Aurender, Linn DS, and why we retired our Mac Minis from Computer Audio

Aurender, Linn DS, and why we retired our Mac Minis from Computer Audio

Aurender, Linn DS, and Why we Stopped using Mac Minis from Computer Audio

Once upon a time, we used Mac Mini's everywhere in our store for computer audio.  We initially thought each would cost $600, and that seemed fairly reasonble, especially given the cost of an excellent CD player.  So we thought.  The actual cost reality of a Mac Mini  (over time) would go as:

  1. Buy a Mac Mini for $600. This usually turned into $800 to get the Quad Core model for best sound.
  2. Install 16 GB of aftermarket RAM $150 or so. Now the Mac Mini is $950.
  3. Buy Amarra, Audirvana, JRiver, Pure Music ~$500. Now it's $1450!
  4. Install an SSD or Seagate Momentus (Mechanical drive with small SSD cache) $150-$400. Now $1600-$1850!

Initial budget is $600, but in reality a bit more.   So add it up, and we were in the soup ~$1500 average by the time it was all done, and that was with me(John) spending several hours to install aftermarket drives, memory, and set up OS X for music playback by having as few cpu-cycle wasting processes as possible - turning off Instant Messaging etc.  The SSD's were fast, but large ones were expensive so I would usually have to trade-off on the size I wanted by putting in 128 or 256 GB SSD's and tried various schemes of using the SSD with a second mechanical drive or NAS storage.  I even tried a Mac Mini with Raid 0 OWC SSD's for playback.  Lastly, on our most critical Mac Mini's we would add a $155  Nordost Purple Flare power cord with Mac Mini compatible figure eight aka C7 endpoint.  You could hear a sizeable improvement in the Mac Mini with the Purple Flare added.  

So ~1650 for a 'good' mac mini is where we typically ended up.  But there were still things we left off.  Performance we chose not to go after.  If we had really wanted to do it 'the best way', we would have invested in an external audio-grade mac mini power supply for $1-2K.  And..maybe even do some work on vibration control using aftermarket bracing/antivibration kits (we did find better sound by putting our Mac Mini's on Nordost Sort Cones).  So up to $2750-$4000 is the REAL number for high performance Mac-Mini for high end audio.  We never did the external power supplies for a few reasons, the main being the expense, the general weirdness of them "Yah, this guy, Herbert Vaughn Schleemaghn, makes these in his mother's brother's sister in law's garage (aka his apartment) and...they're only $2000!",  and unsightly clutter, but the other that we had the luxury of separate dedicated circuits in our sound rooms, so we would plug the Mac Mini into one of those, and high end audio components into another (on a wicked great Nordost QX4/QB8 good power conditioner of course!).  Still, these Mac Mini power supplies did degrade the sound somewhat. I could easily tell if I turned them all off that systems (vinyl or Linn DS) would indeed sound better.

Why The Mac Mini did not work well for us as a Computer Audio Server

Over time, not really by plan, we started to move away from Mac Mini's and re-purpose or sell them off.  Aside from the COST reasons, there were serious FUNCTIONAL reasons we moved away from the Mac Mini's:

a. The enormous amount of time taken to keep the software updated.

b. Irritating Apple OS X updates (10.5 thru 10.11) that would break things and degradation of sound with some releases (see item g).

c. Irritating little SSD drives which did not hold enough.

d. It was tough to keep the music libraries the same on all of them and NAS storage complicated matters.

e. Constantly changing 'best' audiophile software that would actually get quite expensive when you consider we had three mac mini's, and four laptops (John, Russ, Connor & Tara).   We had to buy JRiver, Amarra, Audirvana and Pure Music varying. 

f. Irritating software license issues.  One brand had license keys that would actually age out and fail, then require us to email them for a refresh.  Three hours later....

g. To improve sound quality I had to turn off many of the OS X features/system services and periodically check to make sure they were off.   As we progressed from OS X 10.5 thru 10.11 these features/services/background processes increased in number and slowed the systems thus degrading sound quality. 

h. Over time, iTunes interface steadily degraded as Apple made the interface less power-user friendly.  This was a big deal because we could not tell if we were playing a DSD file OR high res OR MP3.  We actually went to editing and suffixing track names with 16/44, 24/96 just so we could tell.

i. Unreliability in a store environment. Swapping USB DAC's cables would typically lock up a Mac Mini, and sometimes after a re-boot we had to screen share into it as well to re-assign.

So it was a mess!

