Moreover, it has the capability to play music wirelessly through Bluetooth or Wi-Fi and can be conveniently controlled through a smartphone or computer. At its retail price of $1899, no doubt this is an exciting product that could instantly modernize an existing traditional music system with its digital-processing capabilities. The review should highlight more detailed characteristics of the product.
AURALiC ALTAIR Wireless Streaming DAC
- DAC with wireless Bluetooth and network-streaming capabilities.
- High resolution DSD/DXD audio formats up to 32Bit/384K through Wi-Fi.
- Powerful proprietary hardware platform for high-speed digital audio processing.
- Streaming control via app on smartphone or tablet.
- Great built quality and finish.
- Excellent sonic performance with TIDAL and AirPlay streaming services.
AURALiC, founded in 2009, is a relatively young audio company based in Beijing, China. As can be seen from its website www.auralic.com, the company’s mission is to create high-quality audio equipment utilizing modern science and technology for faithful music reproduction. The founders of the company are Xuanqian Wang, an accomplished pianist who went on to a successful career as an electrical and recording engineer, and Yuan Wang, who is passionate about music and experienced in the precision instrument manufacturing. Their collaboration, which is formed based on their passion for music as the common ground, lead to the establishment of AURALiC, where their complimentary skill sets converge.
20 – 20KHz, +/- 0.1dB*
<0.0003%, 20Hz-20KHz at 0dBFS
124dB, 20Hz-20KHz, A-weighted
ALTAIR Streaming Inputs:
Network shared folder, USB Drive, Internal Music Storage**, uPnP/DLNA Media Server, TIDAL and Qobuz streaming, Internet Radio, AirPlay, Bluetooth, Songcast
1x AES/EBU, 1x Coaxial, 1x Toslink, 1*USB device to computer, 2x USB host to storage and DAC, 1x RJ45 Gigabit Ethernet, 1x 802.11b/g/n/ac Tri-Band Wi-Fi
1x Balanced XLR (output impedance 10ohm), 1x Single-ended RCA(output impedance 50ohm), 1*6.35mm headphone Jack (output impedance 5ohm)
Supported File Formats:
AAC, AIFF, ALAC, APE, DIFF, DSF, FLAC, MP3, OGG, WAV, WV, and WMA
Supported Digital Formats:
All PCM from 44.1KS/s to 384KS/s in 32Bit, DSD64, DSD128, DSD256
4Vrms at 0dBFS (XLR), 2Vrms at 0dBFS (RCA)
AURALiC Lightning DS for iOS, AURALiC RC-1 remote control, OpenHome compatible control software, uPnP compatible control software, Roon
Sleep: <10W, Playback: 35W at max
2.6”H x 13”W x 9”D (6.5cm x 33cm x 23cm)
Matte Black / Matte Silver
7.0 pounds (3.2kg)
AURALiC ALTAIR MSRP:
AURALiC, ALTAIR, DAC, DAC Reviews, ALTAIR Streaming DAC, Wireless Streaming, DACs Reviews 2017
The company’s dedication to science and technology is obvious from the type of products that it designs and manufactures, none of which belong to a conventional audio components category. Considering its young age, it is quite an achievement for AURALiC to successfully produce a number of innovative music streaming and audio components that have achieved critical acclaim worldwide. With teams in China, Europe, and the United States, AURALiC seems determined to expand and further cement its reputation with hi-fi enthusiasts around the globe. In the US, the distribution of the company’s products is handled by its subsidiary, AURALiC North America Inc.
The ALTAIR, which is reviewed here, was introduced last year and started to become available in the market in the second half of the year. Xuanqian Wang, who is now AURALiC’s President and CEO, introduced the ALTAIR as both a high-quality streamer and DAC. The ALTAIR is developed based on AURALiC’s success in creating high-quality digital audio processors like the and high-resolution streaming technology (Lightning DS app and software environment). With the price tag of $1899, the ALTAIR is not exactly cheap, but it is not terribly expensive considering it is a multi-function audio component that is loaded with many goodies.
The ALTAIR was shipped in a relatively compact box. The product itself is relatively petite, measuring a little over a foot in width, 2.6” in height, and 9” in depth. It comes in matte black or matte silver finish. The review unit has a matte silver finish, which enhances its overall simple but elegant design. Along with the built-quality and overall good-looks, this is the kind of audio component that I would proudly display for everybody to see.
