Auralic Aries G2 Wireless Streaming Transporter

tmallin

WBF Technical Expert
May 19, 2010
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I'm a Spinner and a Streamer, But Not a Ripper

As I recently wrote in another thread dealing with the Oppo UDP-205, I do not use a computer to store, catalog, or serve up music in my system. At least not yet.

So far I prefer dedicated audio box solutions for music listening. I kind of leap-frogged over the whole local music file storage paradigm, concentrating for years now on the best "reasonably priced" playback of optical discs and Internet streaming services from low-res Sirius/XM to lossless Tidal FLAC. I realize that these choices are a bit unusual.

But I firmly believe that the whole idea of music catalog ownership (whether via discs or files) is rapidly becoming passé. Streaming via license from the Web is the new paradigm: no storage space (real or virtual) is taken up, and there are no worries about losing or damaging the media. Plus, we live in a world where many people increasingly value convenience. I definitely fit into that category, ever more so as I've entered my more senior years. Loading CDs onto a computer drive and cataloging them via software seems like a burdensome task to me. Accessing your favorite music via streaming services and exploring new music that way is just hugely more convenient than listening to CDs or local files or borrowing files or discs from others for exploration.

The risk is that a given streaming service may go out of business. But even if a given streaming service were to go belly up, there either are competitors or there will be competitor start-ups willing to plug the gap. A recent Wall Street Journal article talks about how streaming service Spotify has changed from slayer to savior of the music industry. Spotify's IPO started recently; we'll see how that goes long-term. Who knows, Spotify may actually make enough money to compete in the so-far-niche service area of lossless streaming, increasing competition in that area and thus perhaps driving prices for such streaming even lower. But even if prices for lossless streaming stay around $20/month, to me it seems like a huge bargain both from the monetary and convenience standpoints compared to buying, storing, cataloging, and handling/serving up discs or files.

My Low-Priced Streaming Spread

Up to now I've been using low-cost solutions to streaming Internet music files. Those methods have included:


  • Blue Sound Node (the original) which had toslink digital output
  • Logitech Squeezebox Touch with Enhanced Digital Output (EDO) software which outputs streaming via analog, digital coax, digital toslink, and digital USB
  • Apple Airport Express which puts out toslink digital from its optical miniplug output and streams files from Apple devices via Airplay
  • Various E-Z Cast models which rely on the Airplay protocol and plug into an available USB input
  • EVS-modified Oppo BDP-105/105D which, as of a firmware update a couple of years back, started offering Tidal streaming via a USB dongle attached to the unit, much like the E-Z Cast models, but with much better fidelity, but without the capability to stream anything from the Internet except Tidal

I've also long used low-cost wireless and wired video streaming via such devices as the latest Apple TV, various Roku sticks and boxes (I currently use a couple of the Ultra boxes with my TVs), Google Chromecast, and the Amazon Fire box.

I've discussed some of my Internet audio streaming experience in other threads, particularly "The Lowly Toslink" and "Apple Airport Express as Internet Audio Streaming Receiver." In those discussions I concluded that given the right cabling and a good Wi-Fi signal connection, even the inexpensive Squeezebox, Airport Express, and Oppo USB dongle streamers can come very close to the subjective quality of CD disc playback of the same material in the same system with Tidal as the Internet source. Yes, these differ a bit in their "flavors," with the Squeezebox offering more inner detail and three dimensionality at the cost of a bit of additional brightness, while the Airport Express is tonally very relaxed but a bit less three dimensional, with the Oppo USB dongle being overall somewhere in between those two. But the differences from each other and from the CD replay seem minor to me and I often forget which source I'm using to stream Tidal.

Audiophile Nervosa Strikes

However, audiophile insecurity runs deep and the tax refund I recently received was burning a hole in my virtual pocket. Thus, I decided that, given how important Internet music streaming is to me these days, I should explore a high-end streaming solution to make sure I wasn't missing out.

"Missing out" on what, I wasn't sure, given the close match between even the economy streaming spread and CD replay. But, as I said, audiophile insecurity runs deep—the grass is always greener on the other side. I rationalized that since I could still hear (or think I can hear) slight differences among inexpensive Tidal streaming sources even with the supposedly superb jitter blocking/reclocking performed by my Benchmark DAC-3 HGC (as claimed by Benchmark and as seemingly confirmed by test reports), perhaps a better Internet streamer would produce yet-better sonic results from Tidal and maybe even (dare I hope?) lower resolution Internet radio sources.

My High-End Streamer Desiderata

Thus, what I looked for was a unit which threw a good portion of its designed resources at maximizing Internet streaming sonic quality and feeding the most pristine signal possible from Tidal and other Internet sources to an external DAC. It soon became apparent that most such devices also work to stream music from local network sources, but that some at least did not include internal drive storage. Eliminating internal storage has the potential for lowering the electronic interference and power supply load generated inside the box from an operating mechanical or even solid-state drive. And I certainly didn't need a unit which contained a DAC since I intend to continue using the fabulous Benchmark DAC-3 DAC.

In my research, the new Auralic Aries G2 Wireless Streaming Transporter quickly rose to the top of the list. It seems to hit all the right buttons for my desired audio streamer box:


  • The predecessor Auralic Aries had a great sonic reputation.
  • So does the Lightning DS app for iPad/iPhone used to access and run local network and Internet content and do all set-up functions.
  • The Aries G2's Tesla G2 Platform has a lot of processing power and data storage for buffering. In my experience with the Squeezebox Touch, increasing the size of the buffer via the EDO aftermarket software enhanced the sound quality. This is also the theory behind "memory players" for digital discs which clock out data from memory rather than straight from the spinning disc.
  • The Aries G2 has native streaming for Tidal and Qobuz Sublime, with Deezer, Spotify Connect, Apple Music, and Apple AirPlay functions also available. When you select AirPlay from your iPhone/iPad, whatever other music is streaming through the G2 is interrupted and the AirPlay stream takes its place. The G2 screen then shows the AirPlay icon. The availability of AirPlay means that single Aries G2 streamer could handle any stream I can view or hear on my iPhone/iPad. No longer would I need two streaming devices to cover the gaps between what was available via the Squeezebox and what I could hear on my phone (e.g., the Squeezebox Touch cannot access Sirius/XM radio channels, so I need the Apple Airport Express and AirPlay to do that).
  • The Lightning DS software also includes very nice vTuner functionality which provides easy access to thousands of Internet radio stations all over the world. This radio functionality seems to operate independently of AirPlay. Thus, while my iPhone is running Lightning DS, the battery drain on the phone is lower since AirPlay is not also being used.
  • With the new G2, Auralic seems to be pulling out all the stops in further refining the sonics of the highly reviewed Aries. Auralic claims better clocking, better power supplies, galvanic isolation, and better mechanical isolation.
  • The Aries G2 can of course access music on my local network if I want to add that function and has options to play back music stored on a thumb drive plugged into the USB slot in back, or for the consumer to insert any 2.5-inch SSD internally. The manufacturer claims, however, that the best local streaming sonics result when using NAS storage away from the Aries G2 box since putting a drive inside the box raises the EMI and puts a greater load on the G2's power supply.
  • Except when the AirPlay function is used, four digital filters are available on the fly to alter the flavor of the reproduction a bit from the traditional brick wall to full apodizing.
  • MQA streams (if I wanted to listen to them) are supposedly decodable by the unit's proprietary software even if your DAC does not decode MQA (my Benchmark DAC-3 does not); or you can choose to let the MQA coding pass through the unit untouched if you have an MQA decoding DAC.
  • The unit is designed to work optimally via a Wi-Fi connection. That's what I use in my listening room.

More discussion of the Aries G2's functions and operation is available in the User Guide.

But at What Price?

