Aurender A10

Sixmoons.com.12/2018

Frederic Beudot

The Aurender A10 is not brand new to Aurender's deep catalog of streamers. It has actually been out for over a year and a half but still holds a unique place in their line as the only streamer which integrates both a hard drive and DAC, making the A10 the closest thing to a one-stop-shop for digital as Aurender offer.

More than anything else, Aurender are known for digital sources combining streaming from the Internet or a local network with internal file playing. The latter implies that most of their products include one or more hard drives for file storage, making them in effect headless computers optimized for music playback.

Typical Aurender products claim superiority on three fronts:
• silent power supply
• data caching on SSD prior to exporting music files to the DAC to minimize jitter and noise
• more robust and resilient data transfer from streamer to the DAC.

In other words, they've identified these three elements of file playback as being most susceptible to noise and jitter and tried to fix them. The level of technology involved and features offered vary by model but the fundamentals remain unchanged.

As a result, Aurender's lineup can seem pretty confusing at first and it's not always obvious what more money gets you. Thankfully they've created a decision tree to help the prospective buyer choose the right model. As a marketer I'd be a little worried that the only claimed differentiating point between the $17'600 W20 and its half-priced N10 brother are dual XLR outputs and 4TB of storage. Once you dive in, the W20 also offers battery power and FPGA-based jitter reduction more consistent with the asking price but I find it amusing that the focus would be on such a rare feature as dual AES/EBU, corresponding inputs for which are found on only the rarest of high-end DACs. That segue aside, the A10 under review, although certainly not cheap, actually sits at the very favorable end of the value range not just within Aurender's line but in the market. The A10 in effect combines Aurender's $3'000 N100H file player and streamer with a $2'500 fully balanced DAC playing DSD 128, PCM 384 and unfolding MQA if that's of interest.

The combination delivers a very robust set of features not easily replicated in other products. First off, one cannot overstate the ease of integration and use provided by Aurender. Their Conductor App is as friendly and straight forward as one can ask for and more importantly, it makes inserting the Aurender into a network the most seamless experience I've had so far. Similarly, copying files from NAS or external hard drive to the internal drive was a breeze. Just click a button for a complete transfer or pick and choose manually whatever albums you want to transfer. We will get into more detail later but the Aurender system completely eclipsed what little convenience my Auraliti provides. To my mind it offers a package very competitive with Roon without the burden of monthly dues but includes pre-set integration of Tidal and Qobuz if you already have an account with either streaming service. Whether a file needs to be streamed from the Internet, streamed over a LAN, played from the internal drive or an external USB drive, the Aurender offers a very simple way to get it done which requires practically zero network knowledge or computer experience.

Coupled with that convenience comes a balanced DAC with digital volume that will play up to PCM 384 and DSD 128 as well as unfold MQA files, which sounds good on paper and even better in real life. I did say practically zero network knowledge because as with almost every option in the segment, the A10 needs to be connected to the Internet and your in-home network for all its functionalities to be accessible. That said, it is far simpler than setting up a NAS or Roon system.

Let's do a little bit of benchmarking and pressure test the assumption that this one-box solution from Aurender is actually competitively priced versus some well-known options which more or less compete in the space. On the streaming side of things, an oldie but still reliable file player is my Auraliti PK90. At $1'350 with linear power, it would seem to trounce the Aurender on value but the Aurender user interface is a dream to use and not limited to just playing files off an attached USB drive. From a feature and convenience standpoint, the two players are worlds apart. Add the difference in convenience, the need for an after-market USB cable to connect the PK90 to a DAC (add $500) as well as two 2TB SSD low-power drives to match the storage and sound quality of the Aurender. Now the total is much closer to $3'000 which happens to be the same as the NH100 which the A10 is built from. Yet that $3'000 spent on the PK90 did not yet add the ability to stream Tidal and Qobuz or to conveniently stream from a NAS. Neither did it give you any search function or automatic artwork retrieval function. Game set and match. On functionality alone, the Aurender goes way further for the money. As we'll see later, it also and more surprisingly gave the PK90 a run for that money on sound quality.

