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AURALiC Polaris – 21st Century Boy!

  • The AURALiC Polaris (US$3799/€3995) isn’t just an integrated amplifier, it’s a super-integrated amplifier. The ante-upping terminology is my own. AURALiC refers to their all-in-one with more matter-of-fact modesty: the Polaris is a Wireless Streaming Amplifier. Whatever we call it, the Chinese company have loaded a veritable bounty of functionality inside a single, low-profile chassis to which we just add loudspeakers.

    From under its brushed aluminium hood, the Polaris serves up the following: a pre-amplifier and power amplifier (120wpc into 8 Ohms, 180wpc into 4 Ohms) that can be used together as an integrated, or its pre section tapped via software configurable RCA hookup; from a single press the volume rotary becomes menu navigator where we find options for MM phono staging, complete with analogue domain RIAA curve correction, and Femto-clocked D/A conversion w/ four user-selectable filters and capable of decoding Quad-Rate DSD and PCM up to 32Bit/384kHz, all accessible via AES/EBU, coaxial, TOSLINK, USB or in-built network streamer.

    The internal network streamer also calls for a little technical deconstruction: AURALiC’s Tesla hardware platform (“Quad-Core Cortex-A9 processor running at 1GHz, 1GB DDR3 onboard memory and 4GB system storage.”) delivers gapless, bit-perfect, memory-cached playback from cloud streaming services (Tidal, Qobuz) or network shares (Open Home, UPnP/DLNA).

    Unit setup and playback control come from the company’s Lightning DS app – currently iOS only. A platform-agnostic browser version is in the works.

    Here we see company CEO Xuanqian Wang at RMAF 2016 introduce the new iPad version of Lightning DS, recently ported from the revamped iPhone app:

    Going even longer with streamer connectivity options, the Polaris can be fed via Bluetooth or via AirPlay. It’s also Roon Ready. If the host network won’t reliably carry higher sample rates to the Polaris’ Tri-band, dual aerial Wireless input, an Ethernet port is ready to play catch.

    A nice touch is the streamer’s bi-directional volume control communication. Changes made via the app or the front panel rotary show up on the 512 x 64px OLED display AND in the app itself. This holds true for both Roon and Lightning DS. And it feels a good deal nicer than using the supplied plastic remote wand.

    Unlike Roon, AURALiC’s in-house developed streaming platform also indulges those who wish to dispense with the external server altogether. Music can be streamed from any direct-connected USB drive (front and rear ports) or an internal HDD. Like the ARIES Mini, the Polaris can house a 2.5” SSD/HDD in its undercarriage. This should be specified at time of ordering or fitted by an AURALiC-approved installer.

    Preconceptions. The audiophile world is full of them. Two that show up more often than is reasonable: Class D amplifiers lack emotion; ESS DACs are sibilant. Both can be found inside the AURALiC Polaris: ESS Sabre 9018K2M and Hypex UCD180.

    Hooked up to a pair of passive LS50 I hear nothing that confirms such prejudicial poo-poo-ing. On the Real Royal Albert Hall Concert 1966, Bob Dylan’s harmonica stays just the right side of strident. So too does Robert Quine and Richard Lloyd’s intense guitar duelling on Matthew Sweet’s Altered Beast. Thrilling but not trying. Not even in the long-term. Leader Cheetah’s sorrowful “Bloodlines” (think: On The Beach-era Neil Young) floors me just as much the tenth time through as it does the first.

    Just as hatted chefs know that preparation and methodology are as critical to that which lands on the plate as ingredient quality, pragmatic practitioners know that implementation is as important as the hardware’s internal components. In this case, power supply cleanliness, data re/clocking, noise shielding and output staging.

    Again from the floor of RMAF 2016, Xuanqian Wang walks us through the internals and board layout of the Polaris:

    To these ears, the clean delivery of abundant detail is central to the Polaris’ audible personality. Most evident is its careful excavation of subtleties and surface textures. The AURALiC silver machine (also available in black) doesn’t round its low notes as much as the tube-infused PS Audio BHK Signature monoblocks and Pre. The Colorado-born mega-rig sounds meatier and delivers more abundant tonal colour. It also sells for nine times the price of the AURALiC uni-box.

