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Six months with the Cambridge Audio Sonata NP30

posted @ Saturday, February 18, 2012 9:15 PM | Feedback (21)

Back in July last year I finally, after much procrastination, plumped for a new tune streamer. Whilst I posted a few thoughts shortly after my purchase, many folks have asked me about it since and so here is a more considered review of the Cambridge Audio Sonata NP30 after about six months of real use.

[UPDATE 09/05/2012] A few weeks after I posted this review, Cambridge Audio shipped a significant firmware update. After a couple of months running this version I have added additional comments to the review below.

[UPDATE 24/07/2012] A further firmware update was released on the 19th July, which provides gapless playback, a pre-amp mode and other minor fixes.

Actually before I dive in I will take this opportunity to sardonically pour scorn and derision on “Hi-Fi” rag reviews which after talking about the industrial design of some gear then claptrap with phrases such as “helped the sound retain cohesion and musicality” or “slightly thin and lacking in body”. That friends is 100% unadulterated bullshit. You know these folks have a Dilbert “Hi-Fi” hogwash generator. Never mind the fact they only listened for an hour anyway (if that) believe it or not those two examples were from a review of a USB cable!!! Those magazines are as much use as a chocolate fireguard. If you want a real mag get Tone Audio, but it would be much better to actually listen to the thing in question.

With that little rant out of the way a little recap of what the NP30 is all about. Its a simple, cheap network music player. Definitely at the lower end of the market at £400, “better”  than a Squeezebox or Sonos but nowhere close to a Linn. There are a number of areas where features and spec are compromised due to the price. It competes with the Denon and Marantz units in the same price range. It plays tunes from a UPnP server or via Internet stream and includes a mid range DAC and a few other useful functions.

My music library is approximately 2Tb, around 3,000 “albums” with another 2,000 CDs to rip plus a reasonably large collection of concerts etc. About 90% of the material is FLAC with about 10% “hi def” (greater than 44.1/16). It’s a dead cert guarantee the library will keep growing! Over the last year or so I’ve been increasingly choosing higher definition content. All this stuff sits on my Windows Home Server which runs Asset UPnP server. Yup, WHS 2011 still doesn’t support streaming FLAC natively!

For about four months I was playing the NP30 thru a Sony STR-VA555ES receiver (2002’s finest!) and a pair of SSK-70EDs (still the best!). In December I replaced the receiver with a STR-DA5600ES (a story for another day and nothing to do with the NP30). Almost always I play the NP30 via the RCA outs using 2 Channel Direct.

Here’s the NP30 sitting snuggly at home (click to view at full size):

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Industrial Design and Hook-ups

Looks wise it’s kinda nice assuming you like the CA approach and it matches their other Sonata products. The unit is about 60% the width of real hi fi (exactly the same width of an XBOX 360 Slim) which is a little annoying to me, and the face is definitely cluttered. Operation via the front panel is exceptionally good, especially the jog shuttle.

The dot matrix style display is reasonable, but you can’t read it from 15 feet. Compared to the display on a decent receiver the dots are too large and therefore blurred at a distance. Cheap basically. There are two levels of display brightness but sadly no option to turn off the display, a major disappointment. Also, the display is not wide enough for decent display of track information.

Whilst the NP30 has wireless, I have it hooked up to the LAN via a switch in the receiver. It has a nice “try the LAN first and if not there use WLAN” mode, but I have it set to use LAN only. Doing this improves the boot time a little.

CA amusingly enough “strongly recommends” using LAN for FLAC rather than wireless. They suggest that in their experience LAN is better for streaming “hi res” content . Funny how these audio geeks don’t know shit about networking ehh? :). Similarly amusing is that the unit only ships with a 100Mb/s NIC, and the WLAN doesn’t support 5Ghz. Oh dear, not that you really need anything more, it’s poor form. Cheap, again.

It also comes with a remote control, a nice one similar to all the other CA remotes, which replicates the front panel operations except the jog shuttle. More good news is this guy is easily switched out for a universal remote without having to worry about dodgy power toggle issues.

Round the back aside from the LAN port are a couple RCA outs and SPDIF and TOSLink. I use the RCA outs but have the SPDIF hooked up as well for comparison. It has both front and rear USB ports for playing back stuff from a memory stick or hard drive, but this is extremely limited as metadata browsing doesn’t work so I’ve used them once to test and that’s it. Pointless inclusion really.

