Aurender N10 preview and a lack of subtlety

I’ve heard tell that subtlety is an art, but I feel that sometimes the art lies in not being subtle at all.

Subtlety can come in many forms, there is the barely-there glance between two people when the laws of attraction are piqued, or the hint of vanilla hidden deep in the tasting notes of a single-malt Scotch, or the almost unnoticed taper of a lapel on a bespoke suit.

There is also the arrest-me-red ’65 Ferrari 275 GTB long nose that lacks any subtlety at all in its presence, the same goes for the yellow laces on a pair of leather brogues and the same could be said for replacing your PC or Mac with an Aurender music server.

I had been very happily listening to a totaldac d1-direct being fed via USB from a dedicated audio-only MacBook Air before Aurender America, Inc. Director of Sales and Marketing John-Paul Lizars sent me an Aurender N10 and W20 to review.

But once the MacBook Air was replaced by the N10 everything changed and I became very sad indeed. Why? Because I realized that I had been missing out a lot of what my music had to offer sonically by running it through my computer.

All those digital-music based reviews where I had touched on the subtle shadings or heft to piano notes, the exquisite timbre of a guitar and the weight to the bodies of wooden, stringed instruments… stand-up bass, the brassy roar of a trumpet, the subtle decay and shimmer off a high hat or cymbal, all the musical qualities that I was enthralled with, they all seemed to pale after hearing the same tracks through the N10 and I can assure you, this revelation was – much like a red 275 GTB – not subtle at all.

I’ll admit that $8,000 USD to swap from a $700 USD, five-year-old laptop is a bit of a leap to make, but like most things where you experience a profound improvement in quality due to an upgrade – be it a car, whisky, or pair of shoes – it becomes nearly impossible to go back to what you had before.

Take for example the Aurender N10 that I now have alternately feeding several DACs here at AudioStream. To maintain a legitimacy to what I experienced I’ve put my trusty MacBook back into the mix to see if the difference really was that unsubtle: it was. I simply can’t go back, which is a frightening proposition because in several weeks when I complete my full N10 review, I will then swap it out for its bigger brother – the W20 – the company’s flagship music server. For all the technical details on the N10, go HERE.

But the hardware is only part of the bigger picture that the N10 is painting with all my digital music files now, it’s also the Conductor software that Aurender designed holistically to go with it. I’m a Roon fanboy from way back, but so far I’m not feeling shortchanged in any way, shape or form with my iPad music-browsing experience via Conductor, and being able to remotely log-in into the N10’s drive to transfer files over the network from dedicated high-res USB HDDs attached to other computers has to be experienced to see just how easy they’ve made it to access the back end.

In the meantime I reached out to Lizars and Aurender founder Harry Lee with a few questions on how the company started and what sets their products apart in an audiophile market with no lack of expensive music-server options.

Aurender Q&A

Rafe Arnott: Are you able to speak to what the impetus behind the creation of the company was? Was it seeing a growing need in a developing market (computer-based audio) and realizing that you and your crew could build a better box (hardware and software) – so to speak?

Harry Lee: After I graduated college in Korea with a BSEE degree, I joined LG Electronics R&D Center, focusing on designing IC’s used in LG televisions. It was there I was first exposed to the vast world of audio visual products.

After several years, I decided to act on my entrepreneurial instincts and with a group of engineers formed a company that manufactured high-quality media players with an emphasis on video. Our products were quite successful, however, consumer feedback indicated that the market wanted a more music-centric product.

We then were faced with the decision of what to do next. We had a choice of making a high-end media player like Kaleidescape for example, or develop a dedicated file-based music player with an emphasis on audiophile-level sound quality.

So, I did some additional market research and found that a new category of audio device was emerging from brands like Linn, Naim and Meridian. I read the internet forums and spoke with consumers and dealers and found most complained about unstable and not-so-user friendly software. Or, in the case where the user interface was good, the complaints were centred around the sound quality.

