It is a no-brainer in today’s world to foresee the entertainment content being delivered without physical media. The internet has emerged as one of the largest distributing agency for entertainment content and rightly so. Today, you may not have a cable TV connection at home, but you will be able to watch all that you have missed and get work done too if you have an internet connection.
For many years, audiophile companies snubbed this medium of distribution, but they all have had to finally succumb to the pressures of the market. It also so happened that content quality and technology also improved to reach standards acceptable to these companies. Looking back, even today, these companies are not entirely wrong. The sound of LP is unrivalled by a CD player, and that of the physical media is improving with the advent of SACD and is difficult, if not impossible, to match due to various reasons.
However, attempts made by classic audio brands like Naim and Cambridge Audio have received a mixed response from the audio community. The orthodox are obviously not a happy bunch, but the younger generation that puts convergence and convenience at the forefront are cheering the attempts. NP30 is, though expensive, a budget attempt and a strong competitor for the products in its own bracket due to its very aggressive price point. It is a specialised gadget and an attempt to do little but in the best possible way than being multi-faceted device.
Design and build quality
Cambridge Audio, as a brand, has a distinct styling and design philosophy. NP30 is no exception to the family look. Within the family tree, NP30 belongs to the Sonata genealogy with its distinct dimension of (more than half) 10.6-inch width. It has exceptionally good finish and micro-level detailing. The front panel is a thick aluminum sheet and the holes and countersinks have been milled into this panel in a very neat fashion. From the sparsely populated rear-panel it is clear that the player has limited functionality.
There is no video interface to the player, making it a dedicated music player. On the back panel there are analogue stereo and digital (coaxial and optical) outputs. For the inputs, there is a LAN input and an external Wi-fi antenna. Apart from this, there is a USB input on the front and back panel.
The front display is a large four-line display. There are push-buttons in an orderly fashion lined up in vertical array on both sides of the display. A large dial on the right side can easily be mistaken for a volume control, but the fact is that NP30 has no volume control and doesn’t need one too. The large infinite jog dial control is for navigation and can be pushed and be used like an ‘Enter’ button to select the entry.
The feature-rich remote control of the NP30
All the functions can be operated from the front panel—making the remote control a convenience feature. Again, we find this to be an orthodox approach, as these controls are seldom used. Instead, money could’ve been either saved or used on the remote control to put a jog dial on it. We have observed with many equipment that the front panel controls, due to their sparing use, start malfunctioning after a while and interfere with the main functioning.
Setting up the player is a breeze and it successfully connected with my wired and wireless network in the first attempt. On the output side, we had given digital coaxial as well as the analogue stereo connections to my AV receiver.
It was shocking and sad to realize that the player did not read NTFS formatted HDDs through the USB port, meaning that the user is restricted to mere FAT32 pen-drives! Also in this age, a player without physical connection for iPod and iPad is difficult to digest. It would be convenient to connect the player physically and use the Apple gadget like a source and navigate it through the remote control.
Ethernet network capability built in
While we agree that the Sonata range has been crafted for specially bedroom/library and is expected to be operated from close range, the display (and font size) becomes a limitation in case the player is far away and the need for a video interface is felt.
On the other hand, the player has some sophisticated features. It can sync multiple NP30s and computers as well as update the changes throughout the grid. This is helpful if you want to create an ecosystem of similar products. It also sports high-end and high-quality Wolfson WM8728 24-bit/ 96kHz capable. It up-converts the low quality native signal to the higher bit rates and sampling frequency to get enhanced resolution.
According to Cambridge Audio, the best way to control the NP30 is through an iPod or an iPad by downloading a free app called UuVol from the app-store. This provides relief from the never-ending scrolling fatigue as the jog dial or remote scrolling doesn’t have the direct access feature, imagine wanting to reach the 358th item on the scroll!
The remote control matches the rest of the Cambridge family by being long like a baton. It is crafted with the same material and given the same finish as the rest of the brand's remotes. It also has buttons to command other equipment in the same range. There is mode 1 and 2 for the remote operation, in case the remote interferes with any other equipment in your rig—this is a sensible feature in the age of automation and multiple remotes. I have, otherwise, always liked the sleek styling and grip of the Cambridge Audio remotes. They are sensibly heavy and classy; there is absolutely no hint of plastic or of a tacky feel to them. In the centre, there is a navigation ring with the enter button at the centre of this ring.
The easiest part of this player is generally the most difficult part with other networked equipment—getting started and networked. It was then that we realized that the player is amazingly fast for navigation and waits for nothing, doesn’t limp or lag when it comes to speed at which data can be accessed. This is more evident when we scroll with the jog wheel at very high speed as compared to the remote control.
Simple, basic controls on the front of the player
While trying to access my computer from the network, we could access only UPnP file and not the shared files of the computer through the file structure; this severely restricts the database, and needs you to migrate all the data in the UPnP files in order to access them. On the audio front, we found very little qualitative difference between the analogue output and coaxial output where the DAC of my AV receiver was being used. Agreeably, the analogue output has more softness and gentleness with slightly more resolute bass in comparison.
Kudos to Cambridge Audio for being able to maintain absolutely the same quality of the sound whether the streaming is through the LAN cable or through the Wi-fi mode. We are still of the opinion that if you have a system with better resolution then the wired connection may yield better sound, you should try this by removing the external Wi-fi antenna, this may significantly bring down the radio frequency interference in the innards of the player. On high quality uncompressed FLAC content, the sound delivery was powerful and detailed. Imaging was sharp and accurate and there was lot of air and space to the sound.
Verdict and Price in India
There are many shortcomings that we can point out on the peripheral values and most of them will be related to ergonomics or user interface, but the Cambridge Audio NP30 wins when it comes to the core - being able to deliver the next level of performance among the streaming media players. We are sure the navigation will be much easier and faster with the UuVol app and many of the concerns will be addressed. As of now, if you need to have a streaming audio player in your rig of hi-fi, then NP30 should be the forerunner in your shortlist with an assurance that it will be able to cater to your hi-fi taste to a great extent.
AV MAX is a special interest audiophile magazine that focuses on reviewing high-end AV equipment like amplifiers, stereos, floorstanding speakers and related news