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Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about my CD collection. Even after tossing jewel boxes, tray cards, and booklets -- and, after ripping them -- I still have a lot of CDs. But basically, they’re worthless -- except to me. Then there’s the collection of songs stored on my computer. They’re mostly Apple Lossless files, but also 256kbps MP3s I’ve purchased, and even some AAC files ripped at 128kbps before I knew better, and at every rate in between. I think a lot about that collection, too. I also think a lot about putting my collections aside in favor of a streaming service, such as Spotify, which would allow me to act on my impulses to hear albums or songs I don’t own, but would discourage me from spending needlessly to achieve the same goal. J&R Music World is closed, and I don’t feel so good myself.
Apparently, Simon Lee of April Music, in South Korea, thinks about these things too. Because with his newly improved Aura Note “all-in-one music center,” the V2, he’s thought of just about everything.
At its core, the Aura Note V2 ($3000 USD) is a beefy, 125Wpc, class-D compact stereo receiver (it includes an FM tuner with 20 presets) and CD player measuring 10.8”W x 3.9”H x 10.8”D and weighing 16.5 pounds. The faceplate’s lowest third is a heatsink of corrugated metal, while the upper two-thirds is reflective chrome. From left to right are buttons for: Standby (the main power switch is around back), Volume up/down, Play/Pause, Stop, Skip/Search, and Mode, which grants access to all of the Aura Note’s other functions.
To the right of those buttons, proudly and gloriously unmissable, is a large LED display that looks like the readout of one of the first digital watches blown up by 400%. In Standby, it displays the time. When you turn it on, it says “Welcome.” Turn it off, and it bids you “Goodbye.” In addition to telling you what Mode you’re in, the display is needed for anything having to do with timing or numbers: setting FM-station presets, traditional CD information, setting the timer to put the Aura Note to sleep or to turn it on, etc. Farthest to the right is a large IR sensor for the remote control, which duplicates the front-panel buttons and adds a few of its own.
Although the Aura Note V2 was clearly designed to be operated primarily using its remote, I found that a curious thing happened. When I was near the review sample, I reached for the buttons on its front panel. They’re ingeniously laid out, intuitive, and automatic in their placement. They’re right where you expect them to be. But then, as I bounced through the Modes, I inevitably passed the setting I was looking for and had to run through them all again, this time a bit more slowly. It was in those moments that I was reminded of the utility of the remote.
The remote control is a slim, lightweight piece of plastic with ten rows of buttons in three columns. In dim light, it’s nearly impossible to tell which end is which. There’s no detectable battery weight, and all the keys are of the same size and surface texture. Finally, it occurred to me to find the dome that sends out the beam at the front; before I did, I tried a lot of backward operation.
The rear panel is as well sorted and logical as the front, with two sets of five-way, plastic-lugged speaker binding posts, a line-level preamp output, two Aux inputs, a socket for the supplied FM antenna (I had no complaints about the reception), an optical digital input, the main power switch, and an IEC inlet for the removable power cord.
In a basic integrated amplifier or receiver, describing the front and rear panels would pretty much do it. But an all-in-one music center has to use more of its surface area, and this model’s elegant design turns an electronic component into a conversation piece. Look down at the Aura Note V2 from above and you see a good bit more chrome. You also see a top-loading CD player, under a door of tempered glass. A little dip in the left side panel lets you get your fingertips on the edge of the tempered glass door and slide it aside, oh so smoothly, so that you can drop a CD onto the spindle. (Four indentations in the bottom of the disc well let you easily remove the disc.) Secure the CD with the magnetic puck, slide the glass door back, and the laser moves into position. The disc is spun, the display tells you it’s being read, then shows you the number of tracks and total time. Press Play on the front panel or the remote (which offers a random mix of programming and time-display options, and for MP3 discs or memory sticks, incremental skips of tracks). But with so slim a remote, there’s no direct track access.
There are vents on the rear and side panels -- the Aura Note runs a little warm, but nowhere near as hot as my tubed integrated. Low on the right side panel, toward the front, are a 1/4” headphone jack, a USB input, and secondary USB input labeled PC. This is where the Aura Note V2’s true genius lies. When I link my iPod Classic’s 30-pin connector to the Aura’s standard USB port, not only is the iPod charged, it falls under the spell of the Aura’s remote. And since the Aura accepts USB, it doesn’t matter what Apple does with its products. iPhones, iPads, Android devices streaming music from the Internet -- my obsolete dock connectors are doomed.