Boot time is a bit crap, not a huge issue but sadly similar to a blu ray deck. Since I got the unit there has been a grand total of zero firmware updates.

[UPDATE 09/05/2012] Cambridge Audio shipped a significant firmware update on March 7th 2012.

[UPDATE 24/07/2012] A further update was released on July 19th 2012. You can get it here.

Sound Quality, Formats and Performance

OK, so what about the money? One thing that the NP30 does excel at is playback. Assuming you have your platform hygiene taken care of, it provides exceptional audio performance for something so cheap. It completely blows the likes of Squeezebox and Sonos away. There’s no better streamer in terms of SQ for the price. It’s an “in the pocket” player. Mainly due to the Wolfson WM8728 DAC it’s most at home with lively tunes (e.g. rhythm and blues or jazz). Which is just the ticket. It’s no slouch with classical either, a very well rounded player indeed. I am still surprised by the SQ of this thing. Compared to some “external DACs” you can pay the same money for the NP30 which eats their lunch.

Now of course what you feed it counts. The unit supports most “popular” formats, although no ALAC so if that’s your bag the NP30 is not for you (and shame on you for being a iFreak!). The max it can stream is 96/24. This is somewhat disappointing but again for £400 you can’t really complain, and besides whilst I have a lot of 96/24 I have only 20 odd 192/24 albums so it’s not a huge deal for me. Virtually all my stuff is FLAC with very few bits and bobs as MP3.

I always listen via the RCAs with Analog Direct on the amp. I’ve compared this to the digital out and using the amp’s (very impressive) DAC, and I prefer the warmer sound of the NP30. Interestingly hitting the “portable audio” DSP button on the amp deadens the sound into a horrible muddy mess. The NP30 provides lovely tone for 44.1/16, and really sings when you feed it 96/24.

Now low bit rate MP3. Seriously, if your stuff is all MP3 just get a Squeezebox or an amp with a USB hook-up. Seriously! However the NP30 does do a great job of making low rate MP3 sound half decent via up sampling. It’s nowhere close of course, but it does make a very noticeable difference. In this case, the amp’s DSP is actually better at dealing with crappy VBR or LBR MP3 sources.

Time out for another mini rant… WTF is up with all these bandits selling “external DACs” and “headphone amps” for PCs? Godang! What a lot of old tosh. Hey let’s spend £500 on some silly box and another £200 on some silly pair of fashion headphones. Erm no. Them shitty MP3s you got from iTunes are shit. Crap in, crap out. Get some better source material. Bandits! You can’t tell me Louis Johnson sounds funkier cos u got a silly DAC and silly fashionista cans!

So it sounds nice, what about performance? It’s rock solid. However there is a huge “it depends” here. And what it depends upon is the reliability and setup of your network and UPnP source. The thing can play for days with no stutter, skips or anything like that. But if your WLAN is dodgy, then you will get all of that. Same for the server, if this is underpowered or busy doing something else you will hit problems. Just as the source file format is important so is this stuff. I cannot stress how important it is you get this stuff down. In comparison to Squeezebox, the NP30 is defiantly less forgiving here. But once you get it right it’s rock solid, like a brick house.

Worth noting that you may think it’s all hunky dory, and then later attempt to play FLAC. FLAC will demand much more of the NP30’s NIC than MP3. In other words your setup could be fine for MP3 but when playing FLAC you might experience lags and long pauses. This can be resolved by network configuration, again the NP30 is less forgiving and you may need otherwise undesirable configuration due to whatever the NP30 “standard” is. This is an area that CA should definitely look to improve via a firmware update.

[UPDATE 09/05/2012] The firmware update addresses many common problems with dodgy network devices and configuration.

One huge gap, no pun intended, is that it can’t do gapless playback. This is a serious omission. CA state that they would like to add it but “it’s hard to do”. Pathetic. It’s only hard to do for MP3, and the Squeezebox can do it for less than £150. The only way to listen to say Dark Side Of The Moon properly is to play a single file of the entire album. Extremely poor indeed, there is no valid technical reason why they couldn’t put out a firmware update to allow gapless playback of FLAC.

[UPDATE 24/07/2012] The July 19th 2012 firmware update provides gapless playback!

