Sonore microRendu Review, Part 2
In Part 1 of my Sonore microRendu review I went into detail about the product's design and hardware. In Part 2 I will touch on the software, power supply options, a less expensive but less capable version (Sonicorbiter SE), and give an assessment on how my HiFi system sounds with the microRendu.
Since the microRendu was announced it has been a very hot topic on CA. Since the product was released it has become a very hot topic in high end audio circles everywhere. This product has many high end manufacturers concerned, and rightly so. It's $640, plus the cost of a power supply ($50+), and it outperforms much more expensive products on the market. The first production run of the "mR" sold out almost immediately. The second production run is well one its way to selling out. It appears that this tiny product from a tiny company is currently the biggest thing in HiFi.[PRBREAK][/PRBREAK]
The microRendu runs the Sonicorbiter operating system. This OS was created through a collaboration between Sonore by Simple Design and Small Green Computer. It may be new to many CA readers, but the fact is both Jesus and Andrew from SGC have been working on parts of this OS for many years. One doesn't simply come up with the idea for an OS and make it work over the weekend. If there were one or two DACs on the market and a single PCM sample rate and no other variables, that would be one thing, but given the current market conditions with PCM, DSD, upsampling, and an endless number of USB DACs in customers' hands, creating a very successful OS takes years of fine tuning.
Sonicorbiter is based on Fedora Linux and relies on several open source projects in addition to proprietary customizations. Sure, Sonore benefits from the work of others in the open source community, but Jesus and Andrew are also part of that community helping to improve this software so even other manufacturers receive the benefits. Sonicorbiter itself isn't available as a software only product, as it's only provided with the microRendu and the Sonicorbiter SE hardware. Other than this information, the end user really doesn't need to know a thing about the OS or Linux. It works like a toaster. Plug it into the network, click play, listen not music.
At the risk of sounding redundant, I will briefly cover the output modes available on the microRendu though the Sonicorbiter software. Much of this information is already documented on the Sonore microRendu website.
After connecting the microRendu to one's network, the user can simply go to the sonicorbiter.com website to see the microrendu and other Sonore / SGC products on the network. There is no need to know the IP address or name or anything about the microRendu. This website gives the user all that's needed. In my situation, the microRendu was listed and a link to its own webpage was provided. Clicking the link brings the user to the simplistic configuration page of the microRendu. Among the options are the selectable output modes. The user can chose between several methods of delivering audio to his system.
- SqueezeLite Output
- ShairPort Output
- MPD/DLNA Output:
- HQ Player NAA Output
- RoonReady Output
To be honest I'm not a fan of Squeezelite or AirPlay / ShairPort, so I'll skip covering those in this review. I mostly use the RoonReady output during the review period and I plan to continue using this method until Sonore demands the microRendu back. I guess in that case I would purchase the unit immediately. I tested using the "mR" as an NAA (Network Audio Adapter), DLNA renderer, and MPD player we well.
Using the mR with Roon is dead simple, as the device appears as a RoonReady endpoint within the Roon application. For the most part, using the mR as a DLNA renderer is just as easy because it appears as a zone within applications like JRiver Media Center. Years ago I used MPD with the MPaD application to control playback and thought it was pretty good. Considering the competition now, I think this option is fairly primitive. However, I know many CA readers are big fans of it and I can assure them that this method works very well. For those not familiar with this style of playback, the microRendu is set as an MPD output, the Drive Mounter application is installed through the Sonicorbiter webpage, and is directed to the location of one's music files on another computer or NAS. The MPaD application can then be used to control playback and browse one's library. It's a simple path, from NAS to microRendu, all controlled with an iPad.
The other output method is NAA in combination with HQPlayer. Setting the microRendu in NAA mode enables the HQPlayer application to see it and send audio to it over the network. This option is simple to setup on the mR, but isn't for the faint of heart when it comes to getting the whole process working. It's certainly not rocket science, but it's also not Roon. During my review I tried HQPlayer with the mR and two different DACs. I used HQP's much touted upsampling / filters to convert everything to high rate PCM and DSD256. Once this is setup, it works pretty well and integrates with Roon should the user not be interested in HQP's austere interface. The sound quality from this combination was great and varied greatly depending on the DAC I used. As this is a microRendu review, I will say the mR was capable of handling 24/384 PCM and DSD256 over the network. Any other sonic differences heard shouldn't be the result of the microRendu rather the algorithms of HQPlayer. The mR simply delivers the audio it receives in a pristine fashion.
