N10 Review – Read About AudioStream’s Rafe Arnot’s Sonic Epiphany / AudioStream
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.
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.
Read more at https://www.audiostream.com/content/aurender-n10-preview-and-lack-subtlety#WQq1CB1YHew9BKUl.99