    From the Polaris’ we hear a most immaculate fuelling of the passive LS50. The KEFs haven’t sounded this clean and internally spacious since their hook-up to a pair of Wyred 4 Sound’s mAMPs way back when. That comes with the caveat that auditory memory can be wobbly and different listening rooms yield different results, even when loaded with identical audio hardware.

    Audiophile-centric pre-conceptions might also claim that an all-in-one device is no match for properly considered separates, each with their own transformer and power supply. Sure – but at what interconnecting cost; financial and audible? Besides, with everything internalised, the Polaris’ shorter signal paths have the potential to offset its multi-functional reliance on a single toroidal.

    Case in point: Roon Ready out of the box, the internal streamer’s proximity to its DAC chip is likely why we hear greater audible intensity than from the external Roon Ready Sonore microRendu, hooked into the Polaris’ rear panel. The latter’s ones and zeroes must first pass through Curious USB cable and XMOS reception before meeting with AURALiC’s Femto clocking and ESS decoding.

    In this regard, the Polaris-powered passive LS50 is closer in circuitry to the active KEF LS50 than the tube-infused PS Audio reference rig. In sound too: both minimalist setups connote a greater sense of speckless accuracy. (Note: a sense of).

    Like the active LS50, the AURALiC-fronted passive version plays superbly with electronic music. So too with the middle ground occupied by the likes of LCD Soundsystem where indie rock nonchalance is fused to a dance beat and whose microscopic ticks and clicks are given room aplenty to twitch between vocal and guitar lines.

    Wondering (as I did) how close the Polaris sounds to Devialet’s Expert 200 (€6990)? Answer: very. The AURALiC goes toe to toe with the Expert 200’s micro-dynamic finesse. Separating the two is the French fella’s more commodious soundstaging. Via the Devialet, the listening experience is more E P I C. As well it should be. The price difference would allow us to add a pair of LS50 to the Polaris many times over and still come home with change from the Devialet’s asking.

    The results are even better once the Polaris is moved over to serve ELAC’s Uni-Fi F5. The AURALiC box’s purity offers a neat counterbalance to the Andrew Jones-designed floorstander’s more laid back and easy going personality. As the slim-line twin towers land a step behind the baby KEFs in soundstage draw and transparency, the Polaris pushes forwards with strong dynamics and – again – orderly deep detail retrieval.

    For Orbital’s Lush 3 EP, this spells impactful whomp-whomp-whomp-squelch. For Scuba’s Triangulation, greater insight into just how deep it low bass foundations are cemented.

    That said, the Polaris probably isn’t for listeners demanding an extra dollop of humidity or tonal saturation. The AURALiC’s (sense of) purity recalls NAD’s Direct Digital C390DD: the way in which the Polaris unravels the ultra-complex guitar layering packed tightly inside Built To Spill’s Keep It Like A Secret – and without letting its less-than-stellar production ruin the listening experience – is nothing short of supernatural. AURALiC takes us down to the bone but without inducing deal-breaking side effects like top end pins and needles or greyed-out tonality.

    Those who favour a creamier, ballsier presentation should look to the Peachtree nova300 (US$2299) which, in doing the A/B dance at the DARHaus, is contrasted as a little more veiled and a few degrees warmer. That’s more obvious now than when reviewing the Peachtree a couple of months back. This isn’t hindsight at work but the possession of an additional Class D super-integrated data point. (As an aside: I hear the nova300 as better suited to the KEFs than the ELACs).

    Any qualitative differences fall in commensurately behind retail price lines. The Peachtree is no way near as costly as the AURALiC but still offers a very decent headphone amplifier, absent from the Polaris’ feature set, which, like the Devialet (in theory at least), prioritises digital streaming.

    The AURALiC aces its rivals on front-end connectivity and ease of setup. Lightning DS had me up and running on the AURALiC all-in-one ten minutes after unboxing and two minutes after hooking the Polaris into the wireless network. Mains power hook-up and loudspeaker connection were the only tasks that preceded network configuration.

