Lightning DS is one of AURALiC’s USPs; it looks great thanks to clear graphics and decently sized album art and, so long as your iPad isn’t an antique, works really nicely as well. This is where you set up the VEGA G2; you can do pretty much everything you need to, which is handy because there’s slightly more set up required than with a Naim or Linn. The data from your music library needs to be imported into the streamer, which a case of picking the server or NAS that it’s stored on from the list that appears and Lightning DS then goes through the titles so it can display them properly. You can also access Tidal and Qobuz from Lightning DS, the latter being a relatively rare but welcome feature especially if your musical tastes are broader than those catered for by Tidal. The only drawback with Lightning DS is that it’s iOS only; there are third party apps for Android, however.
While everything is shown on the app, a lot of information is also displayed on the four inch high resolution screen, including album artwork, volume level, and track title... but there is no way of pausing playback without the app, unless you use the ‘any remote control’ option with the smart-IR control function in the system menu.
The LEO GX features the same Unity chassis and looks just like the VEGA G2 except for the absence of a control knob and two headphone outputs. It is naturally a bit plainer on the back as well with connections for a network cable, Lightning Link, and the Master Clock output on a threaded coaxial connector. All the interesting stuff resides within the black anodised box where two temperature-controlled rubidium atomic clocks have their own stress compensated, cut crystal oscillators that provide very high signal frequencies for the incoming sample rates. In an effort to minimise noise within the circuit AURALiC use optical isolation between the processor and the clock in much the same way as the control system is galvanically isolated from the signal in the VEGA G2. LEO GX has twin linear power supplies and according to AURALiC is so accurate that traditional measurement methods are unable to detect any errors in its performance, and the company had to resort to Allan deviation, which measures tiny phase shifts to detect clocking errors.
When the LEO GX is connected to a VEGA G2, it takes over all clocking functions within the DAC in what AURALiC calls a ‘direct-to-DAC’ design. It seems a pity to bypass those on-board femto clocks, but the best amount of clocks in any digital audio system is ‘one’. The cable provided for the signal is a military grade device with a 60GHz bandwidth and is supplied with a performance report and a spanner to tighten the tiny connecting nut, so these things must matter.
Used alone as a streamer and a DAC the VEGA G2 is a very nice piece of kit that is extremely revealing of the incoming source thanks in part to the way that the Sabre DAC chip has been engineered to work without PLL (phase lock loop) in the traditional way but rather to operate independently of the source frequency. Its dual femto clocks providing a solid basis for all of the processing and conversion it does. You can choose between various filter settings and I found that ‘smooth’ sounded best; it is pretty well the most relaxed of the bunch, but this is not what you would term a smooth DAC. It is a leave-no-stone unturned searcher after the musical truth! Give it a grungy digital signal and you’ll get a grungy analogue output. Most of the listening was done with the Innuos Zenith SE server, an ATC P2 power amplifier and PMC Fact8 speakers, but I also tried some alternatives including the CAAS and Longdog Audio P6 monoblocks, which both seemed slightly better suited to the VEGA G2. I contrasted its analogue preamplification capabilities with my long-suffering Townshend Allegri TVC which, while slightly more open and timely, revealed the VEGA G2 to be surprisingly capable with good openness and dynamics especially for a multifunction device. It reflects recording quality extremely well; Herbie Hancock’s version of ‘It Ain’t Necessarily So’ [Gershwin’s World, Verve] was smooth and taut with just the right amount of spring in its step. Timing is one of the Vega’s strong-points, so maybe there’s something in bypassing PLL after all. The drumwork on Alfa Mist’s ‘Keep On’ [Antiphon, Pink Bird] seemed just about perfect with lovely snap and just the right amount of leading edge attack and very natural decay. The kick drum on another track [Billy Gibbons and the BFGs, ‘Concord’] was much more juicy, but it also kicked like a mule.
Imaging is also very strong with plenty of depth on a wide variety of recordings, the cymbal work on the Hancock track for instance being placed in the room with great definition and solidity. It’s a lot easier to make low notes sound like they are in the room than higher ones because the room reinforces them, three-dimensional high notes are a sign of a well thought out converter. Most importantly the VEGA G2 is a musically coherent and engaging piece of kit, and with a source of the Zenith SE’s calibre it draws you into the performance regardless of the musical style. I was particularly charmed by Jean-Efflam Bavouzet’s Haydn piano sonatas [Piano Sonatas Vol 1, Chandos], the seeming effortless speed of his spirited playing being entrancing in this converter’s hands.
I didn’t quite know what to expect when adding the LEO GX to the VEGA G2, but it’s price meant that expectations were high. What LEO GX does is not something I’ve encountered with digital audio before: it makes the sound ‘pop’ out of the loudspeakers. Instruments like drums, and tabla in particular, become so vivid and palpable in the room that it’s frankly uncanny. It brings a presence and solidity to everything you play, making it more real and convincing than you have any right to expect with reproduced audio. It also seems to enhance dynamics, not in a loudness sense but with an increase in contrast between loud and quiet notes, so there’s a perceived increase in dynamic range.
It also brings more energy to the presentation, driving rhythmic tracks along with gusto and pushing the music into the room with a rare physicality. With a good recording this is quite a sublime experience. Michael Wollny’s Wartburgalbum [ACT] is superbly reproduced and washes over you much like the live experience. I particularly like the strength of percussive instruments and the muscularity of the double bass. John Lurie’s voice on ‘I’m a Doggy’ [Marvin Pontiac’s Greatest Hits, Northern Spy] is so tactile and the interplay of his musicians feels like it’s happening in front of you. Then there’s the blues harp playing, which is nothing short of brilliant.