AURALiC ARIES MINI and Lightning DS Review
Not that long ago, when I visited audio dealers around the world, many of them told me they were selling Sonos systems in more volume than any other product. In fact the numbers weren't even close, Sonos was flying out the door. The same dealers also told me they wished they had a product that was better than Sonos. A product that supported high resolution audio and was built for customers with a discerning ear for sound quality. AURALiC's first product to fill this void was the original ARIES. Priced at $1,599, the ARIES was definitely a product much better than anything Sonos had released, but it was a bit too expensive for many music aficionados. In an effort to bring more people into this wonderful HiFi hobby and to fill the gap between the mass market Sonos system and the class market ARIES, AURALiC released its ARIES MINI. Rather than pricing the MINI somewhere in between Sonos and the original ARIES, AURALiC managed to deliver a very high quality product for right around $500 (depending on included streaming service bundles). In addition to releasing the ARIES MINI, AURALiC accelerated development of its Lightning DS iOS application and has continued to release feature enhancing firmware upgrades to all AIRES series hardware devices. Looking at ARIES, ARIES LE, ARIES MINI, and Lightning DS all together, there's no question AURALiC has created a terrific ecosystem capable of replacing or improving any Sonos system.
I've used the ARIES MINI since the first pre-production unit was sent here about a year ago. Sure, I really like to use products thoroughly before reviewing them, but an entire year would be overkill. The reason I haven't published a review of the MINI, like seemingly every other publication on the planet, is that I kept hearing about new features, enhancements, and app upgrades. All of these sounded fantastic and I wanted to write about something more than the other guys. I waited, and waited, and waited until finally firmware version 4.0 was released to the public. This week, it was time to put the newly upgraded MINI through the wringer and to write up the review.
Anyone considering a hardware audio endpoint such as the ARIES MINI, must also take into account the entire ecosystem in which the endpoint will be placed. Some manufacturers don't have an ecosystem. They supply hardware designed to work with software, created by a somewhat anonymous online collective, that just happens to work, most of the time. AURALiC on the other hand, builds its own hardware and software, in addition to making its components interoperable with software crated by others. There's much to be said about the tight integration of hardware and software when one company is responsible for creating and supporting both pieces. Thus, any thorough review of the ARIES MINI, must also cover the Lightning DS software.
The ARIES MINI looks understated from the outside, in its white or black plastic housing. This plastic not only keeps cost down, it enables very good 802.11ac Tri-Band wireless signals to pass through the housing without the need for external antennas. Maybe it's just me, but I really dislike seeing HiFi components with the same external antennas that I used on my wireless router from the late 1990s. It's great to see AURALiC build the antenna into the ARIES MINI chassis.
Inside, the ARIES MINI is very similar to the other models in the ARIES series. It uses the same Tesla hardware platform, first designed for the original ARIES. It features a 1 GHz quad-core ARM Cortex-A9 processor, 4 GB of internal storage, and 2.4 / 5 GHz 802.11ac WiFi or 1 Gbps wired Ethernet. The MINI's RAM is capped at 512 MB, whereas the ARIES has an entire 1 GB of memory.
The ARIES MINI's available inputs are WiFi, Ethernet, and Bluetooth 4.0. I suspect many audiophiles will stick with the lossless nature of WiFi and wired Ethernet, but Bluetooth is supported for those interested in streaming Spotify, Pandora, Soundcloud or any number of services capable of using a mobile device's Bluetooth facility. The MINI also supports AirPlay via WiFi for people interested in streaming Apple Music or the aforementioned apps in an Apple environment. In past reviews of HiFi products, I've recommended using wired Ethernet, without hesitation, over WiFI. My experience with the ARIES MINI has forced me to reevaluate this steadfast recommendation. I started sending audio to the MINI via wired Ethernet. When testing ultra high resolution streaming I ran into a rare glitch that's present only under a very specific set of circumstances (soon to be fixed with a firmware update), so I switched over to my 5 GHz 802.11 ac wireless network. Expecting dropouts and hiccups, I went right for the jugular by streaming DSD256 1-bit / 11.2896 MHz at a bitrate of 22.5792 Mbps (24-bit / 192 kHz audio maxes out at about 9.2 Mbps). Not only did I stream this to a single ARIES MINI, I sent it to two MINIs and an original ARIES simultaneously. I didn't hear a single dropout or hiccup. I listened for two hours straight, while letting the tracks flow naturally from one to the next in the queue, and manually hitting previous/next via Lightning DS. The WiFi performance was flawless.
