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Reviewer: Srajan Ebaen
Source: Zanden Audio Model 2000P/5000S
Preamp/Integrated: ModWright SWL 9.0SE; Music First Audio Passive Magnetic; Bel Canto Design PRe3; Wyetech Labs Jade; Supratek Cabernet Dual; Melody HiFi I2A3; Eastern Electric M520

EQ: Rane PEQ55 active merely below 40Hz
Amp: 2 x Audiosector Patek SE; Yamamoto A-08S with EML solid-plate 45s; FirstWatt F3 & F1; Bel Canto e.One S300; Firenze Audio Rosso 460B [on review]
Headphone systems: Opera Audio Reference 2.2 Linear, Melody/Onix SP3 with KT77s, AKG K-1000s w. hardwired Stefan AudioArt harness; Raysonic CD128, Yamamoto HA-02, audio-technica W-1000s
Speakers: Zu Cable Definition Pro in custom lacquer; Anthony Gallo Acoustics Ref 3.1; Mark & Daniel Ruby w. Omni Harmonizer; WLM Diva Monitor with Duo 12 sub, Pre/Passive Control, Bass Control and Alto Mac 2.2 bass amp

Cables: Crystal Cable Ultra wire loom; Zanden Audio proprietary I²S cable, Zu Cable Varial, Gede, Libtech and Ibis; Stealth Audio Cable Indra, MetaCarbon & NanoFiber [on loan]; SilverFi interconnects; Crystal Cable Reference power cords; double cryo'd Acrolink with Furutech UK plug between wall and transformer
Stands: 2 x Grand Prix Audio Monaco Modular 4-tier
Powerline conditioning: 2 x Walker Audio Velocitor S fed from custom AudioSector 1.5KV Plitron step-down transformer with balanced power output option
Sundry accessories: GPA Formula Carbon/Kevlar shelf for transport; GPA Apex footers underneath stand, DAC and amp; Walker Audio Extreme SST on all connections; Walker Audio Vivid CD cleaner; Walker Audio Reference HDLs; Furutech RD-2 CD demagnetizer
Room size: 16' w x 21' d x 9' h in short-wall setup, with openly adjoining 15' x 35' living room

Review Component Retail: $2,495

Let's talk turkey, no bull.
When audiophiles are asked to recommend a hifi to relatives, friends or friends' relatives, they never ever recommend esoteric outboard DACs. Nor expensive cables, hot-running Class A amps or anything with tubes in it. When asked to recommend to familiars at a specific price point -- the lower the better usually -- our kind, the vociferous, opinionated, experienced, chat-room answering, advice-laden, golden-eared experts, are in fact stumped to rare silence. We're dumb founded. Here's insult to injury. Add a college-going requirement. It's supposed to interface with an iPod; offer the ability to interface with a laptop for movie viewing in bed while otherwise offering superior sound from CDs in the office; have a headphone jack and snazzy remote. Must I mention that this mystery device should be compact, with a display easily legible from across the room and charmed with an elegant non-specific appearance that will be at home pretty much anywhere regardless of decor? Naturally, it must be reliable and of high quality. It should be a far cry from the Electric Avenue alley of doom with its plastic crap home-theater-in-a-box cartons. After all, one is asking of the experts. The intrinsic trust one places in 'em -- family no less -- guarantees superior sonics. Those will be entirely obvious, self-authenticating in fact. Or so prays our recommending audiophile expert, silently to himself. He feels called on the carpet. He does think it's about time he got exonerated for his much maligned obsession with our hobby. He does long to get feted for a change. But this advice proves bloody tricky (though the questioners are of course blissfully oblivious to grasping what is so darn complicated and unusual about their needs; surely everyone's got 'em). Nor does he want to personally install the recommended device nor have to explain its operation. It should all be self-explanatory, fool-proof, easy peasy. Turn-key bliss. The bomb for grandma. Some turkey of an assignment, is it not?

