Stand-alone digital-to-audio converters have gotten quite good, but only in recent years, and the progression from “it works” to “it’s worthy of replacing analog” was quite rapid. No, I’m not saying it’s time to rip and replace your analog front end — far from it — but I am saying that this is really not the sacrifice it might once have been.
My reference DAC, the game-changing Berkeley Audio Design Alpha (now in Series 2), was something of a watershed for me. Matched up well, I heard the best bass performance I’d heard to date in-house. That DAC was, and still is, something miraculous and not easily or lightly bettered.
The AURALiC Vega, at $3,500, is half the price of the Berkeley — at least, when the Alpha is paired with its off-board USB-to-S/PDIF converter. It plays all the same file types and resolutions that the Alpha does, but then adds DSD and double-rate DSD support, along with 384kHz PCM support. The Vega also includes a USB input on-box, and so does not need a second shelf or second power cord, and connecting cable. I like that.
As a converter, I find the Vega to be very adept, top-to-bottom, presenting the entire frequency spectrum with deftness, and dare-I-say, aplomb. The resolution is shockingly deep, and there’s no glare. Leading-edges have the grip and bite that they seem to warrant. Bass has the impact it’s supposed to have. If it’s there in the recording, the Vega will recreate it for you — and then it’s up to your amp and speakers to make that signal real. Wondering why your systems sounds boring? It ain’t the Vega.
I was joking with John Darko and Michael Lavorgna at CES this past year that the Vega “committed no sins”. That sounds a bit like weak tea, but it’s not — and it’s true — other than the more robust derrière on the Alpha, I can’t think of anything about the Vega that stands out. At all. Ever. And that’s a very good thing.
Sonically, the Vega sounds a little tonally shifted upward than the apparent mid-bass focus on the Berkeley. I’m not saying that the Vega is thread-bare, or lightweight, but rather that the Alpha just presents with more gravitas. Both are interesting, but I understand folks that would argue that the Vega is the more neutral of the two.
This DAC has handily shown up DACs five time’s the price and I have zero issues comparing it directly to anything on the market. Anything. Will it “win”? Who knows. But it will not be embarrassed.
I’ve run the Vega directly from a Mac Mini, all tricked out with system optimizations and specialized playback software from Sonic Studios and others. Fed directly into the Vega via the USB, the sound quality was fautless. Swapping in the Wyrd from Schiit, a “USB decrapifyer” that purportedly removes USB-based noise from the transmission chain, the sound quality did not notably change. Adding a Berkeley Audio Alpha USB, arguably the world’s best USB-to-S/PDIF converter on the market, also did not change the sound appreciably. Said another way, the Vega has an extremely sophisticated USB input. Use it and be not afraid.
The biggest change in improvement from the Vega came from removing my Mac Mini and swapping in the awesome (and awesomely priced) Aurender W20. Fed an ultra-stable audio signal from the W20, I could set the super-precise femto clocks on the Vega to the best-sounding “Exact Mode” and got zero issues or dropouts, something my poor Mini seemed to struggle with more than occasionally. A reset, restart, or power outage meant re-stabilizing the clocks and also meant stutters and drop-outs with the Mini. Using a NAS with gigabit attached storage meant the same. Using the W20, directly wired, meant no such issue — ever. Compared to the Mini, the sound just seemed to relax, extend farther, and fill in just a bit more on the midrange. I’ve never heard this DAC sound better.
The only complaint I have? Okay, “complaint” is too strong. But about that knob. Yes, it does in fact incorporate a volume control. And like most DAC that sport volume knobs, the attenuation is all-digital. Which means that it’s absolutely perfect for up to about -12dB from unity (aka, “as loud as it can get”); for volumes approaching “reasonable listening”, the sound quality quickly takes a face-first dive off a rather high cliff and directly into meh. My recommendation — keep your preamplifier. For the record, AURALiC offers one. I’ll offer this comment with the acknowledgement that my recommendation is exactly the same that I’ve made for just about every DAC on the market today, so I don’t see this as a deviation or in any way a detraction. But given the extremely prominent knob on the front panel, and the overwhelming temptation one might have to use it, I’ll offer that the DAC works superlatively without your ever needing to use it as the attenuator.
Here’s the bottom line — the AURALiC Vega is my new reference. Yes, I’ve heard better DACs — the giant dCS stack is one, but it costs as much as a house. The BorderPatrol NOS DAC is another, but that DAC only does Redbook — no high-resolution audio at all. The Bricasti M1 and the new Berkeley Reference DAC are both very serious contenders for spontaneous pants-loading, but both are 3x the price of the Vega, or more.
Given that delta, and my sheer delight at the performance I’m hearing with this DAC from AURALiC, the Vega easily earns Editor’s Choice award.
Nicely done, AURALiC.
Most highly recommended.