Monday, August 7, 2017

Pioneer N-50 digital transport vs Cambridge CXC review 2017

A computer is an amazing jack of all trades. You can send an email, or make a spreadsheet, do some typing / word processing, watch a YouTube video, and surf the net, and buy some stuff online. Yay! You can even listen to music on your computer! Well, of course you can duh! Because if you've read my blog you will have seen a review of the Yellowtec PUC compared to the Audiophilleo, and seen my comment about Small Player audio software.

These days computers are a ubiquitous household item, and as such people have a natural tendency to want to use the tools which are at their disposal. Even though I have spent a few years playing back music directly from my PC it wasn't personally giving me the sort of sound I really wanted, because I'd  heard CD players which I knew sounded much better than my PC. It also doesn't aesthetically or psychologically do much for me to have a PC in the audio rack in the lounge room. Although I concede that other people may not share this view.

Playing back audio from a computer has its own set of problems, which is that every playback software has its own sonic signature, and thats OK, except for that no playback software in my experience ever manages to sound quite right, and of course you need a way to get audio from your HDD into your stereo system, and that usually involves either a PCI/e sound card or a USB to
SPDIF converter or a USB DAC. Because the PC is a jack-of-all-trades, its not designed specifically for audio. PCs use a jack-of-all-trades operating system that need to do all sorts of things that you don't need for it to do to play audio. The motherboards have various switching regulators generating lots of high frequency noise which gets into the audio side of things and that's a no no for good quality sound. Of course you can use USB isolators and various ad-on thingies, and you may indeed get a better sound than you got without them, but in my opinion still it leaves something to be desired, primarily a lack of low level detail. Well, that's what I've found anyway!

Fist lets talk about the Cambridge CXC CD transport. When I bought this transport the first thing I did was play some orchestral music because it allows me to hear how well a piece of equipment is revealing low level details and tonal accuracy. The Cambridge CXC does a fantastic job of revealing low level details, even the quietest sounds can be easily understood and identified, which is something that no PC soundcard or USB converter I've tried could do properly!
The Cambridge easily sounded better than the PUC2 converter ( though I admit I am going by memory) but though the PUC2 was good, it didn't let me hear the low level details that the Cambridge CXC allowed me to hear. The CD transport just gives more of everything! More detail, more depth, more believable sound, but, even though I lived with it for a few months and loved it, I found that it was tonally a bit bright. I knew there had to be a better transport out there.

I'd been looking at the Pioneer N-50 since it was first released in 2012, but when it was new it cost a little more than I wanted to pay at the time, and so I had to wait until they were being sold at clearance pricing before I bought one. So, actually at the time of writing this article (2017) the N-50 has been superseded with a newer model with a larger screen, and a different DAC chip, but to the best of my knowledge, the digital transport section should be the same. For the purpose of this review, I am only discussing the N-50 when used as a transport feeding my stand alone Burr Brown R2R DAC.

The N-50 is the the best digital transport I've personally heard. 

I did some back and forth switching with the Cambridge CXC and found that the CXC would present the sound with a lot of attack and emphasis to the leading edge of notes, but when switching to the N-50 I discovered that the same tracks actually don't have that sort of attack and actually sound quite smooth. For example I found the CXC to present high hats in a loud and more "digital" harsh sounding way. The N-50 presents high hats quieter and more naturally. With the N50,  midrange sounds (such as vocals) are slightly more forward, but also have more subtlety and body.  I was pleasantly surprised to find that CDs pressed in the mid 1980's which in my experience often sound a bit thin, when ripped to my NAS and played back on the N-50 actually sound very nice and no longer have a steely sheen or harshness to the sound, and they actually have bass! The N-50 also allows very long listening sessions without fatigue. When I listened to Talking Heads - Little Creatures album (UK pressing, Nimubs mastering) I found that it sounded very dynamic and exciting on the CXC but wow the snare drums could take your head off! The same album on the N-50 is actually quite smooth sounding, the snare having body, but no unnecessary attack or brightness. Album after album is like this. Female vocals which previously had unnatural sibilance on every other transport have none on the N-50. The N-50 has an absence of grain across the entire audio spectrum which is also very pleasantly noticeable and this increases perceived detail.

After a fair amount of listening I suppose that the differences I'm hearing can probably be attributed to very low jitter from the N-50.

Pioneer says in their brochure that the N50 has a "High-Accuracy Master Clock". I think this is a very understated way of saying it has an extremely low jitter clock of the highest quality. Other manufacturers would be making a big deal about this, and Pioneer has probably in my opinion missed a major opportunity to discuss some obviously excellent engineering, but it seems that its not the way Pioneer does its marketing.

Due to the N-50 I believe I have been able to experience the effects of low jitter and I can now describe them.
High jitter transports do the following;
  • emphasise sibilance
  • emphasise the leading edges of notes
  • emphasise high frequency sounds causing "brightness"
  • change the tone of instruments and vocals
  • makes music sound "digital" and a bit fatiguing.
  • bury details.

Low jitter transports sound;
  • Natural
  • Balanced 
  • Do not emphasise leading edges 
  • Make listening relaxing 
  • Tonally correct
  • Detailed without drawing unnecessary attention

In closing one thing I'd like to say is that I was surprised to see that out of the 5 or so professional (commercial) reviews of the Pioneer N-50 which can be found on the Internet, not one of those reviewers chose to listen to it as a transport feeding an external DAC, and as such those reviewers missed precisely what this device does best, which is being used as an ultra low jitter digital transport!

Sources that I previously thought were very good, have dropped far down on my list of goodness.
The Pioneer N-50 is now my most highly regarded transport.


  1. Interesting stuff.... Its quite the call, to say it betters the PUC2 lite, on linear power.

    I wonder if a spdif reclocker would even the playing field, if jitter is indeed the issue.

    I have a spare W4S unit at the office...somewhere, if you would like to try.... Cheers

    1. I think jitter and noise go hand in hand. I also think that higher jitter sources can upon first listen sound more exciting, but with long term listening and particularly when listening to orchestral music in an AB comparison, jitter (or its absence) becomes apparent, for the sake of clarity I should explain that in my experience, jitter is almost impossible to hear on its own. You need to do an AB comparison in order to hear its absence.