AURALiC Vega Digital Audio Processor
Input: 2x Coax S/PDIF (RCA), 1 Toslink, 1 AES/EBU, 1 USB
Output: 1 pair RCA, 1 pair XLR
Dimensions: 311''W x 9''D x 2.6''H (33cm x 23cm x 6.5cm)
Weight: 7.5 pounds (3.4kg)
Availability: direct and through Authorized Dealers
I first saw and heard the AURALiC Vega Digital Audio Processor at the 2013 CES and I remember thinking—I need to hear this one at home. I can't tell you exactly why this was the case especially seeing as listening to music is a difficult thing to focus on at hi-fi shows and determining the performance of a given component within an unfamiliar system is like judging a blind date by an online profile. So let's call my interest in the AURALiC Vega a hunch. And let me just say man oh man did that hunch pay off.
AURALiC Limited is based in Hong Kong/China and Xuanqian Wang and Yuan Wang are its founders. "With the mission to capture and reproduce every tiny detail in recordings with purity and emotions, AURALiC produces high-end audiophile products both reliable and upgradable. Using the latest digital technologies, our products will bring live music back to music lovers in the most agreeable and convenient way." AURALiC's product line includes the Vega under review, the Taurus PRE balanced line-stage preamplifier, Merak 400W monoblock amplifiers, ARK MX+ 32/192 USB DAC, Taurus balanced headphone amp, and the Gaia line of balanced and single-ended cables.
The AURALiC Vega Digital Audio Processor is a DAC and a digital preamplifier but it's also a computer. According to AURALiC, the heart of the Vega is its "Sanctuary Audio Processor, which is jointly made by AURALiC and its technical partner Archwave AG [of Switzerland]. Sanctuary is based on multi-core ARM architecture, with the calculating capability as high as 1000MIPS." The Sanctuary audio processor is responsible for running the Vega's upsampling algorithm and USB input buffer.
The Vega, through its USB input, handles up to DXD PCM (32-bit/384kHs) as well as up to double rate DSD (128x/5.6448MHz) via DoP V1.1. On the S/PDIF and AES/EBU inputs you get up to the fairly standard 24/192 playback. The Vega upsamples all incoming PCM data to 1.5MHz at 32bit. In essence, upsampling allows for digital filtering above frequencies that matter, sonically. It also provides the headroom necessary so that its digital volume control does not affect resolution. At least in theory. Some people, especially those adherents of the Non-Oversampling DAC approach believe that any and all upsampling makes the resulting music sound unnatural. I would suggest they have never heard the AURALiC Vega.
The Vega incorporates six user selectable digital filters, AURALiC calls this Flexible Filter Mode, which have been "fine-tuned based on AURALiC's mathematician models combining subjective auditory sense and objective measurement data" and include four PCM digital filters and two for DSD. The PCM filters are, according to AURALiC, optimized for specific sampling rates as well as for specific music types. "Mode 1 is best for the playback of orchestral music, ...Mode 2 for light jazz, chamber, and piano solo, ...Mode 3 for is best for vocal, jazz, and pop, ...and Mode 4 is the 'all-best' option for music enjoyment." You can select these filters from the front panel control knob or from the included remote. I found that Mode 4 was in fact my overall favorite but since switching is on-the-fly you can switch until your hearts content. I'm of the persuasion that set it and forget it leads to my ultimate enjoyment.
The two DSD filters provide for "flat frequency response well extended to ultrasonic" for Mode 5, and "lower corner frequency to eliminate as much as possible the ultrasonic noise which is inherent of DSD stream" for Mode 6. Here, I preferred Mode 6 to 5 as it sounded silkier to my ears. If you'd like to read more about these filters, I'll point you to AURALiC's Flexible Filter Mode Explanation white paper.
If you're thinking, hmm megahertz upsampling and user-selectable digital filters sounds awfully familiar, where I have heard this before?, I'd remind you of the Resonessence Labs Invicta (see review) which upsamples to the 50MHz range. Not surprisingly, the Vega also uses the ESS Sabre ES9018 DAC chipset that's employed in the Invicta. While we're poking around inside, there's also an XMOS USB receiver that is modified by Auralic. The USB input also includes their "ActiveUSB" technology which buffers all incoming data for up to 2 seconds to "reduce jitter effects". And while we're talking jitter, the Vega boasts extremely low measured jitter, measured, according to AURALiC, in femtoseconds.
