Two of the first AURALiC products reviewed by Hi-Fi+ were the firm’s superb TAURUS Mk II balanced-output headphone amplifier (£1,499) and VEGA digital audio processor (£2,890). Terrific performers though both units are, they are priced somewhat beyond reach for many ‘headphonistas’—even ones who care very deeply about sound quality. Recognising this, AURALiC founder and chief designer Xuanqian Wang set out to build an elegant, one-piece headphone amp/DAC solution that would offer much of the performance of the TAURUS Mk II/VEGA pair, yet would sell for less than half the price. The result is the GEMINI 2000 headphone amp/DAC/stand (£1,890), which—apart from its technical merits—is a lovely audio Objet d’Art.
The most visually striking part of the GEMINI is the stand section, the design for which has been licensed from the Swedish firm Klutz Design (whose famous headphone stand is known as the CanCan). The tall, curvaceous CanCan stand has long been a personal favourite for several reasons: first, it is beautiful; second, its gently rounded top section provides great support for headphones without creasing or crimping their headband pads; and third, its clever forward-facing posts serve as a handy ‘spool’ around which signal cables can be coiled for safe-keeping (you’d be amazed to learn how many headstand stand makers forget all about this important feature, leaving cables coiled up in a heap on the table or floor).
The Klutz stand design features a tall, slender, sculptural ‘tower’ with a rounded top section: the tower, in turn, is mounted upon a thick, cylinder shaped, polished metal plinth. The GEMINI closely matches the general look and feel of the Klutz stand so that, from a distance, you could mistake one product for the other, but as you draw closer to the GEMINI salient differences soon become apparent. First, near the bottom of the GEMINI’s stand section, one finds an inset, forward-facing, single-ended 6.35mm headphone output jack and a rear-facing, balanced-output, four-pin XLR headphone output jack. Then, on the side of the GEMINI’s plinth one finds a rotary, thumbwheel-type volume control (labelled, somewhat whimsically, the ‘Niceness’ control), plus two polished metal pushbuttons—one serving as the On/Off switch and the other as an input selector switch. Plugging headphones into the GEMINI’s front-mounted 6.35mm jack also automatically switches the unit on.
Inset within the top surface of the plinth are three groups of miniature red LEDs indicating, respectively, the input selected, the sampling rate and format of the digital file being played, and the volume setting chosen. On the rear of the plinth is a recessed pocket that houses a DC power inlet socket (the GEMINI comes with a substantial wall wart-type power supply), a TOSLINK port, and two USB ports—one for general-purpose use and the other specifically for connections with Android-type smartphones.
The recessed pocket also incorporates an SDXC card slot, on which AURALiC provides the device driver required when using the GEMINI in Windows environments. This is a truly handy feature, in that it means the GEMINI can be used with virtually any Windows PC—even those that may not have Internet connectivity. AURALiC also points out that the SDXC card provides a minimalist card reader/music player app, so that the card can also be used for music storage and playback (but note, we were not able to evaluate this function as our review sample GEMINI did not come with the requisite player software installed on its SDXC card).
The entire DAC/amp circuit of the GEMINI fits on a compact semi-circular printed circuit board (PCB) that fits within the tight confines of its cylindrical metal plinth: a plinth that measures just 26mm thick and 140mm in diameter. When one sees a close-up photo of the GEMINI PCB fully populated with its more than 500 tiny surface-mount components, it is almost like looking at an aerial photo of downtown Beijing. Quite seriously, the GEMINI amp/DAC circuit board is a marvel of miniaturisation and space efficiency.
The DAC capabilities of the GEMINI are similar to those of the VEGA, although with somewhat less elaborate user control setting options. Thus, the GEMINI, like its bigger brother, can handle all PCM formats from 44.1kHz to 384kHz at bit depths up to 32-bits. Moreover, the GEMINI can decode DXD, DSD64, or DSD128 files with ease. Like the VEGA, the GEMINI uses a high-performance clock (though not as high performance as the one in the VEGA) and provides sophisticated digital filtering algorithms (though not multiple user-selectable ones as in the VEGA). Even so, all the important basics are present and accounted for.
