You’ve seen one Auralic product, you’ve seen ‘em all. Or at least it sometimes seems to be the case when reviewing products from their G series where the case looks pretty much identical from one to the next. But look beyond the box or look a bit more closely at it and you start to spot the differences, the biggest being that G1 models have a case that’s fabricated out of several different parts while G2s are machined from a large lump of aluminium. The G1 however has the practical advantage of easy to spot front panel controls, being silver rather than black you can actually spot the play/pause button without turning the lights on. Incidentally such buttons are far from a given on streamers and very useful when the phone rings.
The Aries model is Auralic’s dedicated streamer so both models have the same connections and form a bridge between a hard driver or music server and a digital to analogue converter. In theory you shouldn’t need a streamer given that all music servers and quite a lot of NAS drives have USB outputs, and it’s possible to tell the drive to send the desired album or track to the DAC, in essence pushing it from the source. But, as Linn and Naim discovered way back when they got into multi-room the streaming option where the signal is pulled from the drive and sent to a DAC (on- or offboard) produces a distinctly more compelling musical result.
It goes against audiophile ethos to accept that by adding a piece of electronics in the chain along with a cable that was created for sending packet data between computers can make the sound better. But this isn’t analogue where less genuinely is more, it’s digital where things like clocking, jitter, grounding and myriad other factors influence the result in ways that are still not fully understood. I have made numerous comparisons using high quality music servers with and without a streamer and can’t think of any occasion where the streamer hasn’t been beneficial. It’s a pity really because it adds extra expense to a streaming system and takes up space but if you want a truly inspiring listening experience from your digital music library it’s the way forward.
Second only to sound quality when it comes to music streaming is the control software, there is nothing as frustrating as not being able to play what you want because of glitches with the app. Auralic’s Lightning DS is now a mature piece of software that behaves consistently and allows the user with a few hours under his or her belt to get the streamer to say ‘how high’ when they press ‘jump’. It probably doesn’t take that long in reality, I have been using Lightning for several years on and off and it has got easier and more stable over that time. It has an attractively Apple like interface and good integration with both Tidal and Qobuz streaming services, by which I mean the artwork is large, it’s easy to search out the music you want and there is plenty of info available. You can also stream Spotify and Apple Music but those services do not provide the quality of signal that the pricier, losslessly compressed alternatives do. Internet radio could be better handled, there’s no search option which is not uncommon but it’s quite hard to find stations unless you use the genre button, which wasn’t much use when I wanted to find Gwenifer Jones’s playlist on BBC Cymru, which is perhaps a bit niche (eventually found in ‘local stations’ albeit without on-demand). It does at least have a pause button for radio streams which not all apps offer.
The Aries G1 has the usual connection options for ethernet, USB storage and a DAC, the latter can be achieved with SPDIF, AES/EBU or USB connections and the majority of my listening was done with the latter. It can connect with or without a wired network using two antenna for the latter, and if you want remote control you can use any IR handset you like with a bit of mapping through the large front panel display. It can stream sample rates up to 32-bit/384kHz and 22.57892MHz (DSD512) which are big numbers but not as big as modern DACs can cope with. That said I have no music that was recorded at these rates and nor are commercial releases likely to appear in them. More useful is that you can change the sample rate it outputs so that you don’t overload a DAC that isn’t so up to the moment, which is handy if you have high res files but a low res DAC. This may only be a reviewing problem; I love the BorderPatrol DAC SE but it makes a horrible noise if you send it anything much higher than 96kHz, I mean really nasty so this is a godsend. I also like the big display that shows artwork and volume level, which can reduce digital output level via all outputs.
It’s hard to assess the sound quality of a streamer because it’s dependent on the source and DAC that it sits between but it nonetheless has a character that is revealed when comparisons are made. The first one has to be does it make sufficient improvement to the output of the server, which in this case is the remarkable Innuos Zenith SE, putting the Aries G1 in circuit between that and the ifi Pro iDSD DAC resulted in a much more solid and present sound. Joni Mitchel sounded like she was in the room, a physical rather than ethereal presence compared to the server’s USB output. Timing also improved markedly, the melody became easier to appreciate thanks to a degree of focus that the server alone cannot emulate. Zappa’s ‘Wino Man’ (Zoot Allures) still sounds compressed with the G1 inline but the bass line is that much clearer and there is a much stronger sense of a layering of sounds, so you can hear what’s going on in the background and appreciate precisely how filthy the guitar sound he gets on this marvellous track is. The title track from that album is absolutely sublime, supremely clear and deliciously juicy.
Acoustic guitar genius John Fahey has resurfaced in my listening of late and I have to say he sounds excellent through the Aries, even with older recordings like Voice of the Turtle from way back in the day. The track ‘Bottleneck Blues’ grooves like a badass despite or perhaps because of the deliberately crude recording. I tried the Aries G1 with the MSB Discrete DAC when it was in the system, that worked rather well too, letting it reveal hidden details and oodles of low level sounds that the DAC had been unable to extract alone. It made the sound more involving which is probably more important than detail levels but inextricably linked to them. Joni Mitchell’s ‘All I Want’ became more sophisticated and the drums on Michael Wollny Trio’s live albym Wartburggot faster, that is the attack was clearer, and the bass was gorgeous.
I also had the opportunity to compare the Aries G1 with another streamer albeit one at around a quarter the price that had sounded fine until I put the Auralic on. This is when all the radiance in Mitchell’s Miles of Aislesbecame apparent, that and the strength of presence that had appeared with the server comparison. It would be interesting to put the Aries G1 up against its G2 big brother which bowled me over last year. I’ve changed listening room and DAC since then so it’s impossible to guess but suspect that the hewn from solid version would have the upper hand in detail resolution and musicality. But you do have to pay a fair whack more for that luxury and the G1 is a very nice piece of kit, it does most of what the G2 does and offers the same high quality user experience thanks to Lightning DS. If you want to hear what streaming is really all about you need a good streamer, the Aries G1 is a good streamer, no doubt about it.
"...The ALTAIR g1 is a versatile product that is loaded with features and performs all its functions competently. Coupled with its refined sonic performance, the ALTAIR G1 offers substantial value at its price point."