Aurender S10 Hardware
Most audiophiles would never know, or care to know, the Aurender S10 is a computer running the Linux operating system. A look inside the server reveals a computer motherboard, CPU, RAM, hard drive, etc… That's where the similarities between an everyday desktop computer and this purpose built machine end. The Aurender S10 is a highly customized music server built for sound quality, convenience, and aesthetics.
The outside of the Aurender S10 serves both form and function. I'm a sucker for great industrial design like that of Swiss manufacturer Nagra. I believe expensive products should look as good as they sound and I'm not afraid to say it publicly. Many audiophiles fear the wrath of so-called purists who decry all talk of aesthetics as if good looks and good sound are mutually exclusive or a desire for good looking products means one doesn't like the music as much as the hardware. There's nothing wrong with those of us who demand both form and function. The Aurender S10 is a perfect example of a product that looks as good and sounds as good as any component in one's audio rack. The S10 is right at home next to components in my system from Berkeley Audio Design, Bel Canto, TAD Labs, Audio Research, Meitner, and dCS. The silver aluminum housing with black aluminum heat fins is impressive in pictures and in person. The fit and finish is unlike any production high end music server in recent memory.
The front panel of the Aurender S10 is superb. Surrounding the square power button is a dim white light that illuminates when the server is powered on. The four square buttons on the right side offer limited controls for Play/Pause, Forward, Reverse, and display toggling. The front panel consists of two separate AMOLED (active-matrix organic light-emitting diode) displays. Each display operates independently for the most part. It's not possible to change one of the two displays but each display present its own unique data. There are three display modes selectable from either the front button or the iPad application. Switching between each mode is instant from either user interface. I'm continually impressed at how fast the display changes when a new mode is selected from the iPad app. There is literally no latency. Two of the three display modes are source level meters that display current decibel levels ranging from -144 to 0 dB for 24-bit audio and from -96 to 0 dB for 16-bit playback. The difference between these two modes is either a blue or yellow background. The third display mode is text based information about the current music selection. The left AMOLED display shows the artist, track playing progress, and information about any connected USB audio device. The right AMOLED display features the currently playing track name, bit depth (24bit), frequency (44.1), and file format (FLAC). When an artist name or track title are too long for the display the Aurender S10 scrolls right to left slowly so not to distract the listener while providing the needed information.
The rear of the Aurender S10 music server contains the same silver aluminum finish and very solid in/output terminals. No analog output is available from the server as it doesn't contain an onboard DAC. Traditional audio outputs are coaxial S/PDIF (electrical), TosLink S/PDIF (optical) and AES/EBU. The server contains two USB ports that until recently could only be used as data inputs. As of firmware version 1.0.18 the USB ports support Class 2 USB audio and sample rates from 16/44.1 up through and including 24/192. The Gigabit (10/100/1000) Ethernet port on the Aurender S10 is for Internet based updates, file transfer, and remote control. The unit does not currently support audio over Ethernet such as UPnP or DLNA. The S10 also features a power switch on the rear that should be used only after the server has been shutdown via the front button or the iPad interface.
Every audio interface supported by the Aurender S10 can handle audio from 16/44.1 through 24/192. The USB audio enabling firmware was a very recent release thus hindering my ability to thoroughly test the interface. I did conduct limited testing of USB audio using a Berkeley Audio Design Alpha USB connected to either of the Aurender USB ports. Playback was flawless. The Alpha USB uses an XMOS chip that doesn't require additional drivers on Mac OS X or Linux computers with the appropriate software versions. A good way to identify if one's USB DAC or USB interface converter is compatible with the Aurender S10 is to find out if the converter requires additional drivers to support 24/192 audio on Mac OS X or Linux. If additional drivers are required elsewhere chances are high the USB converter will not work with the Aurender. Converters using StreamLength asynchronous code or XMOS async code such as dCS and Meitner should have no issues interfacing with the Aurender S10.
Internally the Aurender S10 is a gem unlike any server built by an enthusiast. I mean that in the best sense of the word enthusiast. Building a server like the S10 requires serious R&D capital. WideaLab has a very large amount of capital invested in the Aurender series of products and it clearly shows. Computers contain electrically noisy environments that aren't ideal for sensitive audio components. The Aurender S10's internal components are wisely separated into three sections by its substantial aluminum chassis. The custom Aurender audio board has its own compartment as does the linear power supply. The remaining components including motherboard, hard drives, and switching power supply are housed together at the bottom of the chassis. High end audio manufacturers have been building similar componentry for years by separating the electrically noisy parts of a preamp or amplifier from the analog circuitry.
