And so it begins.
A while back I purchased an Aurender N100H as a ‘toe-in-the-water step toward serving digital music files to my DAC, without the need for shiny discs. It’s another act of laziness on my part. Vinyl requires getting out of my seat every 20 minutes or so, CD adds another 25 minutes. With trips to the kitchen for another cocktail running at the 90 minutes mark, I figured there must be a way to stay seated for longer than 50 minutes. File serving is it. I’ve woken up many a morning from an 8-hour sleep, still clutching my iPad and upright in the chair.
So the Aurender, well, it worked like a champ. It’s obviously a one-box solution and even a fool like me can have it connected and playing tunes within a half hour or so. Over the course of a few months I was able to try the Aurender into a few different DACs, including the Audio Mirror Tubadour MKIII SE reviewed here, an Ayre Codex, and my Moon Audio 380D. While it worked flawlessly, the sound quality, I felt, was a little inconsistent, from track to track. I suspect the rips I’ve collected over a decade of futzing with digital are probably at fault, and not the Aurender, but still, I managed to convince myself that I needed to buy my way to a solution.
The solution came in several steps. First, the purchase of a Denafrips Terminator II DAC. This thing is a beast and sounds quite marvelous. It also supports I2S via HDMI, so that got me thinking about a shift away from the Aurender with its USB-only output. Yes, I know there are boxes and adaptors and converters, but we’ll get to that.
So I spent quite a while looking at alternatives to the Aurender N100H that might provide higher SQ and more versatile connectivity options. I went down the rabbit hole, looking at units from Innuos, Auralic, Lumin, and a bunch of others. The one I thought offered the best one-box upgrade (excluding I2S conversion) was actually another Auralic, the N10. I tried hard to pull the trigger and saw a couple of N10’s come and go on the used market, but something didn’t feel quite right.
So wind it forward. About a week ago I took delivery of a package from Small Green Computer containing a sonicTransporter i5, and a digitalRendu with the upgraded linear power supply option. The ultraRendu required to complete the install was en-route from a different vendor and wasn’t due to arrive until some days later, so I picked up a new iFi Zen Streamer from my local shop, Audio Exchange in Richmond, VA
To get over previous network problems probably caused by an Apple Airport Extreme base station, I also purchased a new ASUS Wireless router with USB Tethering functionality, since my Internet connection is powered by an ANDROID device. Yes, hi-res streaming is not something I’m able to use, other than the occasional streams at lower quality.
The setup of the new network went well. Firing up the sonicTransporter i5 went well. With an ethernet cable from the i5 to the router, and my USB storage plugged into the i5, I was able to get everything fired up in a half-hour, including Roon server, which came pre-installed on the sonicTransporter i5. Next up was to connect the iFi Zen Streamer to the router via ethernet and to the Denafrips Terminator via USB. A little jiggling around with the Zen settings and voila, up it popped in Roon remote as a selectable Audio Output device, or ‘endpoint’.
Now the one issue with all of this was with my aged iPad. Roon creates a database that is installed locally on the UI device, and my iPad had insufficient spare capacity to hold the files. I basically had to remove everything other than Roon and the Conductor App for the Aurender. No, Facebook, no email, no photos, nada, all stripped to the bare essentials. Now you could look at this as needing another piece of custom hardware to run this system, an iPad or similar. That’s an assessment you’ll have to make for yourself. I never use the iPad for anything other than the Aurender remote, so it’s no big issue. Also, I should point out that I’m indexing 2521 artists, 13183 albums, and 163,000 tracks, all taking up around 6+TB on the NAS drive, so it’s quite a big database for that reason, I guess.
Anyway, it worked great and sounded very good. Remember, I don’t have the ultraRendu in the chain yet, nor the ultraDigital, so this is using a $400 iFi Zen as an endpoint with a $1000 i5, still well below the $8K needed to get into Aurender N10 territory.
Before I comment on the sound, a few notes about Roon remote. As a new user, I find it less user-friendly than the Aurender Conductor app that I’ve gotten used to driving. Some of it might be operator error, but I don’t like that the album or artist scrolling is via the scrollbar, much like a web browser. I preferred having the alphabetized index provided by Aurender. Too often I’d catch the sidebar while scrolling through albums/artists and jump to some random place in the index, whereupon it’s hard to get back to where I was. I also miss having one-click access to DSD-only files, a feature that sits at the top of the Aurender screen yet I can’t find anywhere in Roon. There are a few other quirks. Oh! and the cost! I hate paying monthly fees for everything I need/want.
The sound of this new gear is really nice. I’m still hearing some inconsistency but less so than I experienced with the Aurender. There’s really nothing that sounds bad now, and the good is VERY good. I won’t dwell on this stage of the upgrade too much, as the iFi Zen isn’t really intended as a long-term solution, it’s destined for my office rig.
Arrival of the ultraRendu and the addition of the ultraDigital
Adding the uR was simple enough, it slotted right in where the iFi Streamer sat, using the same cabling, just a different power supply. I had a little trouble getting the router to see the unit initially, but a software restart is all it took to get the ultraRendu to appear in Roon remote. I didn’t notice at first, but with the uR in the chain, the channel polarity is reversed. Left becomes right and vice versa. I’m sure there’s a software switch somewhere that I need to flick, but at the time of writing this, I haven’t found it. I’ve posted on a couple of forums looking for help but haven’t heard anything so far.
I spent a while with the ultraRendu as direct replacement for the iFi Zen Streamer. Well, I actually spent 12 hours straight listening to music on Sunday afternoon/evening. I’d no inclination to switch to vinyl at any point during this marathon listening session, the sound is that good. Of course, the Denafrips Terminator is a good DAC, but with the addition of the gear from Small Green Computer and Sonore, it really shines. I noticed a thickness to the sound when I went from my old Moon Audio 380D to the Terminator, using a Cambridge Audio Azure 851C as a transport, that thickness has gone with the new kit, replaced by ample warmth but a new level of clarity and detail. The high frequencies are sweet, only occasionally, on the worst recordings, do things become overly bright or harsh. My Emotive Audio Epifania tubed preamp does not have a remote, so ordinarily, I’d be bouncing back and forth between the listening chair and volume control, adjusting for harsh/bright recordings, but with the i5/Sonare gear there just wasn’t the same need. And, 12 straight hours of digital without listener fatigue says a lot about the performance of this new rig.
As I’m writing this I’ve just inserted the ultraDigital unit and fired up the system using i2s for the first time. I’m in the dining room with double-doors open into the listening room, and it sounds spectacular from here. So I’m going to hit ‘publish’ on this post and come back to finish off the review when I’ve had a week or two with the full rig.