AURALiC ALTAIR Review
Simplicity will be a common theme in this review. I've had a short attention span lately and been annoyed reading reviews with long introductions and verbose descriptions. Let's get down to business.
Five Ws, One H (5W1H)
Who - AURALiC, the same company that brought you Lightning DS, the ARIES streamers and VEGA DACs, among others. All hardware and software engineering is done in-house. The company is lead by its President & CEO Xuanqian Wang. I was first contacted by Xuanqian in August, 2011 and had no idea who he was or what AURALiC was all about. Over the last six years, Xuanqian has brought AURALiC from an industry unknown to a complete powerhouse that has legendary HiFi manufacturers feeling the pressure. This company has both the engineering skills to create something out of thin air, and the ability to see it to fruition. They aren't just dreamers, they are doers.
What - The AURALiC ALTAIR wireless streaming DAC and Lightning DS application. It's possible to use the ALTAIR with other applications such as Roon or DLNA servers and control points, but AURALiC has a strong value proposition with its complete ecosystem. The ALTAIR and Lightning DS harmonize extremely well together, and require zero ongoing licensing cost. Frequent firmware and software updates are included as well.
I say this frequently when I talk about AURALiC products, it's all about the ecosystem. AURALiC has a long term vision for hardware, software, support, and multiple products that fit into the system in several categories. What's more, AURALiC doesn't tie one into its own ecosystem like Apple or Sonos. Ever try switching from a life (TV, laptop, phone, tablet) weaved into Apple's ecosystem to using an Android phone? I have and it isn't pretty. AURALiC recommends its own software and hardware combination, but enables customers to, as Blind Faith said in 1969, "Do What You Like."
The ALTAIR wireless streaming DAC is a combination of AURALiC's very successful VEGA DAC and its equally successful ARIES products, into a single chassis. Someone who only wants a DAC without the streaming capability can purchase the VEGA, whereas someone who only wants streaming capability can purchase the ARIES. Or, some people prefer to separate technologies into different components, making upgrades a bit easier. However, simplifying one's life, getting rid of extra boxes, and removing visual clutter can do wonders for many of us. This is where ALTAIR shines.
The ALTAIR features all the standard DAC inputs such as AES, S/PDIF, Toslink, and USB, but also features both Ethernet and wireless, and USB hard drive support. Commonly not thought of as an input, the ALTAIR features space for a 2.5" hard drive inside the chassis. My review unit shipped with a 1TB SSD, on which I placed tens of thousands of tracks. This SSD should be considered an input just like any other source, external to the ALTAIR.
ALTAIR's ability to accept content from numerous sources is a real strength. The company realizes that content is king. I use internet radio quite a bit and enjoyed this capability on the ALTAIR / Lightning DS. For fans of AirPlay and Songcast the ALTAIR works just fine with those technologies. I'm not a fan of Bluetooth sound quality, but sometimes one is forced into using it, based on the source of one's music. ALTAIR happily accepts Bluetooth and makes lossy audio sound as good as it can sound. ALTAIR doesn't support aptX Bluetooth, but this isn't really an issue for most people because very few source devices support sending aptX Bluetooth audio. None of my Apple devices nor my Google Pixel Android phone support aptX.
The ALTAIR can certainly connect to a NAS unit and index nine gazillion tracks, but I found it's sweet spot to be a combination of internal SSD storage and Tidal lossless streaming. Lightning DS features its own server software (LightningServer) that requires absolutely zero user knowledge about how such items work. Selecting the ALTAIR's internal storage requires a single tap on an iPad or a couple clicks via the new web browser interface. All one's local music is indexed and present for playback.
Using firmware version 5.1.beta2 and Lightning DS version 4.4, my experience with with the ALTAIR was refreshingly nice. This may sound strange, but I had forgotten what it was like to tap on a song and have it immediately start to play. Using Roon so much, conditioned me to multiple taps and clicks, so much so that AURALiC's Lightning DS put my brain at ease after a few minutes of music.
