Aurender N10 music server JVS April 2019

Jason Victor Serinus wrote about the Aurender N10 in April 2019 (Vol.42 No.4):

John Atkinson reviewed Aurender's N10 music server ($8000, 4TB; add $500 for 8TB capacity) in the April 2016 issue. When he offered me his review sample to use in my review, in the March 2019 issue, of EMM Labs' DV2 DAC, I replied with an enthusiastic "Yes!" As I marveled about the beauty of the Aurender-EMM combo's smooth, warm, nonfatiguing sound, John proposed I write this Follow-Up.

Previously, the only Aurender product that had visited my reference system had been the A10 caching network music player/server ($5500), which I reviewed in January 2018. While I'd been impressed with the A10's music-server section, I'd questioned the quality of its internal DAC, whose sound, to my ears, was distinctly undistinguished. The N10 presented an opportunity to evaluate what Aurender seems to do best: design and make high-quality, user-friendly music servers.

As a bonus, JA offered to include all the music files he'd loaded onto the N10's two internal 2TB hard drives. Although thoughts of peering into my editor's music library brought back memories of the time, long ago, when I lifted the bottom liner of one of my father's dresser drawers and discovered an envelope full of porn, I'm happy to report that John's collection contains no aural embarrassments.

After placing the N10 on my Grand Prix Audio Monaco rack, connecting it to my router via Ethernet, turning it on, and downloading Aurender's Conductor app to my iPad Pro, I opened the app's Settings and indicated that I wanted to upgrade the N10's firmware from the version JA had used many moons ago. No sooner had I done so than I received a notice informing me, more or less, that "Something has gone wrong with your download. You can continue, but doing so may erase your data." I say "more or less" because thoughts of wiping out John's library left me too panicked to take notes. Instead, between cries of "NO!" I invoked the disputably sacred names of Siri, Tim Cook, and Steve Jobs. I have no recollection of what happened next, but somehow, the firmware update successfully completed and John's files remained intact.

However, not everything in the updated firmware worked as promised. I had no problem following Aurender's easy online directions and loading the entire contents of three 256GB USB sticks that hold the music I use for review purposes into John's "Music Folder 1" (though for some reason, the N10 placed them in a new "Etc." subfolder, which allowed easy access), but I couldn't pick which among the many albums and tracks on those sticks I wanted to add. It was either all or nothing. The new Selective Addition feature of Aurender's latest app update simply refused to function.

A day after opening Conductor's Help function, and after sending simultaneous help requests to Aurender's Korea-based technical support team and to Ari Margolis, the company's extremely together, Colorado-based US support person, I learned via e-mail that Aurender had found and fixed a bug in its firmware. After the folks in Korea remotely loaded the fix into my unit, the app worked as promised, and the selective addition of files was easily accomplished. Nonetheless, I found it frustrating that Aurender's basic online manual for the N10 is so sketchy that one must contact tech support to get links to otherwise hard-to-find support pages that contain detailed information about everything the manual omits.

Revisiting Aurender Conductor a year after my A10 review proved painless. A special delight was discovering that the app no longer automatically begins to play files as soon as I've cached them on the N10's better-sounding 240GB SSD drive. What to listen to, and when, were entirely up to me.

When I spoke with Margolis by phone, he told me that Aurender intends to eventually issue "a completely new version of the Conductor app with a visually rich experience . . . and a better window into metadata." The redesigned app will include the ability to read a recording's liner notes, which is one of the many pluses of Roon Labs' music player. (The other major plus is that Roon sounds better than Audirvana, which I use on my laptops.)

Conductor now includes portals for Qobuz as well as Tidal; a portal for Spotify Connect may be available by the time you read this. Conductor can also perform a first-level (with playback up to 96kHz) unfold of MQA files streamed from Tidal or loaded into its music library, albeit for a onetime upgrade fee of $49. According to Margolis, that covers MQA's licensing fee, and charging separately for it means that users who don't want MQA don't have to pay for it.

