NAD Masters M50.2 Digital Music Player & Aurender A10 Music Server
For the longest time I resisted the world of music streaming because it required using a computer to kluge together programs, services, and devices of often widely differing provenance—all this without even mentioning the sixteen feet of cable stretching from sofa, where I sit with laptop, to equipment shelf, where resides the DAC with the rest of the electronics. I should come clean: As a film editor I spend most of my working days in front of a computer; ditto for my writing, not to mention correspondence, much shopping, considerable research, processing my photography, tasks for my various teaching duties, paying bills, handling bank accounts, and countless other daily activities and necessities. So maybe you’ll understand why the last thing I want next to me when I listen to music is a damn computer, not least because some of the solace I derive from music listening is getting away from keyboards and screens.
Then too, generally speaking, when it comes to music streaming my past attempts to get the various devices and services to “talk” to each other has been fraught with frustration: If something can go wrong, it will and usually does, while the threadbare “instructions” that come with most music servers and all streaming services prove next to useless. Despite the personal assistance of three different experts, I never could get my computer-based streaming setup to work consistently or reliably, and I never ran into a problem that was adequately addressed on any of the products’ or services’ Internet “Help” sites. Far easier to cue an LP or slip a silver disc into a tray after browsing through my shelves—browsing, by the way, an activity I actively enjoy if for no other reasons than, first, it is active, and, second, it’s serendipitous, often yielding happy rediscoveries of music I’d forgotten I had lying dormant on the shelves.
But I knew my Luddite days were closing fast some three years ago when, owing to a combination of work-related issues and concerns about the environment, I parted with my much-loved, thirteen-year-old BMW 330i (sighs short and frequent were exhaled) and acquired a Tesla Model S. I’ve never looked back—you have no idea, among other things, how wonderful it is never having to go to a gas station! The only thing I don’t like about it is Elon Musk’s decision that no hard media shall deface his creation—apparently you can’t even add a CD player after the fact. (Evidently the rest of the automobile world is or soon will be in lockstep, e.g., several months ago I heard that effective 2019–20 Mercedes vehicles no longer have CD players.) For a while I burned CDs to flash drives that I could play on the Tesla, but this became so time-consuming I finally took out a subscription to Tidal, then later to Qobuz, downloaded the apps to my iPhone, Bluetoothed it to my Tesla, and discovered what so many of you reading this doubtless already knew: Suddenly an unimaginable abundance and variety of music was at my fingertips.
Meanwhile, at home I was still struggling with my laptop-based streaming setup when TAS editor Robert Harley took pity and arranged for the good folks at Aurender to lend me an A10 so I could stream music sans computer (Robert was especially keen for me to experience MQA). Around the same time, Greg Stidsen, NAD’s Director of Technology and Product Planning, presented an opportunity to try out the company’s M50.2 Music Player. Robert also suggested that I share my experiences with our readers, especially those who’ve been as reluctant as I to embrace streaming. I’ll anticipate my conclusions to the extent of saying that in the fourteen or so months I’ve spent with these two products the experience has been one of almost unalloyed pleasure with very few problems and those easily addressed. It’s nice to be reminded from time to time that what looks like progress actually is progress.
Before going on, however, I should say that what follows is not a review in the ordinary sense of the word. For one thing, my colleague Andrew Quint has already reviewed the Aurender A10 very capably in TAS 278, where you can find his in-depth report.
As for how it sounds, if anything I hold that in even higher regard than Andy does, as evinced by my including it in the most recent Golden Ear awards, where I said that it exhibits “no sacrifice in sound quality that matters” (at least to me). NAD’s M50.2 has been around since 2017, yet for some reason it’s never been reviewed in TAS, so I’ll go into more detail about its principal functions and features. But my primary focus with both products is on their day-to-day use—how accommodating they are in giving me access to streaming and other online music services and sources with a minimum of fuss and bother, how they fit into or otherwise altered and enhanced my listening habits and pleasures as they’ve developed over my half century as an audiophile (man, was the last part of that sentence ever hard to write). I also want to address some consumer-oriented questions as regards use and purchasing that I’ve not seen addressed or at least addressed often enough in other reviews.
