Sonore microRendu Streaming Music Player and Signature Series Linear Power Supply
The Sonore microRendu falls on the less expensive end of the price spectrum for streaming music players, but still brings remarkable capabilities to the audio enthusiast. It handles PCM files up to 768kHz and DSD512, all for $640 without a power supply, and will work with virtually any power supply producing at least 1 amp at 6 to 9 volts DC. Assembled in New Hampshire, the tiny microRendu (2.2″ by 0.7″ by 3.5″) can easily be held in the palm of your hand.
The microRendu doesn’t physically or functionally resemble any component I’ve encountered. Unlike most music-file playback devices, it is not a server. It takes files sent by an external server, which you must also provide, and plays, or renders, them, which means it converts digital music files in the usual variety of formats to a bitstream a DAC can handle, and that DAC, of course, must have a USB 2.0 input. The microRendu is not a Windows device, so no driver is needed for the USB input. Most current DACs do have a USB input, nearly all a USB 2.0 version, which is needed to play the highest-resolution files. The microRendu’s small size and weight allow it to plug directly into the DAC’s USB input, using a USB Type A to Type B adapter included in the box instead of a USB cable. Even though the microRendu is very light, Sonore advises that you to support its weight somehow and not let it dangle from the DAC’s USB jack.
As noted above, the microRendu needs a separate server program running somewhere on your network. It works with several different server programs, or apps if you prefer: SqueezeLite, ShairPort (an AirPlay emulator, whatever that is—Apple users will know), MPD/DLNA, HQ Player NAA Output, and possibly the most familiar, Roon. For Roon, a Roon server should run on a separate computer, which can be located somewhere outside the listening room. For MPD, a server like MinimServer should be running on your NAS. I liked that option best for several reasons, which I’ll cover later. ShairPort would probably appeal to Apple users, which I’m not. Some think Roon is a bit pricey: $119/year, or $499 for a lifetime subscription. One of the reasons I like MPD is that it can use Linn’s Kazoo as the controller, which is free and nicely designed. I didn’t try the HQ Player; I’ve heard it sounds great, but it is not for the faint of heart.
So what’s the advantage of this kind of component? Adrian Lebena, Sonore’s Vice President, explained: “Over-the-counter computers were not designed to be audio players. They have all sorts of hard drives, clocks, and power supplies firing off in all directions, creating noise that translates into a minimizing of critical spatial or soundstage cues.” And Sonore’s President Jesus Rodriguez further amplified: “The idea is that you use a pre-existing computer or NAS as the server and just have a small footprint device (electrically and mechanically) in the listening room isolated from the rest of the gear over the network.” I asked if the added complexity involved in separating the renderer from the server degraded the sound, and Rodriguez replied “There is no basis for assuming it degrades the sound. Trust your ears and just listen to it…let us know what you think. BTW I would keep the unit on so the built-in oscillator can warm up and stabilize. There are some things you do without a server active. For example you can run Tidal from the Internet.”
The Sonore website lists nine power supplies recommended for the microRendu, the least expensive being one by iFi Audio at only $50. For this review, Sonore sent the standard version of its own 7-volt DC Signature Series linear power supply, which sells for $1399. The Colorado-built power supply measures 12.75″ by 3″ by 10.25″ and weighs 10 pounds. If it seems goofy that a power supply should cost nearly twice the price of the player, remember that the power supply contains much heavier components, is housed in a larger, fancier case, and is usually the primary factor in how a component sounds. The microRendu comes in silver finish only; the power supply has silver or black faceplates. The review unit had a silver one, whose only feature was a small blue LED pilot light and a label.
I thought the microRendu was unbelievably cute, but I’d need to do double-blind testing to be sure of that (joke). It’s hard to believe, but inside its tiny chassis is a whole computer optimized for audio playback. There’s only one signal input, an Ethernet RJ45 jack, and one output, a USB 2.0 output. And of course, there has to be a power input jack. Inside, there’s an industrial-rated ARM dual-core 1.2GHz processor and 1GB of RAM. The microRendu uses an 8GB microSD memory card to hold its operating system (open-source Linux), so if there’s an upgrade, popping out the card and replacing it with an updated one should update the player. During the review period, there was a minor upgrade to some of the software, so I popped in the new card and restarted the microRendu, and voîlà! there was version 2.5 of the SonicOrbiter operating system. The only difficulty was handling the tiny microSD card, thanks to a case of fumble-fingers. The updated operating system shipped on the microSD card sells for $20, a fair price.
