qobuz, which allowed me to hear similar improvements over standard CD resolution files, played via a PC. Yet I still preferred the sound of my CD player in the main system. This led to me reading up on servers, such as the Melco, as well as a couple of competitors. I’d decided against a computer-based NAS drive as I was concerned about noise from the machine getting into the audio chain.
Discovering Melco Having spoken to a couple of dealers, I decided to listen to a couple of options. The first one I decided against, as it didn’t have a USB output and I’d read its data-tagging made it difficult to transfer to other systems. This narrowed down the choices between the Melco N1A/2 and the similar sized and priced competitor.
I took along my CD player to the demo as a reference and fed both into my CD player’s internal DAC. First the competitor - which I noticed immediately didn’t sound as good as the CD being played direct. Switching to the Melco it immediately gave all the detail and musicality of the CD, but with more space around the instruments. So the Melco sold itself! I made the mistake of then playing the Melco through a DAC with an internal streamer, which sounded even better than into my CD player (especially via Ethernet), so I traded in the CD player for that, also!
Getting your hi-res library onto your Melco Having imported my CD library to the N1A/2, I set about transferring the few hi-res files I already had. At once, this opened another dimension musically and I was hooked. Compared to the CD files, there was so much more air and space to the music, as well as greater dynamic range. Cymbals sounded less harsh, vocal sibilance was more natural and less jarring on the ears. I was able to hear further into dense mixes and a far greater sense of a soundstage.
The great thing about the Melco unit, is you can set it up so it immediately imports your library of purchases from ‘Qobuz’ and HIRESAUDIO (highresaudio.com). This initially made getting the music across to the main system very easy.
I also purchased some music from other sites such as Onkyo, Bleep, Burning Shed, Acoustic Sounds etc. The Qobuz and HIRESAUDIO purchases go straight into the Melco’s ‘Download’ folder, with the ‘Import’ folder to be used for anything you transfer to the unit via USB.
Generally, it’s better to transfer files via USB than the network. By doing so, you minimise the chances of errors caused by routers, network switches etc, although it’s often hard to hear the differences, so many users are happy to do things this way. Certainly, this can be a good way of transferring less critical material, fast. It’s possible to import data from hi-res disc formats, such as DVD-A and Blu-Ray Audio. There’s lots of info online about this, but be sure to check the legality for the country you live in as it does vary!
What type of file formats are used for hi-res music? FLAC The most popular way of downloading a hi-res music file is FLAC (Free Lossless Audio Codec). You can find some files come as compacted files, often 30-40% smaller than the standard file, or uncompressed. Now the compacted files still contain all the data, in an uncompressed form, but your renderer will have to unpack the file as it’s playing it. Think of a compacted FLAC like a Zip file, which extracts back to its original form. How much sonic effect this has depends on your equipment. I find with the Melco it’s very hard to detect, so I tend to leave the auto downloaded files from Qobuz and HRA in this format. If I purchase a file that gets downloaded to my PC, I unpack the file (using dBPoweramp to ‘zero compression’) just because it’s easily done and I’ve got 6TB of drive space on the NA1/2, so there’s really no reason not to! The other benefit of FLAC files is they have a standard way of storing metadata – the song titles and artwork etc.
PCM PCM (Pulse-Code Modulation) music - the same system used by CD - in raw state, is referred to as a WAV (Waveform Audio Format) file. In theory, these are the purest form of PCM file, but can be a pain to work with when transferring from one machine to the other, due to the way the metadata is written. This can, of course, be fixed using SongKong for Melco, which you can read about on the Melco website. Again, with some equipment, you may find the WAV files sound slightly cleaner and more transparent, but often this is down to your playback equipment’s ability to unpack the FLAC files. FLAC is not always compressed but Melco CD import (by default) is uncompressed FLAC – so you effectively get the WAV/ PCM data, but with embedded metadata of a FLAC.
Your PCM files can vary from standard 16/44.1 files – CD quality, right up to 32/384! However, your typical hi-res file will be between 24/44.1 and 24/192 the bigger the numbers, the higher the resolution, so potentially the better the sound quality. Unfortunately, the bigger files take up a lot more space on your hard drive!
ALAC Apple have their own format capable of storing hi-res files, called ALAC (Apple Lossless Audio Codec). I’ve not used it myself as I’m purely a PC user, but it’s basically a compression format that hypothetically, is lossless.
