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AURALiC ARIES G2.1 network streamer

The ARIES is Roon ready, but AURALiC has its control software that tends to deliver higher sound quality in my experience. Lightning DS is not as comprehensively informative or rock-solid as Roon, but it does an outstanding job for a free app and looks great. The latest update (6.6) allows the user to switch in some of the previously only available facilities in the menu structure, including parametric EQ, resampling, and speaker placement compensation. These are pretty powerful tools for tailoring a sound that works for your ears, and being able to switch them in with ease is a clear bonus. Speaker placement allows you to dial in the distance to each speaker from the listening position and fine-tune each channel’s gain. It uses some form of delay and balance control to aid set up where physical placement is compromised. The only things that I would like to see added to Lightning DS is a playlist that shows tracks already played and those coming up. When you go down a rabbit hole with Qobuz, for instance, it’s not always easy (nearly impossible) to remember what you’ve been playing. The other minor niggle is that when viewing the list of artists in your collection those that have artwork missing from any album get no image on the artist icon, even if the other 20 albums under that artist do have it. Missing metadata is the bane of the streaming audio enthusiast’s life.

In the first instance, I used the ARIES G2.1 with its natural partner the VEGA G2.1 recently reviewed for this publication (issue 191), it was still in the system. The source was an Innuos Zenith SE server and the network switch an Ansuz X-TC, a combination that hit the ground running with the first random piece of music I played, ostensibly for warm-up purposes.

I warmed up (figurative and literally… it’s bloody cold as I write this) with Arve Henriksen’s Cartography [ECM] which is a pretty good recording for sure but through this AURALiC pairing revealed itself to be somewhat better than expected. It has a presence and realism that’s uncanny thanks to the impressively low-level resolution and dynamic range that the ARIES and VEGA revealed. The next album I put on sounded veiled and manipulated, by comparison, ECM knows its stuff that’s for sure, but you need quiet and resolute equipment to make that as clear as was apparent here.

I found a great recording of Ryan Adams and the Cardinals live on archive.org a few years back (Live at Das Haus) and it always sounds surprisingly real, here it was genuinely impressive with bass notes to die for in the intro to ‘Magnolia Mountain’. Bootlegs never sounded like this in the analogue era! While the ARIES loves a great recording, it can do remarkable things for lesser ones. Bugge Wesseltoft and Prins Thomas’ ‘Furuberget’ [Jazzland] reveals itself to be that rare thing; a track sounds better on digital than vinyl. The AURALiC pairing brings out a sparkle in the highs which opened up the soundstage even though this is an artificial, reverb derived effect. The acoustic on the Engegård Quartet’s Haydn pieces [String Quartet, In D, Op. 76, No. 5 – Finale, 2L] is natural, the timbre of the original instruments resonating in the space while the playing sounds more ‘math chamber’ than Bach. On an older recording, Quartetto Italiano playing Beethoven [Complete String Quartets, Decca], the piece’s enormous dynamic range is superb, the sense of wooden-bodied instruments vibrating in front of you being strong indeed. Charles Mingus’ Pithecanthropus Erectus [Atlantic] was less successful, but because it sounds so good on the vinyl, analogue recordings tend to be like that as a rule. A less ancient alternative in D’Angelo’s ‘Untitled (How Does It Feel)’ [Voodoo, Virgin] was far more successful and surprisingly open. It generally sounds thick, and plenty of this effect remained, but the ARIES made it easier to hear into the mix.

AURALiC ARIES G2.1 network streamer

I contrasted the CAD USB I cable I generally use with the HDMI that AURALiC includes in the box, which is not a fancy cable and probably cost less than the box. Unsurprisingly this did not improve upon the £650 CAD cable which delivers far greater image depth, tighter timing and much stronger engagement. AURALiC tells me that you need to look at an Audioquest Diamond HDMI for best results, which is more pricey still. I also briefly contrasted the ARIES G1 with its bigger and newer brother; this made an excellent case for the G2.1, which delivered significantly greater realism of tone, clarity of bass, articulation across the board and a sense that the sound was less loud without changing volume level. The G1 rarely sounds loud on its own, but that’s the problem with comparisons; they make it apparent that you’re missing out, ignorance being bliss and all that. I also used a different DAC to see if there was a particular synergy between the two AURALiC components. The alternative was a Merason DAC1, which is similar to the ARIES G2.1 proved to be a fabulous partner. The combo producing calm, focussed and solid sound with a depth of image and power of drive that was compelling; in fact, it proved difficult to put down so engaging were the results.

The degree of transparency offered was not entirely beneficial, the problem being that material provided by the so-called hi-res streaming services sounded notably flat compared with the music on a local drive. This system made an excellent case for owning the piece you want to hear at its best. It was still effortless to enjoy streaming services so long as the music was strong enough but the thrill power served up by Innuos, and Melco servers were in another league. Someone introduced me to the mid-’90s Joan Osborne album Relish [Mercury] recently with the track ‘Pensacola’, her raw vocal and the power of straightforward backing giving it a rare emotional impact. Scanning the rest of the titles I realised that I’d heard her before on a compilation singing ‘St. Teresa’, great to find it wasn’t a one-off. The ARIES G2.1 helped clarify the lyrics of both tunes and illuminate the tone of the electric guitar. At times like this, I wonder why we pay so much for vinyl, I know it can be better, but when streaming is this good, you wonder if it’s worth it.

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