Aurender W20 Music Server Review: The Sound of Silence

Hello darkness, my old friend.

Sigh. It was inevitable, really.

Using Simon & Garfunkel’s “The Sound of Silence” as a metaphor for the Aurender W20 Music Server.

As soon as I switched over to it from the Aurender N10 the difference was noticeable enough that the song leapt to the fore of mind and I blurted out. “Shit.”

You see, it was the blackness, the even further reduction in background noise from the N10 – practically an elimination – and utter lack of tonal coloration from the unit that hit me so hard.

I should have known it was going to be like this after spending time with the N10 in my system and coming away so impressed by its sonic perfromance (Review HERE). It was Aurender’s main man Harry Lee who had warned me about jumping to the $17,600 USD W20 from the $7,999 USD N10 during a visit to our home in the spring and I hadn’t taken him seriously.

Just in case you’re late to the digital-audio game, the W20, like the N10 I reference, is a music server designed and executed specifically to replace a PC or or laptop as your source for computer-based music files. This means that all the components – from the feet, chassis, power supplies (and battery system in the W20’s case) to the delicate audio-processing circuitry and software are all holistically designed from the ground up to work together at passing along the binary information to your DAC in complete isolation from both the ambient and electronic environment around it. This is something Aurender takes very seriously and does very well.

Build quality and design

An attractive chassis design built with utmost solidity.

That the W20 weighs 15 pounds more than the already beefy 27-pound N10 should have been a tipoff that the technology in play under the similarly-clad alloy casework was not to be taken lightly (I made an unflattering noise lifting it out of the box). The fact that the W20 looks like the N10 on steroids and that it seems to be the sonic equivalent of a black hole (nothing escapes its event horizon – not even light!) left little doubt that it was was designed and built to deliver on everything that the N10 was capable of and more – or less – depending on your point of view.

This is not one of those CNC’d heavy-metal chassis sporting a one-inch thick alloy faceplate with 50-per-cent-of-the-internal-space-empty designs either… while it is packed with technology, the W20 has one of the cleanest internal layouts I’ve seen. Each stage of the server-circuit architecture/power supplies/battery/SSD–HDD is clearly delineated from one another by separate, thick RFI-shielded aluminum partitions within the chassis and all the wiring and cabling is neatly routed.

Precise, methodical layout.

It is within one of these internal sections that the W20 houses Aurender’s unique battery power-supply configuration. The system is designed to keep delicate internal audio circuitry fed off-grid via three banks of LiFePO4 (LFP) batteries that switch between themselves to continuously supply stable power while the other banks concurrently recharge. This means the W20 is completely isolated from electrical ground noise, jitter and distortion that Aurender says can be incurred during conversion of AC to DC. The batteries are also configured as an uninterruptible power supply (UPS) to ensure all circuitry is protected from sudden power outages. Should one occur, the W20 will soft-shutdown automatically. Aurender utilizes a fanless Switching Mode Power Supply (SMPS) enclosed in a separate compartment to deliver power to non-audio components.

Incoming digital signals are routed through an FPGA-based (Field Programmable Gate Array) “All Digital Phase Locked Loop system” which is equipped with an Oven-Controlled Crystal Oscillator (OCXO) clock for minimizing “long-term jitter to below negligible levels.” How this translates exactly in practical sonic terms I can’t say, other than as previously stated; the W20 creates a dead black background – even in comparison to the already drastically-lowered noise floor of the N10, which is already significantly quieter than my dedicated, audio-only, MacBook Air.

The focus on ‘silent running’ sees in-house, bespoke-tailored circuitry designed to further provide “clean, noise-free power” to the RFI-shielded, dedicated USB Audio Class 2.0 output, and continues on to the fully-isolated and damped HDD/ SSD. Both the 12TB storage hard-disk drive and 240GB solid-state, playback-caching drive are suspended on floating brackets to minimize vibrations within their own machined-aluminum drive enclosures which Aurender refers to as “Fort Knox.” According to the company “…If a selected song or album is already cached to the solid-state drive, the hard drive will remain asleep. This minimizes wear and tear on the hard drive. By caching songs to the solid-state drive for playback, electrical and acoustic noise resulting from spinning disks, moving heads and motors are also completely eliminated.” Cool. I should add that the Aurender platform invisibly integrates any music stored on external USB drives or NAS.

Plenty of digital ins and outs.

I/O on the W20 consists of BNC, Coaxial, optical, dual AES/EBU and the aforementioned dedicated USB Audio Class 2.0 for output. Incoming signals travel via Gigabit Ethernet or two USB 2.0 data ports. There is also a BNC input for an external Word Clock. According to Aurender the “W20 can accept clocks with the following frequencies: Master clock: 10 MHz, 12.8 MHz, Word clock: 44.1 KHz and 48 KHz multiples from 1 to 512. There is also support for both word clock – dCS DACs or similar – or Master Clock – MSB DACs or similar – inputs.”

