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Aurender A20 reference analog output network player Review

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The obsolescence of separates

The days when HiFi enthusiasts’ systems were comprised of separates, the old term for dedicated components, have passed for all but the most well-heeled or nostalgia minded listeners (but then again, a review of an N20 is in the works). Over the years, I have found CD players that are as good as some transports and DACs, integrated amps that are as good as some preamps and amps, and now, server/streamers that are as good as some separate file servers, streamers, DACs, and preamps. Note that I am saying some, as opposed to all, since it would be expected that as one elevates the quality of dedicated components there will be improvements in sound quality as well. At the recent High-End Munich 2023 show, Clarisys Speakers were shown with Soulution electronics. I would anticipate that if such fine gear was fronted by an N20, the result would be substantially better than if an A20 with Soulution amps were used with the Clarisys speakers. But the proof of it would be an actual comparison.

Aurender gear is made for audiophiles by audiophiles, and it is obvious. One example of the purpose-built nature of the A20 is the handheld remote. This hardware remote control is tailored to provide an enhanced listening experience as opposed to simply duplicating functions. It is the type of remote you pick up when your intent is to play a queued list of music and perhaps change the volume. Most endearing is the spriteliness of its volume control, which allows rapid adjustment to differences in the recording level of tracks. It hearkens back to a time when one listened to music, as opposed to staring at a screen. Kudos to Aurender for not enslaving the owner to the slower Conductor app’s volume control.

As regards an in-depth report on every detail of the Conductor App’s functionality as compared to other software interfaces, don’t look to me for that. To give you some idea of where I slot technological complexity in my life, I am driving my fifth Toyota Camry LE, which does not have all the upper end features. I pair my phone to the car only to make phone calls and occasionally have a text played back. I don’t have to see a map on my dashboard every time I drive. I actively seek to reduce what I consider time sucking details in electronics versus introducing them. I view electronics creep as a form of handing one’s life to a machine versus living it freely.

Consequently, I do not care so much if this or that software feature is different between platforms as much as if I can access the music I want, can play it intuitively, and it sounds excellent. I am far more concerned about the playback settings than what I consider peripheral features. If all this makes me a technological troglodyte, so be it. Then again, I’m not exhausting myself trying to turn analog into cutting edge technology. I tend to work with the components and cables to build systems, and that won’t change simply because the server changes. My perspective is that the software serves the server, and the server serves the audio system, not vice versa. In other words, my bottom line is the sound quality, not the ability to manipulate metadata. Audiophiles may have different and conflicting priorities, so if that is not your priority, then weigh my comments accordingly.


Considering the all-in-one solution

When building systems, you can pursue digital source separates, such as server/streamer, DAC, and preamplifier.

Or you can use the A20 for all those functions.

Aurender does offer some separates at the top of its line, with dedicated word clocks and the two-chassis N30SA, which is described as a “Statement Source for the finest HiFi systems.” Which system configuration would be the best with the A20, adding an outboard component or using the entirety of its functionality? No one can tell you the outcome apart from doing a comparison, and it pays to continue to do comparisons over longer periods of time. Usually, when comparing different setups within a family of equipment, assessing the sound quality to be expected is straightforward. But when comparing various systems from different manufacturers, nothing can be predetermined apart from actual comparison.

Even though my first file server, the stock Apple Mac Mini with HQ Player software, was limited, it was eye opening when a Chicago audiophile who owned a two-tower, purpose-built file server (one tower stored the files and the other played them) brought it to my room with intent to demonstrate upscale digital sound. It didn’t. As difficult as it was to admit, the owner said there was not as much difference between his involved digital front end and my budget front end. Seeing all the work that owner did for not that significant improvement, I resolved not to build a music file server. I concluded the HiFi server had not yet come of age. Now, many years later, with products like Aurender’s A20, the server/streamer has come of age for a person who wants to interact with a component, not a computer.

Am I saying the cheap gear sounds like the expensive stuff? No, I am not. I am saying the home-built stuff may sound no better than the inexpensive store-bought stuff. I have heard and appreciated using purpose built computerized HiFi components that have followed a consistent trajectory of upward performance over the years.


