If you’re looking to moving into streaming the array of options and the complexities of setting a streaming system up can look pretty confusing. But in practice it has got a lot easier than it once was and pretty well anyone with a broadband network can get started. As Aurender shows on the webpage for the A10 all you need is to connect this device to your router and an amplifier and it’s ready. Ready that is for you to load your music onto it and download the Aurender control app onto your smartphone or tablet and get to grips with it. On this occasion it was the last bit that proved a little tricky, it’s where a knowledgeable dealer is invaluable. Aurender is a Korean company and that’s where it’s product support is based, so unless you are patient/knowledgeable having someone on the ground is very handy for the initial set up.
I managed to get it up and running without support, but there were moments when it would have helped. However, the A10 is a superbly executed piece of digital electronics with build quality that’s up there with the best. So what is it? It’s nearly everything you need to stream music; a 4TB hard drive with 120GB solid state drive for playback caching, a dual mono DAC with linear power supply and a volume controlled output for direct connection to a power amp. There’s no disc drive to rip your CDs with, that can be done on a PC of course, and there’s only one digital input (Toslink optical) which limits its potential as a DAC for other digital sources. There is a USB class 2 output however, useful if you have a serious DAC already.
When it comes to loading music Aurender’s quick start guide recommends doing so from a USB drive, you can also do this with a PC however if you look up the online FAQ. The control App has similarities to Linn’s Kinsky with a playlist down one side and the various sources on the right, it is however very brown. It integrates with the Qobuz and Tidal streaming services, which is handy if you have a subscription, and once you are familiar with its logic you can access and play your music with ease. I have come across more intuitive interfaces but it’s not too bad. I like the fact that you can adjust volume in half decibel steps for instance, that sort of sensitivity is a luxury in a control App, and the way that it fades up and down with play and pause is a nice touch.
What’s really nice is the remote handset, this beautifully machined piece of aluminium has volume control and play/pause as well as a few other controls. It means you can stop the music without having to wake up your touchscreen device, it’s also quite handy for powering down the A10, a process that is akin to turning off a PC in terms of speed. That after all is what a streaming engine is, and when there are hard drives involved it pays not to just cut the power.
The onboard DAC on the A10 is no slouch, in numbers terms it’s bit rate capability is close to the maximum currently available, and can cope with PCM up to 32-bit, 384kHz and DSD up to DSD256. More important are the lengths that Aurender goes to keep noise at bay, you can have the best specs in the world but if the power supply, grounding etc are not sorted those numbers are almost meaningless. For instance the power on the USB output can be shut off if the (external) DAC doesn’t require it, which makes for a much quieter connection. Four individual power transformers are provided for the various sections of the A10 in order to minimise interference between them, and the power supplies themselves are shielded to keep radiation to a minimum. These are the things that matter in digital and you can hear why when you start using the A10, it is uncannily precise and clear with a degree of transparency that puts it in another league to more affordable alternatives.
The Aurender was notably quieter than the alternatives I could muster and none of them have backgrounds that are anything less than silent. It’s a strange thing digital noise, you don’t hear it as noise when there’s no notes being played but it’s audible in those notes themselves as a colouration. I didn’t have any combined DACs and servers to contrast with the A10 so the comparisons weren’t entirely fair, a digital link will always introduce some degradations, but it’s fairly obvious that the Aurender’s blacks were notably inkier than a combination of Melco N1ZH server and both a Lindemann Musicbook:25 DSD and an Auralic Altair digital to analogue converter.
The Aurender has a lighter, brighter presentation that lets in a lot more ‘daylight’ and makes the alternatives seem a bit too cosy, as if their outputs are sweetening things slightly to create a more analogue sound. I was thinking that this is the way things should be because the Aurender is a more pricey option, but when you combine the price of the server and DACs above this is not the case, especially where the Lindemann is concerned. I also compared the onboard storage with a USB connection to the Melco server, which produced a clear improvement in terms of openness, dynamics and image scale. The absence of an external connection clearly helps.
I have found very few DACs with volume controls that outperform the Townshend Allegri passive preamp, and that was once again the case here. The onboard volume control is more than serviceable but if you have a decent preamp then it pays to maximise level from the Aurender. There’s a bypass option for the volume control hidden in the menu system that achieves this. In that situation it delivers a crystalline sense of transparency that’s precise and grain free, which suits great recordings down to the ground but is less forgiving of lesser ones. In this instance Van Morrison’s ‘The Way Young Lovers Do’ (Astral Weeks) sounded thin and crude, which given its vintage is possibly an accurate reflection but not a very appealing one. I tried a warmer sounding interconnect cable (going from Chord Sarum to Townshend Fractal) and that helped flesh it out and empowered the bass at the expense of some leading edge speed.
I thought it might be a timing issue but in this regard the A10 is on a par with the other DACs I had to hand, and a recording like Amandine Beyer’s JS Bach Sonatas & Partitas BWV 1001 – 1006 (Zig-Zag Territoires) is positively enchanting in its grip, which doesn’t happen with components that don’t time well. The brilliance of the playing shines through with ease, the tempo and dynamics are precisely presented but do not get in the way of the spirit of the piece. The more down to earth ‘Wharf Rat’ by the Grateful Dead (Grateful Dead (Skulls & Roses)) was equally engaging albeit with more boogie power. It has the ability to stop and start on a dime but doesn’t draw attention to itself with undue leading edge emphasis, play any piece of fast music and this becomes apparent.
I could have spent longer enjoying this Aurender, it wasn’t with me long and it takes a while to build a system around it that reveals its full strengths. It suits evenly balanced and revealing systems and needs amps and speakers that can deliver proper low end. It has take no prisoners transparency, extraordinarily low noise and tremendous powers of resolution. The App is slightly idiosyncratic but that’s not an issue if you can cope with the brownness, and for the week or two that I used it there were no glitches, which is a bonus. The Aurender A10 is an impressive bit of kit for the money, it has a sound that’s reminiscent of dCS at a fraction of the cost, if that’s not great I don’t know what is.