There’s very little music available above 24/192. Generally, you find a lot of files above this are up sampled or music recorded by very small audiophile or are music labels, which might be an acquired taste! You may find some files referred to as DXD (digital EXtreme Definition) – this is 24/352.4 PCM, stored as WAV or FLAC, originally designed for professional editing of DSD files.
DSD Finally we have DSD (Direct Stream Digital), which was originally the format developed by Sony to support their SACD format – DSD64. This can sound extremely good on the right equipment. Instead of the usual PCM format, which takes file words of typically 16 or 24 bits, DSD has words of 1 bit, but sampled very fast! This format does demand a very good DAC in my experience, as there’s a potential for noise in the high frequencies, which is dealt with poorly by lesser DACs. There is some music available in what’s known as ‘Double DSD’ or DSD128. This has the potential to sound very realistic in my experience, possibly above 24/192 quality, but there’s very limited content. Music recorded in ‘Quad Rate DSD’ or DSD256 is even rarer and often taxes the DAC to a point where it’s working at the edge of its operating envelope, so it offers little or no advantage over DSD128. Often, the content of higher-rate files is up-sampled from lower-resolution files anyway!
DSD files come in two formats: Sony’s DSF (designer file), which includes limited metadata storage or the Phillips version (DFF) which is generally only used in professional applications and is a right pain to work with in home audio as it doesn’t offer metadata storage. So stick to DSF at all costs unless you’re a recording engineer in a studio!
There are specific sites that sell DSD music, such as Native DSD, Blue Coast Music and Acoustic Sounds a this will usually be in DSF format. There are lots of free sample files available online so you can download and decide if it’s a format that works for you and your system.
MQA Most audiophiles will by now have come across MQA (Master Quality Authenticated). There is lots of information online about this, but it’s stored as a FLAC file that’s compacted. The file is then unpacked by MQA-compatible streamers and DACs. They will still play without MQA-compatible equipment, but you won’t be getting the benefit of the hi-res content. Your Melco will deal with these files in the same way as standard FLACs.
The main benefit of MQA files is that they can be stored as smaller files, so they take up less space which is particularly beneficial if being played from an online streaming service as it requires less internet speed (maybe less so for locally stored files but the listener can decide that).
Managing and listening to your hi-res files All being well, playing your hi-res files should be exactly the same as your CD rips. Sometimes, you may find some of the data-tagging is incorrect, depending on how you’ve sourced your files, what format they’re in and what app you’re using to replay them.
You can look at the data manually and fill in the missing track data or thumbnail photos, but this may become time-consuming and laborious! Fortunately, Melco have teamed up with a company called J.Think, who have written a fantastic piece of software called SongKong for Melco. This is a very easy to use piece of software, which can either be loaded onto your Melco machine or a PC from which you can access your Melco via your network.
SongKong scans your files and matches the acoustic fingerprint of the file to various online databases and fills in the missing data, meaning you can get on with enjoying your hi-res music.
So that brings me to the end of my post. Hopefully I’ve helped demystify hi-res music and both new users and potential users can understand the benefits and enjoyment to be gained from playing the files on their Melcos. From a personal experience, it’s completely changed the way I listen to and enjoy l music. I hope this inspires more people to do the same!
Finding Your Digital Music: Introducing Melco Intelligent Music Library Alan Ainslie, Head of Melco Japan
When I was a lad, I had my LPs in a cabinet, all in order. Finding things was easy, except sometimes classical LPs had more than one work (related or otherwise) and I needed to work out which was the main work.
CD was similar, except the CD now played for longer, so classical albums usually had second or third works and even some jazz and rock had other material which made organisation tricky. Multiple CD sets and compilations were also difficult to order on the shelf, but we managed.
Browsing digital files In the digital music world, ripped CDs and downloads become hard to browse on an app, which is odd because we should be able to use the very ‘deep’ metadata to give us many browse and search options.
There are two basic problems: the metadata comes from a single lookup when ripped and is likely incomplete or even misleading. While the UPnP server (which presents the library to the Control Point) has to work with this incomplete metadata, whilst not being aware of whether you are looking for jazz or classical or rock. These browsing requirements are totally different.
The result is the frustrating browsing and searching experience that annoys all digital music fans with a reasonable sized library.
Metadata edit Of course, there are metadata edit tools available – a sense of logic evolves as you re-tag your collection, which takes considerable time and is not much fun. But, as the metadata edit really is logical, and as there are some great additional databases available, there is the potential to automate the process. The finest example of this is SongKong for Melco software, which can tidy up the tagging and make it consistent.
