There's something to be said for simplicity, stability, speed, and sound quality. In fact, there's a lot to be said about these characteristics and the Aurender N20 embodies all of them. While listening through the N20 over the course of the last several months, I had a running list in my head of features I'd like to see in the product. However, over the last couple weeks I've come to realize there's beauty in not overcomplicating one's music listening experience. Guess what I did when using the N20? I just listened to music! I didn't wander off into music history wonderland, only to find albums I don't own and can't obtain. I also didn't fiddle with a single computer, network, or application. Instead, I bathed in the music and let my mind go, without a technical care in the world. The Aurender N20 is an enabler of the highest proportions in that it shoves more music into one's ears, while it takes care of everything else. To that I say hear, hear!
The Aurender N20 music server / streamer is one of few products (for now) from the company with a feature that immediately piqued my interest. That is, its storage configuration. The N20 ships without any internal long term storage for music. This is great for many audiophiles who strictly use streaming services. Why pay for storage one isn't going to use? Realizing many of us have local content as well, Aurender placed two 2.5" storage slots on the back of the unit. I absolutely love this feature. It enables listeners to purchase the storage space they need, and slide it right into the unit.
The N20 can handle up to 16 terabytes of storage when two 8TB drives are placed in the slots. When drive manufacturers release larger 2.5" drives, the Aurender will handle them just fine as the 16TB "limitation" is not driven by Aurender. The process of putting in a drive is beyond easy. I challenge anyone to do it incorrectly. I placed a single 1TB SSD into the N20 for this review. If I was a normal human being without more audio components that most dealers, I'd likely purchase a couple 8TB Samsung 870 QVO SATA III 2.5" SSD (MZ-77Q8T0B) drives and call it a day. After formatting 16TB the usable space will likely be around 13TB, which would store my over 10TB library and allow me space for growth.
In addition to the N20's consumer friendly storage features, the unit has a great 8.8" full color display that caught my eye as soon as I connected it to my system. I have a W20SE here as well, but love the N20 display far more than the flagship that uses dual 3.7" displays. A few years ago I'd have said a nice display isn't necessary because we all have an iPad a foot from our faces with high resolution album art. However, now that I've used the N20 with a full color 8.8" display, I can't go back.
Getting into the weeds a little bit, before exiting into civilian territory, the N20 has a great oven controlled crystal oscillator (OCXO), FPGA all digital phase lock loop, dedicated USB audio output, internal UPS (this saved me a couple times with an inadvertent power cord unplugging incident or two), built-in optional upsampling, and a word clock input. All gibberish to many of my audiophile friends who want to judge components by anything other than looking at a spec sheet.
The clock input is a nice feature for those using DACs from dCS or those who like to externally clock digital audio components. A dCS DAC or dCS master clock can be connected to the N20, enabling the N20 to lock on to the same dCS clock as the other components.
One feature that I hadn't used much previously, but employed with great success during this review, is the FPGA based DSD to PCM conversion. I connected the N20 via AES to the Schiit Audio Yggdrasil LiM DAC, which doesn't support DSD. Having this DSD to PCM conversation available with the tap of a finger was really nice and enabled me to forget about the format of the audio I played. The N20 took care of any conversation necessary once the option was enabled.
Getting back to simplicity, stability, and speed, I can't speak highly enough about how well the N20 functions. As someone who writes about audio for a living, I try to use every server, application, or method available. Lately I've used HQPlayer with a non oversampling DAC quite a bit. I'm used to issues popping up out of nowhere, causing the music to either stop or just not start when I sit down for a listening session. I also use Roon, and I'm used to it not working once in a while and waiting weeks for help on the Roon forum. Using the Aurender N20 is a completely different experience.
One example of this different experience is when I had to restart my QNAP NAS. My UPnP/DLNA based apps, Roon, Audirvana, and JRiver all use the music stored on this NAS. During the inordinately long reboot process, the music is unavailable. Fortunately, the Aurender N20 was completely unaffected by a NAS reboot because the music is stored locally. This seems simple and logical, but it was just really nice to not wait around for a NAS to restart before I could play my music.
Browsing music, pressing play or pause, and searching is all immediate with the N20. In fact, I was so impressed by the speed of the N20 that I had to check to make sure the play button worked on "mouseup" rather than "mousedown" events. Yes, that's a geeky software developer thing that most readers shouldn't even care about, but in a nutshell, it means the play button either starts music playing when a finger presses down or once the finger is pulled off the button. The N20's Conductor iOS app plays on "mouseup" for those interested.
