Aurender Flow Review
DAP’s, Insane DAC/AMP stacks, Desktop Rigs it’s a good time to be an audiophile if you are looking for some high end source components. One of the symptoms of CD’s dying off was that source music, whether through poor compression or the necessity to squeeze sub par components into increasingly smaller shells, was that it was harder to find products which could reproduce music in a way that audiophiles demand. For years there have been some great high fidelity audiophile headphones on the market but also a rather limited supply of quality source components to match them. Storage was an issue, hardware was an issue and most importantly user experience was, for the most part, dreadful. Thankfully, in the past few years we have seen an emergence in companies looking to tackle these sticking points. Now though its time for the Aurender Flow Review. Is it the best desktop audiophile headphone amplifier and DAC we have seen yet?
What is it the Aurender Flow V1000?
The Aurender Flow V1000 is essentially a portable, battery powered (7hrs) Amplifier and DAC Solution aimed at the audiophile headphone market. The Aurender Flow V1000 is designed to be used with audiophile grade headphones and it works with computers, idevice’s (using the camera kits cable) or an android device’s by way of OTG cable. In addition to the functions outlined above Aurender have came up with the rather clever idea of allowing users to install their own SSD hard drive (For the Aurender Flow Review I used a 128gb SSD but up to 1TB is stupported) as a way of storing the often large media files that audiophiles are accustomed to owning. There is SPDIF (Optical) and USB input plus an output in the way of ¼ inch jack. The DAC chip is the formidable dual Sabre ESS9018K2M DAC which can hand both 24bit / 192khz and 32bit / 382khz respectively and the unit features and OLED information display. A volume control dial and hardware power, play/pause, menu and skip buttons adorn the right hand side and all the above is put together in a rather unique looking aluminum body.
Packaging and Accessories
As you would guess with a product in this price range the comes very nicely packaged with excellent information and clear styling on the outside. The box itself is a well finished, classy black cardboard effort and when opened you find the Flow sitting in its custom leather carry case surrounded by its packaging foam insert, its very safely packed so no problems during shipping. Hidden underneath the Flow is the rather comprehensive and high quality accessory set which is as follows:
1x USB3.0 Cable
1x OTG Cable
1x Optical Cable
1x Screwdriver (for installing harddrive)
1x Stereo RCA Cable
1x ¼ Jack to 3.5mm Adapter
I found the accessories to be of excellent quality and everything you need to get started is included. I simply plugged it into my Macbook Pro Retina's USB port, switched my audio output settings to the Dac and I was up and running in under a minute.
Build Quality & Design
Many folks have been comparing the design cues of the to that of a washing machine and to be honest, from head on, they’re not at all wrong. Quite honestly though when on a desk this thing is still quite a looker with its cool metal exterior. The OLED display is crisp, bright and clearly laid out and the circular dial is smooth as butter when adjusting the volume. On that point the wave you see at the bottom of the dial actually has an ergonomic property in that it allows you to rest you hand comfortably on the crest while tuning in the volume to your liking, not a big deal but a nice touch nonetheless. The buttons on the side are also of very good quality and they have a nice solid click to them as well as being comfortably positioned on the top right hand side of the Aurender Flow's body.
One thing that caught me by surprise on first opening the box during the Aurender Flow Review was just how heavy the DAC was (and the size, somehow it looks smaller in pictures). The weight is nearing in on half a kilo so its not something I would want to transport unless it was in a bag but even then I think it's best left on a desktop either at work or home as opposed to carting it through airports etc. That’s just personal preference though and I know plenty of people that are willing to carry around a bit of extra bulk for good sound quality on the go. Still compared to one of the other best audiophile DAC and amp units, the OPPO HA-1, it very small. Overall, build quality is absolutely stellar with the Aurender Flow its all metal with a MacBook grade fit and finish I really cant foresee any problems arising from the build.
