A couple of years back I drove an Aurender N100, my first experience with a streamer/file server. The unit was fine, it functioned well, was ergonomically satisfying, and competed on par with CDs coming through an older Cambridge Audio 851C player used as a transport into various DACs.
As with anything audio, I soon got the itch to upgrade from the N100 and I went down the Small Green Computer / Sonore route, investing in the Small Green Computer i5, Sonore UltraRendu, and Sonore UltraDigital. I thought at the time that the SGC i5/Sonore had the sonic advantage over the Aurender N100, not by much, but by almost enough to justify the headache of strapping all of the SGC/Sonore gear together. The SGC setup was anything but a ‘plug-and-play’ solution and it evolved over time into a collection of multiple boxes and power supplies that littered my music room and caused a serious trip hazard. (In case you’re wondering: i5 Core + PSU, Sonore UltraR plus PSU, two sets of fiber optic TX/RX with associated cables and wall warts, then the UltraDigital with outboard PSU for I2S conversion).
Anyway. The i5 setup sounded fine but after a while, I was itching to get rid of some boxes and simplify things, and hopefully step up a little in sound quality. So up came the Lumin U1 Mini.
Lumin U1 Mini Music Server / Streamer
The Lumin U1 Mini is a fine little unit and worked well enough as a replacement for the multitude of boxes that comprised the SGC i5 setup. It worked well enough but I felt the i5 had the edge over the Lumin sonically. I should add here that primarily I use my streamers not for streaming but simply for serving files from a local hard drive. Living out in the boondocks has its advantages, but a good internet connection isn’t one of them, so streaming HD files isn’t really an option since all I had at the time was a limited data plan through US Cellular. (Since flitted to T-Mobile, with more data).
The little Lumin looks OK. Whereas the full-sized U1 has a CNC-routed solid aluminum chassis, the chassis of the U1 Mini is a sheet of cheap anodized aluminum (silver or black) and doesn’t provide a weighty solid feel like many higher-end components, but it looks OK, I guess. Minimalism is carried through somewhat to the specifications – there’s no internal storage with the U1 Mini, it sucks files from the ether or from network storage devices or USB storage devices plugged directly into the back of the unit.
Setup of the Lumin U1 Mini is a breeze. For me, it was simply a case of plugging in the USB hard drive into the back of the Lumin, connecting the ethernet cable from my network switch, connecting the DAC (either via USB direct to the DAC or USB into the UltraDigital and I2S out to the DAC, or via SPDIF), then switching the thing on. Once powered up the Lumin finds the USB storage and creates a database of music, finds and configures the network (necessary for using remote apps like the Lumin App or mcontrol), and presents itself ready for action in about 10 minutes.
The Lumin app is painless to use. It isn’t as versatile and sophisticated as ROON, but neither does it come with a monthly fee, so I’m quite happy to live with it and suffer only a few shortages when compared with ROON. Also, it’s the only control option for the U1 Mini – there’s no remote control here to lose down the back of the couch.
If you’re not a Luddite like me, and you would actually like to use a streamer for its primary intended purpose – streaming, then you’ll be happy to hear that the U1 Mini not only connects directly to Spotify and supports Tidal but also boasts Roon Ready compatibility and can handle MQA from both TIDAL and Qobuz, even in high-res if that’s your thing.
Also, the Lumin U1 Mini has on tap Lumin’s own proprietary digital volume adjustment technology known as Leedh Processing – precise volume control within the digital domain, prior to analog conversion and said to avoid the common drawbacks associated with other digital volume controls. I’ve used plenty of DACs and digital sources that bypass a conventional preamp, but none ever sounded as good as with a traditional active preamp in the system, especially a good tubed preamp, so I haven’t tried the Leedh Processing and never will.
It takes an hour or so to get around the app and figure out how to handle it properly, but that’s the same with most apps of this type. I won’t bore you with the app features, you can find more of that stuff and more technical stuff directly from the Lumin website here, if you want to.
Look, I can’t get too excited about the sound of yet another digital source, they’re all pretty much a much of a muchness IME. Sure, it does nothing wrong. It sounds like a very good CD player, or like an SGC i5 (almost). I don’t get the fleshy presentation that I like from vinyl and there sure are a lot of digital recordings that irritate the heck out of me, and the Lumin does nothing to help in that regard. But it’s versatile, relatively inexpensive, light, small, and….it sounds OK.
