Media Streamer

Pioneer Elite N-50 Network Audio Player

ARTICLE INDEX

The Pioneer Elite N-50 Network Audio Player In Use

All of the various functions on the N-50 are accessed by selecting one of nine inputs. Selecting an input is as simple as pressing the Function button on the front of the player or using the discrete input buttons on the remote or the ControlApp. With nine inputs, the N-50 offers a lot of connectivity options. In this section I will cover internet services, USB connectivity, home network connectivity, control applications, and of course the sound. I tested the N-50 with a Marantz AV8801 processor, a McIntosh MC8207 amplifier, Definitive Technology BP-3000TL speakers, and cables from Cardas and Monster. Internet connectivity was provided via a 6 Mbps DSL connection.

Internet Services-

The first major feature on the N-50 is internet radio. The vTuner software used by the N-50 provides a comprehensive list of streaming audio content from all across the world. Whether you are in the mood for some music from your own backyard, or from your favorite city or radio personality around the globe, the N-50 provides a simple interface to find that station and stream the content to your player. The LCD display on the N-50 shows you the name of the channel and song that is currently playing. The display also shows any album art from the station which is usually just the station's logo, and it also shows the transmission rate of the station. I frequently saw transmission rates of 16, 32, 64, 128, and 320 kbps. This also gives you a sense of why some stations sound so much better than others. I generally have low expectations when listening to internet radio, but I was frequently surprised at how good some of the channels sounded on the N-50. For example, one of our local university stations, WJCU 88.7 FM, was streaming at 128 kbps while major stations here in Cleveland were only streaming at 64 kbps. The difference is very noticeable. At the other end of the spectrum was Linn Radio streaming at 320 kbps. This offered a superb listening experience on the N-50 and also gave me a chance to preview some of the content in Linn's high resolution audio store.

The N-50 allows you to add up to 20 internet radio stations to a "Favorites" list which can be accessed from the "Favorites" menu while the N-50 is on the "Internet Radio" input. If you want to listen to stations not listed in the N-50, Pioneer provides a special website which allows you to register your N-50 and custom tune the station list to your preferences.

I was torn about whether Pioneer should provide any other streaming services, such as Pandora or Spotify, on the N-50. On one hand, the N-50 offers the ability to connect to the internet without a PC, so it would be nice if the N-50 provided native support. On the other hand, Apple's iPod and iPad devices have become so popular that it's really a better solution for the user to just stream the output of a Pandora application from an iDevice directly to the N-50 via AirPlay. The AirPlay solution works very well and there is no doubt that the user interfaces available for Pandora or Spotify on the Apple devices are significantly more advanced than what Pioneer can achieve on the N-50.

USB Connectivity-

Now that we've covered the internet services on the N-50, let's move on to the USB capabilities. On the front of the N-50 is a USB input which accepts a standard Type-A USB connector. If you plug an iPod or iPhone into this connection, and select the iPod/USB input on the N-50, you now have a very nice dock for your favorite Apple device. When using the N-50 as an iPod dock, all song information is displayed on the iPod itself. Thanks to the upgraded firmware, this connection also allowed me to play ALAC (Apple Lossless Audio Codec) files directly to the N-50.

If you connect a USB drive to the front USB input on the N-50, the LCD display of the N-50 will allow you to navigate the file and folder structure on the USB device. The challenge with doing this is the buttons that Pioneer includes, or rather doesn't include, on the N-50. You may have noticed that there are no menu-navigation buttons on the front of the N-50. Pioneer chose to make the transport buttons have a dual purpose. If you want to move down a menu, the traditional Down-Arrow button is the Forward Skip. The Up-Arrow button is Reverse Skip, the Enter button is Play/Pause, and the Stop button is the Return button. I did get used to this scheme after a while, but it was very frustrating at first, especially since the alternate purposes are not silk-screened next to the buttons. There is plenty of room on the front panel to include the extra buttons and I hope that Pioneer considers this in a future model of their network players. The remote thankfully include a full set of navigation buttons.

To play a song, you simply have to press the Play/Pause button on the remote or on the front panel of the N-50 and the song begins to play. I had no trouble playing any of my FLAC encoded media at rates up to 24-bit/192 kHz. I was also pleased to see that album art displayed correctly on the LCD display. I also had no problems with ALAC, MP3, or WMA. I was able to play MPEG-4 AAC files with variable bit rate and constant bit rate encodings. I was not able to play WMA 9.2 Lossless media directly. This is a limitation of the internal decoder in the N-50, but there are at least two ways around this limitation as we'll see in a moment.