System and setup
Prior to the Aura Note V2’s arrival, I had a Raysonic SP-300 tubed integrated at the center of my system. Sources were a Yamaha CDR-D651 CD player, a Pioneer DV-353 DVD player, and an iPod hooked up to the amp via its headphone output (when my iDock failed and couldn’t be replaced). All three required individual sets of cables.
The CD player was the first to go, -- which, as I look at my system, just sits there, dormant. I kept the DVD player hooked up (the Aura Note isn’t a “universal” player), jacked my iPod into the Aura Note’s side panel as described above, and happily forgot about my broken iDock.
I needed my 9’ Element Cable Double Run speaker cables, terminated with banana plugs, to test three pairs of speakers: the Axiom M22, the B&W 302, and the Pioneer SP-FS52, the floorstanding model in Andrew Jones’s highly regarded budget line.
All told, the Aura Note offered me more options, in a smaller footprint, with fewer component parts, with FM radio thrown in, than did my reference system. And boy, did it make beautiful music.
These days I do most of my listening on the go, with headphones. But I still use an iPod, which, as I look around the subway at my fellow riders staring at their smartphones, is beginning to establish me as a bit old-fashioned. So the first thing I did for listening at home was find a CD I could play in the nifty Aura Note V2. Despite its forward-thinking design, the Aura Note’s FM tuner and quaint attachment to physical media make it unabashedly retro. Why not go with it?
Rod Stewart’s Smiler (CD, Mercury 314 558 063) supplies further evidence that, in 1974, he was at the height of his powers, and arguably the best male singer on the planet (votes for Frank Sinatra, Marvin Gaye, and Al Green will be counted). His cover of Bob Dylan’s “Girl from the North Country” unrolls at a stately pace, the Aura Note conveying Stewart’s entire, seemingly effortless, raspy range, free from sonic artifacts. It solidified a low-end foundation, then built on top of it, extending to the assertive top end with finesse and the multiplicity of textures supplied by Stewart’s voice and his nimble band. “Farewell” proved equally joyous, complete and seamless in top-to-bottom performance, with all the air, transparency, and sense of space that could be created in a room with a couple of modest 15-year-old bookshelf speakers.
Without a volume knob, you run the risk of forgetting where you left the volume and thus blowing out your speakers and/or eardrums. The Aura Note remembers the prior volume level (I found that, within its range of “0” to “99,” around “35” was best, with a little higher for DVD playback), but shutting off the main power switch resets it to “21.” Not foolproof, perhaps, but a good option if you forget where you left the volume but can remember to reset the Aura.
I swapped out the Stewart CD for Van Morrison’s live It’s Too Late to Stop Now, released the same year (CD, Warner Bros. 2760). As was typical for recordings in the 1970s, the mix sacrifices volume for dynamic range, but the Aura Note spread the band across the soundstage, honoring the separation of the saxophone to the right, the rest of the band to the left, and Morrison dead center, almost hovering in space. Instruments were cleanly layered in three dimensions, and the transient speed and dynamics of the band’s interactions were clearly delineated.
With “Africa,” from D’Angelo’s Voodoo (CD, Virgin 48499), the Aura Note displayed powerful authority in the bass, perfectly calibrated speed of attack and subsequent graceful decays, and accurate reproductions of D’Angelo’s flexible falsetto and the ethereality of the voices that float in around him like dust motes through an open window. Textural details came through, as if on a first listen: percussive plinks, melodic flourishes, and birdsong.
It was all leading-edge attack in “Wire,” from U2’s The Unforgettable Fire (CD, Island 822-898), as Adam Clayton’s bass slammed and hammered its way forward along with The Edge’s guitar. The Aura Note handled this track’s momentum. Cranking the volume up past “50” pushed the B&W 302s, but the Aura sidestepped any hardness or brittleness. Fast, tight, detailed, dynamic.
When I swapped out the 302s for the Axiom M22s, however, I was disappointed by the speakers’ recessed neutrality. A while back I auditioned a German-made integrated amp, the T+A Elektroakustik E-Series Power Plant Balanced, and thought it sounded best through the Axioms. Since then, I’ve preferred the B&Ws’ vibrant liveliness with the tubed Raysonic, and now the Aura Note V2. The Axioms bring very little pizzazz to the table with the sort of warm gear I gravitate toward. I’ve put them away for now.
