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Aurender A20 reference analog output network player Review

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Lately I am experiencing a renaissance of system building regarding the source. I have turned my attention to streaming and file playback devices and have noticed the progress Aurender is making. Many fine HiFi shops carry it. After a positive experience at AXPONA, where no less than 20 units from the company were in use, I felt confident that it would be a fine choice for a review. This article will focus on the Aurender A20 Network Player.

I am on an approximately five-year cycle regarding upgrading my digital front end. My journey in file playback started with a Mac Mini running the up-conversion software HQ Player. It seemed a good-sounding source at the time because I was inexperienced and the streamer/server was not yet a mainstream source. It did not take too long, however, to conclude that sonically it was woefully short of the ideal digital source.

Next, I checked out the Wolf Audio Red Wolf Server. It was far more capable and better sounding. It lifted the digital performance as I hoped it would, but I was not thrilled about the J Play software. I found that combination of software and hardware to be more involved in terms of handling settings than I wanted. The Red Wolf/J Play combo seemed more suitable to techies and those who were heavily into video. I opted to keep looking for something with a simpler interface.

The digital front end I have been using since 2018 is the Small Green Computer sonicTransporter and the SONORE Signature Rendu SE with systemOptique and linear power supply. Compared with the one-box simplicity of the A20, the sonicTransporter/Signature Rendu SE combo is more involved. Since that time, the optical converter has been incorporated into the Signature Rendu, thus simplifying the setup. But one is still left with two components that interface. I have appreciated the sound quality and the customer service of SGC/SONORE.

The sonicTransporter and Signature Rendu SE combination has offered me quite a bit of pleasure. It appears that there have been tweaks to the SGC/SONORE setup as opposed to an entire overhaul. In the past year or two, twice I sought an additional review unit while new units with upgrades were being introduced. I interpreted (not to put words into the makers’ mouths) what I was told, the differences might not seem profound enough to me. Without overstepping my boundaries regarding confidentiality, I believe another Dagogo reviewer is seeking current versions of that equipment for review.

Comparing the SMG/SONORE components and the A20 should consider the relative price of those setups. The A20 is $15,000 versus the current rough equivalent of my setup, the sonicTransporter i5 Gen3 with CD Ripper ($1925) and Signature Rendu SE, which is a single enclosure opticalRendu and linear power supply ($4,950), together totaling $6,875. But the A20 includes both a DAC and pre-amp functionality, and it all comes in one box.

At AXPONA 2023 I was able to finalize my plan for this review. Ari Margolis, Aurender America’s Director of Sales and Business Development, assisted me in selecting the A20. The A20 is an integrated streamer, server, DAC, and preamplifier in one chassis. Its design is based on the ideal of a high quality, complete digital source solution and is nearly the entire system sans amplifier and speakers. I struggled to decide whether I wished to have a CD ripping function as well and contacted Ari to switch the review to the A30, which is the same as the A20 but with a CD player/ripper. My logic was that I had a great deal of older and esoteric music that I thought would not be found on streaming services. At least it was not found when I first started streaming several years ago using Tidal’s upper tier service.

But to my delight, as I conducted searches on Tidal and Qobuz, it seems that most of the music I like is now available! Consequently, my plan to laboriously rip all my older discs is on hold. I called Ari and said I would continue with the A20 review. He suggested that afterward I could proceed to the N20, an upper end streamer/server that has better sound quality holistically than the A20 but without the analog outputs. It is more limited than the A20 in terms of the systems I can build with it but is a step up from the A20 as regards its streaming and file playback. My experience has been that generally with a superior source the systems that can be built will be more pleasing. My goal in assessment of the N20 would be to compare systems built with it versus systems with the A20 to determine how much component integration (i.e. preamp and DAC, as found in the A20) and system flexibility versus a higher caliber of source (N20 as streamer only) contributes to superior sound.

As the review period for the A20 winds to a close and I put the finishing touches on this article, have CDs as a music medium become dead to me? I still have the nifty Musical Fidelity CDT-1 CD Transport which comes in handy in a pinch. When the internet is down, I can spin discs to hold me over. As a certainty, none of my previous setups with all the DACs mentioned below and the MF transport approached the quality level of the A20. I did not get digital sound quality this good in the past with Redbook no matter what configuration of gear I tried with all my speakers. In my world, if Redbook is not already dead, it’s on life support.

