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Beneath the bonnet the N-50 offers discrete transformers for analog and digital which is another point of distinction over the N-30 which makes do with one. A proprietary "ultra accurate" clock retimes data independent of source or network quality. Tweaks will welcome the DAC’s three selectable sonic profiles starting with Auto Sound Retriever. That’s meant for compromised data like MP3. Via DSP it attempts ‘beautification’ to mask the various deleterious artefacts of lossy data compression.

Pioneer’s very own HiBit32 mode upsamples 16 to 24-bit signal to a "quasi analogue" waveform which particularly benefits more nuanced retrieval  of low-level signal claims Pioneer. The third mode goes by Pure Audio and bypasses all DSP and quantization steps in favor of the shortest signal path and offering the highest fidelity and lowest noise floor. How these profiles might work in the listening room—and whether there were any relevant differences in the first place—we’ll get to in a moment. First to the face plate. Here the N50 is sorted and functional. At far left sits the power mains (standby is via remote), at far right a control for start/pause, stop, skip forward/back as well as a function button which shuttles through all digital inputs. Adjacent to that button on its left is an immaculately legible color display for album art and track title, format, sample rate and time. Via remote the same display gives access to configuration options and Internet radio tuning.

As DAC. To test this part of the N-50 I fed its coax input from the equivalent output of my Marantz SA 7001 SACD deck. A Funk Lap-2 preamp enabled direct A/B comparisons by getting analog signal from the Marantz via input 1 and analog signal from the Pioneer via input 2. The former turned the SA 7001 into a simple transport. I began by cueing up Brit formation Spain’s brand-new The Soul of Spain. Its "Only one" opener is pure down-tempo delight with acoustic and e guitar, clean sync work between drums and bass, the longing vocals of Josh Haden and a frosty topping of female chorus. The Pioneer N-50 impressed from the go with a ripe, coherent and spatially compelling read. With a clean tonal balance, I had—old digital clichés die hard?—perhaps expected a somewhat wiry bright sound to feel surprised by quite the opposite. This machine played it plain and neutral and if anything seemed endowed with a tiny tick toward warmth.

During the A/B against the spinner’s own analog feed there were differences. The Marantz had a tad more speed but not substance in the bass and the parallel phrasing between bass and bass drum felt somewhat tighter and more immediate. The Pioneer countered with what my tastes identified as the better differentiated midrange and a skoch more spatial expanse with equally good stereophonic sorting.

That was interesting but such impressions are best confirmed with a familiar reference cut. Enter the Thomas Kessler Group jazz trio with their exceptional drummer Harald Ingenhag from Aachen. "Still Belonging to You" kicks off with a furious drum solo against which Thomas Kessler starts to improvise brilliantly on a guitar synth. This builds into a chaotic climax that turns gripping musical race underpinned by Wolfgang Diekmann’s driving bass. Here I chanced upon the same effect. Via the Marantz converter the drums which are surrounded by plenty of venue reverb had a tad more bite, directness and energy whereas the Pioneer played that bit more restrained yet pleasingly earthy and woody. Tonally then the Marantz felt a bit paler. The N-50 better separated the timbres of the heavily abused hanging toms and thus felt more realistic. Further cross references produced similar results. Pioneer’s DAC was dynamically more relaxed (not lame!) yet had slightly better resolution in the midrange and injected a bit more left/right expanse into the stage without sacrificing sorting. Stage depth meanwhile was a bit more generous with the Marantz.