The AURALiC Vega (US$3499) is a ‘digital audio processor’ that handles up to 24/192 PCM on AES/EBU, optical and coaxial (x2) inputs. The USB input is super-sized: it deals PCM up to 32/384 as well as DSD64 and DSD128 [via DoP V1.1]. More on this in a moment.
I’ve already written about my DSD listening experiences with this DAC (here) so this commentary is squarely focused on listening to PCM audio; predominantly ye olde-fashioned Redbook CDs ripped to ALAC and played back from a Mac Mini running Audirvana+, appended by an iFi iUSBPower.
As well as a standalone DAC, the Vega also serves as a pre-amplifier. Volume attenuation takes place in the digital domain. “In order to drive various loads, matching different power amplifiers, VEGA is powered with AURALiC’s patented ORFEO Class-A module which is inspired by Neve 8078 analog console’s circuit design as the output stage.”, runs their website rubric. The output is ‘hotter’ than many rivals: at full volume it pushes out 4V. Both balanced and single-ended outputs are present.
Build quality and all-round usability is pitched at the upper-end of what might be expected at this price point. The casework’s fit and finish is streets ahead of the halfway-to-DIY of Audio-gd. The yellow-glowing 512px x 64px OLED display is gorgeous. It’s easy to read from a distance and the knob-navigated menu system makes it a cinch to access the Vega’s deeper settings.
On USB. A significant number of cheaper DACs sacrifice the quality of their USB input – they’re built to a price. An Audiophilleo or Concero or Off-Ramp is usually required to juice the very best from one’s decoder – to help music sound more alive. Not so with the Vega; its USB input is superb. Like the Metrum Hex, there’s no need for off-board USB-S/DPIF conversion. In fact, the one time I deployed Resonessence Labs’ Concero as S/PDIF standover man to the Veag things became more etched and cooked than direct USB. That’s great for more laid-back systems (Magenpan MMG + REDGUM RGi60) but less so for more forward-presenting rigs (NAKSA 80 + 47Labs Lens mini monitors).
The USB input implementation here is special. Data enters the Vega via a firmware-tweaked XMOS receiver chip, is passed to a Sanctuary processor chip where it is buffered for up to two seconds – AURALiC call this ActiveUSB technology – and then up-sampled to 32bit/1.5MHz before being sent along the chain to DAC silicon (Sabre ESS 9018) and analogue output stage (the aforementioned ORFEO Class-A module).
Some armchair audiophiles might pause for thought at seeing Sabre silicon. I’ve seen comments that reflect this sentiment splattered across numerous forum threads. I think it bears repeating here: Sabre-chipped DACs rarely sound the same because they invariably use different power supplies, output stages, clocking methods etc etc etc. As my exposure to DACs grows I am increasingly confident that there is no ESS Sabre ‘house sound’. Nor AKM sound. Nor Burr-Brown sound. Nor Wolfson sound. /rant.
On sound. The Vega is appreciably better than budget units – a greater financial leap brings improvements to the scene that would be noticeable to even the most nonchalant of listeners. Musical layers are filleted with righteous adroitness. The complexity of something like Radiohead’s “Jigsaw Falling Into Place” is served with elegance and without confusion. This song’s emotional core gets misplaced amid layer deconstruction when handled by Beresford’s significantly cheaper Bushmaster (AU$310). With the AURALiC Vega it doesn’t.
Some folk might opine ‘accuracy’ to mean needles and pins. That it’s cold and emotionally distanced. It can be. But what if there were a way to deliver oodles of detail with finesse and elegance? The Vega nails this latter approach. Its sonic vibe can be described as detailed yet soft. Immersive but tender. Resolution without prick or shard; transients slice cleanly without any hint of pain.
Additional resolution drags with it aggrandized musical feeling: more grip to the horn blat of David Bowie’s “Dirty Boys”, more texture to the guitar squall that underpins “The Stars Are Out Tonight”. The Vega pulls the curtain back on finesse; a quality that I hear significantly less of when playing music via Resonessence Labs’ Concero (CA$599).
The Vega’s resolution reveal brings some liquidity and moisture. Its noise floor is arrestingly low. Playing Johnny Cash’s morbidly acoustic take on NIN’s “Hurt” was all it took to note an inky-black background. The tonal colours that flesh out Cash’s acoustic guitar burst into life and then fall away. The ever-ratcheting tension of the rear-mixed piano made its presence clear without the need to actively listen for it.