A critical part of the Aurender S10 is its custom built sound card. WideaLab surveyed available sound cards for inclusion into the S10 but found them unsuitable for this application. The company firmly believes that extra circuitry of multi-channel professional audio cards has a negative impact on audio performance. Not satisfied with using the quartz clock found on motherboards WideaLab created its own audio card dedicated to playback at an audiophile level. The audio card in the S10 contains the WideaLab clock and re-clocking modules using OCXO (Oven Controlled Crystal Oscillators) and FPGAs (Field-Programmable Gate Arrays). Accurate clocking at all frequencies has never been as important as it is today. Previously transports and DACs only needed to support CDs at 16 bit / 44.1 kHz. Building components that lock on this sample rate only is a much easier task than building components that have to support several different sample rates. WideaLab didn't engage in any of the popular yet deleterious shortcuts to clocking. Because of this the Aurender S10 audio card is excellent.
Using the newly enabled USB audio capability with an asynchronous USB converter bypasses the custom audio card and its oven controlled clocking. This is because asynchronous USB converters control the data flow from the Aurender S10 and don't associate a clock signal until the audio data arrives at the converter. This is the nature of asynchronous USB converters and not specific to the Aurender S10. In my brief listening sessions with the Aurender S10 feeding data to the Berkeley Audio Design Alpha USB that delivered audio to the Alpha DAC Series 2 I was extremely impressed with the results.
Over the last couple years there have been numerous music server designs that either include or exclude internal disk storage for any number of reasons. There isn't a single best option for all server designs. Music storage is, for the most part, all internal to the Aurender S10. A recent firmware update enabled Network Attached Storage (NAS) access, but for reasons I'll discuss later I don't consider this an acceptable everyday option with the Aurender S10. My S10 shipped with a 2TB spinning hard disk and 64GB solid state disk. The Aurender S10 has a clever approach to using both HDDs and SSDs. The main music library is stored on the 2TB spinning HDD. As tracks or albums are added to the queue for playback the music is copied from the spinning HDD to the solid state disk. Following a short period of no access the HDD spins down reducing power usage and completely eliminating ambient noise. When music is subsequently added to the queue or selected for immediate playback the HDD spins up instantly copying the material to the SSD. The longest time I waited for the disk to spin up and music to start playing was about three seconds. During normal listening I selected an album for playback by adding it to the queue. The S10 copied the album from the HDD to the SSD. Music began playing as soon as the first track was available on the SSD. Within a matter of seconds copying of the entire album was complete and the HDD spun down a short time later. While the HDD is spinning it is audible only while no music is playing. Even when music was at very low levels the hard drive was inaudible in my listening room.
Aurender S10 Software
Equally as impressive as the Aurender S10's hardware is the S10's software. The music server is configured and controlled through the Aurender iPad application available free through the iTunes App Store. Prior to using the Aurender I recommend running through the system settings available by tapping the settings icon near the top right of the iPad app screen.
- Server: Under most circumstances the Aurender app will locate the S10 server automatically when the Server page is opened. This page is used to rename the server, view network information such as IP address, view percentage of disk utilization, and to restart or shutdown the server.
- Scanner: This page is where one can run a manual library scan of new files or rescan all files on the server. Scan status is also displayed during and after each scan. After adding new music to the server a scan is automatically commenced as well as an update of the song information database.
- AMOLED Display: This is where brightness of the front panel display is controlled by a dimmer / slider or completely turned off via a software toggle switch. In addition user can select one of three display modes for the front panel.
- General: Options for hiding albums without cover art and adjusting what the server considers a recent album.
- Upgrade: Allows checking for new firmware via the Internet, downloading new firmware, and upgrading once downloaded.
- NAS Share: Displays the Aurender IP address, user ID, and user settable password for connecting to the Aurender S10 via one's home network. This is for file access only.
- NAS Server: Allows mounting a remote NAS drive for access via the Aurender iPad app GUI.
- Music Player: Options for setting the playback delay time between sample rate changes. If one's DAC requires time to change sample rates this page allows a delay to be set before the server begins playback.
- Version: Displays the iPad app version and Aurender firmware version.