AURALiC has really found a nice balance between too much information / too many options and a minimalist app. Lightning DS is streamlined where it needs to be and offers more, for those interested in digging a bit deeper, in other places. For example, I wanted to play the new album from the group Haim via Tidal. In Lightning DS I selected Tidal, followed by a little play button right on the Haim album that was featured on Tidal's front page. Lightning DS features a play button whenever possible. All albums, whether viewed on Tidal or in one's local collection can be played from any view. When I viewed my local collection of albums, scrolling through hundreds of them as I swiped, I could play any of them with a single tap on the play button. There was no need to go into the album details or add it to a queue or anything. This was really refreshing.
More detailed information is available to those who want to browse Tidal and read artist bios and to those who want to customize the features in Lightning DS. What's really cool is that AURALiC also enables one-tap playback when viewing this extra artis information or from wherever one is browsing. If you can see music, you can play it easily.
A review wouldn't be complete without mentioning any issues or oddities found during the review process. Thus, here are the items that I ran into or that I'd like to see. Adding stations to internet radio is a bit more challenging than it needs to be. For example, one radio station's URL that works in Roon, didn't work in Lightning DS. To get a working URL, I had to download the M3U file after clicking the working URL in a browser, then open the M3U with a text editor to find the second URL that worked in Lightning DS.
An oddity that I found with internet radio has to do with what AURALiC calls My favorites and My stations. My favorites contains radio stations that one find through browsing Lightning DS and marking the station a favorite. My Stations contains the radio stations that one enters manually by copying and pasting in the correct URL to the station's internet stream. Fair enough.
However, there should be a way to combine one's Favorite stations with one's manually added stations on a single screen. Currently it isn't possible to mark something in My Stations as a favorite, and the stations listed in My Favorites don't provide the URL enabling one to switch back to My Stations and make a manual entry. Lightning DS users will understand this easily. Those who are unfamiliar with Lightning DS, just need to understand that there are two screens with one's "selected" internet radio stations and they can't be combined.
I'd like to see AURALiC add the ability to subscribe to podcasts through Lightning DS. I listen to podcasts all the time and would love to enjoy good sound without much work. I'd also like to see the favorites section changed a bit, so one can add any artist as a favorite (not just a streaming service artist), and so both local and streaming service playlists can be marked as favorites. And, one last nit to pick, I've been waiting for AURALic to display how much free space remains on the internal hard drive for seemingly ever. Lightning DS displays how much total space the internal SSD contains, but doesn't let the user know how much space remains available for more music.
Note: I've been told drive free space will be available in firmware version 5.2.
When - The ALTAIR was introduced in the second quarter of 2016. The announcement and introduction of the new G2 Series in 2017 has no effect on the ALTAIR reviewed here as it remains in AURALiC's moderately priced category of components. While the new VEGA G2 is somewhat similar in features, its advanced design pushes up the price to around three times the cost of the ALTAIR.
Where - The ALTAIR is available globally through authorized dealers and directly from AURALiC for consumers without a local dealer. Computer Audiophile readers are encouraged to purchase through the dealers that support CA, such as Ciamara.
Why - The ALTAIR's raison d'être is simple, it's what many people want. A single piece of hardware, without many compromises, and an iOS application from the same manufacturer makes life easier. Once I started using the ALTAIR, it all clicked. I wish my music library could be squeezed into that 1TB SSD for the ultimate in simplicity. No worries though, the ALTAIR can see my NAS and present my 10TB of music as if it was all stored locally.
How (Much) - $1,899 (without internal storage), $2,299 (as tested, with 1TB SSD internal storage).
I listened through the ALTAIR in two different configurations. One, as a DAC only, connected to my Constellation Audio preamplifier. Two, connected directly to my Constellation Audio power amplifiers, using Lightning DS to control the hardware volume level on the ALTAIR. I preferred the sound when the ALTAIR drove the amps directly, and spent the vast majority of my listening time with this configuration (4.4Vrms on XLR and 2.2Vrms on RCA outputs).
In addition to the ALTAIR's linear power supply, and femto master clock (one for 44.1 and one for 48), it features user selectable filters that tailor the sound to one's preference. I preferred the Precise filter mode and used this for most of my listening sessions. I tested the other filters and while I could hear why some people would like those filters, they weren't for me. For example, the smooth filter sounded like a euphonic tube to my ears. Nice, but not my style.
