When looking for a new solution, where does one go? Typically to Google but in this case, I jumped directly into the 6moons archives. The Lumin family of products reviewed by Joël showed great promise but their primary use being as streamers from a NAS or networked computer, I felt they were not really optimized to organize a library and play files from a hard drive connected directly to them. In addition, the Lumin D1, the only somewhat affordable option in their line, did not provide the option to play DSD via USB which would have forced me to use its internal DAC as the only option for DSD playback; and would have limited my options for DAC reviews down the road. For the same reasons, all the Linn servers were ruled out as well. Similarly, the well regarded Pro-Ject Streambox RS did not make it due to its ‘all-in-one’ concept that wouldn’t give me the freedom to choose another DAC or play DSD files. If you spend enough time researching, you will find plenty of options similar to the budget Pro-Ject but admittedly, the Streambox RS has one of the most pleasant sounds commensurate with its price point. Its use of tubes in the DAC’s output stage tames any digital glare that still plagues some entry-level converters. It sure spoke to the development of the category but did not meet my specific needs.

Weeks of searching later, I was able to hone in on three file players that shared very similar characteristics. To avoid confusion, I will refer to them as file players, not servers or streamers. That’s because their primary function is to organize a library and pass music files from a hard drive directly attached to the device. Some of those devices can stream from a NAS or another computer as well, making them in effect dual-purpose server/file players but I focused my attention on the file-playing aspect of things primarily. The first and probably most reviewed was the Bryston DP-2, which does exactly what I was looking for. The DP-2 is designed to take files from hard drives and play them through a separate DAC connected either via USB, coax or AES/EBU. A recent software upgrade allows it to play DSD over USB with a compatible DAC and it can also operate as a server and even enable some streaming services. That made it a bull’s eye on my shopping list, with a healthy list of positive reviews from trustworthy journalists turning it into a prime contender of my hunt. Looking at their website and literature, they also put a bit of effort into refining the user interface and including many useful features. The only glitch in this otherwise dreamy picture was the roughly $3’500 price tag: the same as a fully loaded iMac 5K which can do a lot more things than just play music.

My second option, the SOtM sMS-1000SQ, also came in at $3’500 and was similarly spec’d with both USB and digital outputs but no internal hard drive. It could be had with just USB for $500 less but an optional external linear power supply would push total cost to $4’500. That struck me as definitely on the high side compared to a fully functional computer but obviously all operational issues would be ironed out, with dedicated software and hardware to promise uncompromised playback. Unlike the Bryston though, the Vortexbox interface of the SOtM seemed less user-friendly to require quite a bit of fiddling with parameters to get it to operate at max potential. Calling on my non-geeky criteria, I relegated this option to the side, knowing full well I could make it work if I had to.

The primary reason for moving the SOtM to the sidelines actually was the discovery of a not particularly well-known option that started popping up in all my searches. Auraliti have been around for a while and are amongst the pioneers of digital file playback, so much so that they actually consulted for Bryston on the design of the original Bryston DP-1, some of which is still found in the DP-2. Bryston provided the enclosure, PSU know-how and eventually the user interface and software with enhanced capabilities but the back-bone infrastructure was sourced from Auraliti. This probably explains why, as you research those types of components, Auraliti always come up as the reference which others measure themselves against regardless of price. You can find online comparisons between the Auraliti and Bryston, SOtM and Aurender which always yield a tiny advantage to the thrice-priced contender. Yet the very fact that a music player of any price has to clear the Auraliti hurdle to be a credible entrant in this space screamed extreme value if not reference at its price. Since I am a sucker for the overachieving underdog and Auraliti’s chops were validated, albeit indirectly, by all their competitors measuring themselves against them, I decided to purchase one without ever hearing it. The 30-day return policy did help in making that decision.

The Auraliti file player comes in two different flavours sold directly from their website. The PK100 offers conventional S/PDIF outputs for connection to non-USB DACs. The PK90 which I bought offers only a USB output. For DACs compatible with DoP, the PK90’s recent software updates have enabled that functionality too but more on that later. I know how reviewers and manufacturers are always suspected of incestuous relationships which deliver manually ‘optimized’ gear to us writers. Rest at peace. I purchased the PK90 at full retail like any other customer and did not reveal my reviewer status until after this review was written (this relative anonymity being one of the benefits of being fairly low on the reviewer totem pole). It afforded me a unique view into Auraliti’s customer service. I can also pretty much guarantee that the machine sitting on my shelf received no different attention than any other PK90 out there. In essence, the PK90 is a robust computer running off SSD memory with a Unix OS stripped down to the bare essentials, fronted by USB inputs supporting up to two USB hard drives in the back and one USB memory stick in the front (the front port won’t support USB powered hard drives whilst the back ones can but low-energy models are recommended if two are going to be plugged in simultaneously). The back end of the file player is no less than SOtM’s top USB audiophile sound card with its own linear power source to minimize noise breaching the USB connection. If your DAC does not rely on the USB connection to be actively powered to execute the handshake, there is the option of turning off the 5V power by simply lifting a switch in the back of the Auraliti. Both my Burson and SOtM DACs had no issue operating with the USB power turned off. That’s how I used it but I also must admit that I heard no difference whatsoever, which in a way was reassuring considering how much effort went into eliminating any source of internal noise and jitter in the PK90. The absence of any obvious difference spoke to the excellent work done to minimize parasitic effects inside this affordable file player.

The PK90’s back side includes two more connectors, one for the power supply, one for Ethernet. The standard power supply is an off-the-shelf switcher but there is beefier linear supply for an extra $399. That may seem a lot for a $949 player but the investment is well worth it by eliminating another possible source of switching noise and providing a more robust power source, always a benefit with anything hifi. Finally the two video connectors serve no current purpose and are not functional. And that’s it, really - a black box with an optimized computer inside doing nothing but music files from an external hard drive plus a big linear power supply to make sure it is never starved. That’s all you get and it doesn’t get any more glamorous the longer you look at it. But should you care to listen, things suddenly get quite interesting.