Probably the most competitive streamer would be Wyred4Sound's MS Music Server. With the exception of MQA, the MS supports all file types with higher sampling rates than the A10 while providing very similar ease of use although with a somewhat less polished and complete user interface. At $2'700, it is one of the most complete and cost effective options I'm aware of and coupled with one of their DACs via the I²S connection, it creates a system that performs far in excess of its price point.

A quick look through our archives quickly shows that there aren't many other full-featured streamers in that price range. Those that do exist require Roon memberships and more complex set-up with a Roon server, client and NAS. I am sure it is somehow possible to build a setup that will have competitive features and better sound for $3'000 but honestly, that's not who the A10 targets. An A10 customers doesn't want to go through the pain of figuring out network integration, servers and clients, switches and relays, NAS and software plus cable choices. Even the SOtM sMS-1000SQ starts at $3'500 without any internal storage and in my experience does not offer near the level of convenience unless used with Roon. The closest match I know of would require a Lumin D2 player with its L1 file storage buddies. On features and convenience, they would be very close, just represent different philosophies when it comes to internal storage (Aurender) or external storage on a NAS (Lumin).

The second half of the Aurender A10 equation is its DAC. My aging SOtM sDP-1000EX DAC matches the A10 closely on converter features albeit without support for MQA, then adds fully analog volume and true preamp functionality, making it by far the more flexible of the two. On the other hand, it also costs $3'500 so quite a bit more than we had allocated for the DAC in our 'virtual A10' scenario. If MQA is a key feature, the best options would likely reside with a Mytek Brooklyn DAC+ which for $2'200 offers all the A10's DAC functions plus the ease of a true analog preamp and volume control. At a similar budget the Wyred4Sound DAC-2v2 brings a multitude of digital inputs and support for DSD256 but gives up MQA. 

The purpose of this little exercise was to show that there aren't many options to build a front end which matches the A10's features and quality for less than $5'500. It is possible but requires that you bring multiple components together with all the related questions of compatibility, synergies, cables and tweaks. And unless you used Roon, most of those won't bring near the ease of use of the A10. Even with Roon, managing a NAS, server and client is beyond most people's appetite. The only close alternative I am familiar with would be the Lumin D2/L1. They try to deliver the same type of ease with a different approach where one could endlessly debate the sonic benefits of removing the hard drive from the player versus the added cost and complexity of using two components where one could be enough.

That's why the A10 is a rather rare animal and one which truly piqued my interest. It finally looked like that one component which would take away all the headaches without sacrificing much if anything on performance. Obviously I have mentioned Aurender's Conductor app already and rightly so. In my mind the Conductor is half the reason why one would want to choose Aurender in the first place. Especially when one comes from the quirky and unstable front end of the Auraliti PK90, the Conductor is a breeze and joy to use. It automatically indexes all your music uploaded to the internal drive, allows you to search by any keyword you care for or by file quality. The app integrates Tidal and Qobuz including MQA streaming from Tidal and even allows you to bookmark your favorite online music to avoid having to search for it every time.

Compared to Roon, you will primarily miss the content-rich support that accompanies most albums. But if that's not a critical aspect, you can happily pocket Roon's monthly fee and call it a day. That said, the app is not perfect. I wish it allowed deleting and moving files which requires connecting to the Aurender as an external drive via computer. That negates a little the idea of convenience the Conductor app is so keen on. The app also doesn't allow for an external USB DVD drive to connect to the A10 to rip discs directly to its hard drive. One either has to rip discs on a computer and transfer the files later or choose Aurender's ACS-10 model and forego the A10's included DAC. With Aurender's current state of business, one can either rip or decode but not both. I was also disappointed that the app provides absolutely no status update on file transfers from external to internal drive. Once you start the process. it just tells you that transfer is still ongoing. The front LCD gives you a message once transfer is completed. That proved to be a very slow process. It took close to a day to transfer 1TB of data from a super-fast external SSD to Aurender's internal drive. Ouch! You see why a status update would have helped calm my mind into knowing that everything was working rather than had hung up.