I hesitated a bit because of the price tag of the Aries G2: $3,899. That's more than twice as much as the predecessor Aries streamer. And, given how close I judged the match between Tidal streaming from my Squeezebox Touch, Airport Express, and Oppo dongle to my EVS-modified Oppo BDP-105D locally spinning the same program material on CD, could such a unit possibly be worth that cost? The Oppo dongle is literally a throw in, and either the Airport Express or a used Squeezebox Touch is about $100. Could the Aries G2 be worth 40 times the price of the Squeezebox Touch (the streamer I most used), even knowing about how the law of diminishing returns applies in full force to the subjective quality of audio equipment?

Throwing caution to the winds, I extinguished the smoldering fire in my virtual pocket by ordering the new Aries G2 straight from Auralic.

First Impressions

First impressions were outstanding. I actually got a confirmatory phone call from Auralic minutes after my order to verify that I had in fact ordered the Aries G2 through their brand-new online store. They had not expected an order to come in so soon that way apparently. I did not hear so much as a snicker in the background, much less the sound of Auralic staffers rolling on the floor with laughter.

That Auralic staff person assured me that the unit was en route from China and would arrive at the Delaware US office within a day and then be shipped overnight to me in Chicago. The unit did in fact arrive at my door within two days, packed as well as I've ever seen any audio equipment packaged. The plain white outer box was shrink wrapped and in pristine condition. The inner box slipped out of the outer box with just the right amount of speed to let me know that the dimensioning of the two boxes was spot-on. Custom fitted polystyrene inserts held all the parts inside very securely with at least four inches of hard foam padding on all sides.

The new Aries G2 is certainly a hefty, impressive box compared to the miniature Logitech Squeezebox Touch and Apple Airport Express I've been using. The casework looks awesome, for one thing. The chassis is also quite dead sounding in response to the very revealing tap-it-with-my-fingernail test. The chassis feet also are also quite springy, seeming to isolate the box from everything above quite low frequency vibration, such as footfalls. If you listen closely, you can hear the spring-loaded feet make a bit of chatter noise when the chassis is disturbed by footfalls or the rumble of a nearby passing commuter train, suggesting that the spring suspension is definitely tuned to a primary resonance well below the 20 Hz audio range and will thus filter out much of the speaker-caused vibrations.

I do agree with others who have noted that the matte-black-on-matte-black front panel control buttons are effectively stealth camouflaged. You will likely feel them before you see them. Unless you have direct sunlight hitting the unit at just the right angle, you'll need your phone's flashlight app to actually read the icons on each button. But, the unit looks so great, I'm willing to forgive that design feature. In any event, the front panel buttons don't have to be used much at all after the initial set-up, and even for the initial set up there are two other ways to perform that set up which totally bypass the front panel buttons.

Set-Up

I used my usual magic juice, Caig Deoxit Gold GL100 liquid brushed onto all the metallic non-soldered back panel and power cord connections. I inserted an Electronic Visionary Systems Ground Enhancer into the not-to-be-used-initially-at-least digital coax jack output. I used the stock power cord which came with the unit. The manufacturer warns you not to use a heavy after-market power cord since this may upset the intended mechanical balance and vibrational isolation of the unit on its four spring-loaded feet.

Auralic also advises users not to place any other component on top of the unit, again in order to stay within the designed weight range for the isolating feet. I placed a Bright Star Audio Little Rock atop the cover of my Oppo UDP-205 and placed the Auralic unit atop that with nothing atop the Auralic. That Little Rock has felt covering its bottom side and further damps the already-pretty-dead top cover of the disc spinner and provides a solid foundation for the four feet of the Aries G2, while still being small enough not to cover up all the ventilation slots in the cover of the Oppo. This set up puts the Aries G2 in a great spot for receiving a very strong Wi-Fi signal at its two external short whip antennas.

I use Comcast Extreme 105 Internet service into an Arris SURFboard SB6190 32x8 DOCSIS 3.0 Cable Modem. This modem is connected by CAT7 ethernet cable to my Netgear Nighthawk X8 Tri-band WiFi Router which is almost directly below the Aries down on the first floor.

With this Wi-Fi set up, via the Speedtest app on my iPhone and computers, I regularly clock about 120 mbps download and 23.5 mbps upload using either of the 5 GHz bands. I connect to the Aries G2 using one of the two 5 GHz bands. I reserve that band for my audio devices and iPhone, feeding other wireless devices and computers from the 2.4 or other 5 GHz router bands. (The iPhone/iPad running the Lightning DS software MUST be on exactly the same 5G Wi-Fi band as the Aries G2 in order to operate properly.)

Via the Wi-Fi Sweetspots app on my iPhone, I usually measure a signal strength/speed of around 460 Mbps at the G2. The signal is just as strong/fast at the listening seat from which I use the Lightning DS software on my iPhone. The strongest/fastest signal I can measure in the same room with the router even within a few inches or feet of it is about 520 Mbps. As far as I know, neither the Aries G2 nor the Lightning DS software contains any function for measuring Wi-Fi signal strength directly, unlike the Squeezebox Touch and Apple Airport Express Utility app.

Based on the advice of Apple, I orient the whip antennas on the Aries G2 vertically since two of the four external antennas of my Netgear router are also oriented that way with the other two at 45-degree angles to vertical. That orientation of the router transmitting antennas is recommended as best by Netgear.

To connect the Aries G2 to the Benchmark DAC-3 HGC, I'm using the same NEO Oyaide Elec D+ Class A Rev2 USB cable connection I used with my Squeezebox Touch. I'm using USB instead of coax since my Oppo UDP-205 uses the only available digital coax input of the Benchmark. (The other coax input of the HGC is internally reconfigured in my system as a digital pass through output feeding my Benchmark DAC-3 DX which in turn feeds balanced analog out signal to my headphone amp, the Sim Audio Moon Neo 430HA). With the G2, the USB connection is separately clocked and power supplied from the other digital outputs.

The amps are two Benchmark AHB2 units, run in bridged mono mode. The speakers are the Harbeth Monitor 40.2. More details on this set up are contained in the Harbeth thread.

Functionality

Screen

The built-in four-inch color screen on the front of the Aries has nice sharpness and widely adjustable brightness. I've chosen brightness level 2 as the best balance between readability and distraction from the music. The way the screen looks during different functions is accurately illustrated in the Aries G2 User's Guide, except that the Guide is in black and white.

But, despite its appearance, it is not a touch screen. Whatever is displayed on the screen is controllable, if at all, from the buttons on the Aries front panel or the Lightning DS app. The Squeezebox Touch screen is similar in size and about equally informative, but is a touch screen as well as being fully remote controllable.

Unlike the Squeezebox Touch screen, the built-in screen of the G2 is apparently only meant to supplement, not totally duplicate, the visuals and functionality available through the Lightning DS app. Fair enough; the modern trend for such devices is to make the best control interface an app for a mobile device, not a screen on the chassis or a remote control wand.

Thus, the Aries G2 is really designed to be controlled via the Lightning DS app on an iPad or iPhone held in your hand at the listening seat, not from being close enough to the Aries chassis to touch the front panel buttons. The Squeezebox Touch, on the other hand, was designed to have the screen on the Touch be the primary interface and have that screen fully remote controllable by the included wand remote. My set up puts me about six feet from the screen of either the Aries or the Sqeezebox. At this distance it is much easier to read the Squeezebox Touch display than the Aries display, especially for menu functions. And for those desiring an attractive, fully functional iPhone app to control the Squeezebox Touch, the iPeng 9 Squeezebox Remote app is just about perfect.

Like the Squeezebox Touch, the G2 screen can be defeated. Unlike the Touch, however, once turned off, the Aries screen cannot instantly be turned on again via remote control—you have to touch one of the front panel buttons or go into the set-up menu on the Lightning DS app on your phone/pad to reactivate the screen. On the Touch, I had the screen set to time out after 20 seconds. The screen would reactivate whenever I touched any function button on the remote control or the iPeng 9 app. There is no time-out function for the Aries G2 screen.

Lightning DS

I can totally forgive any shortcomings with the Aries G2 screen, however, given the very slick Lightning DS control app which comes free from the App Store. As I said previously, Lightning DS is really the intended manner to control the Aries.

