• Auralic Vega Digital Audio Processor Review

    I entered the Auralic Vega review process knowing as little information about the DAC as possible. I had no expectations for the Vega. By the time I selected the first track for playback via an Aurender W20 music server I'd long forgotten the product announcement I posted last year and had since confused the Vega's specs with countless other DACs on the market. DAC confusion is a little known benefit when trying to judge a product based on sound quality and minimize the influence of specs and features. In fact I didn't know the price of the DAC until I started writing this review. Going in "blindly" turned out to be terrific. Throughout the entire review I focussed solely on the music flowing through the Vega rather than items like how its USB receiver chip operated or its method of up or over sampling. These technical details could easily be found later in the manual, a technical document, or by trial and error. I wanted to know how the Vega sounded. After several weeks of listening I conclude without a doubt the Vega's great sound quality, transparency, and very rich tone earn it a spot on the Computer Audiophile Suggested Hardware List (C.A.S.H. List ). The $3,500 Auralic Vega digital to analog converter is quite possibly the best DAC I've heard at this price.



















    The Auralic Vega Digital Audio Processor


    The Vega is Auralic's follow up to its ARK MX+ DAC. The Vega isn't a small tweak or slight upgrade rather it's in another league above the ARK. This is one of few DACs I've had in my system to support all PCM and DSD sample rates contained in my music library. Cynics can view this as playing the numbers game but those of us with great music in both formats and at all sample rates welcome this wide format and sample rate support. The CA forum has no shortage of people supporting and opposing PCM or DSD playback. There are also people supporting and opposing higher sample rates within each format. As a consumer all the technical talk about which format is better or has less noise is meaningless. The only thing that matters is the format of one's favorite music. If Nat King Cole's albums are available in PCM and DSD I want the ability to play both and decide which one sounds best in my system. I can look at graphs and noise shaping statistics until I'm blue in the face but that won't tell me anything about how Nat King Cole sounds through a thousand dollar system or hundred thousand dollar system. Fortunately Auralic elected to support all sample rates up through 32 Bit / 384 kHz PCM and 5.6448 MHz DSD via the Vega's asynchronous USB input. Auralic enables the user decide what sample rates and formats to listen to as opposed to a company like Lavry Engineering that has decided 96 kHz PCM is the maximum frequency its customers need despite the availability of 176.4, 192, and DSD material. The Auralic Vega uses an industry standard XMOS USB receiver chip that enables playback of high PCM and DSD rates on OS X and Linux without installation of device drivers. Windows installations require the very stable Thesycon drivers provided by Auralic. The Vega's USB chip doesn't require power via the computer's USB bus. This allows users to disable power flowing to the DAC via USB when using cards such as the SOtM tX-USBexp . DSD playback via USB is supported through the DoP v1.1 protocol. This enables native DSD music playback without conversion to PCM. The DSD files are packed into PCM packets, transferred to the DAC over USB, then unpacked for playback. At no time is the DSD music converted to a PCM data stream. DoP is similar to someone wearing a jacket in cold weather. I put a jacket on before leaving the house in February, travel to my destination, then remove my jacket upon arrival. Packet or jacket, both keep the internal package safe during transport.


    The Vega digital audio processor features a new femto master clock. Audio enthusiasts have been talking about clocks with femtosecond levels of jitter for several months. These clocks are currently rare in high end audio but I wouldn't be surprised if several manufacturers started using femto clocks in their next designs. The Vega's femto clock features an aerospace grade crystal oscillator, ultra low noise linear power supply, temperature compensation, and low phase noise of -168dBc/Hz to reach its stated 82 femtoseconds of measured jitter. Whether this femtosecond clock is necessary as opposed to a pico or nano second clock really is of no consequence. High end audio is not about what's necessary or sufficient to reproduce high quality sound in one's home. It's about pushing technology, seeking perfection, and above all the music that arrives at the listener's ears.


    In addition to a femto clock the Vega features a powerful ARM based Auralic Sanctuary Audio Processor, the ORFEO Class-A Output Module, six user selectable filter modes, and a precise algorithm that upsamples PCM data streams to 1.5 MHz at 32 bits. Individually none of the aforementioned features mean a damn thing. The whole must be greater than the sum of the parts to reproduce great quality audio. Fortunately the Auralic engineering team harnessed the power of the Sanctuary processor and built a formula with filters, output modules, and creative upsampling that equates to one of the best DACs I've heard in recent memory.


