Unibody Chassis. Display Brilliance. Tesla G1. Music Streaming Ecosystem. Lightning Link. Frankly, I didn't realize Apple had moved the introduction of a new iPhone to late winter. Of course, I'm only kidding; although reading through AURALiC's all new and superbly well-designed website, you'd be hard pressed to think that what you just read were the features of a DAC, not your next iPhone. Rightfully so, DACs have become de facto computers, with computational powers that would make first generation digital decoding computers run for cover, fancy designer names and all. Such is life. Progress, at least as measured by Moore's law as though by de jure, has literally surpassed any and all expectations set forth by even Moore himself. To think that today's Vega G2—why not use it as the stand out example—has so much more digital crunching power than the fastest super computer of just a few years ago, is positively amazing, to say the least. To understand what Xuanqian Wang, AURALiC's proprietor, chief technology officer, in short, AURALiC's brains, has achieved with Vega G2, we should take quick inventory of what was, so as to better understand the genuine disruption that AURALiC is.
When AURALiC came to be in 2008, the world of computer audio was still relatively new. Running back through memory lane, I chuckle when I recall the downright silly conversations I used to address: "So what's USB audio?"; "You mean I can stream music from my computer to a DAC via a USB cable?"; "You have a 4-disc RAID? Huh?" Today, ten years later, we not only have mainstreamed (no pun intended) each of these concepts, we've significantly added to them. Tidal, Qobuz, Apple Music, Spotify, to name a few, are all more or less in everyone's jargon. A clever little, though mighty startup, Roon, revolutionized the way we interface with our digital music and frankly, I can't think of using anything else to manage my QNAP NAS sourced music files or Tidal streams. To boot, iPhones, iPads, and Android based phones and tablets are everywhere too, and in 2018, even the word "app" has become normalized in English lingo parlance. When I consider that my reference Playback Designs MPS-5, which came to market in 2008, launched with but a built in 24/96 capable USB input (though later upgraded with 4xDSD and ethernet), no network input, nor any other sort of streaming capability, then today's offerings of play anything anywhere, are to be considered truly remarkable, especially given these offerings are marketed at price points from well under a thousand smackers.
Clearly, competitive pressures, reasonable to low barriers of entry have all led to this crazy proliferation of all-can-do digital Swiss army knives. Naturally, while the big boys of the industry all have their offerings in the upper echelons of the price spectrum, genuine bang for your buck quality can be found at the other end of the spectrum and mid-tier level. Whereas in years, nay, decades past, the technological advancement of product categories has generally been dependent on hardware-based upgrades, today's gadgets, gizmos, and do-dads, living in the digital domain, are somewhat more open to giving you their level best with a mere software upgrade. Sure, the hardware has to be designed with a robust platform in mind, but once that's in place, software drives the rest. There's that iPhone and Apple comparison again: an iPhone, even several years old, can run today's most modern mobile operating system with merely the touch of the upgrade button. Indeed, even as my aforementioned, trusted and true reference, Playback Design's MPS-5 has this year crossed the ten-year threshold of being on the market, regular software updates to the system's FPGA chip have kept the machine very relevant and current indeed, so much so, that you'd be hard pressed to think this was a ten year old digital product.
Contrast this largely semi-yearly auto-gift that keeps on giving with my EINSTEIN The Last Record Player, a CD player solely built for the purpose of reading and decoding CDs, and you easily visualize just how far we've come. Then again, there's something to be said about gracefully opening—manually, no less—the top loading cover of the EINSTEIN disc player to insert your disc and rotate the large playback knob with a satisfying, elegant and solid sound "click" to start your playback. Many a day, when I kind of have had enough of digital this and digital that, I look through my CD collection (which has magically started appearing—again—in my living room, disc by disc), select a disc and kick back, relax and enjoy the entirety of a disc's worth of music. The fact that the EINSTEIN player does that task and only that task exceptionally well is somewhat of a gratifying feeling giving the all you can do digital attitude of the rest of my digital playback setup. While it can't access any of the music files hosted on my QNAP 8 bay 32TB NAS, it can play back those supposedly built forever with perfect sound shiny discs in a manner and fashion thoroughly enjoyable. AirPlay? Nope. Bluetooth? Nada. UPnP? Say wut? There is something to be said about those singularly focused super components.