Whether it's the Lightning DS app or the computing horsepower built into the Aries G2, or a combination of the two, navigation from one program to another is considerably quicker than it is via the Squeezebox Touch, Airport Express, or Oppo BDP-105/105D. This applies whether the source is Tidal or the lowest-res Internet radio station. Very snappy indeed. The Squeezebox Touch navigation is particularly slower when using its USB output.

Visually and graphically, Lightning DS improves on the interface with Tidal I've seen via the Squeezebox Touch, Airport Express, Oppo BDP-105/105D, or iPhone/iPad running the Tidal app directly on the mobile device. The Web interface you see on a computer for Tidal is actually one of the worst looking, in my opinion.

In addition, Lightning DS arranges the metadata for Tidal tracks more usefully than the low-cost streamers. Complete biographies of the artists are more obviously accessible in-app, for example.

In terms of moving around among menus and program sources, Lightning DS for the iPhone/iPad seems very fine to me. Nothing is hidden or difficult. For example, accessing the set-up menu to get to the four available digital filter types from Lightning DS does not interrupt the programming at all and even switching the filter mid-track only interrupts the music for about a second.

Internet Radio: VTuner

All right, I admit it. I listen to a lot of Internet radio sources, despite the lower fidelity of most such than Tidal. The popular Internet-only Radio Paradise station recently launched a lossless FLAC stream, however, and I hope that more stations will follow suit.

As for lossy streaming, in my prior streaming experience, many stations which stream at 256 kbps or above have sounded quite acceptable. A few carefully crafted 128 mp3 or AAC streams have also been quite decent sounding. Once you are at 320 kbps, such streams are quite high quality with very few audible artifacts regardless of the program material, or at least can be if the station is not applying dynamic compression and a lot of other audio processing to its signal.

A lot of the original quality (or lack thereof) of the recordings comes through even at low bitrates. For example, Grateful Dead live recordings heard on Sirius/XM (100 kbps) are extremely variable in audio quality, but can sound truly excellent if the mix was right and the microphones used were of high quality and properly deployed. I'd rather listen to low-bit-rate playback of an intelligently miked performance than lossless FLAC playback of a highly processed and compressed ruthlessly multi-miked performance any day.

The VTuner app embedded in the Lightning DS controller app is very nice. It seems eminently navigable, you can organize stations several different ways, and the station choices are very broad. The streams listed usually seem to be the best the station has to offer. One exception I noted was the BBC channels. BBC Radio 3 classical (as well as other BBC stations) is available through the BBC's own iPlayer Radio app in 320 kbps quality, whereas VTuner steers you to the 128 kbps mp3 version. But with the Aries G2, when I find such exceptions I just use the AirPlay function. Besides a menu-driven search function, you can also find stations in VTuner by typing in descriptive words or call letters. You can make any station VTuner's search function locates a favorite. That station is then listed in your list of My Favorites in the Lightning DS app.

There are stations that the VTuner search function will not automatically locate. Sometimes, for example, there is a higher bit-rate stream available, or one which is a usually-better-sounding AAC stream as opposed to MP3. For many such streams, as long as you have the URL you can type in the URL of this stream and thus add this stream to the list of My Stations. My Stations is not the same list as My Favorites. As far as I can determine, there is no way to subsume My Stations within My Favorites. And not all streams are capturable in this manner. For instance, it does not seem possible to make a paid subscription stream like any of the Jazz Radio channels one of My Stations by typing in that stream's URL; doing so yields an error message from the Lightning DS app. Still, this My Stations function is often very useful for making sure you are able to listen to the highest quality stream for a given station.

Filter Sauce

The Aries G2 Processor menu provides four choices of filter modes. These are labeled Precise, Dynamic, Balance, and Smooth. They are selectable on the fly while music is being played. However, these filter modes are not available in AirPlay mode.

These filters range from the Precise's standard brick wall to apparently full-apodizing with no pre-echo. In my tests, I generally prefer the sound of the traditional Precise brick wall filter. Its high frequencies are the cleanest and its overall spatial presentation is definitely the most focused. For program material which is too bright sounding, the Smooth filter will take a bit of the edge off at the cost of some spatial defocus and spatial blur—the space may seem enlarged, but it is less real sounding—there is less there there, as some would say.

Another available function involves upsampling/oversampling streams from their native rate to some whole number multiple of that rate. This function works with native Tidal and the VTuner stations; it does not apply to sources listened to via AirPlay. I have just begun to explore the sonic effect of that feature. So far, my impression of over/upsampling typical 44.1 kHz media to 176.4 is that this adds a small dollop of extra space and envelopment to the presentation as well as adding a tiny bit of extra clarity with no downsides I can perceive. This is unusual for me since typically I've found that with good digital electronics, digital programs sound best in their native resolution. In the past I've found that upsampling can change the sound a bit, but not in ways which are clearly better. I've typically found that upsampling usually moves the sound toward a brighter balance, with more generally spacious sound, but with less focused space. This does not appear to be the case with the Aries G2.

Another available function I have not yet tried is the way the Auralic handles MQA sources. Since my access to MQA sources is at this point limited to the desktop version of Tidal, and since I don't have my audio system hooked up to a desktop computer, I have not yet listened to any MQA sources via the Auralic. The Aries G2 software is claimed to contain a proprietary resampling and de-blurring method allowing it to decode MQA without an MQA compatible DAC attached. Also offered are Automatic, 2x, 4x, and 8x resampling choices for MQA sources using this proprietary Auralic software. Alternatively, if you have an MQA-decoding DAC, the Auralic can be set for "MQA Pass-through" to allow the MQA-encoded program to be passed through untouched to the DAC for decoding.

As an aside on the digital filtering issue, I currently fall into the camp of the MQA doubters. I agree with the analyses of Archimago and Peter Moncrieff as to the wrongheadedness of modern digital filter design, including MQA. Reproduction accuracy to the source is the goal, not a short, pretty impulse response graph lacking all those messy "pre- and post-echo" squiggles.

Sound Quality

"Finally! I thought he'd never get to it." I thought the same thing, if that's any consolation. I was putting this off as long as I could since the Aries G2 presents some difficult sonic versus value considerations.

Okay, comparing the sound quality of Internet streaming through the Auralic Aries G2 to any of the prior methods I've used in my system: yes, the Auralic sounds better, to my ears.

How much better? Significantly better. Better enough that it's noticeable right away or at least pretty quickly on many streams. These are not huge differences, but they are noticeable and significant to me.

In what ways is the sound better you ask? Keep in mind that I have not yet done a new round of comparisons between the sound of CDs spun on my also-new Oppo UDP-205 and the same program streamed on the Aries G2. The below comparisons are strictly between my low-cost streamers and the Aries. I'll also state up front that all these sonic comparisons apply to native Tidal, VTuner, and AirPlay sources as heard through the Aries G2, not just the native Tidal played by the G2.

I first noticed that the Aries G2 background is blacker. Quiet studios are even quieter, while making yet more audible the air handling and other noises going on in the background of those recording venues which aren't dead quiet. This was immediately audible when listening to radio announcers on my hometown classical station, WFMT in Chicago, a 128 kbps AAC stream.

Next I noticed that the midbass was cleaned up in the sense of more controlled but still nice and full as I like it, with the low bass below that both stronger and better defined. Deep-voiced male radio announcers sound more natural.

Images are yet more stable in placement on the stage. There was no image wander or shifting before, but now they seem yet more rock solid. Of course, on poorly miked material like the singers on stage during the Metropolitan Opera broadcast, this quality translates into even greater image shifting/jumping as the singers move around on stage and thus move in and out of the primary pick up fields of several different microphones.

Fourth, the audible depth of field is enhanced a bit. Instruments in the back are further back and there are more gradations from front to back. The space around performers in naturally miked recordings is more focused, like a finer lens.

Fifth, the presentation always seems generally cleaner and lower in distortion. Together with, or perhaps as a consequence of this, the presentation sounds more relaxed and ingratiating, with further-reduced high frequency nasties of any kind.