    The Vega's Flexible Filters provide each user an additional method of selecting what sounds best in his system. Auralic offers four PCM filter modes and two DSD filter modes. These filter modes should not be confused with individual filters. The filter modes are differentiated by filtering techniques and algorithms developed by Auralic engineers. For example Mode 1 offers the "best measurement performance with flat frequency response ... This mode has very small in-band ripple and best stop-band attenuation performance." Whereas Mode 4 consists of minimum phase filters removing pre-ringing and reducing the echo effect. Within each mode are filters optimized for each sample rate. Users select the filter Mode while the DAC selects the appropriate filter for the current sample rate. This is very similar to how dCS filter selection functions on its new Vivaldi components. The filters are different, but the automatic selection of filters based on sample rate is similar. Auralic enabled filter Mode 4 for PCM and Mode 6 for DSD by default because it believes these are the all around best filters for music enjoyment. After testing the filters in my system I agree with Auralic. I settled on both filter Modes 4 and 6 for the vast majority of my listening.


    The front panel display of the Vega is unique in that it contains the only visible branding on the chassis. When the power is off there isn't an Auralic logo in sight. When powered up the display features a nicely lit and stylized Auralic logo. In addition the fine detail of illuminating a real USB logo when the USB input is selected is very nice. Display of the sample rate of the currently playing track is as close to a must have option as I can think of right now. It's far too easy to accidentally up or down sample music on its way out to the DAC. The Vega's display brightly identifies both PCM and DSD rates for the listener. On the far right of the display in large type is the volume level. Auralic was smart in making the type large enough to read from any normal listening distance. Getting cute with extra small numbers or number that look good up close but are impossible to read from any distance is annoying to say the least. Auralic also provides the user a number of display dimming options included the option to turn it off completely. One note about volume, when set to its maximum level 100 the Vega outputs 4Vrms via both XLR and RCA analog outputs. I listened to the Vega set at 100 and connected to my Spectral 30SS Series 2 preamplifier throughout the review.








    Auralic's Vega - A Rising Star


    Astronomers have called Vega "arguably the next most important star in the sky after the Sun." I'm not sure what other writers have called the Auralic Vega but I call it arguably the best DAC under $3,500. The Vega's stellar sonic character enabled me to listen to an over four hour playlist from start to finish without interruption. Not only did the Vega hold my attention for the entire time, but the sound had a grip on me like a drug. I didn't want to do anything other than listen to music through the Auralic Vega. I'm grateful I can set aside a four hour block of time to do nothing but listen to music. However, some components make these listening sessions harder than walking my one year old daughter through a toy store. The Vega was a serious joy to listen through in a much different way than the Luxman DA-06 DAC or the Berkeley Audio Design Alpha DAC Series 2. The Luxman is a feast of flavors and spices layered on one's favorite music. The Alpha is as neutral as the day is long with the slightest amount of thinness in the top frequencies. The Vega has a tonal richness to it somewhere between the rich Meitner MA-1 and the neutral Alpha DAC.


    My extended playlist is comprised of music in both PCM and DSD at several different sample rates. I don't order the tracks by sample rate or bit depth or anything like that. I want to listen to my music in any order I chose and the DAC should be able to respond accordingly. Some DACs go a little haywire when changing sample rates or pause for an extended period of time when switching between PCM and DSD material. The Auralic Vega handled all changes smoothly without an audible sound or skipping a bit.


    One of my new favorite artists and albums is Cecile McLorin Salvant and her WomanChild release at 24 bit / 96 kHz. The track St. Louis Gal is at the top of my playlist for good reason. I love the music and I love the way it sounds. The Vega reproduced Cecile's rich voice in a way that sucked me into the recording studio and left me very interested to learn more about Cecile as an artist.


    Recently at the Newport audio show I heard Keith Richards solo album Main Offender for the first time. What a pleasant surprise. Great music and great sound. I ordered the album via Amazon Prime so it was awaiting my arrival home. Less than $5.00 (new) for the CD and free two day shipping is unbeatable. Playing the track Words of Wonder through the Vega and my Spectral / MIT / TAD system was a real treat. The deep basslines were tight and the transient response to the percussion section was enthusiastically awakening at high volumes.