In addition to the standard Signature power supply that I used, there’s an Upgrade Version that retails for $1589, which adds two Synergistic Black Fuses and a small tweak. Then there’s a Max Power Supply, selling for $1899, which includes a specially designed Mercury Magnetics EI transformer along with the Synergistic Black Fuses.
Setting Up and Using the microRendu and Signature Power Supply
The microRendu takes no shelf space at all if you follow the recommendations and plug it directly into the USB Type B connector on the back of your DAC. The larger power supply ships with no power cord, but a Cardas power cord is optional. A cable (also by Cardas) which connects the power supply to the microRendu is provided. Sonore supplied a USB Type A-to-Type B adapter to connect the microRendu to the DAC. This adapter replaced a USB cable, and is only an inch or so in length. It’s said to sound better than a USB cable, so that’s what I used. Although the microRendu only weighs 4.8 ounces, Sonore recommends you support it when it is connected via the USB connector so that its weight doesn’t strain the DAC’s USB Type B input. What you use for support will depend on the individual DAC. When I used the low-slung Mytek Brooklyn DAC, I found that a single CD case was the right height to support the microRendu. Most of the review was done with my PS Audio DirectStream DAC with the Huron operating system installed; there, the USB connector was higher above the shelf surface, so a stack of three Herbie’s Audio Lab Iso-cups turned out to be the perfect height. The support is up to your ingenuity and what you have available. An Audience Au24 SE LP powerChord, designed for powering digital components, connected the Signature Series power supply to the wall. Inexpensive but excellent Blue Jeans network cables, recommended by Sonore, connected the microRendu and other network gear to my home network.
The first microRendu I tried was DOA, so back it went. The second worked fine. The set-up process for the microRendu is somewhat unusual; after it’s connected to the power supply, the network, and the USB cable, and turned on, go to another computer (your tablet will work fine) on the network and visit the website www.sonicorbiter.com where you’ll see something like this:
This lets you know your microRendu has been identified and tells you the IP address for its web page. Click on the IP address and you’ll go to your microRendu’s main page, which looks something like this:
Now you need to pick the app you want to use to operate the microRendu. I started with the familiar built-in Roon Ready software, which when used with an external Roon Server, will play music files. The Roon Remote app was already installed on my iPad, and that’s the actual Roon user interface, so I avoided a learning curve. While writing this review, I also used a copy of Roon running on a separate Windows 10 laptop—not the same one as the Roon Server laptop—as another remote. The ability to use a Windows computer as your remote is another advantage of Roon, possibly alleviating the need to buy a tablet for that purpose. When you’re setting up Roon Server on your computer, set the output device on the network devices screen as the microRendu rather than a directly connected DAC as you normally do. You’ll need to do the same thing for the Roon remote. A trial subscription to Roon is included in the microRendu box.
Although I think Roon is a terrific investment, for those who might balk at Roon’s price, the microRendu can also be used with other software, so I tried the Music Player Daemon, or MPD, server app, a Linux program built into the microRendu. Linn’s Kazoo, a free app for the iPad, can be used to control MPD. As I said earlier, the microRendu is only a playback device, so a server must be operating somewhere on the network to send files to the microRendu. In my network, a server app called MinimServer runs on the NAS drive where my music files are stored. MinimServer is very popular for music playback, and handles both PCM and DSD file types. When you buy a NAS, be sure a server app like MinimServer is installed on it, or available for it; I had to replace one NAS because it had no suitable server app, and my credit card is still whimpering. If you’re shopping for a NAS, consider those from QNAP or Synology, both of which will run MinimServer.
The stated raison d’être for the microRendu is that it sounds better than a conventional computer, so to test that claim, I compared microRendu running Roon to my laptop running Roon. Actually, the laptop was used for both parts of the comparison, but for one comparison it was in the listening room connected to the DAC with a USB cable. The same laptop, running Roon Server, with output to the microRendu, is normally in my office near the NAS. Right off the bat, that added an occasional burst of fan noise from the Dell laptop—it’s not terribly annoying, but it is audible. I followed Jesus R’s advice to leave the microRendu powered up at all times. It got moderately warm, but never hot enough to worry about. The power supply remained at room temperature even when left on continuously.
