Digital Music Player Review: Part 1
The NAD 50.2
I’ve been having fun, well, cheap thrills actually, playing with the web radio capabilities of the NAD 50.2. It comes with the TuneIn app preloaded, and music by region, country, genre, and on occasion even sexual orientation can be selected. The thing that amazes me the most is the prevalence of English language pop music. In many countries where English is not the first language, announcers speak in their native tongue but play the likes of Beyoncé, Drake and Taylor Swift, among others. I’ve nothing against them per se, but the fact that they and other pop “stars” take up so much cultural bandwidth must surely mean that cultures in some parts of the world are likely degraded by this onslaught.
Greenland, of all places, has three stations, and one of them plays English language classic rock. I don’t quite know what to make of the ubiquity of North American musical culture. On the other hand, a web station based in Russia plays only classical pipe organ music. I can only take either of these extremes in small doses.
I also find intriguing, and quite refreshing, the web-only stations that play jazz, soul, blues, folk, bluegrass, and other authentic music that can’t be heard on terrestrial radio. Am I the last person to be astonished by the niche nature of the internet? But I’m getting ahead of myself.
“Where words fail, music speaks.” This, written by Hans Christian Anderson made me think that audio writers are unique among the written arts. We must perform the opposite and turn music, or more precisely, the effect of music into words. Small comfort when struggling to describe the musical effects of digital components.
The old cliché about some reviews writing themselves is none the less true. The only difficultly I encountered writing the review of the Spendor D7 was not letting it run on to 5,000 words. A knock-out piece of gear challenges a writer to be concise.
I think the best I can do is describe the process involved setting up and using this player, and in part two, the Lumin D1 player.
My Cambridge Azur 840C, though a high value CD player in its day, was getting long in the tooth. It would often groan when loading a CD, as if the motor operating the drawer didn’t know the drawer was closed. Opening or closing the drawer two or three times usually resulted in a successful disc load. The hand-writing was on the wall: the 840C’s days were numbered.
A former work colleague warned about the pit-falls and frustrations of having music reside on a general-purpose computer. He was an early adopter of file-based playback, but judging from the irritations and vexations he described, it was something I wanted to avoid at all costs. This is the same fellow who had a cat that liked to sleep on his nice warm Mark Levinson power amp. But that ended when he (the cat) threw-up into the Levinson causing irreparable damage. To the Levinson, not the cat.
A CD drive in, or connected to, a computer can rip CD’s. There are even free programs like Exact Audio Copy that will facilitate this. The problem is, how does one organize these files, and perhaps some downloads and/or LP rips into a coherent and easily accessible form. To say nothing of optimizing their delivery to a D to A converter. If one has a large CD library it can be drudgery ripping them on a computer, then organizing them for hard drive storage and playback.
Enter the NAD 50.2
The NAD 50.2 is described as a “Digital Music Player”. It is in essence a computer, albeit a one-trick-pony computer that rips, stores and outputs music as a digital stream. The 50.2 is superior to a general-purpose computer in that it’s optimized to do that one trick very well. The problem with using a general-purpose computer for music playback is that there are a lot of other processes going on in the background, potentially noisy in the electrical sense, that can degrade the music signal. The 50.2 does not contain a digital to analogue converter. The choice of converter is left to the consumer.
Before I get to the setup I must describe the process by which the NAD was obtained. I try wherever possible to patronise a local dealer. I found the closest on the NAD website, but when I visited, though they did have a few of the NAD Master Series components, they said they were renovating soon and wouldn’t be ordering a 50.2 until work on their premises was complete. I wasn’t in a hurry, so left my contact information. Several months later I still hadn’t heard from them so on to the next closest dealer. This one handles many product lines, NAD being one of them. I was offered other players but none of them had the feature set the 50.2 does.
I’m not a believer in the cult of Apple, (“we were trying to save you battery power, not slow your phone, honest”) but purchased an iPad with which to control the 50.2. The iPad won out because I just couldn’t be bothered with one more device in the house that would need constant antivirus attention.