Fun with settings

The A20 has several user-adjustable settings that are found in the Settings menu under the option “Advanced 2.” The owner can adjust settings pertaining to upsampling, the handling of DSD, and Critical Listening Mode. Initially, due to mistaking the screen On/Off setting as the control for critical listening, I was unimpressed when I turned the screen off. I thought it was such an insipid difference I could not be bothered by it. In addition, when the screen was left on, it never turned off. I had presumed that it would be illuminated the entire time I was using the unit, then after perhaps a half hour, or some other user-defined period, it would turn off. But the unit offers no such capability. I was thinking that to be a nuisance for no sonic advantage.

I contacted Aurender Support and told them of the inconvenience. The support team at Aurender is as responsive as Ari, and they indicated that the Critical Listening Mode is distinct from the On/Off screen function and turns off not only the screen, but all unnecessary circuits to improve the sound. Within seconds after activating Critical Listening Mode the screen went dark and I heard the difference instantly. How can shutting down non-critical circuitry improve the playback? I don’t know, but it works clearly! Now I could appreciate the blank screen and did not fight it, for the sonic benefit was worthwhile. In addition, the unit sat with a dark screen after my listening session. It allowed me to leave the unit on continuously without worrying that the display was left on without purpose. What started as an inconvenience, with benefit of education and experience, has become a welcomed feature! Now all I need do to get the music started is turn on the outboard amp and queue up the music on my Samsung tablet using the Aurender Conductor app.

There was another niggling issue that developed when I switched from using the WireWorld Starlight Ethernet Cable to a prototype Clarity Cable Ethernet (I am unsure whether it was ever brought to market), which was sonically superior. However, the data rate seemed to be squelched with the Clarity Cable Ethernet cable. Loading of tracks slowed down and, in some cases, loading of tracks failed. It seems irrational to say, but the sound quality of music played on the A20 is distinctly superior with the Clarity Ethernet cable, and the difference is like switching the A20 to Critical Listening Mode. Were the difference not so great, I would not put up with the slowness. I do not fault the A20 in this, but the prototype cable. But I will still use it because, however it goes about it, the sound is distinctly better when it is being used.

This anomaly shows that if the Aurender unit that one is using is operating slowly, the cause may be the Ethernet cable. That an Ethernet cable can cause a streaming device to sound different is no surprise to me, as I did my comparisons of WireWorld Ethernet cables with the Small Green Computer and SONORE setup and they were affected, too. What seems strange in this instance is that the data rate seems squelched, yet the sound has improved. This is one of the mysteries of the universe which, if the sound is significantly better, I will let stand.


Got a preamp, or a DAC, or both? System options.

The beauty of the A20 is that it is a nearly complete system sans amp. Aurender has just revealed the AP20, which, aside from the streaming music service or files to be played, is the entire system. The simple schematic of the AP20 on the Aurender site shows one component, the AP20, and a line representing speaker cables running directly from it to the speakers, nice and simple! However, the AP20 eschews the disc drive found in the A30. During the review period I have been utilizing both the A20’s XLR and RCA line level outputs, the XLR going to the Legacy Audio i.V4 Ultra Amplifier. At the amp, I split the signal using Audio Sensibility XLR Y-cables to achieve input for four channels of the amp, which allows for passive bi-amping of speakers having two sets of speaker posts.

At the same time, the A20’s RCA outputs are sent to the Perlisten D212s Subwoofers. These smart subs have their own 3,000-watt amps inside, because you can never get enough clean power to a subwoofer. I can control the level of the subs and the mains with the A20’s volume control. Not all system configurations are improved by integrating more features into a multi-function component. One must assess the unique subset of functions and how they impact system development.

The following is written apart from hands on experience with the AP20. In many instances the addition of an external amp can be advantageous versus an integrated amp — hobbyists know it as the integrated versus separates debate. Is it more conducive to achieving the best sound to integrate the source and amplifier or to leave them separate?

When Legacy Audio devised the Whisper DSW (Doug Schroeder Whisper Speaker, which has 12 pairs of binding posts, allowing the speaker to be entirely passive, hybrid active bass and passive M/T through the Legacy Wavelet DAC/Preamp/Processor, or entirely active using the Wavelet), I requested that the speaker not include internal class D amplification. Newer versions of the Whisper typically have internal class D amps, but I rejected that configuration in favor of outboard amplification. Consequently, I must use external amps and speaker cables, but it also allows significantly more flexibility in contouring the sound and an option of upgrading the amps should a breakthrough in amp technology occur. See my several articles about the Legacy Whisper speaker in its various iterations if you wish to read about an actual comparison of performance of active versus passive speaker systems. Claims of active speakers’ universal superiority should be qualified, but that doesn’t make for good marketing.

