The Auralic Mini is a streamer of diminutive proportions, but does this mean it has to compromise on sound? Dan Worth attaches this £450 unassuming black box into his system to find out.
Flexibility usually comes at a premium in the world of Hifi and streaming devices often have limits to the configuration of outputs and services they offer. Aurelic’s Aries Mini however, is a wireless/wired streaming hub designed for connecting to your existing home audio system. Differing from the full sized Aries the Mini has both digital and analogue outputs, for connection to a standalone DAC or digital amplifier via USB, Coaxial or Optical and can also connect directly to any analogue amplifier or powered speakers via its RCA outputs.
Aries Mini will stream high-resolution music quickly and wirelessly in virtually any sampling rate, even the latest Quad-Rate DSD and DXD. It is powered by Aurelic’s proprietary Tesla hardware platform which has as its brain a Quad-Core ARM Coretex-A9 processor running at 1GHz supported by 512MB of DDR3 RAM and 4GB internal storage. The Tesla platform has a calculation ability of 25,000 MIPS, more than enough to decode a vast selection of audio formats, including AAC, AIFF, ALAC, APE, DIFF, DSF, FLAC, MP3, OGG, WAV, WV and WMA.
In order to obtain music from the Aries Mini one will need to add a library or source to playback from. Options include a NAS via uPnP/DLNA, Minimserver, Twonky, Asset UPnP, JRiver or any other DLNA/uPNP compatible server software. TIDAL, Qobuz and WiMP online streaming, Internet Radio, AirPlay, Songcast and Bluetooth, USB hard drive files or Optional internal HDD/SSD all controlled via the Lightning DS App, which is only compatible with iOS Apple devices, a big disappointment for Android customers, however, an older full sized iPad, iPad Mini, iPhone or Touch would make for a great inexpensive remote control. I use a separate device myself to control my music playback, leaving my iPad for any browsing or music investigation during playback. So be sure to factor this in when purchasing as the Aries Mini has no remote or real onboard controls, just a volume up/down button and play/pause is present for a little additional convenience.
I had a few initial issues with the Lightning DS app. I could play one track from my NAS and the app would freeze or crash out, the current song would continue to play and I would need to reload the app, play one track and the same would happen. I quickly gave up and listened to another source and contacted Auralic.
After the Xmas period had passed and I was recovered from all the treats that the festive period brings I thought I’d try the Lightning DS app again, noticing that Auralic had indeed left me a message to arrange a convenient time to have a chat over the telephone to determine where the problem may lie and to my satisfaction, whatever little bug may have been preventing normal use, whether on my network, iPad or the app itself had been resolved and I was soon using all features of Lightning DS without any issues.
Firstly I went back through many of my own personal albums on my NAS drive, as this is where I first began and was a quick and easy way to get some appreciation of what the Mini had to offer. Performance and usage of the system reminds me very much of the Squeezebox setups of the past, the sonic signature is very informative and detailed, overall dynamics are strong and somewhat unexpected from this little Apple TV sized box, and it soon became clear that sonically the Aries Mini was a leap ahead of the famous Squeezebox devices. Clarity in the upper registers is very good indeed and really nicely detailed and open, the midrange showed strong vocal presence and clarity of tone, bass lines were punchy and detailed, whilst lacking the lowest of extensions had a shape and presence to the bass which is musical, fun and bouncy.
I much prefer what the Aries Mini does with more upbeat and toe tapping music, the more mellow stuff is still dealt with very tastefully, but for me the Mini is an enthusiastic fun loving little fella with a big smile and a big heart, rather than a slipper touting, pipe smoking old man retired to the compost heap!
This comment had me instantly thinking of a dear friend of mine, Barrie is 87 and far from a compost heap. He always has a smile on his face and has a great sense of humour. We often sit around his house listening to his system and a wonderful arrangement of Trad Jazz, which I enjoy very much. It’s usually not long before Barrie gets up and starts dancing around the room too and educating me on some of his most favourite artists. It goes to show that age is only a number and the heart and soul are a constant throughout life. The Aries Mini has a heart and soul for life just like Barrie and the fun loving care free way it presents music isn’t really your typical hifi sound, it’s just musically enjoyable and most satisfying.