 

 

The A10 is designed to be simple, foolproof and convenient for folks who do not want to be bothered with files and networks and it really delivers a worry-free experience. The only downside is that you simply have to trust it to be doing the right thing. If you are OCD when it comes to your file management, the A10 is not the most convenient solution. That's simply not what it was designed for.

Convenience is a great thing but if sonics don't match, you really don't have a thing. The A10 delivered on that front too, in fact far beyond what I expected. I first tested it strictly as a file player versus my trusted Auraliti PK90 via Aurender's dedicated USB output into both the SOtM and Lampizator DACs. I must confess that I went into the comparison with the pretty well-formed opinion that my Auraliti with dedicated Unix-audio OS, upgraded linear power supply and top-line SOtM USB audio card would walk all over the Aurender which just had to be compromised as an all-in-one. One of the two was walked all over, just not the one I expected to be. As a file player, the Aurender was simply in a different league especially when playing from its internal drive which caches music to SSD for playback. The differences were not subtle. The Aurender had a far lower noise floor, broader deeper staging, far more tonal nuances revealed by the reduced noise and a lower sense of grit. Grit can be good when it conveys a greater sense of authenticity but in this comparison it was the difference between the Aurender's refinement and Auraliti's more mechanical sound. So much for my long-held belief that a well-executed file player contributes very little to the end result as long as it keeps jitter to a minimum. I am not sure why the difference was so striking but I really felt like resurrecting the old reviewer cliché of blacker backgrounds allowing far more of the music to come through. I can't remember another assignment when the difference was so striking. The fact that a digital file player made such a difference really shocked me. 

The level of impact was different between SOtM and LampizatOr DACs probably as a function of their own upper limits. With the SOtM the improvement felt like a small step forward like what you'd hear going up a level in a manufacturer's line of DACs. With the LampizatOr Golden Atlantic, I suddenly felt its full potential was revealed, with music virtually exploding beyond the speakers and the tonal palette of instruments suddenly going up a few levels in saturation yet at the same time passing far more textures. The most striking example must have been Gershwin's American in Paris with the New York Philharmonic under Bernstein. That 24bit/44kHz recording downloaded from Qobuz suddenly took on a new life. It's always been a favorite but I had never heard the music occupy my whole room and jump at me so perfectly as if the speakers simply did not exist. It was the same file as the day before yet it wasn't. The day before I listened to reproduced music. With the Aurender and LampizatOr DAC, I was suddenly surrounded by music which felt more real and had more substance than before.

With DSD these differences seem to shrink a little between the two players but the Aurender retained a clear lead. Bernstein again and Shostakovich's Fifth Symphony made the point clearly, the difference not being so much the size of the image and its tonal textures but one of more layering and separation between the various sections of the orchestra. This was more like the kind of difference I am used to hearing between good and excellent digital playback. The space between musicians becomes more clearly defined and they gain greater substance and definition.

For the Auraliti PK90, the final kiss of death was the Aurender's ability to stream Tidal. I'd sprung for the premium membership which allows access to higher-quality files but one can't argue the value of accessing tens of thousands of records for the price of one DSD download a month. It is quite liberating to try new music at no risk, play one track and dive into the album or move to the next. Who knew that I would actually like Green Day? American Idiot strikes far too close to home for comfort but I would never have listened to it if hadn't it been for Tidal. I am still a classical and opera nut but certainly broadening my scope!

With the A10 including Aurender's first-ever DAC, I didn't know what to expect for the sound quality from its analog outputs. I was well aware of the less-than-flattering Stereophile review so approached my audition with caution. Since that review, Aurender have implemented a quick fix to the digital filtering issues identified at the time: they simply disabled all user-controlled options. They remain visible and selectable in the app but trigger no audible change whatsoever, not even the typical drop-out one hears when switching upsampling on or off. In a way it felt refreshing to return to the days when one acquired a CD player based on the voicing selected by its creator, not based on a dozen digital filter options. Again, I thought it fit well with the intent to keep the A10 as pain-free as possible. Eere Aurender to ever develop a player with a more ambitious DAC, they will still need to sort out the issue of interactions between MQA codex and non-MQA digital filters.

