I sometimes wonder how manufactures chose company, brand, or model names. Prescriptions drug manufacturers hire specialists, use focus groups and resort to other sophisticated methods while sometimes spending millions of dollars on the task, not only because a name that resembles another company's trademark will end up costing millions in the court system. Theirs is obviously a much more complex procedure than a high-end audio manufacturer, where the corporate structure may only consist of two or three people. Perhaps there is a chance that an audio company will chose a brand or model name on a whim, or better yet, use this opportunity to express their creativity. This might be the case with Xuaquian Wang and Yuan Wang, the founders of AURALiC Ltd. These days it seems as if anything goes--so even though it is obvious that the manuals of style do not apply to trademark names, it seems as if manufacturers are pushing those limits even further every chance they get. AURALiC, with its mix of upper and lower cases is a perfect example of this, and although they've chosen to use stars and constellations as model names, using capital letters in these names is further evidence of this creative spirit.
Not long after AURALiC was founded their products started showing up in showrooms and in the systems of many audiophiles. This is especially true of the subjects of this review, their relatively new VEGA digital audio processor and the MERAK monoblock power amplifiers. They have been more than well received not only because they are unique products, butalso because their performance coincides with AURALiC's claims to "provide music lovers a completely new way of enjoying music, free from the sophisticated traditional audio equipment". The VEGA can be the center of a digital audio system; serving as a five-input DSD/DXD-capable digital to analog converter with a host of features that also serves as the linestage. The MERAK monoblocks pump out 400 Watts per unit that uses a "Hybrid Analog Amplify" technology, combining a Class A output module with an efficient, space saving "high speed switching components" in its output stage. The result is a pair of rather small stylish cabinets that put out a heck of a lot of power!
VEGA Digital Audio Processor
Despite my apprehension regarding filters used in digital components, it is obvious that AURALiC has invested a great deal of time and resources into the research and development of the filters used in the VEGA. To my surprise, my uncertainty turned to admiration when using them. Yes, it invoked just a bid of audiophile nervosa when I spent some time searching for the best one for the listening material that was currently playing. Nevertheless, any unease quickly passed as the sound of the VEGA was excellent regardless of which filter was chosen, and I often became more and more enthralled by the music as the track progressed instead of worrying about which choice of filter I've made. AURALiC makes available on their website a white paper that discusses the filters at length, but I'm sure most would rather listen to music than read about digital filters while testing them on each track. The choice is made easier because AURALiC says that two of the filters, numbers 5 and 6, are specifically designed for the playback of DSD files, and out the remaining four AURALiC states that filter 4 is the best for most types of music, the other three resulting in the attenuation of certain frequencies. I wouldn't dare suggest to any listener what filters they might prefer as this is definitely a personal choice, but it is worth repeating that none of these filters "ruined" the sound of the VEGA, and regardless, 98% of the time I set the VEGA for filter number 4. I listened in peace, and slept well each night.
The VEGA is built with "Femto Master Clock" technology, which, as far as I can tell, is at least partially responsible for this component's vanishing low amount of jitter and low phase noise. Using an "aerospace grade crystal oscillator", an "ultra-low-noise" power supply, and "temperature compensation technology" AURALiC is able to lower the jitter to their specified amount of 82 fs. They go on to stress the importance of the low amount of phase noise since this type of noise has been shown to affect the sound quality. The customer is also able to choose between three levels of clock precision. Yes, I tried all three, but I couldn't hear much difference between them, at least not enough of a difference that would lead me to prefer one over the other, so I left the setting at its default.
What I did notice during my listening sessions was the VEGA's imaging prowess and fine detail, without ever sounding more analytical than what I would expect if playing the original master tape. Of course I've never heard the master tapes of 99.99% of the material I played through the VEGA, and even my own master tapes sound "different" if played on anything other than the machine that made the recording. But could the master clock be solely responsible for this? I'm not sure if I could answer that. Still, the designers of the VEGA created an algorithm that they have termed "Megahertz Upsampling" combined with the unit up-sampling every bit of PCM data to roughly 1.5MHz with a word length of 32 bits. I doubt that AURALiC is exaggerating when they claim that this pushes the top frequency of the digital signal way beyond not only the levels of human hearing, but above what listeners of digital devices have become accustomed to in the past. As a result of this up-sampling the bandwidth of the DAC is increased along with increasing the speed of the slew rate. AURALiC claims that their design makes the music sound more transparent, with less distortion and less noise. This is good news to those audiophiles such as yours truly who have huge amount of resolution music files, almost all of it created from ripping CDs.