    I've been into John Hiatt since hearing him on the Adam Carolla Show a few years ago. My favorite Hiatt track is Learning How To Love You from his Bring The Family album. I own this album on CD, DVD-Audio, and SACD. Without a disc spinner in my house to play a physical format I also own the PCM 16/44.1, PCM 24/96, and DSD 1 bit/2.8224 MHz versions. Through the Auralic Vega all three sound wonderful. The best version in my system was clearly the DSD format. John's guitar sounded as realistic as I'd ever heard it in any system. Comparing the 24/96 PCM version to the DSD version using the Vega the PCM track had a synthetic sound that made me think John's guitar had "plastic" strings. Without the ability to compare these versions I would still have been very satisfied with any one of them. It's the ability to compare that brings out the best and worst of anything.


    In addition to my four hour playlist I downloaded and played Reference Recordings' new release There's A Time from Doug MacLeod at 24 bit / 176.4 kHz. This is one stunningly real recording made even better when played through a great DAC like the Auralic Vega. The sense of space around the instruments is terrific but it's the feeling of being in the room with the musicians that's over the top.








    Conclusion


    The Auralic Vega is a must audition component for readers seeking a DAC that does it all and does it all well for less than $3,500. The Vega's rich tone combined with a terrific transparency make it a DAC for both serious and all day listening. After spending hours on end with the Vega I didn't suffer one ounce of listener fatigue. I also didn't think about its internal components and how they operate because the Vega simply played everything in my library. It's nice that the Vega is built to a high standard with excellent internal components. A peek under the hood reveals an incredibly clean design that's eye candy for enthusiasts. It's even better than the whole is greater than the sum of the parts. Sound quality and flawless operation of the Auralic Vega are the main reasons this DAC is better than the competition.


















    Auralic Vega Image Gallery


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    Product Information:


    • Product - Auralic Vega Digital Audio Processor
    • Price - $3,500
    • Product Page - Link
    • User Manual - Link (PDF)
    • Filter Document - Link (PDF)








    Associated Music:










    Associated Equipment
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    Comments 43 Comments
    1. Savage's Avatar
      Savage -
      Hey, look...there is still a CASH list...poke poke
    1. dummy's Avatar
      dummy -
      Hey Chris,

      Are you sure about Björk's Biophilia 24/96 in your playlist? HDtracks says it is 24/44.1 ... I never bought it because I wasn't sure If It was really genuine and read here some tracks had some problems when It came out.

      Just curious to know If its 24/96 or 24/44.1.

      Thanks!
    1. christopher3393's Avatar
      christopher3393 -
      Thanks for the review, Chris. Clearly sounds like the best dac I can (barely) afford! I am still left wondering about the volume control on the Vega, particularly regarding possible sound quality degradation when playing music at low listening levels. Probably a minor concern for most, but I often listen at low levels with a near-field set-up. Different reviewers have presented what appear to be conflicting opinions regarding the need for an analog - or some very high quality- volume control for best performance at low volume levels when using the Vega. One extra difficulty for me is that the preamps used for these reviews are often reference quality and so very expensive. So I'm still wondering how necessary a preamp is going to be for me, and if it is, if I can find a reasonably priced one to do the job. While auditioning the Vega would be great, the wait is 3-4 months last time I checked. I hope this review will stimulate some responses regarding optimal performance volume control from members with experience with the Vega.
    1. ejn1's Avatar
      ejn1 -
      Quote Originally Posted by christopher3393 View Post
      Thanks for the review, Chris. Clearly sounds like the best dac I can (barely) afford! I am still left wondering about the volume control on the Vega, particularly regarding possible sound quality degradation when playing music at low listening levels. Probably a minor concern for most, but I often listen at low levels with a near-field set-up. Different reviewers have presented what appear to be conflicting opinions regarding the need for an analog - or some very high quality- volume control for best performance at low volume levels when using the Vega. One extra difficulty for me is that the preamps used for these reviews are often reference quality and so very expensive. So I'm still wondering how necessary a preamp is going to be for me, and if it is, if I can find a reasonably priced one to do the job. While auditioning the Vega would be great, the wait is 3-4 months last time I checked. I hope this review will stimulate some responses regarding optimal performance volume control from members with experience with the Vega.
      Christopher, well said and I'm in the same boat albeit not a near field setup with such low listening levels. Fingers crossed mine arrives next week and i will try it out as a pre for several weeks and make a call... It's my dealers personal dac and he swears the performance is so close that its not worth the extra complexity and cabling to introduce a separate pre unless you already have a Class A pre... and this is coming from someone more than happy to sell me another piece of equipment
    1. untangle's Avatar
      untangle -
      Great review with the most cogent argument that I know of for "why I should want DSD capability in my DAC."

