Hi-Fi+ has covered many AURALiC products in the past, but two enduring favourites would be the VEGA digital audio processor (or DAC/preamp) reviewed in Issue 106 and the ARIES wireless streaming bridge reviewed in Issue 130. The VEGA (£2,995) is widely regarded as one of today’s most versatile (high-res PCM, DXD, and DSD-capable) and best sounding mid-priced high-end DACs, while the ingenious ARIES (£1,495) offers the ability to give virtually any DAC or DAC-equipped component sophisticated, high-resolution streaming capabilities. What is more, USB-type music library drives can be attached directly to the ARIES, thus allowing it to serve not only as a streamer, but also as a standalone music server in its own right.
It is easy to see the appeal of the VEGA and ARIES, both of which were arguably products ahead of their time. At the same time, they are separate components that, more often than not, will wind up being used in systems that will also include separate preamps, possibly headphone amplifiers, and power amplifiers. But what about those who might want a component that combines most of the technical features and sound quality of the VEGA and ARIES, but in a simpler, single-chassis format that is substantially lower in price? This, in a nutshell, is the very design brief that AURALiC’s new ALTAIR wireless streaming DAC (£1,749) seeks to address.
Viewed as a high performance DAC, the ALTAIR can be considered a simplified, ‘junior’ version of the VEGA digital audio processor. While the VEGA offers special ORFEO Class A analogue output modules, a slightly higher specification linear power supply, and very subtly different digital filters than the ALTAIR, the two units are in many respects more alike than not. Both the ALTAIR and the VEGA use an ESS Sabre DAC, employ AURALiC’s Femto Master Clock technology for extremely low jitter, provide linear power supplies based on AURALiC’s ‘Purer Power’ noise reduction technologies, and incorporate four user-selectable PCM digital filter modes (labelled ‘PRECISE’, ‘DYNAMIC’, ‘BALANCE’, and ‘SMOOTH’) that let users adjust the sonic character of the DAC to fit the requirements of material being played.
The ALTAIR and VEGA can accept audio files in AAC, AIFF, ALAC, APE, DIFF, DSF, FLAC, MP3, OGG, WAV, WV, and WMA formats and can decode PCM files ranging from 44.1 to 384 kHz/32-bit resolutions, as well as DSD64, 128, and 256 files. The ALTAIR offers a host of digital inputs including AES/EBU, coaxial S/PDIF, Toslink (optical S/PDIF), USB 2.0, plus a range of streamer/server inputs.
Viewed as a high performance streamer/server, the ALTAIR is patterned directly after the ARIES and provides multiple streamer/server inputs including connections for an optional external USB drive, an optional dealer or user-installed internal HDD or SSD drive, plus Gigabit Ethernet connectivity via an RJ45 jack, and 802.11b/g/n/ac Tri-band Wi-Fi connectivity supported via a pair of small ‘whip’ antennas mounted on the ALTAIR’s rear panel. The ALTAIR, like the ARIES, can stream audio content from many different sources including shared network folders, the aforementioned optional external or internal drives, uPnP/DLNA media servers, TIDAL, Qobuz, AirPLay, Bluetooth, Songcast, and even Roon. About the only differences between the ALTAIR and ARIES involve the fact that the ARIES offers Dual-band Wi‑Fi connectivity rather than the ALTAIR’s Tri-band Wi-Fi, the ARIES unlike the ALTAIR does not support internal storage, and the ARIES offers an extensive range of digital outputs, where the ALTAIR offers only a single USB digital output.
Like the ARIES, the ALTAIR uses AURALiC’s proprietary Tesla hardware platform, which includes, according to AURALiC, “a Quad-Core Coretex-A9 processor running at 1GHz, 1GB DDR3 onboard memory and 4GB system storage.” This platform supports the same basic streaming/server functions as provided by the ARIES, but with new features and functions being added over time via an ongoing series of free firmware updates. Examples of such added features now include gapless playback and multiple room playback capabilities, plus a new Memory Playback feature that “allows the ALTAIR to fetch and cache the entire track in its on-board memory or system storage in advance, and then to play locally without any network data transfer needed.” For a future firmware release, AURALiC plans to add Room Acoustic Treatment functionality.
Users can command and control all the diverse aspects of the ALTAIR through the included AURALiC RC-1 remote control or through the firm’s signature Lightning DS app, which runs on iOS devices such as the iPad or iPhone. Alternatively, they can avail themselves of third-party OpenHome or uPnP-compatible software, or Roon. For my tests, I stuck with the all-AURALiC combination of the remote plus Lightning DS running on a recent generation iPad.
The graphics-driven Lightning DS software package makes it straightforward, easy, and fun to set up and then to use AURALiC’s various streaming-capable audio components, including the ARIES, ARIES LE, ARIES MINI, and now the ALTAIR. Lightning DS serves as semi-automated set-up tool that guides users in a step-by-step fashion to configure the ALTAIR, then to connect it to a home network, and finally to begin streaming music or playing content from attached libraries. I would rate Lightning DS as one of the better applications of its kind, though I could see how some might prefer the more elaborate metadata content provided by competing music software packages from Naim and Roon.