Review | Auralic Altair G1 Digital Audio Streamer By The Computer Audiophile - April 2020
Product available for demo instore.
Please contact us for an audition.
03 9578 8658 or email@example.com
The Auralic Altair G1 digital audio streamer is rare in the world of high-end audio. Most of us are used to single purpose components that require numerous add-ons for additional features or components that are multi-function but serve as a jack of all trades, masters of none. The Altair G1 is rare because it provides consumers with nearly everything they want, does nearly everything right, and is relatively inexpensive compared to the other options in this often-crazy world of HiFi.
I used the Altair G1 for a few months, giving it a workout the likes of which it hadn't seen before and may never see again. I know this because the team at Auralic frequently told me this was the case. I looked at every one of its advertised features and used each one like it was the sole reason someone would purchase the product. We've all been disappointed in the past be products that advertise a feature, but we soon discover it works under very limited circumstances and only if there's a Super Blood Wolf Moon in sight. Fortunately, Auralic delivers on every one of its promises with the Altair G1.
The Altair G1 is one of those components that checks all the boxes, enabling me to recommend it to friends and fellow audiophiles without hesitation. If I wasn't in the position of frequently receiving new reference class, crazy expensive components for my "job," my money would certainly be on the Altair G1. It's the right component for the right price from the right company, and here's why. Auralic Altair G1 Let's dig into how I used the Altair G1, what I found, the pros and cons of each option, and my unfiltered sonic impressions of this well-built gem. The Altair G1 is one of those components that speaks to me because it enables me to streamline my system, by using it to its maximum capacity and it enables me to use whatever limited set of features I want at any given time. In other words, it's for the guy who wants a solution now and never wants to mess with it and for the guy who may want to fiddle with some options. I first started using the Altair G1 by taking it to the max. By that I mean, using all of its built-in features. In this configuration I,
Bypassed my preamplifier and connected the G1 directly to my Constellation Audio Monoblock amplifiers.
Used the built-in Altair G1 digital volume control.
Used the Ethernet input for control, via Auralic's Lightning DS app, and streaming.
Used the built-in LightningServer to scan and serve up my music library.
Connected a USB drive directly to the back of the unit for my music files.
This is the most appealing configuration of the Altair G1 for people who want to streamline their systems, reduce potential problems, and save money by skipping a preamp and third-party software licenses. In this configuration I found the Altair G1's robust 4.5 Vrms balanced analogue output stage drove my amplifiers directly without an issue.
Note: Both the balanced XLR and unbalanced RCA outputs are rated at 4.5 volts.
Balanced: XLR (4.5Vrms at 0dBFS, output impedance 10ohm) Unbalanced: RCA (4.5Vrms at 0dBFS, output impedance 50ohm)
Given this setup it only seems logical to use the G1's built-in digital volume control, although it isn't absolutely necessary. I'll get into that a bit later. That said, volume control is a feature that as a consumer I must understand and evaluate before purchasing any DAC. The Altair G1's built-in digital volume control can be engaged (default) or bypassed by either setting the volume to 100 or disabling it within the DAC settings. Volume controls are immensely important for sound quality and audio system design / budget. The Altair G1'a volume control is vastly different from the very high-end volume control in Auralic's Vega G2 DAC, but that's a much different product at a completely different price point. The Altair G1 uses the ESS 9038Q2M DAC chip's onboard volume attenuator as a way to maximize performance for a reasonable price.
Getting my music to the Altair G1, navigating that music and controlling playback can be done numerous ways because of the flexibility built into almost all Auralic products. In this configuration I put Auralic's Tesla platform to the test by using the G1's Ethernet input for streaming music from Tidal and Qobuz, and for all navigation and control related functions. The Tesla platform is the heart of what makes this digital audio streamer so amazing and what sets it apart from most products in the industry. This is Auralic's custom, in-house hardware and software platform that enables all of these advanced features and incredible flexibility.
One of the most underrated features and one that really takes the Altair G1 to another level is the built-in LightningServer. This is similar to a UPnP/DLNA server in that it scans one's music library and makes the tracks available for playback on audio devices, not only the Altair G1 it's running on. Most other HiFi products with Ethernet inputs depend on an external UPnP/DLNA servers or Roon servers to get music in the DACs. This adds another layer of complexity and cost. In this initial configuration I directed LightningServer to scan an attached USB hard drive. This isn't my normal use case, but I was going for the all-in-one style that uses the Altair G1 to the max. Readers should also note that the Altair G1 has room for an internal 2.5-inch hard drive inside the chassis. If one's library is small enough to fit on a 2.5-inch drive, I would go this route in a heartbeat. It's just so convenient, fast, and trouble-free.
Based on my conversations with the Auralic team, I also suggest using a low powered spinning 2.5-inch HDD as the internal drive. On the surface it may seem like solid state drives are best because there are no moving parts, but the added electrical noise generated by SSDs due to their advanced features and increasing commoditization may hurt performance when placed inside a delicate audio component such as the Altair G1.