Back in the late nineties I purchase a pair of Martin Logan ReQuest speakers from Audio King. The salesman asked me in a very judgmental voice, "Are you really buying these to play Pink Floyd?" I said "Hell yeah." And, here I am reviewing a HiFi component using Pink Floyd music, albeit on different loudspeakers. Listening to the original 1975 stereo mix of Wish You Were Here (24 bit / 96 kHz), from start to finish, the AURALiC ALTAIR reproduced the soundstage just how I like it, right down the middle. What I mean is, the presentation wasn't too forward or too laid back. From the meandering electric guitar in Shine On You Crazy Diamond (Parts 1-5) to the hauntingly real acoustic opening of the title track, it all sounded how I believe it should sound. Smack dab in the middle. Perhaps the ALTAIR is a great match for my Constellation monoblocks, or maybe something else altogether, but the sound really came together in a very coherent way that other DACs really struggled with when powering these amps directly.
Getting a bit more into distortion pedals, I listened to Little Black Submarines from The Black Keys. I streamed the MQA version from Tidal, to see how it sounded using AURALiC's own proprietary method of handling MQA files. The Opening acoustic guitar and vocal sounded wonderfully raw using the precise filter setting. It was just great. I could hear a vibration of strings and the body of the guitar that was incredibly intimate sounding, that I hadn't previously heard. Sure it has always been there, but I hadn't heard it during the first hundred listens to this song. At 1:30 when Brian Burton's organ comes in, it has an eerie sound. It's delineated so well from the vocal and guitar and it sounds so organic that one can't help but feel that this multi-tracked, processed, and highly compressed recording was made in a single room with the band all together.
Then, wham! The electric guitar hits after the two-minute minute mark. The guitar and drums, the distortion, the pedals and effects all sound fantastic. The edge and grunge of the guitar isn't smoothed over, it's raw and messy and it's rock and roll. At 3:34 into the track, I heard a voice say "Yeah" in the background. Again, this is the first time I've heard this, but I know it has been there since day one. Through the ALTAIR, this track sounds as good or better than I've ever heard it.
I care about sound quality as much or more than anybody I know, but I don't care that this is an MQA version or that AURALiC has opted to develop it's own proprietary resampling and de-blurring method that's not licensed from MQA ltd. It sounds great. I purchase HiFi gear to make my favorite music sound as good as it can. The ALTAIR makes Little Black Submarines from The Black Keys sound absolutely excellent.
OK, I'll put on my suit and tie just this once, and discuss some more "buttoned up" music. On second thought, no. I just passed one of my favorites when browsing Lightning DS and I have to listen and relay my experience. Steve Perry's solo album Street Talk contains one of my favorite tracks of all time, Oh Sherrie. This isn't the only reason I'm using Oh Sherrie to evaluate the ALTAIR. The other reason is that my good friend and high end audio dealer for the past forty years, Tim Marutani of Marutani Consulting, played this entire album for me on one of his systems. Not only that, but the source was a safety master tape directly from the studio. He played me the actual safety master, not a digital conversion of the album. Tim put the tape on his modified ATR 102 tape machine and let me just listen. In case you don't know, I'm not a big fan of analog playback. However, this was something I'd never experienced. The sound absolutely blew my mind. I will never forget this listening session.
"You should've been gone
Knowing how I made you feel
And I should've been gone
After all your words of steel
Oh I must've been a dreamer
And I must've been someone else
And we should've been over"
- Steve Perry (Oh Sherrie, 1984)
I bring up that story as a foundation to my evaluation of the same music, in digital form, when played through the ALTAIR. I know the comparison isn't apples to apples, but at least I have a feel for how this song sounded straight off the master tape from the studio. Oh Sherrie through the ALTAIR couldn't beat the master tape, but it still sounded really good. Steve Perry's opening vocal "You should've been gone" is unmistakable. Off the master tape there was more fullness to Steve's voice and more bottom end. There was also a holographic presentation like I've never heard in my life when played from the master tape.