Finally, and probably most importantly to me, all these qualities seem more evident on sources which have lower streaming rates than Tidal. Tidal, too, evidences these qualities, but the low-bit-rate stuff gets a proportionately greater sound quality boost. That's great from my viewpoint since it really makes exploring the curated music streams offered by many Internet radio stations all that much more rewarding. I'd say the effect is akin to more than doubling the sample rate of the broadcast. The sound quality it took 256 or 320 kbps to deliver via the Squeezebox Touch is now evident with 128 kbps streams. Digital artifacts typical of low bit rates seem considerably reduced, in other words.

But Is the Aries G2 Worth the Money?

These sonic differences are all to the plus or improvement side for the Aries G2. But, despite my sonic descriptions above, I judge that the sonic differences between the Aries G2 and the low-priced streaming spread are not huge. They are audible, but mostly pretty subtle. The functional differences are not huge, either. On the other hand, the price differences are definitely huge.

I'd estimate that the low-priced streaming devices I've compared the Aries G2 with produce at least 85% of the sonic quality of the G2. For Tidal, I'd say the inexpensive route gets you 90% of the way there. For lower bit rate sources, the inexpensive route gets you 80% of what the Auralic provides sonically. Whether getting that extra average of 15% is worth the extreme price difference, only you can decide. If you don't listen much to Internet radio and don't plan to in the future, the Aries G2 may well be too steep a price to pay for a 10% increase in Tidal lossless FLAC playback quality.

Keep in mind that I'm only exploring part of the functionality and sonic quality of the Aries G2. I have no idea how the Aries G2 might affect the quality of music streamed from your local network computer storage. For computer audiophiles, this may well significantly affect the value equation.

I still heartily recommend the combination of a Logitech Squeezebox Touch and Apple Airport Express as a very fine means of hearing all music the Internet has to offer for a total investment of at most just a very few hundred dollars.

I've been using very high resolution speakers and headphones over my years of Internet streaming listening and that budget solution is something I've lived with for years without complaint and with much joy. It is something I could continue to happily live with. The functionality and audio quality are both staggeringly high for the money.

But now that I've experienced the Auralic Aries G2, I think I'll keep it. It does sound significantly better yet in my system, to my ears, and I can afford it. The Aries G2 is definitely not what I'd call a high-value component. The law of diminishing returns clearly applies in full force here. But if you are looking for the best or one of the best Internet streamers out there, the Auralic Aries G2 Wireless Streaming Transporter should be on your shortlist for consideration.
 
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Ki Choi

Member Sponsor
May 13, 2010
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Good article Tom.

I had the original Auralic Aries for a while and gave it up after struggling with network configuration. After reading your post, I might need to reconsider the G2.

Thanks,
Ki
 

tmallin

WBF Technical Expert
May 19, 2010
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Ki, I've had absolutely no problem connecting the Aries G2 to my home Wi-Fi network. It connected on my very first attempt and has not dropped the signal since.
 

jackelsson

Well-Known Member
Dec 1, 2013
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Tom, thanks for the article, that was an interesting read. I'm currently in the market for a streamer myself and I'm looking for pretty much exactly the same as you did. I was quite surprised to find how few dedicated streamers without further bells and whistles there are in the region up to 2k$, especially if one needs a Wifi connection from router to streamer.

Seems I might ultimately also need to go higher up the price range, and then the Aries G2 is definietly one of the strong contenders. I might still wait though until after the Munich High End show before I pull any trigger on this topic. Might be interesting to see whether there will be other alternatives being introduced at the show.
 

tmallin

WBF Technical Expert
May 19, 2010
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Chicagoland
There's another feature of the Auralic Aries G2 that I just started experimenting with called Spotify Connect. From what I gather in the Auralic Community discussion, Spotify did not consent to have its streamer made native to the G2, since Spotify always wants its particular interface/advertisers/etc. visible to users. But apparently they are allowing this Spotify Connect method of hooking the functionality of Spotify more directly into the G2 than is possible with AirPlay.

I don't use Spotify that much at this point since its catalog is largely duplicated in Tidal and Tidal has the lossless FLAC streaming while Spotify at this point is limited to a 320 kbps streaming rate. Still, there are some who object to Tidal for price and/or other reasons and Spotify's catalog may well be larger. Spotify also seems to be more financially sound at this point. At 320 kbps, Spotify still sounds quite good. Many listeners apparently can't reliably tell the difference between this streaming rate and lossless FLAC at 44/16.

In the Lightning DS software menu, if you go to Settings>Lightning Device>Auralic Aries G2>Additional Operations>Streamer Setup>Available Input Methods, you can then turn on or turn off Spotify Connect. (The other Available Input Methods are AirPlay, Bluetooth, and Roon Ready--that last one will definitely be of interest to computer audiophiles since the G2 is certified as a Roon Ready Endpoint.) Now, Lightning DS says to disable the Available Input Methods you aren't using in order to maximize the sound quality of the G2, so I usually only turn on AirPlay since that one is needed for Internet streams not on VTuner or Tidal.

But for purposes of my experiment, I turned on Spotify Connect as an Available Input Method. Once that is done, I don't have to use AirPlay to stream Spotify from my iPhone to the Aries G2. When I open Spotify on my phone, I then navigate to Your Library>Settings (gear icon)>Devices>Devices Menu>Connect to a device>choose Listening On Auralic Aries G2. Alternatively, Spotify says you can just play a song and then click on "Devices available" at the bottom of the screen and from there choose the Auralic Aries G2. The Spotify icon will then appear on the screen of the Aries G2.

From then on, I can listen to Spotify through the Aries G2 even though AirPlay is disabled (AirPlay shows the iPhone as the chosen device, not the Aries G2) and Lightning DS software is turned off. What I hear is determined by the Spotify app on my phone. The Spotify app will show Auralic Aries G2 in small writing toward the bottom of the screen, rather than the Bluetooth symbol it shows when listening via AirPlay.

Like the native Tidal and the VTuner functions, with Spotify Connect in action, the Processor menu functions of the G2 now apply. I access the Processor menu functions via Lightning DS by choosing Settings>Lightning Device>Auralic Aries G2>Additional Operations>Menu (the horizontal parallel line icon near the top)>Processor Setup. From the Processor Setup menu I can choose whether or not to upsample/oversample the usual 44.1 kHz Spotify stream up to 176.4 kHz and I can listen via any of the four digital filters the Aries G2 allows you to apply on the fly. These Processor Setup menu functions are not available for AirPlay streams.
 

tmallin

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MQA Files Decoded by the Auralic Aries G2 vs. Lossless FLAC

I am still exploring all the different features offered by the Aries G2 for streaming music content from the Web. My latest experiments deal with streaming MQA files from Tidal.

From the Lightning DS app, go to Settings>Lightning Device>Auralic Aries G2>Additional Operations>Streamer Setup. From there you can select the method of MQA Playback Setup. You can either choose MQA Pass-Through, or choose to have the G2 apply a proprietary Decoding Method. Since my Benchmark DAC-3 HGC is not an MQA decoding DAC, Auto seems the best for my situation, and that is the method I've been experimenting with to decode MQA Master files from Tidal.

From the Streamer Setup menu, you can also choose Streaming Quality. For these experiments, I also choose FLAC MQA as the Streaming Quality. Or, if I want to compare the MQA file with uncompressed lossless FLAC, I choose FLAC Lossless as the streaming quality.
For all playback, I choose to oversample the bitrate to 4x native, up to 192 kbps. Thus, most Lossless Flac files from Tidal are sampled at 176.4 kHz rather than at Tidal's native 44.1 kHz.

The instructions within Lightning DS have this to say about MQA playback and other streaming quality issues via the Aries G2:
MQA Playback Setup

MQA Pass-through: When enabled this setting will pass the original music signal through your streaming device without making any changes, allowing an external DAC to use its own decoding functions. Use this option when connected to an MQA-enabled DAC for example. (You may also need to disable the volume control function of your streaming device or set the volume to 100 to ensure full-level pass-through of the signal.)