      Add measurements (gasp) and your reviews would be the best in the business.

      Truly outstanding.

      Bob
    1. Vangelis's Avatar
      Vangelis -
      Chris, I noticed that you were using single ended interconnects to your preamp. The Vega has balanced outputs and I've always been under the impression that Spectal was optimized for balanced use. Did you try it via its balanced outs? The Vega's voltage outputs showed the numbers for both balanced and single ended which suggests it may not be fully balanced. I would appreciate your thoughts on this.
    1. ejn1's Avatar
      ejn1 -
      Quote Originally Posted by Vangelis View Post
      Chris, I noticed that you were using single ended interconnects to your preamp. The Vega has balanced outputs and I've always been under the impression that Spectal was optimized for balanced use. Did you try it via its balanced outs? The Vega's voltage outputs showed the numbers for both balanced and single ended which suggests it may not be fully balanced. I would appreciate your thoughts on this.
      I specifically asked the Auralic owner and he emailed me that it was a fully balanced designed.
    1. dallasjustice's Avatar
      dallasjustice -
      The output impedance is 4.7 ohms over xlr and 50 ohms single ended. It looks like the vega wouldn't sweat driving even the spectral amps which are better over single ended. There's no info available except thru ess concerning possible volume dithering scheme. Seems like this DAC was specifically designed to drive amps without a preamp. Without more info about the volume control, I guess it's just guesswork to say the vega would sound better without the analog volume control interposer.
    1. pwhinson's Avatar
      pwhinson -
      Great review. One question: is there U.S. based service (warranty service or otherwise) available on the Vega?
    1. labjr's Avatar
      labjr -
      I asked the question about USA dealers in the other thread. Would be nice to know you'll be able to have your equipment serviced or upgraded years from now.
    1. The Computer Audiophile's Avatar
      The Computer Audiophile -
      Hi Guys - Thanks for the kind words.

      Bob - Measurements are expensive. I'd love to include them. :~(



      I'll try to address some questions.



      Quote Originally Posted by dummy View Post
      Hey Chris,

      Are you sure about Björk's Biophilia 24/96 in your playlist? HDtracks says it is 24/44.1 ... I never bought it because I wasn't sure If It was really genuine and read here some tracks had some problems when It came out.

      Just curious to know If its 24/96 or 24/44.1.

      Thanks!
      The track Cosmogony is 44.1 but all my other tracks say 24/96.







      Quote Originally Posted by Vangelis View Post
      Chris, I noticed that you were using single ended interconnects to your preamp. The Vega has balanced outputs and I've always been under the impression that Spectal was optimized for balanced use. Did you try it via its balanced outs? The Vega's voltage outputs showed the numbers for both balanced and single ended which suggests it may not be fully balanced. I would appreciate your thoughts on this.
      Your impression of Spectral being optimized for balanced connections is the exact opposite of reality. Spectral doesn't offer a balanced preamp currently. The factory strongly recommends single ended use between all components even though my DMA-260 is balanced.





      Quote Originally Posted by pwhinson View Post
      Great review. One question: is there U.S. based service (warranty service or otherwise) available on the Vega?
      I will try to find the answer to this important question.
    1. elcorso's Avatar
      elcorso -
      Hi Cris,

      Nice and detailed review.

      My only complain is: 'Windows only' review?

      Thanks,

      Roch
    1. ted_b's Avatar
      ted_b -
      Great review, Chris.

      In my eval of the Vega I was not smitten with the internal volume control (I haven't been since my Antelope Gold) so I continue to listen via my Concert Fidelity CF-080 single ended preamp. A great dac, especially with a clean USB signal path and Exact Femto setting.
    1. The Computer Audiophile's Avatar
      The Computer Audiophile -
      Quote Originally Posted by elcorso View Post
      Hi Cris,

      Nice and detailed review.

      My only complain is: 'Windows only' review?

