Bob Barrett is a versatile writer and knowledgeable hi-fi enthusiast whose work for HomeTheaterReivew.com runs the gamut from mid- to high-end home theater to audiophile components and speakers. He also specializes in high-performance and high-end headphones.
The Aurender A100 music server ($3,900) is the company's entry level offering within its "A" series of Music Server/DAC combos, which also includes the A10 ($5,500) and A30 ($18,000). Compared with the A10, it foregoes the additional balanced analog audio output option, offering only unbalanced RCA analogue outputs. The A100 also utilizes a single 768 kHz/32-bit AK4490 full MQA decoder DAC chip (from Asahi Kasei Microdevices, or AKM) to decode both channels (single stereo design) rather than the A10's dual AK4490 chips (dual-mono design). The A100 has 2TB of internal storage instead of the A10's 4TB internal hard disk drive. Like the A10, the A100 also has a 120GB solid-state drive (SSD) cache for playback and is controlled by Aurender's Conductor app.
Looking at the front of the A100 from left to right, you'll find the Power On/Off button; a three-inch AMOLED display, with both song information and playlist display options; and four control buttons, including display menu, play/pause, play previous, and play next track navigation. There is also a rotary volume control with volume settings ranging from -90 dB to 0 dB attenuated in 0.5 dB steps. Volume can also be adjusted from either the included IR remote or the Conductor app. Around back, you'll find a pair of RCA analog audio outputs, an optical SPDIF digital audio input that can interface with a Compact Disc player or TV, a USB 2.0 audio port for sending signals to an outboard DAC, a gigabit Ethernet port, two USB 2.0 data ports for copying from external USB memory devices, an AC power switch, and an AC power socket.
The A100's DAC chip supports playback of PCM files up to 768 kHz/32-Bit resolution, as well as DSD64 and DSD128 files in DoP mode. When using the SPDIF Optical input, playback of music files is limited to a maximum resolution of 192 kHz/24-Bit.
In its design, Aurender focused on eliminating noise from entering the A100, which features a shielded, full linear power supply; a shielded, asynchronous USB audio output; and individual toroidal transformers for the music server, digital circuitry, and DAC.
The Aurender A100 is available in either a silver or black finish. My review sample came in the former finish options, but both measure 12.99 inches wide by 13.9 inches deep by 2.2 inches high and weigh a hefty 22 pounds.
Unfortunately, my review sample arrived without a stock power cord, which happens sometimes when samples pass through several reviewers' hands. So, I contacted the good people at WireWorld and they sent me a Silver Electra 7 power cord along with a pair of their Silver Eclipse 8 RCA interconnects for the review. Because the Aurender A100 comes with its own volume control, I chose to connect the unit directly to my reference Classé amp. While the Aurender can be connected through a preamp, I wanted to keep the setup as simple as possible.
After volume matching, it would also allow me to more easily make comparisons between the Aurender's sound and that of my Classé CP-800 preamp containing Wolfson DAC chips. The CP-800 is connected to a Synology NAS (Network Attached Storage) device via a Mac Mini with 256GB SSD acting as the music server. When performing comparisons, the Classé CP-800 was connected to the same Classé amp with the balanced version of WireWorld's Silver Eclipse interconnects. After making the cable connections, I next made a wired RJ45 Ethernet connection between the Aurender and an Apple Airport Express to connect to my LAN, since I don't have a wired ethernet connection available in my listening room.
Setting up the Aurender Conductor app (in my case on an iPad Pro) is pretty straightforward. After opening the app, you simply navigate to "Settings > Aurender" and select the Aurender A100 unit, enter the six-digit passcode that appears on the Aurender display, and that's it. After the initial connection is made, opening the Conductor app will cause it to find the Aurender automatically if the unit is powered on. After the initial connection was made, I went to the "Software Upgrade" section of the Settings menu, found there was a newer version of the software available, and installed it.
To prepare streaming music content, I logged into my Tidal and Qobuz streaming service subscriptions from the Aurender by selecting the "Streaming" section of the Conductor Settings menu and then entering my login credentials for each service. Doing so automatically loads your saved favorites from the streaming services into the app.
Next, I connected to my Synology NAS (Network Attached Storage) device by going to the "NAS Server" section of the Conductor Settings menu and tapping "Browse NAS Server" to find my NAS device. I selected my NAS from the list of servers found and entered my login credentials. Then I loaded some music files onto the Aurender's internal hard disk drive by connecting a USB drive to one of the USB data ports on the back of the unit. Once connected, I selected the "Folder" tab from the top row of buttons displayed in the app and then selected "USB." I then selected the folder I wanted to copy and tapped the "Copy To' button, tapped the desired target folder on the Aurender, and then hit "Select" to initiate the copy process.
