The rest of the building blocks are impressive, too. It includes the company’s own Purer-Power linear power supply and includes dual Femtosecond clocks. Its Ethernet connection is robust enough to work well with WiFi even if it’s best with wired connections. It can be used with optional internal storage (there’s an optional £100 SSD mounting kit, which is well worth considering), external USB storage, or a UPnP music server on the network. It can be used as a preamplifier in its own right (with both balanced and single-ended outputs) and as a component in an existing system. It also includes a very tasty headphone amplifier in its own right, outputting to a 6.35mm stereo jack. Sadly, balanced headphone output isn’t on the menu. Lastly in terms of features, in the DAC section, there are four options for setting the digital output to your preferences. They are called ‘Dynamic’, ‘Precise’, ‘Smooth’ and ‘Balance’. Couple that with the sampling options and you can fine tune this to any system.
In terms of system then, I used this in a system that I felt matched its context, connecting it (via the Synergistic Research Foundation cables reviewed in this issue) to a Mark Levinson 5805 (reviewed in issue 176) and a full-spec Primare I35 for an upcoming review, in both cases outputting to a pair of Audiovector R1 Arreté stand-mounts (also reviewed in issue 176). The equipment sat on Quadraspire equipment tables with no tweaks, pods or platforms; again reflecting the system context a product of the ALTAIR G1’s magnitude.
The images here and on the front cover are very much on a Kraftwerk tip. That’s not a bad reflection on what the AURALiC ALTAIR G1 does so well sonically. It absolutely knocks that tight, fast, leading-edge driven percussive sound out of the park. It’s fast-paced, upbeat, energetic (without being frenetic), and starts and stops in a heartbeat. And with the combination of a rewarding sound and the recent passing of Florian Schneider of Kraftwerk, it’s hard not to delve deep into Kling-Klang studio’s past masterpieces out of respect.
Of course, if all the ALTAIR G1 did was leading-edge detail, you’d quickly tire of its performance. Fortunately, it has the sustain, decay, and release parts of the waveform well suited too. And if you set aside voltage-controlled oscillators for strings and soundboards, the ALTAIR G1 is there for you too. It’s pretty much the sound of the full AURALiC stack with just some of the detail and soundstaging precision sanded down. The depth, articulation and even that remarkable ability to set out the layers in a soundstage of the big hitters are almost completely unattenuated, though. Play something dense and complicated – whatever the genre – and the ALTAIR G1 portrays it cohesively, and with good bass depth and texture. And tone and articulation are outstanding, even on female vocals like those of Joyce DiDonato. I’d cite further musical references, but I’ve run out of space!
A key element in the ALTAIR G1 is its CD-drive chumminess. Plug a USB CD drive into the ALTAIR G1 and it will act as a high-quality CD player, or rip to a hard drive. This is not as eccentric as it first seems; I have a number of CDs from the days when I was a major investor in polycarbonate and not all of them are likely to be played enough to justify ripping, while others might be compilations where many of the tracks are best left on the disc. In doing this, I used the excellent Melco D100 optical disc drive, but you could just as easily hook up Astell&Kern’s own CD Ripper Mk II or any one of the affordable USB CD drives designed for the computer market.
There’s not a lot to dislike here. AURALiC uses its standard G1 case, which doesn’t have the same ‘hewn from solid’ appeal of the more expensive G2 casework, but given that would add substantially to the price and the G1 case is still very sturdy by audio standards, that’s not too big a problem. More importantly, Lightning is an iOS app and, while Android users can use any OpenHome app (Bubble and Kazoo being popular options) as a replacement, I feel you miss out on the full AURALiC experience (in particular interface and access speed). Roon does even the score however. The ALTAIR/Android partnership isn’t so hobbled that the answer is ‘buy an iPad’, but the ALTAIR/Apple pairing is one heck of a bromance. At the same time, desktop users are limited to set-up only... but I’m not as concerned by that: the ALTAIR G1 is designed to end the need for a laptop or desktop computer in the audio system, so if the computer’s last act is to set up its replacement... so be it!