The Class A amplifier section of the GEMINI 2000 provides fully balanced circuitry and both single-ended and balanced outputs, generating a substantial 2000mW from 20Hz – 20kHz at less than 0.001% THD. As you can imagine, this level of output generally proves adequate for even today’s most power-hungry top-tier headphones.
Listeners who neither need nor want the high output or fully balanced amplifier circuitry of the GEMINI 2000 will be pleased to learn that AURALiC offers the cost reduced but visually and functionally identical GEMINI 1000, which offers slightly different cosmetic options than its bigger brother, and non-balanced amplifier circuitry, with output of 1000mW at less than 0.002% THD. Note, though, that neither GEMINI model incorporates AURALiC’s signature ORFEO Class A analogue amplification modules (as used in virtually all of the firm’s full-size components); plainly, this was a necessary design choice given both cost and space constraints (the ORFEO modules being, I think, too large to fit inside the GEMINI’s plinth).
During my listening tests, I used the GEMINI with a Lenovo PC running Windows 8 and jRiver Media Center 19 music playback software, along with a host of headphones including the Audeze LCD-3, HiFiMAN HE-6 and HE-560, and Oppo PM-1. Music included a mix of standard and high-res PCM and DSD files spanning a wide range of musical genres.
One observation that struck me early on, and that has stayed with me ever since, is that the GEMINI sounds more like the TAURUS MkII/VEGA pair than not; the sounds of the two products are not identical, but they are similar and surprisingly close in overall performance. This, then, is the real draw of the GEMINI (apart from its ever-so-cool appearance); it gives you much of sound quality of AURALiC’s flagship headphone amp/DAC pair, but in a one-piece unit selling for a fraction of the price.
What exactly constitutes the AURALiC ‘house sound’? Well, three key ingredients would be articulacy, transient speed, and resolution (or ‘focus’). All three of these elements are very well represented in the GEMINI. To grasp this, try listening to some high-res files through a good, competing single-chassis DAC/amp and then switch to the GEMINI, noting the differences you may hear. When I tried this sort of comparison, using iFi’s excellent new portable Micro iDSD amp/DAC, I found the iFi acquitted itself admirably (especially in light of its modest price), but stepping up to the GEMINI brought me to a realm where timbral and textural information suddenly became much more tightly focused, more vivid and explicit, and almost palpably three-dimensional.
The sonic effect was not unlike looking at an object through a good standard-length lens and then suddenly looking at the same object through a top-shelf lens that offers tight macro-focusing capabilities. There is that same breathtaking sense of suddenly being able to ‘zoom in’ to get up close and personal with the details that matter most—the pleasurable sense of actually knowing, rather than merely imagining that you might know, what’s really going on inside your favourite recordings. This capability is what sets the GEMINI apart from many of the products I’ve heard that sell for roughly half its price. You pay a little more for the GEMINI, but you very definitely get what you pay for (and then some).
Another element of the AURALiC ‘house sound’ is the ability to keep transducers under firm control, yet without imparting a sound that seems overly tightly wound or ‘over controlled’ to the point of cold sterility. To appreciate what I’m getting at, here, try listening to bassist Avishai Cohen’s “Bass Suite No. 1” from Adama [Stretch Records] and listen closely to the sound of Cohen’s acoustic bass as reproduced by the GEMINI. On one hand, the presentation has a light, lithe, and agile quality that gives you access not only to the fundamentals of the instrument, but also to its richly coloured upper harmonics, not to mention subtle fingering sounds that can tell you so much about Cohen’s masterful technique. But, unlike some ‘high definition’ but also overly lean-sounding amp/DACs, the GEMINI also captures the instrument’s weight, gravitas, and deep, woody, earthy growl. Another way of saying this, I suppose, is that the GEMINI not only gives the substance and body of an instrument’s or a vocalist’s signature sound, but also the myriad small details and textures that spell the difference between good sound and sound that, at moments, approaches realism.