    Switching between Lightning DS- and Roon-sourced material is handled with aplomb by the Polaris’ sole streaming input. A gentle fade in and out announces any user-applied override. Ditto AirPlay streaming whose presence is a real boon for those who wish to cut in and out of music listening with a YouTube video or Soundcloud stream, all without leaving the couch.

    The Devialet also lets in MC cart vinylistas whilst the AURALiC and Peachtree do not. An absence of a step-up transformer at the DARHaus forced the Technics SL-1200G and its Zu-modded DL-103R cartridge – an MC – to sit this review out. Audiophile pre-conceptions might have us believe that digitising analogue inputs, especially a phono stage, is no respectful way to handle the sanctity of vinyl playback. Nonsense.

    We should ask ourselves how much we enthuse over needle drops or trust those posted online by reviewers so that we may hear first hand the differences between turntables and their tonearms. And lest we forget: many, many vinyl releases are pressed from digital masters.

    As covered previously on these pages, the ADC-DAC tunnel is more than capable of allowing safe audible passage to upstream changes to tracking force, VTA or even cartridge.

    Such ADC transposition is demanded by the Polaris’ DAC-only signal routing primarily because of its hybrid volume control: analogue domain for the big steps, digital for the smaller ones.

    From the Polaris’ original press release: “The analogue attenuators reduce the signal level in 12dB steps whilst the DAC’s internal digital volume control handles small amounts of volume change within each step. By using this technology, the DAC chip always operates in the best performance range, bringing much lower distortion, better dynamic range and high sound quality at low volume levels.”

    We get none of the soundstage height-collapse and dynamic authority lost to deeper digital attenuation within AURALiC’s breakout hit, the Vega DAC.

    Another driver for AURALiC digitising its devices’ analogue inputs may still lay ahead. Perhaps Wang is planning to implement DSP-fuelled room correction a la Arcam’s SR-250? I don’t know. I do know a more sophisticated upsampling engine is already in the works. Why leave turntablists behind?

    The audio world is far bigger than those who harbour idea(l)s about how a hifi should be built and should sound. There is no absolute.

    For US$4K, it might be possible (nay, easy) to compile a separates rig that outshines the Polaris. To point this out is to miss the point of AURALiC’s finest offering to date. It also ignores the time suck and cash drain of going mix n match. Like Devialet and Peachtree – and the increasing number of super-integrateds coming to market – their intent is simplicity without audible sacrifice.

    1) The Polaris won’t take over y/our living space. It requires no hifi rack. Interconnects, both digital and analogue, are shown the door.

    2) The Polaris will talk to y/our existing hardware. It’s a complete hifi system in a box: streamer, DAC, phono stage and loudspeaker amplifier. We can connect a computer to its USB port, the TV to its TOSLINK, a turntable to its RCA socketry, a hard-drive to its other USB port/s (the one on the front we can use for thumb drives).

    3) The Polaris is a cinch to set up. Like Roon, Lightning DS’s layout, speed and ease of use make it mass market ready. AirPlay and Bluetooth cement the mainstream appeal.

    4) The Polaris’ mix of functionality and high-end sound quality won’t be easily matched at its price. To modern music lovers wanting elegant simplicity that still cuts it sonically with the big boys, I say this: when paired with the passive LS50, the Polaris lays down serious challenge to KEF’s active take on the same whilst taking the LS50 Wireless to the cleaners on in-built digital streaming and turntable inclusivity – a seriously impressive achievement given the LS50 Wireless insane value quotient. Unlike the active KEFs, the Polaris calls for precisely zero additional hardware to make good on minor shortcomings. With the ELAC floorstanders, the match is even more delightful.

    These four points are what newcomers need to know and what the audio(phile) world needs more of: decent sounding gear that doesn’t look like a science project. To this end, the AURALiC Polaris is the epitome of Future-Fi. It’s all we might ever need. What a result! Super indeed.

    Further information: AURALiC

    Written by John

    John currently lives in Berlin where he creates videos and podcasts for Darko.Audio. He has previously contributed to 6moons, TONEAudio, AudioStream and Stereophile.

    Darko.Audio is a member of EISA.

    Follow John on YouTube or Instagram

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