Shuffling my iPod with the Aura Note driving the Pioneer SP-FS52s was continuously pleasurable. I was able to pause, skip, and finely adjust the volume from song to song via the remote, the iPod recharging all the while. No danger of it running out of juice, or not being ready for me to take it out of the house. “Hold On,” from the Alabama Shakes’ Boys & Girls (16-bit/44.1kHz ALAC, ATO 142), leapt from the Pioneers, which achieved a little more bass than the B&Ws while sounding almost as effervescent. The drums slammed, and Brittany Howard’s voice sprayed itself around the room. I hadn’t really noticed before that, as this track builds in intensity, buzzing and humming electronic feedback threatens to take over. It’s there, and the combo of Aura Note and Pioneers clearly rendered it. As it dissipated, I was able to follow its dwindling until all that was left was Howard’s voice and her band.
Even a relatively lo-fi track such as “Diane,” from Hüsker Dü’s Metal Circus EP (16/44.1 ALAC, SST 20), was reproduced by the Aura Note with urgency and attention to the dynamic contrasts of the drumbeat and the buzz-saw guitars, the bass guitar holding the two together and Grant Hart’s voice on the edge of hysteria. The Aura Note could be gracious or menacing, as the situation demanded.
As is generally the case with tube integrateds, my experience with the Raysonic SP-300 has been one of lushness, harmonic richness, easygoing ripeness, and pleasant softness. Conversely, the solid-state integrateds I’ve had in my system have been characterized by speed, clarity, superior bass control, and a degree of transparency I wouldn’t expect from tubes.
“The Other Side of Town,” from Steve Earle’s El Corazón (HDCD, Warner Bros. 46789-2), was recorded deliberately warmly, with analog in mind, and simulated vinyl surface noise crackling in the background. Through the Aura Note, Jason Carter’s fiddle was sweet, Tommy Hannum’s steel guitar was tangy, and Earle’s voice was exactly as warm as intended. On a cut like this, piped through its CD player and outputting 125Wpc, the Aura Note combined the precise imaging of solid-state with the delicacy and harmonic unity of tubes. In almost every respect, it was the best of both worlds. The Aura Note V2 was sufficiently bloomy, but with an emphasis on midrange musicality that like-minded speakers (e.g., the B&W 302 and Pioneer SP-FS52) responded to synergistically.
There was none of the wiry sound that reminds you that you’re listening to electronics; rather, a quietude that emphasized airy highs and reassuring lows. Like the Axiom speakers, the Aura Note V2 could be ruthlessly revealing of the quality of unexceptional or merely average recordings. It reproduced a rich, varied soundscape with the sort of range you’d expect from tubes, but with the lean and hungry bass attack associated with transistors.
With V2 of the Aura Note music system, April Music has produced a versatile, adaptable, complete home-audio system in a single box. Its beautiful built-in CD player and analog inputs respect the past, it embraces the new by accepting the inputs of the full range of contemporary computer-audio products and mobile devices, and it promises to retain its relevance and utility thanks to its intelligent internal computer and April’s willingness to issue firmware updates -- even its remote control has a couple of keys labeled “F,” for Future.
About halfway into writing this review, I realized that I’d soon have to return the review sample of the Aura Note V2, along with its colorful musical palette, its natural portrayal of instruments, its ferocious bass response, and its vital reproduction of human voices. I’m about to say goodbye to its full-bodied soundstage, the contours it introduces into the air, and the convincing case it makes that I’m enjoying what I’m hearing. I’m going to miss it.
. . . Jeff Stockton
- Speakers -- Axiom M22, B&W 302, Pioneer SB-FS52
- DVD player -- Pioneer DV-353
- MP3 player -- Apple iPod Classic 160G (fifth generation)
- Analog interconnects -- Monster Cable Interlink 200
- Speaker cables -- Element Cable Double Run
Aura Note V2 Music Center
Price: $3000 USD.
Warranty: Two years parts and labor.
April Music, Inc.
3F, Bangbae Hill Bldg.
Seocho-Gu, Seoul 137-064
Phone: (82) 2-3446-5561
Fax: (82) 2-3446-5564