But even then, with much deeper and more accurate metadata, there is still a problem if the UPnP server does not understand what you are browsing for. Tags for ‘Choir’ or ‘Conductor’ are not much help to a rock fan, but ‘BPM’ and ‘Record Producer’ are not a lot of help to the opera fan, either.
Melco Intelligent Music Library Staying with the finest, let me introduce MinimServer – the best-kept secret of digital music browsing, because among other things, it is extremely flexible and configurable – if you know how to do it and have the patience.
If Melco were to put SongKong for Melco into a Melco music library and then include MinimServer in the same hardware, all sorts of opportunities would be possible.
Metadata can now be tailored exactly as required by MinimServer. Plus, MinimServer can be given profiles to optimise for rock, or jazz, or classical browsing. At that point these two innovative softwares work together to give a powerful ‘Browse’ and ‘Search’ that we call Melco Intelligent Music Library (MIML) – incorporating the powerful MinimServer Intelligent Browse algorithms.
As soon as we combine SongKong and MinimServer within Melco hardware, we can offer browse tags that are relevant for the music selected rock, classical etc. And we can have a browse path including searches in any order. So we can search first, then browse within those results, search within those results and find exactly what we are looking for with the least number of clicks and no backward steps. We can take apart the CD and browse for individual works or albums including many works if you choose. Within the works, we can then search by artists and then search again for a specific song or movement. Multiple discs are seen as a single work – whether Pink Floyd’s The Wall or Die Rheingold. Just a work, not a pile of CDs.
Well, if I say we could do this, then of course we should! The MIML concept will be previewed in the hi-fi press – and was subject of a major press launch at High End, Munich. We will be telling the story in the period up to launch, which will be late summer.
Coming soon… So, keep watch for news of MIML from Melco – there really is no better way to browse and search a digital music library. Plus, it comes with lots of other useful tools like; remove or hide duplicates, prioritise by sample rate, simple edit from tablet of not only album art but every aspect of metadata, one-button updating of metadata for a whole library and much more. This can be acheived because you are working with your library in real time, all metadata changes are persistent, meaning that your library performs just as well even if copied to portable devices, the car, or within a multi-room system.
Exciting times and we’re looking forward to you all getting started with MIML.
Melco at Munich High End 2019 Daniel Raggett, Sales Manager at Melco Audio
I arrived on the Monday evening, full of anticipation for the week ahead! Tuesday was all about getting the room ready – we shared our room with our German distributor DREI H, Chord Cables, Clic Furniture and S Booster Power Supplies. Mike from Clic Furniture and his brother did an amazing job building and painting all the false walls, making it ideal for displaying Melco products.
We had all products on show - and even had prototypes of the N100, D100, N10 and E100 in black casing, which will be heading to European shores very soon! We were excited to showcase these new-look designs and feedback was very positive.
Thursday - Trade & Press Day The room was busy all day and it was great to see so many familiar faces from dealers, distributors and press. It was also fantastic to meet lots of new people from different countries, who we will be keeping in close contact with to expand Melco products availability across Europe.
Friday - Public Day 1 & Melco Press Conference This was the most important day of the show for Melco. We arrange a press conference at 13.30 to showcase our special upcoming firmware update: the integration of MinimServer and SongKong. Melco Intelligent Music Library (MIML): a powerful new search/ metadata software incorporating MinimServer Intelligent Browse for easy and accurate music searching.
An industry first - breaking free from the constraints of the physical CD that was used to rip music into the Melco, we can now give effective search or browse based on the real music search intentions of the user. We’ve come together to integrate the full functionality of a powerful metadata engine that delivers deep and accurate metadata, to a very versatile UPnP server, that is pre-configured as to what to expect by way of metadata. Resulting in precise, speedy & easy browse, search and play - including large collections and all genres of music.
Melco Intelligent Music Library will be available for all Melco digital music libraries, including the new N10 and N100 and will also be available as a firmware update for existing Melco users.
We were overwhelmed with the number of people who joined us. stars of the show were Simon Nash (MinimServer) and Paul Taylor (SongKong), so thank you to them.
We spoke to lots of interesting customers throughout the event - some knowing and owning Melcos and lots more very interested to explore Melco further and find out the changes it can make to their hi-fi systems.
“It is an honour for us to welcome our partners to Munich for the world’s most important hi-fi show. The Munich Hi-Fi show is the best opportunity to meet the Melco team and all other Melco distributors and dealers. It is a great place to share ideas and get new ones from other successful Melco partners, as well as hearing what’s new in Melco’s world – black casing of cerrain models and MIML in this case!”
