Product manuals aren’t renowned for their exciting nature, but while we waited for the Auralic Aries Mini’s dedicated app to download to our iPod touch, we read through the online product guide. And in just a few sentences it seemed to answer every niggle, all the complaints we routinely level at streaming music boxes (or as Auralic calls this one, a ‘wireless streaming node’). We know what you want, the manual seemed to say, and here it is — a small box that does pretty much everything. And affordably.
Mere marketing claims? Too much to ask? Let’s see.
The Aries Mini is a plug-into-your-hi-fi product — its analogue outputs connect by RCA phono leads into your existing system. In form it’s like an Apple TV but half as big again, 13.5cm square. It connects to your network by Ethernet or dual-band Wi-Fi, while the whole thing is powered by Auralic’s proprietary Tesla hardware platform, including a quad-core 1GHz ARM Cortex A9 processor. Lest that sound too computery, rest assured that its analogue outputs are backed by decent hi-fi circuits following the ESS Sabre ES9018K2M DAC stage. Although if you have a separate external DAC that you deem superior, the Aries Mini offers digital outputs on optical and coaxial up to 24-bit/192kHz and DSD64, but also — get this — on a USB socket, so you can connect the Aries Mini to a USB DAC as if it’s a computer. That’s pretty darned handy — why don’t we see that more often? This USB output can deliver up to 32-bit/384kHz and DSD256. There’s a note that the USB output will only work with DACs that don’t need a driver to work under Mac OS X. (We can’t remember meeting one that does.)
It can produce music via a variety of paths — from its own hard drive if you add one, from the network via DLNA/UPnP shares, from its built-in internet radio, from a limited selection of internet music services (Tidal, Qobuz and WiMP), from Bluetooth, from Apple AirPlay, or from Linn’s open-source Songcast software.
The choice of online services may seem lean, but makes some sense — these are three of the few that offer CD quality streaming, so it’s good to play those direct, leaving lower quality services to stream via AirPlay for Apple users, or, if you must, the lesser choice of Bluetooth. Originally Bluetooth would have been the replay path for Android users — but Auralic appears to have given up on providing an Android version of its control app. So the Aries Mini is now Apple-centric in that an iPad or iPhone (or iPod touch, as we used) will be essential for running the Lightning DS control app.
For these users, the Aries Mini’s many paths to music add up to a powerful combination that does indeed seem to cover all the bases.
Of course specs and sockets are one thing, ease of connection and actual use are another. So we fired up the Lightning DS app. Jeepers it was friendly. We picked our particular product by swiping through the Auralic range (clever marketing, that), then it walked us through the connections — plug the Aries Mini into the mains, connect the audio output of your choice, turn it on, join its Wi-Fi hotspot with your smart device. Connect it to your home network and check for a firmware update — the usual routine for networked audio.
The hard drive
An important differentiator over most streaming boxes is that the Aries Mini has a hard-drive bay into which you can put a 2.5-inch hard drive or solid-state drive. You can then load this with music in a number of ways — from a USB drive or stick, or directly over the network, since it should appear on any networked Mac computers as a shared folder into which you can drag and drop. This is just the sort of thing that manuals say, but which doesn’t actually happen, so we popped upstairs to our master Mac Mini — and there is was, ready to receive.
We found that the nice people at BusiSoft AV had not only installed a hard drive in our review unit but had loaded music onto it, including a good many high-res albums. We tested how easily it loads and unloads across the network by dragging a high-res copy of ‘Ziggy Stardust’ from its hard drive via Wi-Fi onto our Mac storage. Also as a test, we dragged the 24/96 of ‘Blackstar’ back to the Auralic’s HDD folder. Tada. Fast too.
To play tunes you first index the drive from your Lightning DS app, then browse by album (with artwork, and you can choose not only the type of view but even how you want the text labels aligned), by composer, genre, release date, last modified or imported, by sampling rate (excellent!), by file type, or by track — or simply by folder structure. With long lists, the app offered the essential alphabetical jumplist on the right side of the app screen, to get around quickly.
And the contents of the internal hard drive are not only available to the Aries Mini itself — they can be served over the network for replay on other devices, Auralic’s own or others. It is, effectively, a NAS drive itself.
The Aries also builds libraries from other shares on your network. It saw all three of our NAS drive shares (many products only see one or two of these). It doesn’t throw everything in one pot — you select a drive and index it, then you can switch between these various libraries and the Aries’ own hard drive. This switching of libraries could be offered more conveniently —
it requires backing rather deeply into the settings menus, and the selected library may or may not require reindexing depending how recently you visited (and perhaps also whether you fix your IP addresses).
But indexing is fast! We pointed it at a NAS drive with a vast iTunes back-up folder, and were frankly dazed when it whipped through the indexing in a minute or so, apologising it would just take a while to add artwork in the background, but it was all ready to go. Again, highly impressive; many library-building streamers can take hours to index your music. It did hang a while on one mixed-use NAS at 93%, pondering over something shown as ‘Unknown’. But after a few minutes it finished up fine.
