The Auralic Altair is a wireless streaming ES9018K2M-infused desktop DAC with a dual-frequency 120 femtosecond clock. It is priced at $1899.
Disclaimer: The Auralic Altair sent to us is a sample in exchange for our honest opinion in this review. We thank the team at Auralic for giving us this opportunity.
To read about other streaming products we have reviewed on Headfonics click here.
Note, this review follows our new scoring guidelines for 2020 which you can read up on here.
Sporting Hi-Fi and Hi-Class usually go hand in hand with the luxury hunters out there. Auralic happens to offer some of the most gorgeous amps and DAC’s I’ve been able to test in a while, their current Altair Streamer being no different, of course.
This product is, without question, the most jam-packed full of features unit that I’ve ever reviewed. There is so much ground to cover, so let’s just jump right in. Shall we?
All The Features
If you want options, Auralic is going to give them to you with this Altair. Not only is it offering a good 9018K2M USB DAC, but you are getting a full-on home system seller with steaming Wifi, DSD, 32bit max, HDD compatible, with 4Vrms via the single XLR balanced output, 2Vrms via the RCA, and even a standard ¼ output as well.
Beyond that, the remote control function and dual-frequency 120 Femto clock just make this the most insane all-purpose product I’ve stumbled across in a very long time. This review can easily reach 10 pages just on specs and how they work, before even getting into the sound quality.
Good Lord. What can’t this thing do for you? Oh, by the way, she looks stunning and is simply gorgeous in visual design as well.
Solid aluminum framework, with a hefty knob on the front for volume control and a digital panel adorning the front area, which doubles as a power switch for the Altair when long-pressed inward.
At roughly 7lbs, I would call her surprisingly dense for the size of the unit. I feel absolutely nothing cheaply implemented on this product. From top to bottom, it feels hefty and weighty. Moreover, it feels solid and properly bolted down, physically balanced and not lopsided feeling when held in your hands.
Probably a bit of an odd statement there, due to the fact that nobody will care much to pick it up. But, I’ve noticed that products that have more weight on one side will often deface whatever it is sitting on for extended periods of time. If the unit is not physically balanced and is lacking one heavy component, perhaps on the left side of the product, then it will not likely leave a bad imprint on the object below it only on that side.
I’ve plenty of lopsided feeling amps that left marks on only one side of the product’s rubber feet area and below that. I’ve noticed this Altair is oddly nice feeling in that regard. Bonus points.
I am not at all a fan of the 9018K2M DAC. Nope. In fact, it doesn’t belong in a product like this. Why? My $250 iBasso portable player has 2 of these DAC chips inside of it. Yep. Two. The Auralic Altair is priced at $1800usd now, so this USB DAC is, in theory, too cheap for it. But, it isn’t always about the DAC option itself, as implementation all around is equally vital as the chip itself.
In this case, Auralic has done a good job, but not for a second does this old generation 9018K2M sound as nice as the Oppo 205’s 4K Bluray player I received recently, which has a full 9032 desktop model DAC. There simply is no comparison there, the Altair’s only real weakness is the DAC chip itself.
Thankfully, they semi-made up for that with great internal structure and a nice array of other complementing components inside.
Used as a straight DAC, the 9018K2M is not ideal, but it sounds good, there is no doubting that. It is well suited for upper mid-tier headphones, perhaps sub $999 in value as a general rule of thumb, at least in my book.
It is not Hifi enough to be used with best headphones out there, but as a bridge device, it works well with the HD800’s and LCD3’s out there as a bridge device. If you want an all in one product and also happened to have a great headphone amplifier already, then this is a very good purchase for you.
DAC implementation is a quality I don’t get to talk often enough about, which does an injustice to newbie buyers and even older Hifi elites who forgot that a mid-tier DAC in a Hifi product doesn’t always mean a bad thing. There are plenty of sources out there that have great DAC chips but implemented it poorly for a not so good final output sound.
This is not the case here with the Altair, as I’ve found the DAC to be sufficient enough in headphone usage to justify. But, this is not a headphone amplifier, to begin with, nor a USB DAC source first and foremost.
It is a home system Streamer, with the bonus of being a DAC and Amplifier for Hifi headphone enthusiasts as a secondary trait. When not used with headphones directly that are of an upper mid-fi sound quality, this becomes a very nice setup. HD600 lovers will enjoy this, no doubt there. HD800 owners, for example, no so much.