Back in 2013, when AURALiC's first Vega rolled off the assembly and coding lines, accolades quickly followed even more accolades as the company had come from seemingly nowhere to disrupt an otherwise coasting to the sunset sort of digital playback industry. dCS had the upper echelon covered and tied with their multi-stack Vivaldi transport, sampler, clock and DAC; generally well regarded New York upstart Mytek had several DACs to choose from in the entry to mid-level price tier; of course there were many, many others who all did a great job of eyeing everyone's attention. But then came Vega. And Vega was good. In fact, it was so good, that John Atkinson, editor at Stereophile, apparently without much hesitation proclaimed: "For just over 5% of the price of the dCS Vivaldi three-piece DAC, the Vega got remarkably close in sound quality, at least as far as I could tell, without being able to do a direct comparison." That's chops right there. Legitimacy with the stroke of a keyboard. Instant get out of jail free card. Skip ahead six rounds, let others catch up to you.
That the first generation Vega was a hit was clear to see, but what would you do for a genuine knock-out punch follow-up? TKOs are just that, technical. You need a slam dunk. Home-run. 6-2, 6-2, 6-2, game, set, match. Fortunately for us, Xuanqian had plenty of tricks up his sleeve and thus, following plenty of next-gen research, coding and development, Vega G2 finally broke cover at the 2017 Munich High-End show. The press conference was packed, AURALiC's announcement clearly something the industry at large was indeed following closely. With the appropriately deserving fanfare in tow, AURALiC's G2 series quite literally shook the industry again. Designed from the outset to be at once more capable, more prominent, more daring, in short, more of everything compared to the original, the G2 series didn't disappoint and in fact expanded upon the original in several meaningful ways. Vega G2 is the line-up's cornerstone DAC; LEO G2 the line's super-uberclock and lastly Aries G2, the lineup's definitive streamer only component. Jokingly though it was, the opening paragraph made several referrals to what would typically be considered Apple-y type descriptors: Unibody Chassis. Display Brilliance. Tesla G1. Clearly Xuanqian was on to something—as opposed to advertising the same old audiophile drivel that's been in and out of our vocabulary since the days of the wheel, he and team figured it's time to break the code and get with the 21stcentury. Clever as it were, this naming scheme wasn't just about marketing BS. Vega G2's unibody chassis is in fact that: starting out as a block of aluminum, a 5-axis CNC machine cuts each chassis of the G2 series into a sturdy, solid, and timeless design which—with no external bolts, screws or other some-such aesthetically marring anti-design cues stealing the show, Vega G2 looks high-end indeed. Make that very high-end. The front features a single machined from aluminum knob which is the unit's sole user input device. The center features a large, 4" IPS true color display with very high pixel count for super sharp rendered graphics, while the left side of the front houses 2 headphone inputs.
The back of the unibody chassis features a USB input, gigabit ethernet, Toslink, AES/EBU, coaxial S/PDIF, and a proprietary AURALiC L-Link input; further, you have both balanced and RCA left / right output and one RCA analog input. The ethernet connection features OpenHome and Roon endpoint support, and is therefore set to handle virtually any currently available or future networking protocols and standards. Rounding out the top of the chassis is a classy, sassy laser cut AURALiC logo, which adds quite a bit of high-end flair to the already great looking Vega G2. No less are you done staring down the outside of Vega G2, do you ponder just what the insides would bear. This is where it gets interesting and AURALiC-y. In principal, there's three sections to the inside; the analog, all class A, discrete ORFEO output stage; the DAC section powered by a Sabre custom chip is capable of decoding DSD up to 512 and PCM 32 bit up to 384khz. In line with Xuanqian's unique thoughts around digital design, the Sabre DAC is run without PLL (Phase Locked Loop), allowing the dual, hyper-accurate 72 femtosecond clocks, one each for multiples of 44.1khz and 48khz sample rate to manage the Vega's timing for the Tesla core, the Sabre DAC, digital inputs, display, and all other clock dependent relevant functions.
