A10 Review – As Future-Proof as It Gets / The Absolute Sound

Aurender A10 Caching Network Music Server/Player

 As Future-Proof as It Gets

 Andrew Quint

It’s a safe bet that, for most, the future of digital music playback will be disk-less. There will be streaming, probably downloads, and files derived from long-ago-relegated-to-the-attic compact-disc collections. LPs will still flourish because of the enduring sonic appeal of vinyl and the purely tactile gratification of playing records. But do you know anyone who will lament the passing of the compact disc as a marvel of industrial design? Twenty years from now, will Brooklyn hipsters seek out vintage machines on which to play the Weezer CDs they find at yard sales? I don’t think so.The Aurender A10 is designated by its manufacturer as a “caching network music server/player with analog outputs,” which is meant to emphasize that the product is a one-box solution for “modern” digital playback. And it’s true: The A10 can be connected to a power amplifier and speakers, and you’re good to go. But it’s also true that the A10 can be included in an audio system with digital components both upstream and downstream without the unit’s modernity and good value at all diminished.

 

 The Aurender A10 meets the world as a sleek but substan-tial (22.5 lbs.) component in a beautifully machined aluminum chassis. On its front panel, from left to right, are a square power button (it flashes when the A10 is powering up or down), a 3″ AMOLED screen, a group of four buttons to control play-back, and a hefty rotary volume-control knob that brings up both numerical and meter-like graphic representations of the level set by turning the dial. A modest-sized remote (6-3/4″ x 1-3/8″ x 9/16″) with surprising heft duplicates the functions on the front panel, plus allowing muting and choice of digital input. In back, there’s a standard IEC receptacle for the power cord, a rocker switch that makes the front panel power switch operational, an optical digital input, a USB output, and both unbalanced (2Vrms) RCA and balanced (4Vrms) XLR analog outputs. Inside, the digital electronics are on one side of the chassis, the DACs and analog output stage on the other, to help protect the converters and other sensitive circuitry from elec-tronic noise. Power supplies are robust, with four toroidal trans-formers individually supporting key components of the com-puter’s architecture. Measured jitter is low, below 100fs, thanks to a clock generator based on field-programmable gate arrays (FPGAs). A pair of the well-regarded AK4490 VERITA chips accomplishes digital-to-analog conversion. Also inside are a 120GB solid-state drive that caches music for playback and a regular 4TB storage drive.

Long after you’ve forgot-ten the model number of the DAC chipset and the capaci-ty of the SSD, what will likely impress you most about the A10 from an engineering standpoint is the Aurender Conductor app. If you’ve heard that this is an excep-tionally well designed and user-friendly music manage-ment tool, you’ve heard right. [I’m also a big fan of the Con-ductor app. —RH] I won’t me-thodically detail the routine operation of the app—such descriptions eat up a lot of column inches and paradoxi-cally make using the software seem more complicated than it really is—but can affirm that getting the server/player up and running is straight-forward, especially if you use the Quick Start Guide that comes in the box with the A10. The app only runs fully on an iPad. For some time, Aurender has offered a “Lite” Android version for use with smartphones. (It will work on an Android tablet, but the user interface is op-timized for a phone.) Auren-der warns upfront that the functionality of its Android app is quite limited, with no streaming support—it’s really intended for use as a “secondary remote.” Bottom line: If you get an Aurender, you need an iPad. With both the app and the A10 itself, it’s easy to stay up to date with Digital FocusAs Future-Proof as It GetsAndrew Quintsoftware versions and to cor-rect any deficiency immedi-ately.

 

The Conductor comes preconfigured for setup with either Tidal or Qobuz. (The latter is not available in the U.S. without a “gray-area” work-around.) With a stream-ing subscription established, the seamless integration of two sources of music—your own curated collection and the vast holdings of Tidal or Qobuz—is what makes the Aurender such a pow-erful engine with which to explore the complete range of musical expression. The user can fluently navigate from files stored locally (on the A10’s 4TB hard drive, an external hard drive, or a NAS) to streamed content, making playlists that move effortlessly between those two repositories of music. To the user, it feels like the Tidal files live on the server or your NAS but, of course, there’s just a link established so that the Aurender can re-trieve that material when one requests it.

