Cambridge Audio Sonata NP30 review
As computer hard disks and external HDD balloon in size, are we the only ones who have returned to rip our CD collection in lossless quality?
Probably not, and though streaming lossless files (in 24-bit/96kHz studio quality on the NP30, no less) around a home won't be high on most people’s list, compatibility with uncompressed digital music could become increasingly important.
It’s not just about futureproofing; fans of Radiohead will rejoice if they bought recent album The King Of Limbs as lossless WAV files (though those tracks were actually in 14-bit), and there are bound to be more where that came from. Be careful though - uncompressed studio master files are about 20 times bigger than a standard MP3 with a 128kbps bitrate.
More importantly for most users, the NP30 is powered by UuVol, Cambridge Audio’s web streaming service for 20,000 radio stations (with podcast access where available) and other music from UPnP-compatible (universal plug ‘n’ play) devices.
The NP30 isn't an all-in-one. It needs an amplifier - it is not built-in as on devices like the Arcam Solo - and occupies the brand’s “Sonata” chassis. As such it’s really designed to be paired with other components in Cambridge Audio’s arsenal, though it's plays well with anything.
The brushed metallic silver front of the NP30 is fitted with a USB port (unhelpfully covered by a rubber protector that isn't attached so won't hang around very long) that plays WAV, OGG, MP3, WMA and FLAC files, and a 100 x 40mm LCD screen that fits four very large lines of text. Either side are tiny buttons for controlling the unit’s main functions, as well as what looks like a volume dial. It isn't: instead it selects functions, though how successfully depends on what’s being listened to.
The rear is strapped with a Wi-Fi aerial fixing, Ethernet LAN port, a second USB slot, a trigger input (to hook the Sonta up to the DR30+) and three audio choices - coaxial, optical and stereo audio outputs.
Control and operation
The NP30 takes an age to start-up. Switch it on and it boots-up, then searches for, then initialises a network connection. Over a minute later it’s still thinking about what it's going to do. Wi-Fi set-up is relatively easy, with the NP30 finding our home network and, after a long-winded rotary dial WPA entry it’s ready to stream from our iMac and the UuVol radio stations. Actually choosing between broadcasters is a pain - that rotary selector is fine for scrolling down to Australia to choose ABC Triple J radio, but if you want something (as you probably will) from the US or UK, it’ll take a few dozen spins to get that far down the list.
Nor is the remote much good. Stretching over 23cm and rather sparse, it’s far too big. It’s also not very clever; it can’t control the volume unless it’s used with other Cambridge Audio gear, and there are other buttons for similar purposes. Best head for the UuVol Remote app, which is free and available on iPhone, iPad and iPod touch only - no Android.
Get the NP30 on WiFi and register for UuVol and it’s possible to customise services through a web page, largely to streamline what the NP30 accesses (a short favourites list of global radio stations is so much easier to see on a four-line LCD screen than an A-Z list).
As well as radio, we were presented with the chance to link to Aupeo, Live365 and MP3Tunes services (the former requires a £4.95/month paid-for subscription) while BBC iPlayer Radio is also on offer (to everyone, not just UK users). There’s obviously one glaring omission here: Spotify, which may not be the best, but is certainly the most familiar such service. US users also get Pandora, Rhapsody and SiriusXM.
A poor man’s Sonos? Possibly, though the App is very polished. Although it had an issue with finding our NP30 on the network after a few minutes of inactivity (this happened consistently, and became irritating), the app is essential to the NP30 experience. It’s “M” button accesses favourite stations defined on the website (after a few seconds loading), and selecting streaming services is easy, though the app did have trouble linking to a UPnP device - in this case an iMac loaded with TwonkyMedia software. The iPad version is fine, though not necessary - the iPhone screen rarely looks cluttered.
Given that you could stream to any hi-fi or home cinema from any smartphone over Bluetooth using something like QED’s uPlay - and swerve the need for any kind of app in the process - the NP30 is really all, and only, about audio quality.
After registering with the UuVol service we downloaded a sampler album from 2L - The Nordic Sound (there’s a link from the UuVol webpage) in 24-bit quality. Over a wired connection (lossless files this big can’t be streamed over Wi-Fi) the sheer depth and stereo imaging from Mozart’s Violin Concerto was simply awesome. There’s a huge difference between this and the average MP3, with the latter difficult to go back to after the power and brilliance of the FLAC file - though we were helped by some decent components (in this case a Marantz amplifier and a pair of Monitor Audio Bronze BX2 bookshelf speakers). Whether 24-bit music ever comes into the mainstream is doubtful (does anyone remember DVD-Audio?), but it’s something we’ll keep an ear on.
It lacks Apple Airplay, but lossless music fans are served well by the NP30; we’d recommend it to owners of Apple gadgets because of the nicely designed, though often stumbling, UuVol app. The sonic highs of this Sonata device are incredible with the right source material, though its lossless ambitions are curtailed by a lack of content (24-bit is an ambition and not readily available on mainstream download stores). Most web stations are broadcast in rudimentary quality, and a standalone streamer of this price could be overkill for most, but audiophiles will adore the NP30.