Speaking of resolution, the ARIES MINI supports PCM playback up through 32-bit / 384 kHz and DSD256, also known as quad DSD. The MINI can accept these high resolutions via WiFi or wired Ethernet, but can only output music at the very highest rates via its analog line outputs or digitally via USB. The TosLink and coaxial digital outputs are limited to 24-bit / 192 kHz. For most people on the planet, 16-bit / 44.1 kHz is just fine, so there is no need to worry about the ultra high sample rates. In addition, the built-in DAC of the MINI is an ESS ES9018K2M. It's completely capable of handling any of the supported resolutions and outputting high quality analog to any connected device.
Many members of the CA Community have NAS drives with a million tracks on them, but most people don't have that much music or the desire for network attached storage. This is where my favorite feature of the ARIES MINI comes into play, its internal 2.5 inch storage slot. The MINI supports a 2.5" spinning or solid state disk, up to 9.5mm in height, drawing 5V/1A of current, inside its enclosure. There is no ARIES MINI disk capacity limitation, any limitation is due to the manufacturers of hard drives not being able to squeeze more bits on to a small drive. Installing the drive is very easy and requires zero computer skills. If the user can handle a screw driver and follow directions, s/he will be just fine installing an HDD/SSD. I installed a Samsung 850 EVO 2.5" 1TB SATA III drive into one of the MINIs here for review.
Once a disk is installed into the MINI, a whole new world opens up. The MINI becomes a storage device capable of streaming audio to any Lightning device or UPnP renderer on the network. Whats more, the user doesn't have to know anything about storage devices, it jus works and it's always available. There are no computers to keep running, just to serve music to an audio device. And, it works very fast. Scanning the local SSD for nearly 16,000 tracks I placed on it, took about 1 minute. Refreshing the cache was almost immediate.
In the AURALiC ecosystem at my house I have one MINI running Lightning Server and housing the 1TB SSD, serving music to itself, another MINI, and an original ARIES. For testing purposes, and because I have many more albums than I can fit on the internal drive, I also tried the MINI running Lightning Server scanning my NAS. Where the internal SSD was scanned extremely quick, the NAS was scanned noticeably slower. There is quite a bit at play here with the traffic going over the network and scanning 45,000 more tracks. This speed difference was expected and not a big deal. Once the initial scan is complete, Lightning Server stores an index file with all the needed information that makes switching between libraries or adding new tracks very fast. If all one's music can fit on a 1TB SSD or 2TB HDD, I highly recommend going this route. It's just so simple and smoothly integrated.
The ARIES MINI ships with a standard external switching power supply. This will be totally fine for most listeners, but those who demand better quality sound will likely want to upgrade this supply. The identical power supply that ships with the original ARIES can be purchased for the MINI for $299.
The tight integration between hardware and software indelibly involves some features that meld both hardware and software or at least can't be discussed in a single category. For example, AURALiC's built-in flex filter mode (activated in Lightning DS version 2.3). Within the Lightning DS app, the user can select among four different filter designs to fine tune the sound of the analog output. This technology comes from the VEGA DAC and uses a combination of custom AURALiC filter setting and a built-in DAC chip setting. The filter settings are Precise (ESS built-in mode), Dynamic, Balance, and Smooth. I listened to each filter and didn't prefer one over the other in all cases. I though I would be a "Precise" kind of guy all the time, but I switched to Balance mode about 30% of the time. This setting will be heavily listener and system dependent. Pick which ever one sounds best and run with it. There's no right or wrong when it comes to the sound of filters and enjoying one's music collection.
