Auralic Aries Review
The Auralic Aries is one of the most highly anticipated products in recent memory. From the moment it was announced as a wireless DXD and DSD capable component with USB output to today, the Aries has remained high on many peoples’ lists of components to audition. Fortunately I’ve been able to audition the Aries for several months. During this audition many software and firmware updates were released and the product continued to improve far beyond its initial capabilities. For example, users of the Aries requested USB disk playback and Auralic delivered the feature through a firmware update. Based on my experience with the Aries it’s completely understandable why the product remains very hot among members of the Computer Audiophile Community. As of today the Aries and corresponding Lightning DS app deliver on all Auralic’s promises. From great OpenHome / DLNA support to AirPlay to top notch Tidal HiFi integration to super sound quality to outstanding upgradability, Auralic has hit a home run with the Aries. Great features galore with the sound quality to match. The Aries is definitely my network audio device of choice.
What is Aries and Lightning DS
The Auralic Aries is a unique product in high end audio. It’s audio capabilities, visible in plain sight, shouldn’t fool users into thinking this is a simplistic device. Aries is a high end audio component with a computer on-board. Based on a Quad-Core ARM Coretex-A9 processor running at 1GHz, 1GB DDR3 onboard memory and 4GB internal storage, the Computer-on-Module (visible with heat sink in photos) sits just behind the front panel display. This computer, running Linux, is the heart of Aries’ flexibility and future proofing. When Auralic wants to add features or fix bugs it simply sends an update to the unit similar to updating one’s desktop computer. For example, the first Aries units to hit the streets “featured” a noisy front panel display that produced a buzzing sound audible from one’s listening position. Auralic figured out how to reduce the noise down to a very low level and released an upgrade to all Aries units. Because the Linux / ARM platform is so flexible, the future capabilities of the Aries are really endless. In addition to a powerful computer on-board the Aries features audio circuitry similar to Auralic’s other products. The cleanly designed board features an XMOS USB controller and two individual FemtoClocks for both USB audio host and digital outputs including TosLink, S/PDIF (coaxial), and AES.
What exactly is the Aries? It’s a bridge between one’s music and one’s audio system. Whether music is stored on a networked DLNA server or a USB drive, the Aries will process it and send it to one’s digital to analog converter. The Aries turns any DAC into a network capable audio component and so much more. My current reference, the Berkeley Audio Design Alpha DAC RS, doesn’t feature an Ethernet input, WiFi support, USB storage input, or streaming service support such as Tidal HiFI. Adding all these capabilities to the Alpha DAC RS was as easy as putting the Aries on my wireless network and connecting it physically to the Alpha DAC RS via AES cable.
What is Lightning DS? Lightning DS is the software application used to control almost all aspects of the Aries. With the exception of turning the unit’s power on, Lightning DS controls everything from playback to configuration. Currently the app is only available for iPads.
Aries and Lightning DS Features
Some of the major features of the Aries / Lightning DS package are it’s ability to be an OpenHome / DLNA renderer, Tidal HiFi integration, wireless operation, AirPlay, USB drive support, and USB DAC support. Within each one of these features are nuances that can make or break a product. During this review period I dove deep into these features to make sure the Aries was really all that Auralic claimed in the product press releases.
The Aries ability to function as an OpenHome / DLNA renderer is absolutely critical. Some users may purchase the component specifically for this feature and this feature only. As usual I tested its ability to play gapless 24/192 content by sending the Stravinsky Apollon musagete & Pulcinella Suite from Linn Records to the Aries. In addition I sent Pink Floyd’s The Dark Side of the Moon at 24/96 to the Aries because I’ve embedded some very large album art into the tracks and it’s a great test of a renderer’s ability to handle difficult files. Aries handled all of my gapless testing without a hiccup, including streaming from Tidal HiFi. The Aries supports two modes, A) OpenHome and B) UPnP Renderer for DLNA type network audio playback. The default mode is OpenHome as it’s said to be a bit more advanced than UPnP mode with it support for on-device playlists among other things. One reason to change from the default and switch to UPnP renderer is if the user wishes to use a control point such as JRiver with JRemote on iOS devices. The Aries will only appear as a DLNA zone within JRiver Media Center when the UPnP Renderer mode is selected within Auralic’s Lightning DS app. As a renderer I found the Aries to be remarkably trouble free using firmware version 1.11.
