I first ran into AURALiC was at the Newport show back in 2012. Audeze had an AURALiC Ark DAC and AURALiC Taurus (not mkii) set uncomfortably on folding table out by the pool. They also had an out of season, Christmas Red, plastic tablecloth just because. But here they were, in the prime of their ascendency, and they chose this weird and wonderful Chinese brand to show off their killer (for the time) LCD2.
“That’s really good,” I burbled. “Where can I hear more?”
“Umm… they don’t really have the whole distribution thing worked out,” was the uncomfortable response.
2012 was a long time ago. AURALiC North America stormed the gates in 2013. They handily achieved reference status, ubiquity, and admiration. More ink, more pixels, and more forum noise has been spilled about AURALiC than any other single brand I can name. Their second generation DAC, the Vega, quickly became the no-brainer default for reasonable performance. Their Taurus MK II achieved equal praise in the world of headphone amps.
The AURALiC brand really started to mean something. No nonsense. Relatively affordable. Tank-like. Aggressively stupid use of capitalization. Saying things like “all-conquering” about their products became de rigueur. Half of AURALiC’s line quickly became the justifiable reference for, it seemed, at least half of the audiophile world.
But what about the other half of their line?
I already have a DAC that I love, and headphones aren’t my primary crush these days. It was that other half that interested me. I was specifically interested in how the other half worked together as a system. Fortunately, Richard Colburn of AURALiC North America is a local who shops at the same Portland stereo stores I do. I had the convenient chance to tug on his coat, so I did, like an annoying toddler, until he delivered a preamp and pair of amps to my house. He’s not even supposed to deal with AURALiC’s press. He did it just to shut me up.
The Taurus Pre
Let’s start with the Taurus Pre. It’s not hard to talk about it, so we can get through it quickly. In fact, I’ll spoil it for you: I’m wholly smitten with it.
The first thing address is the question “why does this thing even exist?” AURALiC’s Taurus Mk II can already function as a preamp. Why would they make another product with the same price and almost the same capabilities? It seems silly on its face.
The background of this is, simply, that Xuanqian Wang and Yuan Wang are uncompromising — and therefore deeply annoying — perfectionists. They understand that an amp for a headphone driver that sits next to your ear has slightly different acoustic needs than a line amp for speaker drivers that live ten feet away from you. You’ll want a slightly different frequency response (extend the treble). You’ll never know how sensitive the other amps or speakers are (lower the noise). Reaching around behind the rack to change sources is a pain in the tuchus compared to doing it while it’s sitting on your desk (add more inputs).
The Taurus Pre exists to address all of those issues. AURALiC changed the gain structure, removed a knee in the treble extension, re-engineered the input stage for lower noise (3µv! A 40% reduction compared to the can-amp version), and added two more single-ended inputs on the backside of the box. They also, damn them, removed the balanced headphone output (you get two TRS jacks instead) and reduced the output power (HiFiMan fans need not apply).
Like all of AURALiC’s components, the Pre is a small, friendly, clean-looking box sized to perfectly fit in the cubby of an Ikea Expedit (or Kallax). There’s no need for specialized furniture to house this thing. It’s quite comfortable sitting on whatever you have.
The backside is a marvel of no-manual-needed simplicity. The four inputs (one XLR, three RCA) fill the right side, and two pairs of outputs (one XLR, one RCA) cover the right side. An IEC inlet sits dead center.
Folks who are a little dim may need the manual to deal with the front side, but most folks who haven’t suffered cranial trauma should be able to use it without resorting to book-learnin’. A textured, grippy, volume knob with oh-so-smooth rotation sits in the proper place on the right, while two, rugged, 1/4″ headphone jacks sit to the left. The lower button cycles between sources, while the upper button is a mode selector that cycles between the headphone outputs and the line outputs. Yes, kids, you can leave your headphones plugged in all the time instead of wearing out the jacks. There’s no automute crap to get in your way here.
The Pre also comes with AURALiC’s standard remote, a universal plastic jobby that can control all of their products. It’s wholly functional, but it’s a bit of a shock. After handling the dense, perfectly finished, Pre with its Swiss-watch feel and parts that fit together so tightly that a Nagra seems sloppy, the remote feels like disposable junk. I suppose that the good news is that it’s probably cheap to replace. It’s the one and only reminder that this is an everyman product that costs $2,199, not milled-from-unobtanium exotica.
As far as build quality and ergonomics go, this is a product that exceeds reasonable expectations in every way.
