You’ve probably seen the music industry data: Sales of physical music playback discs (CDs and SACDs) are dropping sharply. In their place have sprung up two alternatives: file-based music playback and streaming digital playback. The former, also known as computer audio playback, consists of music stored in digital file format on some sort of storage drive: a spinning hard drive, a solid-state drive (including USB flash drives), or a network drive. To enjoy file-based music playback, you must acquire music files, either by downloading them over the Internet or copying (ripping) them from your CDs. Music files can range from extremely high resolution to CD resolution to lossy compressed formats designed to minimize the space needed to store them. The distinguishing characteristic of file-based music playback is that you must possess the files you play back.
Streaming digital playback consists of music played over the Internet. You don’t have to possess any files at all, just subscribe to a service that has access to the files and will send them to you over the Internet when and where you want to play them. Usually, streaming services have huge libraries of music files, which allow you to hear a wide variety of music at various levels of quality. Until recently, most streamed files were the lossy compressed variety (e.g., MP3), and even if sound quality was your area of interest, the best quality streaming service readily available was CD quality; however, the file encoding technology known as Master Quality Authenticated (MQA) promises to make streamed high-resolution file playback available. It also drastically reduces the size of downloaded files, making the downloading process much faster.
The music industry data also tells us that the popularity of file-based music playback is waning, as streaming digital playback improves the sound quality it delivers. That makes sense; it’s far easier just to turn on your equipment, select the music you want to hear from a huge collection, and hit the Play button rather than have to download files and copy them to your storage medium first.
Which brings us (finally) to the subject of this review: Esoteric’s new N-05 Network Audio Player. The N-05 supports both file-based playback and streaming playback from two major services. It’s Esoteric’s first venture into the file-player/streamer market, so that the disc drive that normally fronts its DACs has been replaced by a file renderer, an ugly-sounding term for the circuit that converts a stored file into a bitstream that the DAC can decode into an analog signal. Esoteric makes some of the best SACD/CD players and DACs on the planet, some of which sell at stratospheric prices. But the N-05 falls into the mid-range pricing area: $6500. For that price, you get a music file renderer (player) and a DAC capable of playing PCM files up to 384kHz/24-bit and DSD files up to DSD128. The USB input accepts DSD256, but the internal renderer plays only up to DSD128. There aren’t many DSD256 files for sale yet, but their numbers are increasing. Not only capable of file-based playback, the N-05 also streams music from the Tidal online music service, for which a subscription is needed, and from the Qobuz music service, not available in the U.S. If $6500 seems expensive, keep in mind that Esoteric gear is made to the highest standard and $6500 is among the company’s lowest prices for audio gear. As with all Esoteric products, the N-05 comes with a three-year parts and labor warranty.
Many file-based music players provide some sort of internal storage—a hard drive or a solid-state drive—but the N-05 does not; you must provide an external drive, either a USB drive or a network attached storage (NAS) drive. Which should you get? Here is a summary of pros and cons:
USB drive advantages
- The cheapest form of high-capacity storage; single drives with 8 terabytes of storage capacity cost $250 or less.
- Readily available at your local office supply store or Best Buy.
USB drive disadvantage
- With the N-05, only the folder view of the remote-control ESS app (see below) is available.
NAS drive advantages
- Since NAS drives are installed on a network, files stored there can be played on any music playback device on the network—so you don’t need a separate copy on each music player device.
- NAS storage is easy to expand so its capacity can be huge.
- NAS drives are relatively easy to back up; mine has a one-button backup feature.
- NAS drives can be located outside your listening room so their slightly noisy operation won’t intrude on your listening environment and they won’t need space on your equipment rack.
NAS drive disadvantage
- Depending on the number of bays and drive size, they can be very expensive. They are designed to be left on continuously and use rugged hard drives.
Construction-wise, the N-05 is a typical Esoteric product: a chassis constructed of heavy brushed silver aluminum plates with a sculpted faceplate that curves gracefully around into the side panels. The term “audio jewelry” could have been coined to describe Esoteric products. If that construction sounds heavy, it is: 24 3/8 pounds. In addition to the external hard drive, you will need a local area network (LAN), a WiFi router, and an Apple iPad to run the app, which remotely operates the N-05.