These days, if new source component includes the word “audio” anywhere in its name, chances are pretty good that “network” or some variation thereof is also somewhere in its appellation. So the existence of Pioneer Elite’s N-50 audiophile networked audio player is no real surprise. What is surprising though– given Pioneer’s iffy recent track record with Blu-ray players– is how good a product it is.
With a few exceptions, the N-50 hits all the right notes, incorporating high-quality audio performance along with the sort of nascent features that audiophiles probably have no use for but everyone else loves.
With a few exceptions, it hits all the right notes, incorporating high-quality audio performance along with the sort of nascent features that audiophiles probably have no use for but everyone else loves. So, on the one hand, chip-chip-cheerio for a really wonderful quality digital-to-analog converter (DAC), especially at this price point, as well as support for 192kKz/24-bit FLAC among its list of decodable audio formats. And on the other hand, “wOOt” for Bluetooth audio support via an optional ($99) adapter that plugs into the back of the player.
And then there’s Air Jam, Pioneer’s own proprietary iOS app, which the N-50 supports. Air Jam allows you to connect up to four iOS devices, all at the same time, and build group playlists with your friends and family. If this sounds cool to you in theory, you’re going to love Air Jam because the app works really well for what it is, allowing for a sort of socialist playlist-building experience with enough controls to keep it from devolving into complete anarchy. (And I don’t mean to sound harsh here, but I just prefer to run my audio system as more of a benevolent dictatorship. Objectively, though Air Jam works really, really well with the N-50. There’s even a dedicated input button for the app.)
Ironically, network connectivity doesn’t work quite so flawlessly. Setup is easy enough–perhaps too easy–and I haven’t had an ounce of trouble connecting to internet radio stations over the network–wired network, that is. I fussed and fretted with the AS-WL300 wireless network adapter that Pioneer sent along with the N-50 for the better part of a day, and never could get it to work, despite how very similar it is to the IOGEAR Universal Wireless-N Adapter sitting right next to it, working like a champ.
But DLNA connectivity from my main media computer to the N-50 has been spotty and aggravating, at best. When it does work, it’s lethargic. But often as not, the whole system just locks up when I try to access my media PC. It might be easy to assume my network is the culprit here, but the PlayStation 3 in the rack right above the N-50 has zero issues with DLNA connectivity, nor have any of the other DLNA streamers I’ve auditioned recently. Incidentally, my colleague John Sciacca also has an N-50 in for testing and reports better success with DLNA streaming when using JRiver Media Center on his computer.
Ironically, this all sort of ends up not mattering much, though. Pioneer should have marketed the N-50 as a combination wireless DAC/ AirPlay device because that’s where its real strengths rest. The few brief network streams I successfully listened to simply sounded a little flatter, less resolved, less detailed than a direct USB connection to my PC.
As a USB DAC, this thing rocks and pretty much hits exactly the right price point for its capabilities.
It also has a handful of different sound processing modes–specifically, auto sound retriever and hi-bit 32–which I don’t claim to fully grok on a technical level (nor does Pioneer pretend to really explain on a technical level), but which nonetheless do make the 320kpbs MP3s I stream wirelessly from my iPhone sound better. There’s also a pure audio mode that results in the best sound when playing high-fidelity FLACs via the USB connection. (You can also play FLACs stored on a USB flash drive if your computer isn’t handy, or plug your i-device straight into the front, with full control and charging capabilities.)
AirPlay connectivity also means it doesn’t really matter that the N-50 lacks integrated services like Pandora and Spotify–they’re all in your i-devices, anyway–and the N-50 also boasts plentiful inputs and outputs for the coaxial, optical, and analog variety if you want to connect other devices. Your clients may really benefit from the digital ins, since the device, as I said, is a wonderful DAC. I can’t quite figure out the need for the digital outs, though. For some reason, the Bluetooth input won’t output audio over the optical or coaxial out, and audio via the analog outs sound great– right on par with the D-to-A capabilities of my Anthem D2v preamp.
The Pioneer Elite N-50 is a fantastic-sounding USB DAC/AirPlay streamer with support for all the important digital music formats. It manages to bridge the divide between audiophile sensibilities and fun features. The iOS app is straightforward and easy to use.
DLNA streaming is iffy and doesn’t deliver the same caliber of performance as the USB interface even when it does work. And the front-panel display is a little too small to be useful from any appreciable distance.
• Supported Sampling fs/ bit: 192kHz/24bit
• USB DAC, (192/32)
• Digital inputs: USB, Optical, Coaxial
• Digital Outputs: Optical, Coaxial
• Wireless LAN Ready (Requires AS-WL300)
• iPod Digital
• Internet Radio
• Album Cover Display
• Twin Transformer
• Smart Phone App