AURALiC Vega G2.1 DAC Review
David Price is impressed by this versatile new streaming DAC preamplifier…
Vega G2.1 DAC
It’s thirty-eight years ago to the month that Philips first launched Compact Disc to an unsuspecting North American and European public. Spring 1983 saw the famous format – claimed at the time to offer “perfect sound, forever” by the company’s marketing men – make the evening news. Supplies were initially limited, and for quite a few years, it was seen as a ‘yuppie’ gadget – a rich man’s plaything that he could show off to his friends.
As supply and demand evened out though, prices came down, and by 1985 you could buy a half-decent machine for £300. At the end of the eighties, a new breed of hi-fi component arrived – the standalone digital-to-analogue converter. These offered people the chance to buy into the latest conversion technology without having to scrap their CD players, providing they had a digital output, of course. DACs became very popular in the nineties, then started to become digital hubs when a wider selection of sources was offered. In 2008 dCS launched its new Debussy with an asynchronous USB input as standard, allowing it to play hi-res music files from computers. Then came DACs that added network playback from NAS drives and streaming from TIDAL and Qobuz.
AURALiC was very early to market with streaming, and it’s a testament to the brand that the world has moved towards it – rather than the other way round. The company’s first such product appeared in 2014, and along with a select few other high-end designs from the likes of dCS and Linn, helped confer respectability upon this new way of enjoying music. Its latest high-end G2.1 products started appearing last year, and the new Vega G2.1 DAC you see here is the centrepiece of this new range. It is designed to give full DAC, network playing and digital streaming functionality – plus preamplifier functionality thanks to a single analogue line input and a passive volume control.
I sampled the budget Altair G1 over a year ago – AURALiC’s entry-level DAC/streamer/preamp – then recently got to grips with the Aries G2.1, the transport designed to go with the Vega G2.1 DAC you see here, effectively the high-end version of the Altair. It faces tough competition at this price on several fronts, even more so if you buy the full train set – adding the aforementioned transport, £7,999 Leo GX.1 reference clock and £5,999 Sirius G2.1 upsampling processor. Were you to do this, you’d be into dCS Rossini territory. The appeal of AURALiC’s approach is that you don’t have to buy them all at once, of course, which will appeal to cash-strapped audiophiles with big dreams. In the words of Oscar Wilde, “we are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars…”
As per the last two AURALiCs I have reviewed, the unit is beautifully made, easy to set up with an Ethernet connection and is superbly engineered. In the last respect, it’s as good as anything I can think of at the price, and its ergonomics and operational stability are top-notch. The latter is partly down to it being based on the company’s own Lightning Streaming hardware and software platform, rather than using a bought-in chipset from Stream Unlimited, or another such provider. As ever the Auralic app proved excellent, helping the unit to pass the, “can you set it up without reading any instructions?” test with flying colours. As all men instinctively know, instruction manuals are only there as a last resort if something doesn’t make sense. Very often in the world of streamers, it doesn’t – but not here.
As you’d expect for a high-end product, there’s lots of functionality built-in – including gapless playback, on-device playlists and memory caching to make the streaming experience nicer. You also get multiroom functionality, which is becoming more of a thing these days. The AURALiC supports pretty much every sane audio format, up to 32-bit, 384kHz and DSD512 – which really is all you need unless you’re living alone with no friends. The single unbalanced stereo RCA input lets the Vega G2.1 talk to the analogue world outside.
Instead of going the way of dCS or Chord Electronics and developing a bespoke DAC and digital filter, AURALiC’s engineers have taken an evolutionary approach. A specially modified version of the latest ESS Sabre DAC is fitted, carefully installed inside the bank vault-like case. The so-called Unity chassis is a copper sub-enclosure built inside the (340x320x96mm, 9.5kg) aluminium case, bolted to a heavy metal base anchored by four specially tuned sprung feet. Careful attention has been paid to jitter reduction with AURALiC’s Dual 72fs Femto Clock. Galvanic isolation between digital and analogue sections is employed, to keep noise down. A Lightning Link interface is fitted for use with the Aries G2.1 transport, using a two-way communication protocol which facilitates high-speed data transfer.
For this review, I used the Vega G2.1 DAC to drive a range of power amplifiers from my solid-state Sony TA-E86B (in Class A mode) to my World Audio Design K5881 tube design. Speakers were my usual reference, Yamaha NS-1000Ms. An ANT Audio Kora 3T phono stage was plugged into its single pair of RCA inputs, fed by a Michell Engineering GyroDec/TecnoArm turnable and Lyra Dorian MC cartridge.
The Vega G2.1 exudes the company’s house sound, by which I mean it’s clean and tidy, with plenty of crisp and well-rendered fine detail and a good rhythmic gait that keeps the music enjoyable at all times. Soundstaging is expansive, and dynamics are strong, but it’s actually a pretty self-effacing listen that shifts the listener’s attention to somewhere else in the system chain. I suppose you could call it smooth and svelte whilst never being less than great fun.
Tonally it is couth in the way that cheaper DACs invariably never are. There’s just the faintest hint of upper midband sheen discernible, noticeable when you play a relatively poorly recorded and compressed piece of music like 808 State’s Pacific State. This classic house track sounds pretty crude, yet the AURALiC made a fine fist of it. I enjoyed its overall evenness, subtlety and insight; this told me an awful lot of what was going on within this pretty clanky sounding early nineties track. The slightest extra light on the drum machine didn’t hurt one bit; in fact, it helped to deliver extra impact.
Move to sweeter female vocals, and Judie Tzuke’s Welcome to the Cruise& showed the delicacy this DAC is capable of. It’s a slightly soft late seventies recording and can sound flat with some systems, but the Vega G2.1 made it vibrant and bristling with musical clues. The singer’s voice was a joy, sounding deep and powerful, yet expressive and venerable at the same time; I’m sure she’d approve if she came over. The AURALiC picked through this vintage analogue recording to reveal all sorts of detail I’d only previously heard through DACs like Chord’s Hugo TT2 and the dCS Bartók.
Also impressive was the sheer spaciousness of its sound. Thunderclap Newman’s sixties rock classic Something In The Air seemed untroubled by notions of room boundaries; it was very expansive and immersive, marking a major step up from the sort of sound you get from only slightly cheaper DACs. It was better than my Chord Hugo TT2 in this respect, with no sense that the soundstage was being squeezed through a toothpaste tube. Images were set up far left and far right, and showed impressive stage depth too. The AURALiC put everything tightly in its place within the recorded acoustic, giving the sense that the Vega G2.1 DAC had a firm grip on proceedings.
AURALiC’s new Vega G2.1 DAC is a fine design, one that continues with the company’s concept of a slick, svelte user interface, excellent functionality and first-class sound. Some might accuse it of being slightly characterless compared to some of its more dramatically styled or sounding rivals, but it treads a very careful and considered line. This gives it wider and more mainstream appeal than some at or near the price; it seems more focused on doing a job of work rather than being a cool thing. Factor in the optional transport, clock and upsampler, and it forms the heart of an extremely capable digital front end.
David started his career in 1993 writing for Hi-Fi World and went on to edit the magazine for nearly a decade. He was then made Editor of Hi-Fi Choice and continued to freelance for it and Hi-Fi News until becoming StereoNET’s Editor-in-Chief.
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