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I was – to the best of my knowledge – the first ever UK hi-fi journalist to review a hi-fi streaming device. In 2007, a large flight case arrived at my front door, inside was the new Linn Klimax DS, a notebook PC and an Ethernet cable. It took me nearly a day to get the system up and running and then playing the tiny selection of 'hi res' music on the supplied computer's hard drive.
It was a challenge to review it, to be frank. Both bits of hardware didn't want to talk to one another, and then the software didn't want to talk to the hardware. I struggled to see why anyone would buy it – whilst at the same time realising it was the future. A little later, I met up with Ivor Tiefenbrun, and he boldly told me that Linn would be ceasing to make CD players within a couple of years. At the time, it sounded like a huge claim. I kept my powder dry, and resisted the temptation to jump to conclusions about any imminent “death of CD” – yet still it felt like the writing was on the wall…
The hi-fi world subsequently witnessed a renaissance of DACs as people got into computer audio, as we used to call it back then. Today, this has become normalised, and thirteen years later no one bats an eyelid about network music players; indeed, many have subscriptions to TIDAL, Qobuz, et al. Yet in the audiophile world, there's still a relative lack of high-end digital streamers. The market is far less crowded than in headphone amps, DACs or phono stages. That's a problem that AURALiC's new ARIES G2.1 seeks to address.
This company came to this brave new world of hi-fi hardware relatively quickly; its first streaming product appeared in 2014, with design commencing as early as 2012. AURALiC employs a bespoke hardware and software platform, rather than a bought-in one that so many rivals use. For example, Stream Unlimited silicon and code can be found in most commercially available products, but not here. Doing it the hard way, as this company has done, gives better quality control but is more costly and time-consuming. The challenge for AURALiC has been to translate its technology into great 'real world' products that people want to buy and use.
I first tasted the more affordable ALTAIR G1 earlier this year and was impressed by its build, sound quality, user-friendliness, and value. It's a great, general-purpose grown-up streamer, but the downside was that it didn't have a digital output, so couldn't be used solely as a digital transport. Instead, the user was limited to its internal DAC, thereby limiting its ultimate flexibility. The new G2.1 tested here is an altogether more precisely targeted product – a purpose-designed, no-holds-barred streaming 'transport' that you can use with any existing digital converter. That's handy, as many audiophiles these days build their systems around their existing DACs and don't regularly change them.
A reworking of the first Aries launched in 2017, the G2.1 has been launched alongside the Vega G2.1 (£5,999) streaming DAC, the Leo GX.1 (£7,999) reference clock and Sirius G2.1 (£5,999) upsampling processor. This puts the full system firmly into dCS Rossini streaming DAC price territory, yet you get a flagship dCS Vivaldi-style 'stack' of boxes.
Although you'd never call this new AURALiC range cheap, the company is trying to give prospective purchasers a lot for their money, and also to create an upgrade ladder which you don't get if – for example – you just buy a one-box Rossini outright. It's an interesting strategy and lets people work their way up in their own time.
Unlike dCS – which uses a reworked Stream Unlimited hardware platform – this AURALiC uses a streaming platform that was developed totally in house, according to Xuanqian Wang, CEO and technical designer. “This is in part because our first-generation product was released back at the beginning of 2014 before Stream Unlimited had any solutions in place for the specialist hi-fi market”, he tells me. “So, we have a wealth of experience in ensuring our products deliver the very best sound quality and operate reliably through our own intuitive Lightning DS app.”
Painstaking care was taken over the new Aries G2.1, he adds. “Designing a good streaming transport requires the manufacturer to pay attention to every single detail, from developing a proper hard real-time operating system that is optimised for audio playback to low noise circuit design; from low jitter output to the chassis shielding and the vibration control. There are so many factors, that's why we developed all software and hardware in-house, which gives us total control and predictable results…”
“Digital audio signals are extremely susceptible to electrical interference and mechanical vibration”, he adds. “So, we house our sensitive electronics within a copper sub-enclosure built inside the substantial aluminium case. The case is bolted to a high mass, heavy metal base anchored by four specially tuned custom feet which house six individual spring assemblies. The femto clocks inside digital audio circuits – and any analogue circuit – are vulnerable to vibration. We also pay a great deal of attention to the quality and integrity of our power supplies, ensuring the purest feeds to the most sensitive circuit elements.”
The latest Aries G2.1 has some circuitry tweaks too, with its HDD port for local hard drives getting a power boost to handle a broader range of power-hungry USB drives. A new ripping engine has been added to its Lightning OS, and I love the fact that the new 7.0 version gives Compact Disc playback from an external USB CD-ROM drive and optional ripping capabilities. Even this has been taken seriously; the company says the system reads each disc sector several times to ensure ultimate data accuracy. It's then cached for what's claimed to be utterly jitter-free playback.
Another important aspect for the range is the company's Lightning Link interface. “If a customer chooses to use our Vega G2.1 DAC with Aries G2.1, we optimise the connection with our own proprietary Lightning Link interface, a two-way communication protocol which facilitates high-speed data transfer and communications between the products”, says Xuanqian Wang. “Furthermore, a customer may add the Leo GX.1 Reference Master Clock, which further improves the performance of the Aries G2.1. We'll also be introducing our Sirius G2.1 Universal upsampling processor in December – that's going to be unique in the market as we have designed it to work with any device which a customer may choose to use.”
