harbar.net component based software & platform hygiene

Cambridge Audio Sonata NP30

Print | posted on Wednesday, July 20, 2011 2:04 AM

I finally got around to getting myself a new network tune box. Those of you who know me will be aware I am somewhat of a muso and I have a distinctly uncompromising stance when it comes to “better sound”. For a while I was using a Squeezebox Duet, which is OK but leaves a lot to be desired. So the hunt for a proper network tune box commenced about this time last year. I’m not interested in a all in one media player, I want a dedicated device for tunes and that doesn’t need a television to control. Seriously, who listens properly to tunes with the television on? that’s just not right.

My tunes are all in FLAC stored on a Windows Home Server, which is also running the Asset UPnP Server from Illustrate. Asset UPnP is a dedicated music server and beats the usual suspects hands down in every key regard. Unfortunately WHS 2011 still doesn’t support streaming FLAC, but even if it did, I’d probably still use Asset. So I needed a box that could play that stuff, and met my other requirements.

Why not stick with the Squeezebox? Well it’s a nifty little device for sure but it has some key limitations. Unfortunately it only supports up to 48kHz and I am increasingly using higher bitrate source material. The new Touch can do better, but that’s no good - I wasn’t going to wait for them to refresh the Duet. Then there’s the DAC – it’s pretty lame when you hook it up to a system where you can hear the difference. So with the Duet I had the SPDIF hooked up to my amp to use it’s DAC, which is very good indeed, but of course that ties it to the amp. Then there’s the software, it needs it’s own server. It’s kinda OK, but when you have a large library it’s slooooow. Then there’s the controller software for it’s remote and iPad, PC etc. That’s actually kinda neat and one of the better ones, but I don’t want to compromise on sound just for this. So in the bin the Squeezebox goes. I coulda stepped up to the Transporter, but at over £2000 it’s just not worth it.

I lusted over the Linn Akurate and Klimax for a while and briefly considered the Sneaky Music, but the price is hard to justify, and frankly the controller software is very lame. Linn make great gear, but it just wasn’t up to scratch within a reasonable budget and a lot of hassle.

So in the end I plumped for the very affordable and excellently spec’d Cambridge Audio Sonata NP30. Here it is sat comfortably in the rack:


Looks wise it’s kinda nice, and as you’d expect follows the Cambridge Audio design, this one intended to be matched with their Sonata line. I have it hooked up to the amp (a Sony TRVA555ES, a kick ass piece of kit the like of which aren’t made any more) using analog outs – the NP30 doesn’t have “balanced” connectors which I’m not into anyway. I also have the SPDIF hooked up for comparisons when using crappy formats and also for the small number of surround sound recordings I have. It is also hooked up to the LAN and it has wireless as well.

It really doesn’t do much. It just plays tunes. But it plays them very well indeed. It can also stream internet services (radio and such) which I’m not that interested in, but useful for things like SomaFM. Those of course are all in MP3. For the real deal it will work with any UPnP server. It’s plays everything I can throw at it. The DAC is a nice one, the Wolfson WM8728 which can go up to 24-bit/96kHz. It sounds pretty warm, it’s very nice output especially at reasonable levels. Time will tell if it warms up more and beats the amp (unlikely), but there may come a time when the amp is replaced.

Overall sound quality is excellent, very good dynamic range. Sweet and rock solid, it’s what you could call an “in the pocket” player.


It’s basically silent, which is just the ticket. Streaming over the WLAN works great, but I’ll stick with the LAN I think! It has a mode where it will try LAN first then WLAN etc. Load times are extremely quick. There’s no lag waiting for anything thus far with a very large library of tunes! It of course grabs a bunch of data, pull the LAN out and it will continue to play for a few minutes before failing.

The NP30 comes with the standard Sonata remote, which is OK, but you are not really going to be using this to control the device as browsing the collection from the display is as awkward as it was on the very first network music players years ago. The front panel has a jog wheel which is much better. The display can be dimmed as well, but unfortunately it cannot be turned off.

Cambridge Audio ship a thing called uuVol, an iPhone/iPad remote. It’s not fantastic and it’s obviously early doors in terms of it’s development, but it’s perfectly adequate. Now an interesting bugette here is that if the NP30 is on the LAN, uuVol will struggle to connect. This doesn’t happen if both the NP30 and iPad are on the WLAN. Cambridge Audio are aware of the problem and working on a fix.

The only other gripe I have is it can’t do gapless playback. For concerts that is just crap. Cambridge Audio say they are working on it, but it’s “hard to do”. That’s kinda annoying as a £100 Squeezebox can do that no problem. But of course the squeezebox jitters like crazy and has a fetish for rebuffering so it’s not that easy!

So overall I'm very happy with it so far. It is a simple device, but that’s just how real audio gear should be. The three things I want fixed are the remote app LAN issue, gapless playback and the ability to turn off the display. But it’s a very nice tune box even with those issues, and so if you are into these sorts of things, I’d encourage you to take a listen to one.