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.
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
- Product - Auralic Vega Digital Audio Processor
- Price - $3,500
- Product Page - Link
- User Manual - Link (PDF)
- Filter Document - Link (PDF)
- Source: 15" MacBook Pro w/ Retina Display, Aurender W20 Music Server, C.A.P.S. v3 Carbon Server with Red Wine Audio Black Lightening Battery Power Supply
- DAC: Luxman DA-06, Berkeley Audio Design Alpha DAC Series 2
- Preamp: Spectral Audio DMC-30SS Series 2
- Amplifier: Spectral Audio DMA-260
- Loudspeakers: TAD Labs CR1 Compact Reference
- Remote Control Software: JRemote, Aurender App
- Remote Control Hardware: iPhone 5, iPad (3rd Generation)
- Playback Software Windows 8: J River Media Center 18
- Cables: MIT Matrix HD 60 Bi-Wire Loudspeaker Cable, MIT Oracle Matrix 50 Analog Interconnects (RCA), ALO Audio AC6 Power Cables, Wire World Silver Starlight USB Cable, AudioQuest Diamond USB Cable
- Network: Cisco SG200-26 Switch, Baaske MI-1005 Ethernet Isolator, Micro Connectors Augmented Cat6A Ethernet Cable, Apple AirPort Extreme, PFSense Router / Firewall, Cisco DPC3000 Docsis 3.0 cable modem, Comcast Extreme 105 Mbps Internet Service