Settings Photo Gallery
The heart of the Aurender app is its song information database. This database is stored locally on the iPad and contains all the metadata and album art for every track stored on the server. The best file format for metadata on the Aurender S10 is by far FLAC. The FLAC tagging standard simplifies the process of reading such tags as rear album cover, composer, and conductor. Over the four months I used the S10 additional FLAC tag support was added via Internet software updates. Music accessed via NAS is not contained in this database. Storing the song information database on the local iPad was a smart design decision. This allows very quick access to album information such as track listings and cover art images. Scrolling through the 2,937 albums located on my Aurender S10 was acceptably fast likely because of the local database. This database reached about 54MB once I filled the hard drive with nearly 3,000 albums. Loading and browsing such a database from local storage is a breeze. Loading and browsing such a database may be painstakingly slow if it was accessed from the server during every listening session. Fortunately WideaLab made a wise decision to store the database on the iPad.
Most of the graphical user interface is incredibly intuitive. Tabs for Song, Artist, Album, Genre, Composer, and Conductor are self explanatory to everyone with a pulse. Gracefully scrolling through a collection of albums with the swipe of a finger is a pleasurable experience. An alphabetical shortcut is available, if scrolling through many albums is too time consuming, by selecting one of the letters running down the right side of the app screen. Albums are sorted first by artist then by album title. I much prefer this method of sorting over simply alphabetizing by album title. Selecting an album with a single tap displays all tracks from the album. Selecting an album by tapping and holding one's finger on the album for one second displays an action popup window. This popup allows the user to Play Now, Replace Queue, Add to Next, or Add to End. Each of these four actions are available per track and per album.
Creating and editing playlists is a bit less intuitive but fairly easy after it's done a couple times. Keep in mind that I never once read a user manual or any instructions for operating the server. Briefly, creating a playlist is done by adding albums or tracks to the queue, selecting the Save button, and naming the playlist. Editing a playlist is accomplished by selecting the playlist from a list and either selecting Edit or adding more tracks. There is no way to create a smart playlist based on sample rates, artists, tracks, etc…
The search feature of the app is very fast thanks to the locally stored database. Searching is first narrowed down by selecting one of the tabs for Song, Artist, Album, Genre, Composer, or Conductor. Then selecting the search box enables the standard iPad popup keyboard for typing one's search criteria. As one types the search results are narrowed even further. Searching for the band Pearl Jam I can easily narrow the results enough by simply typing the letters Pea. The Aurender app displays seven artists with the letter sequence "pea" in their name. The more letters typed the less possible results are displayed.
The Aurender app offers a few different views of the currently playing album, track, or queue. Tapping the album cover of the currently playing track switches the app to full screen cover art. The picture can be enlarged by standard iPad pinch-type gestures. The app also recognizes albums or tracks containing an embedded rear album cover. When a rear cover is recognized the user simply swipes a finger from right to left and vice versa to switch between images. When in full screen view tapping on the screen once displays the back, forward, and play buttons above the current track timeline. It's a simplistic screen focussed mainly on cover art. It's also possible to view the entire queue or the entire album in a list with the cover art as the background image. My main view was the default app view displaying all my albums on the right with the queue on the left and a small cover image in the corner.
The Aurender iPad app is best experienced in person or through video. A simple text explanation doesn't do this wonderful application justice.
Aurender iPad App Photo Gallery
Aurender S10 In Use
Over the last four months I've used the Aurender S10 extensively. The server has been connected to my Cisco based Gigabit network via CAT6a Ethernet cable. My iPad has been connected to the same network via 802.11n Apple Airport Extreme Base Stations running at 2.4 and 5 GHz. A wired and wireless network are requirements to use the Aurender S10 server. Without connectivity to both wired and wireless there is no way to control the server.