The Femto Master Clock
The Vega includes a temperature controlled aerospace grade crystal oscillator that needs about an hour of warm up to reach thermal equilibrium. If you leave the Vega in Sleep mode, you'll be good to go whenever you like since this mode keeps that Femto clock warm. A Femto clock refers to the clock's accuracy which is so accurate it is measured in femtoseconds. From Wikipedia, "A femtosecond is the SI unit of time equal to 10−15 of a second. That is one quadrillionth, or one millionth of one billionth, of a second. For context, a femtosecond is to a second what a second is to about 31.7 million years." I think its fair to say that a femto clock is fairly accurate and it further suggests that this accuracy relates to the amount of jitter in the signal that passes through it. What happens afterward is anyone's guess.
While I'm certain all femto clocks are not created equal, it's worth pointing out that MSB Technology offers a femto clock upgrade, the Galaxy Clock, for their DAC IV which also adds $4,955 to its price, more than the total cost of the Vega. Granted, the MSB femto clock is claimed to provide jitter under 77 femtoseconds (.077 picoseconds), while the Vega's is spec'd at 82 femtoseconds (.082 picoseconds). You can decide for yourself if .05 picoseconds matters or not. Again from Wikipedia, "A picosecond is 10−12 of a second. That is one trillionth, or one millionth of one millionth of a second, or 0.000 000 000 001 seconds. A picosecond is to one second as one second is to 31,700 years."
Associated with this high precision femto clock are user-selectable internal clock settings. Auto, where the Vega will select the best available method based on the amount of jitter present in the incoming data, Course, Fine, and Exact each offering increased clock precision. These options are available from the front control knob or the remote but only after the Vega has warmed up. Prior to that, you are only given the Auto option. I was able to go with "Exact" for all playback including DSD except for some 24/192 files where I'd get cutouts indicating too much jitter for this setting. Backing down to "Fine" solved this 24/192 problem. I found this feature fairly fascinating and the fact that 24/192 playback appeared to impose the most amount of jitter into the data stream an eye, if not an ear, opener. I switched this clock setting during playback a number of times and while I did not notice a dramatic difference, I did perceive greater clarity once the Exact option was available and selected.
Operating the Vega from the front panel knob is a pleasure. Press it in and the unit powers on. Press it again and you are offered up various functions including the aforementioned filters, clock settings, as well as input selection, channel balance, phase (normal and inverted), and System functions including Volume (Master where both channels use the same setting and INDVDL where each channel has its own setting), Display (On, Auto Off after 15 seconds without any operation, DIM, Normal, and Bright), and Sleep (Disable/Enable). You'll want to enable this mode to keep that Femto clock warm and ready. If you just turn the front control knob, it functions as the volume control. The Vega also remembers your previous volume setting and returns to it when you awaken it from sleep mode. Pressing and holding the knob brings up the Sleep Mode option.
You can operate all of these options from the included remote and if I have any criticism of the Vega, it's related to the included plastic remote. Since everything else about the Auralic Vega is made to such a high standard, its a shame that the remote, which I used often mostly for volume control, doesn't impart this same attention to design detail. I admit to finding the Vega beautifully designed and built and an absolute pleasure to look at and use, including its display which I gladly kept on. I'd love to see what their design team would come up with for a matching remote. In the end this is not a deal breaker just my single wish-list item for the Vega.
Since we're talking about DXD and DSD playback, PC users need to install the included drivers from Auralic. Mac users are good to go. I used the Vega with my MacBook Pro connected with an AudioQuest Diamond USB cable mainly with its XRL outputs connected to my Pass INT-30A in amp-mode using the Vega's digital volume control. While I did compare the RCA to XRL output, I preferred the XLRs as they struck me as providing even greater transparency. The Vega employs, "AURALiC's patented ORFEO Class-A module which is inspired by Neve 8078 analog console’s circuit design as the output stage. The principle of this module is to use a mass of small signal components with best linear characteristic. By packing them through a thermal balance procedure and bias the transistors into Class-A, ORFEO achieves impressive performance with open loop distortion less than 0.001%."
