The class system. It exists even within the oft-complex world of digital audio. To feed a DAC over USB with a standard PC or Mac is to be seated in Economy. We journey from A to B but with some degree of (DAC- and system-dependent) audible compromise: greyed out tonality and neutered micro-dynamics compared to high/er end streamers and servers.
Why? The hardware and software found in and on a consumer-grade PC or Mac is often optimised for various combinations of speed, performance, usability, image quality and battery life. Apple and Dell care not for the sound quality-spoiling electrical noise that might spill from their device’s USB port into a DAC.
Offering us a seat in Premium Economy – and an upgrade on cattle class – are Florida’s Sonore. Their disarmingly light, credit card-sized microRendu network streamer insists we put the DAC-polluting PC or Mac elsewhere – think: spare room, kitchen or study – and let their streamer handle binary hand-off to the DAC. Unlike the average HP, Dell or Mac, the microRendu’s circuit has been designed to minimise electrical noise and, therefore, maximise sound quality.
Between its Ethernet input and USB output sits a “proprietary printed circuit board” designed with all eyes on electrical noise minimisation that, according to Sonore, makes it a “purpose built audiophile device”. The microRendu product page elaborates a little: “High quality low noise and ultra low noise regulators”.
The microRendu’s circuit also includes USB signal regeneration as designed by John Swenson of UpTone Audio Regen fame.
Running on top of this audiophile-optimised hardware is a heavily customised version of Fedora linux, tuned by Small Green Computer / Vortexbox’s Andrew Gillis, again for better sound quality. Bringing the two together – and to market – are Jesus Rodriguez and Adrian Lebena of Sonore. Price: US$649.
Sonore’s network streamer is free of bells and whistles. There’s no wifi input and no S/PDIF output. No power supply either – we’re invited purchase a third party device at time of ordering. Customers outside the USA are effectively left to BYO. We’ll get to that shortly.
In action, the Sonore device is somewhat of a chameleon – it has numerous operational modes, each selectable from the operating system’s web interface. That makes the microRendu configurable from a smartphone, tablet, PC or Mac.
We can stream to it using Airplay or with more audiophile-centric client-server software such as HQPlayer, MPD/DLNA and, this commentator’s preference, Roon. For those who prefer to keep their streaming old school and open source, the microRendu can be run as a virtual Squeezebox – one that sounds significantly better than the discontinued (but much missed) Squeezebox Touch.
With the corresponding server software installed and running on the now displaced PC or Mac, digital audio is streamed over the LAN to the DAC-connected microRendu.
Perhaps more relevant to HQPlayer streaming than any ‘native’ content (should it exist) is the microRendu’s deeply rooted support for hi-res audio: PCM streams up to a whopping 768kHz and DSD up to 512 are all covered.
As my new Berlin digs come together, I’m running a pair of ELAC’s Uni-Fi F5 loudspeakers – the slimline Euro version – in conjunction with an almost fully-loaded Vinnie Rossi LIO.
Powered by Rossi’s PURE DC-4EVR ultra-capacitor banks, MOSFET-powered loudspeaker and headphone amplification are run off-grid. Ditto DAC and phono stage. Ditto AVC pre-amplification, here connected to a second pair of loudspeakers, the Genelec G Two. Switching between the Fins and the German-Americans is a simple as deactivating the LIO’s MOSFET module with a single front-panel button-push and powering up the Genelec actives from the rear.
From my kitchen, an Intel NUC runs Roon (Core) and streams digital audio from a USB-connected 3TB hard drive to either an 11” Macbook Air (also running Roon) or the microRendu running in Roon Ready mode. Each streamer is lassoed in turn to the LIO’s DAC module with an AudioQuest Carbon USB cable.
The jump from Economy to Premium Economy, from Macbook Air to Sonore microRendu, is effectively a one-way street. Once you’ve (been) upgraded to the microRendu, it’s almost impossible to return to the little Apple and not notice its shortcomings. The Sonore streamer lends music greater separation, more avidity, richer tonality, more micro-dynamic alertness but, perhaps paradoxically, delivered with a greater sense of ease.
