On August 1, 2012 -- a long time ago in DAC years -- I reviewed Aurender’s first music server, the S10 ($6990 USD), and found it exceptional. I even coaxed our editor into naming it a Recommended Reference Component. At the time, it seemed relatively easy to set up and use, and its Aurender Conductor remote-control app for the iPad has been my benchmark for remote-control apps ever since. But since then I’ve reviewed quite a few other servers with various remote-control apps, and I’ve wondered how newer Aurender music servers and versions of Conductor might compare to those recent developments. So when I got a chance to review Aurender’s N100H music server ($2699) with the latest version of Conductor, I was enthusiastic.
Aurender now makes several servers, ranging from the top-of-the-line W20 ($17,600), which Peter Roth reviewed on SoundStage! Ultra in September 2014, to the X100L ($3499), reviewed by Jeff Fritz on Ultra in April of that year. Both models received Reviewers’ Choice awards, which tells us that Aurender maintains a high standard of excellence at both price levels.
All Aurender servers have used the Conductor app. Unlike a CD player, which is operable from both its front-panel buttons and its remote, a server’s remote-control app is really its only user interface; the app largely determines the user’s experience with the server. The other part of a user’s experience of a server is in setting it up. I describe both aspects of the N100H below.
The N100H, Aurender’s smallest music server, has a narrow case 8.4”W x 1.8”H by 13.8"D and weighing 10.1 pounds. The N100H’s dimensions allow it to share a standard rack shelf with another half-width component, which is handy. Like all Aurender cases, the N100H’s is made of thick aluminum plates with heatsinks along the sides. It looks like a power amplifier -- in fact, Aurender makes a matching 100Wpc amp-DAC combination, the X725 ($2499), designed to partner the N100H or X100L servers. If one of those servers is your only source, the X725 should make a visually attractive system. The N100H is available only in silver, with black heatsinks. The warranty covers parts and labor for two years, which is reasonable for a component at this price.
The N100H is designed to work with music stored on a network attached storage (NAS) device on your home network or on its own internal storage. The original N100 was designed with no internal storage; Aurender later added a 2TB hard drive and changed its name to N100H. I know of audiophiles with music collections larger than 2TB, but for many, if not most, 2TB will hold a lot of albums, even if many are high-resolution.
The N100H works only in a wired network -- Aurender recommends a Gigabit network using Apple’s Airport Extreme network router. It plays WAV, FLAC, ALAC, APE, AIFF, M4A, and other major formats at native bit and sampling rates up to 32-bit/384kHz, as well as DSD128 files. Via an Internet connection, it will also stream Tidal and Qobuz. Since the N100H’s internal computer uses the Linux operating system, you don’t need a driver for your DAC to play hi-rez files. An advantage of a dedicated server over a computer-based server is that the former’s software is already configured for optimal sound. Since MQA files are encoded as FLAC files, the N100H -- and any other FLAC-capable server -- should be able to play them. It’s up to the DAC to recognize and unfold (decode) them.
The front of the N100H is pretty simple. At the center is a 3” AMOLED display with five lines of information: The top line, in small print unreadable from my listening position 10’ away, tells you the sampling rate of the file being played and the name of the DAC the N100H is connected to. The second and third lines, in text big enough for me to read from my listening seat, indicates what music is being played. The fourth line, again in very small print, tells you if you’re playing a DSD file. Below that is the fifth line: a bar display that shows how much of the current track has been played, and its total length. Since most of the information on the screen also shows up on the Conductor app, you can switch the N100H’s display to simulated VU meters in blue or cream. If I owned McIntosh gear, I know which display I’d use -- the Aurender’s blue meter is a dead ringer for those on McIntosh components.
To the left of the display is an on/off/standby switch. To the right are four buttons that allow you to perform some playback functions, as on a CD player. But the main operational controls are on the Conductor remote app.
Because the N100H has only one output connection, its rear panel is relatively empty. From left to right, the first thing you see is the output jack: a USB Type-A port. One criticism of using computers as servers is that their USB outputs can carry relatively high levels of noise. Aurender’s USB output is designed to eliminate this. Next is a stack of three jacks: at the top, an Ethernet RJ45 LAN, and under that, two more USB Type-As, for external USB drives. At right are the IEC inlet and main power switch. If you want more connectivity, Aurender’s N10 player offers that and more.
