A30 Review – [ AudiophileStyle ] Unquestionably recommend the A30 to even the most knuckle-dragging, stubborn, old school audiophiles.
Aurender has been well known for its digital music servers for over a decade. It’s recently upgraded flagship W20SE Special Edition digital server will likely continue its reign as a leader in this market segment. In 2016 Aurender released its first music server with a built-in DAC, named the A10. I liked the A10 and saw it as the right product for many music aficionados. In 2019 Aurender took the next logical step in its quest to build the best music servers and streamers by releasing the flagship A30. The A30 is the company’s full featured flagship component with a built-in DAC and a host of other top-of-the-line elements.
After spending a couple months with the A30 I can unequivocally say Aurender has ascended to another level as a HiFi manufacturer. The A30, first and foremost, sounds fantastic connected directly to my Constellation Audio monoblocks and Wilson Audio Alexia Series 2 loudspeakers. Its DAC and analog stage are so good that most audiophiles can eliminate their external DACs. In addition, the freshly updated Aurender Conductor and A30 Manager applications are at a level beyond anything the company has previously created.
At $18,000 the Aurender A30 isn’t inexpensive, but considering it does so much at such a high level and enables many to condense their systems into a single front end component, the price is absolutely inline with my high expectations.
Touch ‘Em All
The Aurender A30 shouldn’t be mistaken for a Jack of all trades because we all know the pitfalls of doing everything good but nothing great. The Aurender team hit all the right buttons with the A30 design and included none of the bells and whistles that flash in the store but are useless once the product is home. The A30 isn’t perfect, but it’s a home run for many music aficionados.
At it’s most basic level the A30 is a music server / streamer with 10TB of internal storage and support for streaming services and internet radio, with CD ripping capability and a built-in DAC for analog output to a preamp or amplifier. However, the A30 isn’t basic and certainly doesn’t sound basic.
The A30 features a dual mono DAC design like several high end components. Looking at its internal design overall it has what I call a dual mono split design. Yes I just made that up but let me explain. The digital to analog converter is true dual mono, let there be no confusion. The split design aspect stems from the fact that the top of the server contains all the audio components while the bottom of the server hosts the computer components and power transformers. In the image below one can see this dual mono split architecture clearly.
The dual mono DAC consists of a pair of AKM AK4497 chips with fully discrete linear power supplies. The Aurender team didn’t reinvent the wheel and elected to take full advantage of all the AK4497 offers. The A30 uses the chips digital volume control, that according to measurements would be difficult to beat designing one’s own custom attenuator. This chip and A30 also feature a host of minor adjustments in the form of user selectable filter and upsampling options. A30 users can select upsampling at multiples of 44.1 and 48 kHz up to 16x (705.6 and 768 kHz). By contrast the A10 features one setting to upsample content by 8x into 352.8 or 384 kHz deposing on its native sample rate.
The user selectable analog filter options are a bit more murky and in a way involve trial and error. I say this not because the listener can make a mistake, but because I haven’t found a solid explanation for what the options do and it will just take some time for the listener settle on the best option for his specific taste. For example, the Analog Filter section contains the options called Current Mode, High Sound, and Heavy Load. After testing different combinations of each, I settled on Max current mode, Off for both high sound and heavy load.
The digital filter section is more up the alley of digital aficionados because the options such as sharp roll-off, slow roll-off, and short delay etc… are much more familiar. For most listeners, selecting the right digital filter will be trial and error, but I highly recommend going with the default sharp roll-off as it offered the best sound in my experience.
Like all Aurender servers / streamers the basic platform offers good integration with both Tidal and Qobuz, and the ability to connect to an Aurender content server such as ACS10. I split my review time with the A30 by pulling all content from the ACS10 for a while and copying all my music to the local 10TB drive for the remaining time. In each case the A30 worked flawless. If I had to choose between the two configurations I’d probably select the ACS10 > A30 combo because it enables me to stream to other Aurender servers with a single library easily. I found no sonic differences between the two configurations.
Similar to the ACS10, the A30 features its own app for ripping configuration and more detailed music editing. As of a couple days ago, Aurender released version 3 of its Conductor app that’s used by all Aurender servers including the A30 for playback and universal configuration. As this isn’t a review of the new iOS app I won’t get too deep into the weeds. I will say that I love the new look and feel of version 3. The old Conductor app was good and aging gracefully, but was a bit tired. The launch of version 3 will pave the way for additional features and capabilities not possible with the old app. Users should also keep in mind that all Aurender apps are built in-house. This is very different from most of the industry and can lead to much quicker resolutions to unexpected issues. Here are some screenshots of the new Conductor v3.
The biggest difference between the A30 and almost all other high end music servers in the industry is the fact that it features a CD ripper. I said “almost all” because there are precious few products with full CD ripping capabilities. Heck, even new Mac computers haven’t shipped with CD ripping capabilities for many years. The A30 functions just like the Aurender ACS10 with respect to CD ripping and its support of the Nimbie autoloader. With the optional auto loader connected, one can rip a hundred CDs without user interaction.
