First came the wax cylinder, followed by the LP, eight-track, cassette, CD, MP3, and now the digital stream. While most of the types of media on that list have dedicated players, the last two have sort of floundered when it comes to dedicated "in-home" players. USB DACs and iPod docks have been a stopgap solution, but they added unnecessary steps between your music and your ears.
Digital music players such as the Logitech Squeezebox Touch and now the Pioneer Elite N-30 Network Audio Player aim to make your music accessible, whether it's your own or from one of your favorite streaming-music services. The Squeezebox is not inexpensive at $299, but the Pioneer ups the ante by coming in at $499, and the step-up model, the Pioneer N-50, is even dearer at $699.
When you're listening to an audio device, how much of an issue is industrial design? In most cases, none; it could look like a busted UFO and still work fine. But with the Pioneer N-30, the design of the case actually detracts from its usability in a meaningful way. While the blocky casing is a little on the boring side, the brushed-aluminum finish does add a small touch of class.
It's the screen that's the letdown here, as it's only 2.5 inches across. Anyone remember Microsoft's "social" phone, the Kin? Silly question, no one does. This short-lived phone had a too-small screen that was--you guessed it--2.5 inches, but at least this was meant to be held close to your face. The Pioneer is designed to sit in your home theater about 8 feet away! But help is at hand: if you have a smartphone (not a Kin!) you'll be able to control the N-30 through a dedicated application, though as you'll soon see, not that successfully.
The N-30 comes with a brushed remote that is reassuringly heavy, as an audiophile might say. However, it's the same model that's used for the N-50, and so buttons such as "DIG IN 1" remain tantalizingly dormant. (The N-50 includes digital inputs, while the N-30 does not.)
The N-30 is a music-focused network streamer with an Internet radio app. Last year, I wrote a manifesto on the 10 "must-have" features of a media player, and the Pioneer is one of the few players that comes close to fulfilling this vision, with six of the boxes ticked. Some of these pluses include simple navigation via the front panel, USB playback of mobile devices, and excellent format support--at least on paper. The N-30 supports most file types, which includes support for most music types up to 24-bit/192KHz, and this includes WAV, FLAC, MP3, WMA, AAC, and Ogg Vorbis.
I'm also disappointed to note the lack of streaming services, the provision of Net radio notwithstanding, and think that the smart consumer will at least want access to Pandora or Spotify. The days of downloading and keeping your music stored at home are coming to a close, and with recent changes to Spotify, entire swathes of 320Kbps MP3s are available over the Interwebs.
However, the N-30 does include Apple's AirPlay, and as such it streams not only your iTunes library via Wi-Fi but also compatible apps such as Spotify. Internet connection down? Spotify now lets you store Starred songs on your PC or mobile device.
The device also comes with a dedicated iOS and Android controller app you can use to turn the device on and to pick content from the various network sources. It's free to download.
Of course, to use the streaming functions you will need an Internet connection of some sort, and the N-30 uses an Ethernet port. If, like the rest of the modernized world, you use a wireless router then you will need to plump down an extra $150 for the proprietary AS-WL300 wireless adapter. Bluetooth too is optional and costs an additional $99. To put it into perspective, the Wi-Fi adapter alone costs $50 more than the excellent WD TV Live and the BT adaptor and Wi-Fi together cost as much as the Logitech Squeezebox Touch.
In my aforementioned wish list I did call out other players for supporting "bogus" features like Facebook and Web browsing, but unfortunately Pioneer's Air Jam app probably belongs on this list. It's supposed to enable a dynamic playlist from people at your house, but it uses Bluetooth instead of AirPlay and is quite difficult to get up and running.
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.