AURALiC VEGA D/A processor Page 2
Returning to "pure" digital, I changed to the Vega's USB input and selected the live version of "Fat Man in the Bathtub" on Hotcakes & Outtakes: 30 Years of Little Feat (16/44.1 ALAC ripped from CD, Warner Archives/Rhino R2 79912). Some Internet know-everythings have opined that a delta-sigma DAC can't get close to the sense of musical pace you get from a resistor-ladder DAC. Well, I wish those people had been in my listening room as the late Richie Hayward's loose-limbed drum intro to "Fat Man," as reconstructed by the Vega, had me up from my listening chair dancing around the room. Even when the recording was compromised, such as a 224kbps MP3 of Little Feat performing Allen Toussaint's "On Your Way Down," from a bootlegged 1975 concert in Boston, the Vega allowed the technical shortcomings to step out of the music's way.
So far, everything I have mentioned has been a PCM recording of some kind. But a major benefit offered by the Auralic Vega is that it will decode both DSD64 and DSD128 datastreams via its USB input. (DSD64 is so called because it operates at a sample rate of 2.8224MHz, or 64x44,100Hz, and is the format offered on SACD discs; as its name suggests, DSD128 features twice the sample rate, or 5.6448MHz, moving the format's intrinsic ultrasonic noise an octave further away from the audioband.) The increasing availability of DSD files was one of last fall's big news storiesa full list of sites offering DSD downloads can be found here, while free samples of DSD64, DSD128, and DXD recordings can be downloaded from www.2l.no/hires/index.html.
The first DSD file I played was "Vaquero," from Tiny Island's eponymous 1999 album (and, in this case, an Opus 3 DSD64 sampler). What sounds like a National steel guitar is accompanied by accordion, acoustic guitar, double bass, shaker, and bass drum, all played in a beautifully resonant space. The Vega allowed the system to throw a huge space between and behind the Vivid speakers. At the end of the track, a small bell is quietly struck deep in the soundstageit sounded deliciously palpable.
Next up was a DSD128 file: a movement from Britten's Simple Symphony, from Øyvind Gimse and the Trondheim Soloists' Divertimenti (2L 050). This is a drier recording than the Tiny Island track, but again, a stable, believable performing space appeared between and behind my speakers. The original master for this track is DXD, or 24/352.8, and 2L also offers that resolution for download. The DSD128 file is 256.5MB in size, the DXD 387.4MB, each for just over 3 minutes of music. When I selected the DXD version for playback, "352.8KS" appeared on the Vega's screen. Was there a difference between the original DXD files and a DSD128 version derived from it? I repeated the comparison several times on different days. Sometimes I thought the DXD had slightly more space, the DSD128 a slightly softer top end. Other times, they were indistinguishable. But the Vega handled both file formats equally wellin fact, it handled with aplomb everything I asked it to play.
Now that Acoustic Sounds is offering DSD files for download, at Thanksgiving I treated myself to two recordings I already have on CD and LP, one old and one new, both from analog masters: the Dave Brubeck Quartet's Time Out (DSD64, Columbia) and Shelby Lynne's Just a Little Lovin' (DSD64, Lost Highway). Through the Auralic Vega, the familiareven the over-familiarbecame new again.
Against my benchmarks
When a product sounds as good as the Auralic Vega did, it's no problem to wax poetic about it in absolute terms. But how did it compare with the two $2000 D/A processors I was listening to during the same period: the NAD M51 and the Benchmark DAC2 HGC, the latter reviewed by Erick Lichte elsewhere in this issue?
Jon Iverson had enthused about the M51 in his July 2012 review, concluding that he preferred DACs "that reveal as much as possible about what was captured on the tape or in the digits, and couldn't care less about adding a rose-colored tint to dodgy digital sound. In this regard, the NAD M51 succeeds with a wonderfully detailed and revealing sound best described as honest, with a friendly smile." I have been using the M51 while working on a review, to appear in a couple of issues' time, of NAD's M50 media server, and have gotten to love its revealing ways.