NAD Masters Series M50.2 Digital Music Player
Understand that I’m not so naïve as to be unaware that all music servers are computers, but at least they have the good grace not to look like computers and the good manners to occupy a place on the cabinet with the rest of the electronics. According to Stidsen, this was the principal rationale behind the M50.2: “Conceptually, computer audio without the computer, a completely self-contained music source that isn’t compromised by all the issues that can interfere with music when using computer hardware. Computers are general purpose devices that were never conceived with music as their primary function. The M50.2 can happily live in the listening room, isolated from email, photos, social media, software updates that undo your music settings, viruses, etc.”
The 50.2 combines, albeit with considerable upgrades and features, NAD’s earlier M50 music player and M52 Digital Storage Vault into a single chassis. In effect, it’s three components in one: music server, storage drives, and CD player/ripper. When the 50.2 first appeared in 2017 I believe it was unique in offering this specific combination of components, and since then to my knowledge only the Aurender ACS10 offers a comparable combination (see Steven Stone’s review in TAS 300). The storage is 4TB divided over two drives arranged in a mirrored RAID configuration, one hot or active, the other cold and used strictly for storage and backup. That way if the hot drive fails, you still have all your files intact on the back up.
Getting the 50.2 up and running is a simple matter of connecting it—Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, and Ethernet are available (I choose the last because I believe a wired connection is always superior)—plugging it in, downloading NAD’s BluOS app, and you’re off to the races. The only essential component missing is an integral DAC, but NAD figured that so many potential buyers already have a DAC they like, whether stand alone or built into their control units (such as the company’s own Masters Series preamp and integrated amp, to which the 50.2 is a logical companion). Then, too, separating music server and DAC allows for upgrades to either without having to dispense with the whole component. Beautifully styled à la NAD’s other Masters Series components, the 50.2 is designed to compete at the highest possible performance level, its substantial chassis finished in brushed aluminum and black accents with first-class parts and build, the packaging and presentation outdoing those of many luxury-priced components (the manual comes in a leather-jacketed USB stick). Given everything it has on offer, the $4399 retail seems to me quite reasonable, hardly surprising considering it’s an NAD.
Although an immensely sophisticated piece of equipment, the 50.2 is, according to NAD, essentially a “software defined product, meaning that much of the functionality of the system is defined by software not hardware”; thus upgrades are integrated by simply updating the 50.2’s software. The brains of the unit consist in the aforementioned BluOS, the company’s proprietary music-only operating system accessible through the BluOS app, which I downloaded to both my iPhone and my iPad. A quick look at the 50.2’s front panel reveals no knobs, buttons, or switches, only a touch-screen display, most of the functionality residing in the app, including even that of the CD ripper (no remote handset is included or necessary). To be sure, you can operate it from the touchscreen, but the app is much easier. Insert a CD, the screen asks whether you want to rip or play it. If you select play, there will be a short interval between hitting play and hearing music because the CD is being buffered, a good thing inasmuch as, theoretically at least, this translates into more accurate reproduction since the playback will be from the buffer instead of the spinning disc (those more technically savvy than I say this preserves the integrity of the spaces between the bits).
I have no plans at present to transfer my CD library to storage drives, but if I did, the ripper function alone would tempt me to purchase the 50.2 for three reasons. First, according to Stidsen, “PCM from the disc is read into memory as a first action. Then for playback, once a small buffer is established, it is re-clocked by the M50.2’s precision clocks (one for 44.1k and multiples, and one for 48k and multiples) and sent onward to the DAC, not relying on the CD drive for clock integrity. For ripping we do a ‘bit perfect’ rip where we note the checksum (total number of bits in the file) from the metadata and continue to rip until we get all the bits. After the entire disc is captured in RAM, we then apply any chosen lossless (FLAC) or lossy (320kbps MP3) compression and save it to the onboard hard drives. It can also be saved as a WAV file with no compression. In both playback and ripping we don’t rely on CIRC correction algorithms to ‘fill in’ missing data like a CD player does. So, in theory the M50.2 can sound better than the same CD played on an ordinary CD player that relies on the mechanical drive for jitter performance and uses interpolation filters to prevent gaps in playback of less than perfect CDs.”