 

 There are three features of the Conductor app that especially impressed me. First is the AMM (Aurender Media Manager) software, downloadable for both iOS and Windows-based systems. If you already have a slew of albums on a NAS, AMM will lead you through the process of scanning those stored files and then creat-ing a “combined music data base,” a single library that in

cludes the material on the NAS (with its metadata and cover art), files stored on the A10’s hard drive, and streamed content that’s been saved. I set AMM to work on over 200,000 music files residing on my Synology NAS. The scan took around four hours but when it was over, the Aurender’s library contained over 20,000 albums. When I selected the DSD filter, the list of albums was pared down to the roughly 3500 that have been ripped from SACDs to DSF files. The cover art, work names,movement tiles, album artists, and so on were all displayed, the metadata reproduced as I had entered it with JRiver software over the past few years.The second feature I’m es-pecially fond of is the “Add to My Library” tab that can be selected when streaming—if a Tidal song or album strikes your fancy, you can have it list-ed along with your local files. The third Conductor function that deserves mention is the mechanism for getting help. When something goes wrong with a media computer, the problem is almost always software-related, the kind of issue that can be dealt with remotely. If you have trouble, you simply go to Conductor’s “Settings” menu on the Conductor app and click “Help.” In addition to providing on-line access to the full Auren-der User Guide, one can bring up an email screen with which to describe your issue. When “Send” is pressed, Aurender’s engineers are automatically given access to your machine, so long as it’s turned on and connected to the Internet. Once the problem has been addressed, the A10 owner is informed by email, and re-mote access to the Aurender is disabled. I had one occasion to use this free service during the months I had the A10, and the answer to my ques-tion came within hours.
MQA is an inflammatory subject at present, provok-ing a lot of hostility from some quarters. The A10 was the component that gave me the chance to do extended comparisons on a familiar system between MQA’d vs. non-MQA’d files of the same music, at the same level of resolution. Yes, I’m aware that there’s a possibility that I was comparing different masterings of the selections I downloaded from HDtracks and streamed from Tidal but my consistent observation was that the MQA’d materi-al sounded better—with all genres, at various levels of resolution, with both analog and digital originals. That’s my opinion. What I hope ev-eryone can agree on is that high-resolution MQA files sound very much superior to the same content played back at Red Book resolution. At this time, in the United States, the only way to stream in HD is with MQA Tidal files. (You have to be pretty sneaky to get Qobuz stateside.) The MQA logo appears next to the track on the app as it’s playing al-though the resolution infor-mation isn’t displayed there. To see that, you have to look on the AMOLED screen—and good luck reading it un-less you’re less than a few feet away. Ifthis is information you simply must have, finding it is a bit of a nuisance.
None of the Aurender’s functional elegance counts for much if it isn’t associated with good sound, and the A10 sounds very good indeed. For all my listening, I didn’t use a preamplifier— instead driving a pair of Pass Labs XA60.8 amplifiers directly via the A10s balanced (XLR) outputs. Loudspeakers were Magi-co S3 Mk IIs. With a wide range of content—local files and streamed, Red Book and higher-resolution material—music sourced from Aurender was never anything less than organ-ically coherent, dynamically alive, and naturally detailed. The first track I listened to critically has become standard for me, the opening movement of Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 15, the 2010 performance by Bernard Haitink and the Concertge-bouw Orchestra; I own the SACD and have made DSF rips of both the stereo and multichannel programs. The work be-gins with three soft notes on orchestral bells at the back of the orchestra and from those three notes alone, I can often get a pretty good idea about the imaging capabilities, level of detail, and timbral accuracy that an electronic component or loudspeaker can deliver. Those glockenspiel notes had most of the precision, evenness of decay, and “smallness” that I’m used to hearing with my usual digital playback gear for two-channel listening: a Baetis Reference media computer (recently updated o “3” status) sending data to a T+A DAC 8 DSD processor. In the same Shostakovich example, the subtle inflections the concertmaster applies in his solo near the end of the movement register clearly.

 

 Tonal and textural nuance are reproduced effectively as well. Another recording that I was happy to hear for the umpteenth time was Paavo Järvi’s reading of L’histoire du soldat from an all-Stravinsky PentaTone SACD, again ripped to DSF. The ex-quisite sonorities that Stravinsky created with only seven instru-ments at his disposal are extraordinary, and a good recording played back through the A10 lets a listener know it. There’s no question that this L’histoire employs a cornet (as specified in the score) rather than a trumpet—the former having a mellower, more rounded tone as opposed to the latter’s brassier, more in-cisive sound. The clarinet and bassoon that open the “Pastorale” are correctly scaled and the sonority produced by clarinet play-ing in its middle (or “clarion”) register and bassoon in its upper range is memorable—and clearly just what the composer had in mind. Likewise, on his 1990 release Alone with Three Giants, pianist Marcus Roberts honors three great composer/pianists—Jelly Roll Morton, Duke Ellington, and Thelonius Monk—with solo performances of their music. Roberts plays some selections on a Steinway grand and some on a Young Chang upright, and the difference in the density and magnitude of the sound those two instruments produce is quite evident, as is the reasoning behind the artist’s choice of piano for each song.

