PI­O­NEER N-70AE net­work mu­sic player

Pi­o­neer’s range­top­ping net­work mu­sic player is loaded with mul­ti­ple paths to lo­cal and on­line mu­sic col­lec­tions, plus ex­cel­lent au­dio cir­cuits to make them sing.

Sound+Image - - Contents - Jez Ford

Hi-fi stream­ing with mul­ti­ple paths to mu­sic plus ex­cel­lent au­dio cir­cuits to make it all sing.

You know a good DAC the sec­ond you hear it. Here we were lis­ten­ing to a very good DAC. We had at­tached a hard-drive of high-res mu­sic to the N-70AE dur­ing set-up, but our first ex­pe­ri­ence of its out­put came from an ac­ci­den­tal se­lec­tion of a 320k MP3 of Leonard Co­hen’s Go­ing Home, and we froze in out­right won­der to hear such a thrillingly ren­dered Leonard, the grav­elly richly-edgy vo­cal, his in­ter­sti­tial lip smacks and swal­lows au­di­ble, the sim­ple ar­range­ment and out­right divine back­ing vo­cals laid out across the sound­stage in a flow­ing car­pet of love­li­ness. Divine divine.

We were al­most im­me­di­ately fur­ther se­duced by its de­liv­ery of John Coltrane’s My Favourite Things (24/96 from HDTracks) — more dy­nam­ics here than we re­call ever hear­ing, a sense of power and weight to the chordal sec­tion of the pi­ano solo, the bass and drums com­bin­ing to drive it along, and Coltrane’s re-en­try ris­ing and twid­dling in the right chan­nel be­fore tak­ing flight be­yond the melody with a di­rect-miked sin­gle speaker clar­ity that de­mands at­ten­tion. The same trick of de­lin­eation and dy­nam­ics was re­peated again on Chick Corea’s

Aus­tralia pi­ano con­certo, re­mind­ing us why we’d put this in our test lis­ten­ing folder in the first place. Waah, such a record­ing, and such a de­liv­ery.

Unig­nor­able qual­ity; mu­si­cal de­light. We thought we’d kick off this re­view with this declara- tion of qual­ity, rather than sav­ing it for our ‘Per­for­mance’ sec­tion, en­cour­ag­ing you to read through the more tech­ni­cal de­tails of the N-70AE’s many abil­i­ties which would oth­er­wise pre­cede it. Be­cause we reckon many hi-fi users may be won­der­ing why they need a net­work mu­sic player at all, given that so many modern amps are al­ready in­clud­ing many of these func­tions (DAC cir­cuits, Spo­tify or Chrome­cast) in­side. The an­swer to that ques­tion is as old as hi-fi it­self — the use of sep­a­rate com­po­nents de­liv­ers spe­cial­i­sa­tion, a lack of in­ter­fer­ence. Al­low­ing qual­ity to ooze out.

Equip­ment

First a note on nomen­cla­ture, since Pi­o­neer’s model num­bers con­fuse the heck out of us. This N-70AE net­work au­dio player should not be con­fused with the slightly older N-70A net­work au­dio player, which shares its look and very many of its fea­tures, but which is/was only two-thirds of the price at $1599. There’s also the N-50AE (with which the N-70AE shares its prod­uct man­ual) and older N-50A play­ers, and an N-30AE, not to be con­fused with the SX-N30AE, all of which rank be­low the unit on re­view. As far as net­work au­dio play­ers go, the N-70AE is Pi­o­neer’s top dog.

In­deed you might guess that from its weight, which took us by sur­prise for a source com­po­nent. Com­pare it, say, with our 2018 Stereo AV Am­pli­fier of the Year

un­der $2000, Pi­o­neer’s own SX-S30, which in­cludes am­pli­fiers and weighs 4kg. The N-70AE, just a net­work au­dio player re­mem­ber, no am­pli­fiers in­side, weighs in at 11.4kg. If weight can be con­sid­ered a proxy for con­struc­tion qual­ity, the un­box­ing of this unit cer­tainly in­spires con­fi­dence. Rock-solid out­side and in, it takes the sep­a­rates phi­los­o­phy into its own in­ter­nals, the chas­sis iso­lat­ing its sep­a­rate power sup­ply trans­form­ers for dig­i­tal and ana­logue cir­cuits within three shielded sec­tions. The base is de­signed for high rigid­ity; the front and sides use solid alu­minium pan­els.