The N100H has a linear power supply. Successful streaming requires caching the data that arrives over the network, to eliminate latency and dropouts; a 120GB solid-state drive provides that function. The 2TB hard drive is a 2.5” unit.
Setup and use
Installing the N100H was very easy. I slid it onto a shelf of my equipment rack, which left room for another narrowish component on the same shelf. To confirm that this would indeed work, I placed an Auralic Aries streaming music player next to the N100H -- an easy fit. I then connected three cables to the N100H: an Audience powerChord power cord, an Audience Au24 SE USB cable, and a network cable.
The N100H comes with a Quick Start Guide that’s a model of its kind -- up to a point. This magazine-size color publication very thoroughly describes how to get started, but unfortunately for a server described as a network music player, it includes no information about how to connect to the network device where the music files are stored. Fortunately, that information is included in the N100H’s full Product Guide, available from Aurender’s website. While network connections are seldom easy, connecting to the NAS on which I’ve stored my music files required relatively little fiddling and, once done, required no further action.
All setup was done through the Conductor app, a free download from Apple’s App Store. However, even when Conductor knew where my files were, it wouldn’t display them; only a few files stored on the N100H’s internal drive showed up. That’s when I learned that it’s necessary to run a separate program, Aurender Media Manager (AMM), to build a database of the music files on the NAS that Conductor can read. The first time I did that, it took nearly an hour to build the database. Then I had to tell Conductor to scan for new files, which made it scan the database and build its own display. Each time I added new albums to my NAS, I had to run AMM again to add them to the database, then rescan the database so they would appear in Conductor and I could play them. These updates took only a few minutes, but this is a relatively primitive approach; every other app I’ve used has scanned the files on the NAS and automatically displayed them on the iPad. I view the need to use AMM as a shortcoming. Ironically, it’s not necessary to use AMM for albums stored on the N100H’s internal drive -- new files are displayed automatically.
Once Conductor had displayed all of my albums, I noticed another problem: many were missing thumbnail graphics of cover art. Fortunately, the rest of the metadata was there, so I was able to identify the albums by their titles. But I prefer identifying albums on the NAS by cover art -- it’s fast and handy. No app I’ve used displays 100% of the cover art, but every other remote-control app I’ve used has done a better job of displaying such art than Conductor, and has done so automatically. Again, this was not a problem with albums stored on the N100H’s internal drive.
When I set up Conductor to work with Tidal, there was a minor problem, resolved with help from Aurender’s tech support. After that, using Tidal was a pleasant experience. Conductor proved a worthwhile alternative to Tidal’s own playback program, which runs on a computer. And unlike the album covers on my network, Conductor displayed all of Tidal’s cover art. I look forward to the day (soon, I suspect) when Tidal streams MQA files; that should make Tidal a viable alternative to buying and locally storing any music files -- assuming, of course, that Tidal has the music you want to hear. But if you want files not available from Tidal, such as Adele’s 25, you’ll have to buy a CD and rip it. So don’t dispose of your hard drive or NAS yet.
Although I’ve griped about problems I encountered with the Conductor app, once all my albums were loaded into the AMM database, using Conductor was as pleasant as I remembered from using it with the S10. You use Conductor to locate an album you want to play, select it, and display the songs or works on the album. To the left of the track list is space for a playlist. You can select individual tracks to add to the playlist, or click Add All Files and then Play Now, which starts playing the first file on the playlist. If you want to play a different song, just touch it on the Conductor screen. When you’ve finished, tap Clear to empty the playlist and compile another. It’s easy, intuitive, and positive.
Finally, Conductor lets you view the albums on your NAS in Folder view, which is the same as viewing them on a computer’s display. Sometimes, this is the best way to view and play files. For example, when I was evaluating MQA files, I loaded MQA and PCM versions of the same recording into a single folder. It was easier to use Folder view to switch between the MQA and PCM versions.
