Auralic Aries Mini Streamer and Linear PSU Review
It isn’t very big but it is rather clever.
What is the Auralic Aries Mini?The Auralic Aries Mini is a compact network audio player and the smallest and most affordable streamer in the Auralic range. This extends up into very rarefied territory indeed and includes some of the most sophisticated devices on sale but, at £450, the Aries Mini has to rely on slightly more conventional hardware to get the job done. This £400-500 range seems to be a key contest point for streamers – only last month we saw the Arcam rPlay arrive in the market and other models are due.
Dig a little deeper and the Aries begins to reveal some intriguing differences to most rivals that we’ll cover in the specifications box. It has clearly been designed with a view to minimising the ‘learning curve’ of network audio. These requirements – the need to have at least a rudimentary understanding of the architecture of a network and the equipment therein have often meant that streamers have lost out to USB DACs in simplicity terms. The greater flexibility they offer is only useful if you have the means to get them going in the first place.
So, can this little white box deliver sparking performance, simplicity of operation and some head turning features for the asking price? Can it also show a bit of upgradeability thanks to the optional power supply that Auralic has sent with the review sample? Time to find out.
SpecificationsOver the last few years, the specification of UPnP streamers has begun to stabilise. At their core, they offer support for multiple formats up to the 192kHz range and match this with the ability to receive internet radio and some streaming services. Looked at in the simplest possible way, the Auralic is entirely in keeping with these requirements. It supports UPnP streaming to 32/384kHz (a size of file I still possess no examples of) and additionally handles up to Quad rate DSD. You will find internet radio and support for Qobuz and Tidal. The basic specification of the Aries Mini is absolutely what you might expect and viewed in comparison to the Arcam rPlay, it betters that specification in a few key areas.
Internally, the Aries is built around the omnipresent ESS Sabre DAC chip – one of the main reasons why it supports the specification it does. The analogue stage of the circuit includes a preamp fuction as well with 100 increments of adjustment and as this happens in the analogue domain, there is no recourse to bit reduction or other such nastiness. The analogue output is via RCA phono connections and the Aries Mini additionally supports optical and coaxial connections.
From here, the specification of the Aries Mini goes a little more ‘blue sky.’ Joining the digital outputs on the rear panel is a pair of USB-A connections. These can be used to read attached drives and sticks as is commonly encountered on other streamers but they can also be used to attach the Aries Mini to any USB DAC that can be run driverless. This is not a commonly encountered feature and one that is potentially quite handy – slap a pair of AudioQuest Dragonflys into the back and you’d have a three output server for a multiroom system for example.
The unique features don’t end there either. Central to the key differentiation of the Aries Mini is that Auralic describes it as a ‘Node.’ This isn’t them playing fast and loose with a word when it suits them either. As well as the standard decoding hardware, the Auralic has a Quad-Core ARM Coretex-A9 processor with 512MB of RAM. This is a fair amount of processing power for a streamer but it fits in with the role of the Aries Mini being a little more elastic than simple receiving device. If you attach a drive to the Aries Mini, it can serve it to other UPnP devices on the same network obviating the need for a NAS drive. If hanging drives off the unit seems a little inelegant, you can also make use of an internal bay on the underside of the chassis that will accept a 2.5” drive. For an extra £100 or so, you could have the Aries Mini running as a self-contained 2TB music server which is potentially very interesting.
Tying this together is a bespoke control app that Auralic calls Lightning DS. Key to the functionality and user experience of Lightning is that it constructs and retains its own database of the music you are listening to rather than relying on the server to create one. This means that the first time you use the app, you will need to select the library and wait whilst Lightning reads it and build the database. Even with a reasonably hefty library of material, this should not take more than a few minutes and once done, the app retains the information and will instantly re-access it when you start it up.
Auralic seems to be very keyed up on the perceived stability of their product and as a result of this and them only being a small team of people, Lightning DS is iOS only. This is going to potentially annoy a few people – the Android platform is more than up to the task of running apps with near total stability – but it has to be said that I’d rather have one really good app than two indifferent ones. For what it’s worth, the Aries Mini will respond to Android apps like Bubble if you needed it to although this won’t give internet radio or streaming service access.
The final area of interest in the specification concerns the power supply. As sold at £450, the Aries Mini comes with a small wall wart power supply – not dissimilar in design and form to the one that comes with the Arcam rPlay and a number of similar devices. For an extra £250 though, you can replace the wall wart with a linear PSU. This comes in its own metal chassis and accepts an IEC mains feed before outputting via an umbilical cable. Auralic claims that fitting it in place of the supplied PSU should drop the noise levels by a considerable amount. This approach has some considerable merit in commercial terms. If the idea of an upgrade power supply offends your sensibilities, you don’t have to buy it. Auralic also heads off a frequently asked question in the form of why they don’t fit it as standard by clearly demonstrating that it wouldn’t fit in the chassis as designed.