Second, the process couldn’t be easier. Once you select the format (via BluOS), it becomes the default; should you change it, the new selection becomes the default. Otherwise, operation is completely automatic: Insert the CD, select rip, and a while later the files are on the internal hard drive, complete with metadata and cover art (displayed on the LED screen and whatever device the BluOS is on). Third, BluOS easily organizes and accesses your ripped CDs. My experience indicates they are sonically at least identical to your CDs or better owing to the buffering and any improvements your choice of DAC may bring (assuming it’s better than the one in your CD player). I’ve done my own ripping using computer and third-party applications and I hated it. When it comes to transferring, organizing, and making accessible ripped CDs, I have no experience with anything out there that comes close to making the task as easy and foolproof as the 50.2 (Aurender’s ACS10 and A30 doubtless rival it in this regard, but I’ve no experience with them).
And streaming music? It’s as easy as the ripping. Like most music-streaming applications, BluOS is able to integrate all the popular streaming services. Many of the features of these applications are of little or no interest to me, like playlists, which I never make. I rarely listen to “songs,” that is, individual selections (unless for purposes of research and comparison, or reviewing components)—I listen to pieces of music, that is, compositions, typically whole albums. When my wife and I want background music for, say, a party, I just load several appropriate albums into the queue and let them run their course. I do like the radio features because I have no tuner in my system, so this lets me access Los Angeles stations such as KUSC, KPCC, and KCRW through my main or office systems, not to mention a great number of stations around the country. But most of my time with the 50.2 was spent streaming music via Tidal or Qobuz. How does it sound?
The answer, so far as I am able to determine, is that it sounds like the source and whatever DAC it’s going into. In the year I’ve been using the 50.2 I’ve partnered it with four different DACs: a Benchmark DAC1, a Benchmark DAC3, the DAC built into my McIntosh C52 preamplifier, and the DAC built into the Marantz Ruby SA-KI player I recently reviewed. Go back and read my reviews of the C52 (TAS 283) and Marantz Ruby (TAS 299) and that’s how it sounds. As for the Benchmarks—a review of the new DAC3 is forthcoming—there was that same impression I take away from all Benchmark products: coloration-free neutrality that bespeaks absolute transparency to the source. Nor was I ever able to detect any distinctive overlay that persisted from one DAC to another. In other words, if the 50.2 is imparting some characteristic of its own to the reproduction, its contribution is so minute as to be undetectable or obliterated by other factors such as the sound of the source or whatever residual sonic characteristics may inhere in the DACs (precious little in the McIntosh or Marantz, effectively none in the Benchmarks). Not that the 50.2 is capable of being all things to all users. Its sample rate is 32kHz to 192kHz, 16/24 bit, but there is no support for PCM 32/384 or for any DSD. When the 50.2 was introduced NAD announced that within a year a software update would provide DSD capability. That was optimistic, and two years later the company has given up trying. In our last conversation Stidsen indicated that consumers committed to DSD will have to go to other products to get it.
