Removing the thick, heavy aluminum top plate reveals a chassis compartmentalized into several aluminum sub-chassis. The fanless switching-mode that powers the computer motherboard is encased in an isolated block just behind the display. The dual 6TB disk drives are mounted on compliant platforms to reduce noise and vibration. I never heard the sound of drives spinning during my entire time with the W20. The audio-output board is separated from the other circuitry by an aluminum plate. The critical audio-output circuits are powered by two of the three separate banks of lithium-ion-phosphate rechargeable batteries that consume a big chunk of the interior real estate. By powering the audio-output electronics with batteries, the digital audio signal is made completely immune to power-supply noise or fluctuation. The two banks are redundant: One set is being charged as the other is being used. The batteries also protect the computer from sudden loss of power; when the W20 detects that the AC power has been disconnected, it safely powers down the system, protecting the stored data.
Another design feature aimed at delivering a pristine digital output to your DAC is a 240GB cache memory, which serves as a buffer between the disk drives and the audio output. When you select music and create a playlist, the W20 reads the audio data from the spinning disk drive into this cache memory, after which the disk drive is spun down to sleep, eliminating noise and vibration. This also minimizes wear and tear on the hard drives. The audio data are then clocked out of the cache with a high-precision, oven-controlled crystal oscillator. An oven-controlled crystal oscillator is encased in a small heated chamber that maintains a precise and optimal temperature for the crystal. These expensive devices are much more precise than the ubiquitous crystal oscillators found in virtually all digital products. Both the clocking circuit and the cache memory feature proprietary techniques for reducing noise and jitter on the output signal feeding your DAC.
Unlike many computer-audio products, the W20 comes with an excellent and well-illustrated “Quick Start Guide.” A full owner’s manual is offered on the Aurender website. Should you encounter problems with any current Aurender model server, you can request Remote Internet Support right from the app. An Aurender technician can then access your network and probably diagnose and resolve any problems with the W20 or its setup.
The Conductor App
A server lives or dies by its control app. The app can be a constant source of frustration or a joy to live with on a daily basis. I’m happy to report that the Aurender Conductor app is by far the best I’ve used. It’s fast, visually appealing, stable, intuitive, capable, and uncluttered, and its features have been clearly refined through actual use. The app runs much faster on a 64-bit iPad (I tried it on an older iPad 2 as well as a new iPad Air 2.) The 64-bit iPads are required for rendering album art in high resolution. If you spend ten minutes with someone who knows the app (your dealer, for example) and then begin using it yourself, you’ll feel like an expert half an hour later.
The majority of the app screen shows your library by album, artist, or song, with a smaller playlist section on the left. Tapping a track from the main display moves the track to the playlist. Entire albums can be moved to the playlist with one tap. A nice feature allows you to slide back the main display to show the playlist in greater detail. Another thoughtful design element is the way tapping a button brings up the additional controls you need in the context associated with that button. For example, I just mentioned that you can add an entire album with one tap. When you tap the album name, a menu appears that offers you the option of adding the entire album, and where in the playlist to do so. This structure keeps the interface clean and simple, presenting you with additional choices only when you need them. Moreover, the interface’s colors, shapes, and organization are easy on the eyes. You can filter your library view by sample rate (showing you only hi-res titles, for example), DSD files, recently added titles, and those albums you’ve marked as favorites.
With two finger-taps the view switches from your music library to the Tidal streaming service. (A Tidal subscription is required: $19.95 per month for unlimited lossless streaming.) You can create playlists with tracks mixed from your library and Tidal. Its integration is so seamless that it’s easy to forget where your library ends and Tidal starts. The Aurender Conductor app’s Tidal interface is better than Tidal’s own app. The best software is powerful yet simple to use, and that is a good way to describe the Aurender Conductor.
As I mentioned, the W20 offers no way to edit metadata directly. You can, however, edit metadata with a program such as JRiver Media Center. Speaking of metadata errors, I discovered a couple of funny and interesting ones. I ripped a CD by the Western swing band Asleep at the Wheel and the band’s name showed up in my library as “A Sheep at the Wheel.” The double CD of John Mayall’s 70th birthday concert appeared as two separate albums, one by John Mayall and one by John Mayall & the Bluesbreakers.
Setting up the W20 in my system wasn’t without glitches. After using the system for a couple of weeks I powered it down to rearrange my equipment rack, and when I powered it back up the W20 wouldn’t connect to my iPad Air 2. Oddly, it would connect to an older iPad 2. Aurender had not encountered this issue before, but I figured out the solution. (The W20 and iPad Air 2 weren’t on the same network; resetting the router fixed the problem.)
On another occasion, after the W20 was turned back on, it wouldn’t boot up. Previously unbeknownst to me (or to Aurender), the W20 won’t boot up when certain DACs are connected to it. (I was using the DAC in the Hegel H160 at the time.) Aurender had not seen this problem with any other DACs.
I should add, however, how wonderful it was to connect different DACs to the W20 and have them instantly recognized, with their names shown in the W20’s display. Anyone with a PC- or Mac-based server who has struggled to get his software to recognize the DAC will appreciate the W20’s ease and reliability in this regard.