We reckon the la­bel of ‘net­work au­dio player’ un­der­plays the abil­i­ties here. For starters, it can be used as a DAC for other source com­po­nents and your com­puter — it has one op­ti­cal and one coax­ial dig­i­tal in­put, it has the USB-B socket re­quired to con­nect to your com­puter via USB, and it has two USB-A slots, one front and one rear, to which you can at­tach USB stor­age as hard drives or sticks. (The rear USB socket sup­plies more power, so is the bet­ter choice for USB-pow­ered hard drives.)

The N-70AE also of­fers an easy hi-fi path to Spo­tify and in­ter­net ra­dio — as hi-fi, at least, as those sources can de­liver. And it in­cludes Air Play, so you can stream di­rect from your Ap­ple de­vices and from Mac com­put­ers.

Those are the main abil­i­ties we’d noted in our first pass through the man­ual and web­site. But once we’d plugged it up and per­formed the first duty of all modern hi-fi — a firmware up­date — it came back with some ma­jor bonuses. There is di­rect ac­cess to Tidal. And you sign off on a sep­a­rate set of T&Cs to ac­ti­vate Chrome­cast in­side, so it can play from Cast-en­abled apps, and should work with Google Home or any other de­vice with Google As­sis­tant, so you can ad­dress it us­ing voice com­mands (but see be­low).

It also has the ‘FireCon­nect by Black­fire’ mul­ti­room plat­form, although at some point af­ter the man­ual was signed off this has changed to FlareCon­nect. Is this a Pi­o­neer/ Onkyo-spe­cific vari­ant of FireCon­nect (per­haps to ad­dress ques­tions over in­ter­op­er­abil­ity with FireCon­nect on other brands)? You’d think, ex­cept Pi­o­neer/Onkyo claims it to be “in­house-de­vel­oped”. It’s a wel­come ex­tra any­way, as is DTS Play-Fi, which was the ris­ing star of multi­brand mul­ti­room op­er­a­tion un­til Chrome­cast ar­rived to whip its ass.

So quan­tity is clearly no prob­lem, and qual­ity will be lim­ited only by your source se­lec­tion, be it high-res over the net­work, oth­ers that are lim­ited to CD qual­ity or (like Spo­tify) to be­low CD qual­ity. You’ll get the most re­li­able and most high­est-res per­for­mance ei­ther from those USB-con­nected drives, or across your lo­cal net­work from mu­sic shared by UPnP/DLNA from ei­ther a PC or a NAS drive, the lat­ter hav­ing the ben­e­fit of be­ing al­ways avail­able (whereas mu­sic on a PC dis­ap­pears when the PC is off or sleep­ing). From such shares and from its op­ti­cal and coax­ial dig­i­tal in­puts the Pi­o­neer can play WAV, AIFF, Ap­ple Loss­less and FLAC up to 24-bit/192kHz, DSD (dff/dsf) at 2.8/5.6/11.2MHz, plus your lowly MP3, AAC and WMA files.

Note, how­ever, that that you can play only up to CD qual­ity, and no DSD at all, if you con­nect to your net­work by Wi-Fi. For Wi-Fi you screw on two ex­ter­nal an­ten­nas, whereas the N-50AE has two fold-up an­ten­nas built in. So (as we’d al­ways rec­om­mend any­way), give the Pi­o­neer a hard-wired Eth­er­net con­nec­tion to your net­work.

From the com­puter USB con­nec­tion the ca­pa­bil­ity for play­ing PCM rises to 32-bit/384kHz (it of­fered to ac­cept 768kHz from our Mac, in fact) and DSD up again to 11.2MHz.

An­other vis­i­ble dif­fer­ence be­tween the N-70AE and the N-50AE is the in­clu­sion of balanced ana­logue out­puts along­side the un­bal­anced RCA out­puts, while op­ti­cal and coax­ial dig­i­tal out­puts al­low up­grade to even more su­pe­rior con­ver­sion. But that would be some DAC, given the con­ver­sion here uses twin ES 9016S ESS Sabre32 Ul­tra DACs in eight-chan­nel par­al­lel op­er­a­tion.