      Thanks,

      Roch
      I also used the Aurender W20. It runs Linux :~)
    1. phaeton's Avatar
      phaeton -
      Thanks for this detailed and effective review. I'm a Vega owner since a couple of months, and I can find in your review a lot of what I hear daily.

      Usually I use the Vega with my Stax combo (323S+507) during the week, and then on the w.e. with my setup (Spectral 30SL G2 + Pass X150.5 + Amphion Xenon II).

      I've tried going directly to the Pass via an XLR cable, and found no really big differencies with the Spectral (RCA from the Vega, XLR to the Pass) with the volume level I usually listen to (something around 65-70 on the Vega display). Please note I've set my Pass to 30db instead of the factory default 26db, and my loudpseakers are something about 86db/w on sensibility.

      Down to 50-60, music remains very enjoyable, even if some differencies with the Spectral start to come out, mainly in terms of liveliness. Going down further, say to 30, sound seems to "collapse" in terms of dynamics, but then you are at a very very very low listening level (at least with my setup).

      I think this is an incredible DAC for the price. I have done direct comparisons with some other well respected (and much higher priced) dacs and even if there were some differencies in terms of sound, by no means the Vega has been badly defeated.
    1. pwhinson's Avatar
      pwhinson -
      I will have an opportunity to listen to this unit soon here in Atlanta. At present I run my Bryston BDA-1 dac (which doesn't have a volume control) through an Aesthetix calypso linestage/preamp. Forgive me if this is a newbie question but what does one do when you have a unit like this with its own volume control if you want to continue to control volume with and run the analog output through the Calypso? Do you just set the volume control on the Vega at an arbitrary level? Is there a unity gain setting on these and similar units? If so do I just get a big "0" on the volume control reading on huge display on the Vega? I'm very glad by the way that this unit displays the current sampling rate in a format hopefully large enough for even me to read (wish it were as large as the volume control display, or better yet the volume display could have been configured so that when you're adjusting the volume, the display shows the current volume setting, but when the volume remains at its setting for more than a few seconds, the large volume display could have reverted to show the sampling rate; perhaps impossible I don't know but with my eyesight deteriorating further as the years go by I could easily get used to that large display.
    1. phaeton's Avatar
      phaeton -
      just leave the Vega at max, i.e. 100 on the volume scale, and then adjust the volume on the Calypso.
    1. ejn1's Avatar
      ejn1 -
      Quote Originally Posted by phaeton View Post
      Thanks for this detailed and effective review. I'm a Vega owner since a couple of months, and I can find in your review a lot of what I hear daily.

      Usually I use the Vega with my Stax combo (323S+507) during the week, and then on the w.e. with my setup (Spectral 30SL G2 + Pass X150.5 + Amphion Xenon II).

      I've tried going directly to the Pass via an XLR cable, and found no really big differencies with the Spectral (RCA from the Vega, XLR to the Pass) with the volume level I usually listen to (something around 65-70 on the Vega display). Please note I've set my Pass to 30db instead of the factory default 26db, and my loudpseakers are something about 86db/w on sensibility.

      Down to 50-60, music remains very enjoyable, even if some differencies with the Spectral start to come out, mainly in terms of liveliness. Going down further, say to 30, sound seems to "collapse" in terms of dynamics, but then you are at a very very very low listening level (at least with my setup).

      I think this is an incredible DAC for the price. I have done direct comparisons with some other well respected (and much higher priced) dacs and even if there were some differencies in terms of sound, by no means the Vega has been badly defeated.
      Very useful information. Thanks. I have a Bryston amp that i have via XLR. It has a 2 switch setting of either balanced (guess its no db boost) or +6 db balanced... I keep the former setting now so the volume dial pushes higher and it keeps the noise floor lower on the amp. My suspicion is that this will put me in the 60-100 range of normal listening with the Vega connected....
    1. phaeton's Avatar
      phaeton -
      Quote Originally Posted by ejn1 View Post
      .............. My suspicion is that this will put me in the 60-100 range of normal listening with the Vega connected....
      in that case you'll be just fine with the Vega directly driving your amp, at least this is what it's happening in my setup....
    1. Johnny Moondog's Avatar
      Johnny Moondog -
      Quote Originally Posted by The Computer Audiophile View Post
      I also used the Aurender W20.
      Will we be seeing a review of the Aurender W20 anytime soon? Haven't found anything anywhere yet...