Using many other products, I was used to stuff not working, or hitting play and waiting for my CAPS Twenty computer to start the upsampling process. On the other side of that coin, I was also used to pressing stop and waiting a couple seconds for the music to stop. Not so with the Aurender N20. It's immediate and it works every time. The iOS app is also designed superbly in that it stored the database on the iPad / iPhone to speed up navigation and searching.
Speaking of the iOS app, this is where I'd previously thought the N20, and other Aurender servers, needed improvements. The Aurender Conductor app isn't perfect, but this is where experience and talking to people in the real world really gives one perspective. The landscape of applications and servers is vast. One can get products with overly simple user interfaces, such as Sonos, and one can get products that are much more difficult to use, such as HQPlayer. Aurender is a bit left of center on this continuum (too simple on the far left / difficult no the far right).
As audiophiles, we can get caught up in our own worlds and seek more features and options. However, talking to other audiophiles who don't eat, sleep, and breathe this stuff can be illuminating. I've met many fellow audiophiles who surprise me with their purposeful lack of knowledge, with respect to digital audio, but who also love to use music servers. I get it, we all have our interests. Many people are absolutely uninterested in configuring an application for upsampling, learning how to use something if it requires a manual, or even contemplating file formats. They just want to sit down, listen to music, and they want it to work every time. Again, I completely get it. I'm in that camp sometimes as well.
Aurender has wisely curated the features available in its Conductor application by accepting feedback and deciding which ideas don't belong in the app. I've asked for some fairly technical features over the years and looking back on it now, I'm happy the team said, thanks but no thanks. I still want the ability to upload a convolution filter, but that's a topic for another day.
One more note about Aurender's Conductor application. The app works very well on Apple Silicon based hardware. I run the app on my Mac Mini (M1) with Pro Display XDR and enjoy seeing more album covers on one screen that I can possibly comprehend (OK, I counted, it's 264). It's just nice to sit at my desk and control the Aurender from my desktop rather than wake my iPad or iPhone (I know, first world problem).
Here's a screenshot of my desktop running Aurender Conductor. For a full 6016x3384 px / 30MB version in all its glory, click here.
The Listening Experience
I used the Aurender N20 with several difference DACs and all its outputs, but settled on what I consider a stunning synergy. This entire system is one that so impresses me, it feels wrong that I'm not doing more to make it this good. By that I mean, I'm not tweaking anything, running any room correction, or even using external upsampling. This is just straight up Aurender N20 connected to the Schiit Audio Yggdrasil LiM via Transparent AES cable, and from the DAC to a full Constellation Audio Inspiration system and my Wilson Audio Alexia Series 2 loudspeakers. I found that I preferred going AES from the N20 to the Yggdrasil LiM more than via USB or coaxial S/PDIF. The sound was just better and more addictive, to my ears.
The Constellation Audio Inspiration series not only sounds fantastic, but it's an incredible match for Aurender servers such as the N20. Connecting a USB cable from the N20 to the Constellation Inspiration PreAmp 1.0 enables the user to control the preamp from within the Aurender Conductor iOS application. On both the iPad version and Conductor Lite for iPhones, I can control the Inspiration preamplifier without ever leaving the application. This is a big deal for me.
The synergy between the N20 and Yggdrasil LiM was never more apparent than when listening to Eric Clapton's new album titled The Lady In The Balcony: Lockdown Sessions. Those who can't put their political issues with Clapton aside and listen to this album are really missing out. The album was recorded live at Cowdray House, West Sussex, England in 2021, and sounds wonderful.
On Black Magic Woman, the sound through the Aurender N20 is incredibly airy with reverberation around the recording space in Cowdry House. Clapton's guitar has a larger than life sound as he works each of the 12 strings. I'm not even a fan of this song, but this recording, through the N20 / Yggdrasil LiM, has me listening over and over.
Delicacy can also be heard on this track via Steve Gadd's percussion work. Using only his fingers to tap different parts of the drum heads, Gadd produces different tones with each tap. Each one of these taps can be heard through the N20 distinctly and differentiated from each other by their slightly different tone and level. Most of us have heard one-note bass or one-note drums. My experience on this system was unsurprisingly different. I heard a full textured color palette coming from Gadd's drum set.
Laying a foundation for this track is Nathan East on the double bass. There's a good amount of bass on this recording, but it isn't the sheer volume that's impressive. This beautiful wood instrument puts out tremendous tone as East plucks and slides his hand up and down the fretboard. There's a naturalness to the sound of the bass through the N20 that's really seductive. Given that I'm not using room correction to control the low frequencies, I'm well aware of the extra bass presence while listening. I have to say, on this recording it's fantastic. This is a live recording. Most live concerts I've been to have plenty of bass, more so than the actual recordings. Thus, I really enjoyed the little bass bump that comes from my listening room without digital room correction.
