AURALiC VEGA DAC Review
AURALiC released the VEGA Digital Audio Processor ($4,499) to a growing crowd of enamoured followers back in 2013. It is the second DAC developed by AURALiC, their first being the simpler ARK MX +. Since that time, the VEGA has received a lot of media attention. Many audio reviewers around the world use this new DAC as part their reference arsenal of products, deemed excellent enough to warrant inclusion amongst their own reference equipment. I wanted to find out if this reputation is warranted or not and whether I should get in on the act.
Let me describe the design and technology behind this unit for you. It is only 33cm wide by 23cm deep and 6.5cm in height, making it look modern, slim and well proportioned. Those dimensions allow it to match with the rest of the AURALiC pre and power amplification stack (reviewed here) as they are also have the same front panel dimensions. The finish is only in silver, as it’s made from a special material named AFN402, which is an alloy of iron with certain portion of nickel, silicon and other rare metals. This material has the benefit of helping to isolate electromagnetic interference (EMI) and to dampen internal and external resonances. The front panel is dominated by a large round dial on the right hand side and a large display. This display uses OLED technology to produce a very pleasant and bright yellow text, very easy to see from across the room and is dimmable (and can be turned off), for relaxed listening.
VEGA comes with a remote control that is common for the AURALiC range, with good functionality, including a volume control, input, clock and filter selection. It can be used as a preamp, but without analog inputs, by connecting it directly to a power amplifier. The VEGA sure is one versatile little DAC, giving you practically everything you would ever need. It has both balanced (XLR) and unbalanced (RCA) outputs. Input wise, there is one AES/EBU balanced XLR, two S/PDIF coax RCA connections, one optical Toslink and a USB 2.0 high speed input. The USB input uses asynchronous transmission mode and supports PCM signals up to 32 bit / 384kHz and up to double rate DSD, whereas the former inputs have a 24 bit / 192kHz limit. Because of the standard S/PDIF speed limit of 192kHz, DSD should be played back via the USB input, as the sample rate of DSD128, also known as double rate DSD, is 5.6448mHz or something like 29.4 times the 192kHz data rate. Thank goodness for the high speed benefit of the humble USB interface.
The VEGA may look compact but it’s full of well thought out technology to make it into a very useful and good sounding piece of equipment. AURALiC has focused on 3 main areas; the processor, clock and the output amplifier. Firstly it utilises what it calls the Sanctuary Audio Processor which is based on powerful multi core ARM9 processor architecture. Apparently it has a calculating capability of 1000MIPS and is similar to processors within mobile phones and PDA’s. Next it uses a Femto Master Clock. This clock has the extremely low jitter figure of 82 femtoseconds along with low phase noise of 168dBc/Hz which is vanishingly low. The combination of the fast processor and accurate clock allow the VEGA to up-sample all PCM music to 1.5MHz in 32bit as well as comfortably dealing with the even faster DSD rates. Lastly the output amplifier of choice is the ORFEO Class-A module, the same used elsewhere in the AURALiC ecosystem. The principle behind this module is to use a mass of small signal components with linear characteristics, tightly packed and thermally balanced, running in Class-A mode. It has rated distortion of less than 0.001%, along with the ability to comfortably drive into a 600ohm load.
The build quality is first rate, with an instantly appealing yellow high resolution (512x64 pixels) OLED display on the front face plate. The only way to control the VEGA besides the remote control, which incidentally is made of plastic and is not particularly appealing to use, is a single large control button, with a very nice action. Volume is indicated from 00 to 100 on the display as you twirl the smooth indented controller around. You can switch the unit on, out of standby, by simply pressing it in. Menus are selected by pressing in and rotating the knob to the desired setting and pressing it in again. Switching it into sleep/standby is a long press and a “sleep? yes or no” question appears. A single press selects your choice. I like its ergonomic simplicity and flexibility, it’s been well thought out and is a pleasure to use. Incidentally, sleep mode still allows the analog stage and Femto clock to remain active, which is important for sound quality, whilst using less than 10W of power.