Then there is the matter of MQA, about which NAD is a bit misleading: “All Bluesound Players include a powerful decoder and audio renderer for the MQA system,” proclaims the promotional literature. This is true in the sense that the BluOS accepts and can partially decode files that are MQA encoded. But MQA is an end-to-end process, which means that it is an end-to-end operation that first encodes the file, unfolds it in a higher resolution, and then completes the final rendering and conversion to analog at the other end. The 50.2 does not, as it were, perform the last act (i.e., the rendering), only the first “Core” unfolding, which Stidsen tells me MQA’s Bob Stuart tells him provides about “eighty percent” of the benefit. Fair enough, but know that you will not get all the putative benefits of the format unless the fully encoded file is processed through an MQA-equipped DAC. For example, in my setup, using the 50.2 I am able to hear only the unfolded MQA file because the DACs in the Marantz, McIntosh, and Benchmarks lack any MQA capability. The only way I am able to hear a completely MQA’d file is via the Aurender A10.
So what do you do if you find the 50.2 an attractive proposition and still want full MQA? Easy enough, just pair it with one of the MQA DACs that are now beginning to proliferate the market. This is possible because the 50.2 can pass a fully encoded MQA file to a suitably equipped DAC but only when programed to do so through the BluOS app: navigate to “Settings,” then to “Player,” next to “Audio,” where you scroll down to “MQA external DAC” and turn it on. That said, it’s important to add that if you aren’t using a fully MQA-equipped DAC, then leave this setting off—otherwise the 50.2 won’t even give you the first unfolding.
How important MQA is I cannot determine for you. It continues to be highly controversial, a debate I’m not about to engage here. Some very heavy hitters on audio for whom I have the highest regard remain unpersuaded by, even actively hostile toward it, while others, for whom I also have the highest regard, express an enthusiasm that knows few restraints. Among this latter group are TAS’s editor Robert Harley, who has written with great eloquence and, what is more important, specificity about the format’s sonic improvements. My good friend Peter McGrath, as exacting as anyone in the business, more so than most, when it comes to his own recordings (some of the finest I know), told me not long ago that his recordings sound far better when MQA’d than when listened to directly as high resolution original master files: “I consider it one of the most significant developments in audio since the beginning of digital. It transforms any PCM digital recording that I have made regardless of its original format into reproduction of almost incalculably greater resolution and beauty of sound” (though he cautions that “it will not make a poor recording good, but it will unlock all the goodness in good recordings”).
Suffice it to say that in my still limited experience with the new medium, despite criticisms of relatively high distortion and charges that the format is lossy, I’ve never heard any evidence for these criticisms through listening, nor have I heard MQA worsen the sound of any source. At the same, its degree of improvement, as heard via Tidal through the Aurender A10 (my only experience of MQA), has ranged from modest to quite extraordinary, particularly in the areas of perceived clarity, dynamic range, air and atmosphere, and resolution (compare the wonderful Pappano version of Verdi’s Aida on Tidal Master to the compact disc). With its first unfolding, the 50.2 will readily reveal these improvements where they exist, but not so clearly as the A10 with its soup-to-nuts MQA processing.
So if DSD is not something you’re interested in, the M50.2 gets an enthusiastic recommendation from me, combining high performance, ease of use, convenience, and upgradability in a beautifully styled package. And one thing more in case it isn’t clear: If at the same time you’re shopping for a music server you’ve also been thinking of replacing a long-in-the-tooth CD player, the 50.2 obviates the need for the latter. Its player/ripper and any partnering DAC together with the BluOS app will perform the rest of the functions necessary to play your compact discs.
Aurender A10 Cache Music Server
If Aurender had drawn up a dock brief of the kind of audiophile for whom the A10 is intended, it could easily have been with me personally in mind. Conceptually it has much in common with the NAD. Both integrate three components into one chassis, Aurender substituting DAC for burner and 4TB of storage in unmirrored configuration. (The A10 also has volume control, with remote handset, which means it can serve as the preamplifier for your whole system, though I didn’t evaluate it that way because I have too many sources to dispense with a full-function preamplifier.) As with the NAD, the brain of the A10 resides in the software: Aurender’s acclaimed Conductor App, which, like BluOs, easily integrates all the most popular streaming services, as well as Internet radio. You can also transfer ripped CDs and downloads into the A10 storage, and Conductor will organize and make readily accessible your entire library.