The front panel of the ALTAIR is as clean as it gets, occupied only by a relatively large display window, a rotary volume knob (which can also be pressed for powering on or putting the unit to sleep), an LED indicator, and a headphone output socket. The ALTAIR does not contain a headphone amplifier, but my testing shows it has sufficient gain to drive typical headphone loads. The information shown on the display has good-size yellow letters/symbols which are easy to read, even from 10-12 ft away. Most input-output connectors of the unit are located on the rear panel. These include AES/EBU, coaxial, toslink, USB, Ethernet inputs and a pair of antenna sockets for attaching the supplied Bluetooth and Wi-Fi antennas. The outputs include a pair of stereo balanced XLR and single-ended RCA.
The ALTAIR is supplied with a remote control.
Under its hood, the ALTAIR packs high-quality components capable of accommodating the latest technological advances in digital audio processing. The ALTAIR is powered by AURALiC’s proprietary Tesla G1 hardware platform, which includes; the Quad-Core Coretex A9 processor running at 1 GHz, 1 GB DDR3 of onboard memory, and 4 GB system storage to give the processing speed of 25,000 Mips. This is a platform that has more than enough capability to decode even the latest high-resolution audio formats, including AIFF, DSF, and FLAC. For its digital to analog conversion, the ALTAIR uses the Sabre 9018K2M chip, which is capable of handling up to 32 bit/384 kHz processing rate. The ALTAIR is also equipped with an incredibly precise, dual-frequency 120Femto Master Clock to reduce jitter and improve precision. A full linear power supply (AURALiC Purer-Power) is used to further reduce the DC current noise. Purer-Power also includes a specially designed transformer and unique wiring to minimize vibration and noise.
The initial device setup of the ALTAIR is relatively quick and can be done by accessing its menu system using the rotary knob on the front panel or using the remote control. I used a combination of both during the setup. Its menu system is simple and intuitive. I consulted the manual only sparingly, mostly to understand the meaning of some uncommon terminologies. For the most parts, the manual is brief and clear, however I do feel that the part covering the use and setup of the Lightning DS software and app, which only runs on iOS platform, needs to be expanded. I guess, AURALiC decides to only cover this topic briefly in the manual as the software and app situations are always fluid, with updates and new features continuously being developed. AURALiC does maintain an online support system for products on its website, which contain the latest information and can serve as an expanded version of the manual. More detailed information about the Lightning DS app and server can be found there.
At the time of this writing, the setup for connecting the ALTAIR to the home network can only be done using iOS family of devices, such as Apple iPhone or iPad, through the Lightning DS app, which can be downloaded for free from the App Store. In a household with no Apple user, this could be an issue. I was informed, however, that the Android version of the app is in the works and should be available soon. This would definitely eliminate the issue above and should widen the potential customer base of the product.
Once the initial network setup has been completed, including the incorporation of the local network server for the music library, the control of the network streaming operation is not limited to only the Lightning DS app. Other compatible third party OpenHome/UPnP control software in other operating system can also be used. That is exactly what I did during this review. As I am not an iOS user, I borrowed my son’s iPhone for the initial network and streaming server setup, and for the occasional streaming playback control. Most of the time, however, I used an Android app called BubbleUPnP for streaming control. Just like with the Lightning DS app, with the BubbleUPnP I could access my local network-accessed storage device as well as cloud music servers such as TIDAL, Spotify, etc. I found that this app works very well with the ALTAIR for the streaming control. It was a good alternative to Lightning DS for Android users. However, Lightning DS still has some advantages over BubbleUPnP. The changing and re-indexing of a network server, for example, can only be done through the Lightning DS. BubbleUPnP has no problem in handling DSD/DXD music streaming, however I found out that the Lightning DS can generally access higher-resolution FLAC files inside the MQA containers than the BubbleUPnP. The user interface of both Lightning DS and BubbleUPnP apps is fair. They are not difficult to use, but require a bit of familiarization. The ALTAIR is also Roon ready so it can be set up to work with Roon software environment.
The ALTAIR is equipped with volume control and thus, it can serve as a digital preamplifier to be connected directly to a power amplifier. However, if you prefer to control the volume from your existing analog preamplifier, then you can connect the stereo output of the ALTAIR to one of the stereo inputs of the preamplifier. I used this configuration during the review, where the ALTAIR served as one of the inputs to my Krell KAV-280p preamplifier. In such setup, since the volume is controlled by the preamplifier, the volume of the ALTAIR is fixed at its maximum (100%). In this setting, the ALTAIR has a unity gain. I would still prefer to have a fixed/variable volume switch provided on the unit. I have my particular reason for this suggestion, but I think it covers a wider group of users. In my system, the Krell preamplifier’s volume remote code was the same as the ALTAIR’s, and thus, changing the volume of the Krell preamplifier using its remote control also changing the volume of the ALTAIR. Although, the ALTAIR allows changing the volume remote code in its setting, still I think the problem can be avoided completely with the provision of a fixed/variable volume switch. The downstream components used in the review were the Bel Canto EVO200.2 and S300 to drive the NHT Evolution T6 speakers. Bel Canto DAC2.5 was also used for comparison.