I dropped the iPad and a few CD’s off at dealer number 2 when I placed the order for the 50.2, figuring they could install the app on the iPad, rip a few CD’s and show me how it all works. Upon returning a week or so later to pick up the NAD, not only had they lost my CD’s and iPad, they hadn’t installed the app on it before losing it. I guess it was just too much work for them to temporarily connect my iPad to their network. I sighed my long-suffering reviewer’s sigh. They did find my iPad and CD’s a few days later, the story was they had fallen behind some other equipment. They shipped the wayward items to me by courier with next day delivery.
I should relate to you the reasons why the 50.2 was my choice of digital music player. Firstly, it has a built-in CD drive. This makes ripping CD’s a no-brainer exercise. Just feed it a disc and once it’s ripped, feed it another one. Secondly, NAD is a Canadian company of long-standing, though the 50.2 is made in China. Thirdly, though this is a reason I have with the benefit of hindsight, NAD’s customer support is world class. More on this later.
So, with 50.2 and my iPad together at last, the process of making them talk to each other commenced. I wimped out and got Miss K, my niece and product model, and aa tec support person to do the deed. She immediately dismissed my internet connection as being too slow, and connected my iPad to her iPhone. The 50.2 will work wirelessly with your home network. My home network, such as it is, worked OK (not the fault of the NAD), but response to commands from the iPad did seem faster when I used a wired connection between the NAD and my modem. It can be a bit of a challenge, invisibly rewiring a 20th century home with ethernet cables of the 21st century. But that’s the sort of challenge an analogue brain like mine can rise to. I also installed the BluOS app, NAD’s app for their players, on my garden variety HP laptop.
So off I went ripping CD’s and playing files. The 50.2 was connected to the DAC section of my Cambridge CD player. Music played much as before. I can’t say there was a discernible difference between sourcing digital files from the NAD versus playing a disc straight from the CD player. When inserting a disc into the NAD you are given the option of ripping it or playing it. There is the option in the setup menu of saving a rip as .wav file or a FLAC file. My buddy with the horking cat and others say that FLAC is the way to go for better meta data (album art etc.). It was interesting reviewing one’s music library, one CD at a time, and realizing there were discs I hadn’t listened to in a long time, if ever.
As with any new device, there is a learning curve. I noticed there were double rips of some albums in that there were duplicates of each track. At this point I solicited NAD’s customer support and this is when the I realized I was dealing with a first-class outfit. A few emails were exchanged, then they offered to do what amounted to a remote training session over the phone, using collaboration software. They essentially took over my computer remotely and set it up to help me organize my music files. I like to call this the “Remote Intervention” process. During this process Jon at NAD, I hope they pay him very well, was patient with what I am sure were dumb questions. As it turned out, with some CD’s the tracks had been ripped twice, once as a .wav and once as a FLAC. Jon also set up a shortcut on my PC so I could easily edit these files again in the future.
Here’s an important tip. Once the shortcut is set up, files can be edited. However, a strict procedure must be followed or your shortcut won’t work in subsequent sessions. As shown in the screen shot below, enter “guest” as your user name but do not enter a password, just click OK. This subtlety escaped me the first time around and required a second “Remote Intervention” from Jon to sort out this, or more accurately, me out. Thanks again Jon.
To give you an idea of where I am on the evolutionary scale, computer wise, I learned how to use computer aided design (CAD) software before it operated in Windows. To perform some functions, sometimes required going through many menus so quickly, that one learned typed-in shortcut commands and committed them to memory. My computer evolution is stuck in about 1992. This is by way of explaining that I’m used to doing things the hard way. I’m also of the analogue generation, and I don’t mean digital music versus LP records or anything to do with computers. Let me give you an example: If a nut is too tight on a bolt, an analogue guy will get a bigger wrench. If that doesn’t work, he’ll put a piece of pipe on the end of the wrench to get more leverage. If that fails to budge the nut, he’ll apply some heat with a torch as well. It that fails, he’ll use a cutting torch to cut the nut off then start with a new nut and bolt.
So, when Mr. Analogue wants to be a responsible audiophile and back-up his digital collection, he follows the instructions, buys a 4TB, externally-powered hard drive (as per instructions), and plugs it into his NAD player. The player responds with, “USB drive inserted”, so far, so good. But when analogue man, following the instructions to the letter, goes to the menu and tries to back up his files and gets a “USB drive not connected” all his knowledge of wrenches, pipes and torches does him no good at all. “Hello Jon”, aka digital man at NAD, “We have a problem.” A third “Remote Intervention” was scheduled.