Files played through the N10's USB port sounded more colorful and a bit more transparent than through the USB port of the 2017 MacBook Pro it replaced. After comparing the N10's sound through its various outputs, I felt that both AES/EBU and S/PDIF delivered more colorful and better-defined images than USB. Therefore, I did most of my listening through those outputs. Nonetheless, I kept wondering if the gray cast I heard in the silences between notes, and the lack of glow or of bright, fully saturated colors that I'm accustomed to hearing through my loaner reference dCS gear (a Rossini DAC, or a combination of Network Bridge and Vivaldi DAC), were inherent qualities of the DV2's sound, or if they originated with the N10.

The only way to find out was to compare the N10's sound to that of another music server while using the same DAC (EMM DV2), cables (Nordost Odin 2), and setup supports: first, Stein UltraNaturals, then a combination of Nordost Titanium and Bronze Sort Kones. The only choice available was the dCS Network Bridge ($4750). This is a very different animal from the Aurender N10. Not a music server per se, the dCS has no internal storage; instead, it serves as an interface between a digital music collection and a DAC. As with the N10, music can be sourced from USB sticks or external USB drives, NAS drives, and online streaming services. As the Network Bridge's own app is rather limited compared to Aurender's Conductor app, to play files in my reference system I use Ethernet to connect the Network Bridge to a Linux-based Intel NUC ($439 base price) loaded with a Roon Optimized Core Kit (ROCK).

Sending signals to the EMM Labs DV2 DAC via RCA, I first compared the NUC and N10 while reviewing the high-resolution recording of Teodor Currentzis conducting MusicAeterna in Mahler's Symphony 6 (24/96 WAV, Sony Classical 19075822952). Compared to the N10, the Network Bridge with Roon delivered more colorful images, and more silence between notes. Switching to music far more intimate, mezzo-soprano Marianne Crebassa and pianist Fazil Say performing "Le Chevelure," from Debussy's song cycle Chansons de Bilitis (24/96 WAV, Erato 564483), the N10's sound was somewhat grayer than the Network Bridge's. With Roon and the Network Bridge, colors were more substantial and horns fuller in Iván Fischer and the Budapest Festival Orchestra's recording of Mahler's Symphony 3 (DSD64, Channel Classics CCS SA 38817).

I hope someday to hear Aurender's flagship, battery-powered W20 music server in my system. Until then, I'll admire their N10 one-box server's ease of use and value its ability to connect to a DAC via USB.—Jason Victor Serinus

COMPANY INFO
Aurender Co. Ltd
Aurender America Inc.
2519 W. Woodland Drive
Anaheim, CA 92801
ARTICLE CONTENTS

COMMENTS
music or sound's picture

I am reading quite a number of reviews of different music severs and I find quite difficult to figure out the differences between different models (e.g Aurender N100H) sound wise (except the obvious ones like price, storage capacity and type of outputs). Most reviews only state it sounds better than a Macbook. I understand it is a difficult task as there are many variables like different DACs with different inputs with various quality, different connection possibilities (but then again there are a lot different amps and speakers and I find their reviews are much more understandable - including or because of it their measurements). Would these servers sound better than a computer and a reclocking device? It is close to impossible to find a dealer who can demonstrate several different servers.
Digital audio is apparently moving away from downloads to internet streaming. So is there any advantage for this for these servers relative to computers?

spacehound's picture

Assuming your MAC is not 'broken' in some way I think this "musical mincemeat" is entirely in your imagination. Expectation bias? Dunno, I don't pretend to be a psychologist. This thing does not have a DAC so it's all 'digital'. And my 35 years in the computer industry says to me that these boxes are all the same, as it is not 'music' until it comes out of the D/A circuitry in the DAC, which this box doesn't have. Just data from a file, no different from a saved email. It's why I bought the relatively cheap (700 UK Pounds) Cambridge Audio Stream Magic. (which does include a DAC, that can, however, be bypassed, which I do).

Computer 'noise'? No. At full volume, using either streaming or USB from a cheap Windows PC, JRiver set to 'play silence', The CA streamer, which conveniently, and unlike most streamers, has a regular USB input too, a dCS Debussy ('async' so clocking is ENTIRELY from the DAC and any supposed 'computer jitter' is irrelevant - all this "it may have to work harder" stuff is pure BS, that is what DAC buffers are FOR), the latest Naim NAP250, and a pair of Tannoy Kensingtons, I can JUST hear the faintest 'transistor hiss' with the grille removed and an ear right up to the tweeter, and that faint hiss is no different if I power down the computer totally. So 'computer noise' is nonsense.