The worst would be when a customer came in for a demo, and a system would not produce sound because the Mac Mini was in some random broken state because of a-i above.  We could typically get it working with a simple reboot, or perhaps screen sharing into it, or perhaps ever picking it up, and carrying it to the back bench so we could attach to a monitor, or better yet slowly raising it overhead then quickly lowering, releasing, and smashing it onto our (concrete) floor.  This would take 60 seconds on the good end, all the way up to 10 minutes on the worst.  Way too much time!  Frustrating!  The reason this would happen most often was that we unplugged a USB cable when switching between components, so it would be 60 seconds for a reboot, while silently hoping that would fix it.  The annoying thing was that when the system did not work, a customer would see this, and immediately think "Computer audio is a hassle.".  If there was something truly wrong, it was a DISASTER - it truly is a disaster to take TEN LONG MINUTES to get a system to produce sound.  

So over time we started just unhooking the Mac Minis, and most of us in the store started to simply carry our laptops when doing a demonstration.  Attach the USB cable, select it, and voila it works!  Trouble with this is that you had to run back to the front or rear desk for it and that could seem borderline rude.  Trouble also in that you were more limited in the amount of music available on our laptops and the licensing cost of Amarra, Audirvana, JRiver etc.  The laptop was a more reliable solution since it removed the screen sharing risk element and if something were wrong you had a direct screen/keyboard connection to fix it quickly.   Not bad, and a side benefit was that a laptop sidesteps the noisy power supply issue.  If you are using an Apple laptop, listen to it plugged in vs unplugged and you can hear the rather large improvement from running on batteries.

Now the Mac Mini is still not a bad solution.  For most home user's this is not all that bad, but for a store, and the multiplication of time swallowing issues and software expense it got to a point where we eventually started using Linn DS streamers everywhere.  A Linn Majik DS is $3500, less for us since we are a dealer.  An expensive proposition?  Yes,.. but read on.

Linn DS Streaming Music as a Replacement for Mac Mini

So... Linn is one of our MAJOR product lines, and we so support it by having Lots of Linn on display.  So over time, as we built up our inventory of Linn DS equipment, we eventually built up to having a Linn DS-I, a Linn DS, a Linn DSM, a Linn Akurate DSM, and an Akurate Exakt DSM.  Since we typically only have two active Linn systems, we had quite a few on 'static display'.   We started using them to feed (via digital cable) our in-store dacs, and we never stopped!

We found that replacing these Mac Mini's with Linn DS's made things work a whole lot smoother.  We have a Linn DS behind the big McIntosh Two Channel racks, the front room McIntosh System, the Ayre/dCS Rack, the small room two channel system, and sometimes in the small theater.  Because the Linns have SPDIF Coax outputs, we could just attach those to in the input of whatever Dac and it would work, even when switching DAC's.  The SPDIF output of a Linn DS is a low jitter high quality digital data stream, so it sounds better than the output of an Apple TV and several other sub $500 consumer grade devices we tried.   We are about high end audio after all!

We found the Linn DS network software to have superb reliability so when we need to play a system it works!  The other big reason we found ourselves moving to Linn DS's is that they natively support TIDAL music, and we love TIDAL because we can call up full CD resolution songs from a 25 million track online library.  We can play most anything a customer wants to hear, and we ourselves love Tidal for its music exploration. In fact I'm listening to it home an Ayre CODEX as I write!

Our need, and our customer's need for TIDAL was the last, final, death knell for the Mac Mini in our store.  The only way to get good sounding TIDAL on a Mac Mini is to download the actual TIDAL app, and screen share into the Mac Mini from a Laptop (Airplay from an iPad does not sound as good).  To make matters worse, there have been times when OS X has been revised, and the Tidal (cr) app was not supported, so we had to use Google Chrome and lost sound quality and dealt with an even klunkier interface of screen sharing to a mac mini hosted browser.  Tres-Goober.  I think a person can use such a system in their home, but for a store we needed the speed and reliability of the Linn DS with its superb Linn Kazoo iPad interface.  Linn Kazoo Rocks!

So the Linn DS's ruled the roost, except for those times when we needed to play DSD and their incompatibility with the magnificent Ayre QB9 and CODEX.  To play a DSD or USB only DAC, we still attach a computer and run Audirvana/iTunes to play the native DSD file.  On a native DSD Dac such as the Ayre, a native DSD file is a wonder to behold.

Here is the Linn Kazoo App. Note volume control only works if DS is directly driving an amp or speakers.

 

Enter the Aurender Music Servers

We rolled like this with the Linn DS's for the last 2-3 years and all was well, except for the fact that it was still a 'one off' to play music via a USB DAC, or DSD files.  Last Summer, we had borrowed/evaluated one brand of Music Server and found its software was still too crash prone for us, and also the sound was a little worse than an optimized Mac Mini.  Not a lot, but you could hear it.

