Introduction - What is the Auralic Altair G1?
The Auralic Altair G1 is a network streaming preamp and a member of the three strong range of ‘G1’ components from Auralic that sits below the flagship G2 line of devices. It was the last to appear in the range which is superficially odd because in some ways, it is the most conventional of the three products. This is Auralic’s take on what a sub £2k network streaming product should be and in this regard - as we shall cover - it makes some slightly different design decisions to rivals.
Of course, the omens for the the Altair G1 being a good product are pretty considerable. It has been a while since we last looked at an Auralic product but the performance of the compact Aries Mini was something that brought some new tricks to the more affordable price point it competed in (it is now discontinued) so there’s a reasonable chance that this bigger, cleverer box will too.
One area of contention remains though; streaming is changing. We have tested products that can bring a creditable streaming front end to any DAC or digital input that takes your fancy. The result is more boxes but one that can make use of your existing hardware and, in theory anyway, better match your sonic preferences. Can the Altair G1 make a convincing case for being a one stop shop that delivers the goods?
Specification and Design
As noted, there are three members of the G1 family and the Altair is perhaps the most normal of the three. The Aries G1 and Vega G1 are designed to work together but do so with an intriguing level of specification overlap. The Aries G1 is a streaming transport with no decoding of its own. It’s designed to correlate your digital library and send a digital output to the matching Vega G1 DAC. This is fine and dandy except that the Vega G1 is actually a fairly capable streamer in its own right. Depending on how you intend to use it, it isn’t a given that it actually needs a front end to function.
The Altair G1 is rather more logical, it is both streaming front end and DAC and it mates this with some additional features that we’ll cover off in due course. The most significant initial aspect of the Altair G1 though is the interface and the features tied in with it. Like all Auralic products we have tested, the Altair G1 uses the Lightning control app, developed in house by Auralic. We’ve had some extensive feedback about how to describe and rate control apps in recent review comment threads so this warrants a little more detail.
Lightning works at two levels. It’ll find any Auralic product and allow for control of a library rendered by your server. In the case of products like the Altair G1, it will also be the server. It will take a hard drive of music, organise it, create the library and make it available to other Auralic devices. This can be done by simply plugging a hard drive into the back of the Altair into one of the USB connections there. If you either don’t feel terribly comfortable with network hardware or you are in a property where the point where your library would sit is a long way from the system, this is very handy indeed.
There’s an extra party piece to the Altair G1 too. It is fitted with an internal hard drive bay that accepts 2.5” type hard drives. This turns the Altair G1 into a completely self-contained streaming device that needs no other hardware to do what it does. All of this would be somewhat pointless if the app itself wasn’t any good but, thankfully it is. Lightning is one of a select few apps I have used that has never fallen over, got confused or randomly changed things without asking. It offers seamless integration with Tidal (including MQA) and Qobuz and it offers extensive customisation.
There are two caveats to this. The first is that because when you are running it in Lightning Server mode, it also renders the library in the app, it is a big piece of software, generally clocking in at over a gig on a device once a thousand album library is rendered. The other is that Auralic took the decision to commit their resources to iOS only. If you want to control the Altair G1, you’ll need an Apple device or switch it over to Roon; something that Auralic ensures you can do easily. Auralic’s argument that they’d rather have one app that worked all the time over two that don’t might be unpalatable for die hard Applephobes but it does make a degree of sense.
Lightning is one of a select few apps I have used that has never fallen over, got confused or randomly changed things without asking
This streaming interface is partnered with a selection of digital inputs - one each of USB-B, AES, coax and optical along with AirPlay. These are all decoded by an ESS9038Q2M DAC which is of a slightly lower specification than the one used in the more expensive Vega and forgoes some of the detail trimmings that the Vega has like the ORFEO class A output module and jitter reduction technology of the bigger DAC. It does retain the Femto clock technology that is something of an Auralic speciality. In terms of format handling, you’re unlikely to cause it any strain. The Altair supports PCM to 384kHz and DSD512 which should cover most bases. Both balanced and unbalanced outputs are available.
What isn’t available are digital outputs. If you buy an Altair G1, you cannot decide later on that you’re going to add one of Auralic’s more ornate DACs to it. This might seem limiting but I’m not sure how many people actually wind up doing this and Auralic does make the Aries with the all the outputs you could possibly want for the same price. It also has to be seen in light of the other functionality you do get. The Altair G1 can be used as a preamp with a volume control that can be switched in and out and it has a headphone socket too. As well as Lightning, there is an extensive amount of configuration too, with adjustable digital filters, upsampling and sample rate conversion for compatibility.
There’s one other feature here which is genuinely clever. Like many modern streamers, the Altair G1 doesn’t come with an IR handset. It can make use of one however. If you have an amplifier remote that has the standard range of unused buttons for controlling a matching digital source, the Altair G1 can be taught to respond to these codes. This means that the digital inputs can be accessed without deep diving the app and - the one that really matters - you can mute it instantly. It’s some joined up thinking from Auralic that makes a few rivals look a little limited.
All of this comes wrapped in Auralic’s G1 casework which is a big step forward over their previous designs. For me, the most important aspect of the Altair (and the rest of the family) is the inclusion of a display. It means that the Auralic is not simply a ‘mystery box’ but a handsome and fully functional device in its own right. At a whisker under two thousand pounds, the Auralic feels like the sort of product you’ll unbox at home without the creeping sense of buyer’s remorse that comes from realising you’ve spent a fortune on a box. It is extremely well made too. Only the display’s inability to show track and album data at the same time and the substantial lip over the rear inputs which makes blind connection impossible, really count against it.
