AURALiC Altair G2.1 Wireless Streaming DAC Review
James Michael Hughes is most impressed by the clean, open sound of this new premium-priced streaming DAC preamplifier…
G2.1 Altair Wireless Streaming DAC
Since the company's formation in 2009, Auralic has gained an enviable reputation for innovative digital audio products that provide serious performance with elegant styling and robust 'battleship' build quality. The new Altair G2.1 you see here is the latest in the company's line of streaming DAC preamps. You can also choose to add the optional 2TB solid-state hard drive (SSD) for a little bit of extra cash, making it a thoroughly modern music centre.
Its connectivity provisions include digital and analogue inputs – the latter including a line input and a moving-magnet phono stage – plus CD playback and ripping from a USB CD drive. Operation is via the company's Lightning DS app (iOS only), with OpenHome apps like BubbleUPnP or Kazoo for Android. It is Roon-ready and usable with streaming services such as Qobuz, Tidal, and Spotify Connect, with more promised. However, MQA files in Tidal are not supported; the website explains why (us.auralic.com, see the Explore section - under Auralic vs DRM). Qobuz is the company's preferred music server; one which offers an ever-increasing range of music in uncompressed high-resolution formats.
While superficially similar to the less-expensive Altair G1, this new version has been updated to the higher G2.1 specification for superior performance, as befits a G2 Series product, the company says. It can function as a standalone preamp, and features an analogue volume-control based on a resistive ladder design (similar to that found in the Vega G2.1) which provides clean noise-free results regardless of input. Importantly, unlike some rivals, the unit's two analogue inputs (line and MM phono) completely by-passes the digital circuits, thus maintaining a pure analogue signal path.
The Altair G2.1 utilises the most powerful of the Tesla hardware platforms, for which Auralic claims processing-power capable of handling every feature and function. Dual Femto-Second clocks ensure precise accurately-timed signals for reduced jitter, and two galvanically-isolated linear Purer Power supplies deliver independent power for signal processing and display circuits. The company says that interference between these sections is reduced to zero, with sensitive audio components each having their own dedicated power supply.
A fine-pitch 4-inch by 2-inch colour LC display allows navigation of the various options offered and shows the album's cover art being played. However, when written instructions feature, the words can be very small and quite difficult to see unless you have keen eyesight. Some rivals do better here. During use, the casework of the Altair G2.1 gets slightly warm to the touch. Auralic recommends that you give the streamer a bit of space, and suggests not placing it too close to other heat-producing components like power amps.
Build quality and finish are outstanding. The Altair G2.1 is solidly made and near indestructible. The outer casework is fashioned from 6mm-thick aluminium and features Auralic Unity II chassis, with circuits housed in a copper cradle, plus spring-decoupled feet for superior isolation from vibration. The unit measures 340 x 320 x 80mm and is surprisingly heavy at 9.3kg.
Getting the Auralic set up and running was a bit more involved than other streamers I've tried recently, partly because I have an Android phone - the company's dedicated Lightning DS app is iOS-only. Apparently, variations between operating systems led Auralic to abandon their own Android app. For Android, you can use OpenHome apps like BubbleUPnP or Linn's Kazoo. I went for BubbleUPnP, which works fairly well, although I found it a wee bit clunky and unintuitive. However, once you get the hang of it, it's quite usable.
Of course, many buyers may already have an iOS phone and/or an Apple iPad. Failing that, I guess one could always just go and buy an iPad. If you subscribe to Roon, these problems should largely be taken care of. Eventually, I did use the Altair G2.1 with an iPad, and the interface was brilliant. Speaking as an Android phone owner, I'd definitely buy an iPad if using the Altair myself. Auralic's Lightning iOS app is fantastic and makes the whole user experience a lot easier and nicer.
The DAC operates from 44.1kHz to 384kHz with up to 32-bit resolution, while DSD runs from DSD64 to DSD512. Four user-selectable anti-aliasing filters are offered, usefully named to suggest the sonic effect produced, rather than a gobbledygook description of what each filter does. The four options are Precise, Dynamic, Balance and Smooth. While many DACs offer a choice of filters, one often hears little or no discernible sonic differences between them. But with Altair's, the variations between the filters, while subtle, were audibly quite distinct. Which one sounds best is very much down to individual taste, and the recording being played. I settled on Smooth as my preferred choice, but all four sounded good.
