Input: Ethernet, Wi-Fi
Output: USB, Coax S/PDIF, Toslink, AES/EBU
Dimensions (W x D x H): 9.8"W x 7.8"D x 2.7"H (25cm x 20cm x 7cm)
Weight: 1.8 pounds (0.8kg)
Availability: through Authorized Dealers
DSD Over WiFi
The Auralic ARIES prototype debuted at CES 2014 and caused quit a stir with its ability to stream DSD over WiFi. The company prefers to call the Aries a "Wireless Streaming Bridge" but if we look at its functionality from a bird's eye view it is a network player or streamer. Essentially the Aries accepts your NAS-based music or streaming services via WiFi or Ethernet, its Lightning App acts as the control point, and it sends your musical selections on to your DAC of choice via USB, Toslink, Coax S/PDIF, or AES/EBU. Pretty straight forward stuff.
The Aries houses a Quad-Core ARM Coretex-A9 processor running at 1GHz with 1GB DDR3 onboard memory and 4GB of internal storage. The Aries supports the OpenHome standard as well as UPnP, the former allowing for more ambitious multi-room options including shared on-device playlists. Inputs include dual band WiFi, Ethernet, and USB which will accomodate reading from USB storage in the near future according to Auralic. The Aries supports PCM formats up to 24/384, DXD, as well as single and double rate DSD. Supported file formats include AAC, AIFF, ALAC, APE, DIFF, DSF, FLAC, MP3, OGG, WAV, WV and WMA. The Aries also supports gapless playback.
In order to stream DSD and DSD128 over WiFi, Auralic recommends using a router with 802.11n MIMO support and if you plan to run multiple ARIES around your home they recommend bumping up to an enterprise class router such as the Netgear R6300, NetGear Nighthawk R7000, or ASUS RT-AC68U. I use an ASUS RT-AT66U and it worked without a hitch with the most recent Aries firmware update.
The Aries comes in two version; the Aries (under review) and the Aries LE ($999). The main differences between the two include the former gets an upgraded external linear power supply and dual Femto clocks. "The ARIES with two individual Femto clocks for both USB audio host and digital outputs: the clock used for digital outputs are in charge of generate master clock of digital signal to ensure lowest jitter performance for all digital outputs. Accordingly to our measurement, the USB controller's master clock can also effect sound quality as it effect USB interrupt timing when joint use with real time system, to maximum sound quality, ARIES also equipped with another Femto clock for USB controller."
Currently the Aries will stream content from Network Attached Storage (NAS), Qobuz and WiMP lossless streaming services (Spotify, Deezer and TuneIn are in the works according to Auralic), Internet Radio, and Songcast. It is also AirPlay enabled so you can stream to it from your iOS device or Mac of choice. I connected to my Synology DS214+ NAS which runs MinumServer and the Aries had no problem reading its contents (appx 1,000 albums) and displaying them in the app in just a matter of minutes. I also happened to have a trial account for Qobux Hi-Fi for most of the review period so I got to test drive this fine service through the Aries as well.
The front face of the Aries contains a display that shows track-related information including, track number/number of tracks in the current playlist, and elapsed time. This display also exhibits an audible buzz. In my sample this buzz was loud enough to hear from within a few inches of the unit. Thankfully you can disable the display (and its buzz) using the included remote and I'd recommend leaving it off. I'm not a fan of audio components that make noises on their own. Auralic claims that they may be able to fix this issue in a future firmware release.
[Note: Auralic reports they have fixed this issue with a new firmware release which also provides the ability to stream music from a USB drive. I will report on this in a follow up. Editor.]
The backside of the Aries contains all of the ins and outs including the Ethernet and USB inputs, and Coax, Toslink, AES/EBU and USB output. There's also the barrel connector for the external power supply.
This review is based on Firmware version 1.7.
In terms of overall design and fit 'n finish, I quite like the little curvaceous injected molded plastic Aries but I'll leave matters of taste floating in the breeze along with my laundry. You'll notice there are no external antennae for WiFi because Auralic decided to hide them within the unit's body instead which necessitated the plastic non-interfering frame.
Auralic also built their own control app, currently just for the iPad (iPhone and Android versions coming in October 2014, desktop version by year's end according to Auralic), called Lightning DS. I'm using version 1.2 for this review. Previous versions were to say the least a bit buggy but 1.2 appears to be relatively stable. I'll talk about performance soon.
The Lightning app is Playlist based and you can view the contents of your library in "Library View", "Folder View", by "Collection" (think Favorites) or by "Playlist". You can also view your library in various sort orders including Album, Artist, Composer, Genre, Date, Tracks. I stuck with Album view in Library View.
To play music you can just touch and hold your finger over the album cover or track of interest and a window will pop up with the options to "Add to Collection", "Add to Queue", or "Add to Playlist" If you just want to play it now, select the Queue option and another window opens with the option to "Play Now". You can also add a selection to the current playlist to play next (after the current song) or play at the end of the current playlist.