One differentiator between the ARIES, ARIES LE, and the ARIES MINI, is upgradability. Some software upgrade options, that AURALiC relates to sonic improvements, will not be available in the MINI. Examples of this are DSD upsampling and room correction. This may be a strategic decision by AURALiC or it may be related to hardware limitations of the MINI or both. Either way, potential customers should take this into consideration before purchasing the MINI, they may instead opt for an ARIES or ARIES LE to thwart any possible disappointment.
Also in the hardware / software mix, is firmware. AURALiC just released firmware version 4.0 for the entire ARIES series. Two main features of this release are memory cache playback and Bit-Perfect Group Play.
I love Bit-Perfect Group Play for many reasons. One of which is because people can now stop complaining about products not being able to compete with Sonos when it comes to synchronized playback in multiple rooms. In my opinion, synchronized playback is something only engineers demand. Audio zones are usually heard by the people in that zone. When someone walks into another zone, is it really imperative that the audio in the previous zone be in 100% sync with the new zone? I don't believe so, because a different zone is usually in place when the audio from the other zones can't be heard. IN other words, if you can hear the audio from zone A, why have zone B? If it's because you want the capability to play different music int he zones, that's cool but doesn't require perfect synchronization. If someone had two zones in the same room (nonsensical but I wouldn't put anything past anybody), then this synchronization would be critical. OK, I'm done with my rant about the overrated-ness of synchronization from the time sync standpoint and it had nothing to do with AURALiC or the ARIES MINI.
Before counting I should describe Bit-Perfect Group Play. AURALiC also calls it party mode. This enables the user to create zones of more than one ARIES/LE/MINI that will stream the same music to all devices in the zone simultaneously. I don't know of another company or product that can stream DSD256 to multiple devices on a zone, and do it with high synchronization precision. AURALiC claims a 10x less error factor than all existing wireless multi-room solutions.
Back to why I love it, I love Bit-Perfect Group Play because I can play music to all or any of my ARIES devices at the same time. I don't care about synchronization, but I do care about tapping on Miles Davis' Kind of Blue and having git play to all my devices at once. The days of selecting music and sending it to each device individually are over. I can remember tapping play and switching devices as fast as possible to tap play again and get the same track going in multiple rooms. Kind of like how sneaker-net was to wired Ethernet. Manual and old school, without the coolness factor.
The other main benefit of firmware 4.0 is memory cache playback. Memory cache playback pre-loads music into system memory to improve streaming stability and according to AURALiC, sound quality. There is no end user ability to enable/disable memory cache playback, so I really can't say if this has an effect on sound quality. Other solutions that cache music do it to SSD, whereas AURALiC caches to system memory. Part of this playback method will also disable idle hardware and stop idle software to reduce EMI noise during playback. The original ARIES and ARIES LE have a memory cache of 512 MB, but the MINI can old hold 64 MB of memory cached music. To accommodate larger files, each track is segmented into smaller pieces before it is sent to memory cache.
Over the last couple years AURALiC has been working on its Lightning streaming platform, to build its own ecosystem. This work involves an entire team of software engineers that work hand in hand with AURALiC's hardware team. People who are familiar with the Lightning DS application from its early days, know full well how far the team has come with the app. Lightning DS used to be a simple hardware control type of app, whereas now it's a full fledged music management system. While the Lightning DS app for iPad was first to arrive, the iPhone version is currently a step or two ahead of the iPad version. The reason is that the iPhone version was newly developed from scratch, whereas the iPad version is from 2014, with upgrades along the way. Fortunately, AURALiC will be demonstrating the updated version of the iPad app, that's on par with the iPhone version, and Rocky Mountain Audio Fest next week. The company is targeting official release of the new iPad app before the end of 2016.
