While the traditional CD player may have lost its place in many hi-fi systems, the market for network players, often referred too as ‘streamers’, is better than ever. With high resolution downloads, internet radio, and smartphone streaming being as popular as they are, a streamer is fast becoming a must-have component in any hi-fi system.
However many people, such as myself, prefer physical media and own a large CD collection. Sure, there are plenty of CD players available – but for those who wish to maintain a clutter-free rack, an integrated solution is preferred. Enter the yamaha CD-N301.
Despite being an entry-level component, Yamaha’s CD-N301 packs a wealth of features and high quality components into its slimline, aluminium-fronted chassis. Not only is it a high quality CD player, it’s also a fully-featured streamer – offering up DLNA playback, spotify connect, vTuner internet radio, Apple AirPlay, and smartphone app control. It supports WAV and FLAC high res audio up to 24-bit, 192KHZ, as well as all other common file formats such as MP3 and WMA.
Other features include a highly regarded Burr-Brown DAC, separate power supplies for the CD and network sections, and an optimised circuit layout insuring the shortest possible signal path for the best audio quality.
In the box, you’ll find the player itself, a remote, power and interconnect cables, and some documentation. Yamaha’s packaging is always top-class, and this player is no exception – the player’s cloth wrapping protecting the finish, and tiny pieces of tape and foam keeping the moving parts of the CD mechanism firmly held in place during shipping.
Out of the box, this player immediately impresses with its build quality. Despite being a fairly lightweight component, it’s well put together – its sturdy chassis supported by a wrap-around top panel, and thick aluminium facia. 4 Large padded feet underneath allow air to flow underneath the player, and keep it firmly situated on any surface.
On the front, you’ll find the disc tray with its accompanying eject button, and the units display, situated in the centre between 2 sets of controls. To the left are controls for power, source selection and pure direct – which disables the display and digital output circuitry to achieve the best possible sound quality. Like many Yamaha products, the power switch is a physical, hard power switch – so if the unit is powered off at the front panel, it can’t be powered from the remote or the app. You can leave the front panel switch on, however, to use the network or remote standby functions – and there’s an auto standby mode allowing the unit to go into standby after a user-configurable period of inactivity.
To the right, you’ll find transport controls (play, stop, next and previous), as well as the rotary encoder used to control the unit and a return button. These controls cannot be used to access the units configuration menu – you’ll need the remote for that. I would like to see the ability to, for example, hold the return or stop buttons to access the menu, negating the need for the units remote altogether.
All controls are high quality – and offer up a nice tactile feel. They’re also very responsive – there’s no delay as the player acts upon your button presses. The CD tray is particularly nice, gliding quickly and smoothly from the player putting many more expensive players to shame. The transport itself is virtually silent during playback – and there’s very little noise as the player reads the discs table of contents.
Around back, you’ll find analogue outputs, as well as coaxial and optical digital outputs to feed an external DAC if desired. There’s a 10/100 ethernet jack for networking, and a USB DC jack to power Yamaha’s YWA-10 wireless adapter if you don’t have an ethernet port nearby. Finally, the unit is powered by a standard figure of 8 mains lead – meaning that unlike many products at this price, the cable is replaceable.
Yamaha rarely fail to impress with the quality of their remotes – and this one is no exception. It’s a thin, chunky controller, with a decent amount of weight and a logical control layout. Power is via 2 included AA batteries, slotted in underneath a rear cover which snaps securely into place. The controls, despite being of the standard rubber-dome variety and a little small, feel great when pressed. Range is great, and responses are instantaneous.
By far the preferred method for controlling the CD-N301 is via the free NP Controller app, available for download under iOS and android from their respective app stores. For this review, the unit was controlled almost exclusively via the iOS control app.
The first thing I noticed when powering up the CD-N301 for the first time was the speed at which it booted. While many network players can take up to a minute to get going, the CD-N301 is powered and connected within a few seconds. On first power up, the unit starts up in CD mode – in future, it’ll remember your last used source, though if you were listening to internet radio it won’t automatically load your last station – which is a feature I’d like to see.
Upon inserting a disc, the table of contents is quickly analysed. If you closed the tray in the conventional manner using the appropriate button, the player will stop and await your command. Give the front of the tray a gentle push, and the player will close the tray, analyse the disc and begin playback automatically.
CD playback can be controlled using the mobile app, right down to jumping to specific tracks. You can also use the transport controls on the remote or the front of the unit – turning the scroll wheel is a great way to quickly skip through tracks, and a feature I use frequently. The player supports the usual programming functions, as well as shuffle and repeat. CD text is supported, and the unit can also play back MP3 CDs – playing back the files in alpha-numeric order.
Like many Yamaha products, and products from many other manufacturers, the CD-N301 is equipped with the vTuner internet radio streaming service. vTuner is one of the largest internet radio providers, and currently offers over 30,000 stations worldwide, covering almost every language, genre and quality imaginable. There are also a range of podcasts available, such as those from the BBC.
As you would expect, internet radio works flawlessly. You can browse stations by location, genre, most popular or recently added. There’s no search function which would be a useful addition, though you do have the ability to bookmark your favourite stations, and even create multiple groups of bookmarks if desired.