The A10 has two big advantages over the NAD when it comes to streaming and hi-res downloads. First, as already noted, it does full MQA decoding. Second, it does DSD up to 128, though it won’t accept DSD 256 and 512, a limitation it shares with a considerable number of DACs that offer DSD capability. Relative to which, bear in mind that not all DACs are created equal. Some of the economy and moderately priced ones that claim 256 and 512 often wind up pushing the processing so hard you might find that 128 through the A10 or comparable units sounds better than the higher doublings through a competing but lesser DAC. Moreover, when it comes to 512, very little is available and what’s there is very expensive with humongous file sizes. Selection is greater for 256, but, again, these downloads are also pricey with comparatively large files vis-à-vis the PCM alternatives, while their sonic superiority over 128, though real, even at times substantial, is not what I would call life-changing. As usual, if you can manage to do some auditioning before purchasing, you should.
Getting the A10 to connect to my setup required a little more work than the NAD but nothing that wasn’t fixed fairly easily, and Aurender has truly superb after-purchase customer service (as also does NAD). In addition to the built-in storage, the A10 has a 120GB solid-state drive for cache playback. The advantage to this, according to Aurender’s literature, is that by “caching files to the solid-state drive for playback, electrical and acoustic noise resulting from spinning disks, moving heads, and motors is also completely eliminated.” I have no way of assessing whether this is superior to NAD’s buffering system, but it will accept far more material at one time than the M50.2, about 80 CDs worth of files according to John-Paul Lizars, Aurender’s Director of Sales & Marketing. Are the advantages audible in either product? Impossible to tell since there’s no way to circumvent the cache or the buffering. In the year I’ve been using them, both components streamed almost flawlessly, with only the rarest of hiccups or dropouts, and those had to do in almost every instance with Internet issues unrelated to either product.
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.
What if these music services go out of business? A fair enough question, I suppose, but can anyone think of a breeze, let alone a wind, that’s blowing in that direction? I shouldn’t like what I’ve written here to suggest that you shouldn’t buy hard media or downloads. If I hear a new recording that I really fall in love with, I will often buy the highest-res download if it’s available and/or the CD, especially if it’s something new and unavailable except by purchase or if the notes will be informative or if its shelf life might be limited; a select few older recordings that I especially love (e.g., the Bernstein Vienna opus 131, the Webster/Edison Ben & Sweets) I imagine I’d buy in any improved format that comes along. Then, too, presentation and packaging, including extras, can be awfully tempting: Sony’s set of George Szell’s complete recordings for Epic and Columbia (beautifully remastered with a hardcover book of recording information and original jackets and notes reproduced); Capitol’s Frank Sinatra Concepts (likewise beautifully remastered with Wilt Friedwald’s magisterial notes in hardback); and the sumptuous Decca set of Solti’s Ring cycle (once more beautifully remastered with Blu-ray audio, BBC’s documentary The Golden Ring, and Ring Resounding, the producer John Culshaw’s fabulous history of recording the whole cycle). But far more often when temptation rears its seductive head and I survey my shelves overflowing with CDs and LPs, I find myself remembering Thoreau’s warning that possessions are “more easily acquired than got rid of.” These days you’re lucky to get a pittance selling a CD and sometimes it’s difficult to give them away (nor does old vinyl net you all that much either).
The only remaining issue I’d like to address is what for want of a better word might be called the root experience of digital versus vinyl. This has been articulated by several vinyl/analog enthusiasts, the gist of it being that playing a record somehow involves a more elevated, compelling, even spiritual listening experience because the work of choosing and playing an LP requires a commitment missing with CD or other digital sources, where the convenience and ready availability lessens, perhaps even trivializes the musical experience. This is a difficult argument to engage because it’s not an argument, merely an assertion and an assertion of so personal a nature that the only real counter would be the assertion of a different personal experience. I long ago made my peace in the analog/digital war, mostly because digital has improved so vastly since its introduction. There is no question in my mind that digital is equal to but different from vinyl, which as we all know has a number of euphonic distortions that are very pleasing and that many of us have lived with, and loved, for so long they’ve been elevated into Truth with a capital “T” (not to mention a whole number of other distortions and distractions that are anything but—pitch stability anybody or truly silent backgrounds?). But trying to argue a True Believer out of his belief would be like…well, like trying to argue me into liking beets—save your breath, it’s not going to happen.