Per­for­mance

You are given plenty of op­tions in con­fig­ur­ing the Pi­o­neer’s dig­i­tal con­ver­sion. Dy­namic range can be ‘ex­panded’ by con­vert­ing 16 or 24-bit au­dio to 32-bit us­ing the Hi-Bit32 op­tion — which is switch­able, so you can de­cide if it achieves the promised “smoother and more re­fined sound re­pro­duc­tion”. And you can choose to have ev­ery­thing up­sam­pled to 384kHz with a sec­ond op­tion.

Both of these are, how­ever, de­feated if you se­lect the ‘Di­rect’ op­tion, dur­ing which the man­ual says “pro­cess­ing that af­fects sound qual­ity is shut down so sound closer to the orig­i­nal is re­pro­duced”. This sounds so de­sir­able that one won­ders why any other op­tion is con­sid­ered, but as al­ways, it’s fun to play. Three blue LEDs on the front panel in­di­cate which of the other tweaks you’re us­ing, so it’s easy to try these, as well as the dif­fer­ent fil­ter slopes of the Sabre DAC (well, two from the Sabre and one ‘short’ which is ap­par­ently Pi­o­neer’s own ad­di­tion). There’s also a seven-po­si­tion Lock Range which “im­proves S/N ra­tio so you can push the en­ve­lope to hear the noth­ing but the mu­sic [sic]. Elim­i­nate jit­ter noise that de­vel­ops dur­ing the Dig­i­tal/Ana­log con­ver­sion of mu­sic”. This is new to us, but ap­pears to limit the range over which the crys­tal os­cil­la­tor will achieve lock on the dig­i­tal sig­nal, which would in­deed al­ter the jit­ter, if not nec­es­sar­ily elim­i­nate it… though could cause prob­lems (gaps as the sig­nal lock is lost) if set too nar­row. Hence the nar­row­est three op­tions are there­fore la­belled ‘Ex­pert Only’ — you have been warned! Most of the changes are im­ple­mented with a short gap, and proved sub­tle if dis­cern­able at all in ac­tion. The up­sam­pling had the most no­table ef­fect, seem­ing to add a bit of edge or pres­ence on the likes of the crunchy gui­tars of Neil Young’s Walk with Me, although this kind of slight pres­ence ef­fect is of­ten au­di­ble when a 44.1kHz file is re­sam­pled to 48kHz or vice versa (an iTunes spe­cial­ity), which we thought might be the ef­fect here if all files re­ally do get up­sam­pled to 384kHz rather than

an ex­act mul­ti­ple, e.g. 352.8kHz. But a note on Pi­o­neer’s app im­plies it’s proper ×2 or ×4 up­sam­pling (though it also says you can choose which of those you’d like, with­out ex­plain­ing how).

These modes can be ac­cessed us­ing the rather too busy and un­pri­ori­tised phys­i­cal re­mote con­trol, or more eas­ily via the Pi­o­neer Re­mote App (see above). As noted, ‘Di­rect’ mode seemed re­li­ably the smoothest and most prefer­able set­ting for our tastes, and was used for the bulk of our more re­laxed rather than com­par­a­tive lis­ten­ing.

Of which we did plenty over our sev­eral weeks with the N-70AE, be­gin­ning with the ex­am­ples noted in our in­tro­duc­tion, and mov­ing on to high-res de­lights.

Au­dio Alchemy’s Mar­rakesh (24/96) is such a crisp record­ing that it takes a flawed sys­tem in­deed not to sound good, yet here it cer­tainly high­lighted the Pi­o­neer’s sense of tim­ing and there­fore rhythm, as well as the high-fre­quency de­lights — gui­tar edges so tight and dy­namic, the splash cym­bal so re­al­is­ti­cally splashy. And not poke-you-in­the-eye sharp — as we’ve heard it from some over-en­er­gised lesser con­ver­sions — but here de­liv­ered smoothly un­der the Pi­o­neer’s Di­rect mode. Play­ing the Ea­gles’ Life in the Fast

Line (24/192) out of the Pi­o­neer through good pre-pow­ers into a pair of JBL Stu­dio Mon­i­tors, it wasn’t hard to imag­ine that this pre­sen­ta­tion must be pretty darned close to how pro­ducer Mr Szym­czyk and the Ea­gles them­selves must have en­joyed play­back in the stu­dio away in 1976.