It means that the Auralic is not simply a ‘mystery box’ but a handsome and fully functional device in its own right
How was the Altair G1 Tested?
After the standard app functionality tests, the Altair G1 has been switched to a Roon endpoint connected via Ethernet to a Roon Nucleus using a Melco N1A as a library. Some testing with an LG 55B7 OLED via optical has also occurred. It has been connected to a Naim Supernait 3, Cambridge Audio Edge A and Exposure active system with Focal Kanta No1, Kudos Titan 505, Acoustic Energy AE500 and Neat Ministra speakers. Material used has been FLAC, AIFF, some DSD, Tidal, Qobuz and on demand TV services.
More info: Audio Formats - What does what and what it all means.
Listening to the Auralic in the context of a reasonably capable system should serve as a demonstration that there is more to the quality of a digital product than the chip involved, important though that might be. The Q2M version of the ESS chipset is - as far as ESS is concerned anyway - a fairly basic piece of silicone. It is possible to find devices with higher end versions of the Sabre (and even the eight channel pro version) for rather less than the Altair G1 costs and the decoding hardware in the Altair G1 isn’t more capable than the system crammed into the Lindemann Limetree Network. Despite this, the Altair G1 sounds extremely good.
This is down to countless other variables, from the quality of the power supply to those extensive clock arrangements and the components in the output stage. In the case of the Altair G1, they combine to create a product that delivers a performance that I struggle to see how anyone could truly dislike. For starters, it is commendably neutral. The Auralic has almost nothing in the way of an ‘edge’ to it. If I select Infra Red by Placebo, as grim an example of a ‘loudness war’ recording as I own, the Altair G1 makes it clear that this isn’t a great recording but it’s perfectly and consistently listenable. If your music collection is something assembled over decades with more than a few rough edges, the Auralic is the sort of device that can take it all in its stride.
And this means that when you leave Placebo alone, the Altair really starts to enthuse. The wonderful opening Come Talk to Me from Peter Gabriel’s Us is delivered in a manner that is effortlessly right. It builds from the delicate and calm opening to the crescendo without losing the headroom or feeling of three dimensionality as it does so. The word that crops up in the notes repeatedly is ‘unforced.’ It means that when you listen to the 24/96 Qobuz version of All Ashore by Punch Brothers, there’s nothing forced or overblown about these delicate and strictly analogue performances but when you want it to get stuck into the altogether more aggressive Novocaine by Twin Atlantic, it does so with unhesitating enthusiasm.
Furthermore, this is something you can tweak a little further with the digital filters. Like most of these adjustable settings, these don’t make a night and day difference to performance but they do adjust some of the finer points of the presentation and I found myself sticking with the ‘Dynamic’ setting which reduces some of the group delay settings and - completely subjectively - made for a fractionally more energetic presentation.
In all the settings though, the Auralic reveals itself to be a device that is extremely easy to listen to for long periods without tipping over into sounding dull or soporific. With a healthy degree of subjective preference, I very fractionally prefer the slightly more rhythmically energetic presentation that the Naim ND5 XS2 brings to music but this is almost certainly something that could be balanced in the amp and speaker choices you made for the Auralic - not ignoring you having an extra £400 to spend on them if you go for the Auralic too.
All the extra features very much work as intended too. AirPlay is untouchable as a means of getting sound quickly and easily out of the device and with 16/44.1 material you’d be hard pressed to tell the difference between that and content streamed via UPnP. The optical input works a charm with the LG OLED (and simply being able to press the ‘2’ button on the Naim Supernait remote to get there is something that makes most rivals look appallingly clunky). If I’m being at my most critical, it would be to say that the bass extension of the Altair isn’t quite as deep or confident as something like the Naim or the Chord Hugo2 but we’re talking tiny shades of variation and, again, it would be something that could easily be balanced out across a system as a whole.
One final area where the Altair has another string to an already sizable bow is that the headphone amp is far more than an afterthought. It keeps the same appealing presentation as the main outputs and benefits from a completely linear 100 step volume control that means you get the listening level you want rather than something approximate to it. If you don’t have a headphone socket elsewhere in the system, it’s a very handy addition.
In all the settings though, the Auralic reveals itself to be a device that is extremely easy to listen to for long periods without tipping over into sounding dull or soporific
- Sounds great across a wide selection of formats and mastering
- Extremely comprehensive specification
- Very well made and easy to use
- No digital outputs
- No Android app
- Fractional lack of bass weight
Auralic Altair G1 Network Streaming Preamp Review
The very varied nature of streamer functionality means that making direct comparisons between them is very hard. In simple sound quality terms, the Altair G1 doesn’t do much (or indeed anything) more than the Lindemann Limetree Network which is effectively £1,000 less expensive. These two products don’t really exist in the same space though. The Lindemann has vastly less functionality than the Auralic, a rather more basic app and a comes in a dinky box rather than the full-fledged casework of the Auralic.
Where the Auralic shines is just how flexible it can be. Want a line level streamer? Fine. Need it to be a server too? Not a problem. Handle additional digital sources too? Yep. Want to simply connect it to a pair of active speakers for a slimline elegant system? Ready when you are. It’s this ability to do so many different things and so many of them well that really helps the Auralic to justify the cost hike over the Lindemann. This is truly brilliant digital front end and an indisputable Best Buy.
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