REVIEW: DIGIBIT ARIA MINI MUSIC SERVER
With music servers becoming increasingly popular, the problem facing many is how to leave a CD collection behind and move to a server? What can you replace it with? We might have the answer.
It can be a daunting task and many feel overwhelmed with the options available. “Where do I start” is usually the first question posed. Some manufacturers are listening to the buying public and coming up with creative solutions. The good ones are smart enough to know that it must be easy to setup and use. Most people honestly can’t be bothered with a PC or laptop and the associated problems that go with it. A NAS (Network Attached Storage) approach sounds like a brilliant idea, but many are put off by the amount of technical knowledge required to initially set one up and maintain it. And what about converting or ripping the CD stockpile into a useable file format for the NAS to then distribute? Well, DigiBit have listened and have a couple of products that may fit the bill. The subject of this review is the aria mini, a simple to use music server.
The aria mini is a compact and more affordable music server version of the higher performance aria model. The aria mini comes in a variety of options. You can purchase it with or without an internal hard drive. If optioned, you have a choice of either the traditional spinning drive or a solid state hard drive (SSD). My review sample was the top of the line model with a 1TB SSD for $5,700 RRP. It includes an external Asus CD drive that is used as a CD ripper. All you need is an iPad to control the device. The application used by aria is the versatile iaria app for iPad™. But more on that in a moment.
The aria mini looks reminiscent of a mini silver monolith from 2001: A Space Odyssey, standing about 280mm high on a solid base it incorporates a stand for an iPad. There doesn’t seem to be any square or parallel surfaces and to my eyes it looks crooked however it’s placed. There is a single on/off switch on the front panel. At the back is the power supply input, RCA outputs, USB out, HDD or CD Ripper input and an Ethernet LAN connector. Output wise, it can be used with the inbuilt DAC, or you can send bit perfect digital audio via USB to your own DAC.
The mini is essentially a small form factor “Windows” computer with an onboard DAC, but you would never know it, except for the Windows licence sticker underneath the base. It is a fanless design and with the SSD drive making no additional noise, it's silent. It boots up quickly and is ready to go in about a minute or so. The included DAC supports PCM music files up to 32 bits and 384 kHz (DXD) and DSD64/128. So it plays almost everything. The aria mini is also compatible with Apple AirPlay™ and DLNA™. That feature opens up another wide world of streaming possibilities.
DigiBit claim that the aria is “the only music server on the market to support an unlimited number of extended metadata fields for any music genre”. It is fully automatic or self-populating with some of the best metadata retrieval in the market with auto access to five databases. But you can also go and edit the metadata yourself and that can be useful when it comes to sorting out your music in as many ways as your imagination dictates.
There are two essentials to use the aria mini. You need an iPad and an internet connected router with both a wired LAN connection for the aria mini, and with wireless connectivity for the iPad. Most routers these days have both wired and wireless support and along with the iPad are relatively inexpensive. You may want to get an electrician to permanently install an Ethernet port in your listening room, if required. There is no Android application or support, sorry it's Apple only. Having those pre-requisites, the rest was easy. Firstly install the ‘iaria’ application, freely available from the App Store. Then connect the AC power to the small power pack and plug it in. Install some RCA cables to your amplifier (for internal DAC usage) or a USB cable into your own DAC. If you purchased the mini with an internal drive and CD ripper drive, plug that into the USB input. Lastly, plug in the Ethernet port.
After a minute or so, (there’s a faster boot up time using an SSD, rather than a traditional hard drive) your iaria application will automatically search and find the aria mini. Then select either the on-board DAC, or interestingly, if you're using an external DAC, pass the units serial number and the make/model of your DAC on to your dealer that sold you the aria mini and within an hour or so a driver will be loaded into your unit, remotely, without your interaction or any hassle. Then you can fully utilise the high speed USB interface by utilising your own, often better sounding DAC.
