The last few years have seen some very convincing advances in computer audio-based playback. As understanding has increased, sound quality has gone up. That’s undeniable. But is computer audio easier, in any meaningful interpretation of that word? I’m not convinced.
The problem isn’t that it’s hard to make computer audio function. I think it’s taken as read that Apple “solved” this problem for us with the iPod and iTunes. But getting good sound out of your hi-fi by using a computer as a source, well, that’s another thing entirely. Again, it’s better than it was. But “easy”? No. Not yet.
Now, in all fairness, analog isn’t really all that easy either. There’s that tonearm and cartridge, the phono preamp, not to mention the turntable itself — that’s a lot of pieces. Analog tape is a whole lot simpler, and as UHA has shown us, it still is extremely rewarding. But in this space, CDs still reign supreme. It’s not even close. Computer audio, compared to its shiny-disc cousin, is a distant trailing oddity.
Which is why, to my mind, a special-purpose/purpose-built machine like an Aurender is simply more interesting than a Mac Mini will ever be.
With the Aurender, and solutions like it, there’s no question of bus simplification, thread management, or noisy power supplies. All of that (and a whole lot more besides) is taken care of. Sorted. What you have to worry about is music file management. And no, that isn’t insignificant, actually — it’s one of the main reasons why Roon and Tidal are so very, very interesting as solutions introduced into this space. So, assuming you (or your dealer) can sort out where all your stuff is, the playback part of the audio chain is optimized with Aurender.
Aurender has a variety of solutions, but they’re primarily known for their music servers. Some of these, like their original product, the S10, feature local hard drives for storage and did a fantastic job of feeding your off-board DAC files as optimally as possible. Some of these solutions, like the replacement for the S10 — called the N10 ($8,000) — can do that too, but are also optimized to pull audio from somewhere not local, either stored away on large hard drives on your network’s NAS device, or directly from the Internet from a streaming service like Tidal.
The N10 is expensive, no question about it. A full-width chassis, much like their class-leading W20 server (and the outgoing S10), the N10 features 4TB of on-deck local storage, and:
More advanced Oven-Controlled Crystal Oscillator (OCXO) for the greatest jitter reduction. OCXOs are among the most accurate and stable clocks in use today, and are orders of magnitude more accurate and stable than commonly used ordinary crystal oscillators usually found in computers. Temperature changes cause crystal oscillations to fluctuate, which can lead to jitter in the digital audio signal. Moreover, ordinary crystals are much less stable and lose accuracy over time. In OCXO clocks, a very stable, high-grade crystal oscillator is enclosed in a compartment and kept at a constant temperature to prevent jitter from temperature fluctuations. In conjunction with the OCXO is a Field Programmable Gate Array (FPGA) based All-Digital Phase-Locked Loop system precisely times the digital data transmission reducing jitter to near immeasurable levels.
The Aurender N10 is equipped with various SPDIF outputs (BNC, AES/EBU, coaxial, optical) and one dedicated USB Audio Class 2.0 output. The dedicated USB Audio Class 2.0 output is designed to deliver an exceptionally transparent audio signal free of noise, and is shielded from outside electronic interference. For network connectivity and file transfers, the N10 comes with one a Gigabit Ethernet port and two USB 2.0 data ports.
Designed to be used with high performance digital-to-analog converters, the Aurender N10 is the only Music Player to support on-the-fly precision DSD to PCM on SPDIF and AES/EBU outputs with user-selectable choice of 88.2 or 176.4 output sampling rate. Enjoy DSD files even if your DAC isn’t capable of native DSD playback.
On the back deck, I found some of the other Aurender products thoughtfully laid out for our visual delectation, including the X100L and N100H half-width server products, and the X725 DAC/Amplifier, a “matching” unit designed to complement their audiophile server/streamers.
Tucked in and amongst, I also found something unusual — the UC100 ($499, available in November), a USB-to-S/PDIF converter. I must have looked puzzled at this, as Aurender’s Harry Lee asked me if I’d ever heard of the excellent Berkeley Audio Designs Alpha USB Converter. Owning one, I might have acknowledged that I had heard of such. Harry smiled and winked, “Well, this converter is only $500.”
This is an interesting thought, and gets directly back to my earlier point about simplicity — Aurender, as a maker of servers and streamers, is still being asked about USB-to-S/PDIF conversion. Consumers, some 10 years or so now into the “computer audio revolution” are still avoiding USB like it’s got the cheese touch. Folks! Seriously. We’re past this, okay? If your DAC doesn’t support a damn good USB transceiver chipset (XMOS, for example), get a new DAC! Rant aside, Harry’s (unstated) point is well made, (said the reviewer, grudgingly): for those that won’t or can’t, the tidy and remarkably artsy-looking UC100 will more than capably bridge that gap.
The UC100 can allow Aurender Music Servers to interface with active loudspeaker systems that incorporate built-in amplifiers, DSP and DACs. In this application running a Coaxial cable to the loudspeakers from the UC100 is required.
The UC100’s input is High-Speed USB 2.0; output is SPDIF (Coaxial RCA 75 Ohms). Supported word lengths: Up to 24-bit; Supported sampling rates: Up to 192 Khz. Supported DSD: DSD64 supported with DoP.
The room setup here at RMAF included electronics from Aesthetix and power conditioning from Shunyata. At the top of the rack, a pair of Aurender N10; one was used as a server, the other a streamer. With their distinctive canted tweeter and mid-range driver, a pair of Larsen 8 loudspeakers, which are designed to be shoved right up on the wall, flanked the tall rack.