As it were the heart of the Vega G2, a 4-core ARM A9 chip with 1GB of DDR3 memory and 4GB of internal storage (not user accessible). According to Xuanqian, that chip, capable of processing 25,000 MIPS, is up to 25 times faster than the original Vega chipset. Said to be responsible for all digital signal processing, this chip is also at the center of AURALiC's custom coded filtering modes, which also provide the Vega G2 with a unique set of filters, to fine tune one's sonic preferences. Of the four available, Dynamic, Balance, Smooth, and Precise, I mostly ended up listening with Smooth enabled, though more on that later. What becomes abundantly evident and clear is that AURALiC spent an inordinate amount of time ensuring that all G2 series components have the lowest possible noise floor, with galvanic digital isolation applied throughout the design, helped by the unibody chassis design and overall attention to the smallest of details. Even the Vega's four feet are custom designed, spring loaded mechanical isolators, further preventing unwanted vibrational energy to run amok.
Last but not least, Vega G2's volume control is actually designed around an 8 coil-latch relay, 256 step R-2R resistor ladder network, which once the volume is set to your preferred level is taken completely out of the signal chain. An expensive proposition no doubt, though for Vega G2, no cost was spared to design a "best-of" what's possible type DAC-streamer. Powering this super computer, are two sets of AURALiC's proprietary Purer-Power power supplies, one each for the CPU, digital inputs and 4" IPS display and the other for the G2's DAC, Femto clocks and analog audio sections. Phew. This has to be among the longest list of technical specs and it bears remembering that AURALiC's G2 chassis is a compact, sleek, and minimalist design, far removed from the generally seen more is more approach others employ. Think Nagra, not Boulder. I have to shamelessly admit that this new G2 series really does look and feel very Apple-y indeed. From the overall minimalist design (remember, design isn't merely what something looks like, it's how something is operated and interfaced with), to the grouped, thoughtfully placed internal setup of each of the components, one can't help feel that a great amount of thought was applied to making these units look just so.
Operation of Vega G2 happens in one of two ways: old school and new school. The aforementioned large, front plate mounted dial, acts as sort of a scroll and click wheel that allows control of every function built into the DAC. Coupled with the large, high-res 4" color IPS display and a well designed UI / UX theme, changing parameters, inputs, or making other adjustments like placing the unit into stand-by, selecting the different filters, etc. works rather well, certainly the best implementation of this type of control scenario by far, certainly compared to the lethargic, convoluted and frankly discombobulated designs as offered by say Aurender or even dCS. That's old school. New School is, of course, all app (and web via IP) driven, make that AURALiC's own in-house designed Lightning DS app, available on iPhone and iPad. Here too, parameters can be set, though not quite as in-depth as from the unit itself, omitting things like switching inputs and filters. That said, the app is really mostly designed to be used as a library management tool with built in functionality to control your stored music as well as giving you access to popular streaming services like Tidal, Quobuz, and Spotify Connect. Here again, the app is well designed, clean, informative and offers a simple built-in, read: free, offering compared to say Roon. Lastly, the 4" display shows the currently playing album art, even displaying a small Roon logo when being fed by your Roon server. All in all, I am very impressed with Xuanqian's deep understanding of UI / UX design and find that operating Vega G2 is a breeze with little to no learning curve. Put differently, anyone using a smartphone will have no trouble at all configuring any of the DAC's settings.
What about the sound? Vega G2 plugged into my Wilson Alexx / EINSTEIN pre and OTL power amp setup leashed with Kubala-Sosna's exquisite Elation! cable loom, connected via Zu Audio's EVENT 10ft ethernet cable to one of my eero network hubs, streaming data from my QNAP TVS-873e 8-bay NAS (setup with 2-disc redundancy, netting 22TB of storage space out of a total of 32TB) via Roon's Nucleus (review forthcoming), Vega G2's inherent sound quality immediately came to life: punchy, dynamic, resolved; clean, strong, and fast. Streaming via Tidal through Roon, on Kenny Burrell's 1965 collaboration with the great Gil Evans, Guitar Forms, the opening and blues-y cut, "Downstairs," sounds just right. Kenny's opening guitar riffs have excellent attack and speed, certainly more apparent compared to my previous reference, the Playback Designs MPS-5. Similarly, switching over to AURALiC's own Lightning DS app, this time off Qobuz, May Roosevelt's "Tides," off the album Junea, displays a very similar, tightly focused and vast sonic landscape of the various hooks, loops, and samples. To those wondering, no, I didn't hear any sonic difference between the two competing platforms, Tidal or Qobuz on equal material; obviously Tidal being fully integrated into Roon helps a great deal, as Roon is my preferred library media management app; that said, I'm sure that once Qobuz hits some sort of terminal velocity in the US later this year, Roon will hopefully find a way to connect directly to Qobuz.