Well this last year we started to read reviews and talked to our dealer friends (Dealer Friends are THE best source of information!), and heard very good things about the Aurender Music Servers.  See the great Chris Connacker Computer Audiophile Review of the Aurender N100H , and John Darko's  Digital Audio Review of the Aurender N100H.

So I (John) started talking with my longtime friend John-Paul Lizars who now works for Aurender.  John-Paul worked for Sumiko ( My distributor for Pro-Ject, REL, Sonus Faber) for many years so I know him well because we sell many of their products.  John-Paul is a computer audio expert as well as a hi-fi guru. He's Bona-Fide(lity). We both share many hifi topical interest, and became friends the day we met.  We can talk for hours!

So in our talks, he brought up the new N100H, and its reasonable price of $2695 with both 120GB SSD and 2TB drives inside.   I had never really been that interested in Aurender because they just seemed too expensive ($5000-$20,000), and I was convinced that I could make a hot-rod Mac Mini sound just as good and a customer was better off spending that elsewhere. After all, I can configure one of those with an SSD/SSD cache etc. In our talks he made a very good point by going through what it really costs to have an effective Mac Mini (see above), and that the Aurender N100H had the ability to 120GB SSD Cache both its own internal 2TB hard drive AND Network (NAS) drives.  So I started to think: Is it worth ~a grand more than a $1500 Mac Mini solution just based on functionality?  Is it as good as a $3000 super-hotrod Mac Mini (with a $1500 aftermarket power supply) ?

I started to think about the above - how we moved away from Mac Mini's in our own store. I still recommend them to our customer's (see above), but still did not have a good solution for Tidal etc.  I thought: "You know, if it gives you Tidal, real-world realiability and the interface is as good as I am reading/YouTubing.  It would be worth it.".  In addition, it made sense that the heavy, 3-4mm thick panels of the Aurender would dampen the unit well AND it's built in high end power supply would likely match the $1000-$1500 replacement mac mini high end power supplies. It made sense!

So John-Paul wore me down with facts.

I ordered a N100H for the store.

It arrived.  I did the usual no-manual setup and got it to work fairly quickly.   I was still a little skeptical because I've actually tried 2-3 other music serving systems sent as samples over the years.  This one though... this one I liked. It's simple to get going, avoids low practicality troublesome features, but there are honestly quite a few powerful features such as automated high resolution album artwork retrieval that you can configure as you get more into it. I used it a little more, and each new feature impressed me a little more. Keep in mind I've been doing computer audio since the late 1990's and have used many many different pieces of playback and editing software.  After a few hours, I sat back and concluded that actually found that I LOVED the Aurender!

Why do I love the Aurender N100H?

  1. Major Domo Point:  Ease of Use!
  2. Powerful features such as automated hi-resolution album artwork retrieval.
  3. Does  sound better than a Mac Mini.
  4. Lovely to look at with its 1/2 width superb fit and finish thick aluminium panels. Less nerd-clutter looking than a computer.
  5. Front panel display showing what you are listening to and status information.
  6. Front panel buttons for stop, ff, rr play etc. Very useful instead of fumbling for iPad while standing.
  7. The iPad Conductor app is The Best music interface app for MY NEEDS. I think it's the ultimate power user music playback interface.
    1. It allows me to configure what filter buttons I see on-screen.  All I do is name directories on the Aurender's NAS share drive using the buttons below and "Connor","John"..."Demo" buttons show up in the interface.  Push one of those 'directory filter' buttons and it only shows you music in that directory.  Simple and Brilliant!  I am using:
      • \Connor  (for Connor's music)
      • \John (my music!)
      • \Russ (for Russ's music)
      • \Jazz (store wide Jazz music)
      • \Classical
      • \Jazz
      • \Demo (our favorite demo music)
    2. It additionally has filter buttons for DSD, 16 or 24 Bit, Music added in last "45" days (configurable)
    3. A perfect interface to TIDAL that seemlessly blends with the music on the Aurender hard drive.
    4. Excellent search functionality.

The fact that it also sound better cannot be overstated.  We have it hooked up to our big Ayre QB9/KX5/VX5/Magico S5 System and it made an obvious improvement to this world class system vs an attached computer.

So yah, we now have a new favorite: The Aurender N100H Music Server!

Last picture below is the Aurender Conductor App.  The second row showing "Alle","1Alter".. matches subdirectory names. Note this is showing the German language version, but it's the only photo I could find displaying new "45" day, "DSD" and "16/24" filter buttons.  The top row "Title".."Album" etc are what the search window is searching on.  The second row filters results.

Cheers!

-John.