Now back to reality. This tape doesn't exist in the real world as a product anyone can purchase. Thus, shooting for that sound is fine, but expecting it from anything other than the tape is preposterous. Through the AURALiC ALTAIR, Oh Sherrie was really good and unequivocally excellent when not compared to the unicorn tears of the master tape.
After listening to Oh Sherrie several times, I had the idea to put the ALTAIR filter setting on smooth. Wow, this setting change didn't place Steve Perry in the room, but it honestly brought the sound a bit closer to what I remember of the master tape. Perhaps the smooth setting added warmth to the rather cold digital version to which I was listening. On the smooth setting, Steve's vocal was a bit more life-like and the reverb around his voice was a bit more pronounced. Through Lightning DS I was able to switch back & forth between the precise and smooth filter settings without stopping playback. Without a doubt, Steve Perry's Street Talk album benefited greatly from this ability to change filters in the ALTAIR. I tend to be a set-it-and-forget-it type of guy, but once I heard the benefits of this specific filter on this specific recording, I had to question if my old stubbornness was hampering my enjoyment of music. There's no right or wrong or more "pure audiophile" filter. It's all a matter of personal preference, within reason, and trade-offs. Giving the customer the ability to easily change filters is a great move by AURALiC.
Simplicity, sound quality, and innovation. These are reasons why one buys into the flexible AURALiC ecosystem. The ALTAIR wireless streaming DAC simplifies a music aficionados life by integrating the ARIES streamer functionality and the VEGA DAC type performance into a single package, and integrating multiple sources of musical content through Lightning DS. In many cases people believe two is better than one, except when it comes to simplification.
The single chassis ALTAIR made my favorite music sound wonderful. Rock and roll was dirty and distorted, just how it's supposed to be and how the recording was delivered. The ALTAIR didn't smooth over the rough edges, it simply played what it was asked to play, without adding much character of its own. In addition, It's user selectable filters enabled me to squeeze an extra ounce of enjoyment out of a rather cold recording.
AURALiC is an innovative company. It has had SSD slots in components for years and integrated streaming services with this local or NAS storage for just as long. It's one of those companies that audio journalists look forward to seeing every year at the Munich High End show because we are treated to something new and innovative. This innovation comes in the form of both hardware and software. The ALTAIR hardware was released in 2016. I know it will continue to receive software enhancements, free of charge, for the foreseeable future. AURALiC and its ALTAIR are highly recommended.
- Product - AURALiC ALTAIR steaming DAC, $1,899 (without internal storage), $2,299 (as tested, with 1TB SSD internal storage)
- Product Page - AURALiC
- Support Information - ALTAIR Support
- User Guide - PDF Link
Where To Buy (CA Supporter):
- Source: Roon, Internal Storage
- DAC: Berkeley Audio Design Alpha DAC Reference Series 2, dCS Rossini, McIntosh D1100, EMM Labs DA2, Schiit Audio Yggdrasil
- D-to-D Converter: Sonore microRendu, Sonore Sonicorbiter SE, dCS Network Bridge
- Amplifiers: Constellation Audio Mono 1.0 / Monoblock Power Amplifiers
- Preamplifier: Constellation Audio PreAmp 1.0
- Loudspeakers: TAD Labs CR1 Compact Reference
- Remote Control Software: Roon Remote, Lightning DS
- Remote Control Hardware: iPad Air 2
- Playback Software: Roon, JRiver
- Network Attached Storage (NAS): Synology DS1812+, CAPS v4 Cortes Server
- Audio Cables: Wire World Platinum Eclipse 7 Interconnects (XLR & RCA), Wire World Platinum Eclipse 7 Speaker Cables, Wire World Platinum Starlight 7 Digital Cables,
- USB Cables: Wire World Platinum Starlight 7 USB 2.0, AudioQuest Diamond USB 2.0, Nordost Purple Flare USB 2.0
- Power Cables: ALO Audio AC6 Power Cables
- Ethernet Cables: AudioQuest Vodka Ethernet Cables throughout system
- Network: Cisco SG200-26 Switch, Baaske MI-1005 Ethernet Isolator, ASUS RT-AC3200, Calix 716GE-I Optical Network Terminal, ZyXEL C1100Z modem / router, CenturyLink 1 Gbps download / upload