Along with all the other AURALiC equipment that I’ve sampled, they have a common need to be well used and broken in before they sound their best. And I’m talking in excess of 300 playing hours, actually I think it’s still improving after 1000 hrs. Once it has settled down, it really opens up and sounds smoother, more integrated or together. Before that, it can sound raw, disjointed and edgy. Setup is very straightforward, just plug it in, select the correct input and away you go. The VEGA does need time to warm up and stabilise, the Femto clock in particular. After an hour, you can select any of the three levels of clock precision. Course, Fine and Exact. Before an hour, it defaults to Auto. It is useful for tuning the DAC to the source. For instance, high jitter sources require a less precise clock setting to avoid drop outs. The Exact mode sounds the best, but only clean low jitter sources will lock and run smoothly with this setting.
AURALiC have endowed the VEGA with a total of 6 user selectable filters to choose from. Four of them are designed for PCM tracks and two are for DSD. Each one uses a group of different digital filters optimized for the corresponding sampling rate in each mode. There is a technical white paper available for download that explains each option. Evidently these filters were developed after significant objective listening tests and mathematical analysis with the goal of optimizing the listening experience for different types of music and sampling rates. Personally, I just the want the music to sound right and musical without wanting to change the filter when changing from orchestral to pop to solo piano. Filter mode 4 is the default and “best option”, so I did most of my listening in this mode.
Here is the most interesting part of any review, the listening impressions. I have to say from the outset that I’m very impressed with the sound quality. I used the VEGA in conjunction with a preamp as it sounded better than a direct connection to a power amplifier. The overall sound is that of openness and transparency along with tons of detail. Just how I like all of my components to be. There is a dead quiet background with a very low noise floor and from that quietness erupts a dynamic presence and a real solidness to the way the notes are delivered. Each note is wrapped in its own air and sense of space. The soundstage is huge and fills the entire listening room. The timing and placement of every instrument or musician was absolutely first class. If you don’t believe that a decent DAC can make a sizable difference to you system, you just have to hear this unit.
I played an old favourite album of mine recorded Direct to Disk by Sheffield Labs back in 1983, James Newton Howard & Friends. The “friends” are 4 members of Toto, all of them experienced session musicians having played on numerous albums for other well-known artists. “L’Daddy” explodes with a strong snare/kick drum combination, tight bass keyboard and other keyboards that carry the tune. It’s the dynamics more than anything else to me comes across in this recording and the VEGA is better able to convey the power, snap and heft better than nearly other DAC that I have heard. Mind you, if you have heard this album on vinyl, especially on a high end analog system, it makes the digital recording seem sadly tame and flaccid.
I liked the way the VEGA is able to separate individual instruments or voices from complex recordings and make sense of it. That also applies to less than perfect recordings. As they say “garbage in, garbage out”, yet some equipment can make it sound better than others. Little Birdy’s debut album “bigbiglove” is really pleasing musically, but most tracks sound like they were recorded with way too much top end energy. The cymbals are overly bright and the lead guitar effects are just annoying, yet the VEGA manages to separate all the artists, place some space between them and enable you to enjoy the music. I was able to listen to “Losing You” and hear deeper into the recording that I have ever done previously. Yes it’s still too bright, the VEGA won’t take that aspect away, nor did it add to it, but it’s probably the extremely precise Femto clock at work, allowing it to time correctly and accurately unravelling the mix.
That quality of being able to look further into the recording is something that distinguishes the VEGA from other DAC’s, as time after time it unravelled the layers buried in recordings, with lots of transparency allowing fine detail to be heard. Steely Dan “Peg” from the well-known “Aja” album had plenty of detail, with the faint guitar work in the left channel being easily to follow. The soundstage absolutely filled my front wall and it had reasonable front to back definition. “Hunter And The Hunted” from Simple Minds' “New Golden Dream” album, highlighted all the good qualities of the VEGA. It had great punch in the bass, slam in the snare, haunting singing and coming from a far distance the synthesisers that extended up to my ceiling. It was a very integrated sound, all musicians nicely separated and amazing front to back soundstage detail. Buena Vista Social Club's new album “Lost and Found” has lots happening with many musicians playing together, but the VEGA delineates it all and again gave a lovely rich 3D soundstage. Rhiannon Giddens debut solo album, “Tomorrow Is My Turn” opening track “Last Kind Words” has a lovely sense of timing throughout the track and again that soundstage. You get the idea?
