Aurender N10 music server

When I reviewed the Antipodes DX Reference in October 2015, that $7500 media server made musical mincemeat of my regular computer audio setup: a headless 2.7GHz i7 Mac mini fitted with 8GB of RAM and Pure Music and Audirvana apps. Coincident with the publication of that review, Aurender launched its N10 music server ($7999) at the 2015 Rocky Mountain Audio Fest. I had been impressed with Aurender's Flow USB headphone amplifier when I reviewed it in June 2015, so I asked for an N10.

On the Outside
Designed in California and manufactured in South Korea, Aurender's N10 is a smart-looking if hefty component, 16¾" wide and weighing 26 lbs, with a large Active Matrix Organic LED (AMOLED) screen in the center of its front panel. This screen has two individual "windows" that can be switched between displays of the metadata of a selected file being played and the identity of the USB-connected DAC being used, and a pair of VU-type meters, illuminated in beige or pale blue, using either the Aurender Conductor app (see later) or one of the four buttons to the screen's right. The other three buttons are the usual Play/Pause and Track Forward and Back functions.

The sides resemble black-finished heatsinks, while the rear panel offers, from left to right: an AES/EBU digital output on an XLR jack; coaxial S/PDIF digital outputs on RCA and BNC jacks; a TosLink optical output; a Class 2 USB Type A jack for outputting data to a USB DAC; a stack of two USB Type A jacks for connecting external drives; a Gigabit Ethernet port; and the AC outlet and On/Off switch. (There is a Sleep/Wake button to the left of the front-panel display.)

The N10 is a good-looking, solidly finished piece of kit.

On the Inside
Like the Antipodes server, the Aurender N10 is actually a single-purpose computer. Running a modified version of the open-source Linux operating system, it's dedicated to retrieving audio files—from an external NAS drive, or a drive plugged into one of its Type A USB ports, or its internal storage—and, with the highest precision, sending the data to its Class 2 USB Type B output port or to one of its serial digital audio ports.

Looking first at the hardware, three 2x9V, 25VA toroidal transformers behind the front panel form the basis of a hefty power supply. Internal storage comprises two 2TB Western Digital Green hard drives, along with a 240GB solid-state disk (SSD) that's used to cache files before playback. These drives, too, are mounted behind the front panel, in a small card frame. When a selected song or album is cached on the SSD, the hard drive storing the original files remains asleep, prolonging the drive's life. Playing cached files from the SSD also eliminates electrical and acoustic noise from spinning disks and moving heads.

The circuitry is carried on a large, multilayer printed-circuit board, with a hefty heatsink over the microprocessor and the digital-audio-handling section shielded within a machined-aluminum subenclosure. Removing the engraved cover from the subenclosure reveals a neat layout, with a large can in the center marked "OCXO 12.8MHz." This Oven-Controlled Crystal Oscillator keeps the master clock at a constant temperature to eliminate any changes in its operating frequency due to temperature fluctuations. There are two other crystals on the board, along with large chips from XMOS and Xilinx. The Xilinx is a Spartan Field Programmable Gate Array (FPGA) that Aurender uses to implement a digital phase-locked loop system that they say "precisely times the digital data transmission, reducing jitter to near immeasurable levels."

Overall, the N10's full-size enclosure and the layout of its circuitry suggest that Aurender's designers have paid attention to detail regarding RFI isolation and shielding, as should be the case at a price of $7999.

Conducting
While audio files can be navigated with the N10's front-panel buttons, it is Aurender's Conductor app that mostly will be used to control the server. This runs on iPads (an Android version 8is under development), and manages both file playback and all the N10's settings and functions. I downloaded the app from the Apple App Store, installed it on my iPad mini, and logged on to the family's protected WiFi network. The N10 had already been connected to the router via Ethernet, and I'd copied both my iTunes library and a large number of high-resolution FLAC and DSD files to its internal storage over the network. As soon as I ran the app, it found the N10 and asked if I wanted to connect to it. Indeed I did!

The Conductor app's Settings screen

Once the app was running, I selected the Settings Menu, which lets you turn on DSD-to-PCM transcoding (this affects only the serial digital outputs, not the USB output), see how much space there is on the hard drives, set up the N10 to stream music from Tidal, connect to any NAS drive on the same network, and adjust the appearance of the front-panel display (see first iPad screenshot). While I was doing this, the N10 was scanning and organizing the files it found in its storage and preparing them for playback.

The D10's music library can display files by Artist, Composer, Genre, Song, etc.—or by Album, as in this screenshot.

