AURALiC continues to increase its market share in the world of HiFi, and it's no surprise why. The company never stops innovating and at the same time offering its innovative products at reasonable prices. Very few HiFi companies are even capable of creating what Auralic has developed with its Lightning DS platform. By very few, I mean less than a handful. The most venerable and storied brands in HiFi would kill to have the talent and ability to create what Auralic has created.
That said, during my time with the VEGA G1 I totally ignored the Lightning DS platform in favor of using the streamer/DAC/preamp as a Roon Ready endpoint. I almost always use products as the manufacturer intends or use what I'll call the manufacturer's native environment. I've reviewed many products from Auralic and used Lightning DS exclusively for playback and configuration. This time, I decided to use the Vega G1 with Roon partly because of Roon's popularity and partly because it just makes sense to use an Auralic product with another of its built-in capabilities, as a Roon Ready endpoint.
Auralic's original silver Vega (no longer available) is the product that put the company on the map. Its unique look, with the rounded volume knob and amber-lettered display, is unmistakably Auralic. Its sound quality was great and was the real impetus for audiophiles the world over to jump on the Auralic bandwagon. The company has since moved on from that original Vega and introduced both the Vega G1 and Vega G2.
As a writer who evaluates way more HiFi products than I'd like to admit, I absolutely love it when the pecking order of a brand's products makes sense. What I mean by this is that the price of the products must be commensurate with what the consumer is getting for his money. With respect to the Vega G Series, Auralic hit the nail on the head. The G1 is much better than the original silver Vega and the G2 is better than the G1. The pecking order for both performance and price looks like this - original silver Vega > Vega G1 > Vega G2.
Vega G1 Details
The Auralic Vega G1 is a streamer, DAC, and preamp that can drive power amplifiers directly. This fact alone is enough to make one consider upgrading to the G1 because of the reduction of boxes and price associated with three separate components. The G1 has it all in a single chassis. Let me rephrase that, it doesn't have it ALL because some features are better left to products like the Auralic Aries. Anyway, the G1 has all the traditional digital inputs and its most powerful input Ethernet. I call it powerful because it enables not only streaming from cloud or local network sources, but it also enables two-way communication for volume and playback control.
The G1 inputs differ from the G2 in that G1 doesn't have a Lightning Link input over an HDMI cable. This is Auralic's proprietary interface described as,
"... a low-jitter, bi-directional 18Gbps coupling that takes advantage of high-speed HDMI-type hardware connectors to provide a superior level of transmission control ... Lightning Link is different from other HDMI-based I2S connections. Because it's bi-directional, it opens the door to the jitter-free operation of all the devices in your system. Clocking information from destination devices like the VEGA G2 can drive the ARIES G2 timing for example, for perfect data synchronization. At the same time, Lightning Link carries system control data for everything from volume control to processor engine setup, allowing all linked AURALiC devices to appear in a single, unified control interface."
Another major difference between the G1 and G2 is the G1 doesn't have an analog input. For most HiFi consumers this isn't a problem because all our music sources are digital. If one has a turntable, the G2 combined with a phono preamp will be necessary.
Internally, the Vega G1 uses Auralic's Tesla hardware platform with a Quad Core Cortex-A9 processor running at 800MHz, 1 GB of RAM and 4 GB of data storage. Both the G1's and G2's Tesla hardware are identical. The G1 starts to show major differences from the flagship G2 internally when it comes to galvanic isolation and volume control. If I had to guess at the biggest reasons for the sonic differences between the G1 and G2, I'd say they rest mainly with these two aspects.
Auralic's galvanic isolation is made up of several isolation points within the G2 products. The Vega G2 has hit-speed galvanic isolation between its clocking, processing, and transmitting circuits. This enables communication between the internal components but blocks current and EMI from traversing throughout the delicate circuitry. Unfortunately, the Vega G1 features no such galvanic isolation.
When it comes to volume control, manufacturers can spend exorbitant amounts of money minimizing sonic degradations and perfecting the tiniest of details. On the flip side, this is an area where chip manufacturers have really improved, enabling manufacturers to take advantage of built-in volume control inside the digital to analog chips. A DAC already needs this chip to function, so enabling the volume control, or should I say not disabling it, can be a huge benefit to the consumer with respect to the price/performance ratio.
The Vega G1 uses the built-in DAC chip digital volume control. Old school audiophiles may cringe at that fact, but their experience with these attenuators is from the last century. Digital volume control can be superb. However, if one wants something a bit better a step up to the Vega G2 gets one a fully passive volume control using an R2R resistor ladder network. This volume control is on another level with its eight coil-latch relays for isolation, but its price is on another level as well.
Moving back to the outside of the G1, the most apparent difference between it and the G2 is the chassis. The G2 uses the Auralic Unity Chassis, which is machined from a single billet of aluminum and has a very smooth look to it without lines where different pieces of aluminum would connect. The G1 still features a very solid aluminum chassis; it's just not the Unity all-in-one monocoque type.
Distinctions With/Without Differences?