For Internet radio, you need to enter the URL for the station, the station's name and genre. I played music from WFMU's 128kbps stream and it sounded just fine for relatively short bursts of great music. I could not see spending hours listening to a 128kbps stream, unless its way in the background music, but that's just me. AirPlay also worked without a hitch and I streamed some music from my iPhone to the Aries. As you switch between "Modes", say from Internet Radio to Qobuz, the app asks you if you're sure you want to which is a nice touch since you can accidentally hit a button every now and again.
While I do not have an account with WiMP, I did have one with the Qobuz Hi-Fi lossless service for a goodly portion of the review period and it worked seamlessly. The Qobuz app if fully integrated into the Lightning App so playing music worked the same as playing music from your own library more or less. Nice. Sound quality wise I also found it to be nearly the equal of playing from my own files on the NAS and just fine for any duration of concentrated listening from the Qobuz millions of album library. In other words it was a complete blast with a cherry on top.
There's also a setup menu where you setup things link your wi-fi network, output channel (S/PDIF or USB), and perform firmware updates among many other things (see the screen shot above). There's also an online guide which covers the basics of operation. I'd also recommend reading my interview with Auralic President and CEO Xuanqian Wang (see Q&A) since it contains discussion of the Aries project in detail.
I used the Aries with the Auralic Vega mainly via USB but I did check all of the other S/PDIF outputs and they worked without issue. The rest of my system remains the same; Pass INT-30A to the DeVore The Nines.
The Sound of Aries
I initially compared the Aries wired versus WiFi and found no significant difference in sound quality. This review is based on using the Aries via WiFi.
Ideally, a device like the Auralic Aries will not have a sound of its own. It will simply pass along your data unmolested to your DAC of choice. But that's in an ideal world and last I checked, that only exists, well, nowhere. The Aries did however sound more musically involving than my MacBook Pro. It was at once more resolving and more dynamic sounding, very much like the recently reviewed Aurender X100L (see review). In general I'd say music sounded like it came from a less noisy environment. That is a good thing.
I threw some of my most dense music at the Aries including Fennesz's lovely Bécs and it unraveled even the monstrously complex and overdriven bits without issue. On lessor equipment, aspects of this music can sound like a wall of impenetrable noise but not so with the Aries which kept a crack of light open even in the darkest passages. I'd attribute this again to very low self-noise floor and a very resolving system.
More delicate music like Thievery Corporation's Saudade fared well too, its acoustic sounds coming across as natural and delicate. The Aries has a nice sense of touch, a deft way with dynamics and micro-dynamics making music sound alive and lively. Simple solitary music like Hildur Gudnadottir's Saman mainly for solo cello resounded convincingly from within a quiet, deep, space.
As I mentioned, I spent some time streaming music from the Qobuz lossless service and it sounded just great through the Aries. I'd say in general files served from the NAS have a slight sonic edge over the Qobuz stream but that is a trivial concern compared to the ability to have access to a few million albums in CD-quality. Yes, I said trivial. I also enjoyed listening to some of my favorite radio stations like WFMU, sound quality aside, the potential for music discovery outweighing matters of sonics.
I also played through a number of DSD selections as well as double rate DSD and everything played without a hitch. Of course your mileage may vary as WiFi performance is extremely site specific.
Compared to the Simaudio Moon MiND (see review) connected to the Vega DAC via AES/EBU, I felt the MiND offered an even lower noise floor as compared to the Aries. Music just sounded more full bodied, more colorful. Bass also appeared to be deeper and more robust. The MiND is limited to PCM data up to 24/192 but on a purely sound quality basis, I preferred its presentation to the Aries as it drew me into the music more.
Getting back to the Aires, it's also difficult to ignore past iterations of the Firmware and app which have both improved significantly from earlier versions. While it pointless to itemize bugs that no longer exist, I will say that early adopters were in for a bumpy ride that have been smoothed over with the latest releases. If this review had been based on these earlier versions I would have said the Aries was not ready for prime time but the team at Auralic have proven to be very efficient at addressing known problems. There remains the issue with the noisy display but seeing as the display doesn't really display much useful information, and the app provides all you need to know, disabling it using the included remote is no great loss. I also experienced a handful of times where my Playlist didn't play all the way through but this seems to have been fixed with the latest firmware update.
Auralic has also provided a list of known bugs that they are working on including "ARIES will stop playing if user presses 'next track' or 'previous track' very fast." and "The ARIES will wait at 176.4K or 352.8K rather than DSD64 or DSD128 when DAC Delay function is enabled."
A product like the Auralic Aries feels like the future of file-based playback. Combining the ability to stream from NAS and soon USB storage, streaming from Internet radio, and perhaps most importantly the integration of lossless streaming services from WiMP and Qobuz put the icing on the proverbial cake. In its current version, as of the writing of this review, the Firmware is stable and I found no operational bugs to report. The Lightning App is also very well designed offering a nice variety of views into your music sources. Since this is a firmware based product, the real possibility of future upgrades and enhancements should also be taken into account.
In terms of sound quality, I found the Aries to better my MacBook Pro in terms of apparent noise floor, dynamics, and resolution. Add in the ability to stream up to double rate DSD via WiFi seamlessly and you've got yourself one compelling package.
Also on hand and in use during the Aries review: Simaudio Moon MiND.