NAD Masters M50.2 Digital Music Player & Aurender A10 Music Server

Notes on a Year Spent Streaming

Equipment report
Digital-to-analog converters,
Music servers and computer audio
NAD Masters M50.2 Digital Music Player & Aurender A10 Music Server

When Aurender introduced the Conductor App it was compatible only with Android devices and iPads, not iPhones. In other words, if you were a Macintosh user you had to invest in an iPad to use the app. But Lizars tells me that by the time this appears in print Conductor can be installed on iPhones, an upgradable fix downloadable through the app (all Aurender products of any vintage will then work with iPhones). This is good news because day by day when it came to streaming I often turned to the NAD instead of the Aurender for the simple reason that oftener than not chez Seydor the iPad is somewhere other than in the music room, while my i- Phone is usually at hand. 

As for the apps themselves, I found both equally easy to use, serviceable, and offering more or less the same array of streaming services and Internet radio, though I slightly favor the graphics and the overall layout of Conductor. The 50.2 gives you Bluetooth connectivity, the A10 requires a wired connection, an academic issue for me since, as noted, I use, and advise, Ethernet connection. Both the A10 and the M50.2 allowed me to enjoy day in day out some of the very finest reproduction of digital sources I’ve ever heard, indeed, of recorded music period. Its sound ideally mediates body, clarity, resolution, and musicality with no tonal anomalies that favor one part of the spectrum over another; and it’s so involving I soon forgot about it because it moves the music front and center and keeps it there. Saying this, my only caveat is that I’ve not been privileged to audition at home or in any system with which I have familiarity any of the stratospherically priced DACs and other digital components from companies like dCS, MSB, Berkeley Audio Design, and T+A, not to mention Aurender’s own higher-priced models. But at no time listening to either the A10 (or the 50.2) did I find myself thinking, “Gee, wouldn’t this be so much nicer with something ‘better’ or more expensive?” Speaking of expense, its $5500 retail is not cheap, but a couple of colleagues whom I trust tell me it comes astonishingly close to Aurender’s flagship models. In view of that and its obviously first-class engineering, parts, and fit and finish, it certainly embodies salutary value.

Closing Thoughts (Provisional)
It should be obvious from what I’ve written that I have an extremely high regard for both of these products. But are they for you? This opens a wider discussion that I can only touch upon here, but let me address one fairly obvious issue. Both the NAD and the Aurender come with a lot of built-in storage capacity, the idea being that the end user will have server and storage in one convenient unit. Fine and good, but do you need the storage? If you do, then know that outboard storage from third-party vendors is less expensive than what I suspect the onboard storage in these two devices will cost you, while spokespersons for both companies frankly admit there is no sonic advantage to internal versus external storage drives. In pointing this out I am by no means suggesting that these and other manufacturers who offer onboard storage for their music servers are ripping you off, nor do I mean to contradict my previous statements that both these products embody very good value. They do, but you will be paying top dollar for convenience: e.g., when NAD introduced the M52 Digital Storage Vault, with its 2TB of mirrored storage, it was priced at $1999. By comparison you can buy 2TB of SSD storage for under $300. I have no idea how to compute what 4TB of storage adds to the price of the A10 (at least a grand?), but I’ll wager it’s considerably more than the $600 for which I’ve seen 4TB SSD drives selling, while non-SSD drives (which are what is in the A10) reduce that figure by half or more. In fairness, the NAD and A10 drives are of extremely high quality, require no fans, and are noise free. And inasmuch as they are internal you avoid the whole headache and expense of dealing with connectivity and ports. Finally, the storage volumes of both units, especially the Aurender’s 4TB, are capacious enough that you’d really have to do a lot of CD ripping and purchasing of downloads before you’d fill them up.

