Auralic is a China-based company focused on the upper end of digital audio. In addition to producing some very fine amps and pre amps, the company also designs balanced headphone amplifiers and top-tier DACs. The newest digital entry is called the VEGA ($3,500), but Auralic prefers the label of DAP over DAC, the “P” not standing for player in this case, but processor. The term “computer” has also been making many guest appearances on the audiophile red carpet as of late, but honestly, what digital product doesn’t have some form of computer in it these days? It is perhaps a bit ironic then in this case, that the term Digital to Audio Computer would land us back to the same acronym. Compared to other budget DACs the VEGA features a whole host of options buried in its on screen menu, definitely lending itself to the more full functioning processor terminology than much of its younger company.
The Vega’s front panel is a fine combination of simplistic efficiency and modern grace. No additional buttons cover the faceplate other than your standard knob, which is used both for volume control and menu navigation. The knob itself is perfectly weighted, and spins and “clicks” in with precision that you don’t often find on many components. A quick perusal through the manual provides you with some key insights into some of the more simple operations that can seem hidden otherwise. A simple press of the knob activates the device, while holding the knob in again for a few seconds activates standby mode, the latter of which is not available in any of the on screen menus. While an input button may be handy for reviewers like myself, I don’t really see the need for it in everyday usage. I can see the rationale in shifting the balance from function to design as a result of infrequent use. The OLED display holds a fairly deep menu of options, especially for a DAC. One of the more interesting options located about two levels deep is Auralic’s filter mode. During regular listening the Vega gives you four mode options and during DSD playback the unit automatically changes to give you two separate options unique to the format. The changes between the filters were subtler than I expected, but in the end I uncovered a preference for the system defaults 4 and 6 (for DSD). I did find an appeal for setting 3 with some treble heavy tracks, but for most of my critical listening I stuck with my initial settings.
The Vega can also be used as a preamp, although its inputs are limited to digital only. The digital inputs are plentiful with optical, AES, coaxial (2), and USB. The analog outputs come in both balanced and unbalanced variations. I connected the Vega directly to a pair of Wyred 4 Sound mAMP monoblocks to see how it would fair. The volume adjustment is controlled on the digital side of things. I didn’t notice a significant sound degradation from the full output (100) of the Vega when using the Burson Conductor as a preamp. In fact, at times I preferred sound of the more expensive Vega running directly to the mAMPs over the Burson pre amp at the same (normal to loud) volume listening level. Where things got a little more indecisive were really low levels on the Vega (8 or lower). So if you are plugging the Vega directly into a really powerful amplifier with extremely efficient loudspeakers and planning on listening at a whisper level, you may get better results with a separate pre amp. All in all, in some setups the Vega sounded better by itself and on a few a separate pre amp worked out better. My own experimentation with the Vega as a pre amp didn’t provide any conclusive results as to the failure or success of Auralic’s ORFEO Class-A Module output stage, and in this case its probably something that you will need to check out within the constrains of your own system. Regardless, it can be eloquently done and sounds beautiful plugged directly into a pair of mAMP monoblocks. The included remote is more of a standard plastic fare and not indicative of the build of the actual component, however its inclusion is a must-have in my book for a pre amp and I was just glad to have the capability to change the volume remotely.
There are several technical items that separate the VEGA from the rest of the budget herd, the most prominent being DSD-capable playback, a Femto master clock, and the use of the ESS 9018 Sabre DAC chip. DSD as a file type still very much remains a small minority of the audio hobby and appropriate content is quite elusive. DSD usage is like audio’s version of the movie Inception. It’s a hobby within a hobby within a hobby. As for producing your own playable files from Sony’s SACD format, only [rumors] of years-old hacks provide any hope. Of course the truth of any benefit to the end user lies hidden deep within the choices made in the recording/mixing/mastering stages but I was able to locate a few simple files that were recorded directly that sounded amazing. A list of current DSD providers can be located [here]. The VEGA allows for both DSD64 (2.8224MHz) and DSD128 (5.6448MHz) playblack via DoP V1.1 as well all the usual PCM high resolution formats including DXD (32/384 KS/s). The VEGA upsamples all PCM music to 32/1.5MHz with the help of the Femto clock. Anything fancier than your standard high resolution files (like 24/192) is restricted to USB connectivity. I attempted to extract DSD playback from my Oppo BDP-105 via a digital coaxial connection with little success, but passing though any of the 24/192 files from a connected hard drive worked beautifully. Using my MacBook Air as a source, connecting and playing DSD via Audirvana Plus was as simple as could be, no extra driver installation was even necessary. The Vega’s reproduction of the DSD version of Bulerias by Jason McGuire was meticulous. The songs lifelike presentation and fine articulation was extremely close to the many days of my life I spent with my ear perched next to the sound hole of a classic guitar. The Vega was able to effortlessly recreate the assertive and delightfully textured rough sound of the performer’s acoustic guitar “rakes”. The DAPs translation was also able to exemplify the tracks dynamic changes with startling coherency. Pick scratches/slaps and the guitarists hands knocking on the body of the instrument all jump out of the mix at you with an aggressive percussive approach. But with organic solidarity of DSD, tracing your steps down to lower bitrates can be a bit of shock with the Vega’s digital transparency. The digital deterioration of Spotify’s steaming quality was perhaps the most apparent I had ever heard it. Not that it was unlistenable, or even more unpleasant than a more forgiving digital translator. With the Vega you could just heard every digital jagged edge and crispy, white-noise cymbal crash with newfound accuracy. The Vega is accompanied by a newfound sense of duty to the source and its reproduction. Its sound contains an inherent capability to show you where the shortcomings lay but it also allows you to find the true beauty of finer fidelity. Just like with HDTV, a higher resolution almost always looks better, but the transition from standard definition allows you to see how your favorite news anchor is starting to age. The DSD recordings I listened to featured some of the smoothest “edges” of all the test tracks I listened to.
