Cambridge Audio Sonata NP30 Network Music Player review

Lossless streaming music player with 24-bit support
Photo of Cambridge Audio Sonata NP30 Network Music Player
£400

The Cambridge Audio Sonata is a wireless music streaming device specifically designed to cope with a wide range of lossless audio formats.

Ripping CD collections into these lossless music formats – be it AIFF, FLAC or WAV – seems to have become the latest hobby for the bedroom-bound, so it’s no surprise to see a flurry of products on the market that can deal in those formats.

The reason is simple. As high-capacity hard disks have become much more affordable, there’s little reason left to use compressed 128Kbit/s MP3 files that sound clipped and tinny when put through even modest speakers. Cambridge Audio’s sleek NP30 – part of its Sonata range that also includes an amp, CD and DAB radio modules – goes a tad further.

The NP30 can stream lossless files in full 24-bit/96kHz studio quality, most of which are  typically offered in the FLAC or WAV formats.

Out on a Limb
The ultimate in high-resolution, 24-bit quality music is looking like future of music, with even the likes of groups like Radiohead heading in that direction. The Oxford band’s The King of Limbs album, recently released solely on its official website, was available in a lossless 1411Kbit/s WAV version for just £3 extra.

While we fully expect more and more bands to follow suite and completely bypass record companies (up next: established, but record contract-less bands like REM and Morrissey?), the lossless version of The King of Limbs was only available in 16-bit quality, which makes the 24-bit-capable NP30 ahead of its time indeed.

What’s more, this extraordinarily future-proofed media streamer costs under £400; the likes of the Sonos S5 cost around the same, but arguably don’t deal in hi-fi quality, let alone lossless-ness.

Listening pleasure
We tested this media player’s extraordinary abilities using Cambridge Audio’s innovative UuVol service, which is basically an attempt to collect a load of online music services (though not the likes of Spotify) together in one place, accessed via a webpage. From the site, specific radio stations, streams and downloads can be accessed straight from the NP30′s front LCD screen (the 10x4cm LCD screen fits four very large lines of text).

It’s a great idea – hi-fi separates are no place to scroll though reams and reams of online information – and for the most part, it works smoothly. Mainstream services are bypassed, though we loved the chance to stream a sampler album from 2L - The Nordic Sound in 24-bit quality, the UuVol service is likely to appeal to audiophiles much more than the likes of Spotify.

Wired vs wireless
The only slight annoyance is that lossless FLAC files such as this have to be streamed over a wired Ethernet LAN connection rather than WiFi; the depth and stereo imaging in Mozart’s Violin Concerto was simply superb in our tests, which were done through a Marantz amplifier and some swanky Monitor Audio Bronze BX2 bookshelf speakers.

Having scored a hit with us at the top of the food chain, the NP30 still comes up trumps with the meat of MP3 file streaming – this time over WiFi using UuVol.

Cambridge Audio’s web streaming service for 20,000 radio stations, with podcast links aplenty, UuVol can stream songs from any UPnP (Universal Plug‘n’Play)-compatible devices, including Mac, PC and NAS drives.

A USB port on the metallic front fascia (there’s a second at the rear alongside coaxial, optical and stereo audio outputs) lets you play WAV, OGG, MP3, WMA and FLAC files from a USB thumb drive, but what looks like a ‘volume’ dial nearby is not; instead, it toggles through the NP30′s myriad functions, but proves painful for selecting individual podcasts, radio streams or specific music files on a networked PC or Mac.

‘appy endings
Far better than both the dial and the NP30′s overly long remote control is the UuVol app, a free download (for iPhone only). It ties-in with the UuVol service, so the more you customise the service online, the better the app is.

We configured a group of favourite radio streams, and the odd subscription (paid-for options include Aupeo, Live365 and MP3Tunes, as well as BBC iPlayer Radio – North Americans also get Pandora, Rhapsody and SiriusXM) and found the whole system easy to use, though the app did occasionally appear to lose connection with the NP30.

The iPad version of the same app is fine, though it largely just expands the design of the interface without adding any functionality.

Company: Cambridge Audio

Website: http://www.cambridgeaudio.com/

Positives
  • File support; price; UuVol App; BBC iPlayer Radio; sound quality.
Negative
  • No Spotify; poor remote; no Android app.

Verdict

OK, so there's no sign of Apple Airplay, but this music streamer is way ahead of its time. The addition of a useful app is welcome, while the UuVol streaming hub is excellent the more it's used and customized - and makes operation of the NP30 far easier than via the traditional remote control.

Aside from peerless sound quality from studio masters-quality music files, the NP30's performance with files right across the quality spectrum is good - and the price is hard to beat for such ambitious audio.