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Let’s move on to streaming where I used the Serviio freeware. I first fed the N-50 which was hardwired to the router via Ethernet link the uncompressed WAV file of the above Thomas Kessler Group track. As much as I tried, I heard no difference between the network and direct CD player feeds. Of course that was sensible but not everything hifi always is. Well, time to fall back on the sonic profiles and hope for different. I fired up a 128kbps MP3 file of "Still Belonging to You" and started with Pure Audio. Hmm, this was MP3 pure indeed – listenable but particularly in the treble and on decay trails a bit hissy as well as quite uncertain on overall timing. Time for Auto Sound Retriever. This had a very noticeable effect, nearly a bit like the newer version of good old Dolby C. The sibilant sizzle and blur in the treble disappeared nearly altogether but the overall tonality of the piece now suffered a bit of color shift, i.e. the lower ranges put out less volume than the original. Even so this was quite pleasing since most of the typical compression artefacts had vanished.

With HiBit32 these artefacts reappeared but now stage depth and image localization improved a bit. In general poor or very compressed source material did quite well in Auto Sound Retriever mode by making more palatable those certain oldies which one (cough) still schleps around from those ‘ancient’ Napster days. The Pioneer N-50 cut a very good figure on classical, say Shostakovich’s Concert for Piano, Trumpet and Strings in C-minor op.35 under Dmitri Alexeev and the English Chamber Orchestra. Here the Pioneer proved far more than the kind of toy its entry-level sticker might predict. Such serious challenging fare rectified that suspicion. Just a few seconds into the first movement one is confronted by gleaming trumpet sounds, wiry piano passages and saucy strings. The N-50 made no tonal missteps, felt extraordinarily at ease and portrayed a stable and well-organized soundstage.

Only the sudden massed orchestral tutti softened a tad where the internal DAC of the Marantz managed more mass. Microdynamically however the Pioneer was pure joy and even subtle nuances were cleanly captured. The elegiac closing passage of the second movement has the piano die out in a nearly kitschy ritardando whilst the strings hold a mournful minor chord. Both of these complex intermingling colors the Pioneer blended beautifully one into the other for very good dynamic contrast.

USB for iPod. Here I encountered a small surprise which I couldn’t explain but nonetheless could repeat blind. Uncompressed ripped data sounded identical to network streaming. On compressed material meanwhile the network feed was slightly better and less hazy on the top end. Whether this was due to the particular digital extraction of iPod data I couldn’t say but it was consistently audible if far from dramatic. Even so I’d recommend that those with mixed libraries where not everything is lossless feed their N-50 via Ethernet  cable rather than the frontal USB port. Impeccable i.e. identical to network streaming was the async USB port in connection with a PC. Here the Pioneer turns external sound card as previously mentioned. Uncompressed fare suffered no losses but the quality of your chosen player software will obviously cause minor sonic changes. Whenever possible one should bypass Window’s own sound engine and select kernel streaming or a similar more  purist setting.

Given the presence of Pure’s i20 digital-direct dock in our household which in Germany continues to be an insider’s tip, I just had to compare the N-50’s USB front socket. For a silly €99 the Pure offers an honest 24/192 integral DAC to make it big-rig compatible despite its somewhat plasticky appearance. To put it plain, the Pioneer offered tonally nothing which the i20 didn’t. Both seemed neutral and distortion free. And yet the Pioneer had the small advantage again on stage depth and image focus. That was nicely heard on Yello’s "Daily Disco" in whose second part all manner of synth drums flit about one’s ears. With the Pioneer I routinely twitched my head so as to instinctively avoid getting hit by shards of sonic shrapnel.