What did the elephant say to the naked man? Not too bad - but can you really breathe through that thing?
Let's try again. Are you a budget and space-constrained music lover? Strap it on. Leave divide and conquer for the deep pockets. What you need is a receiver with an integral CD player. Add a headphone socket and USB i/o ports for computer and iPod connectivity. This needn't equate lo-fi mediocrity either. Consider the NAD L53, Arcam Solo, Linn Classik and Musical Fidelity KW250S. They all show how it's done with panache and first-rate sonics. It is just a bit peculiar that all these would be Brit variations on the theme as though everyone else were too proud, dumb or high-brow to consider such machines worthy or capable of high fidelity implementation. There are other options of course -- Solar HiFi in the US comes to mind -- but it seems that the English have veritably cornered this niche when it comes to style and sonic cred. Perhaps that explains why April Music from Seoul/Korea contracted with yet another Englishman, one Kenneth Grange, to oversee the aesthetics for its one-box Aura Note. Solving our reco assignment to the proverbial tee, our Korean benefactors even hand us a bona fide top loader for CD playback - on the silver platter as it were. That's a first in this segment.

The Wikipedia informs us that "Kenneth Grange (born London, England, 1929) is a British industrial designer. Grange's career in design began with work as a drafting assistant with the architect Jack Howe in the 1950s. His independent career started rather accidentally with commissions for exhibition stands, and by the early 1970s he was a founding-partner in Pentagram, the world-renowned interdisciplinary design consultancy.

"Grange's career has spanned half a century, and many of his designs became -- and are still -- familiar items in the household or on the street. These designs include the first UK parking meters for Venner, food mixers for Kenwood, razors for Wilkinson Sword, cameras for Kodak, typewriters for Imperial, clothes irons for Morphy Richards, cigarette lighters for Ronson, washing machines for Bendix, type 3 and Type 75 Anglepoise lamps, pens for Parker, and the exterior styling of British Rail's famous High Speed Train (known as the Inter-City 125 or HST); Grange was also involved with some elements of the design of the innovative 1997 TX1 version of the famous London taxi-cab. He has carried out many commissions for Japanese companies.

"Grange's designs have won ten Design Council Awards, the Duke of Edinburgh's prize for Elegant Design in 1966, and in 2001 he was awarded the Prince Philip Designer Prize, an award honouring a lifetime achievement. He has won the Gold Medal of the Chartered Society of Designers, and is a member of the Royal Society of Arts' élite Faculty of 'Royal Designers for Industry'."

Besides a royal industrial designer, you get a Cirrus Logic 4398 DAC with 120dB of dynamic range and 192kHz math. There's a 16MB SRAM buffer and a 116dB dynamic range CS3310 volume control. The 50wpc amp is a Mosfet push/pull circuit with a single Hitachi J162/K1058 transistor per phase. The AM/FM tuner offers 20 presets and the connection bay sports an auxiliary stereo input (TV or DVD) as well as Type A and B USB ports to play and record. Mix in remote control, an easily legible red display and smart silver/black looks of semi Scandinavian styling. Add speakers, shake and stir. Instant graffiti - er, gratification. Based on concept and origin, this smart mini system should operate in a very different league from the so-called executive mini systems which mail-order catalogues like The Sharper Image hawk. The Aura Note spells style and substance, especially when you consider that April Music's Stello separates have gotten rave reviews at the Arcam level of bespoke but affordable HiFi kit.

Of course there's one hitch. The $2,495 sticker on the Aura isn't exactly what the usual punters are prepared to part with unless it's for a giant flat screen with a life-time subscription to popcorn. No, the Aura Note is unapologetically for people with a penchant for quality and the smarts to know that compact needn't equate to inferior when done properly. For diehard 'philes, the question remains of course. Is this machine truly an all-singing, all-dancing affair? Or did convenience get the better of it in the end?

But that's nearly missing the point. Compared to what is what we should ask. What other type of solution exists that crosses off each of our list's requirements in one box? As a reviewer not specialized in this category, it is of course crucial to establish context. No one benefits from limbo opinions. With the compaction afforded by modern three-dimensional surface-mount technology, there is no intrinsic reason why this and similar devices couldn't be very impressive. Remember the earlier British examples. Most audio writers simply don't keep such slickly integrated machines on hand for rare comparison purposes.

