AURALiC Aries Wireless Streaming Bridge Review
The internet seems to be buzzing with another highly rated product from AURALiC, the ARIES Wireless Streaming Bridge. Released June 2014, the ARIES serves as a “bridge” between your music files sitting on your network, or indeed almost any music streaming facility and your DAC. It allows you to stream high resolution music quickly and wirelessly in virtually any sample rate. This includes DSD, single and double rate and DXD. Although called a bridge, I prefer to think of it as a music streamer/server, or a network player without a built in DAC, allowing me to choose my own great sounding DAC, rather than the one built in that may or not suit my needs.
The unit is a very powerful computer in its own right, using a quad-core ARM Coretex-A9 processor running at 1GHz, with 1GB of memory and 4GB of internal storage. With an ability of 25,000 MIPS, evidently it is more than enough to decode a vast spectrum of audio formats, including AAC, AIFF, ALAC, APE, DIFF, DSF, FLAC, MP3, OGG, WAV, WV and WMA. But here’s the kicker, it is far easier to setup, maintain and use than a traditional computer or laptop, which suits me perfectly. Also it’s much smaller and more attractive than any computer. The dimensions are: W/D/H 25cm x 20cm x 7cm and has an external PSU. If you look at the photos, I’m sure that you will agree that the ARIES is one of the best looking devices out there, it’s sleek and modern and moves away from the traditional look. I also love the fact that it is without an internal fan and is therefore silent.
The inputs of ARIES include dual-band high-speed Wi-Fi, Gigabit Ethernet and USB 2.0. The outputs are a USB audio host buffered by patented ActiveUSB™ technology and low-jitter AES/EBU, coaxial and optical ports. The USB audio host can deliver PCM from 44.1-384kHz at 16, 24 and 32-bit resolutions as well as DSD64, 128 and (just announced) 256 into a compatible USB DAC. The other digital outputs are limited to standard S/PDIF rates of 192kHz/24-bit.
The ARIES is available in two iterations, the cheaper ARIES LE with a low-phase noise crystal and standard external PSU for $1599 RRP, and the better sounding ARIES at $2299 RRP which we're testing here. AURALiC states “This is the step-up model with two individual Femto clocks for both the USB audio host and the digital outputs and a low-noise internal design to eliminate jitter. Also includes the AURALiC Purer-Power™-based 10uV low-noise external linear PSU.” You pay more, you get more.
“ARIES will begin a new era in the Hi-Fi industry,” said Xuanqian Wang, the President and CEO of AURALIC LIMITED.
We intentionally set the retail price starting at an extremely affordable entry point, to offer everyone an opportunity to get on board and enjoy the convenience and high quality music that modern technology can bring to all. AURALiC has invested and budgeted more than $1,000,000 to develop the Lightning Streaming system. We are committed to providing continuous, free online upgrades to improve the performance and compatibility for our solution, as well as to add new exciting functions support in the near future such as local storage playback, DSD upsampling, room acoustics correction and multi-channel.
So in effect you are investing in equipment that has the ability to do a lot more than a single function with expansion ability, much like what Sony did with the PlayStation.
ARIES also features a basic 3” OLED display to let users view playback status, and an AURALiC RC-1 remote control to control basic operations such as Play, Pause and Select Track without needing to open the Lightning DS App. Neat! To me this is very usable feature and made it seem like I was using a traditional hifi component, rather than driving a computer.
iPad owners need only apply
In order to use the ARIES, one must firstly setup the device inputs and outputs and then feed and control the content that you wish to listen to. To accomplish this, you are required to have a wireless network for your wireless operating device to talk to the ARIES, as well as the device itself to talk to the ARIES over the network and an application named Lightning DS. This software that sets up and operates the ARIES, has only been compatible up to now with an Apple iPad (with iOS 7.1 and above). No doubt many of you readers and prospective owners (myself included) may not own an iPad, so may be put off by the need for an additional purchase. But you probably own an iPhone, Android smartphone or tablet.
The logic was for AURALiC to initially release the ARIES suitable for Apple iOS (read iPad) and then to release an Android version some months later. The Lightning App will apparently be available on several platforms, such as Apple iOS, Android, Windows PC, Mac OS X. I must say that AURALiC are to be commended on this ambitious project of usability over several platforms, as many audio companies generally only support a single software platform for their products. I prefer choice.
The expected Android release date, according to the Quick Start Guild was September - October 2014, but due to development delays the release was then confirmed for January 2015. Unfortunately due to compatibility delays with Android 5.0, AURALiC announced from its Facebook page, that Lightning DS for Android V0.1 Beta (smartphone compatible only) was released on February 16th 2015. I downloaded and installed the Beta software into my LG G3 mobile phone (running Android 5.0) and have used it since, albeit with only the Library mode functioning, that is, streaming from a device connected directly to the USB connection.
