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!