I suspect the situation is similar with the new AP20. I don’t doubt the integrated class D Purifi amplification is splendid and perhaps would be more desirable sonically than the Legacy amps — perhaps. No one can say without a direct comparison. But over time as technology marches on, everything about the AP20 would age and all its functions would become less desirable. This happens to all components, so the observation is not put forth against Aurender, but to weigh the advantages and disadvantages of an all-in-one component.

If I were to demo the AP20 and were smitten by its charms, I might be tempted to make it my go-to system in a box. But that would mean opening the potential that if any one part of its functionality failed (streamer, preamp, DAC, amp) I would need to consider changing it entirely or getting a supplemental component. Experienced audiophiles are aware of such contingencies, but newer enthusiasts need to consider such things long term. Up to this point, I find the universal component versus separates debate has never been resolved; one can technologically and sonically leapfrog the other over time. Perhaps Aurender will allow me to satisfy my curiosity with a review of the AP20 to see if they are as deft with amplification as with streamers!

The A20’s dedicated USB output for audio supports up to 32 bit/384kHz, DSD 128 (DOP), and DSD 512 (native). This is an excellent resource should you wish to explore using an external DAC. The A20’s DAC is tidy sounding and audiophiles may find it thoroughly gratifying. I suspect that tube lovers would find faults with its sounding; but I am not interested in the all too typical tube bloated and distorted sound with overemphasis on bass, so take that into consideration. Persons who have an external DAC or integrated DAC, will likely want to explore the USB output of the A20.

Can the A20’s performance be improved by adding another component such as a DAC? It may. Can it get cleaner? No, but it can gain more fullness and color, a sense of different flavoring. All cinnamon buns are not alike, and you can enjoy one from bakery A as well as one from bakery B. Likewise, DACs and system configurations. Whether reviewing or not, I swap out three DACs (one dedicated and the others integrated) with regularity because no one can tell you precisely what will result or how you will like it. When variety of experiences is a critical aspect of system building, a small fleet of DACs allows for many different expressions that the ears enjoy.

Consequently, when I added the COS Engineering D1 DAC to the A20 by use of the USB audio output, it introduced both external attenuation and an outboard DAC. I was given a warning by the display of the A20 that fixed volume via the USB Audio output requires attenuation (volume control) elsewhere in the system. The A20’s warning system is a terrific feature that can help the inexperienced and hasty owner avoid damage to their system. Kudos to Aurender for including it! In this system configuration I used the COS D1’s built in preamp to manage the listening level.

If adding an outboard DAC or amplifier seems like too much bother, then you are likely the type of audiophile who would adore the A20 (requires outboard amp) or AP20 (includes amplification) as your ideal solution. Less is more might be your guiding principle and if so, based on my experience with the A20, I feel justified to say that the Aurender team has well-executed products with integrated functions. In my use, the A20’s integrated streamer/server + DAC + preamp combo is executed at a high level that I am convinced would require expensive separates to definitively surpass it. If you doubt that, feel free to acquire an A20 and some lesser priced separates and conduct your own testing.

Ari was matter of fact about an external DAC potentially sounding better than the internal AKM 4497 Dual Mono chipset. When I hooked up the D1 DAC, the display of the A20 informed me that the DAC was not DSD compatible, so that functionality was automatically turned off. I have had the D1 for a while, and that notification reminded me that all gear ages and becomes technologically obsolete over time. If I want the theoretical ultimate result, I must upgrade the external DAC. Or I could switch to another DAC on hand, such as the much less expensive Eastern Electric Minimax Tube DAC Supreme, which has DSD functionality but typically does not sound better than the COS D1. This is an example of the vanity of trying to select the better DAC based on functionality alone. Unless actual comparisons are done, you are guessing which would sound better in any given system. Only when several iterations of several systems with several speakers have occurred can one say definitively that DAC A is superior to DAC B and that the user in most cases can be assured of superior performance.

The addition of the D1 DAC, which was $9K at the time of my review, resulted in some refinement, a touch of warmth, a smidgen more openness, a dollop more ease than the A20’s onboard DAC. The new arrangement seemed to benefit most from a shift in the gain structure of the system. Total gain seemed to have increased and as a result the Clarisys Minuet speakers were made to sound bolder and more revealing. But such things can go both ways. Just as easily there might have been losses or unpleasant results. One never knows but must try the combination. Among the most impressive changes that came through this setup was a boost to the Perlisten D212s subwoofers. The RCA and XLR output of the D1 DAC is evidently higher than the Aurender A20’s, so the subs gained a good dose of authority even though I had them moderated, and I liked the change.