Another track on this Clapton album that I absolutely love is Bell Bottom Blues. I haven't listened to the original version of this track very much, so I don't have it imprinted on my brain and don't see it as the "right? version. On this acoustic version, with Clapton playing his Martin 6 string guitar, the beautiful part is his vocal. Clapton falls a bit short of Pavarotti when it comes to vocal prowess, but I'll take Clapton on this track 100 times out of 100. Through the Aurender N20, there is a human aspect to how the vocal sounds that makes it seem as though there's a connection between the singer and listener. In addition to Clapton's vocals, bassist Nathan East contributes subtle but essential backing vocals on the high melody for the chorus. East's soft and rich tone can be heard off/on throughout the track, just under the guitar and Clapton's voice. Nothing is lost in a sonic jumble, it's all there through the N20.
Switching to the newly released 30th anniversary edition of U2's Achtung Baby, and album that's completely the opposite of Clapton's acoustic release. Achtung Baby is an exercise in distortion and seeking a sound using whatever it takes. Several years ago I was talking to the album's producer Steve Lillywhite in Barcelona, Spain. I was happy to share my love of music and great sound, to which he told a story of U2's Bono recoding vocal tracks. Lillywhite said Bono would stand next to him in the studio control room, holding a $20 microphone, and singing his parts into that mic for the final takes. Again, whatever it takes to get a sound (tons of processing or no processing).
On the track titled One, there are layers and layers of sounds. This track must be heard through a great HiFi system. Through a car system or headphones, where most people listen, it's impossible to hear everything that the band put on this record. The track seems fairly simple, until it's heard in high resolution on a great system, like mine using the Aurender N20. From subtle guitar amp buzzing, to delicate cymbal work, to multi-tone drums, to Bono exhaling as he emotionally delivers the lyrics, it's all there on the recording and can he heard through the right system.
Bringing this back to Bono's vocals, it's really great to hear how much he puts into this performance, starting about 2:20 into the track. Listening to his voice crack as he belts out, "Love is a temple, love the higher law," then slips back into his smooth delivery, only to finish yelling in a falsetto. All the detail, all the emotion, and everything in between can be heard. It's a great tune, made better through a great system.
Turning musically 180 degrees, I have to talk about listening to Metallica through the N20. As much as I love Japanese jazz and acoustic albums like Clapton's latest, I'm a huge fan of heavy metal. If a component can't reproduce heavy metal well, count me out. Fortunately, the Aurender N20 delivers on heavy metal as much as it does on delicate classical and acoustic albums.
Listening to Metallica's album Hardwired... To Self-Destruct album, the band's best in many years, I loved what I heard. Metallica is just noise to many people, but the band puts a ton of work into this noise. Those who have patience, and a good system, will be rewarded with heavy textures many don't believe are possible with this type of music.
On the first track, Hardwired, Lars Ulrich comes right out of the gate wailing on his Tama drum set, followed by a crunching riff from James Hetfield on guitar. This sound is quintessential Metallica and sounds as big as ever through the N20. Ever since Metallica teamed up with producer Bob Rock, the band's sound has been larger than life. On this album, and through the N20, this huge sound comes through brilliantly.
Another track that sounds fantastic, and dynamically crushed to death (if those two can co-exist for a moment), is Atlas Rise. The drums remind me a little bit of the ...And Justice For All album, but as that was pre-Bob Rock, that had a small sound. On this track Ulrich's drums about 1:25 into the track can pressurize a room and put the listener in the front row of a Metallica concert. The N20 / Yggdrasil LiM combination didn't disappoint at all on this one. Huge sound, drums hitting me right in the chest, and my ears thanking me for turning it down shortly after it was over. I enjoyed cranking this track to levels unheard of when I'm in the mood for Tsuyoshi Yamamoto or Dave Matthews acoustic. It's OK to have fun once in a while.
Any company that says its products are for everyone, is fooling itself and consumers. No product is for everyone. The important thing is for consumers to find what they like and what they want in an audio product. Some audiophiles love to get their hands dirty and don't mind of there's a 30 minute pause in music playback while they figure out what's wrong. Other audiophiles want nothing to do with such troubleshooting and configuration. I'm in both camps depending on the day of the week, and I enjoy the company and wisdom of my audiophile friends in each camp.
