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 before physical effort is required. 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 45 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 for a problem that probably didn’t exist.
The solution came in several steps. First, the purchase of a Denafrips Terminator 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, winding 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 stream at lower resolution.
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 new piece of custom hardware to run this system, a newer iPad with more storage capacity, 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. There are a few other quirks. Oh! and the cost! I hate paying monthly fees for Roon, where the Conductor app was free.
Sound Quality of the SonicTransporter i5
The sound of this new gear is really nice. I’m still hearing some track-to-track 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.
CAH – 8/5/2021
Ok, I’m back. That was August 2021, it’s now February 2022, how time flies.
I want to add a brief update to this review, as new information has become available.
A couple of months into ownership of the SonicTransporter rig I made some changes to the setup. First came a Denafrips GAIA DDC to replace the Sonore UltraDigital unit. The Denafrips GAIA is a digital to digital converter that takes inputs from multiple digital sources in a range of formats, (USB, SPDIF, AES/EBU) and spits out cleaner re-clocked digital and includes i2s as an output. I reviewed the GAIA / Terminator here, so you can read about that if you wish. The GAIA offers a step up in performance over the UltraDigital, as it should, for almost four times the price. It’s also a Denafrips product and I’m using a Denafrips DAC, so there are some brand synergy benefits to consider. Anyway, all that’s good.
What isn’t so good is that I moved the digital rig from one side of the room to the other, and even though everything was plugged into the same source (my PS Audio P10 regenerator), I picked up a high frequency ‘hum’ somewhere along the way. It was annoyingly apparent with the high-efficiency Klipschorns I had in my system for a while, then later the Spatial Audio X3, which I reviewed here. With my new Piega C40 it’s barely noticeable, still, it shouldn’t be there and I can’t find a way to eliminate it entirely. I tried moving the router into another room to add distance between it and the other gear, and I also added a network switch on the recommendation of Small Green Computer. Neither of these two things made any difference. I’m living with it for now because with my less efficient Piega’s there’s really no issue, but if I switch back to horns at some point then I’m going to need to address it.
What really bugs me though, about this multi-box SonicTransporter / UltraRendu / Gaia DDC setup, is the frequent ‘crashes’. I won’t labor this point too much, but the issue is that on some occasions when I come to sit down with the intention of just relaxing and playing music, the damn thing doesn’t work. And it isn’t always the same routine that’s needed to bring it back online, which adds to the frustration and the time it takes to get things back up and running.
For example, I might open up the iPad, launch Roon, go to a playlist, hit play on a track, and the system just hangs. This might be because the USB drive has become ‘disconnected’ from the i5, or some other reason yet to be determined. So I’ll go to Roon settings and look at ‘Storage’ to see if the drive is connected or not. Sometimes it is, other times it isn’t. If it isn’t, I’ll generally start by rebooting the ASUS router, to see if that fixes it. Sometimes it does, other times it does not. If not, my next move is to log in to the SonicTransporter via a browser, then look to see if the USB drive is connected there. Sometimes it is, other times it isn’t. If not, then my next step is to reboot the i5, which, as with rebooting the router, takes a while. After the i5 is back up, it takes a while to get the USB drive reconnected, then I reboot Roon remote and hopefully, that’s fixed the issue. Sometimes it has, other times it hasn’t. If not, then I usually end up having to pull the DC power supply going into the UltraRendu, (even though the UR shows as a selectable endpoint in Roon). Sometimes that fixes it, other times it does not. After pulling the power from the UR, if that doesn’t get me back online then my next step is usually to reboot the router again and sometimes the i5. On Sunday night just gone, it took me almost an hour to get music playing, by which time I’d lost all enthusiasm for listening and just switched the thing off and went to bed.
So that’s something I’m having to live with. It’s quite possible that my situation is unique, but it is what it is. I don’t recall any such fuss with the one-box Aurender N100H.
Another quirk with the Small Green Computer i5 is that I haven’t been able to figure out how to add new files to the USB-connected hard drive without disconnecting the drive and plugging it directly into my MacBook. That goes for adding new files and also backing up the drive to a second drive on the network.
Now in the case of trying to copy new files to the USB drive, I don’t think I’m doing anything obviously wrong. I can see the drive from my Macbook Pro and I can navigate to the Music folder on the drive. I can open a folder on my Macbook and see the new files I want to copy across. But it won’t let me drag/drop from the Macbook to the Music folder on the Seagate USB drive. Permissions look OK, but it just won’t have any. Likewise going the other way. If I want to pull files from the USB onto a backup drive, it won’t allow me to.
This is an irritation compounded by the fact that I don’t have high-speed internet at home. Why is that an issue? Well, I can’t stream from services like Tidal and I can’t simply purchase new hires files and play them, because I can’t download them at home. So, to add new music, I need to buy a CD, rip the files temporarily onto my Mac, disconnect the USB drive physically from the i5, set the USB drive up adjacent to the Mac, plug into the Mac using an adaptor, because the (damn dirty) Mac doesn’t have a USB, copy the ripped files to the USB drive, then reinstall the USB drive into the system. Then I have to go through the whole rigmarole of trying to get Roon back up and seeing the USB drive. That can take a half-hour of rebooting things in the right sequence then waiting for Roon to rebuild the database for the new files to be playable. So adding a new CD can easily take an hour or more. What a pain in the arse. And if I want to back up the files from the new CD then there’s even more time needed to set up the backup USB Drive and keep it in sync with the active drive. If I want to buy high res files from HDTracks, as I do occasionally, then I need to run to the library to buy and download the music via their Internet, then go through the whole thing again back home.
So where I sit right now is that I’m seriously thinking of aborting this whole multiple box approach and going back to a simple one-box solution. I haven’t pulled the trigger at the time of writing this, but it’s probably going to happen soon.
Given my own situation, it’s hard for me to recommend the Small Green Computer SonicTransporter and Sonore equipment to anyone else, even though I’m sure some people have it all working trouble-free.
Since writing the above, there have been some developments worth noting. An update to the Small Green Computer SonicTransporter and Sonore equipment review can be found here.