First came the wax cylinder, followed by the LP, eight-track, cassette, CD, MP3, and now the digital stream. While most of the types of media on that list have dedicated players, the last two have sort of floundered when it comes to dedicated "in-home" players. USB DACs and iPod docks have been a stopgap solution, but they added unnecessary steps between your music and your ears.
Digital music players such as the Logitech Squeezebox Touch and now the Pioneer Elite N-30 Network Audio Player aim to make your music accessible, whether it's your own or from one of your favorite streaming-music services. The Squeezebox is not inexpensive at $299, but the Pioneer ups the ante by coming in at $499, and the step-up model, the Pioneer N-50, is even dearer at $699.
When you're listening to an audio device, how much of an issue is industrial design? In most cases, none; it could look like a busted UFO and still work fine. But with the Pioneer N-30, the design of the case actually detracts from its usability in a meaningful way. While the blocky casing is a little on the boring side, the brushed-aluminum finish does add a small touch of class.
It's the screen that's the letdown here, as it's only 2.5 inches across. Anyone remember Microsoft's "social" phone, the Kin? Silly question, no one does. This short-lived phone had a too-small screen that was--you guessed it--2.5 inches, but at least this was meant to be held close to your face. The Pioneer is designed to sit in your home theater about 8 feet away! But help is at hand: if you have a smartphone (not a Kin!) you'll be able to control the N-30 through a dedicated application, though as you'll soon see, not that successfully.
The N-30 comes with a brushed remote that is reassuringly heavy, as an audiophile might say. However, it's the same model that's used for the N-50, and so buttons such as "DIG IN 1" remain tantalizingly dormant. (The N-50 includes digital inputs, while the N-30 does not.)
The N-30 is a music-focused network streamer with an Internet radio app. Last year, I wrote a manifesto on the 10 "must-have" features of a media player, and the Pioneer is one of the few players that comes close to fulfilling this vision, with six of the boxes ticked. Some of these pluses include simple navigation via the front panel, USB playback of mobile devices, and excellent format support--at least on paper. The N-30 supports most file types, which includes support for most music types up to 24-bit/192KHz, and this includes WAV, FLAC, MP3, WMA, AAC, and Ogg Vorbis.
I'm also disappointed to note the lack of streaming services, the provision of Net radio notwithstanding, and think that the smart consumer will at least want access to Pandora or Spotify. The days of downloading and keeping your music stored at home are coming to a close, and with recent changes to Spotify, entire swathes of 320Kbps MP3s are available over the Interwebs.
However, the N-30 does include Apple's AirPlay, and as such it streams not only your iTunes library via Wi-Fi but also compatible apps such as Spotify. Internet connection down? Spotify now lets you store Starred songs on your PC or mobile device.
The device also comes with a dedicated iOS and Android controller app you can use to turn the device on and to pick content from the various network sources. It's free to download.
Of course, to use the streaming functions you will need an Internet connection of some sort, and the N-30 uses an Ethernet port. If, like the rest of the modernized world, you use a wireless router then you will need to plump down an extra $150 for the proprietary AS-WL300 wireless adapter. Bluetooth too is optional and costs an additional $99. To put it into perspective, the Wi-Fi adapter alone costs $50 more than the excellent WD TV Live and the BT adaptor and Wi-Fi together cost as much as the Logitech Squeezebox Touch.