The Aries G2.1 is a lovely thing to have and to hold, with its excellent finish and chunky, chassis-within-a-chassis construction. The outer casework is manufactured from finely surfaced aluminium, and there's an additional internal enclosure made from copper – like a high-end Japanese CD player from the nineteen-eighties. This gives improved electrical shielding and helps to suppress airborne resonance too. It's aided and abetted by a sculpted metal base and a sprung suspension system inside the feet.
So what does the Aries G2.1 bring to the party? Well, it has all the Altair's good things going for it, so it's easy to set-up and use – the diametric opposite to that first, pioneering Linn Klimax DS all those years ago. Indeed, it's no more challenging to use than the iTunes app on your iPhone. That's no accident of course, and it's taken a while for the company to get to this point, but the accompanying Lightning DS app is excellent – and unlike so many others I have tried over the years, has never crashed on me. It integrates a host of sources from Network Attached Storage playback to Roon, and as well as the CD-ROM connectivity. There's also an option of a built-in 2TB SSD hard drive (£400).
The Aries G2.1 has a largish fine-pitch colour display that always tells you what it's doing – and that's still not a given, elsewhere in the hi-fi world. There's a sense that this streamer is well 'house-trained' – it may be a fairly high-end product but doesn't like complexity for its own sake.
In my system, I hooked the Aries G2.1 up to a range of DACs for this review – the main one being a Chord Hugo TT2. I tried both wired and wireless connections, and found the former to be subtly better sounding, with a more easy and relaxed nature, and perhaps a fraction more detail across the midband. Most of the listening was done via a Sony TA-N86B power amplifier in full Class A mode, driving Yamaha NS1000M loudspeakers.
When CD transports first came out, many were amazed that they genuinely sounded slightly different from one another. At the time most were unsure of the reasons, but we now know that serious attention to jitter, RFI and mechanical noise all play a part, as well as the actual digital connectors and their associated driver chips. In other words, even a digital transport has to be done right, to get the best sound. The Aries G2.1 shows this to be true, as it has a very clean, open and incisive delivery that lets whatever DAC you plug it into, do its job.
The joy of AURALiC's Lightning app was that I could flick quickly and reliably between my vast library of hi-res PCM and DSD, and my main music store of CD-rips – all on my Western Digital NAS drive. Because I could easily 'jaunt' from a classic nineteen sixties rock track like Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young's Country Girl, to some seventies futurist electro in the shape of Herbie Hancock's Rock It, I could hear the stark contrast in sound. The Aries G2.1 became a sort of time window through which I could peer, showing me a vast range of recordings in stunning resolution.
Of course, the ultimate tonal balance, focus and soundstaging are largely going to be down to the DAC being used, but the difference that an excellent transport can make is still uncanny. The AURALiC served up a very open and matter-of-fact rendition of the original mix. For example, in the former track, Neil Young's vocals were quite mesmeric. Anyone who knows this song will surely agree that he's recessed in the mix, yet still, his voice can grate through the wrong system. I found that via the Aries G2.1, he hovered imperiously above the rest of the mix, letting the listener really make close contact with his vocal line. Behind this, the band gently sauntered along in the verses and then cranked things up massively in the chorus.
Rock It, by contrast, was fireworks all the way through. The recording sounded profoundly different – really fast and incisive. Also a hi-res version, it reminded me just how good late seventies analogue was – not that many people got to find out at the time, through their Pioneer PL-12D turntables! Jumping another decade and Slave to the Rhythm by Grace Jones was a revelation. This was just 16/44 PCM, but the AURALiC was so open and incisive that you'd be forgiven for thinking it was 24/88 at least. Producer Trevor Horn's soundscape was vast, this streamer giving an exceptionally spacious rendition which I usually only get from a remarkably capable CD transport like the Cyrus CD Xt Signature when feeding my reference Chord DAC.
Interestingly, the Aries G2.1 proved particularly good at defining the spaces between the notes; there was no sense of any smearing or softening of the attack transients of the drum machine work, for example. It pasted together the timing information of the song in a way that made the music sound like a cohesive whole, as it should, rather than a sequence of beats. The result was a magnificent rendition which, in my opinion, is one of the great tracks of the nineteen-eighties.
Another standout trait is dynamics. The Style Council's Headstart for Happiness is a relatively smooth sounding soulful pop track, but the Aries G2.1 was able to make it a highly expressive, living and breathing entity. It was quite uncanny, the way this transport stripped away the digital mush that many cheaper streamers imbue it with, to allow a super clean, almost crystalline sound with lots of headroom for when singer Paul Weller really pushed his voice. The AURALiC once again reminded me just how impressive this late period analogue recording was for its day.
AURALiC's new Aries G2.1 is a welcome new entry into the high-end streamer market for the following reasons. First, it sounds great – giving a very open, expansive and expressive sound, that gels musically very well. Secondly, it's refreshingly easy to use and set-up – and never crashed on me during the review period, unlike many others I've tried over the years. Third, it's beautifully built inside and out. Finally, it forms part of a whole new streaming' stack system', including clock, upsampler and DAC – which gives excellent upgrade potential; watch out for reviews of these in due course. Overall, this new streaming transport deserves to succeed, and I am in no doubt that it will.
"...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."