Decoding Method: AURALiC streaming devices are capable of decoding MQA files using AURALiC’s proprietary resampling and de-blurring method. You can select from the sampling rate settings for the process described here. Please note that this process is not an MQA-created or MQA-licensed process. Auto: Your streaming device will detect the best decoding sampling rate based on the information in the MQA file. It will also detect the maximum sampling rate of a USB-connected DAC. 2x Sampling Rate: Your streaming device will always decode MQA files at 88.2 kHz or 96 kHz, depending on the original file’s sampling rate. 4x Sampling Rate: Your streaming device will always decode MQA files at 176.4 kHz or 192 kHz, depending on the original file’s sampling rate. 8x Sampling Rate: Your streaming device will always decode MQA files at 352.8 kHz or 384 kHz, depending on the original file’s sampling rate.

Streaming Quality

TIDAL: Getting the best streaming quality from TIDAL. The maximum streaming quality of music from TIDAL depends on the file formats stored on TIDAL’s servers, and the subscription type of your TIDAL account. These settings can maximize the streaming quality of your TIDAL content. FLAC MQA: FLAC in the MQA format, which is compressed and lossy. You may benefit from this setting if your DAC supports MQA decoding. (MQA file has a degraded dynamic range compared to non-MQA file if you play it on a non-MQA DAC.) FLAC Lossless: FLAC in lossless CD quality at a sampling rate of 44.1K or 48K. This is the best option if you stream to a DAC without an MQA decoder. MP3 High: Lossy MP3 (or MP4) format, at a higher bitrate. MP3 Low: Lossy MP3 (or MP4) format, at a lower bitrate.​

When you play back a music file from Tidal through the Lightning DS app, if you expand the screen to show the track view, the type of streaming you are listening to at the moment is displayed within a little rectangle on the screen. For example, it might say "TIDAL 96Khz 24bit 1.78Mbps MQA". MQA files all seem to be 24 bit and identified as MQA. The same program, listened to in FLAC Lossless Streaming Quality oversampled to 176 kbps, displays the following information: "TIDAL 176.4Khz 16bit 1.04Mbps FLAC". It is thus obvious as to whether the Tidal stream being played is FLAC Lossless or FLAC MQA. In addition to the information within the Tidal screens via the Lightning DS app, the bit depth and sampling rates being played are also confirmed by my Benchmark DAC-3 by the pattern of lights illuminated on its front panel.

Before I purchased and began exploring the functionality of the Aries G2, I had not expected to be able to play back Tidal Masters with MQA decoding of any kind. The ability of the Aries G2 to apply "AURALiC's proprietary resampling and deblurring method" is not mentioned anywhere except within the Lightning DS app.

In addition, I thought that Tidal MQA playback was still limited to the desktop version of Tidal. I'm not sure which version of Tidal Auralic makes use of in the G2/Lightning DS, but in any event it appears clear that one can perform at least some decoding of Tidal MQA files when using the Aries G2 even in front of a non-MQA-decoding DAC like my Benchmark DAC-3 HGC.

Since the description of this proprietary function says: "Please note that this process is not an MQA-created or MQA-licensed process," it is not clear how close the Aries G2 decoding gets to the sound of MQA files decoded by a true MQA DAC. Since I have no MQA DAC in house, that is a comparison I cannot make at this point.

I am able, however, to compare the sound quality of Tidal Master files via the MQA Pass-through setup with the proprietary Auto MQA decoding offered in the Aries G2.

I can also attempt to compare the sound of the MQA files decoded by the proprietary Aries G2 method versus the sound of FLAC Lossless streaming quality of either the same Master file or the ordinary 16/44 FLAC Lossless file of the same music usually also available in Tidal. This comparison gets trickier, however, since I don't have the equipment to analyze the replay to see if the non-Master version file on Tidal is actually identical to the Master file other than for the MQA encoding of the Master.

I should say a word about how one goes about finding all the MQA material on Tidal. It now is well known that only a fraction of this material is labeled Master (or M in the desktop version under the album cover art icon). Various attempts are available online to come up with a more complete list. Tidal admits the problem and says it is working on a solution.

In Lightning DS, it seems that where the same album is listed twice in your search results for a given artist (usually the apparently identical albums appear in the list right next to each other), the first listing is usually the MQA version while the second is usually the FLAC Lossless version. To know for sure, you have to start streaming the content and look at the streaming information for a given track as discussed above. Suffice it to say that there are many thousands of MQA albums currently available, with the vast majority of those in the pop/rock vein, but with some classical, some jazz, some country, etc.

All right, sonic comparison time. I'll start with the one easy part. Via my system, the sound of Auralic's "proprietary resampling and de-blurring method" as applied to Tidal Master MQA files is clearly a bit superior to the sound of the Master MQA files fed to my Benchmark DAC-3 HGC via the MQA Pass-through method. The proprietary Auralic decoding sounds better to me than no MQA decoding at all. The MQA Pass-through method just sounds a bit vague and compressed in overall presentation. The Auto decoding method eliminates these problems. FLAC Lossless decoding of the ordinary Redbook version of the program also has none of these problems.

As far as MQA files heard via Auralic's proprietary decoding vs. Lossless FLAC playback, here it gets trickier. The differences I hear are quite subtle, I feel.

However, that said, I consistently seem to hear a bit wider dynamic range via Lossless FLAC. Also, the bass sounds deeper, more powerful, more dynamic, and more defined—overall a bit more realistic. I also feel that the high frequency overtones are more focused in space and "attached" to the fundamentals/lower tones produced by instruments in the Lossless FLAC version. Instruments and voices tend to sound a bit more like themselves tonally and in terms of low-level detail via Lossless FLAC.

On the other hand, the decoded MQA versions sometimes sound a bit more spatially rounded/three dimensional, both in terms of staging and in terms of instrumental images, even while the overall stage width and depth may actually seem a bit smaller in the decoded MQA version. Sometimes the MQA seems a bit clearer, yet simultaneously a bit lacking in some of the low-level detail which is heard in the Lossless FLAC version. Thus, sometimes MQA produces a clearer aural "picture" of the entity producing the sound, while yet masking a bit of the tonality and low-level detail of the sound produced by that instrument/voice. Sometimes the MQA version also seems a bit more "relaxed" or "ingratiating," but other times the seeming "detachment" of the high frequencies from the lower tones of a given instrument is a bit off-putting.

Certainly it is not a slam dunk for either Lossless FLAC or MQA in my system. They are a bit different sounding and it is usually not clear to me if one is better or worse than the other.

If pushed, at this stage I suspect from the technical analyses I've read and trusted, that the compressed dynamic range, high frequency oddness, and lack of low-level detail heard in the MQA versions are real shortcomings of that scheme since it is acknowledged by most these days that MQA is in fact a compressed and lossy reproduction scheme. The primary audible benefits of MQA seem to be on the spatial front, but who knows exactly how most recordings should sound in a stereo presentation? Exact image placement, exact depth of stage, and roundness of images are usually epiphenomena of stereo loudspeaker reproduction; that is, such things are rarely characteristic of live unamplified music heard in a good concert hall from even the best seats. I can understand how MQA is seen as an improvement to those for whom any apparent increase in three-dimensional certainty carries everything else before it.
 
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tmallin

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In my first post in this thread, I said:

[FONT=&amp]Like the Squeezebox Touch, the G2 screen can be defeated. Unlike the Touch, however, once turned off, the Aries screen cannot instantly be turned on again via remote control—you have to touch one of the front panel buttons or go into the set-up menu on the Lightning DS app on your phone/pad to reactivate the screen. On the Touch, I had the screen set to time out after 20 seconds. The screen would reactivate whenever I touched any function button on the remote control or the iPeng 9 app. There is no time-out function for the Aries G2 screen.
[/FONT]
[FONT=&amp]
As of a firmware update to 5.4.4 which I installed and then applied today, every program navigation operation I perform via Lightning DS now reactivates the screen for a few seconds even when it is set to Auto Off. This allows you to confirm via the screen that the new program content has now loaded. The screen then automatically turns off again after a few seconds. This is very similar to the way I have set up my Logitech Squeezebox Touch units. Nice.[/FONT]
 

tmallin

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In one of my posts above I stated:

Now, Lightning DS says to disable the Available Input Methods you aren't using in order to maximize the sound quality of the G2, so I usually only turn on AirPlay since that one is needed for Internet streams not on VTuner or Tidal.