The Lightning DS iOS application is also just as critical as the Aries’ ability to play music via DLNA. Without a stable and quality remote control application, the user experience can be terrible and frustrating. Fortunately the Lightning DS application has undergone major updates and improvements since its first beta release. I’ve been using version 1.6 with great success. Navigation of one’s library is very easy and pretty intuitive. The advantage here goes to users who don’t have much experience with iPad remote control applications. Those of us who have used numerous apps can get stuck in our old ways of thinking and expect all apps to function the same way. Users just starting out with network audio will have no trouble navigating the Lightning DS app. One feature I really like in the Lightning DS app is its display of search results. Entering a term in the search box and tapping search causes Lightning DS to search several metadata fields rather than a single field depending on the view of the user. Thus, the search results come back in sections such as Artist, Composers, Albums, and Tracks. One search delivers all these results on the same screen, but organized very nicely. Other remote control applications force the user to search a single metadata field such as Artist or Album and only view results for that field. As long as the results are presented nicely I much prefer to search several fields at once. Adding tracks to a playlist is another feature I really like with Lightning DS. I frequently listen to entire albums and notice a new track that I’d like to put on my demonstration playlist. Many application make this a multi-multi step process that results in me not adding the track because it’s too convoluted. Lightning DS on the other hand enables me to add any track to any playlist with just a couple taps of my finger. The caveat here is that this can’t be done from the currently playing playlist, rather it has to be done from the library view.
Lightning DS isn’t perfect. My main gripe with the app is its inability to add local network music to the same playlist as music from streaming services such as Tidal HiFi. I frequently switch between local and streaming music, but must switch modes from Streaming Mode to Library Mode in order to do so. Users have a choice between either streaming or local playback.
One minor but very nice feature of Lightning DS is its ability to display information about the music currently playing. The app displays both kHz such as 44.1, 96, etc…, bit depth such as 16 or 24, and Mbps. When listening to one’s own library of music this information is not as important as when one’s is streaming from a service such as Tidal HiFi. The display of Mbps enabled me to identify some of Shelby Lynne’s material streaming at 320 Kbps MP3 quality from Tidal rather than a lossless number likely around 800-1000.
Auralic’s integration of Tidal HiFi into Lightning DS is currently very good. Searching for my favorite band, Pearl Jam, produces really fast results including Artists, Albums, Tracks, and Playlists that feature Pearl Jam. One great feature that sets Lightning DS apart from many of the other applications that integrate streaming services is its ability to access, edit, and add to the Tidal HiFi favorites section. This is absolutely critical when using a service that has 25,000,000 tracks. Within Tidal HiFi, on my desktop, iPhone, or through the Lightning DS app, I frequently add Artists, Albums, and Tracks to my favorites. the ability to access these favorites from Lightning DS can’t be overestimated. Many apps simply let the user search and play music from Tidal HiFi without the ability to personalize anything through the Favorites section. Lightning DS excels in this area. During my many hours of listening through Tidal HiFi playback was always bit perfect and 99% of the time flawless through the Aries / Lightning DS combo.
When I first received the Aries I didn’t think much about using it via WiFi. My entire listening environment is wired with AudioQuest Vodka Ethernet cables and I generally have no need for WiFi, other than for iPad connectivity. Toward the end of this review period I decided to test the wireless operation because I can see many members of the Computer Audiophile Community using this mode of connectivity. My wireless network consists of multiple Apple AirPort Extreme 802.11ac access points and a couple AirPort Expresses that support 802.11n. i first setup the Aries to connect to the Airport Extremes using the 2.4 GHz bandwidth. This was problematic when playing music at 24/176.4 and 24/192. I experienced many dropouts. Auralic support suggested I try switching to the 5 GHz bandwidth and manually selecting a wireless channel, rather than the automatic setting, if possible because this is a known issue among Aries users with Apple wireless routers. I decided to connect the Aries to the 5 GHz network running on one of the AirPort Express units as a test. This was all I needed to do to get perfect smooth playback without hiccups. Since switching to wireless operation I haven’t gone back to wired Ethernet because WiFi works great.
