AURALiC Gets Its Licks In, With A Preamp/Headphone Amplifier, S/PDIF & USB DAC
AURALiC Taurus Headphone Amplifier & Analog Preamplifier
AURALiC. is a Hong Kong-based company that has its own very specific, and special ideas about designing audio components. With ideals based around classic professional products, such as the famous and revered designs of Rupert Neve, the company sets high standards for itself: “Thanks to our chief designer, Xuanqian Wang’s years’ recording working experience, we could always succeed in approaching those outstanding recording engineers and musicians to hear their timely and professional feedback about our products. With taking their valuable advice into consideration, our design team then refines the design approaches according to mathematical models in order to achieve perfect yet rich artistic representation in terms of musical reproduction.”
“Along with the dramatic change in modern science and technology, our products are endowed with a concise shape and user-friendly property. Our products are free from the sophisticated operational and tuning steps of traditional audio equipment and could be better adapted into the modern fashionable family life.”
“TAURUS PRE is a fully balanced line stage pre-amplifier. It is the finest coalescence of art and passion by inheriting the design essence of analog recording equipments from the ‘golden age’ and aesthetic taste of this new era. Together with MERAK, the power amplifier, TAURUS PRE would bring an ideal audio playback system, which is fantastic enough to please the most enthusiastic audiophile. Based upon the design concept of Neve analog console, combined with modern aesthetic of music, AURALiC invent the OREFEO Class A output module and fit it into TAURUS PRE. Thanks to the bran-new [sic] designed low noise input circuit and better power solution, TAURUS PRE achieves a remarkable residual noise performance at 3uV in minimum, this allows it to handle micro dynamics in the music by a perfect way with a liquid transparency.”
“Based on ActiveUSB™, AFN402™, Alire™, Purer-Power™, self-adapt upsampling circuit and other innovative patents solely owned by AURALiC, ARK MX+ will enable its user to fully enjoy the musical beauty by perfectly replaying the Hi-Rez format music and discovering every detail of the original recordings. In the mean time, AURALiC is operating under very strict examining system. It not only pays special attention to the testing and selection of key components, but also focuses on the subjective evaluation of products. Every single product is listened and checked over very carefully by the designer before delivery to our customers. For us, ARK MX+ is an artistic work that bears our dream and glory. Restless technical innovation, meticulous working attitude together with perfect manufacturing requirements are to spare no efforts from us to make your private music hall better than ever.”
Wading through that charming jumble of Chinglish, you do get a sense of real commitment to audio design excellence, based on proven professional models. The industrial design of the products is quite elegant, with a half-orb knob on each for either Power or Volume, and a nice quality brushed aluminum finish, with premium connectors at rear, all these at a somewhat surprising price in today’s high end market. The fit and finish do complement the ambitious innards well, and proprietary materials science is applied to cabinet damping and alloy construction materials.
That said, there are a few quirks, especially in the ARK MX+, these perhaps neatly sidestepped in the newer, October-announced VEGA DAC, about which I’ll say a little more below. The ARK has both USB and S/PDIF coaxial inputs, the latter designed to work with standard digital audio signals up to 96 kHz, and the former intended to handle output from a sufficiently equipped computer, but programmed with some disconcerting 3d party software, which has to be downloaded and precisely formulated in a way that I never did master on my own. Doing so takes up about half of the owner manual’s text and diagrams, and involves following these to achieve the right synthesis. I faithfully downloaded the programs and followed the steps, but never managed to get a single note or sound out of my computer, which contrasts dramatically with the 10 minutes it took to get up and running with the AudioQuest DragonFly’s internal software that it loads by itself (as did that for my FLIP SlideHD camcorder), and then the Dragon flies at 96 kHz and altitudes below immediately (that review is forthcoming soon). Meanwhile, on the ARK MX+, there is no optical input of any sort, something quite unusual on a product from the Far East.