I have verified that the Aries G2 does in fact sound better with all available input methods not being used at the moment shut off. The sonic degradation between even just having the AirPlay input open and having no input method open is audible. The degradation is more audible as more input methods are opened.

Thus, even though I regularly use AirPlay to play Sirius/XM and Jazz Radio streams, I close even the AirPlay input method for serious listening to the native Tidal or VTuner apps. The sound is definitely a tad better still with the AirPlay input method closed--more three dimensional, more analog-relaxed in nature.

Another trick is to shut down Bluetooth on the device from which you are sourcing your AirPlay material. This adds a perceptible increase in quality to AirPlay replay through the Aries G2, at least with my iPhone 6 as the AirPlay source. In addition, shutting down Bluetooth definitely speeds up the way the Lightning DS app responds to commands via my iPhone 6. What was snappier than my Squeezebox Touch before is now yet more responsive in terms of reducing waiting time for any command to take effect. Note that while the iOS 11 software on my phone indicates that Bluetooth must be on for AirPlay to work, that definitely is not the case for getting programs to the Aries G2 via AirPlay.
 

bmichels

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Nov 30, 2012
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I am the VERY happy owner of an ARIES V1 + HUGO DAC. Now it is time for me to "upgrade" my system with at least a VEGA G2.

My main question is about the need for buying also a ARIES G2 to go with the VEGA G2. Indeed, since the VEGA G2 can also be used as a streamer, I wonder if there is any sonic advantage (just sound wise, not feature wise) to add a ARIES G2 when streaming wired from a NAS. (I ask this question is because I will use wired ethernet. I know that the VEGA G2 cannot do WiFi streaming like the Aries G2 does).

Also, will you have the opportunity to test the LEO clock ? I believe it should bring more sonic advantage to a VEGA G2 than adding an ARIES G2 ?

Many thanks in advance

bertrand
 
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tmallin

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I have no experience with the Auralic Vega. However, I do know that the designer of the Auralic equipment, Xuanqian, has addressed the comparative sonics of the streaming available via the Aries G2 versus the Vega G2 over on the Auralic Community forum. Basically, the designer says the Aries G2 sounds better because the separate streaming box allows for better isolation of the analog circuitry of the DAC from noise generated internally by digital circuitry. See, for example, this thread.
 

tmallin

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More on the sound of MQA files decoded by the Aries G2 versus FLAC lossless files of the same material:

Another sonic difference which I'm frankly surprised I did not immediately hear is that the G2-decoded MQA version diminishes and in some cases almost completely erases the initial ting impact of a wooden drumstick on a cymbal, such as is common in jazz recordings, even when the cymbal is gently struck. In analog recordings and FLAC digital, the ting is separate, before, and of a distinctly lower frequency than the following ringing shimmer of the cymbal. With MQA, most of what you hear is the shimmer; the initial transient is diminished, sometimes to the point of almost vanishing.
 

tmallin

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Comcast 1-Gig Service + Netgear CM1000 Modem + Netgear CR500 Router

I recently upgraded my Comcast internet service to the One Gigabyte level of download speed, which also provides about 50 megs of upload speed. Before I was getting speeds of about 100 megs down and 20 up. I took advantage of a special offer Comcast was running and upgraded the service from the 100 Meg to 1 Gig speed for an extra $30 a month.

To get the 1 Gig speed, I had to replace my Arris SB6190 DOCSIS 3.0 cable modem with one of the few Comcast-approved DOCSIS 3.1 modems currently available. I chose the Netgear CM1000.

I also decided that it might be time to "upgrade" my Netgear Nighthawk X8 R8500-100NAS router which is now discontinued since it is "ancient" at about three years old. The logical upgrade was to the X10, but initially I decided against that one given a considerable number of negative comment (about dropping connections) on Amazon plus the inclusion of the as-yet-and-probably-forever useless 60 Ghz short-range ultra-high-speed Wi-Fi protocol in place of one of the two 5G bands of the X8.

So, for a short time I experimented with the gaming-oriented Netgear XR500. That router has great software if you are into gaming, I suppose, but for general surfing and streaming and with the type of bandwidth I now have, the special features of its software are really not helpful. Except for one facet: the software is able to show, in real time, both the overall bandwidth demand of all devices on your network on a moment-to-moment basis, and the instantaneous demand of any given device. From this I could determine that even streaming FLAC or MQA material from Tidal, the Auralic Aries G2 was demanding at most about one megabyte per second, and usually only about 0.5 megs per second of bandwidth out of a total available of close to 1 Gig per second. That is what you'd expect, I guess, given the sampling rates and bit depth involved.

But, the XR500 had one great redeeming virtue: for some reason, streaming sounded significantly better with that router in play than with my old X8. The reason for this is not clear to me. Perhaps its related to the lower jitter and lack of "lag" gamers praise when using this router, but that is purely speculation.

Now, it's impossible to do any quick swaps of the routers and switching the modem back requires reauthorization through Comcast, an even longer process. And, believe me, you do not want to get the Comcast system or people behind it confused about the equipment you are using. Thus true A/B comparisons are not possible.

What I didn't really expect, given the cushion in available bandwidth that even my prior 100 megabyte per second download capability provided, was any increase in subjective sound quality provided by this new internet equipment and speed boost. My switch was more for the desire for more "headroom" for future planned 4K HDR streaming video, an application which puts a lot more bandwidth demands on the network than mere two-channel audio.

But right from the start, once I switched the modem, upped the download speed, and started using the Netgear XR500 router, there definitely seemed to be an uptick in audio quality from the Auralic Aries G2: more depth, quieter yet backgrounds, and more carved-in-stone imaging, more focus, greater clarity, and seemingly less distortion—just a "cleaner" sound.

Anyway, thought I, if the XR500 makes the sound better, perhaps the new X10 would make it sound better yet. In any event, despite some unfavorable reviews, I soon acquired the logical successor to the X8 router, the Netgear Nighthawk X10 AD7200 802.11ac/ad Quad-Stream WiFi Router.

As it turns out, the X10 does no better range-wise or speed wise than the X8 or XR500 anywhere in my house; no worse, but certainly not significantly better. And the Netgear Genie software is less stable, far slower in responding, and far less informative than the Duma software which powers the XR500. With the X8, the Netgear Genie seemed to work fine, but with the X10, it is not nearly as good.

Also, until I killed off the 60 Gig radio and the USB port connections on the X10, there was a real lack of stability, necessitating several reboots the first couple of days I owned it. Not good.

What really wasn't good, however, was that the streaming sound through the Auralic was not nearly as good as with the XR500, not even as good certainly as with the older X8.

So now I'm happy to be back with the Netgear XR500 router. Great software, great sound, and rock-solid stability of operation. Who knew that a router could be this important to ultimate sound quality with internet streaming sources? I'm not a gamer, but I'll add my vote to the many singing the praises of the Netgear XR500 router.
 
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tmallin

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In one of my previous posts on this thread I talked about the Spotify Connect function of the Auralic Aries G2. I've been exploring Spotify more lately because there is indeed material there not found on Tidal. For just a couple of examples, the entire Chesky Records catalog is missing from Tidal, whereas much of it is present in Spotify. In addition, the album Wynton Marsalis Live at Blues Alley is present on Spotify but not Tidal.