I'd have to take stock to determine what I could even compare to this Aura Note to pass audiophile rather than convenience judgment. I'd use a Cambridge Audio Azure DVD player, the Bel Canto PRe3 with its chip-based volume control very similar to the Aura's and my 50wpc AudioSector Patek SE transistor amp for equivalent power rating. Even the pricing (minus the added cables necessary for my separates) would be within less than $500 from the Korean. When
I realized that my tool box would nicely accommodate a reasonably competitive scenario, I happily accepted the assignment. Could this be the rare all-in-one solution one could warmly recommend to one's dad, brother's college kid, sister's boyfriend, aging aunt in a retirement clinic as well as the occasional audiophile with a very specific set of needs? By providing bi-directional USB protocol, the Aura has the iPod nation covered. It'd even have my wife covered who works on a laptop. At the end of a day of writing, she loves to curl up in bed, laptop at the foot of it and pop in a DVD. How to upgrade beyond her tinny laptop drivers with one USB cable plugging into something to drive nicer speakers with, then unplugging
conveniently in the morning when the laptop becomes her writing tool again? Having accepted today's assignment, I suddenly felt cheekily smart. That's a rare occurrence when one is married to a far smarter woman. It's as though there suddenly was a bright aura around my noggin. There was an IQ raise in the mail from Seoul. That was noteworthy as our critical elephant might allow for, breathing through his giant rüssel while eyeing the naked man. Aura Note indeed.

The packaging was top-notch, with preformed foam inserts that securely separate the credit card remote, the CD puck, the tempered glass lid, the gloves, the cleaning cloth and the meticulously step-by-step owner's manual from the fully cradled main unit. A miniature cable antenna and a USB cable were included, first indications that the Aura Note can indeed do a lot of things. Prepackaged smarts include auto-mute of speakers when the 1/4" headphone jack senses an inserted plug, automatic playback of CD from wake up from standby and clock display in standby.

The 24-button 27-function remote is one of those miniaturization marvels. For FM playback, it allows selection of stereo or mono. A timer function can activate either the tuner or CD at a preset time and volume. A sleep function can be programmed to switch the unit into standby in 10 minute increments from 10 to 90 minutes after play commenced. There's A/B repeat which allows the user to determine the exact start and stop place of CD or USB material to be looped. There's random play and 10-sec intro scan. Useful for densely packed MP3, CD or USB files, +/-10 jumps 10 tracks at a time to speed up the process since the remote lacks direct track access. The volume changes in 100 steps from 0 to 100, with 30 the default setting upon power-up. The volume can be raised in individual steps or becomes continuous if you keep the button depressed. You can record from CD or tuner to USB memory. You can preset up to 20 AM/FM stations. You can connect one auxiliary analog source, say a DVD player, TV or tape deck. This allows the Aura Note to become the nerve center of a compact 2-channel audio/video system.

You can play back external MP3/WMA/OGG files through the USB input but not WAV files. You can search those files numerically or alphabetically. Via the USB input, you can play back files from your PC by using a media player set to Aura Note in its setup menu. Volume then can be controlled either from the PC or the Aura Note. The glass lid simply slides inside the opening's rails but can easily be taken out. It's primary function is to avoid dust on the laser lens when no CD is loaded. Warranty is 2 years. The April Music Aura Note is a very attractive, solidly built unit. The friendly owner's manual will quickly get you up to speed on how to access all the inbuilt functionality. You can recommend this piece to others and expect not to get called on a Sunday evening. If your friends can read. Chances are they can and do if they're not audiophiles. Actually, even reading isn't necessary as we shall see.

For a round of first impressions, I wired the Aura Note to the WLM Diva Monitor, a 97dB coaxial 2-way which played at the usual volumes with the Aura's attenuator set to +/- 40 from a possible 100. Into the Aura's auxiliary input went the Raysonic CD-128 outfitted with top NOS Mullards to determine in what class the Aura Note punches as a RedBook machine. Mind you, that was a tube-powered, fully balanced CD player in one corner which is a screaming steal at its asking price of $1,690; and an integrated CD player in the other that's packaged with a receiver for $2,495 for the whole enchilada. The input voltage of the CD-128 was considerably higher than the Aura's own CD signal. Once this offset was determined and accounted for, the difference between both feeds proved surprisingly small. The primary distinction was how both players handled transients, with the Raysonic a bit softer, the Aura a bit sharper and thus more accentuated. It didn't take long to conclude that the Korean spinner punched way above its weight. It won't be embarrassed going up against stand-alone designer CD players below $2,000.

