The Very Unusual but Worthy Aurender FLOW
Anyone who's picked up an audio magazine, browsed an enthusiast website, or been to an audio show anytime recently knows what product categories are hot right now. You'll still see plenty of buzz around preamps and speakers and amplification, but I'd call those "flat" in terms of growth...at best. A lot of attention seems to go towards headphones and digital audiohence the existence of InnerFidelity and Audiostream respectively.
DACs are incredibly popular. Seems every brand has at least one, from upstarts to audiophile stalwarts of all price classes. Also hot? Digital Audio Players, aka DAPs, which have really exploded in the past few years. Keeping up with all the latest models has been a challenging but enjoyable experience as I've recently learned.
Every once in a while, a product launches which straddles category lines enough to grab my attention. Sometimes I discover it's all a gimmick and I quickly move on. Occasionally, however, I stumble upon something worthwhile, and in those cases I feel compelled to examine the good, the bad, and the just plain weird aspects that come along with what I'll call a "blended" product. Is it unique? Yep. In a useful way? Maybe... I'll let you be the judge of that.
The product in question is the FLOW ($1295; yes, all caps per company literature) from Korean firm Aurender. When you hear the name Aurender, you most likely think of music servers, which makes sense as those have been the primary focus of the brand up until just this past year. I've been using an Aurender X100L in my reference setup with fantastic results, and Tyll tapped their beastly W20 as front end during his epic Big Sound 2015 project. Yes, Aurender knows music playback devices quite well, but they also seem keen on venturing out into other categories as of late.
To that end Aurender has some newer models that aren't centered around playing music files. The X725 is an integrated DAC and speaker amplifier which matches the form factor of my X100L just perfectly. That combo would make for a deliciously effective, space saving system, if my needs were suitably simple. Alas, with no way to integrate a headphone amp into the mix, the X725 goes over my head.
Also launched in the not-too-distant past is the UC100 USB to SPDIF converter. It brings SPDIF out capability and thus increased DAC connectivity to the several Aurender servers in the lineup which only have a solo USB output. Not that you'll find many new DACs lacking a USB interface, but still...someone with a Berkeley Alpha DAC (to name just one example) would appreciate this thing, as would those folks using vintage DACs from Theta or Parasound or Sonic Frontiers etc. I tend to use a direct USB connection with my X100L, so again this product isn't really my bag, but I can see why Aurender offers it.
Then there's the Aurender FLOW ($1,295) which is decidedly more up my alley. At first glance the FLOW looks like a somewhat large DAP. Its subtly-curvaceous enclosure is more along the lines of a rather chunky Chord Hugo than a svelte Astell&Kern or Calyx M. It has the requisite display surounded by a large volume wheel, a 1/4" headphone jack, and a battery rated at 4450mAh. And yet, this is not actually a portable player....
Ok, maybe it's just a portable DAC with integrated headphone output, along the lines of the previously mentioned Hugo. It's got the necessary headphone jack, and a pair of digital inputs, though one of them looks bit strange (we'll get to that). So it's a DAC, right? Getting warmer, but that still doesn't quite capture the whole of it.
In truth, the Aurender FLOW sits in a class of its own. Yes, it's a DACcomplete with ESS9018K2M Sabre chip and a USB solution from XMOS. It handles hi-res PCM up to 384kHz and DSD up to DSD128. FLOW could rightly be called "buzzword compliant" when treated as a standard DAC. And yes, it's got a headphone jack, sporting an output impedance of 0.06 ohmswhich is exceedingly low.
But hold on now, there's more going on here than meets the eye. While FLOW is happy to play music via USB or Toslink connections, it also has nifty transport buttons on the side for controlling playback. But it won't play by itself...those buttons are simply used for instructing the host computer on what action to take. It's a neat trick that works well on every computer I've tried, though it obviously doesn't function over Toslink. But here's the kicker: FLOW can also store its own music via internal mSATA solid state drive. Huh? Why would anyone want to store music on a device which can't actually play it back? That's the rubsome people will find great value in the solution here, and some just won't.
First off, mSATA: It's not the most common storage format out there but neither is it what I'd call rare. It's just not something the average consumer is likely to handlemSATA drives are commonly found in laptops and most people aren't as comfortable poking around in those as compared to desktop systems. Aurender does require installation which means popping the rear cover of the FLOW. It's not difficult at all (they even thrown in a proper tiny screwdriver in the accessory bundle), though all through the 10-minute installation I found myself thinking "Why not just use SD cards like everyone else?" SD cards are easier to swap out and are competitively priced per GB of storage. As I write this, a 256GB SD card goes for around $100 but not long ago commanded nearly double that amount. (I know, I bought several in the past few months...where's my price adjustment?)
If you check out the latest Samsung EVO drives (which Aurender recommends) you'll find the 250GB version going for a comparable $90. So in those capacities it seems SD cards and mSATA are all tied up in terms of price. However, the 500GB mSATA models go for under $200 at time of writing. A similarly sized SD card currently sells for double that price, so you start to see the mSATA appeal as capacity ramps up. Beyond that, mSATA goes to 1TB (roughly $350 at the moment) while SD cards in that capacity haven't yet seen the light of day.
As I mentioned, laptops tend to use mSATA or other forms of SSD storage. Going from a spinning platter drive to an SSD is probably the most satisfying improvement one can make on a laptop; the difference in boot times and general usage is not the least bit subtle. But most laptops are stuck with smallish drives128GB is common, with 256GB popping up in higher end models, and 512GB being fairly rare unless big bucks are spent. And here we were getting accustomed to 1TB or larger traditional drives, even in affordable laptops. The FLOW, packing a 1TB mSATA, allows us to carry big libraries on the go without crowding that precious internal storage. True, an external spinning platter drive can do the same job for less expense, but now we've got added complexity and cables to deal with. Plus that's not an option for devices like a Surface Pro or new MacBook which pack just a single USB portalready spoken for by the USB DAC.
That's the general idea. Business travelers, for example, would pack their laptop and the FLOW and...that's it! No other bulky hardware needed (aside from headphones, obviously) for access to a huge library and high quality playback. Is that a compelling differentiation from the flood of more conventional devices out there? Though I suspect a lot of people won't ever have need of the internal storage option, I do know a few who would find this device absolutely compelling. It's quite literally the answer to a question they may not have known they had. Thankfully though, Aurender doesn't just count on that one aspect alone. There's also iDevice and Android connectivity, each with its own dedicated mode to maximize compatibility. Indeed, I had more luck with the FLOW using my iPad and various Android tablets/phones than I've had with most any other portable DAC/amp. So this is no one-hit wonder. But...is the sound on equal footing with the diverse feature set?