Except that it’s not quite that simple. I tried various USB cables, from freebies (briefly!), through mid‑priced Nordost Blue Heaven, which gave very good results, before eventually settling on the excellent £500 Linus cable from The Digital Music Box. This exercise got me progressively closer still to the performance I’d expect from the Puccini player. Ultimately, I preferred the sound of a CD played live through the Puccini’s own transport to the ripped versions of the same on the Aria Mini, but the differences weren’t quite as massive as the price differential between them might imply.
‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’ from The Bad Plus album These are the vistas [ Columbia ] was, when played directly from CD, more purposeful, with more drive, energy and emphasis, particularly from the bass and percussion. The ripped file was a touch aimless in comparison, bass and percussion not being quite as ‘locked‑in’ to the music. And, to the extent that any Bad Plus track can be accused of having a tune, the rip was not as tuneful as the CD. At the opposite end of the jazz spectrum, the more contemplative tones of the Tord Gustavsen Ensemble in ‘The Swirl’ from Restored Returned [ ECM ] was sinuous, the vocal was intimate, dark and almost conspiratorial, there was a strong sense of intrigue – a very noir vibe.
Comparing hi‑res files against ripped red book CD on the Aria, I found that with the hi‑res files, there was a greater sense of solidity and definition to instruments and performers, which tend to coalesce into their own space more distinctly. This happened whether listening via the Aria’s own DAC, or through the dCS Puccini at 24 / 96 resolution (the dCS won’t accept DSD via USB). But again, it’s not quite as simple as you might expect.
Interestingly, I found the difference between high-res downloads through the Aria Mini and the CD played through the dCS to be less than clear cut. Diana Krall’s ‘Lets fall in love’ from When I Look Into Your Eyes [ Verve ] was, through the hi‑res (20 / 96) file, blessed with creamy smooth vocals, but cursed with a subtle impression that things had been airbrushed. No surprise that many dismiss the delectable Ms Krall as easy listening… The CD had more swing, snap and flair, with more texture to the vocals, and the piano playing was much more nuanced and expressive. Similarly, Robert Plant and Alison Krauss ‘Killing the blues’ from Raising Sand [ Rounder Records ] gave, via CD, more sense of how the two voices work together, the bass had more weight and solidity and the overall impression was of a more tuneful rendition, while the hi‑res file was, in comparison, not really conveying how the two singers modulate their voices to work in partnership. Conversely, a 24 / 88 file of Billy Joel’s ‘An Innocent Man’ was more solid and convincing than the CD, with more ‘snap’ to the finger clicks and the harmonics played on guitar were more subtle.
This suggests to me there is no clear-cut ‘winner’ in a straight fight between CD-quality and high-resolution audio. In my opinion, the best works on a case-by-case basis. This also suggests the Aria Mini is capable of genuinely excellent performance, and to my mind it comes substantially closer to the sound quality I can get from my high-end CD player than any other computer audio system I’ve yet tried. And this was with the standard-issue wall-wart power supply.
Late in the proceedings, a development linear PSU arrived and I had the opportunity to replace the standard switch-mode PSU for a few days’ listening. This had a significant and positive effect on performance, bringing a greater sense of ease and naturalness to the proceedings. It will not make the difference between ‘like’ and ‘not like’, but it does turn ‘like’ into ‘like a lot’. It looks likely to be available quite soon as an extra cost option on Aria Minis and I’d urge purchasers to try it as it does raise the Mini’s game quite usefully.