Perhaps the only caveat I should mention is that, in some cases, the combination of Lightning DS used in conjunction with some AURALiC streaming components can prove to be quite router-sensitive, when Wi-Fi connections are used. Lightning DS is not particularly sensitive to throughput speeds, but it does require a router that is good at handling UPnP packets, which AURALiC uses for passing control instructions. One ‘go-to’ router AURALiC specifically recommends is the Netgear R7000 Nighthawk AC1900 Dual Band Wireless Gigabit Smart Home Router. I initially had some Wi-Fi-related set-up problems with the ALTAIR (problems I had not encountered with the ARIES), but those were resolved with help from AURALiC’s helpful technical support team. Just be aware that, if you buy an ALTAIR, you may also need to purchase an AURALiC-recommended Wi-Fi router to go along with it.
How does the ALTAIR sound? That’s a fairly complicated question, given that this component is capable of playing many different roles: streamer/server, high-res DAC, digital preamp, and headphone amp. To seek answers, I installed the ALTAIR in my system along with two other headphone amp/preamps (the Schiit Audio Jotunheim and the iFi Audio Pro iCAN), with the original AURALiC VEGA DAC, with my reference Windows/jRiver Music Center music server, and with four superb, top-tier headphones (the ENIGMAcoustics Dharma D1000, the Focal Utopia, the HiFiMAN HE 1000 v2, and the MrSpeakers ETHER Flow). After trying myriad permutations and combinations of these components, here are some of the fundament conclusions I reached.
ALTAIR as streamer/server: The ALTAIR performed beautifully as a streamer/server, effortlessly playing content from its attached library drive, from Internet radio stations, and from TIDAL. As advertised, the ALTAIR had no trouble at all streaming high-res PCM and DSD content. I compared the ALTAIR’s server section directly against my jRiver Media Center music server, with both the server and the ALTAIR equipped with identical music library drives, and discovered the ALTAIR was entirely competitive with if not slightly superior to the jRiver server in musical terms. The jRiver server produced a taut, clear, and well defined sound with plenty of high-frequency extension and air, as I expected it would do based on past experience, but the ALTAIR matched that performance while also adding subtle, heightened qualities of three-dimensionality and spaciousness.
A good illustration of these qualities could be drawn from the excerpt from John Tavener’s ‘Ikons of Eros’ as found in the Reference Recordings 30th Anniversary sampler album (HDCD resolution), which captures the sound of voices, strings, and percussion performing in a highly reverberant setting. As violins sound higher register notes, for example, you can hear their high overtones echoing within the space, and the same goes for the lingering ‘skin sounds’ of percussion instruments being struck. Both the jRiver server and the ALTAIR successfully retrieved this musical information, but the ALTAIR helped that information coalesce so as to create a strikingly realistic sensation that you are listening in a large, church-like space possessed of palpable height, breadth, and depth.
ALTAIR as DAC/preamp: For this part, I focused on comparing the ALTAIR DAC/preamp section to the original AURALiC VEGA.As I made back and forth comparisons, my conclusion was that the ALTAIR sounded much like the VEGA, but with a subtly softer and less sharply focused sound overall. This observation held true across recordings captured at CD resolution levels as well as recordings captured in high-res DSD, DXD, and PCM formats. The ALTAIR’s sound is well balanced, tonally rich, and offers very good levels of resolution. But by way of comparison, the VEGA offer noticeably higher levels of resolution, more transient speed and impact, an even better sense of natural, organic warmth (thanks, I think, to its ORFEO Class A analogue output modules), and generally sounds as if its imaginary ‘Focus Knob’ were turned up to ‘11’. So, as we might expect, the ALTAIR is very good, but the VEGA is even better. Even so, my thought was that the ALTAIR offered roughly 9/10ths the performance of the VEGA, but at roughly half the price.
To hear the contrasts between the ALTAIR and VEGA, try playing Monty Alexander’s ‘Calypso Blue, Part 2’ from Calypso Blue [Chesky, 24/192]. This track captures Alexander’s keyboards juxtaposed against an ensemble in which acoustic bass and various Caribbean percussion instruments figure prominently. The track sounds gorgeous through the ALTAIR, as it nearly always does, replete with that lovely quality of three-dimensionality I mentioned above. If heard in isolation, the ALTAIR would likely make even most finicky audiophiles happy. However, when the VEGA is brought into play, things get better still: the action of Alexander’s keyboards sound clearer and more lucid, the bass sounds slightly deeper and more like the large wooden instrument it actually is, while the transient sounds of the percussion instruments are more sharply and crisply rendered, and the overtones of higher percussion instruments seem to shimmer more brilliantly and to linger longer upon the air. It’s not that the ALTAIR is deficient by any means, but that the VEGA takes everything the ALTAIR does right and renders it with an extra nth degree of precision and musical sophistication.
ALTAIR as headphone amplifier: The ALTAIR, unlike either the ARIES or the VEGA, offers a small built-in headphone amplifier, which can be a great convenience and allows the ALTAIR to serve as a hyper-versatile headphone system in its own right. At the same time, though, my thought is that most of the ALTAIR’s cost budget was probably allocated to its streamer, server, DAC, and preamp sections. I say this because the headphone amp section, though admirably clear-sounding and articulate, falls short of being able to drive today’s top-tier headphones to their fullest potential.