Pros: Very low noise floor, very good overall SQ that puts a serious challenge to the Hugo, accepts SSD storage and act as an external storage
Cons: Size and weight puts it in the borderline to transportable. Battery life is 7 hrs, less input features than the Hugo
Despite the existence of DAPs in the past decade, in the recent 2 years DAPs seemed to have skyrocketed with big thanks to makers such as iRiver/A&K having decent quality SQ but more importantly in a more intuitive interface and more practical pocketable sizes. The expansion of DAP options seemed to have overshadowed the portable component market. Early in 2014 Chord came up with the Hugo which breathed life into the portable component are but at a pretty hefty cost.
Along comes Aurender which has made many high end speaker level components in the past but now with their portable Flow. The name Aurender is still quite new to the portable market however with the introduction of the Flow, the makers didn't dip their toes in the shallow waters of the toddler's pool but went straight out to open sea. The Flow is a product that's targeted for the audio enthusiast who intends to extract the most out of their digital music and presenting them to their best headphones or earphones. It doesn't come at a cheap price but at the same time not (subjectively) unjustifiably or unreasonably priced.
Specifications & Operation
The Flow is a 455g device that measures 80x127x28mm. It's by no means small nor light (having said that, my CLAS/Duet weight 476g but measure 71x113x48 excl the balanced cable sticking out on the back & the Duet's volume knob). It has a 4450mAh battery that lasts for approximately 7 hrs. Although this seems normal for quite a few DAP these days (e.g. the HM-901 or AK240 around 9 hrs) but rather short for components, especially one of this size.
However size isn't so much for large battery but space for SSD storage of up to 1TB. Now with the music control buttons on the side, this device is easily mistaken to be a DAP but be assured it's a DAC/Amp. The storage is so that the Flow can be used as an external storage device to hold music for the software player running on your Mac or PC. The idea is that if one is travelling with a notebook with limited storage, one could put all their music on that SSD storage of the Flow, use only 1x USB port of the notebook for that storage and for external DAC/Amp capability. It should also be noted that the makers have opted USB 3.0 for the interface to transfer music to the SSD quickly.
As I had the chance to talk to the makers, I did ask if there were any concerns for bandwidth of the USB, that if one were to be reading music off the SSD to the Notebook/PC's music player, only to be fed back down the USB to the DAC of the Flow. It seems the transfer during play isn't intensive as such USB specs have more than sufficient bandwidth for bi-directional data transfer for music play.
The music control buttons on the side actually control the software player.- it controls the Audirvana+ 2.06 & iTunes on my iMac, and with Music and Onkyo players on my iDevices. So I can pause, rewind, fast forward, play, and control the volume from the Flow. Further as alluded earlier, the Flow functions with an iPad, iPhone, and with Android devices too. There's the option of controlling the charging too such as no charging during playing (recommended for iDevices), always charge even during use (* a little more about this later), or intelligent charging - where only charge when not in use or not playing any tracks but don't charge if playing. The reason for this option is because some listeners feel that audio quality is affected whilst the device is charging and playing simultaneously.By having intelligent charging, the user can leave the Flow hooked up to their notebook/PC the whole time and whenever it's not playing music it can charge but when music is being played, charging stops not compromising the sound quality.
For the past week I've been burning in my Flow and set for always charging and I have noticed that even in this mode, usage of battery is faster than it can charge itself. Something to take note of.
Other specs and operations of the Flow can be found here :-
And of course this is why we're here. As mentioned before the Hugo pretty much screamed, portable component aren't dead yet and tried to prove by producing one of the best quality sounds out of a portable component. The Flow wasn't going to be another component hiding in Hugo's shadows. Sadly I don't have the Hugo to be able to do a side-by-side comparison but I have heard the Hugo quite a few times and if one is awed by the Hugo's quality at sound presentation, the Flow doesn't disappoint either. The difference is that the Flow comes up cheaper by about $700 but has less inputs/outputs.
But firstly the Flow's SQ. To my ears the overall presentation of the Flow is very very smooth, delicate and tends to lean towards the clinical side of the overall presentation. It's by no means dry nor cold but the added crispness to the treble gives it more of a fresh presentation rather than warm lush presentation. Notes and keys are presented with distinction and clarity. There's no blurring of notes as it flows from one to another. There's just that sense of precision giving the listener the impression that he or she is really listening to music in the studio then and there. Further, the treble extension is far and smooth (I have had about 144 hrs burn-in into the Flow).
The midrange is also clear and quite neutral. No particular attempt to emphasise on any part of the midrange frequencies. (Sdie-by-side) Comparing to my Cypherlabs stack (-dB/Duet), vocals don't have the "bite" that the Flow has in grabbing one's attention. The Flow's representation of vocals seem to just be somewhat cleaner/crispier with the nice finish/closer to each word (listening to jazz vocals). the Cypherlabs does seem to present more warmth to the vocals though which gives a sense of intimacy.
For the midbass/sub bass region, the Flow continues on with its tightness and precision. Decay of drums seem to be as the instrument should be - not so much of saying listening to drums in a small basement club (or a large hall) where there's reflections and echos, but more like drums in a recording studio room. Despite the Flow leaning somewhat on the clinical side to my ears, there is no shortage of bass either. The Flow will go deep when it's called for but just not long excessive decay.
Now for a good long while, my Cypherlabs stack has been my personal preferred portable whenever I have the occasion to use it (i.e. out of the home but in a location for an extended period of time - cafe, etc.). I liked it even when it was the -dB/Rx Mk3 days. I preferred my Cypherlabs stack over my AK240 even although the AK240 is used when I'm literally on the go (in public transport or when actually walking around). I liked the Cypherlabs stack 'cos in it's optimal configuration - with the balanced ICs, and with balanced headphone cables - it had a large presentation with a wide soundstage and deep imaging.
The Flow has just taken over my Cypherlabs stack in that respect of "presenting a big sound". The Flow has been able to just make the sound bigger, larger, wider, deeper. I'm actually comparing the Flow to my Invicta/Zana Deux desktop gear - although not up to that level it's mightily close at a fraction of the cost. So despite the somewhat clinical tonal presentation, it's width and depth presentation on the other hand makes the overall music sound so palatable to the ears.
Synergy with Headphones/Earphones
The one factor I do appreciate in the Flow over the Hugo is that it has a black background for sensitive IEMs. Noise, to be honest, doesn't really bother me but I didn't buy the Hugo as I do have mostly sensitive earphones. So if I can have another device that's at the level of the Hugo's performance but with a black background (and cheaper!), the choice is easy.
I do like the Flow with my TH-900s, FitEar MH335DW-SR, TO GO!334, Noble Kaiser 10's. I actually thought that the Flow would be too clinical for the Tralucent Ref1 but was proven wrong and the Flow worked quite well with the Ref1 too. I've not tried the 1Plus2 as I no longer own one.
With the Dita Truth's I do feel that it does get a little too clinical for my tastes. To be fair though so would it be with the Cypherlabs stack (my choice for the Ditas would probably be with the HM-901 but that's a different topic altogether).
Summary of Thoughts
Overall, the Flow has highly impressed me. It's pushed the sonics of portable audio that borders some serious desktop level components in a portable form. It's not without it's flaws though. I do wish the battery life is a little longer. In addition, interoperability with iDevices can be a little finicky especially if A/Bing with other portable components. There are particular sequences to execution whenever switching back 'n forth between the Flow and other portable DAC/Amps on the iDevice. I also do wish there was a 3.5mm, and balanced output would have been nice too. However, it's output on the 1/4 jack has surpassed some of the other balanced portable components that one wonders if balanced is even needed (or how much better balanced on the Flow could be).