Overall, I love this configuration because it's so simple and it's also high end at the same time. It uses the Altair G1 to its max, taking advantage of nearly all the features. I say nearly all because Lightning DS offers even more capabilities such as AirPlay, Bluetooth, Spotify Connect, Roon Ready, sample rate resampling, parametric equalizer, speaker placement compensation, and many others. However, each one of us has slightly different wants and needs. The Altair G1 can adapt to these wants and needs with ease, as readers will see next.
Stretching the Altair G1
I'm a music lover who has collected my fair share of FLAC files over the years. This has led to many problems requiring research and workarounds with respect to my HiFi system. At nearly 20,000 albums, 300,000 tracks, and 10 terabytes, this local library isn't easily stored on internal streaming DAC drives or USB drives conveniently and safely. Thus, I store all these local files on a QNAP NAS. Adjusting the aforementioned Altair G1 configuration slightly to have LightningServer scan my NAS rather than a locally attached drive, I stretched the G1 to what is likely its max. The first several times I tried to scan my massive library, LightningSever went haywire and caused the Altair G1 to lock up. I contacted Auralic to clarify the maximum library capacity, if there was one, and to get some guidance on getting this configuration working. A day later, Auralic headquarters suggested that my Ubiquiti UniFi network was possibly too fast for the activities taking place during a complete library scan. Even though I had flow control enabled on my switches, I immediately changed the single port through with the Altair G1 was connected to the network, from 1 Gbps to 100 Mbps. I restarted the library scan and it completed without an issue. Granted it took a long time to scan 300,000 tracks, but it worked.
Given the amount of time it takes to scan 10 TB of music, I came up with a plan for going forward with LightningServer. I decided to keep my existing 300,000 tracks in their existing folder structure and to not rescan them. If nothing changes, there is no need to rescan. I then created a folder on the NAS for new music. Whenever I add new local albums to this folder, I can easily go into Lightning DS and rescan only the new folder. A nice feature for libraries this large, with split directories for scanning, would be the ability to schedule a rescan of only one of the folders / paths. Certainly not a showstopper without it, but a nice to have feature in the future. Once my library was scanned and loaded into Lightning DS, I put the iOS app through its paces navigating, searching, and playing my music. The speed at which album art appeared as I scrolled page after page was very good. It wasn't immediate, but it was more than acceptable. I could easily live with this performance. Searching my local library, Qobuz, and Tidal at the same time was very fast and delivered very usable results. Compare this to using a third-party UPnP/DLNA server such as MinimServer or JRiver Media Centre with my library on an iPad Pro and the results were very different. I had many issues with speed, servers quitting, and album art never appearing (after an entire weekend of waiting), when I used third party servers. Based on my experience, I highly recommend using LightningServer over other options if possible. On a related note, during this review period I discovered how to use digital room correction convolution filters for local music playback through the Altair G1. The Altair G1 doesn't include the requisite convolution engine, although the Auralic Sirius G2 digital processor at $5,999 will include this capability, so one has to get creative. I could use MinimServer's convolution engine but then I'd be relegated to the performance issues as stated above. The solution I found was to use an app called ConvoFS. This review is far too short to discuss the merits of ConvoFS, but I will say it enables one to connect to a virtual directory on a NAS or computer, through Lightning DS in the identical way one connects to an existing directory full of music and the files are send to the Altair G1 for playback having already been processed with the convolution filters. The nitty gritty details are better served in a forum thread here on Audiophile Style.
As I waded deeper into the Altair G1's capabilities I talked to Auralic's Alex Brinkman who told me that a large percentage of Altair G1 customers use preamps between the G1 and their amplifiers. He said many already have preamps they like, and many have additional sources that require a preamp. Based on this I thought it would be prudent to test the Altair G1 with its attenuator disabled and connected to my Constellation Audio Inspiration preamp.
The sound quality I hear through this configuration was improved over the built-in volume control but given the surrounding components and setup it shouldn't be surprising. As Alex told me, the number of Altair G1 customers using $30,000 worth of Constellation Audio gear downstream of the G1 is very small. In fact, it's one (me). I sent a large number of albums through the Altair G1 in this configuration and really enjoyed the presentation. Whether it was my new favourite Brice Springsteen album Western Stars - Songs from The Film, the new Pearl Jam album Gigaton, or even Due Lipa's bubblegum pop album Future Nostalgia, it all sounded really good through the Altair G1.
By really good I mean, the Springsteen album had plenty of air and organic sounding vocals while the Pearl Jam album sounded as compressed as it actually is and the Due Lipa album sounded like every other ops release of the last two decades. The Altair G1 doesn't put lipstick on a pig by trying to make a bad sounding album sound better / different, it just delivers the goods as they are stored in the digital bits. That's what I expect from a high-end component and that's what I look for when recommending anything to people who care about preserving the sound of their favourite recordings. Stretching the Altair G1 Even Further
The Auralic Altair G1 was clearly design by an engineering team that understood audiophiles and consumers. The reason I say this is because audiophiles want the best sound quality and consumer in general want everything. They always want a faster horse even if they don't really need a horse. (I include myself in the group of people called consumers). Anyway, the Altair G1 enables users to take advantage of third-party products that push its capabilities even further, because of its flexibility. Yes, this moves us away from the all-in- one streamer, but Auralic has designed the G1 to give its customers options. I love options, especially in the fast-moving world of digital audio. I've already discussed disabling the Altair G1's volume control, and that will remain disabled for the current discussion. In addition, for this configuration I removed the analogue Constellation Audio preamplifier and reconnected the G1 directly to my Constellation Monoblock’s. Yes, disabled volume control and a direct to amplifier connection. What could go wrong?