I reviewed the N1A shortly after it was launched and was so impressed that I decided to keep it. Since then, it has become a reference point for all the servers that have followed, including new models from Melco themselves. In the four years that it has been in my system, it has proved to be entirely reliable and trouble-free. The introduction of the Melco Music HD control App has been a real boon: in the early days, I used various third-party Apps that worked with varying degrees of success when using the Melco as a USB source for a large range of DACs.
I use my N1A as an archive for my vast digital music collection which consists of FLAC, WAV and AIFF files with a few examples in DSD and a smattering of MP3s of material that can’t be had in other forms. I find that the Melco approach both sounds better than most CD players but more obviously, makes accessing my music quick and easy; there’s no need to hunt for discs, of course, and very little reason to leave the sofa, or there wouldn’t be if I had remote volume control, the life of a purist is never easy!
I like the Melco build quality and reliability, and the ease with which you can put music onto them is a major bonus: the software enables you to add music via the front panel interface, too. I generally prefer the sound via a streamer of some kind and have had fabulous results with devices from Naim, Auralic, Lindemann and Aurender, among others. That said, I have had some pretty spectacular results with USB-connected DACs as well and it’s safe to say that the Melco has decent USB output.
I like the fact that the N1A has a dedicated ethernet output which provides a degree of isolation for the connected streamer and means that you don’t really need a network switch in normal system set up. This is doubly beneficial because it eliminates a noisy power supply from the system as well, and noise is the enemy of digital audio. I have to say that I am a convert to streaming audio and rarely use CD for serious listening; Melco is a big part of my musical picture.
Melco at the Bristol HiFi Show 2019 Daniel Raggett, Melco Europe Business Development Manager
Wow! After a great weekend at The Audio T Bristol Hi-Fi Show 2019, here is my first opportunity to sit and reflect on how well it went.
Melco had a new space for this year in the first bay window on the show’s entry floor, which was the perfect platform for lots of conversations with Melco customers and those looking to learn more about our products. We had the full range of Melco products available – N10, N100, D100, E100 & N1ZH.
An interesting talking point amongst visitors this year was embedded Internet Radio. We have taken this onboard to see how we can improve our product and feature set further to accommodate.
We were very lucky to be joined by Melco’s President from Tokyo Mr Araki, who was on hand to speak to customers and met many of our fantastic dealers who support us in the UK. Mr Araki has worked for Melco for 8 years and is always keen to talk to customers to find out what we can do better. He is a long-standing Buffalo Software Engineer and developed many innovative digital solutions such as the first Japanese digital TV set top box.
Paul Taylor, Founder of SongKong, joined us on Friday and Saturday to talk Metadata and managing digital music libraries – a topic you’re well keen to learn more about. You can read more about SongKong for Melco here & Melco customers can access a free trial.
Our presence at the show was supported by many other manufacturers using Melco as the digital source. A big thank you must go to:
Russell K & Tellurium Q
ATC Loudspeaker Technology
Thank you to our customers who came and supported us at the Show – it’s always good to see familiar faces, showcase new products for their collections and find out how they’re getting on with their existing Melco products.
All in all a great event – thanks Audio T! Were any of you there? What did you think? Did you make any additions to your HiFi systems? Hope to see you at Bristol Hi-Fi Show 2020 & other HiFi Shows nationwide!
The worlds first CD player and CD developed by Phillips.
For our inaugural blog post, I’d like to look at the history of digital music; where it all started, how PCs came into use and why high-resolution audio is so much more than just file format.
Where it all began Digital music existed well before Compact Disc: it was not necessarily just Pulse-Code Modulation (PCM), there was Bitstream as well. PCM was originally in 48kHz (or multiples) sample rates and CD, or really the video forms of CD, meant that 44.1kHz was a better sample rate for global sales as it did not interfere with video data and had no real sound quality impact. Bitstream effectively became Direct Stream Digital (DSD) and Super Audio CD (SACD) was a close relative.
Back then, CD was 44.1kHz and the bit-depth was related to how much data could be stored using available technology. Philips were successfully pressing polycarbonate discs for LaserDisc and knew the possibilities and limitations of the process; this determined the dimensions, bit pattern on the CD and the size of the CD set the maximum data size, at around 650MB on a 12cm disc.
Why 12cm? The story goes that this was the size of the shirt pocket of Jan Timmer, Philips’ President at the time! The CD spec was written down and all manufacturers had to follow the standard (Red Book) precisely.