For the users convenience VEGA has on its rear panel both single ended RCA outputs and balanced XLR outputs. It accepts a digital signal from balanced AES/EBU, two coax RCAs, TosLink, and of course USB. It has a standard IEC output for the AC cable, and an on/off switch, which allows the unit to remain on stand-by any time the power cord is plugged into the wall receptacle, so when the unit is "powered" by either the front panel or remote it goes into full operational mode. The menus on the front panel screen can be controlled either by the remote or the front panel's control knob. I really like the look of the read-out on the front panel screen. It has a large font, displaying the input, sample rate, and volume at all times, that is, unless it is dimmed or shut off. The plastic remote of the VEGA isn't the most intuitive device I've ever used, but to be fair the most important controls such as volume and on/off are easiest to locate. Every parameter of the VEGA can be controlled by the remote, including input, menu choices and display brightness.
The analog circuits of the VEGA are powered by their patented ORFEO Class A module which was inspired by the infamous Neve 8078 recording console. Even for those not familiar with the recording or pro-studio industry, this British, hand-wired soundboard that was manufactured in the 1970s is still installed in a few select studios. It is perhaps not used very often as their main soundboard as the majority of studios are ProTools-based; the "sound" of this analog board is notorious so many use it in the final stages of mastering an album. Even the parts from a Neve board change hands for quite a bit of money. AURALiC uses many of the same circuit principles in their ORFEO by paying attention to its small signal components and linear characteristics. By using a "thermal balance" procedure and biasing the transistors into Class-A, they've managed to finesse the circuits to achieve an open-loop distortion rated at less than 0.001%. They also select each module carefully, and then fine-tune each one for lower noise with increased driving capabilities. The VEGA can act as one's digital preamplifier with plenty of gain, with very, very little noise and distortion.
MERAK Monoblock Power Amplifier
The linear component of the MERAK handles the incoming signal. It processes the voltage amplification, and AURALiC claims that it does so with adding very little noise and distortion. The low impedance, high speed switching output stage provides the muscle and is responsible for its high energy efficiency. AURALiC sources the input isolation transformers of the MERAK from Lundahl and also has some made in-house. The amount of EMI (noise) rejection the design of these transformers achieve is superb, as a result the MERAK's circuit is able to reject over a thousand times the amount of the noise a "traditional" circuit may produce. The MERAK also uses their patented ORFEO Class A module for driving the output stage; as a result, this lowers the level of distortion to less than 0.001%. AURALiC has modified and "optimized" something called "Hypex UcD" and it powers the output stage based on mathematical models -- and also lucky for us end-users – optimized by AURALiC's subjective impressions. What they discovered during their tests was that the nasty sounding high-order distortion ended up being suppressed by over 10 Decibels that, in plain English, made the music sound better. The output stage also ended up being able to drive various kinds of loudspeakers because of its frequency-constant output performance driving loads anywhere from 4 to 16 Ohms.
Almost anyone who has ever seriously shopped for a power amplifier is aware that audio companies tend to tout the power supplies of their products, and in my opinion they are justified in doing so. The power supply of any component separates the great from the even greater, and the AURALiC MERAK is no exception. AURALiC's "Purer-Power Linear Power Solution" is said to be essential to provide "strong, smooth, and consistent power", especially one such as the MERAK. It also is responsible storing up to 120 Joule energy, which suppresses noise, significantly lowers the source impedance and AURALiC states that it is also responsible for the unit's outstanding transient performance. They customized the 500VA main transformer in the MERAK with "patented" low-noise, narrow-band technology from Plitron, and after that they put a 56k uF capacitor array. The Purer-Power Linear Power Solution also claims that it accounts for the MERAK's high level of transparency since it can "strongly" isolate common-mode and differential-mode interference for in and outside the audio band, as high as 90dB, which reshapes the electrical circuit to remove DC current. It also prevents current entering the circuit via the power supply that will further interfere with the stability of the circuit, and thus affects the sound of the amp.
The MERAK, like the matching VEGA, appears as it is built to very high standards. The compact cabinets, along with an almost Teutonic appearance gave me the impression that there is no way AURALiC could improve these components in the fit-and-finish department–which is fine, although it all comes back to the maxim of not caring how they achieve the sound of their components, that is, as long as they achieve the best sound possible at the same time manufacture components that are reliable and built to last.