Next up and keeping in line with local library playback I popped a Samsung Evo 850 250gb SSD drive into the underside of the Aries Mini, which is an incredibly easy task for anyone who can undo two screws. Simply slot the drive into position and attach the underside flap. Moving files from the NAS or a local computer shared on the network to the internal drive was a breeze through the rather comprehensive Lightning DS App and playback produced a darker background and more insightful performance playing from the SSD direct, allowing for even more information to come through. Soundstaging was notably more focused and had cleaner edges to the overall width, yet still retaining that great Aries Mini sound character.
Alongside the ability to play local files Auralic have given the Mini the ability to play and emulate your TIDAL and Qobuz accounts, no Spotify Connect though I’m afraid, which is a big disappointment as something such as the Aries Mini wouldn’t be my first choice for critical listening in a high-end system and nor is Spotify, but both would get more use (as they have done individually) for when friends come over. The combination of the fun musical presentation and the sheer amount of playlists Spotify offers would have been a match made in heaven for me personally. On further inspection the Mini does offer the ability to play Spotify through the Airplay feature from an iOS device, adequate but not as good as having it integrated.
TIDAL however, which I also subscribe too has come along way since its release and through the Mini sounds fab, far better than Spotify Premium would, but the pre-made playlists are not as vast. Needless to say I got on with the combo extremely well and love how fast the Lightning DS app rendered, buffered and selected everything I wanted to hear.
Sat back going through many genres on TIDAL I had a chance to explore the soundstage a little further; it’s not the airiest of soundstage, but it’s very encapsulating giving harmonic references to notes all around my room, again its that Auralic draw you in sound that boasts musicality rather than what many refer to as a hifi sound that captivates listening.
Qobuz, another newbie to quality lossless streaming is also supported and also very easy to setup through the app. I’m not as big a fan of Qobuz as I am TIDAL, I think it still has a long way to come with its PC orientated GUI, although on the Lightning DS app it appears very nicely. Sound quality for me and also to a few other friends who had listen is not quite as good as TIDAL, but I think over time Qobuz is going to be extremely effective and build significantly on its already strong platform. Most importantly that Auralic character shone through and did smiley things to my face…again!
I must say I was impressed with the Aries Minis via way of rendering radio stations, first of all there are options for, genre, worldwide and local stations, navigation and buffering was extremely fast and the Mini produced great flow and musicality to radio stations over the range I tried, admittedly more for background listening but I did find myself using radio more on the main system over my time with the Mini as it was just so easy and sounded very pleasing.
During the review process I had the opportunity to also use the various connections from the Aries Mini and my findings were that the coaxial RCA output provided the most consistently lovable sound. Optical is never as good, but with a glass optical cable was far better and USB was very good indeed and the USB implementation of the DAC in question (I tried a few) plays a big factor in overall performance. There were no bad ways of connecting the Aries Mini, including wired or wireless, there just happened to be slightly better configurations if you like to compare and get the best from this flexible little sprite.
Lastly in order to be thorough and for my own interest I connected the Aries Mini to my Focal CMS Actives, now this would be for me an absolutely brilliant and compact system for any other room in the house from the main system. A simple wireless connection, internal or network hard drive and an iPad on a stand offers a fully integrated digital system that sounded fantastic. The Focal’s detailed and clean approach was backed up with the Mini’s flare for reproducing music. This system in an office or kitchen, even a bedroom would be a staple that the majority of people would simply fit and forget.
I didn’t really expect too much from Auralic’s entry level streamer the Aries Mini; I had the misconception that like many other lower priced streaming devices that the sound would be somewhat flat and lack lustre. How wrong I was, the Aries Mini is the most fun I’ve had from my music in a non hifi sense in a while. It’s a feature rich streamer that integrates the most popular lossless streaming services and radio with the families local files to produce a musical and enthusiastic sound that for the money could be called a gift from Santa at this time of year.
The perfect companion to any mid priced system and for those with more expensive tastes a truly great addition to less critical listening in other areas of the home.
Sound Quality: The most fun you will have for £450 unless you live in Amsterdam!
Build Quality: Simple and solid
Value For Money: Brilliant, you can’t put a price on musicality, so if Auralic deems it at £450 then I’m convinced
Musical, enthusiastic, detailed and fun sound
Feature rich software
Digital and analogue outputs
No Spotify Connect (although Spotify can used via AirPlay)