Am I a crazed objectivist with cloth ears?
No. I wouldn't have purchased the dCS, Naim, or the Tannoys if I was, would I? But I DO have sufficient knowledge to tell the boxes than can make a difference from the boxes that can't. And my powering off the computer as above proves what I say about 'computer noise', which some get pointlessly worked up about.

doak's picture

You say: "my 35 years in the computer industry says to me that these boxes are all the same."

How about giving LISTENING a try!?!

Save your $$ if YOU can't hear a difference.

What I can say because I can hear it (I won't defer to my 45+ years experience as an avid/active audiophile/music lover) is that digital music transports DO make a difference. These purpose built "digital audio appliances" make great sense and do the job better than a general purpose computer. A BIG plus is they are MUCH easier to use and deal with. I LOVE that I no longer have a "computer" in my audio system. I am spending more time listening to music and a lot less "dicking with" a computer.

BTW: It doesn't take anywhere near $7-8K to get there - plenty of less expensive choices. Check out the Auralic Aries or the Melco N1A. The future is here for those who want it.

spacehound's picture

It's why I have the Cambridge.

The rest of it is not worth an answer.
One - because how do you think I chose the dCS DAC, Naim amp, and Tannoy speakers, if not by listening?
Two. You think your 45 years (plus the years before you got interested) old ears can detect differences? Not a chance.

And as I attempted to explain, these DAC-less streamer boxes contain no 'analog' circuitry subject to distortion and are basically just 'pass through' digital switches. They don't have a 'sound quality', good or bad.

doak's picture

...that wisdom comes when we can admit how much we do not know.
From what you express it sounds like the Cambridge unit doesn't make the cut.
To truly "listen" in this case it must be with the Aurender (or something close to its quality) versus a general purpose computer, both into a quality DAC with which you are quite familiar. That's how this particular test works. "Experience" doesn't count for beans.

spacehound's picture

Do you think I haven't listened to more than one of these things? (Though I have not heard the Aurender).

Better or worse? FIRST you must hear an 'objective' difference. You can't be 'subjective' about any comparison about better or worse until you do.

What do I find:

1) I THINK I hear a difference between a basic 'computer USB to DAC USB' installation compared to a NAS-Ethernet-Streamer-DAC installation. I want to, but am not fully convinced I actually do, as I have already reached a quality WAY beyond even a top-priced (if price means much above a certain level) CD player. And there are fully valid reasons why either a computer or a Streamer should sound better than a CD player.
2) Streamer better or worse than computer? Noise level is inaudible unless I have an ear almost touching a tweeter, even at full volume. 'Jitter' is irrelevant in either case as ALL jitter comes from the 'async' DAC clock and nowhere else and it's the same DAC in both cases. Can't tell which is 'better' , not having been in the studio(s) when the recording(s) were made. This of course applies to you too. What you personally 'prefer' has nothing to do with High Fidelity, which means accuracy, by definition. No one ever comes out of a concert saying "Wasn't the bass good?"

3) If I heard a difference what was it due to?
Personally I have found that 'sound quality' depend more on my 'state' at the time than deviations between 'good' boxes.
Another one is power quality. I have a 100 Amp 220 volt, thus 22 Kilowatts 'cooker' outlet directly to the HiFi equipment rather than the standard 26 amp, 5.7 Kilowatts (the 'ring' is fed from both ends) UK 'ring main'. This is an improvement at any time. However, it all sounds best in the middle of the night when, presumably, area power demand is low.

These two things ar FAR more important to sound quality than the difference between one 'recognised' HiFi box and the next.

Quality.
You say "something close to its quality". How do you KNOW what its "quality" is compared to others such as the Cambridge? The price compared to others (worthless above a certain minimal level) or what? How many other Streamers have you personally heard? (Our 'dealer' here, audiodoctomj, has presumably heard several.)

doak's picture

... and am prone to say "There's only one opinion that counts as far as the choices I make,audio related or otherwise, and that one of course is "mine." Likewise, no doubt, in your personal decisions.

Enjoy your music system and life. In the end, that is all that really matters.

audiodoctornj's picture

As a new Aurender dealer, and as a high end dealer with over 30 years of experience, I would love to chime in.