As I have been fortunate enough to have had the VEGA as a long term loaner from Australian distributor BusiSoft, I have managed to compare the VEGA with around five other DAC’s in a few totally different systems and conditions and each time certain traits stood out clearly. Against the REGA DAC-R, the AURALiC VEGA showed its class, starting with more foundation to the music. Sampling Puscifer “Momma Sed” with the VEGA, it produced a fuller bottom end, bass guitar and kick drum were more substantial, not unnaturally so, but it simply gave more that was always there anyway. The soundstage was larger and there was more fine detail and air around the instruments.
I put the VEGA against my long standing benchmark for an analogue sounding DAC, the Musical Fidelity Tri-Vista 21. It’s an older style DAC with a valve driver output stage so one would expect it to sound musical and smooth, which is exactly how it does sound. Dead Can Dance “Agape” is a track from their excellent “Anastasis” album, which showcases the strengths of the VEGA with a beautiful transparent sound. It has a slightly thinner midrange than the Tri-Vista but it allows you to listen further into the room with additional detail and longer decay tails. Lisa’s voice is hauntingly floating in a space entirely separate to the other instruments yet wonderfully entwined. The bass is solid, tighter and faster, again with more detail than the Tri-Vista. You can pick up the way the kick drums surface is struck and how each note fills the room and then decays. Incidentally the whole album is full of incredible music on it that deserves being played from start to finish.
Piano – An Achilles heel?
The closest to the sound of the VEGA was the Benchmark DAC2L. Again the VEGA had a large, well defined 3D soundstage, along with powerful and taunt bass, but depending on the music being played it highlighted a slight weakness in the midrange-treble area. I noticed when listening to solo piano and massed orchestral strings that it sounded slightly edgy and strident at times. On some recordings it was very noticeable. By contrast the Benchmark was more natural, with piano sounding more like a real piano. I grew up with the sound of a piano echoing through the house almost daily, so I know intimately what it sounds like.
This prompted me to start an investigation. I visited the Burwood Music Center facility and asked Alan Neuendorf (a sound engineer for well over 20 years) to play me high resolution master copies of piano music that had been recorded there. I have previously heard the talented Ade Ishs playing the 9’ Hamburg Steinway Model D Concert Grand Piano that is housed in the recording studio and been very impressed with both his playing ability and the sound. We used the $100K Brodmann Acoustics JB205-V Loudspeakers from Vienna, which seem like they were created specifically for listening to piano and are the most accurate and neutral speaker for this purpose that I have ever heard. When playing back the recordings of the solo Steinway, the VEGA imparts a slightly harsh, non-musical character to the leading edges of piano notes. The complex harmonic decay seems like it’s ever so slightly out of tune and harmonically inept. Sure, the decay is long, the room ambience is clearly relayed, all that is fine, but it’s the accuracy of the notes that are in question. This is often why some people have strong preference for analog or vinyl over digital, with specifically piano and strings as the leading cause of complaint. I understand why some would think this way, but interestingly the Benchmark had no such problems. It was smooth and accurate, with each soft note of the piano sounding round, polished and smooth like tiny individual pearls, beautiful, rather than the slightly harsh and gritty sound coming from the VEGA.
Listening to Anne-Sophie Mutter “Sonata for Piano and Violin in F, K.376 – Mozart: Complete Violin Sonatas” it’s a well recorded piece that can sound incredible when reproduced correctly. The Benchmark sailed through the album sounding very musical and analog in nature, whilst the VEGA was not as engaging and was generally lacking timbre and naturalness. I wanted to fall totally in love with the VEGA so much, but found that this aspect made me think twice. Is there a solution?
Leave it ON
Very interestingly, I noticed that leaving the VEGA on permanently and letting it settle or stabilise makes quite a difference to the harshness and accuracy of the sound. I played back the same tracks after the VEGA had been on for several days and it made the piano seem much more enjoyable, smoother and more analog like. Seriously it has made me question the need to even discuss the issue in public, but I still believe that this is one issue that may challenge some listeners. I'd love to hear your thoughts on this in the comments below. Evidently only 3 or 4 hours is not enough time for it to sound at its best. This is difficult for me because as a reviewer I’m constantly plugging and unplugging equipment. The lesson is that it’s meant to stay on, even in standby and then it works and sounds as it should.
