Like setup, ripping was a doddle, and can be done in the background while listening to stored or streamed music. A typical CD takes perhaps five minutes to rip; the drive starts automatically when you load a disc and spits it back out again when finished. Having ripped the disc, the Aria automatically searches various online databases depending on the genre of music being ripped, downloads the cover art and other metadata (at no cost to the user), and presents you with the finished article in your music store. I only managed to flummox the unit once: the Graham Fitkin album Flak [ Factory ] ripped without any problems, but the Aria Mini failed to locate the cover art or metadata, presenting me with just an icon in my music store. The album plays just fine, the track listing is correct, and I could easily manually add artwork and metadata. The metadata can be edited and extended, custom fields added as the user chooses, and these can be used to categorise and catalogue your music collection. Track data can also be edited. The Aria rips to FLAC by default, and cleverly can be set to output hi‑res files downsampled to whatever your DAC can handle if needs be. The stored music is presented in various different ways, sorted by metadata fields such as artist, album, genre, composer, period, or bit rate. DigiBit’s first great success was the Sonata music server program, which is commonly considered to be the best system for those of us who listen to a lot of classical music, thanks to its enlightened metadata wrangling and search facilities. It’s clear that the company has classical enthusiast’s interests at heart, and that is enough to endear the DigiBit Aria Mini to many still clinging to their CD collections.
The unit also supports multiroom playing. You can have various zones each playing different music simultaneously. This isn’t something my home is equipped to test with any rigour, but streaming one file to my iPad while playing another through the system was trivially easy.
So, how does it sound? Straight out of the box, via its own DAC and into my Focal 1028Be’s via Albarry’s preamp and M1108 monoblocs, it sounded very good indeed. Fundamentally, the music played through the Aria Mini has vitality, decent dynamics and timing. It majors on clarity rather than body and substance: Fitkin’s Flak is a powerful and rhythmically complex piece for two pianos; through the Aria Mini’s own DAC it is entertaining, although the pianos are a little harder and more aggressive in tone, and there is less sense of energy in the louder passages: they are merely louder compared to my reference point. This, it must be said, is an unfair comparison, because that reference point is a dCS Puccini CD player with its own U-Clock; a dedicated CD/SACD player that is considered one of the best in the business. You could also buy almost seven Aria Minis for the cost of one Puccini/U-Clock combination, so it should be better, but what impresses about the Aria Mini is how much of the core of the music is retained even in comparison. The rhythmic complexity is well portrayed on the Aria Mini, even if the subtle timing cues, and the way the two parts work together and against each other, is rather glossed-over.
What’s more, I think a lot of the sonic gap between these two devices falls to the on-board DAC on the Aria Mini. This allows some considerable room for improvement, where if the server part of the deal hobbled the player, improvement would be fairly limited. Another track from the same Flak album, the imaginatively-titled ‘Piano Piece Early 89’, relies on a series of chord progressions which never quite resolve as the listener expects. This piece is all about delayed gratification and the build up of expectation, so that when it does finally resolve, the rewards for the listener are magnified. This is not teased out well by the Aria’s DAC and the music makes less sense as a result.
The onboard DAC and output stage is certainly good enough to make differences between 16 /44.1 PCM and higher resolution files abundantly clear, but the extra resolution and body in the hi‑res files cry out for a better DAC.
It was time to try the Aria Mini via USB to an offboard DAC, so I connected it to the Puccini’s DAC via the asynchronous USB input on the U‑Clock. The sound quality was immediately significantly elevated. The dCS’ familiar agility, detail and texture was there, and timing had that ‘locked together’ feel that I think dCS does so well. All of which is entirely expected, of course.