One other item hard core audiophile may be interested in, is the ability to remove all outputs modes that one doesn't need. For example, if using the microRendu as a RoonReady endpoint, it's possible to remove Squeezelite, MPD/DLNA, HQP NAA, and ShairPort / AirPlay. I don't believe it really makes a sonic difference, but everyone is free to do what they please and decide for themselves if it makes a difference in their systems.
microRendu Versus Sonicorbiter SE
The custom designed microRendu at roughly $700 with power supply has some similarities to the $300 Sonicorbiter SE. Both run on the Sonicorbiter operating system and both feature USB output to a DAC. The Sonicorbiter SE also features a optical digital audio output (TosLink). It's built on the SolidRun CuBox platform. SolidRun designed these units to deliver as many of them as possible at an inexpensive price. The fact that audiophile happen to be using them with high end systems is inconsequential. On the other end of the spectrum, the microRendu and its bespoke hardware, with Sonicorbiter operating system customized to this hardware, is in a league of its own. Potential customers looking for a product that is good enough, and pretty dang good overall, should at least try the Sonicorbiter SE at less than half the price of the mR. A little bit more functionality for a lot less money. Audiophile seeking the best sonic performance are certainly free to try the Sonicorbiter SE, but I highly recommend going straight to the major leagues with the microRendu. The Sonicorbiter SE is an electrically noisier piece of hardware that can't be fixed with a better power supply. Its design is inherently flawed compared to the microRendu. For example, the mR's custom carrier board that sends linear power from the input to the USB output that feeds a high end audio system, is leaps and bounds better than the Sonicorbiter SE. The Sonicorbiter SE's hardware design results in less sonic resolution and detail. Hearing the back wall of a concert hall is less likely to happen with a Sonicorbiter SE as it is with he microRendu. Hearing reverb tails and the decay of an instrument that seemingly goes on forever, just doesn't happen with the Sonicorbiter SE as it does with the mR. That said, if one is hesitant or not sure he would notice the difference between thee two pieces of hardware, it never hurts to start with the less expensive option and move up should the need arise.
Powering The microRendu
The "base model" of the microRendu is $640. That doesn't include a power supply. I like the fact that Sonore gave customers the option to not purchase a PSU because many people may already have one on which they've spent a considerable amount of money. The mR requires between six and nine volts of power. A quick look at the Sonore site lists a number of recommended power supplies at all price levels, including, iFi iPower power supply - 9VDC, CIAudio linear power supply - 9VDC, Teddy Pardo linear power supply - 7VDC, HD-Plex - Linear power supply - 7VDC, SOtM linear power supply - 7VDC, Empirical Audio Dynamo - microRendu edition, Uptone Audio UltraCap LPS-1 power supply - coming soon, Uptone Audio JS-2 linear power supply - 7VDC, Vinnie Rossi - LIO with microRendu output stage, and the Sonore Signature Series linear power supply - 7VDC.
During this review I used both the 7 volt Sonore Signature Series linear power supply ($1,399) and the 9 volt iFi iPower power supply ($49). The differences between these two power supplies, when powering the microRendu, are somewhat similar to the differences between the mR and Sonicorbiter SE. If one is satisfied with having less than the best, then start with the $49 iFi iPower. It's a no brainer. Fortunately for iFi and mR customers, the iPower is a terrific power supply. The sound quality I squeezed from the microRendu using the iFi iPower was stellar. It's amazing what solid engineering can accomplish for less than fifty bucks. The iFi is so good, I don't hesitate to suggest that readers who purchase a much more expensive PSU, also purchase the iFi to compare the two units. What's not to like about a $49 experiment that may lead to a substantial savings? In this hobby we usually tack on a couple zeros to the end of that price, and those zeros are before the decimal point! Again, starting with the iFi iPower is a prudent move for many microRendu customers. Other mR customers, who likely know who they are, will just want to start with the best they can afford. I haven't tried the Vinnie Rossi LIO with microRendu output stage, but I have a feeling it would be a wonderful way to power the mR. I have extensively used the Sonore Signature Series linear power supply with the mR. This power supply was designed by PS Audio alum and frequent CA forum contributor Barrows Worm and Sonore VP Adrian Lebena. The question for most readers is, is this PSU worth the $1,350 price premium over the iPower? The question of worth can never definitively be answered for another person, but I will say, if I was spending my hard earned money on the microRendu I would opt for the Signature Series supply. Trying to quantify the differences and figure out if the Signature supply is nearly 30x better than the iFi iPower, based on its nearly 30x price premium is a fools errand. In my system the sonic differences were large enough and enjoyable enough for me to justify the price premium. Plus, in a hobby where we frequently spend way more money on less critical or even questionable items, spending $1,399 on a great power supply is an easy decision.