Point is that implementation is key and Auralic has done a good job with a DAC that was not intended to really be used primarily as we headphone goers would see it. Our version of the hobby is the bonus factoid here, the streaming quality takes center stage and that is what this product was aimed to be from the start.
The Altair is Wifi and Network Streaming friendly, as well as Bluetooth input compatible. And therein lay the biggest problem I have with it: the lack of BT output. Although the input is fine, up until just recently pretty much all BT sources really are not good in my book.
Noontec just recently came out with a fantastic BT node, pairing that with the Altair and then having the Altair pair to wireless something else, or plugin via a home streaming network system, has been really nice. But, why all these features and no BT output? I am deeply saddened by it. Is it a big issue? Not at all, this product is so stuffed with features already, I am not really complaining.
Truly, I find it trivial at best it doesn’t have BT output functionality. I just don’t see why you’d want to pipe your cell phone’s BT quality sound through a $1800 network streamer, to then run it through mid-tier headphones or speakers. I feel like that is an auditory conundrum and not a wise route to take, over just using a 3.5mm to RCA and connecting directly.
When that route is used, I hear a difference in quality raise up nicely over when using the same track through another Bluetooth source. I simply don’t want to use another source, just to pair with this amazing device that does literally everything else. The DAC option isn’t helping the BT quality either, the 9018K2M is not BT friendly, at least not in my experience.
Thankfully, the Auralic Altair makes up for that BT quality loss by inflicting heavy ordinance on the rest of the market for potential usages, but I’m still not cool with it being locked right now to just Apple devices used as the source for it all.
Seems there is an Android compatible app 5.1 firmware version now that will support home network functions. Android simply didn’t have any apps for it for this type of thing for years, or ones that really work well for that matter.
Either way, the sound is definitely better via Wifi through the network pairing than Bluetooth was. I pick up no static or anything noisy when this is active, but when BT is active, I hear static. And that is not from the Altair, let us be clear. It is 100% the fault of the Bluetooth source usually.
The Altair generated no static or hum until connected to the BT source of a low-end cell phone or DAP. When connected to my Noontec BT node, it was very clean. Wifi connections are pristine.
The low end of the USB DAC on a headphone or speaker setup is one that I find just passable for this price tag. Again, I understand that this is a network streamer and not really supposed to be primarily a headphone amp.
There are subsets here to cover, which include USB Dac > Headphone, HDD > USB DAC > Headphone, Wifi stream to USB DAC > Headphone etc. The 9018K2M does a fair job, but you always come back to it as it seems to be processing the job no matter what the source is, obviously.
That chip is notorious for a pure, top end of thin, bottom end of a moderate bass quantity that half the community needs to bass boost upward. Musicality chasers, like myself, want more bass at the cost of accuracy. More fun, sacrificing quality. So if the quality is just good for that DAC to begin with, boosting it further degrades it too much.
And I’ve found that to be the case, just like I’ve found it to be the case with other 9018K2M products. It simply doesn’t respond well or retains control when boosting up on the bass end of the spectrum.
Quality is just fine. So long as you aren’t EQ’ing up beyond +4dB or so, you’ll not notice a problem. After that though, pure bass tonality products, like the Altair, begin to shake a bit and lose focus. They are not intended to be boosted, sadly.
The Altair is fairly clinical in tonality and I don’t find it musical at all. If you are purist, I think you will enjoy this tone on the bass-end much more than a musicality chaser would. True, I find it a bit on the thin side, but working through speakers as this product was intended mostly, at least I think it was, it isn’t an issue.
The problem here is that now we have plenty of Wifi enabled home network speakers that don’t require a middleman like this Altair. I’ve got a set of Oppo speakers that cost $299 that pair directly with my server.
So why then do I need to pair the Altair to the server, then pair the speaker to the Altair? Well, it’s the 9018K2M back in play again. That decoding chip actually improved the sound of the system via a direct connection to the speaker. Meaning, the speaker Wifi enabling was inferior to the Altair connecting to the server and pulling tracks, but the speaker then connected to the Altair. Very interesting dynamic there and something to consider.
Bass quality is most heavily affected, it seems, which is why I am mentioning it here. The Altair improved this, what is there is just passable in quantity and more than quality acceptable enough to be used with most speakers that are not bass oriented subsystems. If you have a sub-setup…seek a great DAC and get a speaker pre-amp instead.
