Auralic Altair – Streaming DAC Review

Auralic Altair – Streaming DAC Review


This is my review of the really very nice Auralic Altair.  The Auralic Altair is a high end DAC and wireless streamer in one place.  The Altair features 15 different input sources including USB, Network Sharing and it can have an internal music storage hard drive (SSD) which is an option.  Key to my enjoyment of this absolutely brilliant streamer has been two things, firstly, Qobuz which is absolutely superb though new to me to be honest (although it does not feature ‘Heartbreaker’ by Ryan Adams).  The second thing that has enhanced my enjoyment of this Auralic Altair has been its pairing with the awesome Rega Brio.  I first came about this combination at the Bristol HiFi Show, earlier this year.

Design

Auralic AltairPrimarily, I am looking at the streaming section of this Altair and, having been given a short trial with Qobuz, this is very pleasant experience indeed.  The Auralic Altair is also a DAC so can take a USB B from a laptop, for example, or from a straight USB stick, or of course a digital feed from a CD Transport.  So the Altair is very flexible indeed, as the spec below testifies.

The Auralic Altair does present variable analogue output, including balanced output, so it has a pre amplifier capability.  I have been using it flat out (unity output) to an integrated amplifier, for example a Rega Brio and a Roksan K2.  Additionally I have been using the variable output to a power amplifier (in this case balanced cables to a T+A AMP 8).

The 15 input sources into the Auralic Altair include streaming from Network Shared Folders, USB drive, Internal music storage (optional), uPnP/DLNA media server, TIDAL and Qobuz streaming, Internet Radio, AirPlay, Bluetooth, Songcast and RoonReady. The rest of digital inputs are AES/EBU, Coaxial, Toslink, USB device to computer, 2 USB host for storage and external DAC.

Auralic Altair – Specification

From the Auralic Site.

Frequency Response
20 – 20KHz, +/- 0.1dB

THD+N
<0.0003%, 20Hz-20KHz at 0dBFS

Dynamic Range
124dB, 20Hz-20KHz, A-weighted

Streaming Inputs
Network shared folder
USB Drive
Internal Music Storage
uPnP/DLNA Media Server
TIDAL and Qobuz streaming
Internet Radio
AirPlay
Bluetooth
Songcast

Digital Inputs
1*AES/EBU
1*Coaxial
1*Toslink
1*USB device to computer
2*USB host to storage and DAC
1*RJ45 Gigabit Ethernet
1*802.11b/g/n/ac Tri-Band WiFi

Analog Outputs
1*Balanced XLR(output impedance 10ohm)
1*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

Quality

Auralic AltairThe Auralic Altair is beautifully presented.  With a soft touch feel, my review sample is all black, which makes for a very sleek look that sits very nicely on the table.  The back is very simply presented and there is plenty of room for fat fingers.  There are RCA/Phone style output and balanced/XLR outputs.

App Quality

Auralic AltairOne of the key advantages the Auralic Altair has is that the iOS software App is first class, and I mean at least as good as the Naim App which for me is my benchmark as it is so user friendly.  It is called Lightning DS.  The interface is excellent to both Tidal and Qobuz.  My Tidal Playlists have appeared seamlessly so I am very happy about that.  Qobuz is new for me but I really like it.  It is a bit more Classical where Tidal is RnB/Beyonce(!).  Additionally I have pulled my Networked Music from a WD MyCloud, which is crude but functional as it is full of lossless music for my review purposes.  I’m not the sort of person these days who is bothered about artwork these days so the lack of artwork is something I can’t be bothered with but I’m sure it is fixable with proper tags and stuff.   I’ve used a USB full of DSD files and this works fine (and sounds crystal).

I particularly like confirming visually what quality I am listening to and the Lightning DS App displays very clearly the bit depth and sample rate which I find particularly satisfying in this App.  

The only point to note is the App is iOS only, so iPad or iPhone.  There is no Android App.  This is a problem for me though not a big deal, my iPad is first generation knackered thing that does seem to happy shuffling data packs so no problem.

Performance

Qobuz v Tidal

I thought it was worth reflecting on the performance of Qobuz which I am enjoying a great deal.  It appears from a bit of digging I have a ‘Sublime’ trial so I am getting 24 bit downloads regularly, undoubtedly reflecting in the quality of the sound I am listening to.  If you’re a Ryan Adams loyalist (which I am) I note Qobuz has a bit of catching up to do, the is no copy of ‘Heartbreaker’, or the ‘Life after Deaf’ recordings, or ‘Carnegie Hall’ to be seen, but I will live.  However, the beauty of the Lightning App is that compiling Playlists across platforms (Qobuz/Tidal/Networked) is as simple as you would want it, though I accept subscribing to Qobuz and Tidal may be a stretch for most.  I am bound to say that not seeing Beyonce’s Lemonade or Drake every time I open my streaming App is quite refreshing.