Are you beginning to do the math? I sure was at this point. Already this meant that one was, what, paying as little as $495 perhaps for the Aura's preamp, amp, tuner and USB input if the CD player on board could hold its own against separate machines up to about two grand? It was at this point that I began to sense where this review was headed: serious questioning of snobbery against one-box integration. Bloody hell and hallelujah.

In use, it's the MODE button on the remote that shuttles between CD, AUX and TUNER. Relays play musical chairs and telegraph through the speakers the first time the relay severs the open connection. The Aura's CD player takes a while to spin up, grab TOC, display total time and then commence cueing up the first track. It's nothing to get hung up about once you realize that the machine is actually doing something while you worry that it's not. The display's default read-out for the auxiliary input is AUX, not the current volume setting just as CD mode displays track number and time and TUNER displays the station. Volume only displays momentarily as you change it. Then the input display takes over again. Mute displays as MUTE for as long as it is engaged. You'll never wonder why you have no sound if it's because mute was engaged. Ditto for pause. The display will freeze at, say 01 00.36 for track one, 36 seconds into it, and start to blink.

Fast forward and rewind will mute the outputs. This keeps going until you press the same button again. You do not have to hold it down. Just hit it once, watch the time display speed up, then click again when you're where you wanted to go. Direct track access is missing, however. That would have taken up too many buttons on what was designed to be a credit card remote. In FM mode, the track forward/back buttons advance or reduce the tuning frequency by one behind the decimal point, from 93.5 to 93.4 or 93.6. The fast forward/rewind buttons then become scans to the next available station and so forth. It's all rather intuitive really. To boot, the red letters and numbers in the Aura
display are fabulously crisp and large to be readily intelligible from way across the room. With four brightness settings plus blackout, it's also a very flexible display. In short, the human engineering team at Aura and their code writers for the remote have done a bang-up job of packaging the rather loaded functionality in a friendly and utterly uncomplicated manner.

In fact, the owner's manual encourages one to learn the remote by just pressing buttons. You can't break anything by making mistakes. Either something happens or nothing. Just like children learn computers by pulling down menus and going wild pressing keys, anyone can learn to navigate this system. For example, to set the clock merely requires pushing the PROG button with its associated MEMO/CLOCK tag. Once the digits before the decimal point start blinking, it's common sense that either the next/last or forward/rewind buttons will do the job; and that clicking the PROG button again will jump to the minute display. Would that all remote interfaces were this - um, interfaced with common sense.

Having done the thinking for us, this user friendliness includes not only auto-muting the speakers when the headphones are plugged in but ramping down the amp's gain structure so that coming off a volume setting appropriate for loudspeakers doesn't blow out your headphone drivers. Going from the WLM speakers to my audio-technica W-1000 headphones in fact required no volume trim whatsoever. It was simple plug'n'play.

Even the PC input -- showing up as an option only when an actual USB connection is detected -- handles all the electronic handshaking automatically. Cue up your favorite DVD through whatever software program on your computer always opens your videos. Suddenly, there's huge sound coming from your proper audiophile speakers. It finally relegates the crappy tin cans inside your laptop into the -- temporary -- trash bin where they belong. A small quality picture with superb big sound is a far grippier experience than a big picture with bad sound. That's especially so on a talkie flick where understanding every bit of dialogue and inflection is essential to following the story. My wife was in heaven. I was impressed. After Sean Penn's governor Willi Stark of the great state of Louisiana came to his untimely death and the end titles began to roll, I unplugged the one lone USB cable from the Aura Note. Then my wife grabbed her laptop to make off into the bedroom for a bit of editing on her day's writing work. For two hours, my listening digs had gotten transformed into our own personal cinema, no projector, drop-down screen or permanent television monstrosity between the music speakers required. Because the listening room is larger than our dedicated media room and the speakers are far removed from the front wall to throw serious depth, this unexpected home theater was in fact quite superior to our customary 32-inch Sony Wega-anchored HT 2.0 rig in the small media room that has us sitting in the nearfield with the speakers close to the wall.