Not only is the A20’s streaming the best digital source I have used, but I also have little desire to opt for a source that when played presents approximately 50% of tunes I don’t want to hear and would likely skip. Having built two massive playlists for instrumentals and vocals, that is the music I want to hear. Years ago, when I used vinyl, I had to suffer through some of the cuts if I didn’t want to move the needle on the turntable continuously. Likewise, I don’t feel like having to piece together my listening session by excising tracks from CDs. What a trying time we live in when such hardships present themselves to audiophiles! But convenience is king and if I can have a perfect selection of music, I will have it! A streamer/server gives that to me, and a CD player does not. Consequently, it will sit unloved unless necessity dictates it is put into service.


Disdain of specialty streamer/servers

Some will say that streamer/servers are mere computers and will be suspicious about my descriptions of them having different sound characteristics. Skeptics rail against the suggestion that one such product can sound different from another. Long ago I grew weary of such arguments. An audiophile either builds rigs and learns how things sound, or they do not. I stopped wasting my time arguing with people who want to joust rhetorically and typically won’t spend their money regardless of the conclusion. There are two types of audiophiles, those who want better, compare, and spend their money, and those who don’t. I write for those who do comparisons with intent to better their audio system, not for those who argue with no intent to act.

With time I am being pulled toward the one box solution. I have had plenty of doodads, add-ons, multi-box solutions, and I’m tired of it. In this age of synchronicity of all things digital, I want a simple and powerful source and I’m no longer inclined to compromise. That takes me out of the orbit of SGC/SONORE. Aurender seems to take the call for simplicity and superb sound seriously. They obviously are putting their skin in the game by creating an ecosystem from which music is played so that they can control the process from user interface to output from the unit.

The aesthetics of the A20 are appealing, as it is a sleek, modern looking component not evocative of the iconic, ugly, computer-like box with noisy fan. It is ultra-quiet, has a gorgeously machined cabinet, a flat-black finish with a large control wheel on the right and several navigation buttons underneath. The buttons were hard to see without glasses, but I never used them as the software and hardware remote were at my side. The large display dominates the front, and it has adjustable brightness. The rear of the unit is busy but uncluttered and is well laid out. The positioning of inputs and outputs is logical. The jacks and posts are robust, built with the same quality as the rest of the unit.

The A20 is not made to draw attention to itself unduly, especially in Aurender’s Critical Listening Mode, which darkens the unit’s display. In Critical Listening Mode the largely inert appearing component has its screen awoken when it is issued commands, such as volume adjustments. With a quick tap on the Volume control, a thin green LED ring surrounding the large wheel on the unit’s face flashes to indicate the signal is being received. If the adjustment is more than a second or two, the display will wake up showing a virtual Volume knob moving in conjunction with the commanded volume change. After the input ceases, the display darkens once again. The machine draws appropriate attention to itself but no more.

With Aurender you are not paying for the bling experience — unless you choose to use the display continuously. That is fine for impressing a friend, but you will want it off for serious listening. The music server category has certainly been upgraded by Aurender!


Checking out the buzz (finally) about Qobuz

It is also high time I explored beyond Tidal as a streaming source. I had heard for years that Qobuz was sonically superior to Tidal’s upper tier subscription. But I also heard initially that Qobuz’s music offerings were limited, so I put it off.

Just weeks before the Aurender review came to fruition I received delivery of the stunningly beautiful and sonically beguiling true ribbon Clarisys Audio Minuet planar ribbon speakers, distributed by Michael Bovaird of Suncoast Audio. Knowing that the Aurender A20 review was coming, I asked whether he had music that I could use to assess the A20. He directed me to the Suncoast Audio playlist on Qobuz. Uh-oh, that would be impossible to access as I was only using Tidal. He commented that David Solomon of Qobuz might allow me a subscription for reviewing, which he graciously did. I reveal such things because I have no intent to manipulate you as a reader. I disclose such things so that you see my comments have integrity. As you read on, if you wish to disdain my assessment of Tidal vs. Qobuz, that’s your prerogative. I will share with you my impressions as I compare them.

I have been paying for years for a monthly subscription to Tidal’s upper tier of streaming music. However, in just the few days after setting up Qobuz, I concluded that the high resolution (indicated with “HR”; Tidal has some MQA tracks and Qobuz has some HR tracks) tracks of Qobuz are inherently superior to the apparently same tracks on Tidal. As regards the tracks that are not designated “HR” on Qobuz, the sound quality is for practical purposes equivalent to Tidal. If you don’t care about HR tracks, then the question of use of Qobuz falls to content, and I am not currently prepared to address that question knowledgeably. Come back in five years and I will have that answer!

