AURALiC Altair G2.1 Streaming DAC & Preamplifier Review
This is a review written by Terry Ellis February 2023.
For my video review please see my YouTube channel link here
Last year I reviewed AURALiC Altair G1 and I liked it, I thought it made a compelling case for itself for its asking price of about £2,500. However, stepping up in the range to the Altair G2.1 is a significant amount more money with its RRP of £5,299 but if you believe in the HiFi rule of doubles it should well be worth it. For those of you who maybe haven’t heard it before the HiFi rule of doubles is you need to spend twice as much to see a significant improvement from what you already own, I think there is some sense in this as a rule, but you may feel differently about it.
The Altair G2.1 is not a new product. It was released back in May 2021. So, when digital audio is so fast paced, why am I reviewing it in 2023? Well, the Altair G2.1 is still likely to be on your shortlist today and I think we have hit a bit of a plateau, at the present time, for HiFi music streamers. Other things are becoming more important to audiophile consumers than just being new and shiny and therefore making them automatically better than previous models.
AURALiC’s Altair products are their do it all in (nearly) one box solutions. It is a HiFi hub, a music streamer, a DAC, a preamplifier, music storage and, with the G2.1, a MM phono stage. With the G2.1 you can connect a whole host of digital and analogue sources, trying to provide something for everyone with a do it all – except for amplification approach. For keeping it simple but still doing it well.
I think they look good, it’s a stealth like design with nice curves and accents. The G2.1 feels very substantial when you hold it in your hands and that gives you an inkling of what’s different inside compared to the G1 or even the new and improved G1.1 There is a lot more to be excited about with the G2.1 such as a chassis in a chassis type of design using a copper base and spring-loaded feet for better isolation. One of the big advancements with the G2.1 is the analogue stage, which is using AURALiC ORFEA R2R modules to create a fully passive volume control with a Class A biased output. Compared to the analogue stage in the Altair G1/1.1 you can see why it costs more as there is a lot more to it. For the digital side of things, in addition to what you get in the G1/1.1, the G2.1 has more power and processing capability. The 4-inch non-touch screen is okay but not amazing in 2023. It also uses Lightning DS, which is Auralic’s own proprietary music control app and is very good to use, although limited to IOS use only,
This is my second period of time using Lightning DS, which helped because it’s quite a complex app with a lot of important things hidden away. Overall it’s a very good app to interact with and its easy to get music playing from streaming services or maybe external sources. You do have to go digging in the menus to get access to some important features like digital upsampling, parametric equalisation, speaker placement compensation or just how you want the screen to behave. In a way these options being hidden away is not such a big deal long-term as you are likely to make your choices and leave it, but when you’re in the initial play around and assessment stage its quite a chore to keep going deep into the menu and back out again to maybe change your track then back into the menu again. Most of the time I was doing this with the app running on my phone and so maybe that’s why it was a little more complex of a task. However, I have been really impressed by how well Lightning DS works on my phone, by that I mean a smaller screen compared to say the iPad pro that I normally use for the bigger and better browsing experience.
Testing The Features
When you’re spending this kind of money on a HiFi product it makes sense to use it in its entirety. However, that only makes sense if there are no weaknesses. All the features have to deliver, and I have done all manner of testing and comparing to try and isolate the different parts of the Altair as best I can to see how good they all are. As you can imagine it’s extremely difficult with a product like this as you are often listening to multiple parts at once. What I found is that there is a surprising consistency of not only quality, but also the overall sound character of the G2.1, regardless of how you‘re using it or what music source you are listening to. This demonstrates the importance of the analogue output stage to the overall sound quality. Clearly obvious, but I think it shows that there has been attention to detail throughout the full design of this component.
Most surprising to me was the phono stage. It may only be a moving magnet phono stage and so it’s not going suit every turntable setup. However, it proved to be ideal for me with my current setup and I enjoyed the smooth, easy going and quite big and bold character of it. To me it’s a phono stage aiming for a pleasing overall sound, rather than trying to extract maximum detail, or provide a really wide-open clear sound. For an entry, to a medium (ish) level turntable setup that’s probably exactly what is needed. I found it to be very enjoyable to listen to. However I liked that if you own a high-end turntable setup you have not been forgotten as the analogue input feeds direct to the analogue output stage and bypass the digital stage altogether. One cool thing is even when you are listening to vinyl through the phono stage you can still control the volume of the Altair from Lighting DS app, which feels quite a contradictory thing to do for some strange reason, but I liked it. There is also a very satisfying clicking sound when you adjust the volume.