Then there’s the spatial depth. Listening to Grant Lee Buffalo’s masterful debut Fuzzy, Grant Lee Phillip’s vocal rides up front, side-saddled by twin guitar acoustic guitars, bass and drums behind that. Such dimensional drawing is easy to pick from the AURALiC’s presentation. It’s front-row presence obvious and arresting, even at lower volumes.
I should say something at this juncture about the Vega’s turn as digitally-attenuating pre-amplifier. I ran the NAKSA 80 with pot open wide into the 47Labs Lens. Alas, the Vega sounded closed in, devoid of musical shimmer and flair with its own volume dropped below 50 or 60. Anything higher was plainly too LOUD. Returning to NAKSA volume control re-instated all that I love sonically about this unit – even at low NAKSA volumes. This isn’t meant to sound dismissive, just that as a digital pre-amplifier, in this one setting it was more miss than hit.
Elasticity. I’d peg this as the single most important quality I listen for when evaluating a DAC. Hearing the drum skin strikes that bring in David Bowie’s “Alternative Candidate” or the sped-up water drip textures of Actress’ Holy Water exemplified this quality’s presence just so. Music sounds loose in the joints. There’s a palpable sense of ease and diminished tension — for me, the audible signs of low jitter.
There isn’t the relative rigidity I hear when switching back to the on-board USB DAC within the Peachtree Nova125. With the Peachtree being an all-in-one DAC, head-amp, pre-amp and/or integrated for US$1499, one could not reasonably expect any other outcome. Using the Nova125 to drive Magnepan’s MMGs, its own USB DAC is outclassed when AUX-ing the AURALiC into the rear: tonal saturation, ambient decay, noise floor, image specificity and nuanced delivery all run toward higher satisfaction.
Such low-jitter infused qualities can probably be attributed to the internal Femto-second-accurate master clock. It’s thousand times more precise than the more common Pico-second accurate clocks.
The Vega takes about an hour to warm up and stabilize, after which time the user can access finer clock settings either via remote control (which is a bit basic/plastic) or the control knob and menu system (which is a triumph of simplistic elegance). Filter setting changes can be made whilst music is playing. I noted a teeny-tiny improvement delta when switching over from ‘auto’ to ‘exact’.
A result of the Sanctuary processor’s MHz up-sampling algorithm, ‘Flexible Filter Mode’ allows for further sonic tweaking; one can choose from one of four filter modes with PCM and two with DSD. Here again sonic deltas were vanishingly small. I preferred ‘Mode 4’ with PCM source material.
On musical connection. This is the DAC that reconnected me with David Bowie’s catalogue. You’ll note his music gets several mentions in this review. First came HDTracks’ hi-res version of 2013’s The Next Day. I swear it tore a hole right through the afternoon gloom. Then came the re-ignition of my love affair with 1995’s Outside. The Vega reminds us that – at times – this is as much his (then) band’s show as it is a Bowie/Eno classic. Mike Garson’s piano drama takes several cuts to new heights during their final vamps – think back to how Aladdin Sane was drenched in Garson’s piano. The textural tension of Gail Ann Dorsey’s bass – how she takes “The Heart’s Filthy Lesson” up a gear after the first verse – lends the song more drama. Less detailed, less dynamic DACs would smooth over such emotionally charged subtleties.
In more practical terms, the Vega makes it easy to listen to music for long periods. I spent an entire day (9 hours) listening to Giant Sand, album after album. Not once did I reach for the ‘next’ button or want to divert iTunes’ album flow.
With deep resolve and HUGE soundstage size, the AURALiC Vega presents music in a way that’s impossible to ignore – it’s utterly engaging. It challenges the listener not to get (emotionally) involved by making even the most standard recordings jump out at you. Often it’ll make a good recording sound like the best remaster you ever heard – smoother, tonally richer, more dynamic etc. The Vega says “Wanna dance?!”. That might sound like a question but really you’re just being told.
Final thoughts on the AURALiC Vega (including a stand-off with the Metrum Hex) can be found here.
- Metrum Hex
- REDGUM RGi60
- Magnepan MMG
- Peachtree Nova125
- 47Labs Lens
- NAKSA 80