October 4, 2009

Just Add Speakers - Aura Note Music Centre

We usually blog about hifi separates at Hifi-Unlimited, however, we aren’t hifi snobs who think that only separates have hifi cred, really. :-) I, for one, would like to savour as many hifi-related products as I can, not least to be sure that I have a bearing on the various going-ons out there. And it will be a great day indeed when we discover that we can get our hifi/music fix at a much lower price than previously required.

The world does not stand still, a few new categories of components have popped-up recently (one that interests me a lot is computer-based music server, especially in its capability to handle hi-res recordings, but that is story for another day). In this post, we’ll examine a new popular category - that of the all-in-one system. Well, they are not unlike those mini-compos (boom-box) that we are used to see from those big Japanese electrical brands. However this new breed comes sans speakers and comes with sound quality high in their mind. We have seen many traditional hifi manufacturers jumping onto this bandwagon now, such as Arcam (Solo Music), Primare (CDI10), and even Naim (Uniti) now.

We were impressed by the Stello CDT+DAC combo from South Korea’s April Music. As April Music also offers an all-in-one system called the Aura Note Music Centre, it was naturally for me to request for a sample and take it for a spin.

The Aura Note is choked full of features, it comes with a cd player section, an integrated stereo amp rated at 50w/ch, a tuner, a USB input for you to stream digital music files to be converted by its internal DAC and another USB input that you can hook a thumb drive or your iPod to. An aux stereo input is also included for you to hook up another analogue device (Astro’s audio output or a LP system possibly?). There is also a headphone output if you want to listen in private.

Right side of the Aura Note, note the headphone jack and the USB input

The design of the Aura Note is simply stylish, it was carried out by Kenneth Grange, a famous industrial designer in the UK. Its shiny fascia is a great attraction for finger prints though, however in operation, your finger may not need to touch those shiny parts one bit, as the whole machine can be controlled from the credit card type remote control.

I first installed the Aura Note in my living room system. It instantly attracted the attention of my wife and children, they commented positively on its look, and then everyone’s attention shifted to the top loading cd transport. This is a real nice high end touch, Aura Note said that it was designed for sound quality considerations, attesting to the attention they paid to the ultimate music listening experience – you slide the transparent glass cover to one side, put in a cd and then weigh it down with the magnetic puck. My family went ‘oohs’ and ‘aahs’ seeing how a cd was put in, it was a new experience as they were used to the ubiquitous sliding tray all this while.

The Aura Note replaced a Denon AVR and a Sony DVD player, and was hooked up to a pair of Sonus Faber Concerto Home. The Denon/Sony/Sonus Faber system was doing both movie and music duties in the living room.

I was ready see what the RM6k Aura Note could do. I did the bulk of listening on cd and also some mp3 via a thumdrive. After less than 15 minutes, it was abundantly clear that the Aura Note sounded much better than the Denon+Sony. The Aura Note showed that the Denon+Sony was veiled, smeared, and slower. It was surprising because before this I thought the Denon AVR + Sony DVD player combo (at 2/3 the price of the Aura Note) with the DVD player acting as a transport was doing music quite well with the SF. The Aura Note presented more details and significantly more musical overall. I even got an unsolicited comment from my 9-year-old son that music ‘sounded clearer lah’, the difference was stark enough even for a child listening just casually to notice. The Aura Note had similar family sound as the Stello CDT+DAC pair - the sound had good body, some warmth and a fluidity that brought to mind tube gear. It was also capable of better soundstaging, the width and depth were much clearer defined than before.

Back panel
Later, I decided to bring the Aura Note into my main rig for a few days. No, the Aura Note did not sound better than the >10X more expensive cdp+pre+monoblocks that it replaced - the big rig could give better extensions at both ends, even more musical details, and presentation with a bigger scale. But such a statement is really redundant, isn’t it? Who in his/her right mind would consider comparing a piece of equipment with something costing >10 times as fair? Well, I just wanted to challenge the Aura Note to the max and see what it could come up with. It did have a surprise or two. The first was its musicality, I found that I could listen to music for a couple of hours at a time with the Audio Note driving my EgglestonWorks The Nine speakers, cd after cd went in and I did not find myself to be bored. The second was its sound quality - its highs were clean, there were no ear-poking-ness or roughness; the mid remained its glory, warm and fluid; lows were adequate, however controlling the 8 inch woofers on my speakers was a little too much too expect. Its resolution was good, it could clearly distinguish between cd quality and mp3 at 128kBps, cd sound of course came up better than mp3 all the time.

The Aura Note very much fulfills what it is designed to do. I can see it living happily as a second system in people's bedroom, hooked up to a pair of bookshelf speakers, for example. If I have kids who are going to college tomorrow, I’d get one and a good pair of speakers from Mission, Epos or AE in a jiffy to relieve them from the iPod’s headphone or those PC speakers. It is also a great entry point to introduce someone to hifi.

The Aura Note is beautifully designed as a lifestyle system, but at the same time its sound quality has hifi credibility – look and substance all-in-one.

Aura Note is carried by RAVE, call Edwin 03-21632818, 012-3241745

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