If desired, files can also be copied from a connected NAS device to the A100's internal HDD by selecting the NAS folder in the Conductor app after logging into the NAS by the steps previously mentioned. According to Aurender, using the internal storage will deliver a better user experience because the system automatically scans internal storage for new content. Using a NAS is fine but a little more cumbersome. All in all, I found the Aurender setup and music file copy process to be straightforward enough that I was up and running in under 30 minutes.
Before I get to my impressions of the Aurender A100's musical performance, it's worth mentioning a bit about the user interface. Like most music streamer/DACs these days, the Aurender A100 could be considered a computer. And, because of the trend toward music streamer/DAC devices replacing physical media players and becoming the central hub of most audio systems, the level of enjoyment I've experienced from these devices has been directly tied to not only their musical performance, but also their user interfaces.
For Aurender, the user experience is provided by any combination of the A100's AMOLED display, the provided IR remote control, and Aurender's own Conductor app. For me, and I suspect for most people, the IR remote control was hardly used at all. Yes, I tried the basic remote out in combination with the AMOLED display to navigate my music library, and it did work. But I found it cumbersome to navigate compared to using the Conductor app. Visually, the basic monochromatic, text-only display didn't help either. The display only provides basic information and the text isn't large enough to be easily seen across the room from my listening position. It made me long for the larger, graphical color display of the Naim Uniti Nova I reviewed last year. The Naim has the best display of any streamer I can think of that costs less than five digits.
Luckily, using the Conductor app downloaded to my iPad made up for the lack of a great display on the A100 itself. The Conductor app is well laid out for intuitive use and is one of the best proprietary apps I've used. You can browse your libraries by song, artist, album, genre, and composer and display the results in the contents window. You have the ability to select songs or entire albums and add them to the end of the queue or have them play immediately. There is also an editor that allows you to make changes to the playlist after you've built one. There is a playback window with the normal controls (play/pause, next, previous, repeat, and shuffle). There are also icons to select between your various libraries, including Tidal and Qobuz streaming services, the Aurender internal hard drive, a connected NAS or USB drive, and Internet Radio (supported by SHOUTcast).
Unfortunately, Conductor does not automatically combine libraries like Roon can, but that's not a huge deal. You can press and hold on any streaming content and hit "add to library." Using this feature, you can easily integrate streaming content into your local library. You also only need to make one click to switch between multiple libraries or Internet Radio if you choose not to go the combined route. Conductor proved to have a fast response time in both searching libraries and queuing up songs for playback thanks to both the A100's computing power and its 120GB caching SSD. From the Settings icon, there are several adjustments you can make to the A100. One of the cool features to note is the ability to request remote support from the Aurender team from within the app settings menu. That allows Aurender support to diagnose what the issue is and oftentimes save the owner from having to send the unit in for troubleshooting and repair. That's a nice plus.
To start off my evaluation of the sonics performance of the A100, I listened to several familiar male and female vocalists accompanied by acoustic instruments to evaluate midrange quality and tonal accuracy of the A100. Listening to Ben Howard's track "Black Flies" (Tidal, 44.1/16) from his album Every Kingdom (Universal-Island Records, Ltd.), the slow-building track starts off simply enough with just an acoustic guitar solo and vocals by the folk singer-songwriter.
The resonances of the individual chords' attack and decay along with the sound of fingers sliding along the strings from fret to fret carried just the right weight and realistic tonal quality to draw me more deeply into the music. Through the Aurender, the vocal started off laid back and smooth as it should, with spatial cues painting a clear picture of a reverberant acoustic space. As the woeful song built until it burst into more of a folk-rock sound at the 3:20 mark, the A100 did a terrific job of teasing out the additional vocal textures and the layers of sound from the background vocals, drums, electric guitar, and bass guitar into a cohesive wall of sound stretching beyond the speaker boundaries. All the finite details of the tune were delivered, and yet the presentation had that slightly warm, inviting quality that made me want to listen for long periods of time.
To check out layering and soundstaging, I listened to a few different selections including "When The Lights Go Down (L.P. Version)" (Qobuz, 4.1/16) from Prince's album The Vault - Old Friends 4 Sale (Rhino). This lesser-known jazz-infused track has a lot going on, starting with a set of bongo drums playing off of each other, one on the right and the other on the left of center soundstage.
When the bass guitar joins in, the A100 locks it in place at dead center, as it should. The piano then enters just a bit to the left of the right speaker with plenty of natural sparkle on the high notes and a laid-back tone on the lower notes. Prince begins singing at the 2:40 mark, adding another layer to the mix. All the while, the A100 presents the layered tune with a delightful sense of space between individual instruments in the palpable soundstage.