There were lesser concerns with the straight coax input, which I first (and only) used with my venerable Denon DTR-80P portable DAT recorder out of its S/PDIF out at up to 48 kHz. I also tried it with my workhorse HHB/Pioneer D-9601 pro DAT machine, which has mastered numerous CDs for me at 96 kHz, and smoothly downsampled these tapes to 44.1 for editing, even leaving some to be edited in colleague Clive Allen’s Sonic Solutions system at 96K, to be thereafter downsampled to CD resolution. Now the ARK MX+ has an AES/EBU digital out, which is about as useful as tits on a dragon, and had this been an input, I might have mated the recorder and DAC via that professional format; however, the ARK arched its back at the D-9601’s standard 75-ohm coaxial RCA out, and wouldn’t play my tapes. Shades of American Pie, I guess (”but the music wouldn’t play-ay-ay-ay…” - I just did the 70s music track for the King Township Historical Society’s 40th Birthday Party last week), and I perused the pro machine’s manual for possible secret dip switches and the like, but there were no fortune cookies there to break open.
Thus I was left with a very nice DAC visually, which I could make work superbly only on a middle-aged piece of digital source gear at half the ARK’s 96K sampling rate. That limitation accepted at last, I thoroughly enjoyed listening to several of my own 48 kHz DAT tapes, and some commercial DAT releases that sounded as good as I’ve ever heard them. Nobody seems to talk about upsampling much any more, except perhaps Bryston, and I didn’t see any such references in the AURALiC web site’s sparse technical section, but it sounded like it might doing some sort of digital multiplication magic.
Here’s a description of its successor that may whet your appetite: “AURALiC launches VEGA - the next generation digital audio processor developed with the goal of ’seeking for non-compromised sound. With Sanctuary Audio Processor as heart, AURALiC introduces several cutting-edge technology for VEGA: ‘Megahertz upsampling’ algorithm processes all PCM music to 1.5MHz in 32bit; ‘Femto Master Clock’ provides an ultimate clock precision with jitter only 82 femtoseconds(0.082 picoseconds). Binding with other AURALiC’s patented technologies such as ‘ORFEO Class-A module’ and discrete ‘Purer-Power™ solution’, VEGA will bring high resolution music playback experience to climax.”
“VEGA supports all high resolution music formats including DXD (352.8KS/s, 384KS/s in 32bit) as well as DSD stream at 2.8224MHz and 5.6448MHz. Five digital inputs include AES/EBU, Coaxial (set of two), Toslink and USB. The balanced and single-ended analog outputs can connect to power amplifier directly, adjusting volume in digital precision without dynamic loss. VEGA has six built-in filter modes allows [sic] its user to customize according to different music formats, tuning sound best to personal preference.”
And that takes us back to the Taurus, which is an excellent and very neutral sounding headphone amp, which also works well as a preamplifier, when augmented by a passive switching box preceding it, again showing AURALiC’s hair-shirt preoccupation with innards at the expense of functionality. This is what the manual says about input connections: “The balanced and single-ended analog inputs are individually buffered, however, it is still strongly recommended to disconnect unused ports to avoid any potential electromagnetic interference induced by cable. The sensitivity of both RCA and XLR inputs are same as 2Vrms with a maximum allowed level at 6Vrms. Please be sure to use a source component with its output level within this range.”
Again the follicles are yet again showing through gaps in the shirt, as it is recommended that you remove one input when using the other, which strikes me as a royal pain in the ass. And all this for the lack of a single double-pole/double/throw switch…it reminds one of the small print at the end of current liquor ads telling us to, “drink responsibly” (whatever happened to the old US Schaeffer beer ads that had the jingle, sung by a robust male chorus that went: “Scheaffer is the one beer to have, when you’re having more than one!”). And one is balanced XLR, the other unbalanced RCA. But these inputs are” individually buffered” with the company’s own proprietary circuitry, so what’s the big deal that would lead you to eventually wear out your expensive connectors by plugging and unplugging them all the time?
That bitch aside, it’s a very clean and open sounding preamplifier, and a very good headphone amplifier that doesn’t care about what phones it’s feeding. It has plenty of current to go with its appropriate power, and so does not discriminate against hungry headphones, of which I have a few. Maybe AURALiC will plan ahead responsibly, and offer a nice 4- or 5-input selector box with another of those nice semi-globular switching knobs to complete the preamp/DAC package. I hope it’s a little less expensive (I’ve made a few switchboxes on my own over the past 30 years from good parts that worked fine and sounded clean). And a pair of balanced inputs in the mix would be perfect.
How’s that for a couple of left-handed recommendations? All I can say, “listen and love…or not love.” Either way these very pretty AURALiC products are hard to ignore, and if their audio performance excellence and specific sensibility suit your passion for good audio, have a serious look and listen.
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