I know many audiophiles have digitized their entire CD collections already, but there is a surprising number of people who have yet to complete this journey. Some of them have way too many discs, and have only ripped a select few hundred while others have sought out the perfect solution for years. If one prefers to purchase a disc, pop it into a music server, wait for it to rip and auto-eject, then tap play on an iPad, the A30 may be the perfect solution.
I’d be remiss if didn’t mention the fit and finish of the 37.5 lbs A30. In typical Aurender fashion the unit is very solid, with a thick aluminum chassis. The A30 feels like the high end component that it truly is. Most notable on the A30 is the new-to-Aurender ultra-wide color LCD display. Previous generations of servers have used a single standard width display or dual displays. The A30’s ultra-wide display is much more engaging than I imagined. The more I used the server the more I looked at the display for album art and current track position. Keep in mind that the listener is able to do this because the A30 ships with a physical remote, enabling one to put down the iPad and focus more on the music. A quick glance at the A30’s ultra-wide front display saves one the annoyance of getting into iOS for quick checks or even track changes via the physical remote because one can see the currently playing track in large letters from across the room.
A couple features I’d love to see in the A30 are a parametric EQ / DSP Engine that supports convolution filters and better internet radio support. Both features could be software upgrades to the platform for models with enough horsepower, but implementing DSP isn’t a simple undertaking. I’ve asked Aurender about more internet radio options in the past and the company’s line has always been about guaranteeing a high level of service and quality to its customers. If Aurender selects the available stations available over the Internet the company can ensure everything will work properly. This is similar to Apple’s approach to software and hardware integration. Complete control over the user experience guarantees the outcome. Some users demand more flexibility such as that provided by a Windows or Linux desktop platform, but for many users this means more headaches in an area of their lives they don’t need additional friction.
Several important aspects of the A30 deserve their own narratives, but in the interest of getting to the heart of the review, the listening sessions, I’m going to briefly touch on them. The A30 features a full headphone amplifier with balanced and unbalanced outputs. I’m not going to delve into the quality of this amplifier because it would be like reading a review of a high end audio product on the Verge website. A bunch of words from a guy who should stay in his lane and leave some things up to the experts.
The A30 also features a full linear power supply with integrated super capacitor UPS, single digital output in the form of a dedicated class 2 USB port with ultra low noise, SSD caching for all playback, a double isolated Ethernet port, critical listening mode that disabled all non-essential services, support for PCM up through 768 kHz and DSD up through DSD512. Add to all this remote technical support enabled by the user when needed, and I still have missed a few items. If one is lacking additional information, it’s time to visit a dealer with a list of questions.
Ray Brown Trio Live at Starbucks on Telarc (mastered by Michael Bishop) is an underrated favorite album of mine. There are several great tracks on the album but I always go back to the final track titled Starbucks Blues as my favorite. Ray Brown’s deep double bass is as impactful as ever when heard through the Aurender A30 driving my amps directly. Using the Constellation XLR input I had no need for my constellation preamplifier. The A30’s 5.4 Vrms balanced output had enough drive to punch home even the lowest of low notes. I could’ve switched the A30 to 4 volt output and used my preamp for extra oomph but I hate to fix what’s not broken. Toward the end of the track the A30 reproduces both Ray Brown’s punchy bass and Karriem Riggins’ delicate drum and cymbal work exquisitely. Each of Brown’s finger plucks has texture but each of Riggins’ cymbal taps has both texture and air.
As a tea aficionado I would’ve happily drank the liquid that Starbucks makes from tea leave dust (I can’t consider it real tea), just to hear this trio in person. The A30 at least gave me a great audible look into this concert by reproducing all its textures, spaces, and bone rattling bass in a way in which Aurender has never done in my listening room.
Now for a delightful transient treat. I often think of transients as bombastic percussion pieces, but lest we forget the piano is completely capable of acute attacks followed by releases that ring out to eternity. I was laying in bed the other night, browsing through Qobuz to select an album for playback through my headphones. I stumbled upon a 1976 release from an artist unknown to me named Larry Karush. I know, queue the letters to the editor about how out of touch I am with some truly great music. Anyway, the album is called May 24, 1976 and features pianist Larry Karush with bassist Glen Moore, recorded in May 1976 at Talent Studios, Oslo. (HDtracks | Qobuz | Tidal)
Karush’s initial soft piano entrance to the opening untitled track is enough to lull the listener to sleep beautifully. Half-way through the track Karush starts striking the keys in a fashion that produces notes similar to that heard in a horror movie sound track. Bam! Followed by a delicate sustain, decay and endless release. Through the Aurender A30 I just couldn’t stop listening to this track and entire album. The combination of Karush’s attacking piano and sweet melodic piano can be heard in all its glory, using the internal DAC and analog output stage of the A30.
