Pioneer N-70AE
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You know a good DAC the second you hear it. Here we were listening to a very good DAC. We had attached a hard-drive of high-res music to the N-70AE during set-up, but our first experience of its output came from an accidental selection of a 320k MP3 of Leonard Cohen’s Going Home, and we froze in outright wonder to hear such a thrillingly rendered Leonard, the gravelly richly-edgy vocal, his interstitial lipsmacks and swallows audible, the simple arrangement and outright divine backing vocals laid out across the soundstage in a flowing carpet of loveliness. Divine divine.

We were almost immediately further seduced by its delivery of John Coltrane’s My Favourite Things (24/96 from HDTracks) — more dynamics here than we recall ever hearing, a sense of power and weight to the chordal section of the piano solo, the bass and drums combining to drive it along, and Coltrane’s re-entry rising and twiddling in the right channel before taking flight beyond the melody with a direct-miked single speaker clarity that demands attention. The same trick of delineation and dynamics was repeated again on Chick Corea’s Australia piano concerto, reminding us why we’d put this in our test listening folder in the first place. Waah, such a recording, and such a delivery.

Unignorable quality; musical delight. We thought we’d kick off this review with this declaration of quality, rather than saving it for our ‘Performance’ section, encouraging you to read through the more technical details of the N-70AE’s many abilities which would otherwise precede it. Because we reckon many hi-fi users may be wondering why they need a network music player at all, given that so many modern amps are already including many of these functions (DAC circuits, Spotify or Chromecast) inside. The answer to that question is as old as hi-fi itself — the use of separate components delivers specialisation, a lack of interference. Allowing quality to ooze out.

Equipment
First a note on nomenclature, since Pioneer’s model numbers confuse the heck out of us. This N-70AE network audio player should not be confused with the slightly older N-70A network audio player, which shares its look and very many of its features, but which is/was only two-thirds of the price at $1599. There’s also the N-50AE (with which the N-70AE shares its product manual) and older N-50A players, and an N-30AE, not to be confused with the SX-N30AE, all of which rank below the unit on review. As far as network audio players go, the N-70AE is Pioneer’s top dog.

Indeed you might guess that from its weight, which took us by surprise for a source component. Compare it, say, with our 2018 Stereo AV Amplifier of the Year under $2000, Pioneer’s own SX-S30, which includes amplifiers and weighs 4kg. The N-70AE, just a network audio player remember, no amplifiers inside, weighs in at 11.4kg. If weight can be considered a proxy for construction quality, the unboxing of this unit certainly inspires confidence. Rock-solid outside and in, it takes the separates philosophy into its own internals, the chassis isolating its separate power supply transformers for digital and analogue circuits within three shielded sections. The base is designed for high rigidity; the front and sides use solid aluminium panels.

Pioneer N-70AE

We reckon the label of ‘network audio player’ underplays the abilities here. For starters, it can be used as a DAC for other source components and your computer — it has one optical and one coaxial digital input, it has the USB-B socket required to connect to your computer via USB, and it has two USB-A slots, one front and one rear, to which you can attach USB storage as hard drives or sticks. (The rear USB socket supplies more power, so is the better choice for USB-powered hard drives.)

The N-70AE also offers an easy hi-fi path to Spotify and internet radio — as hi-fi, at least, as those sources can deliver. And it includes AirPlay, so you can stream direct from your Apple devices and from Mac computers.

Those are the main abilities we’d noted in our first pass through the manual and website. But once we’d plugged it up and performed the first duty of all modern hi-fi — a firmware update — it came back with some major bonuses. There is direct access to Tidal. And you sign off on a separate set of T&Cs to activate Chromecast inside, so it can play from Cast-enabled apps, and should work with Google Home or any other device with Google Assistant, so you can address it using voice commands (but see below).

It also has the ‘FireConnect by Blackfire’ multiroom platform, although at some point after the manual was signed off this has changed to FlareConnect. Is this a Pioneer/Onkyo-specific variant of FireConnect (perhaps to address questions over interoperability with FireConnect on other brands)? You’d think, except Pioneer/Onkyo claims it to be “inhouse-developed”. It’s a welcome extra anyway, as is DTS Play-Fi, which was the rising star of multibrand multiroom operation until Chromecast arrived to whip its ass.

