I have been using the Raspberry Pi as a media streamer since some time now. So, excuse me if my comparisons are with it but to be frank I would count them as fair comparisons as Raspberry Pi opens up so many possibilities to be used as streamer / storage device or a streamer cum DAC for your digital audio setup and with excellent interface and regular updates to the software from feedback.
The N15 can be used as a wired or wireless streamer for audio as a transport for your digital setup, as a NAS to store your audio files or an all in one component which can play files from the network (wired or wirelessly) or stored locally into the inbuilt DAC outputting analogue to your audio amplifier. It has a dedicated headphone out so headphone users can have a one piece solution for the digital audio though I have not tested the headphone out for audio. The DAC is DSD 256 capable and plays PCM at 352.8 mhz. That means it’s absolutely future ready. It also plays all the major audio formats. The company also provides firmware updates for the unit so any feature possible within the limits of the hardware can be added at a later date The unit also supports DLNA(UPNP) Client and server, Samba Client and server and Airplay. You can send or receive audio data depending upon how you use the unit. Wireless capability comes with a USB dongle which is sold extra as an accessory. The front panel has a power ON/OFF switch with a LED, headphone out jack and a USB slot where one can attach a portable HDD, thumb drive or maybe a WiFi USB dongle. A large volume/mute control dial is provided in the centre of the unit.
Surprisingly, there are no LED's to denote what inputs/outputs are connected or to toggle between them. I feel this should never have been omitted. What I found surprising is USB audio in is micro USB type connector rather than the traditional USB B type. USB Audio IN will come into use when for some reason one wants to use the unit as a standalone DAC It can’t output audio data via USB, so no chance to use it as a streamer. But I have been told by that they can easily enable this if needed by a firmware update. Another good thing about the unit is that one can install an SSD into the unit itself. One does not need any NAS to store their audio files which is usually large in size. Many audiophiles believe music played from an SSD tends to sound better as there no moving parts inside it. Similarly, one can attach thumb drives too to the unit. I personally would always prefer to play music through on board storage rather than storing music on a NAS. I always found local storage to sound better and its more fuss free too. I have not been able to test sound via SSD as at the moment I don’t have any spare SSD with me. For someone who would like to play music stored on a NAS, or maybe songs stored in a PC HDD which is on the same network there is an option of connecting it by Samba server and FTP. One is covered in all possible ways as far accessing music on network. Cocktail Audio has given all its units a dedicated app called Novatron which can be downloaded for free from Google play store or Apple app store.
With the app it is possible to listen to free online radio stations and also paid online streaming services like Tidal, Qobuz, Airable, Deezer and Spotify. This makes life very easy for someone into online streaming of music as all major services can be accessed by the official app for the unit. The app is otherwise well made but would like some polishing like better differentiation of sub-menus and some playback shortcuts like one click to play the whole folder. One more nifty feature via the app is that online radio can be recorded, but obviously one would need to connect a USB HDD, thumb drive or SSD to save the file. One can also set a sleep time for HDD which will cut off power to the HDD when the unit is not accessing it. A good feature for durability of the HDD. The unit has never exhibited any heating issues even if kept ON for several hours so safe to say it can be kept on 24/7.
Features at a glance:
High Performance System Resources ● Based on powerful dual core ARM Cortex A9 running at 1.0GHz ● UPnP(DLNA) Server/Client/Media Renderer/Samba Server/Client are supported ● Super Sound Quality created by Sabre ES9018K2M Reference DAC built-in ● 2.5 inch HDD or SSD storage deck is ready ● Giga Fast Ethernet LAN built-in ● High speed internal data transferring ● USB device port is available for convenient data transferring Other Great Features & Functions ● Dedicated USB Audio Class 2.0 Input is ready ● Major Online Muisc Services like TIDAL Qobuz, Deezer, Airable are integrated ● Apple Airplay is supported ● Intuitive, feature rich and speedy remote control app for iOS and Android devices ● Give networking capability to your existing DAC & Amplifier Hi-Res Audio Formats are supported ● 24Bit/192KHz HD WAV, FLAC are supported ● DSD64, DSD128, DSD256 files are supported.
Conclusion: I have been using a Raspberry pi 2, with Hifiberry digi plus add-on card (adds coaxial and optical digital out to the RPI) with Moode Audio and Daphile OS loaded on my laptop as my main streaming devices since the past year or so. There is no argument that these 2 combinations which I use are in no way the best streamers out there but still I feel for what they can do at a given price point it surely acts as a benchmark. In both cases software is absolutely free and all the developer ask for is to give feedback for any issues and bugs so it can it be worked upon in future updates. Also the developers leave it upto the users to donate how much ever money one can for the development of the project. One part which I surely want future N15 versions to have worked upon is the option to select between outputs. Even if the company does not option to give hardware buttons they can surely have that on the app like it is with the Raspberry pi and Moode audio combo. The firmware too needs to support audio data transfer from its USB ports to connect it to another USB DAC. It would be best for cocktail audio to have two versions of N15, one being a pure streamer without any DAC to cater to needs of people needing only a streamer to connect to their USB DAC’s. Dual band WiFi can be inbuilt to give aid wireless streaming. Comparing the sound from the coaxial and optical out of the N15 it surely is a level ahead then the RPI with digi + card combo. The sound is more spacious and natural. The changes suggested would surely not need a big change technically but would help in making N15 a master in one department rather being jack of all trades and master of none. At the retail price of Rs.49999/-, it surely will have takers in the audiophile market, especially making it attractive to those who like to have their music stored and played from one location. It also becomes an able option for people who are looking for a one box solution to play their music from, as all they have to do is hook up the unit to their existing amplifier, plug in the network cable or wifi dongle and they are good to go. I just hope that Cocktail Audio pays attention to the minor irritants that I found whilst reviewing the N15 and take steps to take care of them ASAP. I certainly hope it does so as the potential in the N15 is huge.