The record I used for my test, a very clean copy of the RCA Living Stereo of Prokofiev's Fifth Symphony conducted by Jean Martinon is hardly flawless, that's for sure. It's a bit reticent in the lowest bass, and there is a bit of distortion in the upper treble caused either by overload or the limits of the late 1950s recording and record pressing processes. But I know this record, and to hear the gorgeous midrange of the strings, the huge layered soundstage, the startling dynamics induced by the percussion battalion and everything else that makes this record not only a great performance but also a great recording as converted by the VEGA led to an outstanding listening experience. Don't tell any of the boys in the clubhouse, but sometimes I preferred listening to the record through the VEGA more than that of playing the record "live", especially after the VEGA had a bit of time to warm up. More than once during the playback of this high-resolution file of the record, I glanced towards the turntable, because I expected to see it spinning. My preference might also have a bit to do with the ability to be able to skip around the sections of the record, repeat parts, pausing, and to be able to stop and come back after a while and again listen to portions. Ah, the convenience of digital! But I digress. Don't get me wrong, if I were to really, really, listen carefully whilst wearing my reviewer's badge I thought I could rather easily tell the difference between the record and the digital playback of the record, but sometimes it's more about relaxing and enjoying the music, isn't it? During those times the differences became what I labeled vanishingly small, and at the same time became meaningless, because thanks to the VEGA the gestalt of the music was present, thanks to all the small but very important sonic cues that make music, music.
Thankfully, the time has come when comparing digital component's parameters such as frequency response and all the other audiophile qualifiers become much less of an issue, and so experienced audiophiles become more concerned with nuance. Also, a huge number of us have finally dispensed with physical digital media and instead use a host of convenient alternatives; therefore, the competence of the USB input is very important, as is the ability to play DSD files through this USB port – and the VEGA can lay claim to both of these important features. Perhaps in the not so distant future these features will be present on the most inexpensive of DACs, but for now there are only a few that can perform this feat, and even fewer that can perform this feat as well as the AURALiC VEGA. I don't think it would be fair of me to critically audition the playback prowess of the VEGA in regards to DSD, as I only have a couple of files. But I do have a large library of Red Book files; many Terabyte of FLAC, in fact over 7,000 folders in just the "rock" category alone and so it is obvious that the majority of my digital listening is of Red Book resolution, with a smattering of 96k/24-bit files. And I predict this is going to be so for the foreseeable future. I'm hardly the type of audiophile that places sound quality over performance. That I can speak of the VEGA's sound with the same descriptive terms as I do with high-resolution files says quite a bit about this component.
As I was writing this review the high-resolution, remastered versions of the first three Led Zeppelin albums were released. Finally. I'm not the only one who downloaded this material as soon as it was made available. OK, the major internet exchange sites (IXPs) of the world were probably not stressed too much, but unlike the Beatles in 2009 who focused mostly on physical media sales (CDs), Led Zeppelin's Jimmy Page seems to be focusing on the high-resolution downloads as much as any other format, at least it seems that way, and I for one am thankful. I'm listening to the 96k/24-bit downloads as I'm writing this, occasionally taking breaks to spend full time and attention in the sweet spot, then again coming back to writing this, all I can say is "wow", and again, "finally". I'm sure there will be detractors, as I do hear a bit of compression along with other tweaks to the original album's tapes, but there is no doubt in my mind and my ears that the overall sound has been objectively improved. Through the VEGA I am, in general, blown away, and thankful that the review period of the VEGA coincides with the release of these three albums.
are many audiophiles that will hear the VEGA and notice its tight bass and
natural non-fatiguing treble, but after this first impression my listening notes
largely focus on the LACK of sound or sounds that the VEGA has. My opinion
regarding these sounds, or lack of sounds of a component is shared by many
audiophiles, as the Holy Grails of just about every audiophile when placing a
piece of gear into the system are, or at least should be, transparency and
neutrality. So, the closer Jimmy Page's guitar on "Your Time Is Gonna Come"
sounds like one is hearing an actual slightly out-of-tune Fender 10-string
acoustic guitar as recorded in Olympic Studios that was recorded by engineer
Glyn Johns in 1969, the better. The fact that there are a host of other
instruments recorded on that track, including John Paul Jones' organ and the
explosive drums of John Bonham, the VEGA does a fine job of unraveling the
vocals and instruments into an organic whole. I take that back. The VEGA does
the best job I've ever heard in my
listening room in its ability to deal with complex material and convert this
material into a musically organic whole. I spent hours upon hours with this DAC,
and no matter how complex the material, the only limiting factor in regards to
the sound quality was the teams responsible for recording the material, not the
DAC. Perhaps one day I'll be blessed with one of those mega-buck multi-component
digital suites, but until then, it all comes back to the transparency and
neutrality that the VEGA brings into the system, and regardless of the
resolution of the digital signal it was able to transfer to its analog section
and to the rest of the equipment in the system and to the speakers the best
sounding digitally sourced music I've
heard in my listening room. And that the VEGA can do this for $3500 is quite an
Of course, there is always the case that I might be painting myself into a corner, as I'm wont to do when faced with such an extraordinary product at a reasonable price. Therefore, if one year from now I'm sent a processor with the same functionality, in other words, upsamples all material to DSD, can handle a DSD signal through its USB, etc. and sounds even better than the AURALiC VEGA, don't be surprised if I again fall all over myself proclaiming it to be the bees knees. Digital design moves at quite a fast pace. And anyway, any audiophile that tries to keep up with the latest advances with any of their components might be faced with this same conundrum. It's the nature of the beast. But I don't think I'd be going out on a limb if I say that the VEGA is likely to stay in one's system for quite a long, long time, or perhaps forever, without ever worrying if one can do better.