Various digital music files from various sources were utilized in the evaluation, including CD music files read through the Bel Canto CD3t CD transport, compressed/lossless music files (mp3, AAC, wav, etc.) from a USB hard disk, mp3 files through Bluetooth, and compressed/high-resolution music files through network streaming from local networked storage and from online server (TIDAL). When a drive is mounted to the ALTAIR, whether though the USB input or through the local area network, the Lightning DS app will automatically index the music files it recognizes in its Library. This is a useful feature that makes the music search easier during the operation.
The ALTAIR is relatively easy to operate. All its functions can be accessed using its remote control, including its input selection. In general, switching among wired inputs occurs almost instantaneously. The only input that takes about 10 to 15 seconds to lock in is the one labeled as IPOD, which requires the unit to gain network access (via Wi-Fi or Ethernet connection). Only in this input mode, the ALTAIR will be visible through the mobile app for the Bluetooth and network streaming access. During the review, the only glitch I experienced was the occasional freezing of the app in the middle of the streaming playback, which could easily be fixed by restarting the app. Besides that, the rest of the device’s operation went smoothly.
As a conventional DAC, the ALTAIR is a competent performer. Moreover, it is equipped with Flexible Filter Modes in the form of four filters that can be used to slightly tailor the unit’s sonic attributes to your preference. Mind you, these filters are not gimmicks to create digital sound effects, but to enhance the DAC sonic performance. In fact, these filters are developed based on extensive research correlating objective data with subjective sonic attributes. The implementation of a filter to further process the data in a DAC is not uncommon, however most DACs only include a single unchangeable filtering scheme and therefore, it is not commonly mentioned in the list of features. In this regard, AURALiC goes further than the competition. I think AURALiC realizes that there is no absolute in this business and thus, it gives flexibility for customers to apply the appropriate filter to achieve their subjective bests.
The four filter modes included in the ALTAIR are precise (default), dynamic, balance, and smooth. According to the manual, the precise mode maximizes in-band ripple and out-band attenuation performance to produce the flattest frequency response that is well extended into treble range. The dynamic mode exhibits a gentler roll-off at the high frequency range for great in-band performance. The balance mode is to minimize the pre-ringing and echo effects to generate very smooth sound. And finally the smooth filter eliminates the pre-ringing and further reduces echo effects for best overall musical enjoyment. I tried all these filters to evaluate its suitability for various kinds of music, and I found the AURALiC’s manual was quite accurate in its recommended use of the filters. For example, the manual mentions that the precise mode is best for the playback of orchestral music, the dynamic mode is best for playback of jazz or chamber music, and the balance mode is best for vocal and pop music. If you are like me and not inclined to always make a change to the filter setting, you can safely leave it at precise or smooth, which seems to be quite neutral, albeit with slightly different sonic characteristics, to any kind of music. My favorite is the smooth filter, which to my ears produces the most analog sound of the digital sources fed in to the ALTAIR.
The ALTAIR produces nicely balanced sounds across the whole audible frequency spectrum. The treble response seems to be the one affected the most by the filters, but regardless of the filter mode selected, treble extension is generally good. With some recordings, a slight edginess in treble is noticeable in the dynamics or precise filter modes. The bass response is solid and articulate. After a few critical listening sessions, I came away impressed with the ALTAIR’s ability to flesh out the details in the music and present it in a three-dimensional realistic soundstage.
Some wonderful tracks from Norah Jones’ Featuring Norah Jones (2010) album exemplify these very aspects. In her duet track Baby, It’s Cold Outside with Willie Nelson, the ALTAIR portrays a realistic placement of the singers and musicians on the small stage with a believable sense of air around them.
I could see the singers occupy their own off-center spaces with no overcrowding, with Norah Jones was portrayed to the left while Willie Nelson was to the right of the center of the stage. Each musician playing the instrument had his/her own unmistakably place on the stage. That was the kind of soundstaging that I came to expect from a high-end audio component and the ALTAIR delivered it convincingly.