Femto clocks are used in a variety of products, but in the audio world they are gaining use for their high-precision, jitter-reducing accuracy. According to Auralics website the Femto clock in the Vega controls jitter down to 82 femtoseconds. That equates to .00000000000082 of a second. The clock utilizes a form of crystal that requires an optimal temperature to perform it’s best. The Vega complements this requirement via a three-tiered setting accessible from the on screen menu of course, fine and exact. As the unit warms up only the auto and course setting are available, but when the optimal temperature is reached, the exact setting can be locked in. Keeping the unit on standby instead of turning it off completely will alleviate the initial prep time. I asked Auralic’s founder Xuanqian Wang what the benefits of their Femto clock selection were to the overall sound of the Vega. “Since we use Megahertz upsampling, the clock is very important. A Femto grade clock will have huge impact on this processing. The D/A chip will also benefit greatly in terms of phase noise. Both imaging and detail can be greatly improved with its implementation.” The Vega definitely doesn’t come up short where resolution is concerned. Droplets from the Art Lande album Kiss In A Shadow features a vibrant piano recording. Even more impressive than the dimensionality and texture of the instrument’s presentation is the Vega’s ability to render even the most minute extractions. Even external noises from the foot pedals and piano pads rubbing on strings became apparent though critical listening. Subtle nuances like this often jump out to me during listening sessions. The details I didn’t notice before can later be identified though alternative systems, but they are usually only discovered with the exceptional gear like the Vega.
Both the Vega and the Burson Conductor feature the popular ESS 9018 Sabre DAC chip but their sound is far from similar. As with so many things in design, implementation is critical to the final results. And as a result, it is somewhat unfair to judge a product upon its chip choice alone. Compared to the Burson’s DAC section the Vega prompted a cleaner and more natural response. Treble was easier to listen to on the Vega and overall the presentation was less aggressive while still maintaining an edge on detail and transparency, a sensation that was further amplified with superior sources. This smooth delivery was never compromised by a negative impact the overall dynamics. It was all there, sparkle, finesse, power and richness. The final result was a much more true-to-life natural presentation that doesn’t try excessively hard to be something its not. Wang provided a little background into their use of the 9018. “We did use ES9018 but only its DAC core section. The ES9018 is a complex design with multiple functions such as S/PDIF receiver, upsampling, jitter eliminator and more. We only use its multi-bit DAC section and avoided the other add-on functions. This is the best way we found to use ES9018 as we can easily control every aspect of the process.” The Cypherlabs Algorhythm Solo –dB is one of the current kings of the portable DAC hill. Combined with balanced outputs it makes for a solid listening while on the go. And while it is top of the heap for portable listening, the sonic differences between it and the Vega are unmistakable. Diana Krall’s vocals on the track Its All Over Now were surrounded by far more air, depth and dimension through the Vega. In the end, the CLAS sounded like Diana was blissfully singing from 5 feet away, while the Vega had her whispering the lyrics directly into you ear by comparison.
The Auralic Vega is very meticulous piece of equipment, every “t” is crossed, and every “i” is dotted. Rich, textured, and above all, detailed reproduction lie carefully within its temperature-controlled innards. While it is [not alone] in its Femto clocking endeavors it does provide performance that is indicative of the price it demands. I find the basic Auralic design style very appealing and the active menu is a nice complement to its processor capabilities. Check it out if you are interested in some of the very best the digital world has to currently offer. Regardless if DSD goes audiophile mainstream or fizzles into the career path of the MiniDisc, the digital “processing” capabilities of the Vega are spectacular for high resolution and CD quality files alike.