On the back of the N-50 is the asynchronous USB input which accepts a standard Type-B USB connector. I connected a laptop running Windows 7 to this rear USB input and selected the "Digital In USB" input on the N-50. The next step is to install the Pioneer USB driver for Windows which is available from the Pioneer website on the N-50 firmware and software page. The USB driver installs via a very simple installation wizard but you do have to reboot your computer after the installation. Once installed, it's a simple matter to select the Pioneer USB Audio Device from within the Windows Sound Control Panel application. This configuration rewarded me with the ability to play WMA 9.2 Lossless media to the N-50.

Pioneer also includes a very nice instruction guide with the USB driver that has screen shots for all the supported version of Windows which are currently XP, Vista and Windows 7. Windows 8 is not supported yet. Those of you using a Mac running OSX 10.6 or 10.7 can connect to the N-50 without any extra drivers.

Home Network Connectivity-

If you select the "Music Server" input on the N-50, the player will display a list of the DLNA-compliant music servers on your home network. Simply select a server from the list and you will be able to browse by album, artist, etc. and play your selections with the N-50. In this configuration, the N-50 is acting as a Digital Media Player. I tested the N-50 using the Asset UPnP / DLNA server from Illustrate. The N-50 worked very well with and had no trouble playing MP3, WMA and FLAC format files up to 24-bit/192 kHz. Using the "Music Server" input also allows you to take advantage of WMA 9.2 Lossless media. The WMA 9.2 Lossless format is automatically transcoded to WAV by the server software, Asset UPnP in this case, and sent to the N-50.

The LCD display on the N-50 is very nice and displays the album art, album name, album artist, and the track name. The display also shows the file format and the number of bits and frequency along with the elapsed time and the time remaining. Long album, artist, and track names periodically scroll across the screen to give you a chance to read the full names. As nice as the screen is, it is only useful when you are standing or sitting close to the N-50. It is just too small to be readable from across the room.

The N-50 also supports Apple's AirPlay functionality which I tested with version 11 of iTunes. To make use of AirPlay within iTunes, you just need to select the AirPlay icon which brings up the following dialog:

Simply select the N-50 and your iTunes content will be streamed to your N-50. If the N-50 is turned off, it will automatically turn on as well. Another benefit of AirPlay is that you can stream content to multiple destinations. You can play content to your local computer and to the N-50 simultaneously. If you have multiple AirPlay-enabled devices in your home, you can stream simultaneously to those devices as well. This same functionality works with the iPad and later generation iPhones and advanced iPods. AirPlay allows you to directly stream content stored on any of those devices to the N-50. This was an extremely enjoyable feature and I loved streaming content directly from my iPhone to the N-50 without the need to turn on my PC.

Pioneer sent me the AS-WL300 wireless network adapter for my testing. The AS-WL300 is really designed for use with a home network that is using a WPS (Wi-Fi protected setup) router. With a WPS wireless router, the configuration of the AS-WL300 is as simple as pressing the WPS buttons on both the router and on the AS-WL300. If you aren't using WPS, which I wasn't, you have to connect the AS-WL300 to a computer and configure the router using a web browser. I did that and was able to use the N-50 wirelessly but I did run into a major problem. I was unable to reliably stream 192 kHz content to the N-50 using the AS-WL300. I encountered frequent pauses in the music and high-resolution content was simply unusable. I tried repositioning the AS-WL300 but I could never get the unit to work reliably when streaming large media files. I would recommend connecting the N-50 directly to your home router or playing 192 kHz files from the USB input if you use the AS-WL300.

Pioneer also sent me the AS-BT200 Bluetooth adapter. I tested the Bluetooth functionality with my iPhone and was pleased that I had no problems streaming ALAC files directly from my iPhone. In order to make a Bluetooth connection, the N-50 must be set to "BT Audio" input. While it worked, I found it frustrating in that I had to pair my iPhone to the N-50 every time the N-50 was turned off. I should also point out that the ControlApp only works via Wi-Fi, so you can't control the N-50 via Bluetooth.

Control Applications-

Thanks to the networking connectivity offered by the N-50, there are two great options to control the N-50. The first method is with the ControlApp which I tested on my iPhone under iOS 6.x. When the ControlApp is first launched, the application displays a message indicating that a "new version of the data for the selected product" is available. This message indicates that the application has found an updated set of control information for the N-50 on Pioneer's web site.

By simply pressing "Download" in the application, the ControlApp will automatically update itself with all the latest commands and logic for controlling the N-50. Since the ControlApp is capable of controlling many Pioneer network-enabled products, this approach keeps the download size from the App Store smaller since you only get the data for the devices that are on your network. This allows Pioneer to release updates more frequently since they don't have to publish an update through the App Store for every new product that is launched.

The first page of the ControlApp application lets you see the current input, power on/off the N-50 and select your inputs.

Once an input is selected, the ControlApp switches to a context-sensitive page based on the selected input. For example, here is the interface for the Internet Radio input.