This is another area where the network setup is critical. For example, let’s say you got Bob Fox over to configure the jumbo frames setting of your server NIC. That could lead to very noticeable and annoying gaps between tracks. If on the other hand you configure the NIC correctly, the gaps are much shorter. Make sure again you check this and also any configuration options here in your UPnP server.

 

Other Source Material

The NP30 also comes with support for a bunch of Internet streams, these are dependant upon region, but I have Aupeo!, Live365, MP3Tunes and BBC iPlayer. Some of these may of course require a subscription. Note there is no Spotify.

You can also add podcasts and internet radio via a Web based control panel. I must admit I really don’t care too much about this stuff. It’s not exactly a great feature. I used to have the same stuff on my Netgear NP101 and that was 10 years ago. I have some configured like Soma FM for background noise when I want that, but that’s about it. Nothing really to make a big fuss about. Especially seeing as CA haven’t updated the services available since launch.

 

Usability – there’s an app for that

As I mentioned earlier, the built in display has numerous flaws. For a small library it might be just about OK, but for any reasonable collection it’s extremely limited. There are not enough characters for most album titles to fit without scrolling so you have to wait for it to scroll in many cases. Furthermore, you have quite a few clicks before you can even browse the server. You have to hit down a couple times to select Media, then select the server – only then are you into whatever you have configured the UPnP server to show (more on that in a bit). CA should really add the ability to add a given server as a one click favourite.

The bottom line is that the display isn’t intended to be the primary interface and it seems very much like an afterthought.

[UPDATE 09/05/2012] The March firmware update does improve browsing of UPnP servers, and also introduces “quick scroll” for improved front panel navigation. UPnP browsing is much snappier and responsive. Gaps between tracks are also slightly smaller.

[UPDATE 24/07/2012] A further update was released on July 19th 2012 which improves UPnP browsing.

Aight, so 2Tb music dude, how do you browse that?

Browsing a large collection is the still unsolved problem of digital media, regardless of vendor. It’s been a problem since the first players and we are a long way from a solution. With physical media, many thousands of albums is incredibly easy to browse and select. Of course not without it’s own disadvantages, and I am most definitely “all in” when it comes to digital tunes. However, whilst there are numerous approaches to large library navigation none are there yet. Things like media centre UIs etc. But the problem is, for serious listeners the TV isn’t on, and in many cases doesn’t exist in the room anyway. An auxiliary display or tablet is far from optimal either. All of the decent ones are thousands of pounds. This is one area where Sonos excels but again large libraries suffers. The bottom line is that an “on line” library in terms of browse and select comes no where close to a bookshelf.

The single biggest influencing factors of your NP30 usability aside it’s character flaws, is how you configure your UPnP server and how you tag your source material. The more effort you put in here, the better your usability will be. Don’t accept the default library of the UPnP server if you don’t like it! You must put the effort in here. Again, crap in, crap out.

But even with all that hard work done (and maintained), you still need to be able to browse and select. CA’s “answer” to this conundrum is their “free” UuVol application.

Interestingly while CA decided to let you pick any UPnP server, if you don’t like the front panel or remote control options, you are locked in to an iPad/iPhone/iTouch app, UuVol.

UuVol (yup, silly name) doesn’t work on Android, Windows Phone, Windows PC, or Mac. In other words, if you don’t have an iThing, you are screwed. And a first gen iTouch won’t work either. This isn’t good.

Squeezebox on the other hand lock you into their server, but app dev is open and the best ones are all not from Logitech. Linn have open app dev as well and some excellent apps themselves.

What makes this such a killer thou, is that the UuVol app is so painful. Really poor. If it was good it wouldn’t be such an issue. I have an iPad anyway.

There are so many issues with the app. It’s extremely unstable, it will just bail out and quit often while using it. It can’t handle notifications from other apps, when you dismiss a notification, the app has to reconnect to the NP30 and you lose your position in the browse hierarchy, so you have to start all over again.  Often times the app will incorrectly render the menu items as it struggles to keep up with the data being returned from the server. You can go into top level items and it’s children will be displayed in different orders at different times. It really struggles with a large library. It cannot display artwork at any level other than album regardless of how the server is configured. Yuk!

[UPDATE 09/05/2012] The March update also brings a new version of the remote control application, which is now named Stream Magic. It’s very similar but much improved. Indeed the complaints above are almost completely resolved. The app is also now available for Android, which I have no device on which to test.