Those interested in a complete solution that requires zero configuration, from a company with a stellar reputation, offering full support from three continents, high end build quality, reliability second to none, and of course impeccable sound quality, should look no further than the Aurender N20. What about the flagship Aurender W20SE? After many hours using both servers, and many years using Aurender servers, I think the N20 is my favorite. If I needed dual AES output, I'd certainly go with the W20SE. However, I believe the sweet spot in the Aurender lineup is the N20. If I was paying with my own hard earned cash, I'd go with the N20 without question. I should also note, I have yet to hear the two chassis N30SA, but I look forward to that day in the near future.
The Aurender N20 hits the bullseye with simplicity, stability, speed, and sound quality. The product is as simple as possible, but no simpler. Essential features and a few bells & whistles are packed into the N20, while keeping the unit unencumbered by complexity. The chances of the N20 playing music immediately upon pressing play, are as close to 100% as possible. Whether my unit was in use constantly or sitting idle while I took a little Thanksgiving holiday, it always, without question, worked when I hit play. Chuckle if you wish, but that isn't a reality when using many high end solutions. I have them, I've done the homework, I've experienced the good, the bad, and the ugly. The Aurender N20 is the real deal that delivers top notch sound quality every time it's ask to perform. Recommended and CASH Listed.
- Aurender N20 Music Server / Streamer $12,000
- Aurender N20 Hardware Guide
- Aurender N20 SSD / HDD Drive Installation Guide
- Aurender Full Line Brochure (46MB PDF)
- Source: QNAP TVS-872XT, Aurender N20, CAPS 20
- DAC: EMM Labs DV2, Schiit Audio Yggdrasil LiM, Meitner Audio MA3, Denafrips Terminator II
- D-to-D Converter: Sonore Signature Rendu SE (optical), APL HiFi DNP-SR, CAPS 20.1
- Amplifiers: Constellation Audio Mono 1.0 / Monoblock Power Amplifiers, Constellation Audio Inspiration Integrated 1.0
- Preamplifier: Constellation Audio PreAmp 1.0
- Loudspeakers: Wilson Audio Alexia Series 2
- Headphones: RAAL-requisite SR1a
- Digital Signal Processing: Accurate Sound, HQPlayer
- Remote Control Software: Roon Remote, Aurender Conductor, HQPDcontrol v4 (iOS) (Android), JPLAY for iOS
- Remote Control Hardware: iPad Pro (M1)
- Playback Software: Roon, HQPlayer
- Network Attached Storage (NAS): QNAP TVS-872XT
- Audio Cables: Transparent Audio Reference Interconnects (XLR & RCA), Transparent Audio Reference 110-Ohm AES/EBU Digital Link, Transparent Audio Reference Speaker Cables, Gotham GAC-4/1 ultraPro Balanced XLR Audio Cable (40'), AudioQuest Robin Hood SILVER (ZERO)
- USB Cables: Transparent Audio Premium USB Cable
- Power Cables: Transparent Audio Reference Power Cables
- Power Isolation: one 4kVA and one 5 kVA 512 Engineering Symmetrical Power Source
- Ethernet Cables: Transparent Audio High Performance Ethernet Cables
- Fiber optic Cables: Single Mode OS1-9/125um (LC to LC)
- Acoustic Room Treatments: Vicoustic Diffusion and Absorption, ATS Acoustics Bass Traps
- Network: Ubiquiti UniFi Switch 24, Ubiquiti UniFi Switch 8-150W x2, Ubiquiti UniFi Switch 16 XG, Ubiquiti UniFi Security Gateway Pro 4, Ubiquiti UniFi AP HD x2, UniFi FlexHD AP, Ubiquiti FC-SM-300 Fiber Optic Cable x2, UF-SM-1G-S Fiber Optic Modules x6, Commercial Grade Fiber Optic Patch Cables, Calix 716GE-I Optical Network Terminal, CenturyLink 1 Gbps download / upload
This graph shows the frequency response of my room before (top) and after (bottom) tuning by Mitch Barnett of Accurate Sound. The standard used for this curve is EBU 3276. This tuning can be used with Roon, JRiver, and other apps that accept convolution filters. When evaluating equipment I use my system with and without this tuning engaged. The signal processing takes place in the digital domain before the audio reaches the DAC, thus enabling me to evaluate the components under review without anything changing the signal further downstream.
My RAAL-requisite SR1a headphones using a convolution filter created my Mitch Barnett of Accurate Sound. The blue trace is the raw measurement and green is the corrected response. Here we bring down the two peaks above the green curve, in addition to smoothing out the response.
Here is an article all about the headphone filter - Taking the SR1a to Another Level