During the review period, Aurender updated its system software via the Conductor app, and that went smoothly as well. The update allows a user to copy files from an external USB drive or NAS to the N100H’s internal drive -- using Conductor, you no longer need a computer to do this; a neat feature. An update of the AMM program was similar to most updates of computer programs: you download the new version, run an executable file, then sit back and watch as the program is updated. The new version of AMM seemed a bit more streamlined.
I let the N100H play for some 300 hours before beginning my critical listening. Always listenable, its sound became smoother and more limpid after break-in.
The N100H had a relaxed, natural sound that was never stressful to listen to, and lacked any trace of the digital grit I’ve heard from some components. Listening to music over long stretches of time was comfortable and inviting.
My old favorite “Folia Rodrigo Martinez,” from Jordi Savall’s La Folia 1490-1701 (16-bit/44.1kHz AIFF, Alia Vox), sounded very realistic, with well-fleshed-out harmonic structural reproduction of the ancient instruments (or reproductions thereof). The N100H threw a wide, dense soundstage with instruments distributed across the space between the speakers. The deep bass on this recording descends to between 20 and 30Hz, and was reproduced with deep extension and powerful impact. A few times, I considered turning down the subwoofer, but I soon got over that. I was impressed by the N100H’s handling of both macro- and microdynamics, which provided a sense of liveliness and energy. It was obvious that Savall and his band were having a lot of fun as they played their rollicking realization of this ancient musical romp. Instrumental detail abounded; I could always distinguish the percussion instruments clattering in the background (through some components, they merge into a background mush). Leading-edge transients seemed unusually well defined: not peaky or edgy, just sharp and clear.
To check the N100H’s reproduction of female voices, I played Shelby Lynne’s Just a Little Lovin’ (DSD64/DSF, Lost Highway/Acoustic Sounds). This recording was mastered at a rather low level, so I had to advance the volume control to achieve the desired level. Listening to the title track, I was first struck by the detail with which Lynne’s voice was reproduced. The N100H reproduced all its nuances -- Lynne sounded more expressive than she usually does. The accompanying instruments were reproduced with unusual realism and sharp transients -- not at all peaky, just natural. And this time, the bass was so deep and powerful that I did get up and turn down the subwoofer level.
I’ve always liked the songs of Cole Porter, but only recently have begun to fully appreciate the talent and skill that went into their composition. So to check the N100H’s reproduction of male voices, I cued up Night and Day: Thomas Hampson Sings Cole Porter (16/44.1 AIFF, EMI). The Aurender presented “I’ve Got You Under My Skin” with such harmonic richness that its sound was downright lush, and once again showed how well it could handle dynamic contrasts: Hampson’s powerful, operatic voice almost overloaded my eardrums in the climaxes, requiring me to turn down the volume. There was more dynamic variation than I normally hear; my system seemed to reproduce more differentiation in volume level, and this was easy to hear -- yet the sound never became harsh or strained. And always, I could hear the details of Hampson’s clear pronunciation and phrasing. Gorgeous sound!
Sometimes, the Tallis Scholars’ a cappella recording of Allegri’s Miserere (24/96 FLAC, Gimell 339) can sound just a smidgen raw -- but through the N100H, that wasn’t at all the case. What was the case was the amount of detail the N100H extracted from this recording. The solo tenor’s voice had never sounded more expressive of more feeling. The small group of soloists well behind the main chorus was clearly some distance from the front of the soundstage, but the reverberant echo that helps describe that separation was not overemphasized. Through many components, the echo threatens to overwhelm the more distant group of singers.
Wanting to hear how the N100H dealt with files of very high resolution, I played the Ring Around Quartet & Consort’s Frottole: Popular Songs of Renaissance Italy (24/352.8 AIFF, Naxos/HDtracks). This has all the sound characteristics I’ve come to expect from Digital Extreme Definition (DXD) recordings: purity of sound, lots of air and bloom, and copious detail. Through the N100H, all of these traits were unmistakable. This small ensemble of instruments and voices sounded completely natural, and their ebullient performances benefited from the N100H’s excellent handling of microdynamics and pace. The sense of air around the musicians made Frottole sound like real people performing in a real space. It’s a good example of how a hi-rez recording can enhance musical enjoyment -- which, after all, is the raison d’être of hi-rez audio.