Software wise, there is the ability to change the language setting to anything that you would prefer, but English is the default. To play music, you will need to select the audio output, or ‘zone’ as iaria refers to it, choosing either DAC (inbuilt) or USB (external). It will also find other compatible DLNA players on your home LAN (Local Area Network) automatically. All aria mini’s come with some music pre-loaded on the drive, so it’s possible to hear music virtually immediately, almost like a CD player. And this I believe is its strength; it’s as close to a plug and play system as I’ve seen.
The iaria software is really user friendly and is very simple to use. There is a comprehensive manual that comes with the unit, but I found the single page, four step card that si also included in the box pretty much all you need to get going.
Once you find an Album, Artist or Genre or any one of 10 existing choices you tap on the song to start and it will play the entire album, just like a CD player does. I love the choice and categories to explore.
Of course you will want to add your own CDs to the collection. So simply place your CD into the external drive and close the draw, that’s it. It will automatically rip the CD into FLAC format and attach it with metadata it automatically finds online, like album covers, tracks etc. These new albums appear on your iPad’s iaria application, with everything sorted for you. It cannot get any easier. It doesn’t take any computer knowledge or any interaction at all. You can rip all your albums into the aria mini and then store them, knowing that you still have the originals as a backup.
Straight out of the box, it honestly doesn't sound very special, but this is not unusual and is common amongst most of the review samples we receive. All that changed after a week or so of running it day and night. As it’s a music server, it was really easy to 'burn-in'; you simply let it loop on a burn in track continuously, while plugged into an amplifier. That’s something not recommended for a CD player. Once it had over 150 hours use, it really changed into a smooth harmonious sounding server of high quality reproduction. It continued to improve in my opinion until about 250 hours of playback, so all my critical listening impressions were done after I was satisfied that it was at its peak.
It can be used to play any track of your choosing in both the internal DAC mode or USB DAC mode simultaneously, which is very handy and totally seamless. There was a noticeable difference between the sound of the internal DAC and the use of a high quality external DAC. How good it sounds is dependent upon the quality of the DAC that you use. I used both the excellent Chord Hugo TT and the Rega DAC-R for my listening tests, both were comfortably better than the on-board DAC. That’s pretty much what you can expect, as the Hugo TT is more expensive than the aria mini server itself and the Rega is an excellent performer at its considerably lower price point. In reality we are simply comparing the merits of each of the DAC’s.
I used Amy Winehouse' “A Song for You” the last track of the Lioness: Hidden Treasures album, as my first test track. To be fair to all parties, I set it up so as to listen in turn through both DACs and the internal DAC, as well as through my modified Esoteric P10 CD transport going to the same DACs, with the same track ripped off the same CD. First up was the internal DAC. It sounded open and clean, with reasonable resolution and soundstage. There was some minor sibilance on the cymbals, but was pleasing to listen to. Not too shabby at all, without spending additional funds. You could easily live with this setup and be satisfied. Incidentally, do you also hear what sounds like a kicked or knocked crate of empty bottles at the rear of the stage, 28 seconds into that track?
Next up was the USB output to the Rega DAC-R, (using a Wireworld Starlight 7 USB cable), which was tonally very similar to the internal DAC, but didn’t quite have the same sense of soundstage of the Rega, which was noticeably deeper. There was also some minor sibilance on the cymbals, but it was less intrusive. The Rega did a better job at resolving the brass instruments and their reverbs, as well as smoothing and relaxing the sound.
Using the Chord TT was even better, this is a high performing DAC and everything playing through it sounds more relaxed, with darker backgrounds and with more detail again. The bass was considerably punchier and dynamic, the sibilance of the cymbals was turned into a smooth and detailed cymbal strike with reverb.
Now to compare the ripped CD vs a good quality CD transport. To cut to the chase, I am still to hear a music server in my own system that can beat the good old fashioned CD spinning in real time. Servers are getting closer and I know that there are some great units out there, but you would have to spend some fairly serious money on it. The aria mini does an excellent job, but the dedicated CD transport has more of everything in all the right places. It has a relaxed sound that is more dynamic with better and more articulated bass and yet is smoother and is more musical. The midrange and treble is sweeter, with more detail and extension and the soundstage is superior.