Assessment of these two streaming music services involved using a rig including the A20, the Clarisys Minuet speakers, and one of my all-time favorite amps, the Legacy Audio i.V4 Ultra, a system that with Iconoclast Cables topped out at about $95K. I played select review demo instrumental tracks such as Acoustic Alchemy’s “Who Knows” first on Tidal, then on Qobuz. You may object that the same track on Qobuz is high resolution. That is why I also played instrumental demo pieces that were not high resolution on either site — apples to apples. As I listened to the track on Tidal, I queued up the same track on Qobuz. I then began play of the same track on Qobuz, and instantly I was hearing the same piece on the alternative music service.

I compared both regular and HR tracks as heard first on Tidal, then on Qobuz. The result was clear and consistent. Non-HR tracks on Qobuz did not pass my Law of Efficacy, meaning that Qobuz offered little to no advantage sonically over Tidal when it came to non-HR tracks. Am I prepared to say that there is absolutely no difference or that no difference would be detected regardless of the caliber of the system? For instance, would I say there could be no difference detected were a person hearing the comparison on a $500K rig, given the same settings of the A20 were used for both? No, I am not. At the level of this rig in my room, the difference was negligible. I more easily discern changes from one power cord on an amp.

In what might be a surprising finding to some, accessing the Aurender’s Advanced 2 settings menu and switching from Redbook settings for digital playback to the highest setting for bit depth and sampling frequency (705.6/768kHz) resulted in bringing Tidal’s standard tracks closer to those with MQA (Master Quality Authenticated). However, when maintaining that highest setting for bit rate and frequency and playing HR tracks on Qobuz, a clear advantage once again showed itself. Additional rapid-fire comparisons (for perhaps 30 seconds) of MQA tracks on Tidal to HR tracks on Qobuz firmed up my conclusion that Qobuz’s HR tracks are holistically superior to any of the apparently similar tracks on Tidal. I doubt I will bother to continue playing MQA tracks on Tidal if the HR version of the same piece is available on Qobuz. I have no interest in entering debates or arguments about the provenance of recordings or the steps involved. Such discussions tend to be like quicksand, a lot of work with little real progress in terms of system advancement.

Vocals were also easily discerned as superior, with more fullness, warmth, and even more resolution, when the HR track was played on Qobuz. An example: Natalie Merchant’s “I May Know the Word” was rendered as deeper, richer, more emotionally engaging as a Qobuz HR file. After conducting comparisons of upsampling and frequency settings of the A20, I concluded that none of them should be applied, at last for the Clarisys spekaers. I have no bias for or against manipulating the Redbook standard, but no upsampling seemed the most pleasing.

As a result of these comparisons, I am confident that, barring an intrusion or new development, Qobuz distinguishes itself as offering superior playback HR files. If I didn’t get a complimentary subscription, would I pay for that sound quality improvement? Scanning my demo list, I see enough of the HR variants of files that I would pay to hear that music rendered better. Would I drop the Tidal subscription to get that result? Not unless I was confident the vast majority my music was duplicated on Qobuz. Barring that, I would keep both. At the time of the publication of this article, I am finding a significant number of tracks that appear on Tidal do not appear on Qobuz, so at the moment I am inclined to keep using both music services.

Suncoast Audio’s playlists on Qobuz brought me some new demo-worthy tracks to enjoy. In the review process I used Jessica Williams’ “Heather” (live), Joan Armatrading’s “Down to Zero,” Kenny Loggins’ “Angry Eyes” (live), Lonnie Smith’s “Paper Tiger,” and AR Ralman’s “Dacoit Duel.” These represent different genres of music and the A20 adroitly handled them all. The playlist contained some harder-edged rock pieces as well as techno music, which I do not like, but including them in the assessment showed me that the Aurender is not captive to polite audiophile music but can handle any genre with equal precision and approachability. If you have Qobuz, I suggest you go to the Suncoast Audio playlists to hear a sample of music used at audio shows.

