Back when computers were first being used for digital music playback, I resisted. Why bother using my computer to listen to music through when my computer has enough trouble simply computing? Those days are long gone. It seems like eons ago when I finally took the time and trouble to load my entire CD collection to external hard drives. It seemed to take forever, but little by little I managed to rip every CD in my collection. Playing back my music from these hard drives has had many advantages over spinning discs in a CD transport or other types of CD drives. There are also advantages of storing music files on external drives rather than the hard drive inside a computer. There is much greater amount of storage space, plus the music can be easily accessed over a home network and can be played through any device that can decode the digital signal. When the Aurender's N100H caching network streamer arrived, the time had come to remove my home computer from the digital playback equation. I have to admit, using my computer as a music server was giant leap forward ahead of listening to my CDs in real time (plus, it's a lot easier than searching for a physical CD and loading it into a transport's drawer). Besides, a short time after ripping all of my CDs I started to download or otherwise acquire music files that have more resolution than "ordinary" CDs. As there was no question that the improvement in the sound quality of digital took a leap forward when using my computer instead of a CD transport, the improvement in the sound quality when using the Aurender N100H as a dedicated music server rather than a music server running on my personal computer is another leap forward.
Let It Be Known
But after taking the time to set up the N100H, I quickly learned that the sound quality of the Aurender N100H is light years better than listening to music through my computer, and from what I've heard even early versions of Aurender's music servers were better than using a home computer. Better yet, the Aurender N100H is not merely a machine made to play back files stored on a hard drive. The N100H is a caching network player that can playback files from a NAS (Network Attached Storage) and can also play files from its own drives. It can also stream lossless music from the streaming service TIDAL and other streaming services via its proprietary Aurender Conductor app loaded on one's iPad. Incidentally, the app makes it possible to make playlists that contain content from both TIDAL or locally from its internal hard-drive or an NAS.
Some may note that when describing the Aurender N100H it sounds awfully like one is simply describing a dedicated computer which has been designed to playback music, although with many options for playing back that music. So why should it have any less of a noisy environment than a plain old computer? Simply stated, the Aurender N100H has a linear power supply and a low noise custom USB audio output that blow away even the most tricked-out computers that have been fitted to be used as a music server. The linear power supply of the N100H sends power to the Aurender's CPU circuit and its audio output and is shielded against any and all RMI and EMI interference. Aurender designs its own motherboards for the N100H enabling it to deal with just about any lossless PCM files one can think of up to 32-bit/384kHz and DSD (DSF & DFF) in either DSD64 or DSD 128.
The Aurender N100H is also fitted with a 1Gbps Ethernet connection. This speed might seem to some as overkill, but copying files to the N100H are so fast that at this speed one will certainly appreciate it. I never used the word "latency" one time when describing the performance of the N100H. Before music is heard through the N100H, it copies the files to its internal 120 Gigabyte solid-state drive (SSD). The improvements in sound quality to a caching system have been demonstrated in earlier models, and even those that were accomplished than the N100H, so I have no doubt that this caching hard-drive is one of the reasons the N100H sounds so darn good! As an aside, I've often considered using either an internal external or internal SSD to store music for my computer-based music server, but with the availability of a unit such as the N100H that uses an SSD cache makes me lean in the direction of scrapping that harebrained scheme – although its SSD cache is likely responsible for its sonic advantage, there are obviously other factors that contribute to its superior sound quality.
The N100H does not have an internal DAC. I used both the N725 integrated amp/DAC as well as my reference AURALiC VEGA; therefore, I was able to compare the music server's sound quality in both set-ups. The sonic difference between my computer-based music server and the N100H was significant, but what made the listening sessions more enjoyable and stress-free was Aurender's Conductor app on my iPad. I was able to listen to music with my iPad close by, and although the Foobar2000 remote app on my iPhone certainly was convenient when using my computer as a music server, the feature-leaden and very flexible Aurender app was light-years ahead of this app. Comparing them was akin to comparing an app fabricated by a major technical university to one designed by a high-school student's after-school program in a community college's computer lab. Space does not allow for a full description of the Aurender app, but even if I did have the space, I'd rather talk about the sound quality of the N100H!
Network connectivity is important these days, as is streaming, upgrades and file transfers, so the N100H uses a Gigabyte Ethernet port and with its two USB data ports for copying files from USB memory. When using the Aurender Controller app, one can manage one's music files, view files on the N100H's screen, and effortlessly play one's music collection. Rumor has it that there is an Aurender Android app in development.
It's been long held that a computer is a noisy environment for high-end audio; as it was never specifically designed for this purpose. Audiophiles and music lovers have had much success in adapting computers to be used as a music server, and I have also had great success in doing so. But compared to my home computer- based music server the N100H sounds much better. Some will welcome the pairing of the N100H with Aurender's X725 DAC/integrated amplifier, which makes the pair a compact, good looking, and an extremely convenient set-up – and although it is not mandatory to pair the N100H to the X725, the pair sounded and worked great together as well as separately. But judged on its own, the N100H has earned high praise from yours truly as not only a great sounding music server, but relatively simple and definitely enjoyable to use.
I used the N100H/X725 pair in my main system driving the more than six foot tall pair of Sound Lab DynaStat electrostatic hybrid speakers. The 100wpc on board the X725 was able to drive them to a suitable (for some) volume, but it was (as I was) more comfortable when I switched out these monolithic speakers for the smaller, but still large, Bowers & Wilkins (B&W) CM10 S2 five-driver floorstanding speakers. I also used my reference EgglestonWorks Isabel Signature 2-way floorstanders. Both of these speakers sounded very convincing with the 100wpc on hand, and although both had their own characteristics, along with the short time driving the electrostats I was able to get a handle on the sound of the X725, and likewise the N100H, as I was able to compare it to the sound of the music server on my computer using the USB input of the X725.
