Go With the Flow:
Us portable audio enthusiasts have always defied what one may describe as small enough for on the go use because we just have to have the very best. Be it an iPod stacked with an external DAC and amp, or a giant brick of a DAP like the HiFiMAN HM-901 or HiFi ET MA9. However, when Chord released the Hugo, things just got bigger and somehow it was a hit, not only did people love it but they used it on the go. Being alone in that “transportable DAC/amp that does DSD” category, the Hugo obviously needed some company and Aurender lapped up the challenge, recently releasing a product as aesthetically unique in its own way, the V1000 or Flow. It is priced at $1295, although I have not yet seen it for sale in the UK but with the current exchange rate that is about £850, but we all know that doesn’t mean that’s how much it will be, although it would be very happy if that were to be the case.
How’s It Flowing?:
From the moment I laid my eyes on the Flow packaging all the way until I had it set up with some headphones plugged in, the experience was as premium as it gets. The box was lovely, something you could expect at this price but don’t always get and the presentation inside was just as sweet, I’m kicking myself for being to excitable and not taking some pictures as it happened, in my defense I had just got back from holiday and was a bit jetlagged, lets just go with that. The accessories are plentiful although not quite as premium. For some reason I love the pleather pouch for the Flow, it is rather pointless because you can’t use it while listening to it, something that would make sense to me but nonetheless, I still find myself using it when I take the Flow from one place to another, which I find to be the optimal way to use the device. The included cables are classic, cheap looking white Chinese cables, no copper OCC to be found here. While they don’t continue the premium look of everything else Aurender have done, they do allow maximum usability out of the box, and that is important as not all DACs do that. You have a:
- Lightning cable for you iFanatics – this was obsolete for me
- Micro USB for everyone else (team Android) – it works a treat with my Oneplus One’s USB OTG for those wondering
- ¼ inch to RCA cable so you can use with external amps
- USB3 cable for charging and being a computer DAC
- Optical SP/DIF cable – I actually really liked this cable; it seemed much better quality than the rest.
Although in terms of price this is just a baby in Aurender’s range, they have put some real care into making it just as epic an experience.
Looking at the Flow you will be right in thinking it is a bit plain(in features, not design), you have a:
- Lone ¼ inch jack on the bottom, for portable use, giving it a 3.5mm companion would be perfect.
- The top has the micro USB 3 and optical input
- The left side is completely bare.
- On the right side you have a rather classic button arrangement. Forward, back, pause/play, you know for controlling the music you’re listening to over USB (it won’t work over optical) but I have yet to find myself using these buttons, maybe I am alone there. BUT they do double up for controlling the menu, of which, rather oddly, there are two.
The first one has all your connectivity options, should it charge? Do you prefer optical or USB? Do you want a brighter display? Necessary, but nothing exciting. However hold the menu button until your finger is numb and you open up an advanced screen, one with both PCM (3) and DSD (4) digital filters and an option to swap the variable volume control to either a 2Vrms or 5 Vrms line out, wooo. I do like and use the line out but as it comes out of the headphone jack it must work in a similar way to the pseudo line outs of the Astell & Kern devices, I could of course be wrong. I don’t know why they couldn’t have added a pair of recessed RCAs or even a 3.5mm line out to the nearly empty bottom, just for slicker function. While it is sexy and minimalistic, I just don’t know why they couldn’t have just added a few more connection options, especially at this size, I mean Chord have gone ham in comparison.
So yes, it does all file types, supported by an ESS Sabre ES9018K2m (that is the portable version of the ESS flagship) DAC chip. So be it a CD rip, double rate DSD or 32/384 high res (as elusive as that is), this thing won’t struggle, in fact it loves it. That is unless you do want to use Optical where you are limited to 24/192, which is enough for most. The Flow does have one trick up its sleeve that is completely unique to itself in the battery powered DAC market and that is a mSATA slot for SSD memory, up to 1TB (a screwdriver is included to install one). Sadly I just don’t see the point of this, if anything I see it as a missed opportunity. You see you can only use the SSD with your PC/Mac, and while if you have to have an SSD this can dramatically give you more memory with the likes of a laptop, I just think it makes more sense to get the likes of my Seagate 4TB hardrive that costs like, £100 instead of around £300 for a 1TB SSD. If you could use it with an Android or iDevice, then I would have already purchased one and it would be full to the brim with DSD and high res but that is just not the case unfortunately and because of that, I wont even bother getting an SSD to try it out.