Unfortunately, while the CD-N301 can certainly recall bookmarks via its own user interface or the app, it offers no way to manage your bookmarks via the unit itself. To bookmark a station, or edit your bookmarks, you must navigate to the vTuner website, and provide your unit ID. From there, you can manage your bookmarks via a web-based interface. It’s not a problem when you get used to it – and pretty soon I had several BBC stations, as well as many other stations bookmarked in groups. However, it would be nice if this could be done from the app.
Once a station is playing, you can view the station name, current play time, and, if supported, the name of the currently playing song. There’s no reply feature, which is an interactive feature used by some stations and would be a nice addition here. Quality, as you would expect, depends on the station itself – however I found even low-resolution MP3 streams sounded more than acceptable, both via the CD-N301’s built-in DAC and its digital outputs.
Playing From A Server
The CD-N301 supports playback from any DLNA-compliant media server. Many NAS drives support this feature, as do several modern routers with USB ports designed to connect and network a standard external hard drive. The player also supports media servers such as those built into windows – and offers step-by-step details in the user manual to help you get up and running.
The player allows you to browse music by album, artist, genre or playlist. If there’s something the player hasn’t detected, you can browse manually through your server’s folder structure.
During playback, the player will display the metadata (artist, title and album) if available, as well as the currently elapsed time. There’s no way to view the remaining or total time, or file information such as bitrate or format. All transport controls work as expected (though the player lacks the ability to search through a track), and file loading is as responsive as one could hope for.
As well as support for Apple’s AirPlay, the CD-N301 enables you to stream content from your smartphone’s music library directly using the NP Controller app. On iOS at least, the interface resembles that of the standard Apple music player, with the ability to browse by album, artist, genre, composer, and playlist, or view a complete list of the tracks stored on your device.
Album, artist, and title information is displayed during playback, and you get basic transport controls (play, stop, previous and next). When streaming from a device, the next/previous controls on the unit and remote don’t work as expected – and as with server playback, there’s no way to search through a track.
Apple’s AirPlay technology allows you to stream content from devices such as an iPhone, iPod or iPad, and any PC or Mac running iTunes. As expected, it works flawlessly – iTunes detecting the presence of the CD-N301 and making it instantly available as an AirPlay device. Once selected, the CD-N301 will switch to the appropriate source as soon as you start playing a track. When streaming via AirPlay, the transport controls, even those on the front of the unit, allow you to skip tracks and control playback.
I had no issues streaming content with the CD-N301. No matter which source i used, whether it was my iPhone, server, net radio or AIrPlay, the player performed as expected with no stuttering or dropouts. Load times are exponentially fast, even when streaming large files over a busy network. I didn’t test the units SPotify capabilities – I don’t own a spotify subscription, and have no intention of getting one. However it’s a useful feature for those that do, and I see no reason why it shouldn’t perform admirably.
With such a high feature count from such an affordable component, you’d be forgiven for expecting the CD-N301 to sound distinctly average. But that’s not the case. In fact, whether it’s streaming via AirPlay from my iTunes library, or spinning a disc, this is one of the most musically involving players I’ve ever heard. It’s got a touch of warmth which lends itself to poor recordings and low-quality internet radio streams, and enough neutrality to make the best of great recordings – vinyl rips and early classic rock recordings sound simply stunning.
Halestorm’s ‘Live In Philly’, one of my current favourites, is rendered with a beautiful 3-dimensional sound stage – amp hiss and crackle intact. The CD-N301 places you right int eh middle of the audience – and as the intro builds, there’s no doubt you’re in for 1 hell of a musical journey. And the CD-N301 doesn’t disappoint – pounding out Arejay’s hard-hitting drum solos, and delivering Lzzy’s powerful vocals with finesse.
From hard rock, to metal, to blues to pop. The CD-N301 extracts the best from every musical genre you throw at it. It’s just as happy pounding out Nirvana’s ‘Heart-Shaped Box’ as it is John Legend’s ‘Ordinary People’. And it displays astounding rhythmic ability during Doug Macleod’s BBC sessions recording of ‘North County Woman’.
Orchestral rock, such as Meat Loaf’s ‘I’d Do Anything For Love (But I Won’t Do That)’ is delivered in all its glory, with loud, belting choruses. The quieter, subtle parts are left untouched, sound staging is great, and the emotion of the track is palpable.
While I could spend many hours, and many pages analysing the CD-N301s performance with a range of tracks and genres, there really is no need. Simply put, the CD-N301 is everything a hi-fi component should be. It drags the best from any music you throw at it, delivering a performance filled with emotion, sonic muscle, and a sprinkling of soul-stirring warmth making it easy to listen too for hours on end.
And, indeed, its greatest strength is its only shortcoming. It’s simply impossible to turn it off. This player sounds so good, I find myself slotting in disc after disc, streaming file after file, and all the time astounded by the results. The sound this little component produces is simply jaw dropping, and must be heard to be believed.
It’s one of the most versatile components on the market. Sure, it lacks digital inputs, and there’s no USB input for external drives or iDevices. But given the units streaming capabilities, these are extras you’re not likely to miss. And, for the price, you certainly can’t complain.
So, treat yourself. Treat your system. Buy a Yamaha CD-S301. I did – the CD-N301 currently occupies a space in my hi-fi rack, and it’ll be going nowhere for a long, long time. You deserve it. Your system deserves it. And, if nothing else, your music collection deserves it. Needless to say – highly recommended.