Realising the benefits of CD Listening tests at the time, showed that this all worked out well: you got more playing time than an LP on a silver disc with a frequency response to 20kHz, plus reasonable resolution. When good, CD was excellent, but in the early days, that was quite rare.
Editing losses, at least 3 or 4 bits, meant that the studio recordings, if digital and not transferred from analogue (remember AAD and DDD?), needed to be at least 20 bits; 24 bits soon became the norm. So high-res audio is actually at least as old as CD!
Copy protection There was no copy protection in these early formats (aside from SACD), so record companies nurtured the 24-bit or better and would not share with anyone to avoid piracy. The reverse actually happened: the record companies were obsessed with opening up the market with highly compressed data that took little space and could therefore be distributed easily, MP3 etc. ‘Pre-ruined’ music! That nearly meant the end of hi-fi as we know it.
PCs to play CDs The only way to play digital music at the time was a CD player or some types of computer (or a portable toy for MP3). PC was a 48kHz environment, so fancy software was necessary to play even a 44.1kHz CD initially. But, there was scope to extend the playback capabilities at little real cost as a PCs did not have to follow the Red Book standard and could add sound cards with higher performance DACs.
On the odd occasion that a record company promoted an album using the high-res files, it was obvious how limiting 16 bits were.
Why use a PC for audio? Well, there was a promise of using higher bit rates if one had access to high-res material. But, there was also a more tempting reason: multi-room. A PC could play several 16-bit/44.1kHz at once and using multi-channel PC cards, a generation of four-output CD-quality players was born into the new Home Automation market, all based on PC mainboards.
With such devices that were, of course, PCs in disguise, it was not difficult to start to play some of the high-res music if it became available using high-end sound cards. Record companies realised they could charge once again for music already purchased as CD, at a higher price and in many cases, to existing customers. The business case for high-res now looked good for the record industry.
PCs not the ideal architecture It was realised that if Red Book or CD-quality files could be streamed from the storage PC or multi-room player (using server software) then there was an interesting possibility to create network connected players of good quality, without the undoubted compromise of the PC environment.
A CD played on a CD player was SO much better than on a PC, for obvious reasons that we now understand so well: noise, jitter, pollution and burst-data; really bad architecture for audio data.
Introducing the audiophile streamer So, the concept of the audiophile streamer was born. Hi-res was easily incorporated and with a UPnP standardised server, control was easy. Sound cards in a PC gave way to USB-connected DACs, again capable of hi-res playback. But, the potential sound quality for both of the evolutionary steps, USB DAC or streamer, would still be limited by the use of PC for storing data or playing into the USB DAC.
Streamers, of course, communicate and collect music files over the network, but there is a surprising basic limitation to sound quality from an unexpected source: the network itself. Unless using fancy managed switches, the streamer receives lots of unwanted data which has to be examined and rejected, impacting sound quality.
There is a more basic problem as well: audio, whether PCM or DSD, is put into packets for network transport. Those packets get lost sometimes and are resent late. As timing is of no importance to IT devices, the data switch does not worry about re-ordering the packets. An audiophile streamer receives data with missing packets and has to request a resend, as well as jumbled packets and unwanted packets. Sorting this out at the player end simply impacts sound quality. Where Melco comes in In the same way that you would never play a CD on a PC when you could use a CD player, it is not to be expected that hi-res will perform as it should when using PC or IT devices. So, we need a specialised hi-res digital music source to avoid any sound quality limitation due to PC or IT devices.
That source is Melco: combining music storage, playback of all hi-res files into a USB DAC without any sound quality compromises and serving hi-res music to network streamers over the network, again, without the compromise of PC or IT devices.
Melco performs all data management and connects to the network streamer directly: there’s no data switch to mess things up again. This even improves streaming services such as TIDAL and Qobuz that come from servers around the globe.
Melco is designed and built in Japan, a market that has the highest demands in terms of sound quality, of course, but also a market that is not especially comfortable with networks, IT devices and computers, due to Japan being a closed market at the time of Commodore 64 and ZX Spectrum etc.
As a final point, we need to remember that PCs, which are not good for audio as we know, come in many disguises, often looking like hi-fi components.
Melco is really very simple to use. And it will even connect to a network streamer without any network! Or a DAC without any network. The benefits being extreme simplicity as well as no possibility of sound quality being influenced by anything else on the network. Did you already know the history of digital music? Do you use a PC to play music files? Do you use a CD player at home? Let us know in the comments.