The Neoteric Listener - The AURALiC VEGA G1 Streaming DAC
"Is it live or is it Memorex?" If you're old enough to remember that ad for audio cassettes (hell, if you're old enough to remember audio cassettes) you also remember that nobody had trouble answering the question. I don't care how astounding your Nakamichi Dragon cassette player happened to be, nobody ever walked into your listening room and said, "Hey! Where's the orchestra?!"
To be honest, I've had much the same experience with DACs. An invisible hand may drive DAC marketing, but there are plenty of audible fingerprints on digital sound reproduction. Sure, computer audio evaded the hiss, pop, and wobble of the analog tribe, but when listening to digital files, you could always "see the strings on the puppet." Digital in its infancy always sounded a little too clean, a tad too processed, a bit too…artificial. For ages, even the best DACs desperately scrambled to avoid being tagged with the dreaded "digititis" label. Instead of exploring the potential of digital playback, every new DAC seemed hell bent on sounding like your favorite record player. The resulting sonic performance was often a washed out audio bore, or a tarted up mess of phasey mushiness. Thankfully, things are changing. DACs are evolving to the point where they are offering an audio experience that does more than mimic reel to reel or vinyl. The AURALiC VEGA G1 discussed here is an example of a company that moves the needle on playing music encoded in the digital domain.
When playing digital files or streaming from online sources, the AURALiC VEGA G1 invites the listener to hear music as a performance, not an assemblage of moving parts. Delivering sumptuousness, space, and detail all at once is surely a demanding task; yet, the AURALiC DAC proves more than capable of delivering these qualities in recordings from all genres. The AURALiC VEGA G1 is a delight to listen to, and I often found myself putting down whatever I was reading, texting, or writing just to sit back and enjoy. The high playback quality of the G1 also helped me to avoid obsessively listening for individual instruments, recording tricks, and vocal parts. I just wasn't interested in sleuthing, winnowing, or measuring a damn thing. In short, the VEGA G1 made me turn off the thinker. I've heard a number of fine DACs this year, but none of them impressed me with the G1's ability to convey music in such an unrestrained and assured manner. The interplay of instruments on Quatuor Hanson's performance of Hayden's String Quartet No. 6 in D Major, Op.50 "The Frog" was sublime. The uniformly excellent balance in "Django" from Michel Legrand was equally rich and captivating. The subtle shifts in movement off mike as John Lee Hooker narrates his mesmerizing recollection of a devastating flood in "Tupelo Blues" shows the VEGA G1's skill in spotlighting the exceptional moment within the whole of a performance. The music was enough.
Trying to pinpoint why a certain preamp or speaker or tonearm sounds the way it does is hard enough, but DACs are a different beast, altogether. Some people say timing is the key, while others say reducing noise is the answer. What part of a DAC's sound is premium parts, and which part is the code in the machine? Perhaps the VEGA G1's captivating performance is due to the modified Sabre DAC chip or the Dual 72fs Femto Master Clock. Maybe the sound owes primarily to the Dual Purer-Power linear power supply. So much time and money went into developing the Tesla G1 hardware platform processing engine, it would be a sin if that didn't have something to do with the scale of timbre, timing, and depth. Whatever it is, this is a fine sounding DAC, one that doesn't need charts or metrics to puff up its stature. Where a quantifiable list does come in handy, however, is in a review of a DAC/Streamer's features. Onward!
The VEGA G1 offers all the digital input ports most folks will ever need: AES / EBU, Digital Coaxial, USB Audio, and TOSLINK. Access is easy to network resources like UPnP / DLNA media servers, high-resolution Internet Services and Internet Radio via Ethernet. Similarly, the VEGA G1 is well suited to play practically all digital files and stream any file format (go to their website for the exhaustive list). My collection has a menagerie of file types in all bit rates and formats. Shuffling songs is often problematic, because whatever DAC I'm using typically doesn't have the tools to play everything in the hard drive. The AURALiC VEGA G1 didn't have any trouble with the DSD 128 or DSD 264 files and, other than a few corrupted files that had to be jettisoned (not the fault of the VEGA G1) everything else played fine. Streaming Qobuz was a breeze when using the AURALiC Lightning DS app on my iPhone. I like the Qobuz sound and search options, and the Lightning DS app delivered faultless streaming with the VEGA G1. You are pretty well covered with internet resources, as the Lightning DS app also features Tidal and Spotify (among others). Finally, the AURALiC VEGA G1 is a Roon endpoint. Automatic updates ensure that the purchaser can take advantage of any new features and performance upgrades offered in the future. Like the Romeo Void song used to say, never say never, but the features of the VEGA G1 seem to suggest that you can enjoy digital music for a long time without having to buy something new. This is good, because DACs are the audio product equivalent of an etch-a-sketch if you're susceptible to insatiable consumerism.
The VEGA G1 was auditioned over a two month period, using a system comprised of the Audio Research VSi75 integrated amplifier, Nola Boxer S3 loudspeakers, and Furutech speaker, power, and interconnect cabling (review pending). It's a highly transparent system, so every change in the chain was immediately discernible. Whether because of its independent merits, or because of system synergy, the VEGA G1 stood out as a clear winner. On a side note, using the Audio Research VSi75 integrated meant that I was not able to test the VEGA G1's Orfeo Class-A Module preamp capabilities. It's possible that the review window will enable me to remedy this omission in the future but, until then, I can only pass along AURALiC's claim that the Orfeo is capable of driving a wide variety of amplifiers up to 600 ohms with almost imperceptible distortion.
One interesting feature of the VEGA G1 is its Flexible Feature Mode. In my experience, computer audio is one endless speed date of DACs, internet cables, file types, and online sources. Although I typically disdain effects in sound reproduction, the Flexible Feature Mode filters offer what I feel are very useful variations on the VEGA G1's sound. It's not like you get the proverbial carnival barker's promise of "Four! Count 'em! Four! Four sounds in One!" but the differences are distinct enough that anyone able to hear the qualities of a high end DAC will immediately detect the audible changes produced by each filter.
AURALiC has posted a detailed technical analysis of what each filter does, but most purchasers will be happy with the summary given in the manual (and on the VEGA G1's LED display, to boot!). It's no surprise to me that I liked the Precision mode the best (it employs the least processing), buy the real value of the Flexible Feature Mode option was that all four modes offer a sound that is eminently listenable and enjoyable. These aren't the annoying DSP choices that one studiously avoids in AV amps. Any one of these filters stand as first choice option; there's not dud in the bunch. If you're truly compulsive, you can tweak each mode, too. I'm of the mind that there lies the path of madness, but to each his (or its, her or their) own.
At one buck shy of four grand, I'd guess that, for most purchasers, the AURALiC VEGA G1 Streaming DAC needs to be a destination piece. As noted earlier, DACs are constantly evolving. A product at this price point should inspire confidence that the customer will enjoy it for a long time and not have to worry needlessly about whether or not it's as good as the flashy new machine shown in ads. In this regard, the automatic update option, Flexible Filter Mode options, and ability to play practically every music file and format in the foreseeable future all point to the VEGA G1's substantial value. The excellent sound, naturally, is what seals the deal. There are cheaper DAC options that I like, and there are DACs that have different sonic signatures that are not without their charms, but the sound of the AURALiC VEGA G1 hits the sweet spot at this price point. An excellent product, indeed.