In respect of content, Qobuz does seem to have much of Tidal’s content, Harry Styles is obviously prominent on both so they are both up to speed with latest releases.

Control – Lightning DS

I am finding the Lightning DS App to be very flexible and enjoyable indeed.  As I have intimated it is at least as good as the Naim Apps and it works well, even with my knackered first Gen iPad.   One feature I have noted is that it does fade in and fade out tracks neatly if you are flicking tracks around.  Not something that is done as well as this elsewhere.

Control – Remote

The remote is fine, nothing special, but controls volume and skips playlists and tracks nicely.

 Headphone Output

Output to a pair of Focal Spirit Classic is nice enough.  The Headphones are pretty good and easy on the ear, so the sound is familiar.  There is plenty of detail, emphasising the 24 bit catalogue from Qobuz.  The Qobuz copy of ‘Gold’ is 98kHz, 24 bit and it is beautiful.  I’ve has a brief listen with the slightly higher spec Oppo PM-2s and the headphone output is very satisfactory indeed.

With the Brio

My initial set-up and listening of the Auralic Altair was with the excellent 600 quid Rega Brio.  The amplifier is very impressive as my recent review testifies.  The Auralic is given depth and finesse with the Brio, there is plenty of detail and power and the overall sound, with my trusty B&W CM7s is very good indeed.  In my view the mid ranges come across beautifully and here is rhythm, a broad soundstage and bags of detail on the ear.

Switching to AirPlay was seamless and just requires you to hit the AirPlay button on the iPad

The Altair has Apple AirPlay so I went to YouTube to play Radiohead’s acoustic version of The Numbers, this is must listen and I think I have probably watched this a hundred times.  Switching to AirPlay was seamless and just requires you to hit the AirPlay button on the iPad.  The playback, with the tress behind the music gets me every time.

With the Roksan K2

As the Brio had to go back to Rega, I hooked up the Altair to my (2009) Roksan Kandy K2.  There is a bit more power and shove from the K2 but is lacks finesse in my view.  Much of the warmth from the Brio is lost, though the detail and soundstage are still evident and the sound still bounces along.  I suppose really an amplifier should be quite neutral in terms of delivering the analogue signal to the speakers but the K2 is just more bang and less subtlety.   I recall the K3 being a step up in terms of rhythm and control and maybe it is time to call time on my K2.

With the T+A Amp 8 on XLR Cables

Since I had lost a little bit of enjoyment by switching to the K2, I though I would plug in the Auralic Altair to the T+A AMP 8, which is simply a power amplifier so I was using the line level controls on the Auralic to manage volume.  The AMP 8 takes XLR cables and since the Altair has XLR out it was a simple matter to hook the two up.  The AMP 8 has a very smooth 80W per channel nominal output and the matchup with the Altair is fabulous,  Huge detail is pulled through and the full range of the Altair’s qualities is easier to hear.  Tonally, the bass frequencies are cleaner with the AMP 8 compared to the Brio (remember though this a power amplifier costing four times as much).  The soundstage from the Altair is clearer, wider and richer.  It really is a lovely sound.  The excitement and tingle were back, with no loss of resolution from Qobuz’s excellent sources.

I do have a unique opportunity to compare the DAC 8 to the DAC in the Altair and I will look at this if I am able.  The DAC 8  is similar in price to the Altair.  I’ve had the DAC 8 AMP 8 with XLR for a while now and it is certainly a nice combination but this Altair is very good indeed.

Overall

I would not hesitate to recommend this streaming DAC, I am able to do because of the excellent sound and the quality of the App

An amplifier should really be neutral, simply presenting the source to the speakers without interfering with the sound.   But it doesn’t really work like that, as we know.  However, I have found the AMP 8 and the Brio to be particularly engaging with this excellent streamer.  As a steamer, I have found the Altair to absolutely excellent in all respects.  The DAC output is clean, wide in presentation and very detailed.  No energy is lost from the source recordings, whether they be Tidal, Qobuz or DSD or bit perfect networked files.

The Auralic Altair is wonderfully detailed and easy to control.  It’s most impressive set-up with me was with the AMP 8 with XLR.  I would not hesitate to recommend this streaming DAC, I am able to do because of the excellent sound and the quality of the App.

The Auralic Altair is £1749 RRP.  Full details and a distributor list is on the site here.

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