So quantity is clearly no problem, and quality will be limited only by your source selection,
be it high-res over the network, others that are limited to CD quality or (like Spotify) to below CD quality. You’ll get the most reliable and most highest-res performance either from those USB-connected drives, or across your local network from music shared by UPnP/DLNA from either a PC or a NAS drive, the latter having the benefit of being always available (whereas music on a PC disappears when the PC is off or sleeping). From such shares and from its optical and coaxial digital inputs the Pioneer can play WAV, AIFF, Apple Lossless and FLAC up to 24-bit/192kHz, DSD (dff/dsf) at 2.8/5.6/11.2MHz, plus your lowly MP3, AAC and WMA files.

Note, however, that that you can play only up to CD quality, and no DSD at all, if you connect to your network by Wi-Fi. For Wi-Fi you screw on two external antennas, whereas the N-50AE has two fold-up antennas built in. So (as we’d always recommend anyway), give the Pioneer a hard-wired Ethernet connection to your network.

From the computer USB connection the capability for playing PCM rises to 32-bit/384kHz (it offered to accept 768kHz from our Mac, in fact) and DSD up again to 11.2MHz.

Another visible difference between the N-70AE and the N-50AE is the inclusion of balanced analogue outputs alongside the unbalanced RCA outputs, while optical and coaxial digital outputs allow upgrade to even more superior conversion. But that would be some DAC, given the conversion here uses twin ES 9016S ESS Sabre32 Ultra DACs in eight-channel parallel operation.

Pioneer N-70AE
Pioneer N-70AE

Performance
You are given plenty of options in configuring the Pioneer’s digital conversion. Dynamic range can be ‘expanded’ by converting 16 or 24-bit audio to 32-bit using the Hi-Bit32 option — which is switchable, so you can decide if it achieves the promised “smoother and more refined sound reproduction”. And you can choose to have everything upsampled to 384kHz with a second option.

Both of these are, however, defeated if you select the ‘Direct’ option, during which the manual says “processing that affects sound quality is shut down so sound closer to the original is reproduced”. This sounds so desirable that one wonders why any other option is considered, but as always, it’s fun to play. Three blue LEDs on the front panel indicate which of the other tweaks you’re using, so it’s easy to try these, as well as the different filter slopes of the Sabre DAC (well, two from the Sabre and one ‘short’ which is apparently Pioneer’s own addition).

There’s also a seven-position Lock Range which “improves S/N ratio so you can push the envelope to hear the nothing but the music [sic]. Eliminate jitter noise that develops during the Digital/Analog conversion of music”. This is new to us, but appears to limit the range over which the crystal oscillator will achieve lock on the digital signal, which would indeed alter the jitter, if not necessarily eliminate it… though could cause problems (gaps as the signal lock is lost) if set too narrow. Hence the narrowest three options are therefore labelled ‘Expert Only’ — you have been warned!

Most of the changes are implemented with a short gap, and proved subtle if discernable at all in action. The upsampling had the most notable effect, seeming to add a bit of edge or presence on the likes of the crunchy guitars of Neil Young’s Walk with Me, although this kind of slight presence effect is often audible when a 44.1kHz file is resampled to 48kHz or vice versa (an iTunes speciality), which we thought might be the effect here if all files really do get upsampled to 384kHz rather than an exact multiple, e.g. 352.8kHz. But a note on Pioneer’s app implies it’s proper ×2 or ×4 upsampling (though it also says you can choose which of those you’d like, without explaining how).

Pioneer N-70AE

These modes can be accessed using the rather too busy and unprioritised physical remote control, or more easily via the Pioneer Remote App, which proved intuitive and reliable. It splits its abilities into three sensible sections: ‘Input’ for selecting physical sockets, ‘Net’ for all the available streaming services and multiroom platforms, and ‘Chromecast’ which lists various Cast-enabled apps you can stream to the PIoneer. As noted in the text, it did not seem possible to link the built-in Chromecast here to a specific Google account and thereby address it via voice using Google Assistant.

The ‘Music Server’ option accesses UPnP/DLNA shares, navigating in the usual way though without an alphabetical jumplist, making long lists a fair old scroll, though there’s no pause to ‘refill’ while you do so.

As noted, ‘Direct’ mode seemed reliably the smoothest and most preferable setting for our tastes, and was used for the bulk of our more relaxed rather than comparative listening.

Of which we did plenty over our several weeks with the N-70AE, beginning with the examples noted in our introduction, and moving on to high-res delights.