The second step to take the Altair to another level was made possible because its USB input supports native DSD at DSD64, DSD128, DSD256, and DSD512. Connecting the iPhone-sized LattePanda Alpha 864s computer running Windows 10 and the Auralic USB driver to the Altair G1's USB input, and setting up the HQPlayer Network Audio Adapter (NAA) software on this tiny PC, enabled me to push the G1 to new heights.
I setup HQPlayer desktop on my old CAPS Cortes server in the basement. This tired old Xeon processor can't accommodate the newest and most processor intensive signal processing HQPlayer has to offer, so I "settled" on up sampling all audio to DSD512, using poly-sinc minimum phase filters and the ASDM7 modulator. I also added my convolution filters for room correction. I switched to using Roon as a front end because it's the best way to control audio routing through HQPlayer. This also enabled me to easily use HQplayer's digital volume control. Yes, software based digital volume control. I know I sound like a heretic to some dyed in the wool, knuckle-dragging audiophiles, but DSP and software volume control can be truly magic when done right.
The sound quality was fantastic, but the overall experience wasn't so fantastic when compared to the convenience and ease of using the Altair G1 in my previously mentioned configurations. There are some complications to a setup like this one and some minor annoyances, not to mention the finger-crossing that takes place once in a while when using software volume control. This HQPlayer > Altair G1 USB setup was head and shoulders better than anything I'd previously heard through the g1. But, my listening experience, enjoyment, and satisfaction was about to reach a level I never thought possible through the USD$2,699/AUD$3,795 Altair G1.
A couple nights ago I connected the Altair G1 to an Audio Research VT80SE tube amplifier and my RAAL-requisite SR1a true ribbon headphones (called earfield monitors by the company). These headphones connect to power amplifiers built for traditional loudspeakers rather than headphone amps due to their unique design. I left the upstream system with HQPlayer unchanged. I grabbed my iPad, leaned back in my chair and put on some favourite albums. What I heard was just amazing. The sound coming from these headphones, through the Altair G1 was unequivocally the best I'd heard this DAC sound. Paging through my Roon listening history, it's obvious I hit my stride with some jazz favourites such as Ike Quebec's Blue & Sentimental, the 24/192 remaster of Miles Davis' Kind of Blue, the XRCD K2 release of Relaxin' with the Miles Davis Quintet, and a new favourite from artist Ted Poor called You Already Know. Each of these albums sounded fantastic through this incredibly revealing headphone system. All the imperfections of the Blue & Sentimental album were laid bare in front of my ears, but were easily outweighed by the sonic bliss that is Ike's luscious tenor saxophone. The tone put out through the Altair G1 was far better than this component has any right to put out. It makes me wish I had a Vega G2 on hand to hear even more of what Auralic can do, but let's stick to the USD$2,699/AUD$3,795 Altair G1. Pushing the G1 in this way is a bit unconventional to say the least, especially given its built-in functionality, but readers should understand it can be done. Existing Altair G1 customers who want to experiment this way, have n nothing to lose. They've already purchased the DAC and can try the other pieces free of charge during HQPlayer's trial period. The fact that the Altair G1's flexibility enables experimentation like this is a huge bonus to potential customers as well. Even if one had no plans to use the G1 in this way, the option is there. If there's one constant in my digital audio life, it's change. I frequently switch from a guy who wants simplicity to a guy who wants to experiment. A component like the Auralic Altair G1 fits the bill for guys like me and need I say, almost everyone else.
The Auralic Altair G1 digital audio streamer is a versatile high-end rocket ship capable of taking listeners to terrific heights while also being that comfortable Cadillac that makes life simple and does it in style. The build quality of the G1 is far beyond that of other components in its class, including the rich aluminium chassis and saturated full colour front panel display. Using the Altair G1 as it was designed is a misnomer. This DAC was designed to be flexible and reproduce audio at very high levels. One can use all the built-in features that make listening simple, elegant, and sonically very good or push the boundaries of HiFi and the G1 by using external DSP and volume control. The Altair G1 ensures that choice if yours.
For my money the Auralic Altair G1 is an all-around excellent digital audio streamer that I happily recommend to my friends and would purchase myself if I wasn't awash in audio components. The Altair G1 is the right product for a large percentage of music aficionados and those who like options that not only enhance one's experience but may also elongate the life of a component.
Auralic has delivered once again on its value proposition. CASH Listed.
Product available for demo instore.
Please contact us for an audition.
03 9578 8658 or firstname.lastname@example.org