During the Aurender Flow Review I observed the sound being put out is, by all means, exceptional. Testing side by side, I could see no advantage at all of spending the extra money for a Chord Hugo DAC to which many audiophiles will inevitably compare the Aurender Flow with. Crisp, clear, detailed and fairly neutral it extends well at both ends of the spectrum but what will stand out most is just how big the sound is from the Flow. As usual we can take a more in depth look at each area:
Highs – Highs are produced absolutely spot on. No sibilance but a boatload of extension that will keep trebleheads very happy. It’s a very detailed performer in the upper region and nothing gets lost due to two other contributing factors such as the black background (zero hiss) and high quality separation between instruments. Live jazz recordings and even the almighty 1812 Overture were used repeatedly as test tracks and A/Bing were indiscernible with the Chord Hugo DAC and preferred to the OPPO HA-1 (marginally).
Mids- Again its all about clarity, open sound and realism. Nothing I listened to seemed to be tuned just presented, as it would expect. Guitars, vocals, strings, you name it all sounded smooth and clear. But once again it’s the background separation and soundstage that push the mids to be exceptionally enjoyable and by this point it was becoming abundantly clear that the Aurender was going to be a product that did a lot of stuff well that contributes to other area to make an overall enjoyable listening experience.
Lows – Lows are crisp fast and punch with excellent decay and again realism. Especially performing well in stringed instruments its clear that the Aurender amp does an excellent job of not colouring the sound.
Soundstage – The sound that the Aurender puts out on most headphones is just incredible it’s wide and deep and is maybe the biggest soundstage I have heard from a portable unit. In fact when paired with my favourite headphones, the Final Audio Pandora Hope VI, the 2 manage to work perfectly together creating an absolutely mammoth presentation.
The Headphones I used for the Aurender Flow review, in order of preference, were the Final Audio Pandora Hope VI, Sennheiser HD800 and the OPPO PM-2. All performed admirably and were driven to full capacity without any issue whatsoever.
Note: When you get into the top end of things theres usually very little I find differentiating SQ in these units (Chord Hugo, OPPO HA-1, Aurender Flow and others) people profess to hearing large & prolific differences but that is just not true in practice. You are more likely to see a bigger change in sound from switching your headphones than your DAC and Amplifier. The big differentiators will be feature sets and User interface implementation.
Aurender Flow V1000 vs Chord Hugo - Side by side with the Hugo I am not ashamed to admit that I could hardly distinguish between the 2 units both are capable of putting forth truly top end sound. If you don’t need the extra connectivity and given the lower price of the Flow I couldn’t see any advantage of grabbing the Chord I'm reviewing the Hugo as well right now and I am having a hard time justifying it when it essentially does the same for far more money. Hugos battery life was about 5hrs longer in the real world use but it doesn’t have the SSD capacity, Volume knob or Screen.
Overall Winner: Flow
Aurender Flow V1000 vs Oppo HA-1 – The sound on both is yet again excellent with the Oppo being tuned slightly towards a more consumer sound (which can be a good thing) being a little bit warmer and richer. The connectivity of the Oppo is incredible and can be used as a stereo pre amp and it has a really tricked out interface and remote function but you pay the price with size and lack of portability. Its apples and oranges here.
Overall Winner: Tie
Aurender Flow vs Audioquest Dragonfly V1.2 - The Aurender takes it in the sound offering up a little bit better everything and a lot bigger soundstage. In drivability terms the flow wins and the fact that the Flow can be used as a mass storage unit for your music as well as having multiple connectivity options makes it the winner by quiet a margin. The Audioquest Dragonfly still cannot be beaten if its high sound quality in an extremely portable package though and its something I use with my phone when on the go.
Overall Winner: Flow
During the Aurender Flow review I have been massively impressed. The company have came from relative obscurity in the audiophile world to produce a portable DAC and Amplifier which I am pretty sure is about to light genre on fire. The Chord Hugo set the path last year for this sort of product but Aurender have made something that sounds every bit as impressive, massively undercuts the formers price by around $1000 and offers up what I find a more useful feature set. The sound is excellent, matching many other larger high-end units and the decision to include a slot for SSD up to 1TB is genius, especially in a world of paltry drives included with laptops. Battery life might not be the greatest at just 7 hours but its more than likely that you will be using the unit near a power source anyway as the size is just on the side of restrictive for pocketable use. All in its testament to the reality that high-end portable audio is growing fast and after a fair amount of years living with limited options in portable source components we are in the midst of a golden age.