Since the sample ARIES was given to StereoNET for review, I have been in constant contact with the AURALiC support team regarding the release date of an Android version of the Lightning DS software required to operate the ARIES and found their replies both punctual and courteous. They have been doing their best to get the software finalised and ready for consumers, but it can’t be easy.
Hooray, Android Support!
Apple were kind enough to loan StereoNET an iPad for review purposes, and I have used it to enjoy the ARIES for the past couple of months, whist awaiting the Android software release. They say that patience is a virtue and that all good things come to he who waits, well the good news is that at the High End 2015 show, this month in Munich Germany, AURALiC announced the release of the Android version, but for the moment, smartphone compatible only. This news has arrived to many happy and patient folks who have the need for it.
It is currently available only from the AURALiC website or Facebook page, to be installed by using ‘developer’ mode, that is, bypassing the usual security warnings of a non sanctioned Google application. I suggest that you wait a couple of days and install it via the Google Play Store when it becomes available. Although the website says that the Android tablet version is still under development, I also installed it into my Google Nexus 7 tablet (running Android 5.0) without issue.
I’m happy to report that the Android version works pretty much exactly as the iOS version does. I wouldn’t expect anything else. The layout is very similar, but has optimised usability for a smaller screen. I like the library search function within the sidebar options, it makes more sense for it to be there. Also a bug bear that has been fixed from the iPad is that the screen will now rotate.
The Users Guild currently gives you the message that it’s “Coming Soon”. Like most new products, especially those that are software driven, development takes time and I have no doubt whatsoever that given a little time, AURALiC will succeed in making the software very polished with slick functionality. We are in effect witnessing the development as we actually use it.
A key consideration when considering a music server is connectivity. Many users do not have the luxury of a fully wired network between your data switch, NAS, computer, tablet and music server and DAC. Having wireless connectivity is really easy to implement. For basic computer audio setup, see the excellent series of articles here, or call any 16 year old!. Often the trouble with wireless is a poor wireless signal to many parts of the home and let me tell you, that dropouts can really ruin your enjoyment immensely. The Aries comes equipped with dual channel wireless capability allowing high bit rate files to stream effortlessly. There are no ugly external aerials, as it has them built into the plastic moulded enclosure, so it looks really nice. In all my tests over a good period of time, it worked faultlessly.
Being a software driven device, it is capable of most anything its creators want it to be. As already mentioned, ARIES is bundled with AURALiC’s Lightning DS App. The App has a number of capabilities that I will briefly explain. It currently includes 5 music modes:
- Library Mode - to browse and play your music libraries on your network-attached storage (NAS), USB flash drive or a USB connected hard drive.
- Radio Mode - to stream 1000’s of internet radio stations.
- Streaming Mode - to steam high quality music content from service providers like TIDAL, Qobuz and WiMP.
- Songcast Mode - to stream from a Windows or Mac OS X device. Songcast is an open source application that allows you to send any audio from your computer to the ARIES and get great sound from your music services and web pages.
- Apple AirPlay Mode - stream content from an iOS device to the ARIES.
ARIES is also compatible with other OpenHome and uPnP AV based control software such as Linn Kinsky and BubbleDS, for Library Mode streaming only. The Lightning DS program provides a Settings page to select the hardware settings such as the output channel and WiFi network, etc. All in all it’s a comprehensive package as it is, but I understand that AURALiC has other features in the pipeline, again making the ARIES pretty much future proof.
The ARIES comes with a 7 page “Quick Start Guild” that mentions the Lightning DS app, the use of a good wireless router, the remote control functions, the display, the in/out connections and that’s about all. The Lightning DS user’s guild along with additional information is available online at the AURALiC website. You need to download the app to your iPad or Android smartphone, setup the device within the settings page and your right to go. I used version 1.8 for iPad. The device firmware can also be updated from the settings page, version 2.5 is currently the latest. I’ve seen a couple of updates now and with each successive one there have been improvements in stability.
You have a great choice of outputs from the ARIES, with AES/EBU, Coax, Toslink or USB available to connect to your DAC. USB will allow the highest bit rates and DSD to stream effortlessly, so that is mostly what I used. Depending on the layout of your network, choose an Ethernet cable to connect up the ARIES rather than relying on a wireless connection. As already mentioned, wireless is notorious for being temperamental depending on the signal strength, which is based on the distance and the layout of your home. I found that it worked a little snappier and more importantly, it sounded better by using a wired connection. And for you sceptics out there, the choice of Ethernet cables can make a significant difference, in the same way that an interconnect or power cable does.