With the 24/96 version of Joni Mitchell's "Cotton Avenue," the NAD processor focused more on Mitchell's open-strung acoustic guitar than had the Auralic, and Jaco Pastorius's subterranean bass-guitar notes didn't have quite the weight I'd heard with the Vega. But the overall sound was a little more airy via the M51, as it was with Little Feat's live "Fat Man in the Bathtub." The Vega's reconstruction of Richie Hayward's drums emphasized a bit less the cymbals and snare wires. By contrast, the M51 was less kind to the compromised sound quality of the bootlegged "On Your Way Down." Both DACs boogied hard, however, though the NAD had slightly more definition with kick drum. The M51's cleaner if leaner balance worked better with "Even the Clock," from Steamhammer's 1969 album Reflection (24/192 ALAC needle drop from UK LP, CBS 63611).
The M51 decodes only PCM files, which puts it at somewhat of a disadvantage for DSD playback. The Audirvana Plus program downsampled DXD to 24/192 and DSD64 and DSD128 to 24/176.4kHz, in order to play the files via the M51 via USB. There wasn't then quite the sense of space in "Vaquero," though the definition of the individual sounds of the instruments was superb; the initial "flap" of the skin on the bass-drum strokes was slightly clearer through the M51 than it had been through the Vega. But overall, I preferred Auralic's converter; the individual aspects of the sound were better integrated into the whole, but without becoming smeared or diffusein a word, it was more organic.
The Benchmark DAC2 uses the same ESS Sabre32 9018 DAC chip as the Vega. To get familiar with the DAC2's sound, I used it for two days of intense listening, mainly feeding it hi-rez PCM, such as HDtracks' 24/192 remastering of Miles Davis's Kind of Blue, via USB. EL called it correctly: It may cost just $1995, but the DAC2 is a superb-sounding processor with authoritative lows, smooth yet detailed highs, and accurate, stable stereo imaging. I have forgotten how many reissues of Kind of Blue (including two different vinyl transfers) I haveI have even handled the master tapes and listened to them in Sony's mastering studiobut decoded by the Benchmark, this new HDtracks release was the best I had heard.
Until I played it through the Auralic Vega. Miles Davis is supposed to have said that music "lies in the spaces between the notes." The Auralic and Benchmark DACs both got the notes right, and both had similarly smooth high frequencies, but the Vega was slightly better at getting right the spaces between those notes. The Benchmark's sense of the recording venue was not quite as fully fleshed out as the Auralic's, though each individual instrument was a little more detailed.
I turned to DSD files, played back using Audirvana Plus. One disadvantage the DAC2 had in these comparisons was that it appears to be limited to DSD64 playback. DSD128 files were downsampled to 24/176.4 by Audirvana if I tried to use the DAC2 with this format, while attempting to play a DXD file with the DAC2 resulted in white noise. But with a superb-sounding DSD64 recording, such as Iván Fischer and the Budapest Festival Orchestra performing Rachmaninoff's Symphony 2 (Channel Classics 21604), this was not a problem. Both DACs dug deep into Rachmaninoff's lush, lyrical score. Both DACs threw a deep, detailed, stable soundstage. Both DACs allowed me to forget the playback mechanics and lose myself in the music. But in the end, I had to concede that the Auralic's sound was a touch sweeter, a touch closer to that of real violins. But damn, this is a superb recording!
I am tempted to declare that, at $3499, the Auralic Vega is a bargain. For just over 5% of the price of the dCS Vivaldi three-piece DAC, the Vega got remarkably close in sound quality, at least as far as I could tell without being able to do a direct comparison. (The Vivaldi returns to my system around the time this issue of Stereophile drops into your mailbox; I will report on that comparison in a Follow-Up review, as well as on using both without a preamp in the system.) And can the Auralic processor really be a bargain when, for 57% of the Vega's price, the remarkable Benchmark DAC2 HGC is availablewhich, while being limited to DSD64, offers two pairs of analog inputs and two headphone outputs? And at $2000, the NAD M51 is still one of the best-value PCM-only DACs I have heard.
You know what? For its sound quality alone, the Auralic Vegaokay, Mr. Wang, AURALiC VEGAindeed is a bargain. It's digital and DSD done right!