From the minute a consumer plugs in an ARIES MINI and opens up the Lightning DS iOS app, AURALiC is there for support. What I mean by this is, the Lightning DS app has a built-in setup guide to walk customers through any setup required. Setting up an ARIES MINI isn't rocket science, but CA readers may be surprised to learn this setup guide has reduced initial support tickets for AURALiC by 80%.
Given that the ARIES MINI is aimed at those seeking to upgrade their Sonos system or purchase something better right from the beginning, it's prudent to discuss some differences between the two products' applications. The Sonos iOS app has more music streaming service integration than any other product on Earth. When a company is as big as Sonos, streaming services bend over backward to get integrated into its app. Even Apple offers its music streaming service through the Sonos app, and Deezer's Elite lossless streaming service is offered through Sonos. In this area, nobody beats Sonos. However, AURALiC's Lightning DS app wasn't created to offer more than Sonos, it was created to offer a better experience and to focus on high quality streaming services. Thus, Lightning DS integrates Tidal, WiMP, and Qobuz. From an audiophile perspective, Lightning DS offers the only streaming services that currently matter.
One area where AURALiC and Lightning DS completely blow away Sonos is with respect to track limits. Sonos is limited to 65,000 tracks total. This limitation is due to memory limitations in the Sonos hardware, so there won't be any software update to fix the issue. Lightning DS isn't strictly limited to a number of tracks. At about 1,000,000 tracks the app may slow down a bit, but a newer iPad with 128GB of storage and 2GB could handle such a database.
While not "hot of the press" new, AURALiC's Lightning Server (as opposed to Lightning DS the iOS app), is a newish development that enhances the whole AURALiC ecosystem greatly. When Lightning DS was originally launched, AURALiC recommended people use a third party UPnP server application like minimserver or Asset UPnP. Now, the company has built its own server software, aptly named Lightning Server, that runs right on the AIRES MINI. One of the huge benefits of using Lightning Server with Lightning DS, is that a rescan of one's library will only update the changes on the iPad or iPhone. The Lightning Server index file saves an enormous amount of time when dealing with large libraries. For example, last night I decided to delete the library and rescan it on my NAS. There was nothing wrong, I just wanted to run through the process one more time. Scanning of my 60,000+ library and populating the iOS database with albums covers etc... took hours. I started it and went to bed. This morning I added an album to the NAS and tapped rescan in the Lightning DS app. Scanning about 400 albums per second, the entire thing was over in what seemed like a couple minutes. If I was using a third party UPnP server on my NAS, I would have had to wait quite a while for the entire library to scan and repopulate the local iOS cache. I remember when Lightning Server was first released and AURALiC's Xuanqian Wang told me several times that I should use this rather than a third party app. I hesitated at first because I figured he would say that anyway, he is the head of the company. Once I tried Lightning Server, I was sold. When using AURALiC products and its ecosystem, I will always use Lightning DS with Lightning Server.
One additional note about adding content to Lightning DS / Server. Within the app, the user has the option to use either a USB drive, network folder, or internal storage. It's not possible to use more than one option at the same time. For example, it's not possible to use a 1 TB internal SSD and a 1 TB SSD connected via USB and combine the storage into a single library. It would be kind of cool of those of us who like SSDs, but it's not an option.
Like most apps built for music management and playback, Lightning DS has all the standard features of browsing, adding to the queue, and creating playlists etc ... Some special features that help separate it from other options, and help consumers make purchasing decisions, are what I find more interesting. Some of my favorites include:
- The ability to create playlists locally or online with Tidal content.
- Enhanced metadata and artist information in the iPhone app, and display of similar artist and clickable links to others mentioned in biography.
- What I call "two-tap playing" in the iPad app, where the user taps and album cover, then taps the album title to immediately begin playing the entire album.