Back in the day, I worked for a Fortune 500 company that paid IBM billions of dollars to handle its information technology needs. Yes, that's billions with a B. IBM charged a fee per CPU second used when "jobs" would run on its servers. Runaway jobs always brought out the best in IBM as they claimed "something" went wrong, and they weren't notified of a job running for several hours even though it should've run for several minutes. Anyway, I would find ways to increase the efficiency of a job and bring the findings to my boss and the business stakeholders. The question I always received, without fail, was "So now what?" My internal response was always, "Isn't it obvious?" But, I needed to keep my job at that time, so I laid out why the new efficiency mattered.
Bringing this back to audio and asking myself "so now what" can be beneficial for readers who don't eat sleep and breathe this stuff 24/7. I've described several major distinctions between the Vega G1 and Vega G2, but are these distinctions with or without differences? The answer is, it depends. Most people on Earth would never notice a sonic difference between the G1 and G2. But, audiophiles are far from most people.
Combine all the distinctions between G1 and G2, and it adds up to a very noticeable sonic difference. As a theoretical exercise removing one or two of the differences such as Anti-vibration foot spikes and a Weight Balanced Design of the G2 may not make as big of a difference, but nobody should really care about something that isn't a possibility. You can't order a G2 without a couple of features and call it a G1.5.
In the big picture, listeners who've never heard the G2 will likely not know they are missing anything when listening to the G1. The G1 really is that good. It's only when comparing the sound quality of both units that one hears what the extra $2,000 of the G2 is getting the listener.
Let's dig into my listening experience with the Auralic Vega G1.
J.S Ondara is an artist with a very cool story and even better music that happens to sound great. J.S. moved from Kenya to Minneapolis a few years ago with the dream of making it as an artist. Why select Minneapolis? While living in Kenya, he found out about Bob Dylan, and it changed his life forever. Anyway, J.S. Ondara's new album Tales of America was released February 15, 2019, and is available from Qobuz for streaming at 24/192 or purchase from Qobuz or HDtracks in the same resolution. It isn't often we get to hear a new artist in high resolution.
The first track is fittingly titled America Dream. From the opening vocal one can't help but compare J.S. to Tracy Chapman due to sonic similarities and musical style. Plus, both artists have very good sounding albums. Through the Vega G1, all elements of this track sound as unique and individual as they should. Meaning, the vocal and violin play off each other wonderfully but are so separate in space, it's really a neat sound. In fact, all the instruments are so easy to hear on this track it's the opposite of a couple of recordings I'll touch on further down in this review.
The opening of track two, Torch Song, gives me pictures of Miles Davis and Rudy Van Gelder in my head. Not because there are trumpets in the track, but because it's possible to hear the recording engineer say "we're rolling" before J.S. Ondara starts playing, similar to the communication between Rudy and Miles on many albums. Yes, it's intentional, but I like it.
About 1:14 into the track a lovely sounding bass can be heard laying a foundation for the pickup in the pace. The bass isn't overbearing, but its pretense can't be missed. The G1 reproduces this beautifully while it reinforces Ondara's vocal and the ensuing backing vocalists. I've heard better backing vocal performances in my life, as this one is a little flat, but the track in its entirety is beautiful in both music and sound quality.
Track five, Television Girl, has a bit of a different sound from the rest of the album. It sounds a bit rawer. The acoustic guitar is more realistic sounding on this track than any of the others. Ondara's voice sounds similar to the other tracks, but it's a very engaging sound. The entire track is just Ondara, and a guitar and the G1 reproduces it wonderfully. There isn't much decay to the guitar, but Ondara's vocal has some serious echo added, just as it does a the beginning of the following track Turkish Bandana. Turkish Bandana is similar to Television Girl, but this time Ondara's voice sounds rawer. Midway through the track, Ondara lightens up his voice a bit in a delicate fashion, opening himself up a bit and showing vulnerability. The Vega G1 reproduces this delicacy, and background white noise, very well. It wasn't necessary to crank the volume as the G1 fared very well at low levels. Not as well as the G2, but very well nonetheless.
I recently discovered artist Anouar Brahem by browsing the Qobuz popular album charts. The fact that I could stream it in pristine 24/96 lossless resolution without the need for a proprietary decoder was also attractive to me when perusing for something to listen to the other night. What really put me over the top on deciding to press play was the fact that this Anouar records for the ECM label. The stars aligned, to say the least. (Qobuz | HDtracks)
The first track called Opening Day begins with Anouar's oud, an instrument I'd honestly never heard of before discovering this album. As expected from ECM and the Auralic Vega G1, the sound was really great. When Jack DeJohnette's cymbals start sprinkling Ito the track at 1:13 the entire soundstage opens up, and it's possible to hear the recording environment. There's a nice amount of space around the percussion instruments that I don't hear with the oud. I guess this is good in a way, with respect to the Vega G1, in that the G1 isn't adding space around instruments when space wasn't on the recording. On this track the oud sounds similar to Ottmar Liebert's close mic'd guitar on his One Guitar album.