Audio Alchemy’s Marrakesh (24/96) is such a crisp recording that it takes a flawed system indeed not to sound good, yet here it certainly highlighted the Pioneer’s sense of timing and therefore rhythm, as well as the high-frequency delights — guitar edges so tight and dynamic, the splash cymbal so realistically splashy. And not poke-you-in-the-eye sharp — as we’ve heard it from some over-energised lesser conversions — but here delivered smoothly under the Pioneer’s Direct mode.

Playing the Eagles’ Life in the Fast Line (24/192) out of the Pioneer through good pre-powers into a pair of JBL Studio Monitors, it wasn’t hard to imagine that this presentation must be pretty darned close to how producer Mr Szymczyk and the Eagles themselves must have enjoyed playback in the studio away in 1976.

Classical/prog fans may be disappointed by a mention in the manual that gapless playback is not supported for ‘remote playback’, but the Pioneer certainly played gaplessly from hard drive, and with only little skips via DLNA (albums in the right order too), so this may be a limitation only for PC-driven addressing of the Pioneer.

Turning to Tidal, we decided to see what it made of the streaming service’s MQA-encoded Masters files. These are now much easier to find on Tidal, thanks to ‘M’ labels and a way to specify your preference, though only if you’re using the dedicated program for desktop PC or Mac. They don’t show up (or play) if using the Tidal app on a smart device, and that seemed to be the Pioneer Remote App’s default implementation too: no Masters folders visible. We pointed it at our own playlist of Masters (avhub.com.au/masters); these it streamed (or claimed it did) at 24-bit, but only 44.1 or 48kHz.

That makes Tidal’s desktop program for Mac and PC the best way to get Masters playing at a higher sample rate. Giving Tidal exclusive mode of the Pioneer USB DAC (warning — it appears twice on Tidal’s DAC list, and the first option sends via AirPlay, which confused us for a while). In this way the N-70AE it played the Masters at their first MQA unfold, generally 96kHz and sending from the Mac at 32-bit, though we assume the Tidal source was 24-bit. Sounding very nice.

The Chromecast implementation worked in terms of receiving from Cast-enabled apps, which could see and stream to the Pioneer. (The Pioneer app usefully links through to any number of these.) But it stubbornly refused to link to our Google account using the Google Home app, the first Chromecast device we’ve known to do this, so it couldn’t be grouped with other Chromecast devices, nor could it be addressed by voice from a Google Home device. We did a system reboot to check we’d ticked all Google’s permission screens, but with the same result. It also emitted a moderately loud crack through the speakers when switching into or out of Chromecast operation.

Downsides we found none at all, bar those operational glitches with Chromecast, and those may be unique to our implementation, or fixable in firmware. We found it does put itself into standby fairly eagerly, but that’s good for electricity saving, and a tap of the remote wakes it up quickly enough. If you don’t like this behaviour you can turn auto-standby off through the front-panel menus.

One note — we struggled to find many differences between this model and the older but rather cheaper N-70A, which has the same DACs, same construction, same weight, same screen, same inputs, apparently lacking only Wi-Fi and Chromecast, though the newer N-70AE takes DSD up to 11.2MHz. From the manuals and spec sheets, that seems about it. The N-70A model is on the way out, but with $900 between the RRPs, it’s perhaps worth hunting one down.

Conclusion
We could not, however, attest with certainty to the older model matching this newer network music player’s superb sonic performance. The N-70AE is yet further evidence of Pioneer’s resurgence in high-quality stereo hi-fi, where it is buoyed up by collaboration and crossover technologies from its sister Onkyo brand, and supported by decades of consumer confidence in the Pioneer brand. Here we enjoyed all the heft of the traditional approaches to high fidelity, in combination with the latest technologies, formats and a staggering wealth of streaming and network options. In that regard it’s hard to imagine a home music networking role the N-70AE would not fit, with a performance to delight, and as for music access, well, the Cloud’s the limit.

Pioneer N-70AE

Pioneer N-70AE
Price: $2499

+ Great conversion & sound
+ Many paths to music
+ Great high-res delivery
- Couldn’t link built-in Chromecast to Google Home

Inputs: 1 x optical digital, 1 x coaxial digital, 2 x USB-A, 1 x USB-B (computer), Ethernet, Wi-Fi, Chromecast, FireConnect, AirPlay

Outputs: 1 x stereo RCA line-leve, 1 x stereo XLR balanced, 1 x optical digital, 1 x coaxial digital, 12V control out

Display: 3.5-inch colour LCD
Dimensions (whd): 1435 x 121 x 364mm
Weight: 11.4kg

Product page: www.pioneeraudio.com.au