For Your Listing Pleasure
During my review of the Sonore microRendu I focussed mainly on using my reference system, and mixed in a few DACs for testing. The testing I did with other DACs was for high sample rate upsampling through HQPlayer / NAA, and for USB interface compatibility. To test HQPlayer with the mR I used the Mytek Brooklyn DAC. This DAC accepts PCM up through 32/384 and DSD up through DSD256. The microRendu had no issues sending these sample rates to the Mytek Brooklyn. I also test Schiit Audio's Yggdrasil, Simaudio's 380D DSD, EMM Labs DAC2X, Bsyston's BDA-3, Audio Alchemy's DDP-1 for compatibility. The microRendu worked with these DACs without issue or configuration changes.
My signal path for this review looks like this: NAS > Cisco Switch > microRendu > Berkeley Audio Design Alpha USB > Berkeley Audio Design Alpha DAC Reference Series 2 > Constellation Audio Inspiration PreAmp 1.0 > Constellation Audio Inspiration Mono 1.0 amps > TAD CR1 loudspeakers. Ethernet cabling is AudioQuest Vodka, audio cabling is Wire World Platinum Eclipse 7. I also try DACs connected directly to the power amps when this capability exists in the DAC.
I listened to the microRendu in my system and other systems. Below is my assessment of the mR while listening to a handful of artists. There's no way I could write about, and people would read about, my experience listening to hundreds of different tracks and artists. Here is a sample.
The other day I was searching online for the best Jazz albums of all time. One album I found that I'd never heard of, was Chet Baker's Embraceable You. I added the album to my Roon collection from Tidal. I've long been a fan of Chet's trumpet playing but his vocals have always left quite a bit to be desired. However, this album has a couple very simplistic tracks that work so well with his simplistic voice. Both track three, Embraceable You and track five, There's A Lull In My Life are super simplistic arrangements that feature Chet's vocal performance above all other instruments. The sound of both tracks through my system is extremely engaging and pure. I've never heard Chet's voice sound so raw in all its lack of glory. I bet I've listened to this album seven or eight times lately and listened to the aforementioned two tracks several more times. Simple tracks, featuring a simple voice, and simply wonderful sound quality through the microRendu.
In addition to seeing Chet Baker's Embraceable You album on the lists of must have Jazz albums, I saw the much expected Kind of Blue from Miles Davis. In fact any list that doesn't feature this album, should be taken off the Internet. I remember the first time I heard the album. I purchased the CD at a local music store, having only heard of the album but never actually hearing the music. I drove my brand new 1999 VW Beetle home and brought the disc downstairs to my listening area at my parent's house. Yeah yeah, I was living at home right after graduating from college. I put the disc in my Adcom GCD-750 CD player, connected to my GFP-750 preamp and GFA-5802 amp, and played the entire album front to back through my B&W N802 loudspeakers. I couldn't believe what I had just heard. My mind = blown. Fast forward to last evening, roughly 17 years later. I listened to Kind of Blue, the 24 bit / 192 kHz version archived from a modified Ampex ATR 104 into a Pacific Microsonics Model Two analog to digital converter. After listening, I concluded that Kind of Blue was the best album of all time in any genre. I then queued up the Tidal version on my iPhone and went to bed listening through an AudioQuest DragonFly Red and JHAudio JH13 earphones. Not only is the music amazing, but the sound I'm getting right now through my system with the microRendu is a huge factor in my self-selecting this album as the greatest of all time. I've never heard King of Blue sound better. It's as if I was reintroduced to this classic and my mind was blown again for the first time. And, this time it was blown even more because it sounded so good. I can't imagine what I would have thought seventeen years ago if I'd have heard this incredibly high quality of sound back the day.