Submotion Orchestra's latest album, Kites, is another recent favorite of mine, discovered while attending a JBL demo at this year's Munich show. Track two, "Variations," is a nice downtempo song, that further extols these virtues of Vega G2. Here again, you have layers upon layers of space, bass depth, and impact that will surely work your speakers, amps, and room; on lesser systems or gear, these cleanly, nay, clinically, produced cuts tend to quickly become overbearing with too much digital grit, harshness, or opacity muddying the otherwise pristine layers of sound. Johnny Hartman's The Voice That Is, a fabulous DSD (and double 45 record) reissue from Chad Kassem's Acoustic Sounds. Testing out Vega G2's DSD capabilities for a change, you find much of the same: Johnny's supremely baritone, deep voice has just the right amount of weight and character; the articulation of words, each syllable is reproduced with lifelike qualities. Switching out the different filters, this track was also great for identifying each of the cues these filters highlight or emphasize, ultimately settling on smooth as my preferred choice, though precise was a close second. Aptly named, these filters indeed sound pretty much as they are described: personally, I view these types of filters as a nice to have, not a must have since once I settle on a particular filter's theme, I tend to stick with it. Sort of kind of like a tonearm's VTA for 150, 180 or 200gr records. Some futz with it until they are absolutely convinced of the setting, others, myself included, set VTA for a general level and simply play each record as it comes.
Next up was leashing my EINSTEIN The Last Record Player via it's S/PDIF out, using a 2 foot length of Louis Motek's absolutely stunning Lessloss C-MARC cable and comparing it with the sound of the same track played back via a USB Nordost Tyr 2 tied MacBook and the native ethernet stream via my QNAP'ed Roon Nucleus. The results were interesting and somewhat expected at least based on my own experiences over time. First up, the EINSTEIN Redbook only disc player is a classic EINSTEIN component in the truest sense: revealing, dynamic with just the right of amount of bloom and midrange warmth, it is by far the best CD player I've ever heard and for good reason. It's purpose built to playback Compact Discs, that's it. The antithesis to Vega G2 or any other modern day digital Swiss army knife. As mentioned before, discs played back via the EINSTEIN simply sound fantastic. But what if? Well, the answer was self-evident within the first five or so seconds of playing Boz Scaggs CD version of Dig. Vega G2's ARM chipped Sabre DAC turned this reference disc into an inferno of limitless dynamics, bass that shock the floor, particularly the last cut, "Thanks To You." Hearing is believing as they say. Compared to the EINSTEIN flying solo, this was in fact my preferred rendering of this album, the German player losing out somewhat in bass definition and overall authority, though besting the AURALiC at times in smoothness, top end sparkle and shine. The same disc copied onto my QNAP, run via Nucleus / Macbook / USB, produced the same results that I've encountered many a times before, even with very different DACs or streamers: depending on the disc, the native transport – EINSTEIN – version simply sounds better than the copy via USB. As to not have you draw too quick a conclusion, said same file then again sounds better when played back via Vega G2's ethernet input. Go figure. Perhaps Xuanqian can expand upon my findings in a follow-up comment. I have yet to find out why, only hypothesizing that perhaps in general USB input chips are bettered by their respective ethernet cousins, then again, my conclusions could simply be foundationally baseless.
AURALiC. When the first Vega DAC entered production some five-ish years ago, many in the industry quickly pronounced it a fantastic achievement, one which entered a then still relatively new all-in-one DAC / streamer market. Years later, as the noise has somewhat subsided, it was time to launch an all new line and drive the benchmark further north. With Vega G2 and indeed the entire G2 class of components, AURALiC seems to have succeeded and then some. Judging by what I am hearing in my system, G2 is reference quality, at distinctly non-reference price points. Half or far less the cost of other, comparable gear, the G2 will surely find plenty of prospective and eager buyers. It really is a the digital Swiss army knife—even as my AURALiC Polaris (superb!) does duty in my office system with Wilson TuneTots, Vega G2 will henceforth be the standard bearer for all things digital in chez K's main system. Already having requested the LEO GX clock upgrade for review when they become available, I have a suspicion that this clock upgrade will unleash Vega G2's final true potential, supercharging it into super-component class status. Eager ears will have to check back soon for a part two of this insightful and exciting journey.