Even with the marginal starter antenna included -- a skinny 5' single wire terminated in a miniature loop smaller than the tip of my little finger -- I managed to lock onto 15 FM stations. 11 were rock solid, two were okay and only two outright weak. I'm no radio head since I speak neither Greek nor Turkish here in Cyprus. I can't weigh in on the Aura's tuner performance other than that it grabbed more stations than seemed reasonable with the silly antenna. The headphone socket makes decidedly better sound than the equivalent socket in the Red Wine Audio modified Olive Symphony for example. While my tube Yamamoto HA-02 headphone amp does things in the tone and weight domains the Aura cannot, the latter's headphone performance is a mirror image of its speaker sound - crisp, transparent, dynamic, without any glare or edge, leaner than good tubes but not at all bare boned and with a very low noise floor. In other words, a serious bit of headfi such as you could easily spend $500 on to get with a quality dedicated headphone amp.
The only functionality I didn't explore was MP3. I don't do compressed. Based on the splendid showing of all other modes of operation however, let's assume that MP3 files will play back just as swell and hitch free as everything else. Now that we've established that the Aura Note does indeed do everything that's claimed for it and with panache even, some context for the big picture. How good is it really when compared to known contenders?

Enter the mighty minis from Mark & Daniel, the Maximus Ruby speaker, a compound artificial marble clad, air motion transformer fitted, ultra-excursion mid/woofer endowed miniature 2-way with an 82.5dB non-sensitivity and 4-ohm load. To stack things against the Aura Note even higher, I added the optional OmniHarmonizer, an auxiliary upfiring AMT above 7kHz that's jumpered off the speakers' inputs -- and adds not only ambiance through 360-degree dispersion but further loading on the partnering amp.

To boot, the twin AMTs per side turn mission critical for any amplifier's HF behavior. It's something I noted in Ruby's review as an area of occasional concern with the ICEpower'd Bel Canto Design e.One S300 amp. Anything even marginally off in the higher frequencies will be mercilessly exposed when the Ruby sits at the tail end of the system chain. In went the brilliant Virtuosi CD of Gary Burton and Makoto Ozone [Concord Jazz 2105-2], a broad spectrum piano/vibraphone romp through jazzed-up takes on classic pieces from Ravel, Barber, Rachmaninoff, Scarlatti and Brahms though Cardoso, Gershwin too make appearances to represent composers from the Jazz milieu proper.

Zero misbehavin' from the Aura on top. And believe me, this is one tough test for any affordable transistor amp. Neither did the Korean do-it-all box break any audible sweat driving Ruby to levels at the edge of comfort with the dial at 60. True, with bass buster tracks on these 4.5" hi-excursion woofers sans built-in LF rev limiters but instead run wide open, the 150wpc S300 offers even superior control. Yet the Aura wasn't embarrassed at all and gave a far better showing than expected. Most importantly, the sound at sane levels didn't harden nor did the treble go glary or brittle, prospective misbehavior that always shows up easily on piano. The Aura did sweat mechanically though. Its heat sinks across the lower front ran hot - not ridiculously scalding but definitely far hotter than the by comparison no-load of the WLMs.

Needless to say, nobody in their right mind would (or should) buy or sell this particular combination. The point of this test wasn't to suggest that you should emulate it. It was to find out how much real-world drive this compact amp with the small toroidal transformer has. Clearly, it's no mere toy. Nor is it a convenience-driven compromised contraption. Nor did this detour from sanity net the singular confirmation that the amp could drive the Rubys. I actually preferred the Aura to the Bel Canto PRe3/S300 duo which is more whitish by comparison and leaner.

Truth be told, the Aura Note presentation reminded me somewhat of my First Watt F3 amplifier. There was a similar single-ended transistor purity that didn't hype or chisel out transients. Unlike the Red Wine Audio Signature 30 which is a distinctly warmish amp (largely because of its large Jensen capacitor I believe); and unlike the Bel Canto amp which is coolish in character; the Aura Note sat somewhere in the middle. What it didn't have was the subtle texture of the two battery-powered Tripath amps I've heard so far, the aforementioned Sig 30 and the Firenze Audio Rosso 460B currently in for review. I wouldn't call the Aura dry per se but it is drier than those two T amp versions.