 More reference tracks. Joni’s Mitchell’s voice on “Little Green” from 1971’s Blue has the youthful purity that was so riveting early in her career, possessing just the right character for the singer’s slightly husky chest notes as well her more girl-ish head tones. The syncopated hitch to Mitchell’s voice that creates a rhythmic counterpoint to the guitar accompaniment is very apparent. Throughout my favorite set of the 15 Shosta-kovich string quartets, the series of SACDs from the Mandel-ring Quartet on the Audite label, the ingenious construction of these masterworks is on full display. With the A10 in service, one marvels at the way the four voices come together to be-come something considerably more than the sum of its parts. “Never Weather Beaten Sail,” as performed by the dozen young singers of the early music vocal ensemble Stile Antico and heard on a rip from a Harmonia Mundi SACD, reveals the flaw-less blend and responsiveness to text that made such a powerful impression on the two occasions I’ve heard these artists live.

 Very dynamic music was handled confidently—the drama of the opening pages of Puccini’s Turandot (Decca’s recording with Sutherland and Pavarotti) or the cacophonous beginning to the title track on Steely Dan’s Everything Must Go. I finished several listening sessions with the MQA’d version of Billy Idol’s “White Wedding,” theoretically to check on midbass dynamics, but mostly just because it was fun to listen to “White Wedding” with the Aurender crunching the numbers.

Could the sound of the A10 be improved upon? Definitely. If you own any of a number of über DACs—products from Berkeley, dCS, etc.—your investment will not go to waste, should the Aurender find a home in your system thanks to its  carefully shielded USB 2.0 output. The AK4490 chipset in the A10 is an excellent per-former but the “double sym-metrical circuit” that involves eight 32-bit Burr-Brown converters in my T+A DAC 8 DSD is at another level en-tirely, with obvious improve-ments in transparency, spa-tiality, and both micro- and macro-dynamics. The T+A is a bargain at $3995 but still increases the cost of a digital file playback system by 75% over the A10 itself for, what, a 25% improvement in son-ics? The A10 as a stand-alone product is a damn good value.

 There’s a potential stealth benefit to owning an Auren-der A10, and it has to do with the unheralded optical digital input on the rear panel. As silver discs become less and less relevant to many listen-ers, it’s harder for many au-diophile consumers to get terribly enthusiastic about spending a lot on a new CD player. Yet those sound-con-scious music lovers want to continue to explore their CD/SACD collections, even as they ramp up their com-mitment to HD downloads and streaming for musical nourishment. Well, if your long-in-the-tooth disc player has an optical output, with the A10 around you could find yourself with a world-class disc-playing system on your hands. I used a $30 ge-neric optical cable to connect an Oppo BDP-93 to the A10 and the result was impressive with all musical styles, at least as good as hooking the Oppo transport up to my Anthem D2v pre-pro. Aurender’s set-up diagram (“Typical System Configuration”) doesn’t even acknowledge the possibility of connecting a disc player to the A10 via its optical input. It’s as if the company feels that supporting disc playback is embarrassingly primitive, at odds with the promotional copy that describes the A10 as “the perfect solution for those replacing CD players.” For many audiophiles, the move to files and streaming will be incremental. They probably won’t take the time or expense to rip and tag the hundreds or thousands of silver discs they own but will still want to enjoy that music when the mood strikes. The ability of the A10 to accept a digital datastream from a disc transport and see it through beautifully to analog will be a huge selling point for many listeners.

 No audio product, espe-cially a digital one, is “fu-ture-proof.” But one can imagine that the Aurender A10 is what digital playback will look like in ten or fifteen years for a consumer who values superior build-quality and good sound but would like to avoid as many boxes and cables as possible. We can conjecture that this con-sumer has held on to his CDs and is gladly accepting the dust-covered collections of friends who no longer have the capacity to play them. He streams, of course, doesn’t download all that much any-more—nobody does—but has a sizable collection of HD files that he amassed in his early years in computer audio. Maybe MQA is flour-ishing and our forward-look-ing audiophile is admired for being an early adopter. The Aurender A10 he bought back in 2017 is looking more and more like the smartest audio purchase he ever made.