Once the Aurender S10 is connected to a network the first item of business is adding music to the library. Readers paying close attention likely noticed the Aurender S10 doesn't contain a CD/DVD drive for ripping music. The two supported methods of adding music to the server are via Sneakernet or Ethernet. Sneakernet is a non-technical term for loading data on a physical device such as a USB drive and walking the drive to another computer. In this case walking a USB drive from one's computer to the Aurender S10 and loading music via its USB port. If at all possible I avoid Sneakernet like the plague. Throughout the review period I've loaded all music on the Aurender S10 over my wired Ethernet network. When loading music it's always prudent to consider one's backup strategy at the same time. Thus, I settled on two different methods of loading and backing up music while using the Aurender S10. The first method is what I recommend for Mac users. Using the XLD program rip CDs to an external hard drive connected to the Mac. Instead of using Sneakernet, use the Carbon Copy Cloner application to mirror the music from the external hard drive to the Aurender S10's internal hard drive. This is quite simple once configured. The CCC application can run automatically or manually after music is either edited or added. For example if one finds missing cover art and adds it to an album stored on the local external drive Carbon Copy Cloner will recognize this change and copy only the changed files to the Aurender music server. All copying is done over the network and is seamless to the end user. The second method of loading and backing up music is the method I used most of the time. Using a Windows PC running dBpoweramp I ripped my music to two different locations simultaneously. I configured the app to rip uncompressed FLAC and make copies of the files on the Aurender S10 and a Drobo FS Network Attached Storage (NAS) drive. I used this method more often as I like dBpoweramp much better than all other ripping, converting, and editing applications. The one pitfall to this method is updating files in both locations. Using the example above with newly added cover art for an album, a second manual step was required to mirror the music in both locations. After editing a file or album on the Drobo FS I simply copied and pasted the files or folders containing the changed files electing to overwrite the existing original files on the Aurender S10. Another reason I really like dBpoweramp is the ability to edit metadata easily. As I tested the Aurender's ability to read FLAC and AIFF tags it was very easy from a Windows PC to right click a track and select Edit ID-Tag using dBpowreamp's built-in context menu. The tag editing screen allows one to add front and rear cover art. Using the Aurender S10 both front and rear images are visible in the iPad user interface. Most of my music has already been ripped over the last few years. Adding this music to the Aurender S10 was as simple as copy and paste from one NAS to the Aurender's internal hard drive. The Aurender's drive is visible over the network and accessible just like an external USB or FireWire drive. Readers who are less learned in computer networking should be able to figure out how to connect to the Aurender S10 without too much trouble. Or, simply ask the Aurender dealer to come out and lend a hand.
An important feature that cannot be underestimated is the user's ability to copy existing files from the Aurender S10 in native FLAC, WAV, AIFF, Apple Lossless, etc… format. This allows customers to move to a different music server without re-ripping all their CDs. The fact that customers can switch to a different server platform without reinventing the wheel is likely the very reason they will select and stay with the original server. In other words, the ability to leave is what interests people in staying.
Listening to music with the Aurender S10 has been a great experience in many ways. The ability to browse nearly 3,000 of my albums with the flick of a finger and play anything at anytime without thinking about sample rate support or configuring software for bit perfect output has changed my listening habits immensely. I stopped thinking about many of the issue those of us on the bleeding edge of computer playback frequently encounter and started focussing on my music collection. Walking into my listening room it was nice to know the Aurender S10 was always ready to play anything on its hard drive. This was due in part to my inability to leave the Aurender server in a state of disrepair as I've often done with a Windows or Mac based server. There's no tweaking to be done to the Aurender S10. Simply sit down, select music, and enjoy the evening.
Sonically I was very impressed by the Aurender S10. Listening to the new 24 bit / 96 kHz releases of The Dark Side Of The Moon and Wish You Were Here, both completely gapless, was pure joy. The Aurender S10 eased from track to track without a hiccup. The sound quality achieved in my system when connected via AES to my Berkeley Audio Design Alpha DAC Series 2 was wonderful. Currently none of my Mac OS X based machines can best the sound quality of the Aurender S10 in my system. Compared to the Aurender via AES my Macs connected via USB sound very sluggish and washed out. There is no life to the Mac based music compared to the S10's all around vibrance and solid yet controlled bass reproduction. Playback from the Aurender via TosLink at 4x sample rates (176.4 and 192 kHz) was nothing to write home about. The sound was closer to my Mac systems but in certain areas it was very lackluster. Playing a couple 24/192 demo tracks from Bravura Records via TosLink was like listening to a different recording. The drum kit had no life as all the sonic edges were rounded off. Drum sounds that were clearly delineated via AES output were somehow melded together like a lazy drumroll through the TosLink output. Fortunately I have no need for TosLink output from the Aurender. The S10's AES output to several different DACs was great and clearly something I would enjoy in my system day-in day-out. But no matter how much I like the Aurender S10 I continue to use my C.A.P.S. v2.0 server frequently as I consider it sonically equal or slightly better in certain circumstances. Unfortunately the user interface and build quality of the C.A.P.S. v2.0 server doesn't even compare to the Aurender. Comparing the Aurender S10 to the Olive O6HD is no contest. The Aurender S10 blows the Olive O6HD away in every respect. Period.