As with any music streamer, the quality of the sound is dependent upon the quality of the source material and the resolution being streamed. Understanding that, the ARIES should be noted for being a remarkably transparent and smooth sounding device that is kind and complimentary to the tracks that it is playing. It doesn’t seem to matter if I was playing internet radio at low bit rates or high definition FLAC or DSD file from my NAS, everything was presented even-handedly, and it seemed to get out of the way of the music and relayed to the DAC exactly what was there without sounding like it was changed in any way. I tried a variety of DAC’s including AURALiC’s excellent VEGA (reviewed here) and in each case it passes on the musical information in a digital format to the DAC in a transparent manner, allowing it to take on the sound of the DAC. This really is a very neutral sounding device!
I don’t know if any upsampling or re-clocking of the signal is done, but even 128kb internet radio music did not sounded etched or artificial, in the way that some ‘enhanced’ signal processing can produce. High quality tracks were simply stunning with a very quiet background, great dynamics and loads of detail. It was smooth right through the frequency range without any perceived anomalies, peaks or troughs. The pace, rhythm and timing of music was accurately preserved, and it didn’t seem to matter what source was selected. It fed to the DAC pretty much exactly what was there and didn’t seem to add or subtract from that.
I found myself playing a lot of free to air radio stations that stream at 128K- 320K whilst I’m in another room, mainly because it doesn’t use a lot of data and can be used all day long, I like to mix up my music, depending on the time of day and my frame of mind at the time, so flicking stations was interesting to say the least. Even after many hours of use I never found the sound boring, uninvolving or tiring. The overall sound takes on the character of the entire system and the ARIES just delivers the goods, consistently and without prejudice.
Mind you, moving from low resolution radio to the lossless CD quality streaming provider TIDAL, takes on a whole other dimension of quality. Whenever a good sounding track came on, even when working in another room, I would stop and sit in front of the system, turn it up and enjoy the music; for no other reason than it just sounded great. Streaming is such fun, as there is an almost limitless amount of music available at your fingertips. You can walk around the home with an iPad or smartphone in your hands, constantly searching for old classics or something just released. It’s all available and only seconds away. I can understand those who are wanting to disconnect themselves from physical media like CD’s and exclusively use a good quality streamer for all their musical needs, but somehow the audiophile in me is unsettled by this notion. I believe that it can have a place alongside playing CD’s or especially LP’s, particularly when it comes to critical listening.
I compared music files that are streamed from TIDAL, a USB drive plugged in directly to the ARIES, streaming from a laptop, and from a NAS and then compared it to a CD being played in a transport of similar value to the ARIES. In every case, the result was the same; spinning physical CD’s sound better. Not substantially, but still better. It can be a very close call to make and it depends on the transport used and the transparency of the cables used. For that reason alone, many will want to rip all there CD’s into a NAS and then have the convenience of 100’s or 1000’s of albums at their fingertips. I know that my transports had a rest while the ARIES was here. Perhaps the answer is to buy into a high quality streamer like the ARIES and spin LP’s through a reasonable rig for a physical media experience.
I haven't had the opportunity to listen to the cheaper ARIES LE ($700 cheaper). It misses out on the low noise power supply and Femto clocks, but otherwise has exactly the same functionality, so it could be a bit of a bargain for those not seeking the ultimate in sound quality. Interestingly the smaller and slightly down spec’d ARIES MINI has just been announced in Munich at the High End show and promises a similar set of streaming and network functionality at a reduced price point. But it is still not due in Australia until August, according to Australian distributor, Busisoft.
I get the fact that many are leaving physical media for music files and online streaming. Just make sure that you have a healthy internet connection with a generous data allowance and perhaps start planning a suitable network layout for your home to future proof it.
After spending time with the AURALiC ARIES wireless streaming bridge, I have come to the realisation that the future of music for homes will be delivered via your finger waved over a mobile or tablet device, exclusively. Of course for many of us, this situation already exists. But music lovers can rejoice in the knowledge that you don’t have to compromise on sound quality for the big rig at home and that the ARIES can deliver a very satisfying musical experience to even diehard audiophiles like myself.
When you consider the rich function set of the ARIES, with the 'draw you in' sound quality, the choice of wired or wireless connectivity and a roadmap to keep it at the forefront of development, it really becomes a compelling case for a very flexible and usable device. At $2,299 RRP it's perhaps more than some would like to pay, but AURALiC have other models at cheaper price points to fill your needs, so this full spec unit can still be considered good value.
Honestly, it's a killer combination! I'm really, really tempted.
Sound Quality, Convenience, Future Proofed Design, DSD Wireless streaming, Flexible Input/Outputs, iOS & Android Support
Occasional menu hiccups, Spotify and Pandora currently unavailable
For more information visit the AURALiC brand page.
Starting his first audio consultancy business in the early ’80s whilst also working professionally in the electronics industry, Mark now splits his time between professional reviewing and AV consultancy.