All of the W20’s functions and settings are accessed via Aurender’s dedicated, multitasking Conductor application, which in its latest guise, I’m happy to say, looks better, is noticeably faster and runs smoother than previous versions on my iPad Mini 2. It is one of the few player/streaming-service apps that is featured-packed enough that, same as when I reviewed the N10, had me missing Roon far less than I thought I would during both reviews. Aurender’s MQA Core Decoder is offered as an in-app purchase ($50 USD) and allows initial “unfolding” of the MQA codec for playback at resolutions of 48kHz or 96kHz which jives just fine with the totaldac d1-direct (24-bit/192kHz PCM) I was using with the W20 via it’s USB 2.0 output. Another cool function available through the Conductor app is the ability for Aurender engineers to directly troubleshoot your unit via its Router/MAC address when you log a ‘Remote Support Request.’ The app manages TIDAL and Qobuz log-ins (or even AirPlay) for streaming services (also included are a number of preset Internet radio stations, radio channels and Hi On Line Radio). Conductor displays the file type, resolution, sample rate (as does the dual 3.7-inch AMOLED chassis display) and whether it is a local or streaming-service file. The app includes cover art and descriptive incidentals. Copying files over from a NAS drive, a USB drive or even over the network wirelessly from other remote drives or computers is a breeze. After downloading an album to my laptop I log in to the W20 through the “Connect to Server” function on my MacBook Air to send files to the 12TB drive via wi-fi. A 3GB Reference Recordings 24-bit/192kHz album takes about 45-seconds to transfer.

A most capable application.

COMPANY INFO
Aurender America Inc.
63 Brixton, Irvine, CA 92620, USA
sales@aurender.com
+1 (888) 367-0840
ARTICLE CONTENTS

COMMENTS
Chuckles304's picture

It sounds as though this unit is good enough to warrant enjoyment alongside a nice scotch....say Oban 14 year? Or maybe Talisker 18....reviews of those would be appreciated :)

Rafe Arnott's picture
Sounds delicious ;) I'll see what I can scare up this fall.
Chuckles304's picture

The Talisker price tag may give you heart palpitations but hopefully the Oban won't. I think Oban's better anyways, but haven't had it in ages...

Everclear's picture

Why not go for Dalmore single malt 1964 bottle $60,000? :-) ...........

Doak's picture

"Aurender utilizes a fanless Switching Mode Power Supply (SMPS) enclosed in a separate compartment to deliver power to non-audio components."

What components of the W20 are included in the above statement, please?

Doak

Rafe Arnott's picture
I imagine it's for things like the battery-supply recharge system, SSD/HDD power, the AMOLED screens, the various powered-on lights, the physical control buttons on the chassis, etc.
Everclear's picture

How does Aurender W20 sounds like paired with dCS Bartok? ......... May be Rafe could tell us? :-) .........

Rafe Arnott's picture
I use the Ethernet connection with the Bartok and Rossini for Roon.
Boogieman's picture

Hi,
I appreciate all the hard work you do. I have a couple of questions, but before I ask them, I want to apologize in advance for being a dunce when it comes to computer audio.

1. Can you please explain any sonic benefits Aurender provides over Roon Nucleus Plus? Don't mind spending the extra money, but what does the extra money buy one with the Aurender that one can't get with a Roon Nucleus plus?

2. Also, can you please expand on the sonic differences between hooking up TotalDac via AES vs. USB? I always thought that the way one gets the most out of TotalDac is via AES out of my reference Esoteric Transport or from AES via the dCS Network Bridge. Superb musicality and superb resolution in both cases

Thanks!

Rafe Arnott's picture
1. The differences between the Aurender and Roon are numerous in their physical execution and design, as I'm still working on my Roon Nucleus+ review I'm not going to get into them too much now, but the level of attention to detail and design/construction with the idea of a sonically-black presentation that the W20 employs is orders of magnitude beyond what the Nucleus+ has. This is absolutely no surprise as the W20 costs $15k more and weighs about 40 pounds more. It is this heavy-duty construction, RFI shielding, SSD/HDD isolation, battery-powered audio circuitry, etc, that makes the difference. The comparison is completely unfair which is why I didn't make it; the two are in completely different orbits. A realistic comparison would be between the Nucleus+ and the Aurender X100L, which I'm waiting to take delivery of.

2. The differences between AESEBU and USB on the totaldac d1-direct are subtle, but noticeable to my ear and listening to both over the course of several months I came to enjoy the USB presentation more; it had a snappiness and crispness to it which appeals to my personal sense of tempo/timing/timbral shading. The Final Touch Audio USB cable also contributes to my preferences there too. As in all things hi-fi, YMMV. If you are happy with AESEBU, then that's great.

Boogieman's picture

I really appreciate your reply. Very helpful!

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