I listened to many other tracks with exactly the same conclusion. I won’t bore you with the details. Tracks included Kate Bush “Snowflake”, Pilgrimage “Campus Stella/Field of Stars”, Vishwa Mohen Bhatt and Ry Cooder “Ganges Delta Blues”, T(Tasha) “As Time Goes By”, Lightnin’ Hopkins “Found My Baby Crying” along with many others.
Importantly, I found that the aria mini worked flawlessly and the iPad software was a pleasure to use. Some applications are buggy and can create wait states that require constant rebooting to remove them. Not with the iaria application, it worked very smoothly and reliably, adding to the joy and convenience of the unit. The only thing that I would add to a “wish list” would be the option to switch on or off the fading in of the following track. It always fades the last 5 seconds or so of the track with the start of the next track and although being gapless, it is also annoying with some music. Making it user selectable would be appreciated. Otherwise I couldn’t fault it. It has been well thought out and operated perfectly.
The shootout was never meant to confuse or dilute the issue. It is simply a detailed comparison of what is musically available by using a music server and leaving your CDs behind. Yes, you do lose the last word in definition and detail but that is very system dependant and many won’t have a reference CD transport, or even the inclination to want the best possible sound. What you gain is convenience and usability. In the time it takes for me to locate a CD and load it, you can find it on the iPad and have it playing already. Changing from one track to the next, or changing artists is only a finger stroke away. You can setup Playlists and go nuts playing all your favourite tracks, shuffled if you prefer. Or find tracks of a certain genre or composer across your music collection and play them all without breaking into a sweat.
If you do have a NAS already setup, the aria mini will automatically detect and find your shared folders and link to its computer path, ready for playback.
The big ticket requirement that I personally enjoy using is connectivity to Spotify and Tidal music streaming services. With inbuilt support for Apple Airplay you can send anything that is Airplay compatible to the aria mini, to be played on your system. I even streamed YouTube with great success; it is so easy to do. As a quick comparison, I compared the same Amy Winehouse track streamed to the server from Tidal, compared to the ripped CD on the server. It's close, but the ripped CD had a quieter background and slightly more detail and focus of the voice and instruments. I could be happy with the sound of either one though to be honest.
Apple Music, Spotify, Qobuz, Wimp/Tidal, Deezer, Rapsody, Pandora, Internet radio or anything that can be played with your iPad and that has Airplay compatibility can be used and streamed with high quality sound coming from your system.
Additionally, many other boxes that you may already own, including ones that you plug into your TV, such as the Roku, Xbox and PlayStation offer DLNA (Digital Living Network Alliance) streaming support. These have the capability to stream music over the network to your aria mini. The possibilities are almost endless, future proofing your investment. With so many options, you are guaranteed to hear far more musical content than your own CD collection would ever allow.
I believe that the future is bright for music servers. Like most audiophile products, to obtain true high end sound capability often means skipping the entry level products and going to the more expensive models. But when you need something that has high end ease of use, simplicity and reliability, then I believe that the aria mini fits the bill perfectly. There is more than acceptable sound quality built into the unit, with the option of using a higher quality external DAC if you so choose. Alternatively, there is always the big brother aria if you are looking for an even better upmarket sound.
To me, the advantage that the aria mini has over its competitors is its simplicity and ease of use. The iaria application is powerful yet user friendly, it’s intuitive and navigation is a breeze. This is important as your iPad becomes your remote control and using mature, well-engineered software makes the experience so much more positive, the technology gets out of the way, allowing the focus to be on the music.
I found the aria mini’s connectivity options and the software compatibility to be sensible and compelling. You can confidently leave your current CD collection behind and move to a server, along with all the benefits that goes along with it. You have options that can grow over time as you add extra devices and services to it. The aria mini is a great starting point and one that I can confidently recommend.
- Ease of setup and use, Ability to use external DAC, CD ripping automation, Feature set, iPad application, Connectivity
- Non switchable gapless playing
For more information visit Digibit.
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.
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