The Aurender S10 is not perfect but neither are Sooloos, Apple, or Windows based products. My criticisms of the Aurender S10 are by no means showstoppers and don't come close to outweighing all that's great about this product. As I mentioned earlier a recent firmware upgrade enabled Network Attached Storage (NAS) access from the Aurender iPad interface. This allows the user to browse a NAS drive loaded with music and select that music for playback via the Aurender S10. This is a good concept as it allows for tens of Terabytes worth of music even though the Aurender S10 only holds 2TB internally. Unfortunately the NAS capability is a bandaid approach. It's not possible to add NAS based music to the library or song information database. NAS based music is not available in search results and the Aurender does not support all the metadata or cover art if a file is located on a NAS. Playing music from a NAS drive through the Aurender S10 is currently unacceptable. Two minor issues I have with the server are related to the front panel. First, there is no way to dim the white light surrounding the power button. This light isn't very bright to begin with but when listening in complete darkness it can be somewhat annoying. Second, there is no way to use the Aurender S10 adequately without an iPad. A couple times during the review I left my iPad two flights of stairs away from my listening room. I would have loved the ability to scroll, however rudimentary, through the library from the front panel AMOLED display. Another acceptable option would be a very scaled down Aurender application for the iPhone or iPod Touch.
Computer Audiophile Product of the Year 2011
As technology advances there are inevitably a number of people who resist change. High end computer audio has brought about its fair share of detractors from the traditional audiophile crowd. Much of this resistance is due to lack of education, misunderstandings, and poor first impressions. The time has come for the resistive types to test the computer audio waters once again or for the fence sitters to start leaning forward and ease into the next phase of wonderful music reproduction in the home. Audiophiles and music lovers alike should understand there isn't a single best music server, music server platform, or HiFi component for that matter. A product designed to please everybody will please nobody. The best one can do is make a list of music server requirements and check off each item that's fulfilled by a specific product. Arguably the chances are very good an Aurender S10 from WideaLab will meet or exceed more requirements than all music servers on the market. The Aurender S10 music server is one of those computer audio products that audiophiles and music aficionados have sought for years. The fit and finish of the Aurender S10 with its AMOLED display and fine metal work is superb to say the least. The S10's sonic performance arguably exceeds that of most high end digital and analog sources. In addition to custom audio hardware its iPad control application sets the Aurender S10 apart from nearly all music server solutions. Smoothly swiping through 3,000 albums covers on an iPad can change one's entire listening experience. The fantasy of superior sound quality, incredible convenience, and beautiful aesthetics has been brought to reality by WideaLab and its Aurender S10, the Computer Audiophile Product of the Year for 2011. WideaLab has finally made it cool to bring a computer into the listening room.
- Source: Aurender S10, C.A.P.S. v2.0 Server, Mac Pro, MacBook Pro
- Remote Control Software: Aurender iPad App, Remote, BitRemote
- Remote Control Hardware: iPhone 4, iPad, MacBook Air
- Playback Software OS X Lion 10.7.2: iTunes 10.5 (141), Amarra 2.3, Pure Music 1.82, BitPerfect 0.30
- Playback Software Windows 7: J River Media Center 17
- DAC: Berkeley Audio Design Alpha DAC Series 2, Berkeley Audio Design Alpha USB
- Preamp: Audio Research LS27, TAD Labs C2000
- Amplifier: Bel Canto Design ref1000m, McIntosh Labs MC275
- Loudspeakers: TAD Labs CR1 Compact Reference
- Cables: AudioQuest Redwood Loudspeaker Cable, AudioQuest Niagara Balanced XLR Analog Interconnects, Mogami W3173 Heavy Duty AES 110 ?, AudioQuest NRG-100 Power Cables , Wire World Silver Starlight USB Cable, AudioQuest Diamond USB Cable, Kimber Select KS2020 S/PSIF Coax Cable, Mogami Gold Studio 1/4" to XLR Male Analog Interconnect , Generic TosLink S/PDIF Optical Cable