Wondering what ‘more’ might sound like, I read around to try and get a flavor of what others were doing to elevate the performance of the U1 Mini, and I came across several threads where people were talking about adding an outboard 12v DC LPS. Supposedly this improves the Mini performance and moves it almost on par with the full-sized U1. So I went ahead and purchased the conversion kit from Upscale Audio and an SBooster LPS, but just never got around to installing the thing. To be honest, I’ve misplaced the $80 conversion kit. I’ve looked high and low and can’t find it. Also, I sold the LPS with a Mytek Brooklyn Plus DAC! Oh well. My intentions were honorable if nothing else.
Aurender N10 Caching Music Server / Streamer
I picked up the Aurender N10 after deciding that the little Lumin really needed a bit of competition. The N10 is a different beast altogether. It’s big, heavy, and extremely well built, kinda like me. While it has its own app, the Aurender Conductor app, it can also be driven easily enough from the front panel. I really like the look and feel of this thing, I get more of a sense of knowing where my money went and how it’s being used than I do with the little ‘stamped-out’ Lumin U1 Mini. And it should look and feel better, assuming you believe that price should have some impact on component build and overall quality. The Aurender N10 retails for around $8,000 whereas the little Lumin sold at $2100 (now discontinued). That’s a hefty difference in price so you might be thinking “Here he goes again comparing apples with pears”. And you might be right, but in my own mind, I’m exploring the possibility of stepping up from something small and cheap like the Lumin to something big and powerful and expensive like the Aurender. What do you get for all that extra dough, and is it worth it?
Aurender N10 Specs
Once again I’ll make you do the hard work if you want specs. Click this link and go visit the Aurender website, (I’ve linked to the actual product page for you;)
Spec highlights include things like “Dedicated USB and OCXO-controlled S/PDIF & AES/EBU digital outputs, plus 4 TB or 8TB internal storage.” According to Aurender: “Other systems buffer. Aurenders cache. Every Aurender model features a massive solid-state memory from which all playback occurs. This important feature helps to minimize system resource requirements for enhanced audio performance and stability.” I can’t say I really understand the difference between a buffer and a cache, at a technical level. And I think I read somewhere that for cache to be operational, files either need to be streamed or on the actual internal HD, so if you have an outboard USB drive the cache system may not function in the same way (check this folks, there’s conflicting data on this feature).
Another spec highlight is this: Weight 37.5 lbs (versus the 4 or so ounces you get with the Lumin).
Aurender and Roon
The Aurender N10 can’t be used as a ROON endpoint in the way that the Lumin U1 Mini can. So if you’re invested in ROON, this may be a dealbreaker for you. Personally, I’d rather not pay for ROON and the Aurender Conductor app works fine, so there’s no hardship for me. And, the collective brain of Internet fora has determined that the Conductor App will sound better than ROON because it’s purpose-built precisely for the Aurender hardware. So there.
Getting The Aurender N10 Set Up.
Setting up the N10 is pretty straightforward and connections were retained from those used with the U1 Mini, including the USB cable, ethernet cable, and power cable (see notes at the end for components used in this comparison).
For the first month or so I ran the N10 from a powered 8 TB USB drive with around 5 TB of used space. I also had around 250 GB of music on the internal 4 TB hard drive to compare the sound of files on the internal drive versus those on external storage. Later, I added an external 5 TB unpowered USB drive, and that came with some interesting results that I’ll get to in a minute.
The Conductor App is a breeze to use, though with one annoying quirk that I couldn’t find a way past. When using the app on an iPhone 11 Pro, if you minimize the app to open or access a different app, like email, or a browser, or whatever, the app disconnects from the player and you have to reconnect. It doesn’t stop the track being played or interfere with anything in the queue, but you do have to reconnect and find your way back manually to the track being played.
Also, the smart copy function is quite slow in copying files over from external storage to the internal drive. If anyone knows a better way of doing this please let me know in the comments below. Basically, I opened the Conductor app on an iPad, went to settings > storage, and used the Smart Copy option to transfer the entire contents of a connected USB drive to the N10. I transferred around 2.8 TB of files and it took a mind-boggling 32 hours! There has to be a quicker way.
Sound Quality Lumin U1 Mini Versus Aurender N10
Now the part you’ve all been waiting for. (Yawn…)
Let’s get the easy part out of the way first.