The X725 sounded good enough to be compared to other 100wpc amplifiers within its price range. What seals the deal, though, is that the X725 is not an amplifier, but an integrated amp/DAC, and which means that Aurender is ostensibly throwing in the onboard DAC for free (and in theory, providing one with a decent preamplifier) with the purchase of a 100wpc amp. When purchased with the N100H music server, one will have an all-in-one system that will only need a pair of speakers to enjoy. Source material can enter through two inputs on the X725's rear panel, there a USB input for the N100H and an optical S/PDIF for an additional digital source.
Through the N100H this Peter Gabriel album sounded better than it has ever sounded in either of my listening rooms. Of course I preferred listening to it through the more powerful Pass Labs amplifier and much larger Sound Lab speakers augmented by a 15" Velodyne sub in the dedicated listening room. The N100H was able to render the bass frequencies with the appropriate amount of transient impact, whether it was the gut jarring bass synth of Larry Fast on "Games Without Frontiers", or the very pitch specific buzzy lower bass notes on Tony Levin's Chapman Stick of on "I Don't Remember", or the sound of fretless bass master John Giblin with a bass sound that was warm but still has plenty of definition on "No Self Control". It was as if the N100H was allowing me to hear exactly what was on the master, whether this medium was originally magnetic tape, DAT, a hard-drive, or any other medium or lack thereof. With almost everything that passed through it, especially well recorded albums, the N100H allowed the resulting sound to seem practically source-less.
I also spent some time listening to the N100H through my Grado PS-1000 headphones (soon to be ungraded to the newer PS-1000e) fed by an Oppo HA-1 headphone amp. Listening to the Peter Gabriel album through this set-up was practically a supernatural experience, as sounds were generated well outside my skull – centered a few inches in front of my forehead, as well as creating a sonic aura around my head and inside it. The track "I Don't Remember" was especially striking. Drummer Jerry Marotta was instructed by Peter Gabriel to play without using his cymbals, leaving empty the space that would normally have been taken up by their treble-prominent sounds. This allows one to hear more clearly the detail that the cymbals would have normally obscured. Robert Fripp's guitar (sometimes joined by XTC guitarist Dave Gregory) can be clearly heard both strumming chords behind a squiggling lead that is heavily processed, while drummer Marotta maintains a martial beat behind the labyrinthine lead-stick/bass playing of Tony Levin. The lack of cymbals also leaves a void for Peter Gabriel's vocals to be heard – and in my mind's ear I could hear these vocals completely isolated from the din underneath them. The N100H reveled in this music, placing all the sounds on the recording within discrete areas of the very wide and deep soundstage. Yes, again, it sounded as if I was hearing the master-tape, but it also sounded as if there was no master-tape, that the sounds were being created in the here and now. It was a bit frightening, really.
I'm a sucker for the French Impressionists. No, not the painters, the composers – Claude Debussy and Maurice Ravel. Sometimes Eric Satie is lumped into this category, but he doesn't have enough recorded works to really be part of this group. If I would have to pick only one piece of music to represent this subgenre, though, it would be Ravel's Daphnis et Chloe. I have many recordings of this work in my collection, my favorite digital version, which also happens to be my favorite analog version, is the Living Stereo issue conducted by Charles Munch. His Boston Symphony Orchestra recorded this for RCA that was originally released in 1960. I have a Red Book CD versions ripped from the two-layer SACD and an older CD, and a DSD file of this on my hard-drives, and all of them sound incredible. I've read that some aren't as enamored as I am of this recording, mostly because of the tape hiss that's been faithfully reproduced. I suppose I'm used to it. It doesn't bother me at all. I played both the 16-bit and DSD version through the N100H, sometimes connected to the X725 and sometimes not, and I had the same impression of their sound quality as I did when listening to the Peter Gabriel, but on this album it was amazing to hear how well the N100H was able to handle these real instruments recorded in a real space.
The slightly bright acoustic of Symphony Hall in Boston could be clearly heard, as well as the air surrounding each instrument and each section of instruments. It sounded as perhaps a spot microphone was placed in front or suspended above the celeste, but this recording still has all the markings of an early stereo recording, although recorded a bit later than what many would consider a very "early" stereo recording. It's fairly obvious the RCA engineering team had their techniques honed by this point, and the fans of these classics stereo recordings are the beneficiaries. It amazes me that these recordings still sound so marvelous. It was again as if the recording medium had disappeared, leaving only the music suspended in space , but this time it was as if I had traveled via some sort of sonic time machine back to 1960 that allowed me to peer into Symphony Hall to witness the recording of this masterpiece. No, my stereo can't come close to mimicking the size of a symphony orchestra in my home. I hope I live long enough to witness some sort of sonic hologram that can perform this magic, but the N100H was able to reproduce the scale of orchestra in miniature, as well as sounding as if a layer of gauze was removed from between me and the recording when hearing the same recording through my computer based server. Each instrument and group of instruments was not only more realistic sounding, but eerily so. For a recording that's over a half-century old that ain't too bad. For two-channel system to reproduce this work so faithfully, especially mine, which I consider great sounding, but it's not nearly state-of-the-art, where each instrument sounded as if a spot microphone had recording it, each one recorded onto a separate track of a multi-track tape, all without hardly any recorded artifacts other than that infernal tape hiss.
Aurender America Inc.