What can’t the GEMINI do? Well, good though it is, relative to AURALiC’s TAURUS MkII/VEGA pair, the GEMINI is a little less finely focused and resolved, not quite as low in noise, and—when push comes to shove—not quite as powerful. Obviously, there are also a number of features and functions that have been omitted, as both the TAURUS MkII and the VEGA are, by design, set up so that they can be used as standalone preamplifiers (or in the case of the VEGA, as a standalone master DAC) within full-sized hi-fi systems. In contrast, the GEMINI is only and always a headphone-centric product (which is no bad thing in my book).
Sonically, I would say the one ingredient one might miss in the GEMINI vis-à-vis the TAURUS MkII/VEGA pair would be the absence of the ORFEO Class A analogue amplification modules used in the more costly components. Honestly, those ORFEO modules are downright magical (not unlike the Neve recording consoles whose sound and circuitry they mimic), and what they buy you is a sound that to my ears is as focused and well-defined as any self-proclaimed ‘high resolution’ product, yet is as effortlessly natural, comfortable, and easy to listen to as any so-called ‘high musicality’ product. The GEMINI does an excellent job of channelling many of these ORFEO-like qualities, but at the end of the day there’s nothing quite like having the genuine article at hand.
Still, I believe the GEMINI will be all the headphone amp/DAC that many listeners—even very critical listeners—will ever need or want. The neat part is that, unlike many traditional audio components, the GEMINI exudes an elegant and yet gently whimsical ‘lifestyle’ appeal all its own. For what it is and does, the GEMINI is arguably very well-priced, and the fact that it serves as a terrific-looking and highly functional headphone stand only makes the deal that much sweeter.
Type: Combination headphone stand, high-resolution DXD/DSD-capable DAC, and balanced-output class A headphone amplifier. Stand design licensed from Klutz Design.
Inputs: One TOSLINK, two USB (one standard, one for Android devices), on SDXC card.
Outputs: One single-ended headphone output via 6.35mm jack, one balanced headphone output via 4-pin XLR connector.
Device Drivers: None require for Mac environments; Windows driver provided on the units SDXC card.
Digital Filter(s): Not direct specified, but said to be optimised for the various digital audio formats and sampling rates supported by the GEMINI DAC.
Frequency Response: 20Hz – 20kHz
Power Output: 2000mW, balance mode, 20Hz – 20kHz at less than 0.001% THD
Accessories: White gloves, wall wart-type power supply, power cord, general-purpose USB cable, Android portable device-compatible USB cable, latching (belt-closure) case with separate storage chambers for the GEMINI and its accessories.
Dimensions: 140mm in diameter (at plinth)
Weight: Not specified
Stand: Buyer’s choice of black, white, yellow, blue, or red gloss lacquer.
Plinth and other hardware: Buyer’s choice of gold or chrome plating.
Price: £1,890 UK, or $1,995 US
Manufacturer: AURALiC LIMITED
UK Distributor: Audio Emotion Limited,
Unit 2 Banbeath Court, Banbeath,
Leven, KY8 5HD, United Kingdom
Read Next From ReviewSee all
Rosson Audio Design RAD-O planar magnetic headphones
Take a planar magnetic driver, add a range of exceptional - and occasionally wild - finishes, and you have the makings of a great set of headphones, argues Simon Lucas.
- Simon Lucas
- Jan 2022
FinkTeam Kim stand-mount loudspeaker
FinkTeam uses Star Trek names, and this two-way stand-mount is named after Ensign Kim from Star Trek: Voyager. He's the one that always bounced back no matter what. Steve Dickinson might not be a big Trekker, but he thinks there's a lot of good to hear in the Kim.
- Steve Dickinson
- Jan 2022
Keith Monks Audio Works Prodigy Record Cleaning machine
Jimmy Hughes has a record collection that's the envy of many reviewers, music collectors and even some music libraries. That collection needs cleaning, and Keith Monks is the answer!
- Jimmy Hughes
- Jan 2022
SOtM SMS-200 Ultra Neo SE, TX-USB Ultra SE and SPS 500 SE streaming system
South Korea has long been a centre of excellence for electronics. That reputation is now moving on to high-performance audio, thanks to brands like SOtM. Jason Kennedy investigates.
- Jason Kennedy
- Jan 2022