AirPlay is one of those features that I use in waves. I’ll get really into specific podcasts and stream them from my Retina 5K iMac to my main audio system via AirPlay. At other times I won’t listen to anything via AirPlay for weeks on end. I’ve been streaming the Serial podcast lately via AirPlay to the Aries. Unlike other products I’ve used, the Aries has worked terrifically every time. Quite a few Linux based products that support AirPlay have issues with streaming stability. The Aries is not one of those problem children. In addition to AirPlay, Aries supports sending audio from a Mac or PC using Songcast. The beauty of Songcast is that it doesn’t require use of Apple software in order to send audio to a network receiver. After installing Songcast software the user can specify all audio output go to the Aries. In my testing I used all kinds of apps such as Tidal HiFi within the Chrome web browser and YouTube without any playback issues. Songcast also passed my bit perfect testing, so I can assure readers it isn’t altering the digital data one bit. I view Songcast as the way to stream all audio that can’t be streamed by another built-in application. I don’t see myself using it frequently, but having the ability is a great thing and another feather in the Auralic cap of capabilities.
The rear of the Aries features two USB ports. One port supports USB DACs and the other supports USB disks. The USB DAC port is capable of functioning with a vast majority of USB DACs. The Aries supports Class 2 USB audio devices without many issues. I can’t say all XMOS based DACs work great, but I’m willing to bet 99% of them would have no issues. Because of the Aries’ flexible platform Auralic has preinstalled USB drivers for some of the more popular USB DACs that require drivers. This includes those based on the M2Tech or Mytek Digital platforms. I’ve heard the Chord Hugo works with Aries, but I am not 100% positive at the time of this writing. My XMOS based Berkeley Audio Design Alpha USB works without issue while connected to the Aries. The USB disk port on the Aries is something I didn’t understand at first. I didn’t get why someone would want to use local storage when they could just stream from the network. Then an astute member of the CA Community suggested the USB port was a simple way for friends to share music they have brought over to one’s house on a USB flash drive. Ah ha, I finally understood why people were so worked up about support for this feature. During my USB stick tests I ran into one USB flash drive that couldn’t be read by the Aries. I’m not entirely sure what it is about this specific stick that makes it not work, but I suspect there is a hidden partition on the stick from a previous Linux installation image. After switching USB sticks everything worked as designed. Auralic’s documentation suggests the USB port supports up to 16 Terabyte drives and can even power some USB disks. Once a disk is connected the Aries takes an inventory of the music and stores this in its database. Thus, removing the disk, adding music, and reinserting the same disk doesn’t require a lengthy re-inventory of all the music. Based on my experience using the USB disk feature, I’d say it works great and much quicker than I would have thought.
Sonically the Auralic Aries is a superstar. It has all the features one wants and it manages to perform among the best source components I’ve heard. Whether streaming from Tidal HiFi, my local network, or directly from a USB stick the sound of Aries was consistent throughout the review period. Streaming Leonard Cohen’s new album Popular Problems from Tidal HiFi reproduced terrific sound through my Alpha DAC RS / Pass Labs / TAD / Wire World system. Most notably were the tracks Almost Like The Blues and Samson In New Orleans. On ‘Samson’ there is a beautiful violin thats smoothness is so opposite Leonards’s raspy baritone that it sounds magical. Listening to the ‘Blues’ it’s easy to get lost in Leonard’s story because his voice comes through very raw. What I mean by that is the sound of his voice seems unaltered and so clear that he sounds like he is sitting between the speakers. The first few times I listened to the track I felt a bit uncomfortable. The backing vocal throughout this track is also as smooth as silk through the Aries / Alpha DAC RS combo.