DesignSome of Auralic’s more expensive products are very impressive pieces of industrial design. The full Aries unit that sits above the Aries Mini has some rather lovely features and recently announced flagships look very elegant indeed. Constrained by the more terrestrial price, the Aries Mini is a bit more prosaic. The design is square when viewed from above and with the exception of the company name embossed in the top panel and a small running light it is basically free of adornment. The power supply – while a total different visual design – is no less free of visual frills but it’s very well made indeed.
Given it is small and made of plastic, there are limitations to how solid Auralic can make the Aries Mini feel but they’ve done a reasonable job. The chassis doesn’t feel as solid as the Arcam rPlay but it is clear that a considerable amount of care and attention has been lavished on it. It also has a very welcome feature in the form of a play/pause button in addition to volume up and down. Being able to silence the unit instantly without recourse to the app is very welcome indeed.
For an extra £100 or so, you could have the Aries Mini running as a self-contained 2TB music server which is potentially very interesting
How was the Aries Mini tested?The Auralic has been in situ for a reasonable length of time and has been connected to a Convert Technologies Plato Class A, a Chord 2800MkII integrated amplifier and Naim Supernait 2 integrated amp. Speakers used have included the XTZ Spirit 11, ATC SCM40 and the Neat Momentum 4. Music libraries have been supplied via Western Digital MyBook and a Melco N1-A/2 with some tests done both wired and wireless. Material used has included lossless and high res FLAC and AIFF, DSD and some use of Tidal.
Sound QualitySetting the Aries Mini up is entirely straightforward and takes no more than a few minutes. Initially connected without the external PSU, the performance compared to the Arcam rPlay is interesting. Modern digital is almost without exception, quite ridiculously good so you probably won’t be terribly surprised to learn that the Aries Mini is extremely capable but the presentation is a little different to the rPlay. The Auralic is a more immediate and slightly more forward sounding player. The CD rip of London Grammar has a slightly greater sense of the live event to it with Hannah Reid’s vocals having more realism to them and more space in the recording as a whole.
This immediacy is something that has some intriguing side effects. The Auralic never goes so far as to make poor recordings unlistenable but it will manage to let you know that there are some limitations in the mastering. The means by which it does this is impressively restrained though. The top end stays refined and controlled and you’d have to do something pretty extreme to tip it over into harshness or aggression. It is more the case that the Auralic manages to sound so much better with good recordings that you know full well when you aren’t listening to one.
Give it really good material though and the Aries Mini is seriously impressive. The 24/192kHz download of Antonio Forcione & Sabina Sciubba’s Meet me in London is pure audiophile indulgence in every way… but it does sound absolutely mighty when played on decent equipment and that is emphatically the case here. The presentation is stunningly lifelike and little things like the decay on guitar notes is tangibly real.
Of course, this recording does have the advantage that the bass extension from a female vocalist supported by an acoustic guitar isn’t that hefty. Used as a standalone device, the Aries Mini can feel a little lean in the bass compared to the fuller and richer Arcam and the similarly priced (if functionally rather different) Chord Mojo. The bass that there is has speed, precision and impressive detail but there simply isn’t the impact to it that is available elsewhere.
This is where the linear PSU comes in. Adding it to the Aries Mini doesn’t do anything truly radical to the upper registers – which to be honest is no bad thing – but the sense of the noise floor drops a little and the low end gains a bit more welly. Why? I have no idea but I would call the results sufficiently repeatable as to be something I’m happy to put into words in the review. As noted, if you don’t like the idea of it, the Aries Mini will work entirely happily without it.
Switching to some tests with streaming services, both Tidal and Qobuz work extremely well and suffer from none of the compression or graininess that the Arcam seems to suffer from at times. If the album you listen to on Tidal has been well recorded, it will sound good on the Auralic and if it isn’t an especially good recording, the Auralic will let you know in the politest possible way that is has some issues. The performance with decent bandwidth internet radio stations is also good although as you might expect, things will get a bit thin and nasty when you drop the levels too far. The integration of the additional services is good too and the Lightning DS app has been reliable and pleasant to use in the time the Auralic has been running.
The Auralic manages to sound so much better with good recordings that you know full well when you aren’t listening to one
- Excellent sonic performance
- Interesting potential as a server
- Slightly lean bass without PSU
- A little lightweight physically
- App is iOS only
Auralic Aries Mini Streamer and Linear PSU ReviewComing so soon after we looked at the Arcam rPlay, it is hard not to make comparisons between it and the Aries Mini. The all metal Arcam looks and feels smarter, it’s part of a larger ecosystem of product, the preamp section offers finer adjustment and it’s £50 cheaper. After that, things start to lean back towards the Auralic. The Aries Mini is truly phenomenal performer and the better the material you throw at it, the better it gets. It has a well thought out and capable control app and the idea of turning it into a self-contained music server will appeal to quite a few people. There’s also the possibility of boosting the performance at a later date via the external power supply. This is a deeply capable streaming product and one that has to be considered excellent value for money. For this reason, the Aries Mini earns a worthy recommendation.
Suggested retail price when reviewed: £450.00
Ease of Use8
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