With plenty of ways to access hi-res digital music at home, Novafidelity’s family of flexible audiophile solutions has a strong reputation for turning computer-based technology into user-friendly audiophile solutions. The recently launched N25 network audio player is the latest addition to the company’s collection of multi-talented hi-fi hubs and at £1,099, it represents one of its most competitively-priced hi-fi components yet.
Distributed in the UK by SCV Distribution, the Korean-based network audio specialist was first introduced to British audiophiles in 2003 under the brand name Cocktail Audio and continues to be known as such throughout the rest of the world. Identifying as Novafidilety on these shores, I’ve been lucky enough to review some of its other components over the years – including the X14 all-in-one music system and the X45 streamer and reference DAC to name just two – and I’m proud to be among one of the first in the UK to get to grips with this latest addition and bring the company’s digital know-how to the attention of readers.
The supplied 109-page instruction booklet bills the N25 as ‘The most advanced network audio player in the world’. The bold claim demonstrates just how confident the maker is about the N25’s versatility as an interface between UPnP home networked audio devices and support for external music streaming services that includes Amazon Music, Tidal (with MQA support), Qobuz, Deezer, Napster, HighResAudio and Spotify Connect, as well as Airable internet radio and Podcasts. It’s Roon Ready, which will satisfy anyone looking to integrate the N25 with the sophisticated software, but I’m even more impressed to discover that there are built-in FM and DAB/DAB+ tuners too.
Digital signal handling is taken care of an ESS ES9018K2M Sabre32 reference DAC chip that supports PCM music files up to 32-bit/384kHz and DSD up to DSD256. The system’s operational software and user interface is handled by a dual core 1GHz ARM Cortex A9 processor.
As a network audio player and unlike the X45 and X14 solutions I’ve seen previously, the N25 doesn’t incorporate a drive slot to enable CD ripping or a built-in disk drive for digital music file storage, although users can add a USB CD drive and storage via the two USB 3.0 host ports at the back, for example.
The N25 uses the same operating platform as other components in the company’s collection and despite there being a CD/ripping option on the 4.6in front panel screen, the software facility is disabled here, which is a little disappointing as I was all set to rip from my Samsung USB optical disc drive attached to the USB host port at the back in the hope of storing the file on the Melco N1ZH/2 music server I have connected on my home network.
As with other models I’ve seen from Novafidelity’s portfolio, the N25 doesn’t offer wi-fi connectivity as standard but can easily be added via a wi-fi dongle costing £30. Home networking is via the Ethernet port at the back of the unit. A Bluetooth receiver is incorporated and supports AAC, aptX, aptX HD and aptX LL codecs and there’s the option to add a Bluetooth receiver (£75) should you wish to connect the N25 to a pair of compatible speakers or headphones, for example.
Old-school physical digital connectivity runs to coaxial and optical inputs and outputs and there’s an HDMI port with eARC (enhanced audio return channel) for home cinema components as well as a HDMI output port to connect to an external screen. A dedicated USB Audio port and stereo analogue RCA outputs along with three antenna points and a signal grounding point complete the roll call of rear panel socketry.
Measuring 440 x 61 x 260mm (WxHxD), the metal chassis feels robust and the 10mm-thick CNC-machined aluminium front panel looks smart with matching control knobs positioned at either end. The N25 is available in black or silver front panel finishes but the 800 x 300 LCD screen seems a bit out of step with recent rivals in that it’s not touch sensitive – something that I quickly establish as I prod at the screen icons in an attempt to activate random menu options – and screen resolution isn’t what it could be for showing off album artwork at its best. Front panel control is functional enough, however, and there are system navigation controls to the right of the screen along with five user presets that can be used for storing your favourite radio stations. Lastly, there’s a front USB port for thumb drives and radio broadcasts can be recorded and stored to any attached storage.
A button-festooned black plastic remote control is supplied, which I quickly put to one side while I get to grips with the system’s Novatron Music X Neo control app that’s freely available for iOS and Android devices. The app has been updated since my last Novafidelity review and in a world where networked components live or die on the success of their control app, this latest version seems more intuitive than its predecessors and allows me to seamlessly hop between inputs, browse and playback files from my UPnP networked music library and access my streaming service subscriptions with comparative ease. Okay, it’s not as slick as the BluOS platform found on NAD and Bluesound components or indeed Auralic’s own Lightning DS control app, but it’s nicely laid out and intuitive given the N25’s feature set and complexity.
Connecting the N25’s stereo analogue output to a line-level input on my Musical Fidelity M6 500i integrated amplifier driving a pair of Dynaudio’s X38 floorstanding loudspeakers, I quickly realise that the Novafidelity is an extremely musical player in the way it goes about the business of processing and converting music files. I know the capabilities of the Music Fidelity integrated and Dynaudio speakers exceptionally well and the only element different to my usual hi-fi setup is the N25 on test standing in for Auralic’s Altair digital music player that’s usually in situ.
My go-to setup tracks include Elbow’s Gentle Storm, Rudimental’s Spoons (feat. MNEK & Syron) and Mark Ronson’s Don’t Leave Me Lonely (with vocal gymnastics by YEBBA), and each track demonstrates a familiar balance of solid soundstage, hypnotic rhythmic engagement, impressive bass depth and energy, midrange openness and clarity and treble detail, which shows that everything is performing as it should be with the N25 in place.
In fact, the N25 achieves a similar sonic presentation with hi-res streams via Qobuz to Auralic’s Altair streaming DAC, which is a significant nod of approval to the Novafidelity’s performance. Its delivery isn’t quite as smooth as the Auralic’s output, perhaps, and Rag‘n’Bone Man’s rattling chains on the intro to Human sounds that bit more jangly than I’m used to. There’s a similar characteristic on London Grammar’s Lord It’s a Feeling – the refinement and gripping nature of Hannah Reid’s vocal is perfectly on point but the handclaps in the background stand out a bit more and have a slight harshness about them compared to the other elements on the track. It’s not nasty by any means but does make me realise that I have a personal preference for slightly smoother-sounding DACs.
Rest assured that if there are any grumbles to be levelled at the N25, it’s really not in terms of its audio performance. Operationally though, there are a couple of niggles that prevent the N25 from being as slick as it could be. Firstly, there’s a time lag between activating the play or pause commands during playback and the action taking place. It’s only a delay of a second or so but takes some getting used to, and exhibits the same latent behaviour with the supplied handset and front panel controls as via the Music X Neo control app.
Secondly, the beginning of a track is often muted by a second or so, making the line “I’ve never seen a diamond in the flesh” from the beginning of Lorde’s Royals track become “…ever seen a diamond in the flesh”, for example. It’s subtle and only really noticeable when skipping tracks rather than letting an album play all the way through, which is something I do a lot. No doubt this minor niggle will quickly be addressed in future firmware updates – in fact, I can well imagine that Novafidelity’s software engineers are already on the case.
Minor operational glitches aside, this is an impressive network audio player that should be applauded for its comprehensive approach that extends to some quirky (but useful) features and remarkable audiophile integration capabilities. Novafidelity’s N25 networked audio player simply allows your digital music to sing, no matter where it’s stored, and for that it deserves to be highly recommended.