The display looks like a Tamagotchi virtual pet I had as a kid, or a Nintendo game or watch, where at the right angle you can see all the display with it just lighting up what is relevant. The screen is vibrant though, gives you all the relevant information, sample rate, file type, what is the source and round the edge you have the volume level, which when changed is shown in more detail. Give the bezel of the display a little twist and you will discover that it is a volume pot, stepped to 0.5 decibel increases and it feels great, much better than the Hugo’s silly control method I must say.
I will say a few things have caused me a little bother, the first is how annoying it is that every time you boot this up, and it starts at -90dB, when you can hardly even hear music until like -60dB with a pair of cans. I know your hearing is in mind but it becomes a real pain. I guess you get lots of low-level volume control as a trade off. The other is when using it with a portable device, optically, like my AK120; it likes to power itself down after 15 seconds of no use. DO you know how quickly that is? I pause my music to answer someone’s question, by the time I press play you realize that you have to start the Flow up again, for the 50th time in an hour, battery saving is one thing but just let me change that setting like AK120 does. Also while the device is generally sturdy and well built, the optical port is very tight, with a click as you insert and a bit of force needed to remove, great because the cable wont fall out easily but it does give me concerns on longevity. The ¼ inch jack also has quite a bit of wobble to it.
I Can Hear the Flow:
Like many companies when it comes to this sort of product, Aurender boast the Flow’s ability to drive even the most demanding of headphones and remain quiet with IEMs. Now we know that is not always to be the case, because to pull that of is a rare phenomen, one of the reasons why the £2000 Aurorasound HEADA impressed me so much. The first headphones I had laying around (when I say that I mean sitting neatly on their CA Electronics headphone stand) when this came in were my Sennheiser HD800, on Aurender’s website they have a picture of this pairing so I went for it. I first found a comfortable volume at -24dB, so plenty of room left with the Flow maxing out at -0dB. That being said, the sound seemed, well weak. At first I wasn’t sure what was going in, simply that the Flow was incapable of handling them seemed like an easy conclusion. In the end I don’t think that is the case, it’s just the way that it drives them.
It didn’t compress the mighty HD800 soundstage, or cramp its imaging, but details didn’t seem as vivid as usual, the treble didn’t sparkle and snap with rhythm, but boy was it a smooth sound, oh it flowed, it really did. It’s a warm, free flowing chocolate river, easy going, pleasing. I did notice it doesn’t take risks with the HD800, it makes them comfortable, hell it even keeps them pretty un-fatiguing. I will be honest, it isn’t my cup of tea, I don’t like my HD800s glaring and sharp, but their brightness and detail is why they are king, and I like to keep that. Do note though that I am someone who has never felt the need to mod the HD800, or complained about it’s ruthless nature, but I can see why people do. I know people spend a lot of time trying to tame the HD800, and this does just that, but maybe a bit too well, but just maybe it does exactly what your after. I had to start with the HD800s as their revealing nature makes them a great tool for showing of what happens before them in the chain and you know what the Flow has a very clear signature and we will get onto that later, but for now, I can confirm that the Flow can drive high impedance headphones, a little bit weak but pretty good for size and it does so in a safe way.
Next to come out were my Planars, first the ZMF Headphone’s Master Model and Blackwoods. The Master Model needed 1 more dB than the HD800, -23dB to be precise and this was a pleasing combo, it was liquid sounding, so coherent, so smooth, I was in the flow. They are not the hardest planar to drive but they are roughly on par with the new Audeze’s in my experience. The Blackwood however, was a little harder, taking another couple of decibels but the sound was softer, losing bass depth and soundstage, and it just wasn’t as nice as the Master Models synergy. It will get your planars loud enough but it didn’t seem as in control with less efficient ones like the Blackwood. As we all know, there is getting a headphone loud, and there is also DRIVING them. That being said with it putting out just over half a Watt into 32 Ohms (570mW) it does have the output.
We of course have to do a through background check of the flow, so lets just see how quiet it is. I grabbed my Hidition Viento-R’s, I am addicted to them at the moment and they are more sensitive than my JH Audio Roxanne’s, these are no easy task, just ask my Alo RX MK3-B that fails miserably, causing more hiss than my cats going toe to toe over a rabbit one of them bought in. Maybe the Flow is clever and maybe the generally soft sound helps out but this thing is quiet, Vorzuge Pure quiet, quieter than the AK240 and even more so compared to the Chord Hugo. You don’t have to worry about output impedance as this is rated at 0.06 Ohms. Did I enjoy the sound as much though, well that’s something else altogether.