So here’s my counter experience: I do not find and have never found the mere act of selecting an LP, placing it on the platter, and cueing it up elevates me to some sort of rarefied transcendental state whereby my attention is more concentrated and intensified than when I place a CD in the drawer or stream a music file. Beethoven gets my full attention regardless of medium or format. Anything else, to quote my colleague Neil Gader, who addressed some of these issues in his review of dCS’s Bartok streaming DAC (TAS 300), is to idealize or even fetishize the experience of vinyl. In my opinion audiophiles who think like this are not appreciating music, they’re appreciating their own appreciation of a medium to which they are wedded, which is as good an illustration of snobbery as I can imagine, and pretty fatuous snobbery at that, which has nothing whatsoever to do with the enjoyment of music. Indeed, when I hear them going on as they often do about the glories of vinyl I wonder what goes through their minds if or when they descend to the slums of digital and listen, say, to an absolutely splendid new recording, available in digital only, released last year by DG, of two magnificent but relatively unknown symphonies by the neglected Viennese master Mieczysław Weinberg, powerfully conducted by Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla, a rising star, in excellent sound. Are they sitting there thinking, “How much better this would be if only it were in analog on vinyl”? Really? If so, then surely they’re pursuing high-end audio for all the wrong reasons.
One thing my year with NAD’s M50.2 and Aurender’s A10 has taught me is that if they and similar components constituted the only way I could listen to music henceforth, I wouldn’t feel in the least deprived except for not having music that at present is available only on vinyl or hasn’t been transferred to digital. As Robert Harley observed in his editorial “Hi-Res Democratization” (TAS 297), “audio’s overarching goal [is] connecting artists with listeners . . . ultimately music trumps formats.”
Specs & Pricing
NAD Masters M50.2 Digital Music Player
Sample rate: 32kHz to 192kHz, 16/24 bit
Formats: MP3, AAC, WMA, OGG Vorbis, WMA-L, FLAC, ALAC, WAV, AIFF, MQA, HRA
Storage: 4TB in mirrored RAID
Inputs: USB 2.0 device (Type B) storage (Digital Music Vault); front and rear USB 2.0 Type A for playback via USB stick, hard drive; IR input; 12V trigger in
Outputs: AES/EBU 110 Ohms; TosLink optical; coaxial 75 ohms; HDMI 1.4 (audio only); digital AES/EBU; IR out;12V trigger out
Connectivity: WiFi 802.11n/g 2.4G; Ethernet 10/100/1000Mbs; Bluetooth AptX ; RS232
Dimensions: 17-1/8″ x 5¼” x 15″
Weight: 17.9 lbs.
Aurender A10 Caching Music Server
Formats: DSD (DSF, DFF), WAV, FLAC, AIFF, ALAC, M4A, APE, and others
Bit and sample rates: SPDIFop to 24-bit, 192kHz (PCM); 1-bit, 2.8MHz (DSD64); USB, 32-bit/384kHz, 1-bit, 2.8MHz (DSD64); 1-bit, 5.6MHz (DSD128)
Inputs: SPDIF optical up to 24-bit/192kHz (optical input will be routed to analog-out only)
Outputs: USB Audio Class 2.0; unbalanced (RCA) 2Vrms; balanced (XLR) 4Vrms; Gigabit Ethernet, USB Port x2
Dimensions: 16.93″ x 2.2″ x 13.9″
Weight: 22.5 lbs.
633 Granite Court
L1W 3K1 Canada
Aurender America Inc
63 Brixton, Irvine CA 92620
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