To evaluate dynamic range and impact potential of the Aurender A100, I listened to several familiar classical symphonic selections. A couple of favorites for this purpose are the Minnesota Orchestra's recording of Copland's "Fanfare for the Common Man" (Reference Recordings) and Hans Zimmer's "The Dark Knight Orchestral Suite" (Qobuz, 48/24) from the album The World of Hans Zimmer: A Symphonic Celebration (Sony Classical) and performed by the ORF Vienna Radio Symphony Orchestra in the Vienna Concert Hall. Through the A100, the opening's tympani and drums were both taut and thunderous at the same time. Compared to the Classé CP-800's DAC, the dynamics of the track through the A100 seemed slightly larger, bringing a bit more impact and drama to the performance. The same could be said of the Copland piece and other big symphonic selections, as well.
To test bass control, I switched to a few selections that are very current on the pop and hip hop scenes. I listened to selections from artists such as Billie Eilish and Post Malone. Not exactly audiophile recordings, but that's the point. In my opinion, a good Music Streamer/DAC should be able to present all types of music accurately. So, I queued up "Bad Guy" (Qobuz, 44.1/24) from the debut Billie Eilish album When We Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go? (Darkroom - Interscope records).
The track immediately starts off with a synthesized deep bass beat that serves as the foundation for most of the track. On some lesser DACs I've heard the bass sound muddled, blurring the vocals that are almost whispered at times. Not so through the A100. The bass beat sounded as it was meant to and didn't cloud the vocals at all, even when at the 2:31 mark the bass is reproduced at a much lower frequency than earlier in the track. On a good system, the track can be almost addictive with its simple, two-beat melody, and that was the case with the A100.
There isn't a headphone jack on the Aurender A100, so those that may occasionally want to keep their music to themselves will need to either connect through a preamplifier with that capability or look for another solution for that listening option. Also, the Aurender A100 doesn't provide connections to use the balanced XLR interconnects that I prefer over unbalanced RCA interconnects. Balanced circuitry is an upgrade feature which starts with A10.
Finally, the Aurender A100 only supports DSD64 and DSD128 (both via DoP). For those whose listening preferences lean heavily toward a lot of higher-resolution DSD music, you'll need to look elsewhere (and probably spend more money).
Competition and Comparisons
With the migration to streaming from physical media having been the continuing trend for a few years now, there are numerous music streamer/DACs to choose from. However, looking for a network streamer plus DAC that also includes internal storage narrows the choices considerably in the $4,000 price range. I imagine that Aurender saw this opportunity in the market and seized it by paring down its highly regarded A10 to fill the gap with the subject of this review, the A100. I really had to do some digging to come up with products for comparison, so it will be interesting to see who else jumps in with a similar product at this price point.
The NAD Masters Series M50.2 digital music player ($3,995) has a color TFT touchscreen display, a CD transport for playing or ripping CDs, incorporates two 2TB internal hard disks arranged in a 2TB RAID array, plays PCM files up to 192 kHz/24-bit resolution, fully decodes MQA files, is Roon Ready, supports numerous cloud music services such as Tidal, Qobuz, and Deezer, among others, and is operated via the intuitive BluOS app. However, it does not support playback of DSD files, so if that's critical to you, this is not the music streamer for you. I also can't comment on playback performance of the M50.2 compared to the A100 because I haven't had a sample in my system to evaluate.
While a bit less expensive than the A100, the Auralic Altair G1 ($2,999) is a music streamer/DAC that can also be converted to a music server by adding an optional kit to install a 2TB internal SSD. Control is by an iPad or other iOS device (no Android) using Auralic's proprietary Lightning DS app, which has a reputation for being quite stable. The Altair has a four-inch IPS color touch display, compared to the three-inch monochromatic display of the A100. The Altair also adds XLR balanced outs as well as a headphone out. Inside, the Altair utilizes just a single toroidal power transformer compared to the A100's three individual toroidal power transformers for the music server, digital circuitry, and DAC. Unlike the A100, the Altair doesn't have a digital out, so it cannot be connected to an external DAC.
The Aurender A100 is a computer that's purpose-built to be a music server optimized specifically for music reproduction in tandem with its robust operating software. I found the A100 to be a significant step up from using a computer designed for multiple purposes and trying to adapt it for music server duty. The A100 is better at reproducing music both from a performance standpoint and from a user interface perspective. Music played through the Aurender A100 does an admirable job at providing enough musical detail to satisfy most music enthusiasts, while still leaning slightly toward the warm side, making it enjoyable for longer listening sessions.
Is it the last word in detail or soundstaging? No, but you'd have to spend a lot more money to obtain those goals. With its volume control and its ability to interface with a an external USB drive, Compact Disc player, DVD player, or TV, it's more than capable of becoming the hub of all but the most zealous music enthusiast's modern-day, two-channel home entertainment system, bringing loads of musical enjoyment as well as pride of ownership.
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