2 Responses to Aurender A20 reference analog output network player Review

  1. Nick Sisco says:

    Good day Mr. Schroeder.
    Please forgive me as this message has nothing to do with the Aurender A20 but I wanted to find a recent thread so I could comment on the ‘Schroeder Method’ of multiple Interconnects (6/2018). Currently, I am running 8 parallel IC’s of various manufacturers between an Auria DAC and a Aimaya A7 class D amp. My iPhone is my streamer. A very inexpensive setup. The speakers are a DMI approach implemented with 8 exciters coupled to a solid but very light panel and very a solid substructure (DIY). Keeping with this theme, I’m also running 25 (!) #10 OFC copper speaker wires. All terminations are via custom terminal blocks, etc. The electronic components are NOT the crucial part, the cabling is, as the results are simply spectacular. The clarity and all that comes with it is outstanding. Resistance is the MAJOR cable component in my experience. Reducing it as low as possible has fantastic results. I have had no issues with my equipment. I was implementing this setup when I discovered your June 2018 article. I have not discovered, as yet, other discussions concerning this parallel methodology. I do think there is a commercial opportunity to deliver termination equipment allowing its implementation. I’m surprised that I have not found such equipment to date. Perhaps if I have the motivation…
    Thank you Nick Sisco Columbus, OH.

  2. Nick,
    God’s Peace,

    Yes, the Schroeder Method has been a nice benefit to my system building and has worked very well. Notice how some speaker cables are getting huge, with AWG like 12 or 10, which shows that some are discovering the importance of reducing resistance. Yet, others mock the idea. There are many self-assured types in audio who think they can predict the outcome before the system is assembled.

    A patent attorney and I sought patents for the Schroeder Method, but it was problematic because it was closely related to other schemes with parallel conductors. Though the patent was granted, it seems that to implement it would likely invite lawsuits from other patent holders and that defending it might cost much more than any material benefit. The patent attorney and I do not see benefit in dumping money into making a product that then we will spend inordinate amounts of money to defend. Perhaps the only way to monetize it would be if a larger speaker cable company wished to invest in it. Imo, it’s a game changer, but then again, doesn’t everyone say that? LOL

    As I have said all along, the Schroeder Method is a “do at your own risk” activity, and I assume no responsibility for anyone’s attempting it. I would exercise caution if using esoteric equipment that may have lower output. When in doubt, ask the manufacturer of the components or speakers. Caution should be exercised if using cables with flat conductors. I have never had any issue with components that are built using standard topologies and construction techniques, ones that are mass-produced. It is so obviously sonically beneficial that often I do not even bother to compare any longer the use of a single IC versus double. If reviewing cables, I obviously use them as intended, but once that discovery is done, it’s on to the Schroeder Method, and I have never had a cable brand not be improved by it.

    Some manufacturers have been benefitted in the background through my discussion of the Schroeder Method. They have changed their topology to effectively lower their AWG, either through double speaker cables or more conductors. So, the community has benefitted from my exploration. There is an irony in the fact that they have benefitted materially and I have not.

    The situation is a bit like my experimenting with the Landscape Orientation of speakers, wherein I have custom stands built for me by Sound Anchors. I can loft and turn a speaker up to 4′ tall onto the stands to change the sound stage to horizontal. It’s a sensational option for a different listening experience! Currently, I have the PureAudioProject Trio15 10″ Coaxial Speakers on the stands, and with the wonderful Perlisten D212s Subwoofers (reviewed and purchased following review; see the review here) they are a prodigious super-monitor setup. Some manufacturers were shy of discussing it or mocked it, too. Other manufacturers who know the pro audio community immediately caught that it was following the lead of some studios where monitors are turned sideways to achieve a similar effect. The men in my local audio group said it is one of the best systems I have put up, so it can’t be that bad.

    I like working with manufacturers who have an open mind, who are supportive of experimenting with systems. Many are not; they are concerned with one thing only, the perception of the community toward their product in order to drive sales. They will sit within the confines of accepted wisdom even it it means the owner builds a less capable rig.

    Then there are the ones that I see as Renaissance men/women. I collaborated informally with Scott Kindt when he built his latest version of the Aspen Acoustics Grand Aspen, and it’s an amazing transducer. I use all 8 channels of the Legacy Audio i.V4 Ultra amps to drive them. It takes practically all the Iconoclast Cables in possession, so I can’t do the Schroeder Method with those speakers. But the experience is glorious!

    To me, audio systems are like cooking with components and cables. The outcome is unknown specifically, but usually with good gear it’s very pleasing. If my exploring motivates others to find happiness in the process, I’m pleased.

    Douglas Schroeder

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