Also, the architecture of music servers of the day were most reliant on IT products, like NAS drives. This made building a system unnecessarily complicated as I did not like that NAS drives were difficult to setup and maintain and are also very noisy. Additionally, many audiophiles were of the opinion that all the various brands of HDDs sounded quite different from each other adding yet another variable to high-fidelity reproduction.

We had the idea of using SSD caching so that the HDD is just a file storage depository and loads content onto the SSD caching drive for playback upon command. This methodology was ultra-quiet and put very little wear and tear on the HDD as it is mostly in a sleep status when music is playing.

SSD caching is core to the Aurender architecture and is found on every model of music server we make. To make true high-end audiophile sound, we had to research what affects the sound quality of a music server – especially when the output is digital (the common “bits are bits” debate). When there are only digital outputs, you need to take great care to reduce the noise artifacts, on the ground and signal plane and also eliminate EMI.

Since jitter is inherent to the SPDIF protocol, that too needed to be addressed. So, we applied advanced proprietary techniques which we developed over the years to tackle these many issues. With close attention paid to hardware we then focused on the software control system. There was no shortage of third-party music management applications available, but we learned early on the only way to achieve the kind of stability, reliability and predicability we wanted meant we needed to develop our own application.

So a group of software engineers set out to design Aurender Conductor as the application exclusively dedicated to the management of Aurender hardware. This unified software/hardware approach has allowed us to create a one-box solution that’s completely pre-engineered and can deliver a high-level of audio performance with a minimum amount of complexity.

RA: There are many audiophile-centric alternatives to using a PC or Mac-based computer on the market, some designed, built, priced and marketed towards the DYI scene, others, like Aurender, the complete opposite: why did the company choose to go the high-end, high-fidelity route?

HL: As mentioned, even when we started there were many DIY type solutions, but no one-box solution with ease of use, great sound quality and quality construction. So, we decided to go with the total solution approach where the sound quality, functionality, build quality and user experience are equals.

RA: Looking at, listening to and spending time interfacing with my music collection via an Aurender N10, has made me wonder if the company’s designs are researched, developed and built with a single-minded purposefulness for the pursuit of sonic purity. Swapping an N10 for the place of my MacBook Air and USB-out was a revelation – sonically speaking and from an app perspective – Is this Aurender’s goal for every end user?

HL: Yes, ease of use is very important to us and the app should be a direct link between you and your music with a minimum of distraction, but sound quality always comes first. If you omit sound quality from the equation, you have many other choices from the vast amounts of mass market products like Sonos, Amazon Echo, Google Home and the like. Our goal is also to give our users a simple way to access and experience all the music they wish to explore.

RA: Your designs utilize numerous, proven construction/manufacturing methods/technology for lowering the audio noise floor and focusing on the absolute fidelity of the signal path, yet you also enable many custom solutions from the implementation of linear power supplies, separate shielded analog and digital circuits, a solid aluminum chassis, custom-built and sourced components of the highest-quality caliber, an FPGA-based all digital Phase-Locked Loop System and Oven-Controlled Crystal Oscillator (OCXO) to prevent jitter and maintain clock precision just to name a few of the integral features that set Aurender apart from the crowd. Do you feel there is one area of Aurender design that is more important than the others? Or is it a complete holistic approach to sound quality, performance, usability and durability that sets Aurender apart?

HL: Thank you, you’ve already answered the question! Yes, it definitely is a complete holistic approach. Good sound quality comes from the careful integration of software and hardware and also electronics and mechanical structure, not just from one single thing. It’s like the old adage, "the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.”

RA: Many may not be prepared for the difference in going from traditional PC or Mac-based computer-audio file sources to an Aurender-based hardware and software system, what would you like to say to those individuals out there who are considering making the investment and switching – fence sitters if you will – to get rid of their computer from the signal path?