There’s a school of thought that says audiophiles actually despise neutrality. To some extent that’s true. We talk about “our sound” constantly, and talk about the products that enliven us. Which tubes give flavor? Which caps bring us happiness? Have you heard this cable?
The AURALiC Taurus Pre wants nothing to do with your gibbering nonsense. It’s going to show you what neutrality sounds like, and it’s going to wait patiently while you catch up.
That’s not to say that there’s no character. There certainly is. The Taurus Pre itself is almost neutral to a fault. Sound starts, sound stops. This sound is here. This sound is there. The drummer is behind the guitarist. The string section is over there. While different inputs and outputs do differ slightly, the overall character remains the same. It delivers an almost totally unembellished sound.
Unembellished, though, is not at all the same thing as boring. Unembellished is utterly hypnotic. The Taurus Pre is going to insist that you recognize that.
Start with the trivial. Throw on everybody’s most hated song of 1989, the B-52’s “Love Shack.” Don Was recorded that initial percussion riff to be as nutty and perfect a drum recording as anything Sensational and Fantastic that rolled off the Good Dr. Chesky’s assembly line. The Taurus Pre lays it bare, making you bounce along to the juvenile throbbing while communicating every transient. On the right system, that will make even a zombie laugh, and the Taurus Pre gets it right immediately.
Move on to something more reasonable, though. Chuck Israels’ bass on Bill Evans Trio: Live at Shelly’s Manne-Hole becomes almost more captivating than Evans’ own playfulness on the keys. In the same way, the resonance and timing of Otis Span’s insane piano on “Big Mama Thornton with the Muddy Waters Blues Band” almost steals the record out from under Big Mama’s voice.
But take Tom Waits’ Nighthawks at the Diner. It’s an album that you probably heard a million times, put away, and now revisit only when Tom’s schtick won’t grate on you. If you’re like me, that’s about once a week. Face it: you know every second of the album by heart. The Taurus Pre makes it new, showcasing the speed of the mongrel, canine, should-be-chained-up-somewhere drumming by Bill Goodwin. Most of all, though, listening to Tom’s voice through the Taurus makes your jaw go slack before you shout, “damn, that guy was really young.”
The Taurus took every familiar album as a chance to startle me with some ridiculously obvious detail that I should have noticed twenty years ago. That’s what “unembellished” buys you.
It wasn’t perfect, unfortunately. Compared to running my K&K Rakk DAC directly into the amps, the Taurus Pre may have given a little bit too much attention to attack instead of decay. It also displayed excellent — but somewhat stereotypically solid state — soundstaging. That is to say that placement in three dimensions was excellent, but it had very slightly more of a “diorama” flavor than “hologram.” Nearfield listening through a pair of Tannoy Glenairs also made it clear that the treble had just a bit too much sheen on it — just right for sitting a dozen feet back, not so good for sitting six feet away.
There’s also that slight difference between the single ended connections and the balanced connections. Going single ended gets you an exceptionally competent preamp. At the price, frankly, the single ended connections were more than respectable. The balanced connections, though… Hoooooooboy! Going balanced — in and out if you can, but definitely on the output — immediately opens up a sense of space. Everything becomes ridiculously effortless. Dynamic swings, already a strength, become catastrophically masterful. The (already minimal) high frequency glare is reduced even more. While the preamp isn’t transformed, it’s a big enough difference that you will — WILL! — want your best source plugged into the balanced input.
This is less of an issue with the headphone output, though. Sadly, the Taurus Pre lacks the balanced headphone jack of its can-centric sibling. The single ended outputs were versatile enough to drive AKG 702, Grados, Mr. Speakers Alpha Dogs, and a pair of LCD-2 without much of a worry. They were even surprisingly enjoyable, somehow finding that decay that the line outputs misplaced. Unfortunately, the exuberant punch and sense of space that came with the balanced line outputs was absent, while the treble glare remained in full force. That was fine with the LCD-2 and the Alpha Dogs, but the Grados and the AKGs really don’t need any extra help with delivering painful treble.
To sum it all up, the basic Taurus is probably your go-to if listening to headphones or listening nearfield is your primary purpose. The Taurus Pre is definitely the better choice if you have more single ended sources and tend to listen to a more conventional speaker setup. The closest sound I’ve heard to this little box comes from the Neve 5060. That thing goes for eight grand, and its headphone output doesn’t sound nearly as good as the one on Taurus Pre.
This thing is an instant classic. The Taurus Pre should be on your audition list. Period.
I just wish it had one more balanced input. The one it has is just so good.