There is a very large difference in the sound quality that comes out of a system with an Aurender in place.

My shop, Audio Doctor has been pioneering computer audio for years, and I have to say that once you hear an Aurender on a good system you will realize that there is a rather large and easily audible improvement.

I have heard modified Mac Minis, PCs, and high end servers, we had the Qsonix and the second gen with the Wadia output board was fantastic, so you could say I have played with a lot of these digital devices.

We took over our N100 to a customer with a good system: Unison Research Unico 50, Gershman speakers, Wireworld cables, NAD M51 Dac and the difference between the Mac Mini and the Aurender wasn't subtle.

The Aurender sounded was more dynamic with greater bass and an even more open sound.

The reason why does baffle me, and by the way I have heard the same results on top of the line dacs with asynchronous data transmission and re-clocking.

Why should a USB cable make such an audible difference? I don't know why we shouldn't be able to hear these things but we can.

The Aurender will bring out the best in a good dac and its difference will be readily apparent in any good system.

Even when streaming the Aurender will make an improvement.

spacehound's picture

State categorically that you are not hearing what you say you are hearing, obviously. And UNLIKE 'reviewers' you don't make a living by 'keeping the HiFi pot boiling' whether there is anything worthwhile in the pot or not, you just sell what you believe to be both good and reasonably profitable stuff. No problem with that.

But a streamer which doesn't contain a DAC (such as the one reviewed) is basically very similar to a network 'Managed Switch'. It doesn't DO anything other than implement "Take this data file from this selection of data files" (it isn't music until about halfway though the DAC circuitry) "and send it to this DAC".

It doesn't have a 'sound quality'.

SO - TO THE MEAT:

USB cables? SOME say they make a difference. But as any 'science' that might cause this is entirely unknown, it is impossible to say why. Therefore the manufacturers can't know either.

WHICH TOTALLY DEMOLISHES any nonsense about expensive USB cables being 'better'. If there is any variation at all there is no 'cost justifiable' reason whatsoever that any cable, cheap or expensive, should sound better than the next one.

The purchase price doesn't come into physics. And it doesn't come into 'unknown' physics either.

And the same applies to boxes such as the Aurender versus the Cambridge. Pick a couple of 'DAC-less streamers' at random. If there IS a difference it won't be price related as nobody, including the manufacturers, has a clue how it can happen.

audiodoctornj's picture

Your comments speak of the conspiracy minded rather than the empirical.

The fact that there many companies making servers that all sound different and many people are hearing improvements speaks to the fact that these products work and they do make an audible difference.

The concept that when you are streaming it is the same as a switch is not a valid argument, you can clearly hear a difference between two steamers on tidal as well as via NAS or hard drive.

I was present at a demo of a really expensive system $85k Dynaudio speaker, Burmester electronics, etc and we compared a Lumin to an Aurender and they both sounded different and that was on Tidal!

So you must consider that the streamer is buffering, re clocking and keeping the data stream pristine and for those reasons you can hear a difference.

The USB argument that bits is bits is also wrong. The best USB I have ever heard a $2,500.00 Enklein was tested on a device that looks at data dropouts vs lower priced high end usb cables and there was a difference that the testing devices showed, it showed that all usb cables don't allow for 100% transmission without errors.

I have also compared two $700 USB cables and they both sounded different.

So instead of looking at conceptual reasons why, get yourself into a shop and listen for yourself.

I agree that on paper we shouldn't be hearing the large differences we can hear but at this point way too many people are hearing these products and coming to the same conclusion that they work and do make an audible difference.

If you come to NJ you can visit my shop and you can compare Aurender, Lumin, Naim, Cambridge Audio, all as streamers and we do have PC's and sometimes Mac Minis as well which we compare them to we also have a sea of high end digital cables.

spacehound's picture

Most of our UK dealers are useless on this 'computer' stuff but I am 4000 miles away. Maybe when the trout fishing season starts. That gives me two excuses :)

One point I definitely disagree with. "High end digital cables". As there is no known science behind this, cable construction, as long as it is reasonable, can only be pure guesswork as the manufacturers can't know why there might be a difference either.

