Aqua LinQ Network Interface – Part 3 – Core + NAA Module
Review sample supplied by Aqua
Retail prices in the NL including 21% VAT:
LinQ with UPnP/DLNA or HQPlayer Renderer module: 5.680 euro
LinQ with UPnP/DLNA and HQPlayer Renderer module: 6.960 euro
LinQ with Core+NAA Renderer module: 6.980 euro
Core+NAA Modules Bundle Upgrade: 2.480 euro (including Sygnalyst license)
Core module Upgrade: 1.450 euro (including Sygnalyst license)
All Aqua products are built in a modular manner, and always easy to upgrade. Over the years and through several updates, Aqua has proven that this concept works fabulously. Of all the Aqua products that I own and have used, however, the LinQ is probably the best example.
At its introduction in June 2020, two interface modules were available for the LinQ: Roon RAAT and UPnP. A few months later, following marketing analysis and some tough internal decision-making, Roon RAAT was dropped and the HQPlayer NAA-Renderer module (player-only) was introduced, enabling Roon functionality not via RAAT but via an HQPlayer NAA stream. Shortly thereafter, work began on creating modules to support Squeezelite and Airplay. Meanwhile, work was being done to perfect the HQPlayer Core module and by the end of March this year, the module was released.
Custom HQPlayer Core
The new Core interface module consists of two cascaded boards, of which the smaller one under the heatsink is the new i.MX8 ARM 64 bit micro System on Module, which is a high-class industrial computer module, chosen by Aqua for its performance and efficiency. It operates with a custom lightweight UNIX-based kernel to achieve faster response times and, apparently, even better sound quality.
The new module promises zero-config, no-hassle, true Plug & Play, Roon compatibility. Rather than being dependent on market fashion or requirements by external parties such as Roon, Aqua has chosen to make its product immune to obsolescence. HQPlayer compatibility is built into Roon as standard and because the LinQ does not implement the RAAT protocol, no Roon certification is required. Further, since HQPlayer is an independent piece of software that can run on any system, the compatibility is not limited to Roon.
The Core module can be inserted in every slot. In my case, with the NAA board and the UPnP board, and now the Core board installed, the LinQ offers room for yet one more interface module.
Basically, the new Core module replaces the HQPlayer Embedded software part that normally runs on the Music Server (or, potentially, a third computer device). After adding HQPlayer as a Zone in Roon, the HQPlayer Core module controls the final connection to the Audio Engine as Roon passes along an NAA stream (not RAAT) from media files or streaming services (e.g. Qobuz and Tidal). This allows you to enjoy the improved HQPlayer Sound Quality and the excellent library management capabilities of Roon at the same time.
Ready to play
There will be only one setting for new owners to be made, which is to note the IP address on the LinQ’s display and enter it in the Roon HQPlayer section when adding it as a Zone. The Core module already has the Sygnalyst HQPlayer license preinstalled (representing a 250-euro value) so that the LinQ is immediately ready for listening.
In my case, since I initially used the LinQ player module along with the HQPlayer server software component, I also had to disable the previously set NAA Network output on the Antipodes server to avoid conflicts. This was entirely painless and easy to repeat in order to allow AB comparisons. Not that I needed much time to make up my mind… but now I’m getting ahead of myself.
The new Core module works in tandem with the HQPlayer NAA Renderer module that in my case was already installed. Thus, when using the Core module, the same input button remains active as before. In my case, this is input 1. Input 2 is the UPnP interface module. The Core module’s IP address can be checked by selecting its new input from the front panel which, in my case, is input 3.
The FPGA-driven LinQ remains true to the Aqua company philosophy and thus, the Core module is not aimed at digital signal processing. Following this, and to allow true Plug & Play functionality, Aqua has already set all the parameters to their ideal settings and to bypass any processing. LinQ users will not have to worry about any of the HQPlayer’s software settings.
Advanced HQPlayer parameters
Expert users will still have access to HQPlayer’s very powerful tweaking functionality of parameters such as filtering and upsampling. If desired, the HQPlayer’s settings can be accessed from any web browser by entering the following URL: http://linqcore/ (or http://linqcore.local/ for MAC) or by entering the IP address as displayed on the LinQ’s display when the Core module is selected. This opens a clearly laid-out and simple-to-use Aqua GUI where the most relevant settings can be made.
Behind the scenes, this interface controls the actual (and visually messy) HQPlayer interface. For hardcore users who wish to torment themselves and access the remaining less-used HQPlayer functionality, that interface can still be accessed via a button on the same screen. Finally, the Aqua-recommended settings can always be re-set at any point by clicking the Factory Default button.
The architecture of the modules was already extremely flexible but Aqua has now also developed and implemented a new system to allow an even easier and faster procedure for future firmware updates or additions, which can be done directly by users via the same Aqua GUI.