I first encountered April Music at Las Vegas CES in 2004. A young South Korean company, the people behind it struck me as interesting and imaginative. Under the Stello brand name, it made some fine sounding hi-fi separates, much in the Japanese high end mould. A couple of years later this curious object appeared, styled by British industrial design guru Kenneth Grange CBE – which instantly sets it apart from practically all other one-box hi-fi systems I’ve come across, save perhaps Jacob Jensen-era Bang & Olufsen. Design Council award winner Grange, cofounder of Pentagram, fashioned Britain’s National High Speed Train, Kodak’s Instamatic Camera, Wilkinson shavers and Parker fountain pens, as well as undertaking extensive consultancy work in Japan; he even styled the latest London taxi. The electronics inside are of course by April Music.
Launched in 2006, the Music Center sported a top-loading Compact Disc player, AM/FM tuner, 50W transistor power amp with a line input and USB inputs, in a compact chassis measuring just 278x84x278mm and weighing 7kg. With an elegant glass cover which slides along a channel in the top plate, the CD player is a pleasure to use providing you don’t lose its heavy magnetic puck. The front panel is dominated by the retro looking red LED display, next to which sit eight buttons with a pleasantly positive action – standby, volume, CD play/pause, CD stop, CD track search up and down and mode – which switches source between CD, tuner, auxiliary stereo inputs, and USB.
The rear USB input is for computers, while the side panel socket will work with both USB memory sticks and USB hard drives directly, playing MP3, WMA and OGG files up to 192kbps. The unit can also record from PC or tuner directly to a memory stick at 128kbps (in MP3 format), which seems positively archaic in 2015! The supplied remote is a 55x85mm credit card device only 7mm thick but housing 24 buttons with a remarkable 160º usable angle, allowing this to work almost anywhere in the room. Overall, it’s a beautifully thought out design with the accent on understatement, ease of use and minimalism. The fit and finish of the various parts is excellent at the price, too.
Sonically, there are very few one-box hi-fis worth getting out of bed for, but the Aura Note was – and still is – better than most. Whereas typical examples of the breed sound harsh and screechy, with a two dimensional soundstage and general lack of musicality, this is actually quite warm and natural sounding. Partnered with a good pair of efficient modern floor standers such as the Q Acoustics 2050i, and there’s a pleasing richness to it, especially in the upper midband. Above this, you get a crisp and open presence region with a good degree of detail and a fair stab at reproducing the recorded acoustic in all of the original three dimensions. It’s musical too, following vocal lines well and capturing the intent and mood of the singer well, thanks to deft handling with dynamic inflections. Treble is clean and detailed, and devoid of harshness in a way you wouldn’t expect from such a thing.
For a one-box system then, the Aura Note Music Center does very well indeed – especially a mid-decade design retailing for just £1,500 when launched in the United Kingdom. It isn’t quite a replacement for a top-quality separates hi-fi, but still lets you really enjoy music in your living room, kitchen or bedroom – basically wherever your main hi-fi isn’t! Factor in its high standard of finish and real attention to detail as far as its ergonomics are concerned, and it really is a lovely thing. The only downside is its lack of a non-USB digital input, although the new v2 launched at CES 2015 adds this feature, and some extra power too. British design and South Korean electronics doesn’t necessarily sound like a synergistic match, but in this case it is.