Does such discussion bother you? Are you thinking you cannot be bothered? If you abhor the idea of such fiddling, then rest assured the A20 is a HiFi reductionist’s pleasure, a super, simplified HiFi solution. If you must have variety, then the A20 gives you a wonderful platform to extend systems to your satisfaction, along with a fallback built-in preamp and DAC should an outboard one fail. The bedrock of the A20 is the streamer/server, and since Aurender offers stand-alone units, both types of audiophiles win! If both your source and DAC are bare bones and could stand upgrading, then I think you would be quite pleased by the performance of the A20.


Strange things

One might think that quite expensive equipment would consistently outperform less expensive equipment, but that is not so. The DACs used for this review range in price; the Eastern Electric Minimax Tube DAC Junior (the company no longer exists) at the time of review in 2015 was $850; the Minimax Tube DAC Supreme was $1,350; the first version of the COS Engineering D1 DAC was $9K; and the Exogal Comet DAC in 2015 (also out of business) was $3,500 with the regulated Plus Power Supply. The Ion PowerDAC was $4,000 and the combo was $7,350.

It would be expected that the DAC costing $9K would trounce all the others in every system, but it is not so. It is not possible to tell in any given system comprised of different ancillary equipment, cables, and speakers which DAC will sound best. It is unnerving, as the expectation is that as one puts more money into a component, the sound quality should be preferably superior. But that is not assured. The only way to determine whether the component is absolutely advantageous is to try it in several iterations of systems in comparison with other products. In comparison to the other two DACs, usually the COS D1 comes out on top, but not always. In this instance, the Exogal Comet was the best external DAC with the A20.

When I added the Exogal Ion PowerDAC in place of the Legacy Audio i.V4 Ultra, it elevated the Comet’s performance further, as might be expected since the Comet and Ion were designed to be optimal together. The music became richer and tonally warmer without sounding bloated like a bad tube amp. The thought struck me that the combo of an Aurender N20 streamer and the Exogal stack would make for a powerful and more compact system for persons looking to economize on space. Be assured that combo will be explored in the forthcoming review of the N20. The quality of the sound did not lack. In fact, it was the grandest experience with the Exogal components to date. I was quite happy that I had not sold them, and I could see myself using a setup like this in retirement — small but very capable.

From this setup I learned that the A20 had a range of tonality that could vary significantly with outboard DACs and preamps. I enjoyed the additional warmth and fullness of older favorites such as Paula Cole’s “Where Have All the Cowboys Gone,” or Beth Nielsen Chapman’s “No System for Love.”


Expensive electronics and affordable speakers

To see how well the A20 complemented an affordable speaker system, I swapped the King III electrostatic speakers for the Wharfedale Opus 2-M2, a large bookshelf speaker. The elevated performance characteristics of the A20 carried over to these speakers, which suggested that as an upgrade source it should improve any genre of speaker system.

It took quite a bit of fiddling with the Perlisten D212s subwoofers’ settings to get them to blend correctly with the A20 and the Exogal combo because the output from the RCA outs of the Comet was so high relative to the A20’s XLR output that I had to dial back the subs dramatically or else they overran the Wharfedale speakers. When I achieved the balance I wanted, I was surprised by the robustness of the Wharfedale and Perlisten pairing.

The A20’s USB output is evidently high quality, as it was the best I had heard from the Comet and Ion. For many years the claim has been made that if one uses exceptional electronics ahead of smaller speakers, the result is better than larger speakers with lesser electronics. Such claims without reference to actual systems are theoretical propositions. One must compare systems to determine which of those propositions is true. I will say, however, that when subwoofers are employed, the A20 can give smaller speakers a performance level beyond expectation. No amount of money put into the front end can change some of the telltale signs of a small speaker. (The reader will see that confirmed below, when I switched out the Wharfedale speakers for the PureAudioProject Trio15 10” Coaxial Speakers.) Particular sounds in the mix will always emanate from a bookshelf speaker in a way that exposes the limitations of its size. It cannot completely fool the ears into perceiving it as a larger floor standing speaker. Still, would I suggest that those who have put considerable money into their monitor speakers and have a modest digital source would benefit from an Aurender upgrade? I certainly would! I do not hesitate to recommend it and may strengthen that opinion after hearing the N20.

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