AURALiC Altair G1 Streaming DAC Preamplifier Review
David Price lives the stream with this compact, affordable and stylish network music player and DAC…
Altair G1 Network Streaming DAC / Preamplifier
AUD $3,795 RRP | NZD $3,995 RRP
Hi-fi has come a long way in the past twenty years. At the turn of the new millennium, I remember being wowed by a DAC with multiple inputs and a volume control for under $4,000. Then ten or so years later, I thought a $10,000 network streamer with DAC functionality was impressive value for money. Now in 2020 however, streaming DAC preamps are ten a penny, so products like AURALiC’s new $3,795 Altair G1 have to be more than good, just to succeed…
AURALiC Europe’s Richard Bates describes it as “an all-encompassing digital source”, with much of the functionality of the company’s higher-end products but at an affordable price. Interestingly, he says it’s “an additional avenue for the discovery and enjoyment of music, not a destructive technology that leaves physical media behind”. Basically then, it does pretty much everything except play vinyl records – this means streaming and DAC functionality, Bluetooth and local library access and control, and the ability to listen to any of today’s subscription major music services. With my Western Digital NAS drive full of album rips, I found myself playing more music than I have for a long time.
Critically though, the company hasn’t sacrificed style at the altar of convenience. Indeed, the G1 is one of the most attractive such products around and gives nothing away in terms of build quality to any price rival. I rather like its compact, non-standard physical dimensions (340x320x80mm) and love the swish matt black anodised aluminium casework and excellent, high-resolution 100mm wide, 300ppi colour display.
The single silver metal control knob takes care of pretty much everything, working in conjunction with the display. So this isn’t one of the many digital products that needn’t become unusable in fifteen years if the app doesn’t work on the hardware of the day. It has easily downloadable firmware updates, and there’s a Lightning DS control app for iOS users; Android users can run third party apps like BubbleUPnP. Thanks to the knob’s positive, butter-smooth action, this product feels great to use.
It proved easier than many rivals to set-up, thanks to the ability to create a temporary local network and configure it with a web browser, if you so wish. This is a lot less fiddly than basic manual menu set-up in my opinion, as I was able to input my Wi-Fi password in double-quick time via my MacBook Pro’s keyboard. The unit was soon online wirelessly, so I was able to do a software update, with the total set-up period taking well under ten minutes. It also hooks up via Ethernet if you’re lucky enough to have wired connection to hand – and sounds fractionally better this way, too.
Round the back, I connected the G1 up to the coaxial digital output from my Sony Blu-ray player to use as a CD transport, but there are also TOSLINK, AES/EBU, HDD and USB HS digital inputs should you so wish, plus two Wi-Fi antennae and an Ethernet socket. You hook it up to your amplifier via either the single-ended RCA and balanced XLR audio outputs; the latter sound a little punchier and spatially more expansive. Also included is a front panel stereo headphone output.
The Altair G1 is based on the company’s own Lightning DS streaming platform, and this is delivered by a Tesla G2 processor. This takes care of all number crunching activities – serving, streaming, decoding or playback, the latter in conjunction with an ESS Sabre 9038Q2M DAC chip which offers up to 32-bit, 384kHz PCM and DSD512, with DSD in DoP format and native DSD. The company says the 72fs master clock has a dedicated, low-noise power supply to minimise phase noise, and a toroidal transformer is fitted. 2GB of system memory is specified to minimise caching, for a seamless listening experience. The unit offers internet radio, Bluetooth, AirPlay, TIDAL, Qobuz, Spotify Connect and SongCast compatibility; it can be fitted with internal storage and is a Roon endpoint.
This is a fine sounding product – as crisp, open and detailed as you can expect at the price. Indeed, the Altair G1 shows just what is now possible in terms of value for money, offering impressive functionality allied to really decent, enjoyable sound. In terms of the way it’s voiced, it is pretty neutral – falling just a touch on the ‘well lit’ side tonally. It has a spry midband and treble, but you would never accuse it of being harsh or forward. Instead, this streaming DAC digs deep into the recording, telling you all about its texture and ambience. Rhythmically, it’s propulsive enough to convey the natural flow of a song, making it an enjoyable as well as an enlightening listen.
The mark of a properly designed digital source is that it can clearly signpost the difference in recordings, so that when you play – for example – Eight Miles High by The Byrds, immediately after Get Lucky by Daft Punk, you are acutely aware that the two are from very different times and places. The former track is a classic late sixties recording that’s immersed in the sepia-tinged sound of a valve mixing desk, and the classic microphones and monitoring amps of the day. The latter is a super-clean recording from fifty years later – one that’s wide in bandwidth, low in noise and high in information.
The Altair G1 tells you this in no uncertain terms – there’s no sense that it refracts everything through its own sonic prism, making wildly different recordings appear unnaturally similar. Instead, you can luxuriate in the warmth of The Byrds track, bathing in its spacious, sumptuous groove, then sit bolt upright and start to tap your feet frantically to the infectious rhythms of the Daft Punk track, loving the taut, snappy, sinewy feel of the rhythm guitar, bass guitar and drums – plus that wonderfully syncopated vocal line. This is what we old hi-fi hacks call transparency, and the Altair G1 has it in spades.
For something so modestly priced, its midband, in particular, is very good indeed. Regardless of whether you’re running the streamer as the source, or taking a feed from a CD transport and working the Altair G1 in DAC mode, it’s open and explicit enough to give a satisfying and believable sound. I cued up my old silver disc pressing of UB40’s first album, and King was a joy to hear. Unlike the band’s later, over-cooked releases that were aimed at a wider pop audience, this is a lovely slice of classic reggae, stripped bare of fancy studio effects and recorded in the bedsit of its producer, Bob Lamb. True enough, the AURALiC signposted the low production values but was refined enough to breeze past these and let the music’s flavour flood out.
This song has a long, relaxed and supple groove, one which the Altair G1 proved well able to convey. It caught both the subtle interplay between the keyboard playing and the percussion, and also the dynamic accenting of the rhythm guitarist and the lead vocal. The overall effect was quite mesmeric, but this was achieved not by assaulting the listener with bangs and crashes, but by an intricate, nuanced presentation. Moving to Kate Bush’s Snowflake – a beautiful, modern, hi-res digital recording, that’s essentially just piano and vocals, and it did precisely the same. I loved the rich harmonics of the closely miked piano work and her immaculately rendered voice, and duly found myself transfixed.
This is an expansive sounding recording, and the G1 pushed it out well beyond the boundaries of the loudspeakers left and right, with a good strong central location of the vocals. It wasn’t quite as three dimensional as some I’ve heard elsewhere, the slight diminution in depth perspective being one of the few things that reminded me of its mainstream price tag. This wasn’t really an issue with most of the pop and rock I played, but acoustic jazz like Lou Donaldson’s One Cylinder didn’t have the capacious feel of pricier products. Overall though, the AURALiC gives a surprisingly insightful sound at the price – certainly good enough for you to not be planning your next upgrade by the end of your first week of ownership, unlike some affordable streamers I’ve heard!
Such is the build quality and versatility of AURALiC’s Altair G1 that it’s easy to forget it costs just $3,795 (in Australia) – and its fine sound bears little relation to the modest retail price, either. As such, it represents cracking value for money in this increasingly crowded market. One of the most impressive products at or near its price, this is an essential audition for value-conscious audiophiles who are serious about streaming.
For more information, visit AURALiC.
David started his career in 1993 writing for Hi-Fi World and went on to edit the magazine for nearly a decade. He was then made Editor of Hi-Fi Choice and continued to freelance for it and Hi-Fi News until becoming StereoNET’s Editor-in-Chief.