Track two is a whole different animal with Moore playing bass using a bow and offering a wonderful juxtaposition with his low frequencies providing the yin to Karush’s high pitched piano yang. The texture of the bow and strings is undeniably seductive as it’s an additional element of detail frequently lost through lesser components. For example, I connected the Aurender A10 to my system for comparison with the A30, and quickly deduced that the A10 is good but has nowhere near the resolution, texture, and detail of the A30. The A30 was also more punchy in the lower registers, tightly reproducing bass I could feel in a very controlled manner.
Staying solidly in the 1970s with Bill Withers’ Greatest Hits, released by Mobile Fidelity on SACD (Acoustic Sounds | MoFi) and played back as DSD64 files through the Aurender A30, the grove and detail were abundant. On the track Use Me the A30 reproduced James Gadson’s drums and Ray Jackson’s Hohner D6 Clavinet with punch, delicacy and great delineation. Each time Gadson tapped the kick drum I felt if I was a drummer I could identify the drum model, size, drum head, and pedal he was using back in 1972 because of its distinct and clear sound. Contributing to the great grove on this track, it’s Jackson’s clavinet that stands out perfectly through my system with the A30. On lesser systems and DACs this clavinet can meld into Melvin Dunlap’s foundational bass groove and produce a lumpy bottom end sound. Not in my listening room with these components.
The A30 isn’t in the same class as a W20 paired with and externally clocked by a dCS Rossini, but once in a while it doesn’t have to be and at significantly less money it shouldn’t be that caliber. Listening to The Black Keys’ El Camino (HDtracks | Qobuz | Tidal) album is a case and point. Little Black Submarines is a great split personality rock and roll track. The track starts with Dan Auerbach’s somewhat delicate acoustic guitar backed by Brian (Danger Mouse) Burton’s organ. Delicate is a relative term when playing The Black Keys. Both the A10 and A30 do a great job on this “delicate” intro. At 2:05 when the track’s second personality kicks in, the control of the A30 reproduces the explosive dirty rock and roll terrifically. I can’t say that a more expensive or esoteric server/DAC combination will improve this track much, over the A30, but of course I won’t rule it out. Sometimes dynamically squashed rock and roll (mastered by @Brian Lucey) just needs more power than finesse.
One example of where the Aurender A30 doesn’t match the performance of its flagship bother the W20 connected to a dCS Rossini DAC is when listening to Steve Perry’s solo album Street talk (Qobuz | Tidal). The track Oh Sherrie is a favorite of mine that many in the HiFi industry have discovered and queue up when I’m listening to a demo at a trade show. Perhaps some would call this track a guilty pleasure of mine. Anyway, I’ve heard this track played back from the safety master tape and through the best digital front ends. Without question I can identify the quality of the playback system after Steve Perry’s opening line, “You should’ve been gone.” At the end of the word “gone” it’s possible to hear the lower registers of his voice when he is exhaling and preparing for the next line, “Knowing how I made you feel.”
The first time I heard this detail was through the safety master tape and it blew my mind. It was a HiFi experience I’ll never forget. Listening to the digital version of Oh Sherrie on the dCS Rossini in my system I can get very close to that master tape, but without the tape here in my system and using a different master (digital) it’s really hard to say more. However, listening through the A30 I just don’t hear the depth of Perry’s voice as he exhales. Yes there is a definite bottom end to his voice during this opening line, but it is just a bit shy of what I hear with the absolute best digital I’ve had in my system. This doesn’t surprise me because the A30 doesn’t contain a separate Ring DAC and all the intellectual property that goes into he dCS Rossini. That said, readers shouldn’t over exaggerate this sonic difference. The A30 is a fantastic DAC, server, streamer, ripper, etc…
The A30 is a component the likes of which we haven’t seen from Aurender. Sure it’s a server, streamer, ripper, with a DAC, but the company has never released a digital/analog product at this level. This is Aurender’s flagship product with a built-in digital to analog converter as well as all the other goodies that make an Aurender and Aurender. This company cut its teeth on digital music servers and has now made a complete product with analog output at a very high level. Even old school curmudgeon, set in their ways audiophiles, who don’t believe a manufacturer can build more than one type of product, should give the A30 a solid listen. Sure the digital side is fully Aurender like everyone expects, but the DAC and analog output stage are in a class higher than all previous Aurender products.
Reproducing bass with both punch and texture, underneath delicate and airy high frequencies is par for the course with the A30 in one’s system. The powerful balanced outputs have drive to bypass a preamp, connecting straight to power amplifiers. This enables the elimination of external DACs and cables, and frees up space in one’s rack.
Aurender’s track record for great products and customer service over the last decade, now enhanced by its analog flagship A30, is proof that this company has taken itself to another level. I believe Aurender should now be considered one of the blue chip companies in HiFi. I unquestionably recommend the A30 to even the most knuckle-dragging, stubborn, old school audiophiles. To quote the late Christopher Wallace, “If you don’t know, now you know.”