I also managed to borrow some excellent Chord cables from Synergy AV and found once again that top performing equipment demands top performing cabling in order to extract everything on offer. The Chord Signature Tuned Aray digital was extremely revealing and open and enabled me to get a great handle on the character of the sound and certainly minimised any harshness. The VEGA filter and clock settings also to a minor extent proved valuable in optimising the sound according to your own subjective preferences. They should be considered as small tweaks to the overall sound and having it available via remote control was extremely useful.
I have so far only mentioned music available as PCM files, mostly out of convenience and the fact that it is fairly widely available for you to sample from a streaming provider like Spotify, YouTube or preferably lossless Tidal. I have run out of time and space to accurately tell you just how good this unit sounds with DSD files, but take it from me and others who have tried it, the better the source the better the music. Well recorded DSD music really allows the VEGA to grow wings and fly.
What an impressive DAC! I really enjoyed its transparent yet powerful and forceful sound, which is hugely dynamic, allowing music to breath. It brought me closer to the actual performance than any other DAC that I have heard in my system. And that soundstage! It can sound very real, natural and accurate but that is somewhat musical program, system and taste dependant. Not everyone will love this DAC, so if you are a classical or jazz enthusiast that prominently features well recorded piano, make sure that you are comfortable with the sound of the VEGA before purchase. Make sure that the device is left on constantly as smoothness is exacerbated by short warm up times.
No piece of equipment is entirely perfect in every way, even the “cost no object” devices. But when you consider that the AURALiC VEGA is available for around $4,000 at the moment, it is extremely good value with very, very little to complain about. I can thoroughly understand why reviewers (and owners) around the world are raving about the VEGA DAC. It’s extremely versatile, easy to use, good looking and even better sounding, with the benefit of playing almost anything you can throw at it, including DSD128. It certainly deserves to be tagged as reference grade, it is that good and it certainly deserves your time with an audition. Recommended.
- Frequency Response 20 - 20KHz, +/- 0.1dB*
- THD+N <0.00015%, 20Hz-20KHz at 0dBFS
- Dynamic Range 130dB, 20Hz-20KHz, A-weighted
- Digital Inputs: 1*AES/EBU, 2*Coaxial, 1*Toslink, 1*USB 2.0 buffered by ActiveUSB™
- Analog Outputs: 1*Balanced XLR(output impedance 4.7ohm) 1*Single-ended RCA(output impedance 50ohm)
- Supported Digital Formats: All PCM from 44.1KS/s to 384KS/s in 32Bit** DSD64( 2.8224MHz) and DSD128(5.6448MHz)***
- Output Voltage 4Vrms at Max. with dynamic-loss-free digital volume
- User Interface AURALiC RC-1 remote control, 512*64 pixels OLED Display
- Power Consumption Standby: <2W, Sleep: <10W, Playback: 15W at max.
- Dimension 11''W x 9''D x 2.6''H (33cm x 23cm x 6.5cm)
- Weight 7.5 pounds (3.4kg)
- Esoteric P10 CD Transport & D10 DAC
- Musical Fidelity Tri-Vista 21DAC
- Rega DAC-R DAC
- AURALiC ARIES music streamer
- Moon 180 MiND music streamer
- Chord Signature Tuned Aray RCA digital
- Chord Indigo Tuned Aray RCA interconnects
- Chord Epic Reference Speaker
- Cardas Clear USB Serial Buss cable
- Cardas Clear digital cable AES EBU XLR
- Cardas Clear Light XLR interconnects
- Audio Unique Erinome Digital SPDIF interconnects
- Audio Unique Callisto RCA interconnects
- Audio Unique Metis speaker cable
- Audio Unique Carme power cables
- Cawsey Audio Powerbox
- AURALiC TAURES Pre
- Audio Unique Valve Pre
- AURALiC MERAK Monoblock
- Electra Reference HD Power Amp
- Dynaudio 21 W-54 Woofer / Audio Unique ribbon hybrid speakers
- Brodmann Acoustics F2 Loudspeakers
- Brodmann Acoustics JB205-V Loudspeakers
For more information visit the AURALiC brand page.
Starting his first audio consultancy business in the early ’80s whilst also working professionally in the electronics industry, Mark now splits his time between professional reviewing and AV consultancy.