As it stands, it seemed to my ears that they have selected settings which deliver clean fast sound without too much emphasis on the leading edge. The high-level result is a sound richer and with more bloom than the SOtM DAC yet with more bite than the LampizatOr while giving up a little bit on the latter's splendid timbre accuracy. In the end the DAC inside the A10 was a reviewer's nightmare in that it had no obvious sonic character. It was neither overtly cold nor warm. It was dynamic without excessively forward transients which allowed decays to linger without blooming out of control. Couperin's Tic Toc Choc played by Alexandre Tharaud provided that perfect illustration with the first impact of the note sharp and dynamic while the room acoustics developed fully after that initial impact without blurring or overshadowing the piano.

It is important to note that the A10 fell within the category of components which stay faithful to the recording rather than embellish the music. That was striking with DSD transfers of old master tapes. Streaming Tchaikovsky's Swan Lake suite played by the Vienna Philharmonic under Karajan from Aurender to LampizatOr yielded a very dense organic sound on a huge stage but with little separation between the musicians. It simply was a beautiful well-textured mass of sound. The presentation with the A10's own DAC could not have been more different. It had less density but far more separation between instruments, a much leaner view of the musical texture and far more obvious tape hiss clearly audible behind the music during lower-level passages. Somehow the LampizatOr elevated the music above that noise at the expense of ultimate resolution and insight into the recording while the A10 provided a clearer view into the recording at the expense of cohesion as the whole. 

I am making the differences more extreme that they were for the purposes of illustration but they were clearly audible. The key thing for me was that neither were objectionable or detracting from my enjoyment. They just provided two clearly different flavors. I plainly don't enjoy overly analytical gear—never have and likely never will—and the A10 never crossed that line but without question was the more insightful on what's on a recording than the LampizatOr.

When reverting to PCM, the Lampizator more clearly took the lead, its ladder DAC showing that ability to be both accurate and natural. The SOtM showed the age of its delta-sigma chips by sounding the most mechanical and glare-prone of the three while the A10 sat in between but far closer to the LampizatOr than I expected based on price. Those AKM chips have come a very long way since I first heard them in the Esoteric D05 almost a decade ago. Back then their obvious merit was to avoid the treble glare that plagued many other chips. As implemented in the A10, they offered one of the most natural presentations outside of ladder DACs that I heard in recent years.

Those differences in character made the A10 a better fit for my system when I play the Triode Labs 2A3 integrated into the Rogers LS3/5a. That system already has all the body and tone it needs and clearly benefits from the added clarity, depth and layering the A10 brings. The result was even more thrilling when I replaced the Rogers with my Zu Essence speakers which can fully harness the added resolution and dynamics. On the other hand, the tiny but mighty Finalé Vivace mini with their very revealing midrange don't need that injection of extra truth and much preferred the LampizatOr fed from the A10 to not exceed that excessively analytical limit.

Wrapping up, I was really smitten by the Aurender A10. I‘d backed away from reviewing digital for the last few years due to work and relocation constraints but the field didn't stay still. The A10 leaped ahead of the Auraliti PK90 as a file player and streamer and offered a far more natural sound than the SOtM DAC. It showed how much digital playback on a chip progressed in five years to approach and in some contexts exceed my far more expensive LampizatOr, all with greater features, more convenience and the ability to stream endless Tidal and internet radio to discover new musical worlds at my finger tips.

All this comes at a fair price and with an ease of use that should win over most who fear converting to file playback because of network complexity. New streamers with or without DAC appear every day but even in that expanding marketplace, the A10 strikes me as one of the most well-rounded, convenient and superb-sounding solutions available to wrap up the year with a well-earned Blue Moon award.