- Even better than two-tap playing is single tap playing in the iPhone app, where one can click the play button on the album cover while browsing.
- Great multi-zone control of playback and volume of devices in a zone or separate devices not zoned.
- Ability to browse the library by folder, and within the folder selection are automatically created "folders" to browse by import dates, file types, composers, and sample rate to name a few. Traditional folder browsing is of course available as well.
- The ability to create, edit and delete zones with AURALiC devices is extremely simple and fast.
If I had a wishlist for improvements I'd like to see in the Lightning DS application, on the top of this list would include tighter integration with Tidal. Currently Tidal and local content must be browsed separately. Streaming services and local content are still living in a Plessy v. Ferguson world of separate but equal. Browsing and searching Tidal through Lightning DS is really nice, and the same can be said for local content. I just wish the two would be integrated within the same screen. For example, I want to view my Miles Davis albums locally, and the Miles Davis albums favorited through Tidal, when I look at Miles Davis in Lightning DS.
Overall, I liked Lightning DS when it was first released, but I love it now. The newest version of the app, version 3.1, is so far ahead of previous iterations that it's like a completely different application. Given that physical media and CD booklets are long gone, the iOS app has become the defect interface by which we view our prized music collections. It's critical that people considering the purchase of a hardware component also consider the software that goes along with the component.
Listening to the AURALiC ARIES MINI in my system was really enjoyable. I focussed the vast majority of my listening time on the MINI's built-in analog outputs, and with the included switching power supply. I was most interested to see how much sound quality could be had from a multi-zone system that costs little more than a mass market Sonos. Sure, I connected the upgraded power supply for a little taste of the good life, and I recommend those seeking better performance do so as well, but sometimes I don't like to be a tweaky geek. I like to get a product and use it how the manufacturer believes its target market will use the product.
During the review process I connected a pair of MINIs to the analog inputs of my Constellation Audio Inspiration PreAmp 1.0. I know I just said I wanted to use the product how the manufacturer envisions it being used in the field, and I know I'm the only person on the planet who has two MINIs connect to a full Constellation Audio system with TAD CR1 loudspeakers. But, I can only go so far and I want to see what the MINI is capable of, so I can't connect it to an inferior system and expect to hear what the MINI is all about. With that out of the way, let's get to the musical enjoyment.
The other night I introduced my four year old daughter to The Beatles' Yellow Submarine album. She has been singing it ever since, and I've been on a Beatles kick, listening to the 24-bit / 44.1 albums from the Apple shaped USB drive (long since copied to my NAS and the internal SSD of the MINI). Listening to the 2009 stereo remaster of Abbey Road at 24/44.1 through the ARIES MINI was a great experience. I had high expectations that the MINI would perform much better than a Sonos Connect, and those expectations were easily met. I love the beginning of Come Together, with Ringo slapping the skins and cymbals. Through the MINI the organic feel of Ringo's kit wasn't lost and sounded really good. The same can be said for the guitar, it sounded grungy and dirty, like rock and roll should sound. There was no restriction imposed on the music by the MINI. What I mean is, I know connecting an AIRES with linear PSU into the AURALiC VEGA would reproduce more air and instrument separation and delineation, but at the cost of several thousand dollars. I believe higher end components will bring out more, but I don't believe the MINI is imparting too much on The Beatles music. The MINI is capable of getting someone very far along the HiFi road without breaking the bank.
