Review: Cambridge Audio Sonata NP30 Network Music Player Page 2

In my case, I used the Macintosh DLNA software server TwonkyMedia. Windows Media Player already incorporates DLNA serving, and many external network-attached storage devices include server software to offer up your library via the home network, even when your computer is off, or elsewhere.

However you get the bits to the Cambridge, the sonic results will depend on two factors. The first, and doubtless most influential, is the format, bit rate, and bit depth of the music file: There’s a big difference between a 64-kilobit-per-second MP3 of Beethoven’s Fidelio overture and a 96-kHz-sample rate/24-bit lossless version of the same performance.

The second factor is the intrinsic quality of the NP30. Cambridge speaks of its Wolfson 24-bit/96-kHz–capable DAC section and jitter-suppression circuitry as being able to “vastly improve” digital playback. Although that may be a little strong, I have nothing but praise for the NP30’s sonics. Compared with my 96/24-capable pro-audio DAC, the Cambridge sounded at least as good and very possibly better: equally defined, textured, grain-free, and all the other things really good digital audio can boast about. Silences on 96/24 FLAC tracks such as Diana Krall’s Quiet Nights (from HDtracks) were utterly “black,” and hall sound and piano-note decays sounded perfectly smooth and organic. And really, sonics-wise, that’s all there is to say. The Cambridge NP30 is as close to literally transparent as can be.

Ergonomics

In more quotidian matters, the Sonata NP30 is both a pleasure to use and rather a pain in the ass. Physically operating the device is a snap: a four-way arrow-plus-enter key grouping on the handsome, brushed-aluminum remote, or a push knob on the front panel, navigate scrollable four-line menus on the player’s dot-matrix readout. (This remote is the full-system Sonata job, so most of its buttons do nothing on the NP30.) You simply scroll to what you want and press left or right to go up (or down) a menu level, and then hit Enter to select a file for playback or to execute a command. Response times are fairly snappy, and the menu structure is simple and logical.

Fortunately, there’s an alphanumeric direct-search feature — but no keyboard, so you’d better dust off those flip-phone keyboarding skills. Cambridge Audio also has a free Uuvol iPhone/iPad/iPod touch app to command the NP30 that duplicates its front-panel data in a more graphically elegant form on the iScreen. This adds the alphabet strip on the screen’s right edge, so you can at least zero in on the initial letter of your quarry quickly. The posterior pain has multiple sources, some of which devolve to Cambridge, some not. First and foremost, there’s no video output for onscreen display, so the quarter-inch-high blue-on-black characters on the NP30’s front-panel display are your sole info source. This makes it all but impossible to comfortably navigate Net radio or a substantial networked music library: I actually resorted to locating the unit next to my chair and running 12-foot audio and Ethernet cables, so I could read the damned display without getting up every 30 seconds.

Second, the NP30 omitted any extended navigation tools, which makes perusing long lists a challenge at best. Holding the Down key and watching the lines fly by at around 4 per second is about as fast as it gets: There’s no page-up/down or alphabet strip, which means scanning to the bottom of just my non-classical library (8,300 tracks) would take some 34 minutes. (You can go faster by spinning the physical knob — if you’re near the player.) I pity the fool with a library of 10,000 artists and a hankering for ZZ Top.

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