Sitting somewhere between Apple and the Sonore on aural satisfaction is the AURALiC Aries Mini which additionally offers S/PDIF outputs, very good (for the $) D/A conversion and standalone operation via an externally-connected or internally fitted hard drive. The AURALiC brick can also be run as client AND server; no PC or Mac required. As digital audio transport, the Aries Mini might not sound quite as accomplished as the microRendu but delivers far more functional bang for buck and, therefore, flexibility.
For this commentator, a sense of ease – a diminished rigidity in music’s reflexive turns, both macro and micro – is one of the hallmarks of better digital audio. And in my experience this tends to arrive once better digital transports are applied to better DACs. One without the other is a little like fitting a $100 cartridge to a $5000 turntable.
Inverting that spend ratio might be the lesser evil. The little Sonore held pole position through both sets of loudspeakers – passive and active – and with different DACs. The microRendu convincingly bettered the Macbook Air with both the Meridian Explorer2 and the AudioQuest DragonFly Red.
No, I didn’t compare the microRendu to network streamers other than those explicitly mentioned thus far. And whilst I’m heading off comments section disappointment at the pass, no, I didn’t try the microRendu as an MQA passthrough device.
However, I did draw this conclusion: David Bowie’s Young Americans, the 2016 remaster, sounds more at ease and less rigid streamed from my hard drive in in ye olde Redbook via Roon + microRendu + DragonFly Red than as MQA + Tidal app + Macbook Air + DragonFly Red. Here, network streamer quality matters more than source encoding method.
Also making more of an impact than MQA on music’s sense of ease is quality of the network streamer’s power supply.
That a mains-powered microRendu makes music sound tonally richer and more ‘real’ than a battery-powered 11” Macbook Air sticks a boot into the assumption that all battery power sounds superior all the time.
‘Mains-powered’ in this scenario had the microRendu first drink on its required 7V – 9V (min. 1 amp) from a Teradak linear supply; available for roughly the same coin as iFi Audio’s low-noise iPower switching supply – US$50. On how these two compare, I know not.
At the spendier end of power supply options sits Sonore’s own linear box. Yours for US$1399 and up.
As I journeyed from Sydney to Berlin, the LIO took the long way ‘round, back to homebase for some tweaking from its designer Vinnie Rossi. The audible click as one ultracap bank hands off to the other is now gone. More relevant to this coverage, an addendum to the DAC module: a pipe that juices the microRendu with the LIO’s PURE-DC-4EVR feed.
Rossi’s website has more: “This custom option provides a patented Belleson super-regulated power output jack on the LIO DAC’s rear plate (derived from LIO’s internal ultracapacitor power supply) – exclusively designed for the all new Sonore microRendu audiophile micro computer! Includes 12 in. power cable to microRendu and 6 in. USB jumper cable to connect from microRendu to LIO DSD/PCM DAC.”
Pricing on this microRendu power option clocks in at US$395 if purchased in conjunction with the LIO DAC module or US$500 without.
Instead of Rossi’s USB jumper cable, and in the spirit of consistency, the AudioQuest Carbon remained the USB cable of choice.
With the microRendu under LIO command, Angelo Badalamenti’s score for Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me plays it with more abundant (and organic) nuance and plumper acoustic mass. Tonal colours come into bloom a little more readily. Very nice indeed.
Imagine your favourite coffee, damn fine coffee at that, rendered richer in flavour by a fuller fat milk. It is in this way that the LIO’s power supply elevates the microRendu’s audible performance.
The gotcha here is that the LIO’s microRendu umbilical insists we also use the LIO DAC module. Juicing the microRendu with DC as it feeds a third party DAC isn’t possible.
For that we need Rossi’s Mini PURE-DC-4EVR standalone ultracapacitor power supply (US$995) as introduced by the man himself at RMAF 2016.
Also noteworthy in this scenario is that the entire playback chain sits decoupled from mains power supply. A single box hifi system immune to wall socket-induced noise. Just add computer server or NAS. Such simplicity jives elegantly with Roon’s ease of setup, configuration and use.
Once setup, Sonore’s microRendu is small enough to be tucked away out of sight, even if its power supply isn’t. And it’s the latter that upgrades the listener yet again, this time to business class, where recalling previous time spent in Economy, we wonder how we ever did without. DAR-KO Award guaranteed!
Further information: Sonore by Simple Design