Thus a cheap cable of 'good' construction (which 90% plus are) is just as likely to sound as good or bad as the next cheap cable along or any randomly chosen expensive one.

So there is no reason whatsoever that as a 'group', expensive cables should sound any better (or worse) than cheap ones.

We just don't know the 'physics', if any. But I bet 'purchase price' doesn't come in to any 'physics equation', known or unknown :)

afridi's picture

I tried out an expensive Audioquest vs a much cheaper Shunyata USB cable.The Shuyata one sounded better to my ears. Why they sound different beats me, but they do.

Yaman's picture

The argument "The USB argument that bits is bits is also wrong." is wrong. You completely trash all computer operation. A bank data center relies on those bits. If these kinds of data transfers are happening at random we may end up with 0 balance at any time.

One can argue that the bits are not bits because one device doesn't output bit perfect representation of the recording whereas the other one does. This is acceptable but never happens and it all boils down to voodoo

John Atkinson's picture
Yaman wrote:
The argument "The USB argument that bits is bits is also wrong." is wrong. You completely trash all computer operation.

Forgive me for daring to think I know more about digital audio than you do :-)

Yaman wrote:
A bank data center relies on those bits. If these kinds of data transfers are happening at random we may end up with 0 balance at any time.

No-one has written that the bits are changed. But unlike the bank scenario you instance, the bits in a digital-audio datastream are going to be used to reconstruct an analog signal. In which the timing with which each data word is presented to the DAC becomes critically important. The right bits at the wrong time are equivalent to the wrong bits at the right time, a phenomenon called "jitter" in telecoms theory.

John Atkinson
Editor, Stereophile

Antipodes_Audio's picture

The common mistake amongst science practitioners (as opposed to scientists) is to assume a theory that they routinely apply, completely explains reality. This leads them to foolishly claim they know all there is to know, when none of us ever will.

Theory is always a simplification that is nevertheless useful in the intended context. The theory that bits is bits is fine for the purpose of getting the right bits from point A to point B, but you still have to design a system around that need.

And you can reasonably apply this basic theory to digital audio transmission too if you don't care too much about fidelity (such as for a phone call). But for high end audio the theory needs to expand to take more real factors into account. The principle one is the effect that noise interference on the digital signal has by creating momentary uncertainty at the downstream stages, resulting in jitter. And there is the fact that the claimed restorative effects of buffering and reclocking are wildly exaggerated, and based on a misunderstanding of how they actually work.

I realise that I will be shot down for my vested interest, fire away, but I also hope some readers will see what I am saying. High end audio is not just about making something work. It is about optimising performance. And in every scientific field I am familiar with, optimisation requires more than basic theory, and typically requires a degree of art that is based on years of real experience.

larryh111's picture

This is a great site, with many quality contributions for sure. I am relatively new to digital audio in the sense I recently purchased a high performance DAC to add to my otherwise all analogue system. While investigating music servers, I ran into this thread and would like to offer a couple of comments.

First, the job of a hifi system is simple - to accurately reproduce a recorded signal. The problem with digital recording is the result will always be an imperfect representation of the sound field it tries to capture. The evidence of that is higher sampling rates produce higher fidelity ie. more data points sound better than less. Next thing that happens is the computer streams the digital file to a device that attempts to reverse the digitizing process and form a smooth voltage signal that passes to an amp and into a speaker. Best case, is the whole transaction is performed in a way the human ear can tolerate and hopefully find musical. Worst case is where there is not enough data or a ton of manipulation has been done to the computer file either while recording or during playback. Indeed there are some excellent systems out there that do the transaction quite well.

To argue about expensive digital cables versus cheap cables and expensive digital storage media versus less expensive media seems to be missing the forest for the trees. Digital files don't have feelings, they don't impart any more quality to a sound than was put there to begin with and as I have noted above is a compromise at best. Digital files don't care if they live in an mp3 player, apple computer or a high end server. They are just there and to get them out you do as any other computer program does you read them as a file. There are many ways to make sure the file is intact and not corrupted that are done much faster than the playback rate of the music feed.

Bottom line is after you have sorted out your speakers, amps, preamps, analogue cables and DAC you may want to look at the storage media or server as it is called. As a function of dollars spent for improvement I would put the other aspects of the music chain first and the choice of a server or digital cables last.

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