Although I’m sure it was mostly operator error, the microRendu occasionally was a bit finicky about restarting when I was setting it up. Usually, I was able to fiddle with network gear to get it running again, but that sort of thing could be very frustrating to someone new to network music playback. Remember, when dealing with computers, rebooting solves many problems, even rebooting the NAS. Also, the manual is pretty limited, not covering several things that will be obvious to the experienced user, but bewildering to a digital newbie. I suspect the Sonore guys will disagree, since to them, like any computer whiz, it’s a simple plug-and-play device, but I think it might be a bit challenging to a complete newbie. Fortunately, the Sonore guys were patient and responsive to my questions, which probably seemed naive to them.
I believe all of us hear differently—partly because of our individual audiology, and partly because of what we pay attention to. Each of us values what he hears differently. I have at least one friend who likes a lot of bass from his hi-fi system, and another who once told me he feels bass is vulgar (!) and doesn’t like it at all. Needless to say, those guys’ systems don’t sound a lot alike. So when I review a component, I like to invite several audiophile friends who are familiar with the sound of my reference system to listen to it also, so I can get other viewpoints. Here’s a comment from a very experienced audiophile when he heard the system with the microRendu installed: “When I come here to listen, normally some things sound excellent, and some just good. Today (with the microRendu playing back an assortment of music files, some high-resolution, some CD rips), everything sounded excellent.” Isn’t that the whole point of the audiophile hobby?
Using Roon with a Roon Server Running on a Windows 10 Laptop
It’s a challenge to review gadgets that claim to create better sound by doing things we’ve always done but doing them slightly differently. It might test my reviewing acuity: Will I be able to tell the difference or is the change, if any, so subtle as to escape my perception? Or could it be a hoax by the manufacturer—blessedly uncommon, but not unheard of? Fortunately, with the microRendu, that wasn’t a problem; the difference was plainly audible. Excuse my invoking a worn-out reviewer’s cliché, but the difference was like someone pulled back a curtain back from across the sonic picture. Detail became clearer, the presentation more realistic. Here’s a musical example: Neil Diamond’s Dreams (192/24 AIFF, Neil Diamond/ProStudioMasters) exhibited a reality enhancement: a classic case of scrims being drawn back from in front of the (sound)stage, blah, blah, blah—but doggone if it didn’t sound like Diamond was singing better than on recent recordings and was easier to understand. Were the improvements hard to detect? No, I could tell the difference in the next room. It just sounded more like a person in the room singing. Wait, let me translate that to audio reviewer blather: the music’s harmonic structure was portrayed with increased precision and accuracy, transient events became more accurately delineated with better timing and flow, and performances were delivered with stunning nuance and shading. Wow, I’ve gotta write that down—oh, I just did. It sounded like Diamond was a real person, y’know—breathing and stuff. Even his guitar sounded better; it usually sounds rather jangly with mostly string sound, very little body sound. Maybe he likes it that way. Through the microRendu, it sounded like a musical performance was taking place. Okay, you get the picture; I’ll quit flogging the poor horse.
On Jackie Evancho’s album Two Hearts (44.1/24 FLAC, Tidal), the microRendu reproduced the song “Pedestal” with absolutely crushing bass, which pressurized my office three rooms away from my listening room. That’s never happened before—I almost took defensive cover. Evancho’s voice, in my view one of the loveliest in pop music, was reproduced with detailed texture and dynamics, emphasizing its expressiveness.
Switching to the old favorite “Folia: Rodrigo Martinez” ripped to AIFF format from the CD La Folia 1490-1701 (Alia Vox AFA 9805), I again encountered robust bass reproduction, particularly the midbass where there’s a lot of detail. Instrumental harmonics were accurate and complete; however, the performance seemed ever-so-slightly less energetic than I’ve heard it. With the best player/DAC combinations, the dynamic envelope comes across as if the sound coils up like a spring, then releases like a spring being released from captivity—if that makes sense.
Switching to another standby album, The Tallis Scholars’ Allegri’s Miserere & Palestrina’s Missa Papae Marcelli (96/24 FLAC, Gimell/Gimell), the track “Miserere” is performed a capella by a small choral group in a church (it was intended to be performed in the Sistine Chapel), with a main group at the front of the soundstage and a small group of soloists located some distance behind the main group. The microRendu rendered the main group with tons of detail, though without any etch or peakiness, so that I could make out the texture of individual voices. The distant solo group sounded less separated than I sometimes hear, although I could easily detect the reverberation in the chapel that tells me that the group is behind the main group. Sometimes, the solo group is portrayed as being awash in a smear of reverberation that creates an impression that the distant singers are performing in a high school gym, but here the reverberation was under control, and seemed more realistically connected to the performers. A solo tenor in the main group performs a narrator role; the microRendu reproduced his voice with tons of detail, so that it sounded more human than I’ve ever heard it.
