(CD/Tuner/Receiver Music System)
Top-loading CD player
Stereo 50 watt power amps
USB input A for MP3 players or USB memory
USB input B for PC connection to playback music or movie files
Aux input for DVD or TV
Freq. response: 20Hz – 25kHz (-.5dB)
D/A Conversiion: Cirrus Logic CS4398, 120dB, 192kHz
Proprietary Third Order Digital Filter
Memory Buffer: RAM buffer playback 16MB SRAM 10sec ESP
Tuner presents for 20 stations
USB Decoder: Micronas USB Codec
Recording Format: MP3, 128K BPS (fixed)
Playback: 44.1kHz/16bit, 96kHz/24bit
Dimensions: 10.94” x 3.3” x 10.94”
Weight: 15.4 lbs net
Power Consumption: 11W Standby, 30W Nominal, 200W Max.
(859) 263-9916 (voice)
(425) 369-1001 (fax)
Bower & Wilkins 804S loudspeakers, PS Audio Power Plant Premier power conditioner, Audioquest speaker cables, and Arcam Solo Music System for comparison.
Basic Setup and Functions
My first impression after taking this product from the box is how cool it looks and how simple and uncluttered in design it is. The industrial design is by Kenneth Grange who audiophiles will know from his work on products by Bowers & Wilkins—he has quite a reputation. The Note looks modern but its vintage-looking bright red display offers an interesting visual contrast to the chrome and glass. The display has 5 dimmable steps including off for those who would rather not see it, but it is easily visible from more than 15’ away so operational status is observable from across the room.
The glass cover is not attached, and slides back and forth over the laser mechanism. It is not necessary to keep it over the spinning disc, but you may want to leave in place over the laser to keep dust from accumulating when a CD is not in the machine. The CD mechanism uses a moderately heavy magnetic clamp to keep the disc in place. You don’t want to forget to put it in place or you may be dodging a flying disc!
The front panel control layout on the Note is surely simple, but all of the buttons are the same size and lettering is hard to read. Eventually, with extended use, the user will remember what button is where, but at first it is easier to use the remote. The volume and power buttons are separated, so accidentally turning the unit off when lowering the volume is less likely to occur.
The Note has a beefy amplifier and using pricier speakers ($4500/pr) than I’d normally opt for didn’t cause a problem for the piece. I had access to an Arcam Solo ($2000) that is in a similar product category. Arcam makes two optional devices for direct iPod connection–a dock ($285) or a cable ($110)–allowing track information to be displayed of the front of the unit. I didn’t have either of these on hand to try.
When switching inputs the unit makes an audible “click” like the sound of a relay switching, otherwise the only sound coming from the Aura Note is the CD spinning up to play.
Since the unit has a clock, you can set the Note to start playing radio or a CD at any time of the day from 10 to 240 minutes in 10 minute increments. There is also a sleep timer, so that the unit can be set to shut off from 10 up to 90 minutes after setting the timer (also in 10 minute increments).
I tried a set of headphones with the unit and the speaker output is disconnected while headphones are in use. Nothing sounded amiss, so for those who plan to listen on headsets, this unit will function as expected.
The remote is small like a credit card and although it fits adequately in the hand it isn’t fancy by any means. It doesn’t light up, all the buttons are the same size, and some people may have to look closely to read the labels. It does get the job done, however. Keep in mind that the remote is necessary to perform certain functions on the unit (like adjusting the clock), so don’t lose it. It was good from about 18’ away and over 45 degrees off the main axis from the front of the unit. All the functions of the Note can be operated with the remote included mute, timer, sleep, recording, transport controls, station surfing, etc.
The Aura didn’t come supplied with an AM antenna (which was probably just an oversight with my review sample), so I dug through some boxes and found an AM loop antenna. Note: The instructions don’t list inclusion of any type of antenna, but there was an FM wire antenna which I used during the review.
I’m not in a prime FM area, but right away I was impressed with the FM tuner. I was able to receive 91X from San Diego (I’m in Los Angeles), and 88.1, the low power jazz station came in clear AND in stereo! The tuner offers a stereo/mono switch, but switching to mono only mildly improved sound on certain stations. In the stereo mode I was able to tune 39 stations. Clearly the tuner portion was above average and a good outdoor antenna would have definitely improved matters.
The search function operated very quickly and occasionally overshot the proper frequency by .1 MHz. Tuning backwards and forwards fixed this. Scan and skipping are different buttons on the remote which is a nice touch. Another set of buttons scrolled through the presets, so there was no need to toggle through different modes—tuner manufacturers take note!
AM stations had a very low-level hum/buzz in the background, but sound was better than expected. I logged 18 stations.