Switching to Leonard Cohen’s previous album, Old Ideas, playing from my local network DLNA server reproduced sound that was equally thrilling. On Show Me The Place Leonard’s baritone again sounds rough, raspy, and raw. Just like it should sound. In similar fashion the backing vocals and violin in this track are so delicate yet smooth and so opposite Leonard’s voice that they are irresistible. Getting lost in this track is easy, especially when the backing singers gently edge into the track singing, “show me the place…”
“When are you gonna come down? When are you going to land?” These are the first two lines of Goodbye Yellow Brick Road. Listening to Elton John perform this track usually doesn’t do it for me. However, listening to Sara Bareilles softy sing those two lines through the Aries gave me chills each time I listened. This live version of Yellow Brick Road at 24 bit / 96 kHz (4.616 Mbps according to Lightning DS) never gets old. I listened to the entire album a few times, but replayed this track several more times. Just hearing the opening notes of Sara’s keyboard almost gives me a Pavlovian response. The Aries does this track and the entire album justice by reproducing it wonderfully.
Listening to Laith Al-Saadi’s Real album at 24/192 (hand delivered to me by Laith’s brother at RMAF) through the Aries really allowed me to hear each of the talented musicians shine in high resolution. Laith’s cover of The Band’s Ophelia is full of great vocals, great guitars, terrific horns, and a humbling Hammond B3 organ. The sound of the entire band together is equally as impressive as when the musicians edge out in front of the others individually. Each instrument can be heard with excellent delineation at all points throughout the track.
Another one of my favorite newish albums is Fun Machine from Lake Street Dive. The band covers some great tracks on this album including the Jackson 5's I Want You Back. One can’t miss the opening double bass on this track. Its clarity can be stunning on a great system, including those containing the Auralic Aries. What may be missed on lesser systems however is the air around the cymbal in the background throughout the first minute of the track. Also on the album is a terrific cover of Hall & Oates’ Rich Girl. On this track vocalist Rachael Price’s voice goes from very controlled to really belting it out and throughout the entire track it remains silky smooth. The Aries allows this vocal and a great trumpet solo half-way through the track really stand out.
The Auralic Aries had a lot to live up to upon its arrival. Auralic issued press releases touting its capabilities while the public took each statement and ran with it, making the Aries larger than life before anyone had spent one minute with the product. Fortunately for everyone involved, Auralic has delivered on its promise of a unique and terrific product. The Aries plethora of capabilities such as OpenHome / DLNA rendering, AirPlay, SongCast, WiFi, USB playback, USB disk, and terrific Tidal HiFi integration make it a sure leader in this market segment. Adding to this its super sound quality make it THE leader and should place it on top of readers’ audition considerations. No matter what I listened to during the review I believe I heard what I was supposed to hear through the Aries. I couldn’t identify a sonic signature of noise even when the WiFi was enabled. I won’t say the Aries was completely transparent because no component can escape imprinting some sonic signature on the audio. I will say the Aries is as good as or better than all other sources I’ve had in my system. Whether it was a CAPS or a turnkey music server, the Aries was equal or better in all sonic respects. It’s incredibly tough to be a jack of all trades and a master of all trades, but the Aries comes as close as any component I’ve yet heard.
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- Product - Auralic Aries
- Price - $1,599
- Product Page - Link
Where To Buy:
- Source: Aurender W20, CAPS v4 Cortes DLNA Server
- DAC: Berkeley Audio Design Alpha DAC RS, Auralic Vega
- D-to-D Converter: Berkeley Audio Design Alpha USB
- Amplifier: Pass Labs XA160.5 Monoblocks
- Pre-Amplifier: Pass Labs INT-30A
- Integrated Amplifier: Devialet 400 Monoblocks
- Loudspeakers: TAD Labs CR1 Compact Reference
- Remote Control Software: JRemote, Aurender iOS App
- Remote Control Hardware: iPhone 5, iPad (3rd Generation)
- Network Attached Storage (NAS): Synology DS1812+
- Audio Cables: Wire World Platinum Eclipse 7 Balanced Interconnects, Wire World Platinum Eclipse 7 Speaker Cables, Wire World Platinum Starlight 7 USB 2.0, Wire World Platinum Starlight 7 Digital Cables,
- 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, PFSense Router / Firewall, Cisco DPC3000 Docsis 3.0 cable modem, Comcast Extreme 105 Mbps Internet Service
- Product - Auralic Aries