The ALTAIR gracefully handles lower-resolution signals such as the ones from mp3 tracks. In my opinion, the mp3 music tracks that I streamed from my smart phone via Bluetooth through the ALTAIR sounded better than I could remember when streamed through some other devices that I have tried in my system. Somehow, the ALTAIR made these mp3 tracks sound almost as good as their CD recordings.
All the things I mentioned previously are nice, but you can only uncover the true power of the ALTAIR when you stream high-definition audio signals through it. In fact, AURALiC was the first company implementing DSD/DXD multi-device streaming capability into its products through its Lightning DS software environment, which uses an existing LAN/Wi-Fi to create a dedicated music streaming network capable of delivering the highest current resolution musical formats available, up to DSD256 (format used in SACD) and PCM 32bit/384kHz. It is practically head and shoulders above the competition in this regard. The closest competition of such a system that I know of is the BluOS by Bluesound, which, at the moment, does not stream DSD/DXD, but it can decode high-resolution MQA files. Currently, Lightning DS does not decode MQA, but when presented with an MQA-encoded file, it will play the FLAC file inside the MQA container, which is often at redbook CD (16bit/44.1kHz) or higher resolution. When I played TIDAL Masters through the Lightning DS, I noticed that I usually got the 24bit/48kHz or 24-bit/96kHz version of the music files.
The DSD/DXD music files are typically much larger in size than the regular CD music files, so depending on the speed of the network connection, a slight delay can be noticed in accessing and buffering the DSD/DXD music files as compared to streaming CD or lower-resolution music files, which usually play immediately with almost no delay. In my Wi-Fi network speed of about 30 MB/s, typically there is a 2-3 seconds delay to access the first DSD/DXD track in the playlist using the ALTAIR and the Lightning DS app. This is not a big deal if you ask me. The app in general is very good and quick in recognizing the file format played and locking in.
I am no longer a skeptic when it comes to what these high-resolution formats can bring to the music-listening enjoyment, and hence I applaud the ALTAIR’s streaming capability. At the time of this writing, there is no streaming subscription service that offer DSD/DXD in the US. The closest you can get is TIDAL Masters, which offers MQA files (assessed as FLAC files at lower resolution through Lightning DS). DSD music files, however, can be downloaded and purchased through some online music stores. Besides using this route to evaluate the ALTAIR’s DSD/DXD streaming capability, I also downloaded some DSD or DXD samplers from various internet sources. To my opinion, the high-resolution music format is capable of producing more open and transparent sounds, which elevates my listening pleasure. And that was exactly what I got when I streamed high-resolution music files through the AURALiC ALTAIR.
The vocal purity of the Norwegian soprano, Tone Wik, in the song Vivaldi Cantata Rv 679, recorded in 352kHz DXD format from the album Bellezza Crudel (2008), was displayed so vividly streamed through the ALTAIR. The sound of the accompanying instruments were also full of clarity and details. I did not usually listen to this kind of music, but somehow the ALTAIR conveys convincingly the high-degree of transparency and details in the recording, allowing the emotion in the music to hold me captive.
So, here is my final take on the ALTAIR. When used as a conventional DAC, the performance of the ALTAIR should be competitive to other DACs in the $2000 price range. In my listening test, the ALTAIR’s sonic performance was neck-to-neck with my Bel Canto DAC2.5 (which carried about $100 higher retail price than the ALTAIR). However, the ALTAIR has the advantage of the four filter modes that can be used to tailor the sound to better match your musical taste. Couple those with the ALTAIR’s ability to perform high-resolution music streaming, it is clear that this product is a winner. The high-resolution network music streaming makes the ALTAIR a unique product in the audio world (at least for now), and thus it has no clear challenger.
THE AURALIC ALTAIR is well worth its $1899 price tag: a technologically advanced dac and high-resolution dsd/dxd network streamer with excellent sound and build quality.
- Elegant look with great built quality and finish
- Excellent DAC performance with useful flexible filter modes
- Very capable Bluetooth and high-resolution DSD/DXD streamer
- Versatile Lightning DS app
- Wonderful sonic performance with any digital music format
- Lightning DS app in Android and Windows operating systems
- Fixed/variable volume control switch
The AURALiC ALTAIR is a product that demonstrates that its beauty is not only skin deep. This elegant looking and nicely built product is equipped with DSD/DXD high-resolution network-streaming capability that is ahead of its competition. Its performance as a stand-alone DAC is also extraordinary. The ALTAIR really represents the modern hi-fi product in its true form; implementing the latest scientific and technological digital signal processing and advanced features and ultimately a wonderful sonic performance. All these are definitely more than sufficient to justify its price tag. Highly recommended!