Once you are playing, life is good, but the app is very poor. It is perhaps unsurprising that CA being audio heads are weak software developers. They should either commit seriously to fixing the app, and providing it on alternative platforms (bit silly having to buy a iPad just to control the player) or open it up to the community so we can build a decent one. Compared to the excellent community SqueezePad app, UuVol is an embarrassment. Of course Squeezebox has many more customers than CA.

The thing is it’s almost there, it just needs the same love and care that CA provide to their hardware. Simple things like the lack of track remaining time shows the developers are not serious listeners.

Now you may be thinking, but hang on it’s a UPnP device, so you must be able to use regular UPnP software. You’d be right. Sort Of! Control Point is the API used to build UPnP control apps, and this can be used, but with varying results, and it cannot control all of the NP30 functions. Sadly the superb Linn app, Kinsky will not control the NP30. Everything looks good until you try and start playback at which point nothing happens. The best I’ve found so far is SongBook Lite, which works but of course only for the basic UPnP abilities.

 

 

Ugh, sounds like hassle, why not just use an Amp?

Lots of amps have built in DNLA or UPnP clients these days, why not use one of those? Surely that would be neater? Yup well my 5600ES has a client (and a server!) but it’s not very good. Most important to me is sound quality. The Sony doesn't support streams over 48/16! And furthermore it’s only UI is via the TV and it’s not great. The iThing app for that is, wait for it, US only!!!! Of course there are other options, like the excellent top of the line Denon receiver, but I don’t want to be tied into an amp. And I want a standalone streamer. If I had bags o money, I’d buy the Linn Magic DS, but alas.

 

Platform Hygiene

Once again, to get the most out of the NP30 you must sort out the network configuration and the setup of your UPnP server. I use Asset UPnP, which is excellent and dedicated to tunes. Perfect in combination with the NP30.

Network is critical and the NP30 isn’t forgiving. Aside from the jumbo frames example I gave earlier, I had a strange problem when the NP30 was on the LAN and the iPad was on the WLAN. In this configuration often the iPad couldn’t connect to the NP30 or would frequently disconnect. This turned out to be nothing to do with the NP30 but rather was an issue with the piece of crap Netgear router Virgin calls a “super hub” which was provided when they upped my bandwidth.

It’s these sorts of things that mean you may well need to tinker to get the most out of the NP30 especially if you wish to enjoy FLAC.

 

Conclusion

The NP30 is a great piece of kit at a very reasonable price. You need to consider what are the most important aspects for you. Sound Quality is excellent, usability is weak. If you have a large library that compounds the usability concerns. Here’s a recap of the pros and cons.

Pros

  • exceptional sound quality and musical performance
  • great FLAC handling
  • 96/24 support
  • great value for money
  • zero server side lock in 

Cons

  • no gapless FLAC playback - addressed with the July 19th 2012 firmware update
  • no option to turn off display
  • poor quality display
  • extremely poor UuVol app  - addressed with the new Stream Magic remote app
  • no open app development
  • unforgiving, cheapo NIC

If CA were to fix the above (plus track remaining display) it would be a killer device. For a first stab at a network music player they’ve done a great job and at £400 it’s a steal. This top notch player is let down by primarily the UuVol app, which is a terrible “almost, but no cigar”, especially considering you need an iThing on top of the £400.

Interestingly CA has announced a new unit, the £700 Stream Magic, due in April. This seems to be a combination of the NP30 and the recent Dac Magic Plus (it will include digital inputs, filters and USB sound card) in a full width chassis. Also muted is a much better front panel browse experience.

However it also appears as if the display is the same, still no support for higher than 96/24 streamed, and the same crappy UuVol app.  I hope these suspicions don’t become reality, but I fear that I will be looking at alternatives once again. CA really do have a great opportunity to own this space, one wonders if they can grab it.

Of course, sadly, I am not the target audience – adding USB input and not increasing streaming support are evidence enough of that – perhaps one day I will get my ultimate streamer. By which time of course, format re-invention will happen all over again.

Bottom line: love the sound, but the usability is very weak.

[UPDATE 09/05/2012] The update and new app improve things significantly on the usability side.

[UPDATE 24/07/2012] make sure you get the latest firmware update to enable gapless playback.

 

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