Moving to a bit more abrasive yet thrilling rock and roll, I listened to Jimi Hendrix 2010 release Valleys of Neptune several times through my current system configuration. On the first two tracks, Stone Free and Valleys of Neptune, all the instruments are delineated very well for a Hendrix recording. Drums, bass, guitar, and vocals all have their own space present in the sound stage. There isn't a massive glob of sound with all instruments melded together in a distortion cloud. Listening to Mitch Mitchell tap on the cymbals delicately followed by smashing the heck out of them and again gently tapping them at the close of Stone Free, one can hear minute details and a fine shimmer of the made in Massachusetts Zildjian bronze. Likewise on Crying Blue Rain, it's not the ever-present Hendrix guitar that surprised me, rather it's the delicate percussion. Percussionist Rocky Dzidzornu is tapping the congas in the background and the sound has depth and texture even though it's not in the forefront. The unamplified congas sound very nice amongst the electrified guitar everyone expects to hear on a Hendrix track. These are fine details that some systems simply can't reproduce very well. I believe the microRendu's, with low noise being a hallmark of its design, is enabling the rest of my system to shine by delivering a pristine signal.
CA reader note: Rocky Dzidzornu also played the congas on The Rolling Stones' Sympathy for the Devil.
With Hendrix on the brain, I spent time listening to a very rare album called The Undertaker from Prince. On this album Prince's inner-Hendrix comes out in full force. The man can play guitar. Period. Track one titled The Ride has an opening guitar and bass grove that's crystal clear and fabulous. The lyrics to this track are classic Prince, about liking to watch etc..., but the musicianship is also classic Prince. In fact, I've never heard him play more guitar than on this album. The Undertaker album is pretty dynamically compressed, but through this system I haven't heard it sound better. That's what this hobby is all about, getting the most out of what one has in terms of music, not getting the most out of music for which one doesn't care. Prince gets his Hendrix on throughout The Ride and most of the album in an awesome display of musical genius. On the title track there's a great clean bass line from the beginning, and about 3:11 into the track an electric guitar comes in sounding, for lack of a better description, crazy and strange. The sound is striking, almost frightening because the listener is lulled into a daze by the drum and bass up to this point in the track. Prince's guitar comes in strikingly, sounding so live, raw, and real.
CA reader note: Member of the CA Community and frequenter of audio shows around the world joelha first introduced The Undertaker album to me this year. I owe a big thank you to Joel for this introduction. A little note about this album from Wikipedia, "This recording was made in a continuous single live-in-the-studio pass in collaboration with NPG drummer Michael Bland and bassist Sonny T.. Prince originally intended to give this live CD away free with 1,000 copies of Guitar Player magazine in 1994 (uploading an original The Undertaker CD to iTunes, shows the year 1995 as the year the CD was "released"), but he was reportedly barred by Warner Bros. from doing so. Copies were leaked and bootlegged. The songs were guitar-heavy versions of rock and blues numbers, including a cover of The Rolling Stones' "Honky Tonk Women" and new recording of "Bambi" (originally from 1979's Prince). The title track was a cover of a song previously given to Mavis Staples, while "The Ride", "Zannalee", and "Dolphin" would all be re-recorded future releases. A video recording of the performance was released in Europe (on VHS and Laserdisc) with small edits throughout the performance and "Dolphin" replaced by the audio track from the official video of the song from The Gold Experience."
Back to the music of The Purple One, on the album A Tribute To Joni Mitchell, Prince covers A Case Of You. Prince's vocal sounds so authentic, his high pitch juxtaposed with his deep vocals that come and go, sound so engaging. The hammer strikes of the piano on this track sound like the piano is right in the room. Not the most ambiance around the piano notes, but the transients are terrific. Even though Prince skips the opening lyrics, this track is a must-listen. On Nothing Compares To You (Live) from Prince's The Hits (Disc 1) album, this normally lackluster sounding track still sucks the listener into the live performance featuring Rosie Gains on vocals with Prince. Like everything else I've listened to since I placed the microRendu in my system, I don't believe I've heard this track sound better.
