AURALiC’s Vega Digital Audio Processor ($3499) is a powerful and versatile digital-to-analog converter that can also serve as a digital-input-only, balanced-output-capable preamplifier. Specifically, the Vega supports all PCM files from 44.1kHz/16-bit resolution to 384kHz/32-bit resolution, while covering all sampling rate/word-depth combinations in between. Moreover, the Vega is DXD-and DSD-compatible and can decode both DSD64 and DSD128 bitstreams via the DoP V1.1 data-transmission protocol. In short, the Vega is an ambitious, premium-quality DAC/preamp that aspires to top-tier performance. Does it reach this goal? I think it does as I will explain in this review, but first let’s first take a look at AURALiC’s company background and at the Vega’s underlying technologies.
As I mentioned in my review of the firm’s Taurus MkII balanced headphone amplifier, AURALiC is a Hong Kong-based high-end audio electronics company co-founded in 2008 by President and CEO Xuanqian Wang and his business partner Yuan Wang. Xuanqian Wang has had formal training as an electrical and audio recording engineer and is an accomplished classical pianist, while Yuan Wang has a background in sociology and management science. Both men share a passion for music and sound quality, having met (where else?) at a musical event— the 2008 Festival of Waldbühne Berlin. Not long thereafter, the men decided to launch AURALiC Ltd.
More than many DACs in its price class, the Vega is chock-full of advanced technical features, yet it is also informed by Xuanqian Wang’s thoroughgoing familiarity with classic analog-audio circuit designs. In practice, this means the Vega is a modern-as-tomorrow DAC with stellar performance specifications, yet goes the extra mile not only to measure well but also to deliver sound that, first and foremost, holds true to the sound of live music. As I survey the Vega’s rich set of technical features it is important to bear in mind that this is more a “music first” design than it is a “technology über alles” product.
As noted above, the Vega is a DXD-and DSD-compatible 384kHz/32-bit-capable DAC/digital preamp. The Vega provides five digital audio inputs: one AES/EBU, one TosLink, one USB, and two coaxial SPDIF. The Vega provides single-ended and balanced analog outputs, with volume levels controlled by a 100-step digital controller said not to compress dynamic range.
Digital audio processing is handled by AURALiC’s proprietary Sanctuary Audio Processor, which the company says is based on a “multi-core ARM9 architecture” and provides a prodigious 1000MIPS (millions of instructions per second) of data-crunching power. Unlike many competing DACs, the Vega upsamples all incoming PCM audio data to 1.5MHz/32-bit resolution prior to decoding. Further, the Vega provides six user-selectable digital-audio filter modes (four for PCM formats, two for DSD formats). The PCM filter modes each comprise four individual filters optimized for a specific group of sampling rates. One can choose Filter Mode 1, which offers the best performance measurements; Mode 2, which reduces group delay while imposing minimal amounts of treble attenuation; Mode 3, which minimizes pre-echo and ringing effects but with a somewhat higher degree of treble attenuation; or Mode 4, which applies minimum-phase type filters and is said to allow “no pre-echo effect at all” with “very small group delay to eliminate ringing.”
Filter Modes 5 and 6 are designed specifically for use with DSD files, and address the problem of the very-high-frequency noise that DSD bitstreams can entail, providing strategically chosen levels of ultrasonic treble roll-off. The concept is to preserve the music intact while getting rid of ultrasonic noise that could potentially damage wide-bandwidth amplifiers or speakers.
Significantly, the Vega permits users to switch between its various filter modes on the fly to compare their subtly different voicing characteristics and overall impact on the music. Xuanqian Wang wisely observes that one’s choice of filter mode might depend to a large extent on the recording quality of the material being played.