HL: The fact of the matter is that computers were never designed to play music. Computers are full of noise, jitter and other artifacts that will not affect your spreadsheets, but music? That’s a whole other story. In the early days of digital audio there wasn’t a choice. If you wanted to playback file-based media, you needed a computer. And the use of computers to play music has spawned a cottage industry producing accessories meant to overcome or reduce the negative sonic qualities inherent to the computer. Fortunately now there are better alternatives: dedicated music servers that are purpose-built with best-practice audio engineering applied and the benefit to sound quality, ease of use and stability which can easily be determined through listening.

COMPANY INFO
Aurender
Aurender America Inc. 17911 Sky Park Circle Suite H Irvine, CA 92614 USA
Aurender Inc. Dongan-gu, Anyang-si Beolmal-ro 126 OBIZ Tower 1612 Gyungi-Do, South Korea ZIP 14057
sales@aurender.com

COMMENTS
Paul Candy's picture

You mention not feeling shortchanged going from Roon to Conductor but can it display liner notes i.e. PDF's as well as additional artwork like Roon and JRMC can? That has always been a non-starter for me when looking at network players/streamers and their apps. Correct me if I'm wrong but none of these apps from firms like Auralic, Niam, Linn, Aurender etc can do this. Sound quality is one thing but many folks want a complete music experience. If I'm being asked to fork over $8,000, I don't think it's asking too much to provide access to album liner notes and artwork.

PeterMusic's picture

Nice write up, though I wish the more modestly priced N100 had been included. One issue I had when I looked at the Aurenders was the difficulty of transitioning from Apple metadata. The dealer recommended that I hire a consultant for my relatively small (800 album) library--ugh.

Paul--I have a Naim Uniti Core--at just under $3K, it's a competitor to the N100, and it readily transitioned Apple metadata. Naim provides artwork and liner notes, though not the full book that might be included with some albums.

Rafe Arnott's picture
This is a response from Aurender America, Inc. Director of Sales and Marketing John-Paul Lizars regarding the software questions this post has elicited:

JPL: "The funny thing about software is that it’s never done. Aurender has a track record of evolving their app and I’ve been told a major revision to Aurender Conductor is under development.

"For good reason Aurender is tight-lipped about details, but they hope to release Aurender Conductor 3.0 before years end. And as Aurender Conductor is the exclusive app to all Aurender hardware, the upgrade will be supplied at no charge and benefit all current and future users.

"I noticed another comment posted about iTunes migration. As you may know, iTunes is a system unto itself and a closed loop, meaning tagging in iTunes doesn’t always play nice with Linux and Windows based servers (even SONOS).

"The main issue is that the album cover art isn’t visible because it is not embedded. Only iTunes can see it. I’m not sure why a dealer would say his customer needed a consultant to do this because it’s just a matter of running a simple script which extracts the album art and turns it into a separate jpeg in the folder.

"Here’s a link below to a $1.99 script that will do just that."

AppleScripts

Ali's picture

I think spending around 10k for streamer and another 10k for DAC(assuming someone pay 10k for streamer also ready to pay the same price for DAC), I choose to go straight up to dCS Vivaldi or Rossin DAC only, the same price or even less in case of Rossini, double cross my pre and connect them directly to my mighty AR GS150 power. And still have option to add Bridge or Clock. But even a simple Rossini might outperform other streamer/DAC by far. And keep hugging my beloved Roon! I remain until Rafe dCS comes along Sunday, oneday!

brw's picture

One can never have too much content. For $8,000 one would expect native support for Spotify.

@Aurender: I am aware of AirPlay. But my cheap 'n' cheerful Volumio Mini86 has that mode covered. While a $200 network music player feeding a $6,500 USB DAC (Playback Designs) may seem disproportionate, if not irrational, I can attest the combination works wonderfully. Indeed, it sounds fantastic.

mentt's picture

I have A10 6 months now and I am very happy with it . Only pre-amp section is not that exiting. In the past I was big Roon user, but I have no issues with Aurender app. To my surprise you can actually live without roon :-)

Rafe Arnott's picture
I've been in contact today with John-Paul Lizars and we've been discussing the idea of the non-DAC Aurender feeding a DAC compared to the virtues of something like an all-in-one dCS Rossini.