Likewise, the moving magnet phono stage sounded excellent. I used a Vertere DG-1 record player with Sabre MM cartridge, replacing Vertere's dedicated Phono 1 MM/MC stage. Results were close. If anything, I felt the Auralic might've sounded a tad better – it certainly wasn't any worse! I paired the Altair G2.1 with a Marantz Model 30 integrated amplifier, using the unbalanced outputs. However, the G2.1 offers an additional set of balanced outputs (via XLR sockets), and these should deliver superior results if your preamp or power amp has balanced inputs. A maximum output voltage of 4.8v is available on both balanced and unbalanced output options.
Incidentally, the RCA phono sockets used by Auralic have a lovely firm feel that is very reassuring. As you insert a phono-plug, it glides smoothly into place with no wobble. I've never before experienced a phono socket of such high quality!
For those interested, there's a parametric equaliser hidden in the menu, plus a loudspeaker-response compensator. Products with the Tesla G2 platform can support up to sixteen bands simultaneously. However, with my phone, I only got three. Using the Altair G2.1 with an external hard drive containing downloaded files, I was disappointed to find the alphabetical order of the various albums under composer isn't followed. A few were fine, but most albums seemed to be in a random sequence. I'd given each file the composer's surname, but the Altair ignores this and looks at hidden metadata.
So, Shostakovich's13th Symphony with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and Riccardo Muti was filed under A - for bass soloist Alexey Tikhomirov – rather than S for Shostakovich. I was told the company designs its products to read the metadata included with each file, and only read the visible file name when no metadata is included. This explains the confusion. It won't be a huge point for some, but for me, it was frustrating not to have things in correct logical alphabetical order.
Whether used as a streamer, a DAC with CD transport, playing back material stored on a hard drive, or spinning vinyl LPs, the Altair G2.1 sounded excellent – extremely clean and highly detailed, with outstanding clarity and definition, especially at lower frequencies. Bass had a weight and authority that was impressive, allowing you to hear the pitch of the notes clearly, while sounding immediate and articulate. Basically, it sounded like all the usual crud, hash, and noise had been removed, allowing you access to the music without unwanted additives.
Playing a CD of Joe Jackson's 1979 album Look Sharp, using the Altair's DAC, I was impressed by how good this simple and not very sophisticated production sounded. It was surprisingly tactile and informative, with more air and space around voices and instruments than expected. On Is She Really Going-Out With Him? the bassline was remarkably 'present' and textured, without the tonal thinness this recording can be prone to.
From my hard drive, I enjoyed Barbirolli'sMahler 5 – still sounding great despite being recorded over fifty years ago. Michael Jackson's album Thriller sounded amazingly vivid and tactile. This was from a DSD file, and the sound had incredible impact and bite. At times it almost seemed just a bit too-forward and immediate – but impressive all the same.
Streamed sound quality was very good, but naturally varied a bit according to the sampling frequency and bit rate in question. Zubin Mehta's vivid 1971 Decca recording of Holst's Planets (176.4kHz, 24-bit) had impressive depth and richness of sound. I was impressed by Chelsea Guo's album Chopin: In My Voice, which features the Preludes Op28 played on a 19th century Steinway. The (96kHz 24bit) recording sounded beautifully rich and sonorous, with a lush weighty piano tone. The dynamics on Vasily Petrenko's Stravinsky Petrouchka (96kHz 32bit) sounded awesome, and the hi-res stream delivered some amazingly impressive climaxes – for example, the moment in the final tableaux when the bear enters.
Jimi Hendrix's epic cover of Bob Dylan's All Along the Watchtower was very instructive. I was surprised by how clean and relatively grunge-free the sound was – almost like listening to the master tape! Schubert's Piano Sonatas on period instruments with Paul Badura-Skoda came over as luminous and immediate. On the album Love is the Thing by Nat King Cole (96kHz, 24-bit), I was lulled by the velvety smoothness and presence of his voice and the rich, lush sound of the orchestral backing. The vintage Capitol recordings, made in the late nineteen fifties and early sixties, came through with amazing clarity and openness.
Auralic's new Altair G2.1 is one of the best sounding streaming DACs I've heard at or near the price. Its combination of serious sound, fine connectivity, and unusual versatility will be everything that's needed for many people. So if you're in the market for something like this, you owe it to yourself to audition the Altair G2.1. And me? I definitely want one – simple as that!
An avid audiophile for many decades, Jimmy has been writing about hi-fi since 1980 in a host of British magazines, from What Hi-Fi to Hi-Fi Choice. Based in London, England, he’s one of the UK’s most prolific record and CD collectors – no streaming service can yet match his amazing music collection!
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