One additional Prince performance that requires mentioning is While My Guitar Gently Weeps with Tom Petty, Jeff Lynne, Steve Winwood, Dhani Harrison (George's Son). This is one of the greatest guitar solos I've ever heard. I was very happy to find this one on Tidal, after seeing it on YouTube many times since Prince's death April 21, 2016. Throughout the track Prince can be heard making his guitar wail, but his solo starting at 3:30 is the stuff of legend. It gave me goose bumps to crank the solo up at high volume on this system with the microRendu, Alpha DAC RS2, Constellation amplifiers, and TAD loudspeakers. Sure it's not the best recording, but it's emotional as hell and this system brings out the emotion as good if not better than anything I've ever heard in my listening room.
Keeping with the guitar spirit, I switched to Stevie Ray Vaughan's version of Little Wing on the Mobile Fidelity release of The Sky Is Crying. Sure one can hear his tube amp buzzing off and on throughout the track, but the sound of his guitar is enough to turn anyone into an SRV groupie. Through my system, each new note was better than the previous note as Stevie goes from heavy yet sweet sounding notes to a cooled down, I know I'm damn good, type of style about four minutes into the track. One can almost feel the texture of his strings as he slides his hand up and down the neck of the guitar. The sound of this track sucks the listener in so much, that one can virtually see the sweat dripping off Stevie's head, as he shook it back and fourth while bending the notes, and one can almost smell the smoke that would have been in the air had this been recorded in a small blues club during the 1980s. It's this kind of music and emotion that I long for when I power on my HiFi, not the sterile, lifeless, "perfect" performance by some goodie-two-shoes virtuoso and released in 22.2 surround at 32/384. Without question the microRendu enables the dirt and grime of rock and roll and the emotion of the blues to ooze through one's components and out through the loudspeakers.
The Sonore microRendu is the hottest piece of hardware in HiFi. It's versatile while avoiding the jack of all trades moniker. The mR was custom designed and built to deliver USB audio in the most pristine way possible, and it accomplishes this goal magnificently. Versatile software with uncompromising inflexible hardware is a great combination. There is one way in and one way out, Ethernet to USB. Don't like it, move on. Those willing to try the microRendu will likely be as impressed as I am. With the mR in my system, I'm getting the best sound I've ever heard in my house. That said, it may not be the best "source" available because all components are user and system dependent. Users seeking local storage, network-less audio, and a software/hardware solution from a single vendor must look elsewhere. Everyone else should seek out the microRendu without apprehension. The ultra low noise bespoke design of this unit, a micro computer designed for audio only, has lead to some amazing listening experiences for me over the last several weeks. From the beautiful distortion of Hendrix to the simplistic vocals and whisper soft trumpet of Chet Baker, the microRendu enabled all the music to shine in its best light. I don't believe I've had a sonically better source connected to my system at any time.
- Product - Sonore microRendu
- Price - $640, power supplies tested iFi iPower - $49, Sonore Signature Series - $1,399
- Product Pages - microRendu Link
- User Manual - Link
- FAQs - Link
- Sonore CA Forum - Link
- Where To Buy - Link
- Source: SOtM sMS-1000SQ Windows Edition, Aurender N10
- DAC: Berkeley Audio Design Alpha DAC Reference Series 2
- D-to-D Converter: Berkeley Audio Design Alpha USB
- Amplifiers: Constellation Audio Mono 1.0 / Monoblock Power Amplifiers
- Preamplifier: Constellation Audio PreAmp 1.0
- Loudspeakers: TAD Labs CR1 Compact Reference
- Remote Control Software: JRemote, Roon Remote
- Remote Control Hardware: iPad Air 2
- Playback Software: Roon, JRiver Media Center
- Network Attached Storage (NAS): Synology DS1812+, CAPS v4 Cortes Server
- Audio Cables: Wire World Platinum Eclipse 7 Interconnects (XLR & RCA), Wire World Platinum Eclipse 7 Speaker Cables, Wire World Platinum Starlight 7 Digital Cables,
- USB Cables: Wire World Platinum Starlight 7 USB 2.0, AudioQuest Diamond USB 2.0, Nordost Purple Flare USB 2.0
- Power Cables: ALO Audio AC6 Power Cables
- Ethernet Cables: AudioQuest Vodka Ethernet Cables throughout system
- Network: Cisco SG200-26 Switch, Baaske MI-1005 Ethernet Isolator, Apple AirPort Extreme, Calix 716GE-I Optical Network Terminal, ZyXEL C1100Z modem / router, CenturyLink 1 Gbps download / upload
- SqueezeLite Output