Switching to Keb Mo's self titled album, it's a bit easier to hear where the MINI is far better than other systems of similar ilk and where it doesn't match up to its more advanced brethren, the original ARIES and ARIES LE. Compared to the Sonos Connect the MINI sounds like a breath of fresh air, with real body to the music and a naturalness that makes the Connect just sound skewed. Moving from the 16/44.1 version of this album to the DSD version brings a different sound altogether, that can't be compared apples to apples with other devices because they don't support DSD. Nonetheless, the MINI is a best in class component. Compared to a better AURALiC combination (AIRES/VEGA) the MINI is quite a bit more veiled and Keb's vocals don't have the texture and depth that they could. This is how HiFi should work, more expensive components should sound better, and in this case they do. However, this fact shouldn't diminish the value and sound quality that I squeezed out of the ARIES MINI. For many people I suspect the MINI may be the best component they've ever had in their system. Heck, it could make up their entire digital system. Just connect powered speakers and call it a day.
Last Friday I drove across town to the first meeting of a new audiophile group in Minneapolis. On the way I heard a track from Ray Charles' album Ray Sings, Basie Swings. it reminded me how great the entire album is and sounds. I followed the event by doing what all respectable audiophiles do, I put on the 24/88.2 version downloaded from HDtracks. Listening to the whole album through the ARIES MINI was very enjoyable. Some die hard audiophiles will enjoy trying to read between the lines of that statement, but I assure you there is nothing between any lines. I tell it like it is. If someone purchases an audio component for anything other than enjoyment, I'm not sure I'd understand the purchase. The ARIES MINI should deliver enjoyment on a level commiserate with its price, and it does. I believe the MINI is capable of delivering all the sound quality many systems can handle and that many people may not be able to squeeze every ounce of performance of of the MINI because the rest of their system is of lesser quality. Connected to many inexpensive integrated amps or a pair of relatively inexpensive powered speakers, the MINI won't be the bottle neck. Listening to the opening track on this album, Oh What A Beautiful Morning, Rays voice at the beginning and the overtones of the piano sound just beautiful through the MINI. On the famous track, Georgia On My Mind, the opening piano sounds great, as does Ray's and the backing singers' vocals. Beautiful sweet sound. The MINI is a very capable component, the say the least.
The AURALiC ARIES MINI is the hot rod of wireless streaming and the best in class component for multi-room music playback. The combination of ARIES MINI, Lightning DS, and Lightning Server (all included in the price) is capable of streaming all commonly used high resolution sample rates without issue and with beautiful sound quality. Comparing the MINI to Sonos Connect isn't much of contest, unless one is interested in listening to every type of streaming audio ever made available. Where Sonos focusses on quantity, AURALiC focusses on quality. The MINI and Lightning DS are integrated with lossless streaming services, but also support any service capable of using Bluetooth or AirPlay. While the lossy services like Spotify and Apple Music will sound as good as they ever have, through the ARIES MINI, it's the lossless services such as Tidal and Qobuz that help the MINI really shine and set itself apart from the multi-zone wireless audio competition. AURALiC has put together a team of hardware and in-house software engineers that have elevated the ARIES MINI and Lightning DS to heights beyond that which much of the competition will likely every reach, for a really reasonable price. Those seeking an upgrade from the sonic, software, and hardware imposed restrictions of Sonos, those seeking to get into WiFi or HiFI streaming for the first time, or even those looking for their first high quality digital system would be well served by AURALiC's ARIES MINI and Lightning DS.
Where To Buy:
- Source: Aurender N10, MacBook Pro (running Windows 10)
- DAC: Berkeley Audio Design Alpha DAC Reference Series 2, Mytek Digital Brooklyn
- D-to-D Converter: Berkeley Audio Design Alpha USB, Sonore microRendu
- Amplifiers: Constellation Audio Mono 1.0 / Monoblock Power Amplifiers
- Preamplifier: Constellation Audio PreAmp 1.0
- Loudspeakers: TAD Labs CR1 Compact Reference
- Remote Control Software: JRemote, Roon Remote
- Remote Control Hardware: iPad Air 2
- Playback Software: Roon, JRiver Media Center
- 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, Apple AirPort Extreme, Calix 716GE-I Optical Network Terminal, ZyXEL C1100Z modem / router, CenturyLink 1 Gbps download / upload
Edited by The Computer Audiophile0