Switching from Roon to MPD involved visiting the Sonicorbiter.com web page, using the App Switcher icon to select MPD instead of Roon, and switching over to Kazoo on my iPad. I was able to do that from my computer while sitting in front of the audio system without ever hoisting my lazy butt off the couch. Score one for the couch potato!
Like many playback programs, Kazoo provides a Folder View of the files on your storage drive, which sometimes makes it easier to find music in your collection. For whatever reason, the Roon guys are adamantly opposed to providing a Folder View, so a playback program that does provide it has additional appeal—at least to me. Kazoo also provides other views, like one that organizes albums by composer. One feature I really like is the ability to show and play newly installed music files. After all, when I load a new album on my drive, I want to play it right away. Roon makes that easy; the startup view shows the latest albums you’ve installed almost immediately. Kazoo does that too, but its implementation of the feature is weird—some albums showed they were loaded in the year 2812. Hope I’m still around then. However, Kazoo is free. And MPD is included with the price of the microRendu.
First, I queued up “Pedestal” although I had to use a downloaded copy (44.1/24 AIFF, Sony/HDTracks) since I hadn’t set up Kazoo to work with Tidal, although it’s possible. I heard synthesizer bass that if anything was deeper and more powerful than that streamed from Tidal. PS Audio claims its Huron operating system has noticeably better bass and treble extension, and I think that’s correct; I noticed an extra sparkle to the sound, too, which manifested itself mostly in percussion passages. Evancho’s voice was still very expressive and was reproduced with lots of detail and nuance. I thought there was a smidge more texture to her vocals from the downloaded version.
Switching to “Folia: Rodrigo Martinez,” the first thing I checked is whether the opening blows on the cascabeles (sleigh bells) were distinctive. Some components make them sound alike, but the microRendu distinguished among the three opening whacks. Next, I noticed that the drum, which goes down to the mid-20Hz range, was projected with lots of power and impact, and seemed to go as low as I’ve heard this piece descend. The castanets had a distinctive woody sound, more so than I normally hear, and the transients from their impacts were sharp and distinct. Although I’ve heard them more clearly defined by a few other components, I’m not sure I’ve ever heard the harmonic structure of the castanets more accurately depicted. As soon as the main instruments came in, I heard a wide, spacious soundstage unfold in front of me. High frequencies were extended, with an extra tinkle; I think that’s the new Huron operating system again. Leader Jordi Savall’s viola da gamba was portrayed with a palpable sense of body and accurately defined harmonics. There was a propulsive feel as the group injected dynamic life back into this ancient musical piece from 1490. What a hoot!
“Miserere” sounded surprisingly different. First, the solo group that’s located some distance behind the main choral group sounded noticeably farther behind the main group. There was no smear, but the microRendu caught more of the reverberations from the space between the groups. Next, although there was still a wide soundstage, the main choral group sounded less widely dispersed in the center of the soundstage.
The important thing to note is that the microRendu easily distinguished between the sound of two different playback programs, Roon and MPD, which tells us the slightest details are being reproduced. I won’t speculate which software was more accurate; the important thing is that sufficient detail was presented to allow you to distinguish between the two programs and choose the one you feel sounds best.
In spite of my efforts to prepare visiting audiophiles for what to expect when I demonstrated the microRendu, I think some of them found its tiny size and lowish price hard to take seriously. The cost of the Signature Series power supply further assaulted their value system.
But the microRendu doesn’t sound good in spite of being small—it sounds good because it’s small. It also adds a layer of complexity—you’ll need an external device running a server program. If you’re able to accept changes to your paradigms, you may find, as I did, that the microRendu, with its premium power supply, makes your hi-fi system sound better than it’s ever done. Don’t buy it because it’s cheap, or small, or technically trick; buy it because it sounds extremely good.
Specs & Pricing
Formats supported: PCM up to 768kHz, DSD512. Native DSD on select DACs
Input: RJ45 Ethernet
Output: USB 2.0
Drive capacity: None; no internal drive. Depends on external server for storage
Streaming services: Tidal, Qobuz, Spotify
Dimensions: 2.2″ x 0.7″ x 3.5″
Weight: 4.8 ounces
Price: $640 without power supply; $690 with iFi power supply
SIMPLE DESIGN LLC (SONORE)
8828 NW 169 Terrace
Miami Lakes, FL 33018
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