The ControlApp does support finger scrolling, as you would expect for an iPhone app; the scroll bars appear automatically only when scrolling, which maximizes usable space when they aren't needed.

You may have noticed all the empty space at the bottom of the ControlApp pages. The reason for this is that the application is only duplicating the content displayed on the N-50's LCD display. While this is a practical approach on Pioneer's part, it does make the ControlApp a bit more cumbersome, since you have to scroll through so many little screen areas depending on the content.

The last thing to point out about the ControlApp is that it doesn't show the album art when you are playing a song! While the application duplicates the screen content and provides a nice control interface including the file format, bit rate, and album info, it leaves out the album art. This does give you an excuse to get up from your chair and look at the N-50 display if you really want to see the art. I hope Pioneer removes this limitation someday.

The other control application for the N-50 that I would like to mention is the Apple Remote application available for free at the App Store. If you have an Apple iPod, iPhone, or iPad, then you should definitely consider using the Remote application to control any iTunes library or Apple TV on your network. Since you can stream from iTunes to the N-50 using AirPlay, the Remote application becomes one of the best free remotes available for controlling the content being sent to the N-50.

Since the N-50 is also a DLNA Renderer, you can control the player from other applications that support DLNA. For example, I used Asset Control from Illustrate to directly control the N-50. I selected songs, servers, and playlists, and the N-50 played my music with ease.

While we are on the subject of control applications, the N-50 supports an application called Air Jam which allows up to four devices to stream music to the N-50. The presumption is that you are having a party and four people can share music from their devices and create a shared playlist for everyone to enjoy. The Air Jam application has multiple interfaces. Here is the iPhone version.

Here is the iPad version.

The Air Jam interface is pretty nice and the iPad interface makes good use of the screen real estate. The Air Jam application allows each user to add songs to the shared play list and the application keeps a list of all the songs that have been played so you can find that great song that you might have heard during the party. The N-50 must be set to the "Air Jam" input to use the application.

While I really liked the concept of Air Jam, the program's implementation is dreadful. First of all, the application requires the optional Bluetooth adapter. If you come to the party and don't have Air Jam, you have to download the application and pair your phone or device via Bluetooth with the N-50. Once that is done, you can start adding songs to the playlist. Here's the big problem - you can't use your phone for anything else while Air Jam is running. If you add ten songs to the list and want to send a text message, make a quick call, or post on Facebook that you're at this great party, the Air Jam application discards all the songs that were added to the playlist from that device! I really don't know what the Air Jam designers were thinking. The application is not able to function as a background application on iOS. I really hope that Pioneer gets this right and that they also remove the Bluetooth requirement. Air Jam has to use Wi-Fi in order to be a viable solution.

Final Thoughts – The Sound

Overall, I was very pleased with the sound quality of the N-50. Given all the inputs and the varied formats, this player did an excellent job rendering music, and I enjoyed using the N-50 as a source device. Internet music at low bitrates sounded really bad at times but higher bitrate stations like Linn Jazz and Linn Classical sounded great. Playing low-resolution MP3 files or low-bitrate internet radio was unsatisfying but that was to be expected. Pioneer includes their "Auto Sound Retriever" processing on the N-50 which attempts to restore the missing data from compressed media. While I could hear a difference with the processing enabled, I generally found that it just softened the playback and reduced some of the harshness on low quality internet radio.

The best way to make the N-50 shine was to give it a high quality source. I listened to lots of music with the N-50 from some of my favorite jazz and vocal artists like Madeleine Peyroux, Ray Charles, Frank Sinatra and Diana Krall as well as some of my favorite pop music from Michael Jackson, Katy Perry and Alanis Morissette. The sound from the N-50 was very satisfying with voices sounding natural with an overall warmth to the music. The soundstage was beautifully centered and I could easily make out the details of individual instruments.

By far the best thing about the N-50 is listening to high resolution music. I listened to the 24-bit/96 kHz HDtracks version of the Alison Kraus and Union Station Paper Airplane album. I was swept away by the wonderful sounds of the fiddle, banjo, guitar, acoustic bass, and mandolin on this album. Notes were distinct and incredibly detailed and lingered softly in my listening room. Alison's voice was gorgeous and wonderfully soulful and I loved how her voice blended with the harmony vocals on track 3, "Lie Awake." I could imagine the band playing in front of me and before I knew it, I had listened to the entire album. The N-50 positively rocked this album.

I also enjoyed listening to the 24-bit/ 192 kHz HDtracks version of Bob Marley & The Wailers Legend (Remastered). I haven't listened to reggae or this album in some time and listening to this awesome album in high resolution brought back some fond memories of time in the Caribbean, great friends and a visit to Jamaica. Once again I loved the warmth and detail in the music and I thoroughly enjoyed this classic album all over again. I was thrilled that I could enjoy music with such exceptional quality from the N-50.