As I describe in this issue’s From The Editor, beneath every music server’s audio-component-like exterior lurks a computer. Do-it-yourself servers based on a Mac or Windows PC make no attempt to hide this fact from their users. But the raison d’être of “turnkey” music servers is to provide listeners with the benefits of file-based music without the hassles of computers. If you want instant access to thousands of albums with a couple of finger taps, but abhor the thought of drilling down through multiple sub-menus of arcane software settings, a turnkey server is for you. Our reviewer Steven Stone once wrote, only half jokingly, that DIY servers are for the ultra-geeky and turnkey servers are for the ultra-rich.
But there’s another reason beyond convenience to buy a turnkey music server: sound quality. Building a server from the ground up allows the designer to incorporate techniques that optimize sonic performance—techniques that are unavailable in general-purpose computers. Most turnkey-server manufacturers, however, build their systems around a stock commodity-grade computer-motherboard to which they add custom digital outputs with more precise clocking, improved power supplies, and some measure of electrical isolation between the motherboard and the audio output. Although these are steps in the right direction, creating the state of the art in music servers requires designing and building an entire computer from a blank sheet of paper. This approach obviously requires a much greater investment of time and money, as well as considerable technical expertise.
That’s what the Korean firm Aurender has done in creating the flagship W20 reviewed here. Nothing in the W20 is based on stock computer subsystems. Rather, every aspect of the W20’s design is aimed solely at delivering state-of-the-art sound quality. As you’ll see, the company has gone to extraordinary lengths in the pursuit of better sound.
The W20 is designed to do one thing and do it well: store music, allow you to access that music, and then present the highest possible quality digital-output signal to your DAC. The W20 has no integral DAC and no native CD ripping capability, and offers no metadata editing. The product’s ambition is reflected in the substantial $17,600 price.
The W20 is housed in a handsome, robust chassis machined from aluminum plate with extruded aluminum heatsinks along the sides. The front panel houses two displays, a power button, and four buttons that provide rudimentary control over playback, as well as certain housekeeping functions. The display can switch between showing the name of the music track in play, the playlist menu, or signal-level meters (with a blue or brown background). In practice, you’ll rarely interact with the W20 through these front-panel buttons and displays; instead, you’ll use Aurender’s Conductor app for the iPad to control the system. (More on this later.)
The rear panel showcases the W20’s manifold capabilities. The two AES/EBU outputs can be configured either as two separate single-wire outputs or one dual-wire AES/EBU. This latter format is provided for those few DACs that require dual-wire inputs for accepting sampling frequencies above 96kHz. A clock input appears on a BNC jack, allowing the W20 to lock to DACs with a clock output, or to an external clock that sends a master clock to the W20 and a DAC. In addition to the two AES/EBU jacks, the W20 provides digital outputs via coaxial-on-RCA, coaxial-on-BNC, TosLink optical, and a dedicated audio USB connector. Two additional USB jacks are provided, but these are strictly data ports for connecting external drives. Finally, an Ethernet port connects the W20 to your network. I know of no other server with an array of features this extensive.
The W20 connects wirelessly to the iPad, but adding the server to your network and enabling Tidal streaming is best realized with an Ethernet connection. You can rip CDs directly to the W20’s drives (by specifying those drives as the target in a ripping program such as XLD AutoRip) or download hi-res files directly to the W20. A better method is to rip CDs and download hi-res files to a network attached storage drive (NAS) that’s on the same network as your PC or Mac and the W20. You then drag and drop music files from the NAS to the W20’s disk drives. It’s a bit of a hassle to go through this procedure if you just want to listen to a single, recently purchased CD. Transferring music to the W20 is best done in batches. (Just as I was finishing this review, Aurender announced a software update, available by the time you read this, that allows you to transfer music from the NAS to the W20 directly without a PC or Mac via the Conductor app for the iPad, but the update wasn’t ready in time for me to try it.)
Adding a NAS should be considered mandatory because it provides a backup of your music library. Note that although the W20 has dual disk drives (6TB x 2), the second drive isn’t a redundant backup; if a drive fails you’ll need to reconstruct as much of your library as was on that drive. The Synology DS214 NAS I use ($557 with two 3TB drives) comes with software that performs automatic backup of any other drive on the network, including the W20’s drives. A single NAS, however, shouldn’t be your only backup. For true security, you should have a second NAS stored in a remote location that is periodically backed up. This may seem like an extreme measure, but not when you consider how much time, effort, and money your stored files represent, particularly if you’ve edited the metadata.