Ethernet Vs USB DAC
However you wish to play digital music, Melco will do it better! With Melco libraries offering both Ethernet and USB as outputs, there is the question of whether network playback or USB DAC playback is the better option. There is no simple answer, but several things can be considered.
Internally, the data within the Melco is pretty much as good as it can be: the data is not put onto any sort of ultra-high-speed bus as it would be in a PC, but rather is clocked through the Melco at a relatively leisurely rate in a very low noise environment.
Pretty much as was perfected in the art of playing CDs, but even for Red Book CD-quality the potential is better with Melco than it is with a CD player and there is no error-correction operating in a Melco.
If playing the music through a USB DAC then the Melco software renders (plays) the data files and presents the recovered digital data as LPCM or DSD to a DAC connected by a dedicated USB2.0 port. That data flow is very direct.
The rendering is under Melco control and benefits from all the clever, quiet digital engineering within the Melco. So, the data presented to the DAC has taken the most direct path to it, and has been rendered in the purest environment.
When streaming to a UPnP client (network streamer) then the data flow is rather more complex.
The network player requests that the data file be sent on the residential network. The data flows from the HDD on the same slow, quiet data bus as for the USB DAC, but is then processed to create Ethernet ‘packets’, and the packets are then launched onto the network as standard TCP/IP.
Normally, any audio NAS would present the data to the network switch, which is already burdened with irrelevant traffic and the action of the switch will be to re-order packets and create resends, before passing the data to the network player, which has to put everything right before the audio decoding process can start.
Uniquely, every Melco digital music library benefits from a dedicated ‘Player’ port. This removes the negative impact of the data switch by making a direct connection between the Melco IP stack and the network player. Remember to use a well-engineered CAT7 cable for this connection to take full advantage. Melco sells a suitable cable for the purpose, just ask your Melco dealer.
The network player now receives all the data in packets, thankfully in the right order and nicely managed due to the dedicated Player port, and then has to rebuild the data outside of the packet framework, and then render the data and present it to the internal DAC.
So in short, even allowing for the Melco Player port, the signal path, and signal processing operations are more complex when using a network streamer rather than a USB DAC.
Whether this relates to a sound quality difference really depends on the technology and engineering of the USD DAC on the one hand, and the network streamer on the other. Some brands have identical technology on both USB and Ethernet, and so direct sound quality comparisons can be made, but otherwise, it is just as with most other hi-fi components: it is a matter of listening, developing the optimum cabling, and listening again.
Melco dealers have amassed considerable experience over the 6 or 7 years that Melco has been available, prompted by the uplift in sound quality that Melco achieves compared to the standard PC or computer-based offerings. So, be guided by your dealer or other happy Melco users.
Remember, that although ‘digits are digits’ is an oft-repeated mantra of engineers (and I am an engineer) real digital data is in itself analogue, and is affected by system noise, impedance matching, bandwidth, timing uncertainties and non-linearities.
So, many factors affect the achievable sound quality, a prime example is the Melco product line.
Their functionality is essentially the same, from the entry-level N100 through to the SSD-based N1ZS40, but by engineering skill and effort, there is not only a huge benefit in the N100 compared to any IT-based solution, but from the N100 to the N1ZS the differences are quite profound.
Meanwhile, you can read more on getting the best from the Melco you already own in this Melco blog (LINK PLEASE FOR NEW WEBSITE), and further improvements can achieved by looking at power supplies, power supply noise, data switches, Ethernet cabling etc.
I am old enough to have sat on some of the Red Book CD technical committees. Who would have thought that using Melco, with rips from a D100 (Melco’s Digital Optical Drive), with a superb DAC, this legacy format is so astonishing in how it communicates music. The bar is set very high for Hi-Res.