Other examples of additional material on Spotify are the listings called Playlists on Spotify, most of which are missing on Tidal. Some of these playlists are massive, comprising hundreds of hours of material. For example, there is one Spotify Playlist containing all the Dick's Picks releases for the Grateful Dead. As far as I can tell, these Playlists seem to have the same audio quality as the album selections on Spotify.

As I mentioned and as most probably know, Spotify audio quality is currently limited to 320 kbps for their Extreme quality of services, as opposed to Tidal's FLAC and MQA. In addition, there are a couple of Setting options you should take advantage of to make sure you are getting all the audio quality possible from Spotify. Once these Settings are chosen, the audio quality, while still lossy, subjectively is then much closer to the FLAC version on Tidal.

In Spotify, go to Your Library>Settings (which is the gear icon in the upper right corner of the screen on an iPhone)>Playback>Enable Audio Normalization. Make sure Enable Audio Normalization is turned OFF. And then under Volume Level, make sure Quiet (preserves dynamics) IS check marked. That's it. I'm not sure why Spotify hides the Settings under Your Library, but that is where they are and why I thought it wise to mention this since these settings are not obvious. See the discussion of the audio normalization setting and its importance to Spotify sound quality here.

For those of you just streaming Spotify via Airplay rather than through the Spotify Connect feature, the same applies. The Spotify Connect feature of the Auralic can sound a bit better, however, since currently Airplay cannot be upsampled by the Aries G2, whereas the Spotify Connect input stream can be upsampled the same way Tidal and VTuner streams can. Xuanqian, the Auralic designer, has mentioned on the Auralic Community forum, however, that this may changes with a future firmware update so that Airplay streams can also be upsampled. Apparently the hesitancy is because upsampling introduces a delay which could usually cause a lack of synchronization between the video and audio streams on a video stream. To that I say, with a high-end audio streamer like the Aries G2, who cares about such exact sync between the audio and video streaming? It's all about the audio quality. In any event, Xuanquian said they are working on a way around this sync problem with upsampling Airplay.
 

tmallin

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Two more probably unrelated tweaks I've found which get yet better performance from the Auralic G2:

1. My wife and I both traded our iPhone 6 phones in for new iPhone 10 phones. The better processor in the iPhone X, together with the higher speed Comcast internet service we now have (One Gig speed) means that the Lightning DS app is yet snappier in response to commands. While I don't think the sound changed any from this change in phones, the overall joy of streaming is even higher with this speedier "command module."

In addition, certain sometimes quirky behavior of the old phones with the Spotify Connect app has disappeared. Spotify Connect now runs a smooth as silk, with great responsiveness and rock-solid stability.

2. I was playing around with replacing the ground block female-F-to-female-F connector which bridges Comcast's service to my home with the interior wiring of my network at the point of entry. That connector looks to be many years old and I thought it could use a replacement just to make sure it has not degraded due to weather exposure.

I've noticed in the course of experimenting with this that the sound of the Auralic took a quite noticeable jump in quality (better yet space, primarily in terms of envelopment and depth of field, also with yet blacker background and seemingly yet less distortion) when I disconnected the ground wire from the ground block even without replacing the old connector. The connections seem clean and tight at the ground block just outside my home's wall as well as inside where there is a grounding strap connected to a copper water pipe, but it just doesn't sound as good with the ground block actually grounded to that wire connection.

I know that it is best practice for human and equipment safety to have a cable line grounded at the point of entry, so I'll continue to explore this and see if I can get it grounded while preserving the new-found increase in sound quality. I do wish that this safety grounding did not create a sound quality issue!
 
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tmallin

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Arris SB8200 Modem

Based on some online discussions among modem cognoscenti at DSL Reports, I decided to try the Arris SB8200 modem, which is a competitor for my Netgear CM1000 gig-speed modem. There seems to be some perception that the Arris modem is better built and seemed to provide yet quicker navigation among websites even though the measured speed and other characteristics of the Arris and Netgear are more or less equivalent. In addition, the Arris SB8200 (along with the Netgear CM1000 and Motorola MB8600) are the three modems certified by Comcast to work with their gig-speed service which I have.

I was able to automatically activate the new Arris SB8200 modem via Comcast/Xfinity's activation webpage. No phone call to support was necessary. The activation process went smoothly and completed in less than two minutes.

Measured wireless (the way I connect the Aries G2) speed at my house is faster with the Arris SB8200 than it was with the Netgear CM1000. I also think page to page navigation is in fact a bit quicker now with the Arris modem, including with the Lightning DS software. With the DumaOS software of the Netgear CR500 router and various internet speed tests, it also seems like the latency has been further reduced. Sure enough, the sound seems yet further improved with a yet-larger audible space and increased high frequency smoothness.

The SB8200 does run a bit on the warm/hot side, but since it is not in a fully enclosed cabinet, that does not seem to be a problem. Many will want to cover the front panel lights, as I have, with a few layers of white electrical tape to reduce the distractingly bright glow of the front panel lights. While black electrical tape is more efficient at light blocking, the white is better in this application because the modem case is all white and thus the tape is almost invisible.

Now if I can just get Comcast to fix their lines to correct some of the unusual errors I'm seeing in my modem logs as well as figure out how to ground the cable at the point of entry without losing some of the great sound quality I'm now getting, I'll REALLY be in business . . . .


 
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tmallin

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Aries G2 USB vs. Digital Outputs

I have recently been experimenting with the relative sonics of the Auralic Aries G2's USB output versus its coaxial digital output. This is in the context of feeding those outputs into the USB and coax digital inputs of my Benchmark DAC3 HGC digital-to-analog converter. The DAC3 in turn now feeds the new Benchmark HPA4 Line/Headphone Amplifier, which in turn feeds my pair of bridged-mono Benchmark AHB2 amps, into my Harbeth M40.2 speakers. Alternatively, the HPA4 feeds my Audeze LCD-4 headphones. The cables downstream from the Benchmark DAC3 DAC are Benchmark Studio&Stage StarQuad XLR balanced analog cables and Benchmark Speaker Cable NL2 to Locking Banana. Only the cables between the Aries G2 and the DAC3 HGC were varied in this test. The cables between the Aries G2 and the DAC3 HGC used for this comparison are the Neo Oyaide Elec D+ Class A Rev2 USB cable and the Benchmark RCA to RCA Coaxial Cable for Digital Audio, the two cables I currently usually use in these applications. I have left both the USB and coaxial cable connections in place and undisturbed for more than a week after treating the connections with Caig Deoxit Gold G100L (the brush-on variety). I am now confident that all the equipment and connections are now broken/burned in and that the sonics have stabilized.

Since the USB and Digital outputs of the Aries G2 cannot be simultaneously operated, rapid A/B switching is not possible. It takes about 30 seconds to deactivate one connection and initiate the other, during which time the "Loading . . ." symbol shows on the Aries G2 screen. I've tried comparisons of the sound of various internet radio stations (so the signal is constant, but not the program material), plus the sound of the same Tidal track played with both connections (same signal and content, just different connections). My findings are fairly consistent with each of these methods.

Fortunately, the system gains seems roughly equivalent for each signal path. Certainly the sound is quite similar. And both signal paths sound mighty fine indeed. However, in this familiar system, I believe I could reliably choose each in a blind test, at least in a back-to-back comparison using most any program material because of a few consistent characteristics of each connection path in my system relative to each other.

Relative to the coax digital presentation, the USB presentation is a bit wider but a bit shallower in terms of soundstage. Also, images of individual instruments/performers are a bit more rounded with the coaxial connection.

In addition, I find the tonal characteristics of the coax more natural in the midrange (instruments sound more like themselves via the coax), the coax bass is a bit stronger/fuller while the USB bass is a bit tighter, and the coax highs (especially massed strings) are smoother sounding in the top octaves.

The USB presentation is more "open" sounding, as in yet more detached from the true speaker locations and also a bit more enveloping. The coax presentation is a bit more laid-back and "out there" as opposed to enveloping of the listening position. These impressions are probably related to the wider/shallower stage of the USB connection path, as well as the bit thinner, more-high-frequency-tilted tonal balance of the USB connection.