We’ve simply never encountered a friendlier player when working from a NAS drive. We ran through our ever-extending list of test tracks in different formats. It played more of them than any streaming device we’ve ever encountered — even a 5.1-channel FLAC file and one file at 32-bit/384kHz. We were astounded to find it would even play MP4 video soundtracks through the Aries Mini with perfect confidence. Only our few DSD files (both dff and dsf) were ducked via NAS — they simply weren’t visible to the iPod interface. Auralic’s specs say they should be, and we later found the Aries Mini had no trouble playing these files from its own hard drive, so possibly we should blame our NAS drive’s serving method; such things are not always transparent.
From NAS we noted there was no alphabetical jumplist, making long lists a bit of a scrollfest; we also struggled to get albums listed in correct track order from a Twonky share, short of SSH editing the Twonky server code.
One last bonus is that gapless playback proceeded almost perfectly — no gaps in your classical or prog rock concept albums, sometimes an almost subliminal blip as the stream moved from one track to the next.
We noticed that the indexing isn’t automatically updated — our new ‘Ziggy Stardust’ album didn’t appear... you need to return to that music library under Settings and reindex to pick up new music. Since this is so quick, it’s not too much of a chore.
Internet radio is limited by its own quality, of course, but worked well — oddly it lacks the usual method of browsing by continent and country, having instead ‘new’, ‘featured’ and ‘genre’ searching. But it does have a search function, which found our favourites quickly, though we noticed when searching ‘BBC’ that it offered us all the national BBC channels but not BBC regional stations, until we searched for their specific name.
On the other hand we realised the search function worked on the current music library and on Tidal as well, an immensely powerful way to quickly find the music you want. Tidal was, as ever, a joy to use at CD quality, and even when our subscription rolled back to mere 320k quality we still got plenty of use out of it for finding new and obscure material. Qobuz remains currently unavailable to Australia, by conventional means at any rate; ditto for WiMP.
Bluetooth and AirPlay were easy and problem-free — we used AirPlay for playing direct from our main Mac Mini music machine and from the iPod touch. With AirPlay’s multiroom capabilities you could have a whole house full of these units in party mode, at least to the capacity of your network. Switching back from AirPlay to the Aries Mini’s own hard drive was just a matter of opening the Lightning DS app and hitting play.
There seems no way to play local device content through the Lightning DS app itself, perhaps because it is more of a control app, coordinating the Aries Mini’s streaming from the network, rather than delivering up files itself.
The unit and the app
There are hard buttons on the Aries Mini itself — play/pause in the middle and volume up/down either side, not that we ever went near them except to push higher the maximum levels available from Bluetooth and AirPlay streaming. There are, we gather, plans to be able to reallocate these buttons to other functions using the Lightning DS app (using them as presets or for library switching might be nice). Our iPod touch’s hard volume buttons worked to control the Aries Mini’s volume as long as we stayed in the Lightning DS app, though we noticed that those on our iPad 2 had no effect. We gather the iPad app is due an upgrade to more closely match the iPhone version, which will be a good thing — there is more space to find your way around on the version we used, but it is not as pretty nor as simple to use as the iPhone version, with quirks like a volume slider which doesn’t react until you let go.
Note that if you change control devices (e.g. from our iPod touch to iPad), your various drives will need reindexing; this information seems to be stored on the specific device. Internet radio favourites and the like do sync across devices, however. And we should emphasise once again that there is no Android version of the Lightning DS app, and while you could use the Aries Mini without it (addressing via third-party DLNA apps or by Bluetooth), you’d lose a large chunk of its functionality and quality.
We were astounded by the Auralic Aries Mini. From one simple box it played almost everything quickly, smoothly and glitch-free. It handles NAS drives, high-res files, Tidal, AirPlay, Bluetooth. You can add a hard drive for local storage. It has audio quality in its DNA, clearly considered at every stage of design — at nearly all times the app tells you the quality of the file you’re playing, and we don’t recall ever seeing the option to browse by sampling rate on a unit at this price level. If you’re using a really high-end system you might look higher up Auralic’s product range, but really, we could hear nothing to criticise. It doesn’t do multiroom with other Auralic units — but we gather that’s on the roadmap for a firmware update soon, and you can achieve it now via AirPlay. So if you’ve been thinking about a Sonos Connect, or indeed any of the available multiroom receiver units to upgrade an existing hi-fi, you might want to think again, and give the Auralic Aries Mini some serious consideration — it does more than anything else we’ve tested near this price, and does it well.
Auralic Aries Mini wireless streaming node
+ Plays pretty much everything; Great sound, good app; Digital outs include USB
- No Android support; Libraries require manual reindexing
Connections: USB-A (replay), Wi-Fi (dual-band), coaxial digital out, optical digital out, USB-A (output), RCA analogue outputs, RJ45 Gigabit Ethernet
App: Lightning DS (iOS only)
Streaming: Local servers (uPnP/DLNA/Minim/Twonky/Jriver), TIDAL, Qobuz (non-Aus), WiMP (non-Aus), internet radio, AirPlay, Songcast, Bluetooth
Internal HDD/SSD: 2.5-inch, not supplied
File types: AAC, AIFF, ALAC, APE, FLAC, MP3, OGG, WAV, WV, WMA, DSD64/128/256 (see text), sampling rates to 32-bit/384kHz
Dimensions (wdh): 135 x 135 x 28mm
Product page: BusiSoft AV Pty Ltd