The tone of the Altair is relatively neutral and clinical. I find it sufficiently clean sounding for most midtier headphone, onward up to the likes of a Focal Elear, for example.
But beyond that and into ultra Hifi? Nah. This unit is good at everything, but not a specialist intended for that realm. What is there in the midrange is moderately forward and very appealing to me. If you like forward and invested mids, this is a great sounding product for you.
Quality allotted is relatively good for the price and when paired with a better sounding pure and raw amp for headphones and speakers, you’ll not really notice the DAC drop off a great deal. Vocals are precise and semi in your face sounding and that is a great thing for me on a subjective level. I am not fond of recessed sound and the Altair is far from recessed sounding. It pairs very nicely with my Feliks Audio Euphoria, which is one of the best tube amps I’ve tested in years.
Quality is not at all an issue, I found through multi-amp testing that this Altair is a good performer for all things vocal centered. Audeze LCD2 lovers, especially the later iterations with Fazor involved, will really enjoy this sound pairing. Two/thirds neutrality in the midrange is actually desirable, I don’t want it too colored there, nor too neutral.
The upper mid area is where things got interesting for me. A bit bright would be what I would say about it if asked directly, but not painful or annoying. Plentiful upper mids with a tinge of brightness on top, great for engaging qualities and moderate dynamic slam. HD600 owners should love this. HD650 lovers won’t.
As with the upper midrange, I’ve found the top end of this product to, nearly always, sound like it is constantly looming on the horizon of too much. It has plentiful bite and brightness, but not overbearingly so.
It can slam good, but not be painful, unless I am using treble happy headphones, such as my Fostex TH-series models. When toting those into the mix, I just can’t use the system anymore. Potent treble combined with potent treble = more potent treble and I am just not fond of it.
You’ll need to complement the Altair with something more subdued there, or perhaps like an Elear from Focal would portray treble: happy, slamming when the track calls for it but also stunning most of the time without ever feeling harsh. If you can rig pair properly, you’ll be rewarded.
Otherwise, it is a full-on beware of treble happy headphones when used with the Altair via DAC mode.Used with speakers? It sounds lovely. My Audio Engine HDP9’s sound great with it, plenty of tinge up top and excellent sparkle when routed into my AKG Harmon speaker amp. Usually and with speakers, this is less of an issue.
Imaging / Staging
The Altair is wide-sounding and very tall sounding for such a moderately attractive DAC chip. Again, implementation. How is it this sounds different and grander than the other products I own that have the same chip?
Great implementation is the answer to that. Here, the Altair offers nice width and height, as well as an excellent formation to the void stage box itself. The depth of field is a bit of an issue. Realism factor and stage depth could have been better, but perhaps I am asking too much? The separation of instruments factor is surprising, aired out and spacious feeling in terms of the right to left positioning. This is great, once again, for most midtier products that don’t offer absurd depth, to begin with.
With speakers, you don’t notice any of this at all, only with headphones. I can’t tell imaging prowess differentials with my speakers apart much using the Altair. Hardly any changes there, between a totally different sounding speaker that I currently have on hand. So, speaker users will be fine and not notice. Those with excellent sound staging headphones will. Stick to the midtier and you’ll be fine with imaging as a whole.
Our Verdict On The Altair
The Altair is insanely feature-rich. Not only is it Wifi and home system compliant, but it also offers a hefty output power for needy headphones and speakers that can use a balanced XLR (if you split it) or RCA.
I have such speakers from Massdrop and JBL, and the combo sounds lovely. My HDP6’s from Audio Engine requires a power amp to route from the Altair, and that combo is also lovely.
Yet, I consider the HDP6 the superior sounding speaker there of the two. Why? Directly connect the output from the Altair to the JBLs, instead of an Altair > Power Amp > HDP6. These are very important things to consider when buying for a home system. Proper rig pairing is vital and it depends on your current setup.
Does your setup include excellent headphones? Probably not for you then, if you are only buying for headphones. If you want an all-around, all-purpose can do almost anything source, then you need not look further, the Altair scores a massive 9/10 for Value.
It dishes out almost anything you need and has a good price when considering just what it can do. Hi-res files, DSD, Wifi, Ethernet-enabled, BT input, three outputs, intended as a streaming device, can pull via an HDD or a home network server as well? Hell of a product and also one of the sexiest sources I’ve had in-house in a long time. Well done, Auralic.