Auralic Polaris All-in-One Streaming System Review
It’s called Polaris but is the Auralic a star?
What is the Auralic Polaris?The Auralic Polaris is – ostensibly at least – an all-in-one streaming system in a similar vein to a few devices that we have looked at already. In keeping with what is a category that is still showing definite signs of evolution, there are some twists to a superficially ‘conventional’ specification. Like the compact Aries Mini we looked at recently, the Polaris has some facets of its specification that offer some intriguing possibilities.
It also represents the opportunity to look at the results of designing an all-in-one when your existing product catalogue suggests your real speciality lies in the digital domain. As we saw with the Aries Mini, the decoding ability and sheer performance that Auralic were able to achieve with a relatively affordable device was extremely impressive but that didn’t have an amplifier in it. The Polaris has to function across multiple disciplines and as yet we haven’t seen how Auralic is equipped in that particular regard. If these systems don’t have the means to back up their ambitious promises, they don’t tend to do very well.
Finally there’s the competition to look at. In recent months, we’ve seen some very clever models in this particular product category. If you have around £3,000 to spend on an audio system, the increasing evidence is that many of the one box options available are the best balance of performance and features you can buy at the price, eclipsing even a well sorted collection of separates. This means that the Polaris has some very capable products standing in its way. Let’s see how it gets on.
SpecificationsThe Polaris is described as a ‘Wireless Streaming Amplifier’ – a description not unlike that given to the Leema Quasar we looked at recently. Quite why this term is used is unclear – whether there is still a stigma attached to the term ‘all in one’ or not is hard to work out, although there might be something in it – but the Polaris contains both power and self-contained source so is an all-in-one in all but name.
The main source is a UPnP streaming module which is extremely similar to that used in the Aries Mini but none the worse for that. You get PCM support to 32/384kHz and multiple rate DSD and this can be accessed via Ethernet or wireless. Auralic recommends using a wired connection – with a view to stability, most companies do – but they don’t throttle the performance of the Polaris via the wireless connection. Decoding comes courtesy of an ESS Sabre DAC which is one the key reasons you get the breadth of format support that you do.
As well the ability to access your own music, you can also make use of integrated Tidal and Qobuz options too – as before, Auralic has decided against the use of Spotify. These are tied into the Lightning app that we saw in the Aries Mini. Lighting is iOS only and unusually builds its own database of your music library rather than relying on the one created by your server. This means that the first time you select the library with the app, there will be a pause while the app assembles the library but once done, restart is pretty much instant.
So far, this is extremely similar to the Aries Mini but the Polaris is sufficiently far up the ladder of Auralic products, it gains an extra piece of hardware that isn’t seen on the smaller unit. The Polaris features a discrete master clock as part of its digital circuit. This is a device that controls the accuracy of the pulsed digital stream produced before it is decoded. Most products – even at this fairly hefty price point will make use of one that comes as part of the DAC circuit. The Polaris makes use of a dedicated clock to control these pulses which Auralic refers to as the ‘Femto Master Clock’ which refers to its femto second accuracy rather than any gender leanings it might be supposed to have. No less useful is the presence of two different oscillators in the clock. One handles multiples of 44.1kHz while the second handles multiples of 48kHz. This is useful because we actually made use of both multiples in testing. The 44.1kHz sample multiples include 88.2kHz (which is quite common) and 176.4 which is rather rarer, whilst 48kHz meanwhile crops up as the default output for DVD and BluRay to a non format equipped decoder and 96 and 192kHz are frequently used as high res multiples.
This decoding is also made available to an AES, coaxial and digital output and like other Auralic products, the USB connection can also work as a digital output to a suitably equipped USB DAC. These USB connections can also be used to attach a hard drive, turning the Polaris into a self contained system (more like the Convert Technologies Plato) and also allow it to serve that content to other devices. Throw in a final spot of internet radio and you have a very capable digital device.
These digital connections are joined by two pairs of RCA sockets. These can serve as inputs but there is a bit more to their abilities as well. The first input can be switched between line level and moving magnet operation while the second can either be an input or a pre-out for connecting a power amp. All of this is accessible via menu control and it means that while the Auralic can’t match the sheer avalanche of connectivity that the Leema Quasar offers, it can be configured to do many of the same things on the understanding that most people won’t be seeking to do everything at once.
Power for all this functionality comes from a Class D stereo amplifier. This offers 120 watts into 8 ohms and 180W into four and permits the Polaris to run a relatively compact casework that doesn’t need much in the way of ventilation. Output is via a single set of high quality WBT style terminals. Unusually, the volume control of the Polaris operates in both the analogue and digital domains. An analogue attenuator carries out large steps while the digital section provides fine adjustment within these steps. This does mean that a degree of A-D conversion will take place on the analogue inputs.
DesignCompared to the rather prosaic, and it must be said – plastic – Aries Mini, the Polaris is a very different beast. The three quarter width casework is entirely metal and feels extremely solid. Everything on the Polaris feels solid and well considered and there are some lovely design touches. The yellow on black digital display is clear and easy on the eye and looks very smart, while the recessed section for the volume control is a nice touch, helped in no small part by the volume control itself feeling really nice in the hand.