Plugging a headphone or earphone in, so using both the DAC and the internal amp of this (you can use just the DAC but not just the amp), I was always left underwhelmed. Why, well there was something uneven in the midrange, vocals to be more specific. I am someone who thrives off an honest reproduction of vocals, which takes a midrange that doesn’t sway towards any particular frequency, and this just never seems to get vocals right. There is always something missing, I concluded the upper midrange has a fallout, because male vocals lack a certain crispness that I get with my Vorzuge Pure, Questyle CMA800R and Aurorasound HEADA, which are not similar amps, but are all very good. Its not just male vocals either, women feel compressed, Dusty Springfield’s “The Windmills of Your Mind”, seems lifeless and weak, even when she really starts to get going, what the hell….
I think this upper midrange easiness continues into the treble. Certain treble shimmers don’t catch my attention like usual either, like a shaker, or rattle, them sort of sounds, that normally glimmer and sparkle, I can point them out, but they now seem neglected.
Bass is great though, especially the mid-bass, which has a great decay giving a little warmth and it, can really groan. The deep bass can rumble as well, even with harder to drive headphones such as my HD800s, which is what gave away it CAN drive headphones. Overall it is a warm, liquid sound, which gives small emphasis on the bass and lower midrange. Presentation is pretty good, I have never had a problem with that, it is big enough and with my top imagers (HD800 and Viento-R) they strut their stuff as well as ever.
A Silver Lining?:
Well is there one? Yes, and that is in the DAC section, using its line out, pseudo or not, even with the silly adapter I have to use (although I have been using Aurorasound’s RCA Conversion box), I love it. Letting it into an external amp, it gains entry to my heart; I can’t believe it’s the same stylish lil box. Into portable amps it is not bad, I love it with my Vorzuge, offering a smoother sound to my PWAK120-B but with desktop amps, well it is pushing great. So good that in the future I will be giving it a spin in Josh’s KEF LS50 system.
With most DACs, going RCA in to my Questyle CMA800R the sound is thin; I always thought it just liked using its balanced input, well apparently not because with the Flow the sound is grand. The same goes when pairing it with the HEADA, in fact I like this even more. As said earlier you can change the power of the line out but even with my full sized balanced desktop amps, 5Vrms just seems like too much, I like to stick with 2Vrms.
What’s crazy is that I can happily compare to DACs like the NAD M51, which is both more expensive, just a stand alone DAC, and is so big you could fit 18 flows in the space. I see this as a pretty big deal. Ok it might not quite have the bass depth, midrange airiness or overall detail retrieval, but it sounds bigger, more musical and grabs my attention better. The NAD can sometimes seem like it focuses to much on specification and not the task at hand, music, the Flow never suffers such problem.
It actually leaves the cheaper but full size Yulong D200 sounding, bitty, digital and cold with its bold, clear and detailed sound. It is funny how I have found the sound of the Flow’s DAC section because it bares not correlation to when using a headphone directly with it. It is almost like the internal amp section goes overboard trying to compensate for the DACs signature, or the rather “Sabre” treble that is has, which is just a bit clinical and sharp, although this does not have it near as obvious as the D200 nor would I say I have even the slightest problem with it. The treble is obvious, detailed, sparkly and just a little thin. The DAC also keep the midrange beautifully balanced, even with a small jump up in the upper midrange for great clarity while keeping at bay any sense of fatigue. The timbre is rich, the bass weighted and the soundstage is big. It has great coherence and focus throughout the board and with a great sense of space, gives itself a clear advantage over any other portable DAC I have tried.
I wish the amp could have been much more transparent and just amplified the DAC signal honestly because then I don’t see what I wouldn’t have loved sound wise. The DAC is great and well implemented and while headphone section didn’t hit it off with me, I know people dig that relaxing sound that can be listened to for hours on end and those looking to tame the HD800 with all sorts of mods and stuff, well you might like this as well. Aesthetically it is as premium as every item should be in its price range and once you get your head around the user interface it isn’t actually that tricky. What I am left thinking is who is it for, because it is not pocketable or truly portable and using it in a full desktop system can be a little tedious with all the adapters although its smaller rubber feet do a good job of allowing enough grip to stop it sliding around. But the Hugo proves there is a market and this is a worthy alternative, with a much easier display, better IEM pairing, a great sounding DAC and more importantly a smaller price tag.