1 – I had identical files on the internal drive and on an externally powered USB drive and felt that those played back from the internal drive sounded better. So maybe there is something to the external drive files not being cached for playback. The difference was quite small but noticeable under scrutiny.
2 – There’s a big difference in sound quality when playing back files from a powered USB drive versus a non-powered USB drive that draws power from the N10 through the USB cable. In fact, when I leave the non-powered USB drive plugged into the N10, I believe that the playback of files from internal storage also suffers. So do your transfer from external to internal then unplug the thing.
A Word Or Two About Cables And Outputs
In the case of both units and using the Holo Audio May KTE DAC, I preferred the sound of music played back via the USB output into the Sonore UltraDigital convertor and I2S into the DAC. However AES/EBU from the Aurender N10 to the Holo DAC sounds pretty close to the I2S converted signal, particularly when moving up to an Iconoclast AES/EBU cable, which sounds excellent by the way.
I don’t want to make this review about cable comparisons. I know people have their favorite cables and I’m sure that changing to one of your favored wires would’ve transformed my listening experience and launched me into the stratosphere, but I’m just not that crazy about rolling cables.
There’s no quibbling in my mind that the Aurender N10 is a better-sounding device than the Lumin U1 Mini. It just is. And it should be at 4x the cost. How much better sounding is it, and is it worth the extra $$? Well that will depend on a couple of things. How resolving is the rest of your system? Is it resolving enough to allow the N10 to breathe into your system unconstrained? If not, then it will be hard to justify the cost multiple. If it is, then my thought is that you’ll find the extra cost to be money well spent.
As a boring old audiophile, I can never lose the benchmark of analog performance when assessing new digital gear. I’ve been in plenty of debates online where the virtues of one or the other are fought over like scraps of bread thrown to the gulls. But you can’t escape the simple fact that every step forward in digital performance should be a step closer to emulating the best that analog has to offer. Notice that I’ve been careful with my words there ‘the best that analog has to offer’ – that’s the Holy Grail of musical playback, not some shitty Rega P1 or whatever. The Aurender takes us a step or two closer to really good analog than does the U1 Mini.
The first manifestation will be apparent in the form of midrange body and substance. There’s a fleshier presentation of instruments and vocalists with the N10 than there is with the U1 Mini. That fleshier presentation simply translates to the sound being closer to real life. I’ve heard components fatten up the sound in nice ways but at the cost of one or more of resolution, detail retrieval, and transparency. My old Leak Stereo 20 tube amp was lush and tubey and ‘lifelike’, but it didn’t convey all of the information present on the recording. The Aurender isn’t like my old tube amp. It’s fleshy and bold and I hear the detail that I know to be present, along with some detail that I did not know was present. Of course, while a lean-sounding presentation is a sin of omission, a more fleshy-sounding one can be a sin of commission. That isn’t the case with the Aurender, it isn’t something added it’s simply something retained.
I like a nice weighty presentation in the bass department, and the Aurender gives a flavor more to my liking than the U1 Mini. Bass instruments are solid, and authoritative yet also suitably tactile with the Aurender N10, whereas the Lumin U1 Mini presents the same instruments with less impact and less weight and authority.
I can’t say for sure that the Aurender has better high-frequency performance than the Lumin, both seem to retrieve details in upper frequencies well, like the shimmer in cymbals, the ambient resonance from bells, etc. But more from the Lumin seems to be peeled back and removed in order to unveil its details, while detail and HF information shine from the Aurender at the cost of nothing else.
You don’t always get what you pay for in life, and you can amplify that statement 10 fold in the audiophile world. But in the context of my own system and through my own personal preference lens, the Aurender N10 is a big enough improvement over the Lumin U1 Mini to justify the extra cost involved.
Equipment used during these listening sessions included but was not necessarily limited to:
- DACs – Mytek Brooklyn DAC PLus, PS Audio Directstream Junior, Lampizator 2A3, Holo Audio May KTE.
- Preamp – Veloce Audio LS-1 Battery Pre
- Power Amps – SimAudio Moon W5.3SE, Krell KSA 80, Veloce Audio Seaetta Hybrid Monoblocks
- Speakers – Martin Logan Impression 11a, ProAc Response D40R
- Analog – Basis Audio Debut Vacuum / Nottingham Analogue Hyperspace / Manley Steelhead Phono
- Power – PS Audio P10 (x2)
- Cables – Iconoclast, Audioquest Cinnamon, various.