Finally, in the area of sounding "relaxed" and free of any digital artifacts, both are great. But the coax seems more "analog" in the tonal balance sense.

In sum, I find the coax connection to be the overall sonic winner. It just make the music sound more natural, more real.

I want to be clear that this is not meant to be a dogmatic pronouncement about the relative sonic merits of USB versus coaxial digital connections. This is just the way I hear it in the context of my system. There is a lot of discussion online as to USB vs. digital SPDIF signal paths. The best discussions seem to indicate that the comparison is quite system and component specific, with either type of connection capable of sounding better in particular circumstances and implementations. A common thread in most of the reasonable discussions seems to be that it all depends on the relative clock quality of the source device versus the DAC. USB connections are basically timed by the source, while SPDIF connections are reclocked by the DAC since SPDIF embeds the clock signal into the audio signal.
 
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tmallin

WBF Technical Expert
May 19, 2010
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MQA Tidal Master Streaming Courtesy of Aries G2 + Oppo UDP-205

Despite Oppo's decision to discontinue production of its great disc players, support for those players is continuing. With the latest firmware upgrades, the Oppo UDP-205 will now decode MQA files, including those streamed via Tidal Masters. You use the Oppo's USB audio input to do this. See the instructions for this firmware upgrade under the "Software Driver for USB DAC" and "USB DAC Firmware" at Oppo's site here.

While this new functionality was announced about a year ago, it was only in June 2018, after the announcement that Oppo would be ceasing production, that this functionality was fully enabled. Thanks to Oppo for continuing to upgrade its last player even after its announced exit from the disc player manufacturing market! There is still a chance you can get a new UDP-205 from Oppo, however. See https://www.oppodigital.com/blu-ray-...lastbatch.aspx for the currently projected late-August date for availability of more players.

I just upgraded my UDP-205 player's firmware to handle Tidal MQA Masters this past week. In my set up, I am streaming Tidal MQA Master files from my Auralic G2 from the Auralic's USB output to the Oppo's USB digital audio input. I have the Auralic set for its MQA bypass mode, which lets the MQA signal pass downstream from the Auralic without applying Auralic's proprietary MQA decoding to the signal. I let the Oppo DAC do the MQA decoding and then feed the Oppo's balanced analog outputs to the XLR analog input 2 of my new Benchmark HPA4 line/headphone amp. Thus, in this set up I am bypassing my Benchmark DAC3 HGC since it is a non-MQA DAC. Doing it this way, I can do fairly quick comparisons of the MQA and FLAC versions of the same track via selecting the proper version (MQA or FLAC) of each album in the Auralic's Lightning DS software on my iPhone X. I leave the HPA4's volume control untouched during my comparison of MQA vs. FLAC versions of particular music.

Yes, the Oppo does seem to decode MQA without a hitch. See Archimago's comment here.

The differences I'm hearing between the MQA version and the FLAC version heard via this let-the-Oppo-do-the-MQA-decoding setup are quite similar to what I heard using the Auralic G2's proprietary MQA decoding. I definitely hear differences between the MQA and FLAC versions, but I'm increasingly at a loss to understand the strong sonic preference of some for the MQA version. In fact, I'm becoming ever more convinced that in most reasonable comparisons the FLAC clearly has superior sonics.

There is a problem with such comparisons in that clearly some of the MQA material is not taken from the same master as the FLAC version. In some extreme cases (e.g., the track "The Revealing Science of God" from Tales From Topographic Oceans by Yes), the track timings are different and whole parts of a song are just missing in the MQA version. I've tried not to be influenced by such obvious differences. But lacking the means to do a spectral analysis of each version, there is always the possibility that differences I hear may be attributable to different mixings or masterings, rather than MQA encoding vs. FLAC. I've tried to only compare those versions which are dated the same in the Lightning DS database.

Nevertheless, with this possible apples-to-apples caveat in mind, here's what I hear: The MQA versions sound "tidier" as in having the instruments and vocals a bit more organized laterally across the stage. They also sound a bit cleaner, as in lower in certain distortion. They are generally a bit more relaxed and easier on the ears.

But some of this relaxed/easy-on-the-ears impression is surely due to MQA's shortcomings. Compared the the FLAC versions, the MQA versions are also overall quieter and quite significantly dynamically compressed sounding. Loud parts are not as loud and dynamic swells are quite a bit more restrained. The MQA version stage width is also narrower and not as deep, with MQA usually feeling less enveloping. The MQA bass is thumpier (more one-note), but not as powerful. And also as in my prior comparisons using the Aries G2 proprietary decoding, the highs just don't sound right: the initial transient of such instruments as the stick noise on struck cymbals, tambourines, and trumpets gets truncated, sometimes to being just about totally missing.

In general, I would describe MQA-processed music as overly polite sounding. There is definitely dynamic compression going on, as if someone believes that the dynamic envelope just shouldn't exceed a certain package size. Some may like this effect. But for those who know the full resonance of a grand piano, for example, the MQA version sounds a bit toy-like through speakers like the Harbeth M40.2 which can reproduce a piano in its full glory. This compression robs the music of the excitement and startle factor it can have--it should have!--on a great system.

In addition, the FLAC version reveals the true complexity of the tonality of voices and instruments. There is far more of this detailed richness in the FLAC versions. The MQA versions sound somehow stripped of the small details of intonation which are present from moment to moment in the sound of real instruments. MQA "simplifies" the sounds of all that is reproduced, increasing the artificiality of the reproduction. While MQA versions may sound "clearer" in a way, this clarity is partly because of this simplification, the lack of the true richness and complexity of the real sound of voices and instruments. So it's not only the dynamics that are compressed by MQA in both the macro and micro senses, it's the tonal palette.

Don't get me wrong. MQA playback does not sound terrible or even off-putting in any way. Such recordings sound very clean and low in obvious distortion. It's just that in direct comparison with the lossless "real" FLAC thing (even 16/44), the MQA version sounds just a bit or more washed out and synthetic. It lacks raw intensity and surging power when called for. Compressed and polite, lacking true detail and tonal complexity. Not up to 16/44 FLAC standards, much less something like a 24/172 HRx recording by Reference Recordings.
 
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bmichels

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Nov 30, 2012
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I have recently been experimenting with the relative sonics of the Auralic Aries G2's USB output versus its coaxial digital output. .... [/COLOR]

great infos ! thanks. Why did't you tried the AES/EBU output of the Auralic ? You might had even better results than with the Coax ? what do you think ?
 

tmallin

WBF Technical Expert
May 19, 2010
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My DAC, the Benchmark DAC3 HGC, does not have an AES/EBU input. Benchmark does not believe such are superior. See Benchmark's discussion in the section titled "The Myth of 'Balanced' AES Connections" here. In short, Benchmark says:

"The AES initially gave us a standard (AES3) for digital audio using XLR connectors and special 110-Ohm cable. But, it has been shown that coaxial cables provide better signal integrity over long transmission distances. Coaxial cables support cable runs as long as 1000 m while the 110-Ohm cable is limited to about 100 m. The video industry created a separate standard for digital audio over 75-ohm coax. As a result, the AES3 standard was updated to include digital audio over coaxial cable.

"Given a choice, we would strongly recommend using unbalanced coaxial digital connections instead of balanced XLR digital connections when making long cable runs (over about 50 m). Some professional products use BNC coaxial connectors instead of RCA connectors. Consumer and professional digital audio formats are designed to talk to each other. Simple adapters can be used to connect RCA and BNC connectors. Transformers are required when adapting between balanced and unbalanced digital audio connectors."


Now, Benchmark does in fact make a DAC3 with an AES/EBU input. It is the DAC3 DX. I once owned one of those as well. However, I find the HGC version sonically a bit superior, probably because it sums all four Sabre 9028 chips for its output, while the main output of the DX only sums three of the four, leaving the fourth for an Auxilliary output. The summing of all four units produces yet lower distortion and noise. See my discussion here.


 

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