Releasing the sound of music from your ripped album collection is the role of the Cambridge Audio NP30. It’s a compact hi-fi separates unit, smart enough to sit alongside a CD player in the lounge, a link between music files sat on a NAS drive or PC and a full stereo system.
As well as play a variety of locally stored audio files it can also tune in to internet radio stations from around the world.
Cambridge Audio Sonata NP30: Features
Available in black or silver, the Cambridge Audio NP30 presents a neat fascia at the front with a four-line fluorescent backlit display and master control knob. You can navigate easily enough from here by rotating the dial and pressing various small buttons; or alternatively from a long IR remote handset.
Network connection is an awkward process for Wi-Fi, especially if have a long password to input, slowly plucking numbers from an alphanumeric onscreen grid with the remote. But once you have connected the unit to your network you can control most playback functions from a free iPhone/iPad app.
The app has changed over several updates, even changing name since it launched, and no longer quits unexpectedly so frequently.
On the phone or tablet's screen you can view embedded album art as well as find basic metadata about files being played. It’s not as slick as, say, Naim’s network player app that adds album liner notes to popular albums in your archive, but it does make the Cambridge Audio NP30 easier to fly than by handheld remote alone.
On the rear of the unit are stereo analogue outputs, as well as Toslink and coaxial digital. The latter are invaluable for wiring the Cambridge Audio NP30 to an outboard digital-to-analogue convertor.
The Cambridge Audio Sonata NP30 has a detachable antenna for 802.11b/g/n wireless connections, as well as wired 10/100 ethernet. There are no audio inputs but it outputs analogue stereo through a pair of RCA phono as well as digital audio through RCA S/PDIF and Toslink optical
Inside, Cambridge Audio has fitted a good, if not exemplary, D-A convertor stage, using a Wolfson WM8728 chip. This is good for operation up to 24-bit/192kHz. AP’s implementation only goes up to 96kHz, although that still answers the need for practically all commercially available music files.
If you do have any high-resolution music with a sample frequency of 176.4 or 192kHz, these will be visible when browsing but will not play.
Cambridge Audio Sonata NP30: Audio format support
The Cambridge Audio NP30 was launched around the middle of 2011. Like many long-developed audio products, and in contrast to most PC hardware, it is still in production in its second year. It’s also still receiving firmware updates; indeed, the last update in October 2012 was the impetus for this product’s review now.
Audio Partnership, the British company behind Cambridge Audio, has just released v266-b-398 firmware for the Cambridge Audio NP30 that finally allows it to play Apple Lossless audio files.
Apple Lossless, or ALAC, serves the same role as FLAC. That is, it is a loss-free audio compression algorithm that allows CD-sourced music to be reduced in size by about one half, without reducing quality as is the case with MP3, AAC and WMA.
With Apple Inc now dominating the retail and playback of so much music, many quality-minded music lovers have been ripping their CD collection at genuine CD-quality using the Apple Lossless option in the iTunes app for Macintosh and Windows PCs.
While Apple’s ALAC codec was long ago reverse-engineered to allow, for example, VLC to easily play these lossless files, hardware makers have been more circumspect about adding ALAC support to their devices.
The situation changed in October 2011 when Apple officially open-sourced ALAC under an Apache license, publishing its full specification and allowing anyone to use its format without paying a license. Now, one year later, the NP30 can finally play ALAC files.
Updating the NP30 is a straightforward process, available upgrades being flagged on the unit’s display when they become available. There’s no need to connect to a PC – the firmware upgrade is downloaded directly to the unit from an online network connection.
Cambridge Audio Sonata NP30: Sound quality and performance
In its role as a network audio player, the Cambridge Audio NP30 is capable of good sound quality. We tested the unit in a small-scale system using Leema Acoustics Tucana II integrated amplifier and Harbeth LS3/5A loudspeakers. Network audio was hosted on a Synology DS1010+ NAS drive, with UPnP streaming provided by the unit’s Media Server app.
With uncompressed 16-bit WAV or lossless files, the Cambridge Audio NP30 showed a finely etched sound, leaning toward more illumination of the treble range, giving it a slightly bright overall balance.
By connecting a variety of external DACs via either optical or coaxial outputs we found the NP30’s sound could be easier improved upon, using relatively affordable hardware such as Cambridge Audio's own DacMagic or an Arcam rDAC.
IN the case of the outboard Arcam D-A convertor, we heard a smoother sound, particularly in the sensitive higher frequencies where lower-quality MP3 compressed files can be more brittle sounding.
Returning to the Cambridge Audio NP30’s own analogue output, bass was solid enough but not as rich or articulate as you’d find on a similarly priced CD player. Soundstaging was also rated as good, but again losing out to dedicated audio separates, with some loss of precision in stereo positioning and depth of image.
Playback from a folder of files is gapless, so when playing albums that have tracks that run together there is no perceptible join – a great asset.
Internet radio was simple to find and browse, as were various podcasts, and Cambridge Audio is now promoting Stream Magic as a music platform that unites various sources.
There’s a hook into the Aupeo personal radio service, for example, which offers plenty of interesting content, albeit at a price of £50/year to take out the loud and annoying adverts.
The BBC iPlayer catchup streams are available, while you can also find the best near-CD version of BBC Radio 3, now available at 320kbps AAC. Of all the ways to experience the Beeb’s current radio broadcasts, this is arguably the finest, coming close to delivering on the promise broken by DAB since the 1990s.
But the real beauty of modern network players is their support of better-than-CD audio, should you come across the limited supply from stalwart audiophile music vendors such as Linn Records and the Naim Label.
High-resolution audio files restored some body to the music, unlocking the warmth of an analogue-like sound when compared to 16-bit rips. This could be easily discerned in acoustic instruments such as double bass and strings, which now had a richer, more life-like tone, letting music flow all the more naturally.
Uninterrupted playback of these high bitrate files was not so secure over our 8m short-range wireless link though, and we’d advise a wired ethernet connection for best results.
Cambridge Audio Sonata NP30: Ease and reliability
To earn its keep as a trusted music source in the home, a network player must be straightforward to use, able to present music in an easily navigable fashion and be secure and stable in operation.
We found the Cambridge Audio NP30 reasonably approachable, particularly through the iPad app. Since its early releases the app is now somewhat faster in operation, listing directories with hundreds of files or sub-folders within just a few seconds. It’s also able to show track names with foreign characters correctly, a facility lost to some network players.
Stability of the Cambridge Audio NP30 unit itself could be improved though. We found that the Sonata player can crash all too often, typically after being first resented with a new album’s playlist. Rather than lock up entirely though, it would gracefully reboot itself, a process that takes around half a minute to complete.
On each restart, it required us to drill back down through our NAS music library to find the same album, which would usually then play on the second attempt. It’s an annoying shortcoming which denies the Cambridge Audio NP30 from earning a more hearty recommendation.