Crucially, the Auralic has its own sense of identity. It doesn’t really seek to copy anything else and the resulting product feels a bit different to its rivals. The control interface is good and combined with the decent control app, this is an easy product to live with day to day. I do miss not having the album and artist information show on the display but since you are likely to be using it with the app, this should not be a make or break issue for most people.
Everything on the Polaris feels solid and well considered and there are some lovely design touches
How was the Polaris tested?The Auralic has been placed on a Quadraspire QAVX equipment rack and used on a local network into a Melco N1A2 NAS drive. Speakers have been my resident Neat Momentum 4i Floorstanders. Some testing has been undertaken via wireless to allow for the streaming services to be tested as well. The analogue inputs have been connected to a Naim ND5 XS streamer with XP5 XS power supply and a heavily modified Audio Technica LP5 turntable to test the phono stage input. Material used has included lossless and high res FLAC and AIFF, DSD, Tidal and some vinyl.
Sound QualityHaving performed the painless setup on the Polaris, the first thing to note is that while it doesn’t feel as enormously powerful as the Leema Quasar, it can handle the slightly demanding load of the Neat speakers without any sign of strain, suggesting that the current delivery is good. In keeping with a number of recent products I’ve tested that use Class D amplifiers, the Auralic is weirdly analogue sounding at times. It is almost impossible to provoke into harshness or aggression and there is a warmth to the midrange of the Polaris that can be a little surprising.
Importantly, this warmth doesn’t get in the way of a detailed and dynamic performance. Listening to the lovely Innerworld by Electric Youth, the Auralic has a punchy and lively presentation that combines deep but agile bass with an airy and spacious top end. Bronwyn Griffin’s ephemeral vocals are sweet and detailed with plenty of the tonal realism required to sound believable. Even as the levels climb, the Polaris stays wonderfully fluid and controlled. Compared to the punchy and ballistic Leema Quasar and Moon Neo ACE, the Auralic can sound fractionally more relaxed but not to the point where it comes across as slow or languid. This also means that more gentle music can sound better as there isn’t quite the same sense of relentlessness to it.
It also really shows off the periodic benefits of high resolution music. Listening to the 2.8MHz DSD download of Depeche Mode’s Everything Counts, the Auralic captures the distinctive sweetness that the format seems to bring to the performance. This doesn’t get in the way of a potent edge to the performance itself, with the same deep, well defined bass and a real sense of drive and energy. High res PCM is also extremely impressive. The only point of minor negativity is that when you switch formats, the first second of the music at the new format or sampling rate seems to be muted. Although it's not the end of the world, it is worth mentioning.
The fundamentally refined nature of the presentation means that the Auralic holds up well when asked to play less than perfect material. Enjoying the magnificently 90s mastering of Bomb the Bass's Into the Dragon, the Auralic still manages to sound informative and entertaining. You should be able to throw a wide variety of material at the Polaris and enjoy all of it. Should you want to broaden this further, the streaming service support is well thought out and has proved entirely stable in its time on test. Internet radio represents the only real way of unsettling the performance of the Polaris with its own on-board facilities. As with most of its rivals, if you drop the sample rate of the incoming station to seriously low levels, it can sound rather scratchy and thin but the more commonly used stations sound perfectly fine.
As you might expect, the performance via the digital inputs is effectively identical to the streaming platform. Connecting a Sky HD box via optical is particularly effective, with a wide selection of material sounding clear and refined. Outside of rarefied circles, the fitment of the AES balanced input isn’t as useful as another coaxial or optical connection but there is still enough socketry to be useful for most owners. Some tests with the analogue inputs suggest that despite their multiple functions, they will give you an accurate representation of the qualities of the device you have connected. The phono stage option is useful too although I would say that this is not the most effective on-board phono stage of the sort fitted to these devices. It doesn’t have quite the sense of energy and life to it that the unit fitted to the Moon Neo ACE does for example while the extremely sophisticated unit built into the Convert Technologies Plato remains the best example I’ve seen in an all-in-one system.
The fundamentally refined nature of the presentation means that the Auralic holds up well when asked to play less than perfect material
- Exceptional streaming front end
- Powerful and refined sound
- Superbly made
- App is iOS only
- Phono stage is average
Auralic Polaris All-in-One Streaming System ReviewOver the last few months we have looked at a broad spread of these all-in-one devices and I feel extremely confident reiterating that, at the moment, the sheer level of performance that these devices offer is such that, as far as I am concerned, they represent the best bang for your buck at this price point. The good news is that there is enough variation in their specifications that the right one for you almost certainly already exists.
What the Auralic Polaris offers is a compact but deeply capable digital fronted experience. This is one of the most innately capable streaming platforms on the market and this makes for a device that will get the best out of a digital library no matter how diverse it is and how many different formats it includes. Combined with solid streaming service support and an excellent app, you have a device that is right up at the top of the pack. Combined with a well integrated amplification section, the results are extremely impressive. While it has to give ground to the analogue connectivity of some rivals, there should be enough for most would-be owners. This compact and well thought out device offers excellent performance for the asking price and warrants recommendation.
Ease of Use8
Value for Money8
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