I usually come away from every audio show with at least one piece of gear that I am seriously smitten with. Normally that feeling, after a closer look at my bank statement, quickly fades away. Sometimes, though, the attraction of the new toy refuses to go quietly.
Such was the case at the T.H.E. Show in Newport. I went to the 14th floor of the Hotel Irvine to see my friend Robert Lee, the genius (IMHO) designer of Acoustic Zen speakers, who was sharing the room with New Mexico retailer High End Zone. After catching up with Mr. Lee, I sat down to audition his statement Maestro speakers ($43,000 a pair), a 67-inch tall, 4-way, ribbon-tweeter design that I never get tired of listening to.
I’ve long wanted a pair of these transducers, so they already were on the lottery-windfall list. But when I asked the room staff to cue something up, they passed me a wood-trimmed iPad running the coolest interface I’ve ever seen. The tablet was controlling an Aurender W20 music server ($17,600), which was sitting on a rack in between the speakers.
I used my finger to scroll down seemingly endless pages filled with large, high-resolution graphics of album covers. I stopped and tapped Elton John’s second album, and before you know it “Sixty Years On” was playing.
The sound was very clean, dynamic and liquid. Even though it was digital, it seemed to have the depth and texture of analog, without the extra warmth or pops and clicks. And, the resolution was excellent for a Red Book source.
I flipped through a half-dozen (OK, maybe it was a full dozen) other favorite tracks, dazzled both by the ease of finding what I wanted and the clarity of each recording. One after another, the songs flowed from the rig — which also included Ypsilon electronics and Verastarr cable — with little effort on my part.
“It changes the way you listen to music,” Hi End Zone CEO Stefan Fuegi told me.
The thought of having all my tunes at my fingertips was mind-blowing. “I actually might be able to get my wife to sign off on this,” I thought, mentally doing the math on 401(k) funds and estimated proceeds from eBaying about nine or 10 audio paperweights now stacked in the closet. And, my spousal unit surely would appreciate the dramatic reduction in verbal rants now caused by having to rummage through shelves, drawers and boxes looking for that misplaced Dire Straits bootleg or Stones remaster.
Fuegi said that for a while buyers could get a deal where a “reasonable number” of their compact discs would be digitized as part of the purchase. The customer would receive a sturdy box with a series of spindles inside. The CD owner would remove the discs from their jewel cases, stack them on the spindles and send the package off to a service that would convert the discs to files, complete with cover art. As for exactly what a “reasonable number” of albums might be, the answer seemed to be up for individual negotiation.
Aurender makes a few other servers at lower price points, but the W20 is the flagship. “It has higher parts quality and the latest technology,” Fuegi said.
The W20 does not have its own digital-to-analog converter. The buyer provides one, but that point doesn’t really bother me because most of us already have DACs we’ve carefully selected and laid out the long green for. What the W20 does have is storage space — a bucket-load of it. With 12TB of (6TB times two) internal hard disk drives and one 240GB solid-state drive cache for playback, the W20 could handle even my ridiculous hoard of CDs.
There’s been an explosion in the number of music servers being marketed, but the Aurender seems to have the build quality and performance to be embraced by even those with the highest-end systems. My lotto wish list just got longer.