Smart speaker selection easily adjusts for that, however. Going back to my WLM Diva Monitors with their 10-inch mid/woofers for example instantly reintroduced more warmth. As a dealer, I'd package the Aura Note with a small Silverline Audio speaker or Sonus Faber monitor and turn heads Exorcist style. Truly, that's how upscale the sonics are here on tap. Comparing the Bel Canto stack fronted by the Cambridge Audio Azure budget DVD player left no doubt that the one-box machine on copasetic speakers -- i.e. those not benefitting from the ICEpower amp's triple power rating -- was superior. It took the Raysonic CD128 on the separates to pull even and, on the Rubys, get ahead in the lowest bass. On the Divas, I had to call it a draw. If you look up the pricing of the three separate boxes and add two pairs of interconnects (plus whatever rack you'll likely want with it all), you'll quickly put together what April Music could charge for their machine if perception was eliminated and you purely paid for sound. Never mind that the Aura Note still would come out ahead in most cases by simply doing more things. Compared to my Audio Sector Patek SE 50wpc gainclone, the Aura had less hyper-drive dynamics and image density but, especially on the Rubys, was preferable because monster treble didn't end up being mated to charged transients. On the warmer Divas, the Patek's spunky personalty kicked things up a notch for me. That's a $1,200 stand-alone amplifier made by hand by the designer and sold direct.

Frankly, this whole Aura Note encounter left me a bit befuddled. I have not heard the Arcam Solo or Linn Classic or equivalent NAD machines to have a solid take on what one should expect in this category these days. It's well possible that in their company, the Aura Note would appear less shocking. Or perhaps even upstaged. Suffice it to say that this listener was a bit unprepared and forced to play catch up and rewrite expectations.

Wrapping up
The April Music Aura Note is a credenza machine and thus ideally suited for a pair of superior monitors that will sit next to it, speaker cables hidden behind credenza and wall. It's the perfect studio, bedroom or living room solution where it's not about altars to stereo but good sound that's -- mostly -- invisible.

It's when you strap this machine to free-standing monitors set up for serious listening that you realize this machine will nearly be wasted on those who decide to park the whole lot on a book case against the wall and call it quits.

Sure, that's really the whole notion of compaction and living room happiness. Get the bloody hifi off the floor, stop wasting real estate and get on with your life. It's simply that the Aura Note is so much better. It casts the proverbial dome of sound around and behind a pair of free-space monitors if you let it. It competes with separates easily double its own sticker. It's very resolved and articulate but skillfully avoids the etched and harmonically bleached corners which especially affordable transistors can veer into. Its CD performance alone is worth between $1,500 to $2,000. How expensive, exactly, should we then call just the amplifier inside this CD receiver with USB DAC and USB out?

I have no idea how to answer that. It's not often that I come up short on words. Let just say that even listeners accustomed to truly fine fi are bound to scratch their heads when they take a tour with this machine strapped to high-performance two-ways of appropriate specs. In our household, the nearly trickest feature of this whole Aura deal was the USB input to watch movies from a laptop. Removing the computer leaves you with a great one-box music system afterwards. Even audiophile purists who'd never let anything video-related into their sound shrines could loosen up and get converted. Of course such purists likely won't take this machine serious enough to build a system around.

The long and short of it is, should any of my family members ever ask me for an audio recommendation -- they probably never would based on wicked assumptions about complexity and cost based on my hi-end reviewing gig and personal audio belongings -- I'd point 'em at the Aura Note. Even if all you did with it was have it sit on your night stand with a pair of 'phones jacked in, you'd still get your money's worth. That math works!

Postscript: If ever you do run into a wise ass elephant, ask him how many things he can do when confined to one square foot of space. It'll shut him right up. This was no turkey of an assignment after all. It was one that proved this machine to deliver turn key on all fronts. As those hipper than middle-aged reviewers would say, that's fat with a Ph(D)!
Manufacturer's website
US importer's website