Clas­si­cal/prog fans may be dis­ap­pointed by a men­tion in the man­ual that gap­less play­back is not sup­ported for ‘re­mote play­back’, but the Pi­o­neer cer­tainly played gap­lessly from hard drive, and with only lit­tle skips via DLNA (al­bums in the right or­der too), so this may be a lim­i­ta­tion only for PC-driven ad­dress­ing of the Pi­o­neer.

Turn­ing to Tidal, we de­cided to see what it made of the stream­ing ser­vice’s MQA-en­coded Masters files. These are now much eas­ier to find on Tidal, thanks to ‘M’ la­bels and a way to spec­ify your pref­er­ence, though only if you’re us­ing the ded­i­cated pro­gram for desk­top PC or Mac. They don’t show up (or play) if us­ing the Tidal app on a smart de­vice, and that seemed to be the Pi­o­neer Re­mote App’s de­fault im­ple­men­ta­tion too: no Masters fold­ers vis­i­ble. We pointed it at our own playlist of Masters ( avhub.com.au/masters); these it streamed (or claimed it did) at 24-bit, but only 44.1 or 48kHz.

That makes Tidal’s desk­top pro­gram for Mac and PC the best way to get Masters play­ing at a higher sam­ple rate. Giv­ing Tidal ex­clu­sive mode of the Pi­o­neer USB DAC (warn­ing — it ap­pears twice on Tidal’s DAC list, and the first op­tion sends via Air­Play, which con­fused us for a while). In this way the N-70AE it played the Masters at their first MQA un­fold, gen­er­ally 96kHz and send­ing from the Mac at 32-bit, though we as­sume the Tidal source was 24-bit. Sound­ing very nice.

The Chrome­cast im­ple­men­ta­tion worked in terms of re­ceiv­ing from Cast-en­abled apps, which could see and stream to the Pi­o­neer. (The Pi­o­neer app use­fully links through to any num­ber of these.) But it stub­bornly re­fused to link to our Google ac­count us­ing the Google Home app, the first Chrome­cast de­vice we’ve known to do this, so it couldn’t be grouped with other Chrome­cast de­vices, nor could it be ad­dressed by voice from a Google Home de­vice. We did a sys­tem re­boot to check we’d ticked all Google’s per­mis­sion screens, but with the same re­sult. It also emit­ted a moder­ately loud crack through the speak­ers when switch­ing into or out of Chrome­cast op­er­a­tion.

Down­sides we found none at all, bar those op­er­a­tional glitches with Chrome­cast, and those may be unique to our im­ple­men­ta­tion, or fix­able in firmware. We found it does put it­self into standby fairly ea­gerly, but that’s good for elec­tric­ity sav­ing, and a tap of the re­mote wakes it up quickly enough. If you don’t like this be­hav­iour you can turn auto-standby off through the front-panel menus.

One note — we strug­gled to find many dif­fer­ences be­tween this model and the older but rather cheaper N-70A, which has the same DACs, same con­struc­tion, same weight, same screen, same in­puts, ap­par­ently lack­ing only Wi-Fi and Chrome­cast, though the newer N-70AE takes DSD up to 11.2MHz. From the man­u­als and spec sheets, that seems about it. The N-70A model is on the way out, but with $900 be­tween the RRPs, it’s per­haps worth hunt­ing one down.

Con­clu­sion

We could not, how­ever, at­test with cer­tainty to the older model match­ing this newer net­work mu­sic player’s su­perb sonic per­for­mance. The N-70AE is yet fur­ther ev­i­dence of Pi­o­neer’s resur­gence in high­qual­ity stereo hi-fi, where it is buoyed up by col­lab­o­ra­tion and cross­over tech­nolo­gies from its sis­ter Onkyo brand, and sup­ported by decades of con­sumer con­fi­dence in the Pi­o­neer brand. Here we en­joyed all the heft of the tra­di­tional ap­proaches to high fi­delity, in com­bi­na­tion with the lat­est tech­nolo­gies, for­mats and a stag­ger­ing wealth of stream­ing and net­work op­tions. In that re­gard it’s hard to imag­ine a home mu­sic net­work­ing role the N-70AE would not fit, with a per­for­mance to de­light, and as for mu­sic ac­cess, well, the Cloud’s the limit.

Pi­o­neer N-70AE net­work mu­sic player

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