Playing music with the N10 is a simple matter of selecting an album or individual songs, and adding them to a playlist in a window on the left of the screen with the transport controls at the top (see second screenshot). The library can be arranged by Artist, Album, Composer, Genre, Song, etc.—or by applying a filter, such as "just show DSD files" (see third screenshot).

When a DSD file is played, the N10's AES/EBU and S/PDIF outputs can stream a transcoded PCM version.

Tidal streams can be mixed with local files in the playlist window; swiping the app's library window to the right reveals the metadata for the song being played (see fourth screenshot). When you click on an album or artist and touch "Add all songs," a button with a stylized "W" appears at the bottom left of the submenu. Clicking on that brings up a browser window with the appropriate entry from Wikipedia, and while this is not as extensive as the AllMusic Guide information accessible with the iPeng app used with the Antipodes server, it serves its purpose.

Swiping the Conductor's library window to the right reveals a song's metadata.

Setting up the N10 and the Conductor app was straightforward, but if the N10's owner does run into a roadblock, pressing the Help button on the app's Settings screen requests support, and allows an Aurender engineer to diagnose and fix the problems over the Internet.

Listening
Triggered by Larry Greenhill's review of Tannoy's TS2.12 subwoofer in February, where he mentioned using a performance of Beethoven's Symphony 7 by Michael Tilson Thomas and the San Francisco Symphony, I downloaded the files and dragged'n'dropped them on to one of the N10's internal drives. LG had auditioned the DSD64 files, but as the SFSO lists the provenance of the recording as being 24-bit PCM at 96kHz, that's what I bought. (Why move a step further away from the original format?) From the opening declamatory chord through the glorious melodies in the first movement, the shuffling rhythm in the second movement, the joyous scherzo, to the triumphant horns in the final movement, the symphony that Richard Wagner called Beethoven's "apotheosis of the dance," sourced from the Aurender, had me glued to my seat, though with feet tapping.

I switched to the Antipodes DX Reference playing the same FLAC files and was hard put to hear any change in the sound. The Antipodes server's superbly palpable imaging was matched by the Aurender's. Both effortlessly connected me with the music of "I Say," from Happy Rhodes's 1993 EP, HR5 (16/44.1 ALAC, Aural Gratification). (A shout-out to Jon Iverson for turning me on to this idiosyncratic singer in his January review of the Apogee Groove headphone amplifier.) Using all of her four-octave range, Rhodes has laid down multiple vocal lines over a haunting, chugging, gamelan-esque instrumental backing. As I'd connected the N10 to the PS Audio DirectStream DAC via both USB and S/PDIF coaxial links, I could play this hypnotic song over and over with the Aurender app, ostensibly to compare the sounds of the different outputs, but actually just to groove on the groove. I heard no meaningful differences.

I did hear a difference between a DSD file played natively via USB and transcoded in real time to 176.4kHz PCM via S/PDIF. When I played the "Moonlight," from Peter Takács's complete cycle of Beethoven's piano sonatas (DSD64 files, Cambria Master Recordings), the DSD version was louder. Checking with a DSD64 1kHz tone, I confirmed the level difference: a very audible 6.5dB. Peculiarly, with a DSD128 file, the difference was smaller, with a level reduction for the PCM version of just 0.72dB. (Perhaps the digital filter that transcodes DSD to PCM reduces the level to avoid the possibility of peak clipping, but why, then, the difference in level between DSD64 and DSD128 files?) Once I'd adjusted for the level difference with the Beethoven sonata, the difference between DSD and PCM was very difficult to hear—if at all.

Over the past year, I've been working my way through The Decca Sound: The Analogue Years—a boxed set of classic classical recordings from the English record company (50 CDs, Decca 001934702)—ripping the CDs to ALAC files as I do so. An album from this collection that I keep returning to is Clifford Curzon's performance of Brahms's Piano Concerto 1 with the London Symphony conducted by George Szell, which is displacing in my affections Emil Gilels's 1972 version, with Eugen Jochum and the Berlin Philharmonic. Recorded in London's Kingsway Hall in 1962, by Decca's A team of producer John Culshaw and engineer Kenneth Wilkinson, this recording has a bold, upfront balance. Nevertheless, with the files played on the Aurender feeding USB data to the PS Audio DirectStream DAC, Curzon's arpeggiated musings in the slow movement still sounded magically mysterious. This server is a keeper.

Conclusion
Aurender's line of music servers contains models more and less expensive—they range from $2499 to $17,600—but at $7999, the N10 hits the sweet spot where price, features, and functionality converge. Yes, apps like Roon offer much greater integration with metadata sources, but I very much enjoyed my time with the N10, especially given its sound quality and the usability of Aurender's Conductor app. Highly recommended.

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 :)

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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