Cambridge Audio NP30

Launched in 2011, the £400 NP30 was an affordable yet capable network music player. It plays 24-bit WAV and FLAC files (plus standard 16-bit of course), but there’s no Apple Lossless. It also does MP3, AAC, WMA and OGG Vorbis. It directly connects to music streaming services like Rhapsody and Pandora, and offers easy access to internet radio (and associated podcasts). It plays off your PC, Mac or Network Attached Storage device, via Wi-Fi (IEEE 802.11 b, g or n bands or Ethernet. Cambridge Audio offer their UuVol remote app for the Apple iPhone, which gives easy access to all this.

The unit itself comes in Cambridge Audio’s stock ‘midi’ sized case (67x270x285mm, 2.1kg); considering its price it’s very well finished and doesn’t feel ‘cheap’, just functional. Easy to set up, switch it on and it will scan your surroundings for a wireless network, and then it’s a case of entering your password. The text entry routine isn’t great – it’s a bid fiddly and not immediately obvious how to edit your mistakes if you can’t be bothered to read the manual. But a bit of fiddling and it had found my network, and then scanned for music-touting computers; it found my Mac, with its Twonky uPnP server software installed, in no time and then I could access my computer’s music library.

Inside the box, the NP30 has all the relevant network music playing gubbins, feeding a Wolfson WM8728 24-bit/96kHz capable DAC. This is the same IC found in the new Cambridge Audio 350C CD player, although similar Wolfson DACs are used by Logitech, Naim and Arcam too; it’s capable of working from 16 to 24bits, from 22.05kHz to 96kHz. There’s a modest switch mode power supply, working from 120 to 240 volts, and some special jitter reduction circuitry; Cambridge Audio claim less than 200pS. The back panel is a relatively sparse affair, sporting S/PDIF coaxial and TOSLink optical digital outputs, plus two USB 1.1 sockets for memory stick playback; a small figure of eight IEC mains input feeds it the juice.

Here we have a device that sounds very much like a good modern budget CD player – unsurprising considering it shares a similar DAC to most of them! What this means is a clean, open and tidy presentation, offering a good degree of depth and insight into the sound, but just a little light in the bass, a touch subdued in the treble and subtly opaque across the midband in absolute terms. For £400, this is a very good result from a digital product of any type, and is certainly not to be sneezed at.

Madonna’s Holiday, recorded from vinyl at 16/48, impressed with the natural flow of the music; the NP30 is detailed enough to tell you an awful lot about the original recording, delivering a big and bouncy sound with fine texturing. For example, those classic synthesisers used throughout the track sounded suitably squelchy and fat – just as they should – while the drum machine clicked and fizzed away behind. Madonna’s vocals were carried well, with a fine and believable tone, and decent timing too. The synthesised baseline grunted away beneath, sounding quite fruity and punchy with it. Overall then, I heard a creditable rendition of a classic pop track, and nothing to remind me I was listening to an entry level digital product of any type.

Moving to some epic nineties power pop with The Waterboys’ Glastonbury Song (16/44 WAV), and again the NP30 satisfied my appetite. Even going through my high end reference system costing many, many times its price, this little silver box sounded at ease and in control. I heard a big, widescreen rendition of the song, not the anaemic, apologetic pastiche I’d expected; the Cambridge carried a good deal of the power of this great recording with a wonderfully resonant piano and great big thumping snare and kick drums, topped off by a clean and believable hi hat sound. There was no fizziness up top, the NP30’s sins being those of omission, missing just that last nth degree of sparkle and delicacy. Again, I was impressed by the musical flow of this gadget; things rocked and rolled along swimmingly; there was no sense of it giving a grey, pale rendition as I’d feared. Again, this didn’t sound like a budget digital device.

Moving to a 24/96 FLAC of The Beatles’ While My Guitar Gently Weeps and I was struck by the step change in the depth of the soundstage; the speakers seemed to disappear into the room in a way they never quite achieved via 16/44; at the same time the track shimmered with detail, giving a lovely feel to singer George Harrison’s voice; it really conveyed the fragility of it, and its unique tonal qualities. Guitars sounded pleasingly fulsome too, although this track did highlight for me that whatever the NP30 is, it is not particularly warm; if there’s a single criticism that can be levelled at it, it’s the overall tonality of the unit which is never quite overflowing with warmth and body.

This was confirmed with Herbie Mann’s live rendition of Summertime; another off-LP recording at 16/48 this song sauntered along with a suitably relaxed rhythmic gait, displayed a decent tonality with no harshness to the flutes, and a good degree of stage depth that really gave me the feel of Newport Jazz Festival (which is where the original recording was made). Dynamic transients were a little compressed in absolute terms perhaps, and the very lowest levels of detail came over slightly masked, but overall it was a most pleasurable experience.

An excellent, well sorted budget product of its time, even by today’s standards it’s easy to use, pleasant looking, small in size and well built for the price. But most of all it works very well, giving a very listenable sound that’s miles ahead of cheap computer peripheral market designs. Now discontinued, it’s a cheap secondhand way into streaming, yet quite possibly all most computer audiophiles will ever want.
Cambridge Audio NP30

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