But this still leaves the same question abegging: Is storage a function you’ll much or ever use? I can best suggest what I mean by answering this personally. Since, as noted, I have no plans at present to rip large swaths of my CD collection to digital files, the only use I’d have for the 50.2’s ripping feature is as a Compact Disc player replacement. Neither do I have plans to purchase a lot of hi-res downloads. For one thing, they’re sometimes quite expensive, while the higher doublings of DSD can be crazy expensive. For another, and more to the point, when it comes to Red Book digital, I am so pleased with the quality of reproduction I’m getting from streaming Tidal and Qobuz that most of the time I’m not tempted to buy the CDs. This is because with Red Book sources it’s unusual to the point of rare that the CD offers better performance than high-quality Ethernet streaming; and when the streaming is via Tidal’s MQA or Qobuz’s HR, the sound is always superior to the equivalent Red Book whether streaming or on Compact Disc. 

Sometimes I can purchase higher-resolution files at 24/192 through Qobuz—for example, one of my desert-island discs, Beethoven’s Opus 131 string quartet as performed by Leonard Bernstein and the strings of the Vienna Philharmonic. I doubt there’s ever been a component I’ve reviewed that hasn’t partaken of this recording, which I have on vinyl and on CD and I can also stream it 24/96. If I didn’t already own it, I could purchase the CD new for $13 from Amazon (less than $9 used), for $18 as a Red Book file from Qobuz, or $21 in 24/192 from Qobuz, or $11 in 24/192 if I pay an extra $5 a month for Qobuz’s Sublime option (highly recommend if you’re planning on acquiring a library of hi-res PCM music). But do I actually need to own it? Only if I wanted to make sure I had a hard copy or a file stored on a drive in case the streaming service goes belly up, or to see how much improvement 192 gives me over 96.  

Truth to tell, a year spent with these two components has brought me to places I never believed I’d get to before using them. Among other things they’ve made me question the whole role of ownership and what it has to do with the music I buy and why I buy it. In the past I’ve often purchased records and CDs simply because I wanted to hear how this conductor or that pianist or another singer did a particular piece of music. Once my curiosity was sated, the thing went on the shelf. If I liked the performance, I’d listen to it again, no doubt several times throughout the years. If I didn’t—well, there I am stuck with an LP or a CD that I’ll never listen to again taking up space. That’s how I wound up with yards of CDs (not to mention LPs). A close audiophile friend of mine, an analog devotee who’s also an industry professional, told me that since he’s started streaming his wife no longer opens their monthly credit-card statements with trepidation because they no longer have a hundred or more dollars charged for CDs and digital downloads. The only recorded music he tends to buy now are SACDs and the occasional LP reissue he might like; otherwise, it’s all streaming and, trust me, this man has stratospherically high standards when it comes to recorded and reproduced sound.

But, you say, if your library is on only Tidal or Qobuz, you don’t own it. So what? As long as it’s available in comparable or, as is the typically the case, better sound through streaming, what are you missing? Cover art and liner notes? Compacts discs are so diminutive next to LP jackets that for me the cover design no longer has the allure it once did (the sense of occasion generated by LPs owing to their size and the sometime lavishness of the presentations are two of the things I miss most about the format). Most pop releases come with no notes at all; as for other genres, in particular classical and jazz, the notes can be informative but just as often boilerplate, and in any case you can find much more information online, including lyrics and librettos for songs, song cycles, oratorios, and operas (a lot of reissues of  big-box opera sets don’t even come with librettos, sometimes not even plot summaries). 

Yet I find that I not only enjoy music as much as I ever did but also that I can be much more informed about it because I now have access to a huge amount of additional music at a fraction of the cost of what I had before. I love Charles Ives’s choral piece Psalm 90. My favorite recording of it, by the Gregg Smith Singers on Columbia, has never made it to CD, but I spent a happy hour listening to and comparing the more than half dozen recordings Oobuz unearthed. In the current Gramophone the critic Jed Distler surveys recordings of Beethoven’s “Hammerklavier” sonata. I’ve acquired at least a dozen albums of this towering masterpiece over my decades as an audiophile, but thanks to Qobuz and Tidal I am now able to explore many more, paramountly several that Distler recommended that I don’t have and would not be able to hear except by purchasing them. Thanks to these two services, however, I was able to give myself a view both panoramic and in detail of its performance history as recorded. Or take TAS’s music reviews, which most of the time append “further listening” suggestions that I can now investigate easier and quicker than ever.