The listening pleasure continued to track two titled La Nuit. Beautiful piano opens the track with a dark sounding oud adding an eerie feeling to the track. There's a clear depth to the sound through the G1 as the oud emanates from far back between the loudspeakers. Filling out the soundstage and giving the track additional space are cymbals and bells struck sparingly. These sound crystal clear and are striking in a way in that they throw the listener off the course of the piano/oud road.
Another really great aspect to the sound of this track through the G1 is the sonic decay from both the oud and piano. Each instrument seems to hang in the air forever, slowing fading away. It's as if the listener can picture Django Bates gently striking the piano keys and hoping the audience s=remains quiet until the sound rings out. This isn't live recording in the sense that there's an audience, but that's the image in my head. One of the pianists working his magic and hoping the listening environment is quiet enough to reap the rewards.
This entire album is filled with musical and sonic treasures. I touch on the track Blue Maqams to close this one out. The opening percussion is so delicate with such beautiful decay that I don't want to listen to it on an inferior system for fear of missing the artist's intent. Through the G1 it really sounds great. I don't even want to make a change because why fix what's not broken. That said, the G2 with its lower noise floor via galvanic isolation and ultra high-end volume control would make this track and the entire album sound even better. What a crazy, but enjoyable hobby HiFi is.
Artist Dido Armstrong, better known by her first name only, recently released her fifth album, entitled Still on My Mind. I streamed the pristine PCM version from Qobuz at 24 bit / 44.1 kHz through Roon. The album is far more Pop than other audiophile standards, but it's music to which I listen and should use when evaluating components. (Qobuz | HDtracks)
The track titled Give You Up sounds as synthetic as it should, but it sounds as good as it should as well. The keyboard opening, rather than full piano, can be heard very clearly. If I knew more about keyboards, I could probably identify the make and model. The Vega G1 reproduces this synthetic sound just as well as un-amplified acoustic instruments. It doesn't change the sound, and instead sends it on to the amp in all its glory.
The main element in all Dido albums is her smooth voice. When she enters the track at 0:07 her voice is as smooth as ever through the G1. Dido's signature vocal inflections at 0:16 and 0:31 young great, not fantastic, but that's to be expected in a recording of this caliber.
Track number 6, Some Kind of Love is also all about Dido's signature smooth vocals. Accompanying guitar widens the soundstage a bit through the Vega G1, but Dido's centered vocal is clearly what this track and album are all about. I'd say this track features the best sounding vocal of the entire album and the G1 does a great job of reproducing it. It's a Pop vocal with all its post-production adjustments so it won't sound spectacular on any revealing system. All I ask is that my components let me hear that vocal and post-production. The Vega G1 accomplished that without an issue.
The Black Keys recently released a new track called Lo/Hi. It's available from Qobuz in 24/48, the original resolution of the recording. Right from the opening, the beautiful distortion of the guitar sounds spectacular. When I first put this track on, I clicked the volume in Roon right away and cranked it up. This, of course, adjusts the volume directly on the Vega G1 rather than being a software volume control prior to the hardware volume control. This is classic Black Keys' dirty sound and its sounds as dirty as it should. At there same time, it's possible to hear backing vocalists under all the grunge. The Vega G1 does a great job of separating the frequencies/instruments even when they are a jumbled mess, to reveal the details that even The Black Keys put into their recordings. I seriously doubt anyone listening to earbuds on the subway train will care about great sounding backing vocals, but it's there, and I love it through the G1. (Qobuz)
Another band that's not afraid of distorting guitars also released a couple of new tracks recently. The Raconteurs Sunday Driver, with the track Now That You're Gone as a B-Side, is classic Raconteurs. The song remains the same through the Vega G1. Dirty, grunge, tubed electronics, effects pedals, etc... all come through great when using the solid-state G1 connected directly to my Constellation Inspiration amplifiers. This track also has a bit more punch from Patrick Keeler's drums than the previous Black Keys track, and the G1 pushes it right out, so the listener feels it if the volume is at sufficient levels.
Neither Black Keys nor Raconteurs tracks are "HiFi" but I love these bands and once in a while feel the need to use them as reference material when evaluating components. (Tidal)
The Auralic Vega G1 may be the little brother of the flagship Vega G2, for all except the most finicky audiophile the G1 is a flagship in its own right. Consider that the previous silver Vega was the best DAC Auralic had made and many, including me, love the way it performed. The Vega G1 is nicely ahead of that original Vega in both sonic performance and design. The G1 is on my shortlist of components when friends ask me which DAC to get and their needs match up with the features it provides. This happens quite a bit because of the G1's expansive feature set and high level of performance.
The Vega G1 is $2,000 less expensive than the G2 because of the G2's seriously expensive chassis and analog volume control in addition to its galvanic isolation among other items. Auralic's G1 design makes it much more affordable and still among the best components in its category. The digital volume control still enables one to hear the delicacy of soft percussion instruments and backing vocals underneath a wall of distorted guitars. Connecting the G1 directly to an amplifier enables one to remove a passive preamp and extra set of cables, and get closer to that elusive straight wire with gain.
If you know you're the type of person who has to have the best or doesn't want to second guess himself at a later date, then go with he Vega G2 now. If you're like everyone else, you'll likely be elated with the performance of the G1. I highly recommend it.