How better to check out a component’s reproduction of the sound of a solo instrument than to play some solo piano music? I switched to Tidal and played Warren Mailley-Smith’s performance of Grieg’s Wedding Day at Troldhaugen, Op.65 No.6, from his album Rhapsody in Blue (16/44.1 FLAC, Sleeveless). The N100H’s ability to reproduce realistic dynamic contrasts made this recording sound better than anything else I’ve heard via Tidal. Splendid.
I switched back to my computer server: a Hewlett-Packard Envy laptop running Windows 7, with Roon server software. I used the same cables I’d used with the Aurender N100H, with the computer’s power supply plugged into an Audience aR6-T power conditioner. Roon has proved to be a good-sounding software notable for the unusually high amount of information it provides about the music you play. It’s relatively easy to set up, and very flexible in the availability of remote-control programs to control the server. I have a second copy of Roon on a Toshiba laptop that serves as a remote control for the main version of Roon. When I’m writing review notes, I can switch from Microsoft Word to Roon, and use the Toshiba to control the music as I write.
My biggest quibble with Roon is that it lacks a Folder view, which would allow me to select individual files of the same name but different encoding. On the other hand, Roon automatically identifies and displays new albums I load onto my NAS. Roon isn’t perfect -- no app in my experience is -- but it found noticeably more album covers than Conductor. I preferred Conductor to the Roon remote for the iPad; it seemed easier to find albums when they were displayed by name. But the Roon remote running on my laptop computer seemed to equal Conductor. However, the laptop’s battery life was far shorter than the iPad’s, so for overall ease of use, Conductor was the winner. It also offered several more ways to sort albums. Nonetheless, Roon remains unparalleled in the amount of information it provides about the music in my collection.
Roon completely integrates music streamed from Tidal with music in your local collection. In Roon, music from Tidal appears right beside music in your local collection; there’s no need to switch between the local library and Tidal. The Search feature works on both your local collection and Tidal -- type in what you’re looking for and Roon displays items from your local collection along with items from Tidal, the latter marked with a small Tidal logo in the upper left-hand corner of the album cover.
Between the Roon and Aurender servers, differences in “Folia Rodrigo Martinez” were slight but generally favored the N100H. While the Roon-based setup was eminently listenable, the N100H sounded slightly more relaxed, with harmonic structures that were a bit richer. And while the Roon setup sounded slightly less dynamic than the N100H, it was scarcely lacking in this regard. However, bass extended just as deep, with as much impact, and the soundstage was as expansive.
Frottole: Popular Songs of Renaissance Italy seemed a bit less detailed via Roon, sounding more “hi-fi” -- still excellent, but the N100H sounded more realistic. Microdynamic swings were very evident, and there was plenty of air around musicians. In Just a Little Lovin’, Shelby Lynne’s voice was equally detailed, but sounded slightly more mechanical through Roon, more digital than analog. The bass was deep and powerful, a Roon strength. In Miserere, the soundstage was as expansive, but performers were a bit less precisely positioned on it. However, the solo group was just as far back. The sound had an ever-so-slight mechanical character, and less of the warm, organic sound of the N100H.
When I switched back to Tidal and the solo-piano recording of Grieg’s Wedding Day at Troldhaugen, the story was similar: I heard the same vivid microdynamics, but a smidgen less of the N100H’s natural, organic sound.
Aurender’s N100H, like their S10 server I reviewed several years ago, sounds terrific. I don’t think I’ve ever heard a music server that sounds better, and maybe none as good. It stood out for its bass extension and impact, as well as its natural reproduction of midrange detail. Its looks are as classy as those of any component I’ve had in my system. I began to describe it as audio jewelry, but then realized that the phrase often means “gaudy” -- and the N100H isn’t. Although I had some quibbles about how Conductor worked with files stored on my network drive, if you store your music files on the N100H’s internal drive, there’s no problem. If that’s how you use the N100H, it’s flat-out outstanding.