Most buyers are likely to be interested in an Altair for listening to streamed music, which is what I did for the vast majority of the review time. I was mostly using Qobuz but also Tidal.
As I was using the NAD M10 V2 as a streaming DAC, which I think is excellent, it was an obvious starting point for my comparisons. Straight away I could tell the Altair offers a step up in sound quality. The Altair was feeding into the NAD M23 stereo power amplifier that was powering the Gryphon EOS 2 speakers. These speakers are crazily transparent and brutally honest. They instantly tell you what’s going on in the system for good and for bad.
What I enjoyed about the Altair was what I call a solid digital sound, with good authority, solid bass, and a weighty sound with really good scale. Not all digital front ends sound like that from stereo speakers alone. Often, to achieve this level, you need to add subwoofers but it’s not quite the same. From my experience of the G1, what I was expecting from an AURALiC was evident here too such as very good timing, excellent clarity and a very good sound stage. The G2.1 goes one stage on from that in terms of refinement, musical tonality and richness. That means vocals sound very full, treble details pop and sparkle, with minimal amounts of glare, depending on the music quality, and the bass is solid, and well timed.
Give It the Power
Very interestingly I found that it was possible to lose some of what I really enjoyed about the Altair just by changing the power going to it. I didn’t test for this on purpose, I noticed it through testing all manner of things, but I found using a good mains conditioner, in this case the IsoTek Titan G3 and a seriously good power cable made a big difference over still good, but lesser quality, mains products. That should be no surprise as the analogue stage in the Altair is so crucial to its overall performance. If you own an Altair already this maybe a useful tip for you to get even more from it. Another finding was that I preferred the streaming music sound using Tidal HiFi not Tidal Masters and, using the dynamic setting from the four DAC sound profile options accessed in the Lightning DS app, this provided the most full, biggest and boldest sound, further improved by setting the upsampling to maximum to get the best timing. That was the one for me.
What about weaknesses and competitors? This is a very tough one because I haven’t really found any weaknesses besides a few quirks of operation which could be related to my home network as much as the Altair. I think the sonic performance is very solid and satisfying in all areas. I haven’t really found any weak links outside of my personal preferences. This is rare; I seldom review a HiFi product and not find at least one shortcoming.
In saying that, there are other solutions available in 2023 which offer other stand-out features the Altair does not, such as dedicated sub-woofer outputs, or a big and fancy screen, with some of these solutions costing significantly less, but maybe they don’t sound as good. As ever, you would have to listen and decide that for yourself. The price of the G2.1 actually puts it a little more in competition with lots of streaming amplifiers, but I am sure AURALiC would say, in the long term, you might want to change your speakers, still keep your source but be able to select the right amplifier for the speakers. All-in-one streaming amplifiers don’t allow that. You may also wish to use active speakers with the Altair feeding into, say, a pair of active ATC speakers which makes for a very simple and compact high-performing system. Even using the Altair feeding into an NAD M23 power amplifier, such as I have been doing, is still a very simple system but with very high performance.
I want to close out the review with a few suggestions of how I think the Altair could be made even better. The first one is how the screen behaves ,when you sit at a reasonable distance away the album art and volume number displayed are all too small to see and so I was turning the screen off. However, when using the phono stage or the analogue input there is a large number displayed for the volume which you can see at a distance. I would like there to be a mode added whereby the album art is displayed initially but then a large number is displayed in the middle of the screen for the volume, improving visibility.
Second, a feature I would love to see added to the Altair is Dirac Live, a feature I think would make all the difference to the audio capability of a HiFi system in a room because being able to measure and manage the sound of your system is an invaluable tool and the best place for it be situated is in the digital music source. I am hopeful that Dirac Live and my other other suggestions might be added in the future to help take, what is already an excellent product, to the next level.
A Special Performer Award is Pursuit Perfect Systems highest accolade and is in recognition of exceptional product performance regardless of price
For the full specification of the Auralic Altair G2.1 please see their website linked here