On the third “Intervention” Jon tells me that there is, in essence, a glitch in the BluOS app (paraphrasing). But not to worry, a backup can still be made and it will potentially be a better one. To make a copy of the music stored on the NAD’s drives, an old tried and true way is employed. Using Windows Explorer, you simply highlight the files on the NAD’s drive, click copy and then paste them on to the backup drive connected to your laptop or desktop computer. Easy. Even an old digital dog like me can understand it. It just might take hours to do if you have a sub-optimal network like mine, where the connection to my laptop is via Wi-Fi and a lot of files were being copied. Next time I’ll try it with the laptop connected to my network with an ethernet cable. The advantage to making a backup this way is that the music files are then in a standard format. They are now transportable and can be played on other devices. I can verify this as these files played on both Lumin and FiiO players.
In the same way, downloads and other rips can be copied from your computer and pasted to the NAD’s drives. Once copied, or when files are altered on the NAD’s drives, then the Index (like a table of contents) needs to be updated. The user simply goes to the main menu, then Settings, Music library, and Rebuild Index. This will take a few minutes depending on the number of files on the drives.
The BluOS app catalogues and displays music files based on metadata tags, not file names. The old digital dog is shut down here. Files can’t just be renamed. The metadata tags must be edited. This can be done using programs like Mp3tag. Jon, during intervention number 3, set up a shortcut to this on my desktop, but I haven’t had the nerve to mess with it yet.
One very handy thing is the USB port near the bottom right corner of the front panel. A thumb or other USB drive can be inserted and files played directly from it. The only downside is the feet on the 50.2 are a bit slippery, so one must hold onto the player while inserting or removing the drive.
As far as the BluOS app goes, I haven’t had enough experience with other apps, so I can’t really comment much. I do however like the size of the icons and tabs the BluOS app displays on my iPad. Stubby, gnarled fingers like mine have an easier time of it than they do with some other apps that have smaller buttons.
Buddy with the amp-destroying cat is going to Roon to organize his music files. This seems to be a popular choice with digiphiles, but I refuse to pay hundreds of dollars for a licence. Just like I won’t pay multiple hundreds let alone thousands of dollars for interconnects and speaker cables. Maybe it’s the miser in me, but I find obtuse search functions interesting. They often throw up things you weren’t looking for, but are interesting none-the-less. Much like the way paper catalogues can often lead to interesting discoveries that search engines often miss.
There are other subtleties to the BluOS app that I haven’t detailed, or haven’t yet discovered. The one thing that would be nice is if they had YouTube videos detailing common BluOS features and setup subtleties. But I can understand how producing these could be a large undertaking for an equipment manufacturer. Not only would they need to be done in English, but any other language that they market their products in. This is, I guess, the era of networking where information is shared. It also seems to me to be the era of “Screw around with it ‘til you figure out how it works.” Maybe it’s not that much different than the nut that won’t budge. It’s just that the tools are different.
So, would I buy a NAD 50.2 again? Yes absolutely. It’s a good product and their customer support is better than first rate. No product is perfect, but the transition to file-based playback was much easier than I expected.
The Cambridge CD player/DAC has been pensioned off. It has been forced into retirement by a PS Audio DirectStream DAC. Even new from the box and not yet warmed up, it was a “Holy Schiit” moment when the first file hit its DAC chips. A new DAC wasn’t due until 2019, but the DirectStream DAC was on sale this autumn for the same price as the DirectStream Junior DAC, so I couldn’t wait. I will, however, be waiting with less than anxious anticipation for my Visa card statement due any day.
The suggested Canadian retail price of a NAD 50.2 is about $5,500. Try to patronise your local dealer, unless they can’t be bothered to take you seriously. Shop around though, you might save enough to buy a decent digital interconnect.
In Part 2, I’ll describe the Lumin D1 player and its setup. Experience gained with the NAD helped. I was able to get it going, on my own, without manufacturer support or help from the lovely Miss K. I’ll also share a “How To” guide I prepared, to help others get the TuneIn app going on a Lumin.