When you distill down our conversation it comes to one simple conclusion: it’s a choice.

Lizars felt that many audiophiles believe existing DAC technologies cycle almost constantly and prefer the flexibility which is inherent in separates – it's self-protection and added component longevity in a sense.

Additionally, he brought up a great point (because this is something I do) audiophiles like to experiment with USB cables (or cables in general) to fine-tune the sonic flavor: This is not an option with an all-in-one.

As Lizars pointed out, one approach is not empirically better than the other, it's all about personal preference, which is what the essence of this site is really about.

Regarding Spotify Connect, Lizars said "It is coming to Aurender. We have been waiting several months now for the paperwork sign off and final approval from Spotify corporate."

He also added that he has been using it for the last few months and that it works seamlessly.

Hope that helps clear a few things up.

This is why I like doing preview pieces on gear, it can really assist me in raising awareness early on in the review process of what audiophiles out there in the ether are concerned about when it comes to specifics in certain components.

Everybody is different and wants different things from their hi-fi kit, what I want most likely will not always be what you out there do.

C'est la vie.

Everclear's picture

La Vie est Belle :-) ..........

ctsooner@alumni.ou.edu's picture

I've heard most of the top servers and that includes the W20. I've heard them many times in many rooms and systems. I was going to pull the trigger until I heard the The Memory Player by Laufer Audio. I ended up purchasing that one with the internal DAC, but for 8k, you can't get anything better based on all that I've auditioned. Even the N100 is outstanding.

GW1800's picture

Rafe - Great partial review. I did not move from a computer to an Aurender but I did start with the N10. The idea of a laptop in the music room never did appeal to me nor did a USB connection so I waited. I can only imagine what the difference would be as I completely agree that a generic computer even enhanced will not come close to a ground up product like an Aurender. What I can tell you is if you were impressed with the laptop to N10 jump then the jump from N10 to W20 will have you smiling even more. It will be interesting to hear your take.

I have tried Roon and just did not like it. It seemed to me what was gained on artist history etc. was lost in ease of use. Its like they were trying so hard to add all these things like upsampling that are not all that useful in my opinion which complicates usage. The Conductor app and Roon both work I just prefer the Conductor. When I'm listening to music I'm not into tweaking or reading it's all about the listening and I think the Aurender both the app and unit make it very easy to do just that. As my DAC and most have a very limited display I do like what is displayed on the Aurender OLED's as I'm listening which was a big negative for me with Roon. Yes you could look at your iPad but that seemed inconvenient compared to a casual glance at the Aurender screen. Also the customer service at Aurender is just hard to beat. Its personal and quick. I found Roon impersonal and not so quick. Also any suggestions was like a real insult to them so I just gave up as I figured they had all the answers so why bother.

I think John Paul makes some very good comments on separate music server and DAC. Particularly on the DAC side they are a moving target and the freedom to switch or upgrade every 2-3 years is probably the norm for awhile. At some point this will settle down but not soon.

Spotify or Tidal does it matter? I see its coming to Aurender but I don't get the purpose what does Spotify bring to he table except maybe a backup for Tidal being on shaky ground financially.

Cost keeps coming up. Yes there is a price to pay for the performance that Aurender delivers. Yet like most high quality audio equipment you get what you pay for. IF you have never lifted or looked close at an Aurender product you should. Even I was caught off guard when my son got a A10 it looks rather skinny but boy is it solid. Even having the N10 beforehand moving up to the W20 in someways makes the N10 look smallish which it not and it is definitely not a casual lift. Grab with intention or you will be caught off guard.

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