If you want to upgrade to the N-50 for an extra $200, what do you actually get? At first glance, looking at Pioneer's Web site, the differences between the two players appear to consist of a second transformer and a new bottom plate. But dig further and you'll find that while both streamers have optical and coaxial digital outputs, the N-50 also has a set of digital inputs, so you can use it as an external DAC. Both units use Pioneer's AK4480 192kHz DAC, which the company also puts in its high-end Blu-ray players. Lastly, the N-50 includes an asynchronous USB DAC for PC playback.
If you're paying hundreds of dollars more for a dedicated music player then you have every right to expect a jump in performance, and with the Pioneer you mostly get it. But how debilitating is that 2.5-inch screen?
In order to compare sound quality, I used a few different devices, including the onboard digital connection to a Marantz SR5005, and a Logitech Squeezebox Touch.
The N-30 musically has a relaxed presentation, but one that still contains plenty of detail, and is perfectly suited to the chilled vibes of Wilco's "One Sunday Morning (Song for Jane Smiley's Boyfriend)." The guitars were crisp and Jeff Tweedy's voice was front and center of the soundstage.
Yet, despite its lack of "showmanship," the player is able to muster up some bluster when the music calls for it. From rock music to experimental to jazz, the N-30 presented the music as is. I found that the bass response was smoother than that of the Marantz 5500 amp, which was able to go deeper, but it had a better soundstage, with more air surrounding the instruments.
There were differences but they were slight compared with the cheaper Logitech. I don't know why people would buy the Logitech Squeezebox to plug it into an analog amp, but they probably do. The Pioneer well and truly showed its dominance here, and when playing "Anybody But You" by Australian band The Cruel Sea, the guitars sparkled and were forward in the mix where via the Logitech they became lost in a phasing haze.
How does that screen compare with the Squeezebox's 4.3-inch screen? Funnily enough, pretty well. The Logitech's screen angles upward and I found that reflections made it hard to read, whereas while small the Pioneer's screen has good contrast and you can almost make out the smallest text. It's terrible for negotiating menus though.
Where the Logitech trumps the Pioneer is its control app. The Logitech's app is simple to use and quick, whereas waiting for the Pioneer to refresh every four lines is cumbersome and not a very efficient use of screen space--eight lines would easily fit. You can control the N-30 using an iPad, but you have to use the iPhone app. Its closest competitors offer excellent iPhone and Android apps by comparison.
Other niggles about the N-30 include occasional failure to play files--the 24-bit/192KHz Apparatjik album offered for free by Bowers & Wilkins should play in theory, but it doesn't: "File not supported."
Additionally, I was frustrated by the lack of Net awareness: while you can turn the N-30 off with the iPhone app, you can't turn it back on that way, and the only way you can update the firmware is with a USB key.
With competition mounting against the Pioneer N-30, the device really needs to pull something out of the bag if it wants to survive. While it costs less than some competing devices, they offer a better experience.
For example, the Cambridge Audio NP30 creates a visceral experience from its selector wheel to its excellent iPad and iPhone apps. In comparison, the Pioneer's control mechanism feels a little pedestrian. And not a New York pedestrian. More a New Zealand pedestrian.
Sound quality, on the other hand, is a plus, and the Pioneer N-30 shows a definite step up in performance from an entry-level media player. While it's a pity about the screen, I'm hoping the engineers will be able to do something about the usability of its app.