All This And Tone Too
Let's start somewhere different for a change. Different because I don't typically do this for two reasons; interest on the part of the reluctant listener, and this is one cliché I abhor. But sometimes we must make sacrifices for the greater good. I dragged my wife into my office and had her sit and listen. "Wow" was her verdict after hearing Ella and Louis lovingly spar on "Isn't It A Lovely Day" from the 24/192 HDtracks Ella and Louis. And my wife does not wow easily over hi-fi. "What's making this sound so good?" she asked. "Well, everything but the thing that's changed is the DAC." She's heard me talk about gear enough to know what a DAC is, just one of the long-suffering duties of our marriage. While we're talking about everything, I'd like to point out that I believe that's exactly what makes the Vega sound as it does. So let's not get carried away by any single aspect of the Vega's design and attribute everything to it (yes I'm thinking femto).
Everything I played through the Auralic Vega was equally wow-inducing. Everything. Music I've heard hundreds of times was presented with a crisp, clean, and delicate clarity that was simply uncanny and made things old, new again. Solo piano was big, bold, and rich. Overtones and decay were flat out lifelike. To put it another way, music sounded so much like music and unlike reproduction that I had a silly grin pasted on my face for most of my listening time. And I purposefully waited a few weeks to start writing my listening notes thinking that my initial giddiness would fade into a more reserved tone. I was wrong.
In terms of space, as in how the music is presented in the room, the Vega provides a fitfully weighty and rock solid sense of the things making the music. Here, DSD again trumps PCM in my opinion, offering up a 3D impression of the origin of sound. PCM playback was, however, nearly equally stunning even from CD-quality sources. The Vega transforms all manner of music sources into singing, striking, and resoundingly beautiful things. Just like music.
I compared the Vega to the Mytek Stereo192-DSD DAC ($1,695.00, see review) which I thoroughly enjoy, and the Mytek sounds slightly veiled and diffuse in comparison. This is an interesting discovery because I never would have described the Mytek as sounding veiled or diffuse without hearing the Vega side by side. The differences between these two DACs were less marked with DSD sources but even here the Vega was more nimble and offered up a fuller, more dimensional presentation. There was that uncanny sense of, for lack of a better word, life and vibrancy from the Vega, a spark, that brought with it an excitement and immediacy that was intoxicating and addictive.
The Teac UD-501 DAC (see review), which is a great sounding DAC and a relative bargain at its retail price of $849 (and I've heard it can be had for less) sounds, by comparison to the Vega, somewhat dark in terms of tone colors, a bit thick especially around the midrange, a tad loose down low, and slightly soft up top. My guess is over time the Teac would not remind me of these relative shortcomings on its own. Rather, I would grow comfortable with its presentation and live happily ever after, unless I compared it to the far costlier Vega, again.
I also compared the Vega to the similarly priced Metrum Hex NOS differential DAC (see review) and here the Hex did have some wonderful traits to offer, mainly an ease and naturalness to its presentation that is very appealing. But head-to-head with the Vega had me preferring the Vega's livelier and more vibrant sound. If we factor in the Vega's DXD, DSD, and preamp capabilities, its total package is difficult to beat.
If I put myself in another listener's shoes, I can imagine that for some the Vega may sound overly resolute and perhaps lacking in air and ease, especially compared to something like the Metrum Hex or the Acoustic Plan DigiMaster, the latter matching the Vega's wonderful way with tone but offering up a tad more body albeit with less vibrancy and resolution. And while I've heard DACs that I would call overly resolute, the Vega is not one of them mainly because it gets all of the voices so right. Typically, digital detail comes with some amount of etch/edge leaving out some amount of tone/body. This is not the case with the Vega. You feel as if you're getting as much detail as the recording contains along with the depth and breadth of voice.
To say that I am impressed with the AURALiC Vega is an understatement. Its ability to turn music reproduction into an engaging and thrilling musical experience is simply stunning. Offering up to DXD and 2x DSD playback, the AURALiC Vega has everything going for it that a DAC should and then some.
Also on hand and in use during the AURALiC Vega review: Metrum Acoustics Hex, Mytek Stereo192-DSD DAC, Teac UD-501, Fostex UD-501