Lastly, is the use of the VEGA as one's preamplifier in my system. The VEGA spent a good deal of time in my second system located in a common space on the first floor of my home I used the MERAK amps to power a pair of EgglestonWorks two-way floor standing speakers in an all-digital system. The sources were an Oppo BDP-83 Special Edition universal disc player and a Logitech Squeezebox Touch that read FLAC files over my home network. Both the Oppo and Touch were connected to the VEGA, and the VEGA was connected directly to the MERAK though its balanced outputs. Switching between sources using either the remote or the front panel of the VEGA became second nature. I admit, though, the rather large front panel volume control was the way in which I controlled the systems volume the majority of the time, only because half the time I didn't feel like searching for the remote! But this was not a big deal, in that I was closer to the unit to see the volume readout, and I kind of liked the "feel" of the volume control over the light, plastic remotes buttons. Sonically, the VEGA matched with the MERAK amps was able to perform the duties of preamplifier is a near perfect match of convenience and transparency. Upstairs in my main system using the far more accomplished front end and speakers actually sounded better using a tube preamplifier, most notably the newly installed Balanced Audio Technologies VK-33 (review forthcoming). This not only had more gain, but added a brilliant lifelike patina to the proceedings that made the music sound at the same time more tangible, and created a larger, more realistically scaled soundstage, especially if the recording was of real instruments and voices recorded in a real space. Mind you, the VEGA never sounded bad, but when using it as a preamplifier in this monster of system it just fell slightly short when judged against this dedicated preamplifier.
The sound of the MERAK pair was made so, so
evident on the Miles Davis box set The
Complete On The Corner Sessions. Detractors of this period of Mr.
Davis' career have plenty of ammunition when presented with this box set of the
sessions that produced his "blasphemous" On
The Corner album. I suppose since I represent the "younger" (ahem)
Miles fan, I am simply blown away by not only the musicianship, but creativity
exhibited on the each of the six CDs in this set. On the third disc there is a
workout that is entitled Mr. Foster,
no doubt in honor of the drummer Al Foster who appears on much of the album that
was released from the edited tapes of the sessions, which could be used as a
MERAK demonstration disc. It brings to the fore a few of the many assets of the
MERAK amplifiers. The line-up on this track is exceptional, although it takes a
detailed road map to navigate the personnel that was in the studio with Miles
during the 1972-74 period in which these sessions took place. Still, I assume
that most likely the musicians included Al Foster on drums, James "Mtume"
Foreman on percussion, Pete Cosey and Reggie Lucas on electric guitar, Michael
Henderson on bass guitar, Dave Liebman on soprano saxophone, and Miles Davis not
only on trumpet but on organ. Some think that either the organ or trumpet were
laid down as overdubs, but it was not rare for him to play both at the same
time, holding and playing the trumpet with one hand, and playing the organ with
the other (and thus producing more ammo for the detractors of this album).
Nevertheless, I love every second of this groundbreaking album, and was elated
when the box set arrived in stores. The MERAK was able to translate this music
into many enjoyable listening sessions due to many factors, which included the
fact that the MERAK has plenty of power on hand. Some might think too much
But this amount of power is definitely an asset when it comes to producing a sound that can take advantage of the headroom that this type of power amp possesses. The MERAK is also blessed with a sonic characteristic that I hear in only the finest audio equipment, the ability not only to separate the individual instruments and groups of instruments into separate areas within a soundstage, but the ability to separate two instruments playing simultaneously at different volumes into separate areas within the same plane of the soundstage, which I sometimes call "dynamic distance". Yes, Miles trumpet is often front and center. He would have it no other way. The rest of his band comps behind him, and is spread across the rest of the huge soundstage that the MERAK produces that is drawn to the man-made scale that was produced in the control room of Columbia Studios in New York City. Each instrument's frequency and amplitude overlaps each other, yet each is separated by a plumb of air in its own space, this air a combination of the room in which it was recorded and again, man-made with reverb added in the mix-down. The entire mix sounds perfect in an early-1970s chic, downtown bachelor pad kind-of way, but at the same time each instrument sounds like a real instrument recorded in the not-so-real space. I could put this 15 minute track on repeat all night, no problem.
(Please keep in mind that my ratings are similar to stars in restaurant reviews,
in other words, conservative. So 0 notes is poor to satisfactory, 1 is good, 2
very good, 3 excellent, 4 extraordinary, and 5 is equivalent to the best I've
MERAK Monoblock Power Amplifier
United States Distributor
Voice (360) 326-8879