First off, it should be mentioned that the Aura Note would not play CD-RW discs (and neither did the Arcam). CD-R discs played fine. I balanced levels with a meter and plugged and unplugged speaker cables between the two units for all the comparison testing. A co-worker of mine (Howard) helped with the switching and listened along throughout the tests.
CD recognition is quick on the Note and during playback the unit displays track and elapsed time. Remaining time or total remaining time can be selected as alternates. There was about an 8 second startup time from button push to hearing music. The Arcam took 4 seconds by comparison. The CD clamp never required fiddling unlike some other units I’ve used that work with a separate clamp.
With “Torn” by Ednaswap from the Morning Becomes Eclectic CD the differences between the two components were noticeable. This recording is on the dry side (being a live, acoustic version). The Aura had a pleasant richness and an appealing organic quality to the sound. The Arcam was cleaner, clearer, and emphasized the details like the sound of the guitar strings and inflection in the singer’s voice. The Note truncated some of the detail and sense of space by comparison.
With “The Core” by Art Blakey from Free For All the Aura offered enjoyable, fat bass, a nice, pleasing “blatty” sound from horns, and cymbals sounded realistic. The Arcam had a bigger bass sound, tighter focus, and more definition on the piano, but there was an edge and unnatural splashiness/distortion at 1:07 that was more obvious than with the Aura Note. It was this kind of thing that might make some listeners prefer the mellowed quality offered by the Note, although it is definitely a trade-off.
These differences were consistent from recording to recording and I did the remainder of my listening over a period of weeks with the Note. High playback level was no problem with the Aura and there were never any strange noises or other operational quirks. Howard has a tendency to blast The Doors (and just about everything else) and even when I though he was going to blow the Note up, the unit handled the high playback level with aplomb.
USB input (Memory Stick, MP3 Players, External Harddrives)
The Note is designed to offer easy integration via a side-located USB input for a variety of media storage devices and/or portable media players. In this day and age—for most people—that means an iPod. Unfortunately the types of files that the Aura recognizes are limited to MP3, WMA, and OGG. The first two are fairly common, while the last is not. This also means no WAV, FLAC, AAC, APE, etc. When I connected a co-worker’s iPod with 602 songs the Aura only recognized 10 from a single album. An older iPod that I had wasn’t recognized at all (and it had over 2000 songs on it—most likely in an incompatible format and another review mentioned that tracks could only be encoded up to 192 kbs). If seeing the track information on the front display is not essential, then the best hookup option is the AUX input on the back via conventional audio cables (mini to RCA). This means no limitation on the type of format that the Note will play and the user interface on the portable device (i.e. iPod) can be fully utilized.
I was sent a memory stick and this worked like expected as long as the information was in the above formats. The Note does not display folders and just lumps the songs into a numbered list of tracks. The display showed the number on the disc, the artist, the song title, the data format, the sampling rate, and the time elapsed on the track.
To delete tracks from the USB you just hit the record button on the remote while on the track and the Note will ask if you want to delete and with another push of the record button the track is gone and the total number of tracks is reduced by one. There is also a search function if your list of songs is quite extensive. There is a way to search by track number, alphabetically, and also by entering the name of the folder. (The Note will jump to the beginning of the first track that is in the folder.)
I did not use the rear-mounted USB input which Aura claims allows an easy connection for high quality playback from a computer or laptop. My experience with the side-mounted USB suggests it would work as expected and the manual states that the Note will allow playback of WAV (and other lossless) files through this connection.
One of the most intriguing features of the Note is the ability to record from CD and radio directly onto a USB memory device. For CD it is as simple as playing the CD track you wish to record and hitting the record button. The unit will record that track in MP3 format at 128 kbps. To record the radio, just tune the station and hit record, when done, just hit record again. I was easily able to record a few 30 second excerpts of music and when they are played back, they are labeled: Tuner1, Tuner2, etc.
For CD ripping I would prefer a higher sampling rate, but I can see people using this function to record baseball broadcasts, talk radio programs, etc. They can then be archived to a computer and consequently burned to a CD, etc.
The Aura Note is a product clearly designed to bridge the gap between iPod neophytes and conservative audiophiles all in a highly attractive, simple, compact package. The ability to record to media storage is a first in my experience and may help make the decision for those who would find it useful. The piece is just fun to operate and all who saw it were taken with its appearance and said it had a high “coolness” factor. The unit offers a non-fatiguing sound with good resolving ability that will appeal to those with mediocre recordings or data-reduced media like most of what is downloaded through iTunes these days as well as those with extensive CD collections who like the idea of a high quality all-in-one unit.
Combination pieces like the Aura Note used to be synonymous with compromise, but today they can often be the epitome of simplicity, good sound, and flashy yet unassuming looks.
— Brian Bloom (email@example.com)