This should be our second music server review but the B.M.C Puremedia article that I finished some time ago now is in a state of limbo due to what the company think of it. They think a lot of things and are quite keen to tell me how good they think their product is and what other “reviewers” think. In that article I compared it a lot to the cheaper DigiBit Aria Mini (todays topic) and because I also liked that, I reckon their teeth were a little bent out of shape. Luckily Bill Leigh who distributes the Aria in the UK with Auden is not that guy, he lets us have our honest say, because quite frankly we don’t mess around! Now my timing for this review is an interesting one due to DigiBit releasing a new Aria as we move into 2016, the Piccolo (priced just a touch cheaper than Mini). While this may be an unfortunate move for the Mini itself due it in essence having a successor, it may well benefit you due to an expectance of price reduction in many retailers. What was once £2300 in most stores, should now be around the £2000 mark, maybe even under and that is the price I am going to have in mind going forward. It does seem the Mini will be discontinued in the future but they have an inventory left that they have to go through first, so while there is not a huge need to rush, I wouldn’t wait to long either. Before we get stuck in I will add that there is 3 versions of the Mini starting at £1,995 without an external ripper or hard drive, £2,295 for a 2TB HDD and external ripper (my version) and finally £2,795 for 1TB SSD and external ripper. That is of course all retail prices and if we do get a drop it would be on all of them!
DigiBit who have Aria as one of their child brands are a company out of Madrid, Spain. I don’t know what the HiFi scene is like in Spain but I think this is surely the first brand I have reviewed from there. I think Bill chooses brands based on how hot their base countries are so he can visit them, he recently was in Sweeden with Primare, it’s a tough life for some I know. This company have always focussed on digital and computer audio, combining the two and trying to give Audiophile, Innovative, Affordable and Easy to Use solutions for just this. I can safely say that the Aria Mini ticks everything off that list.
What I really do love about the Aria Mini is it knows EXACTLY what it intends to be and who it is for. The PureMedia is to bent up on trying to do everything and anything even slightly media related it seems to lose its way and honestly, I feel like I am paying for stuff I just don’t care about. The Aria Mini however is a music device, built to deal with audio and nothing but audio. I would describe the Mini as a music server and DAC that has a streaming capabilities. Now at its price lets say two grand, it to me doesn’t seem like something for the most demanding enthusiasts or something to be used in the most expensive systems, not that it isn’t up for task. I say this not because it is the baby in the line under the simply named Aria but because of the more modern and sleek design and the inclusion of an internal DAC. At first that was a bit annoying for me, I was infuriated that I could not get this device without a DAC as I have more than capable DACs and much more expensive DACs than what features inside this. I want a music server that is going to make my totaldac sound better, not replace it. Now while the Mini can and will do that, if I am to buy it I am still paying for a designed for purpose DAC in the Mini, that I have no plan on using. The bigger Aria you get the option with or without a DAC. To me this says that this is aimed at people that don’t want loads of big boxes cluttering their HiFi, just a stylish single unit that holds their iPad , houses their streamer and DAC and outputs straight to their amp, compact, attractive, easy. Simply put it would pull that off perfectly.
But you know me I am more complicated than that, I am going to push into this a little further because this product may just have more up its sleeve than the simple task I feel it was made for. Now while I will cut to the chase and be straight with you regarding the DAC, I will still give you some info on it. When Bill dropped this off we installed the driver and set the output to work with my totaldac, therefore I have not listened to the internal DAC (my reference monos would need XLRs instead of the RCA line out this features anyhow). The DAC model is something that was made in collaboration with M2Tech, the same brand of DACs I heard modded by Aurorasound to great appeal. SNR is a little low at 106dB but the output strength is pretty standard at 2Vrms. It is also capable of decoding all file formats, DSD and 32/384 included. It is a fully kitted out DAC and it does not seem they have slacked off with its implementation but as always I want more so that was what I went after.
Open the Window
So we have covered the DAC side of this but what about the rest of it. Well, like most servers this is a modified and optimised computer although this runs Windows Home Server instead of the often preferred Linux. That being said Windows is still used in some very expensive flagship designs such as the CAD CAT which is £5,300. The Windows is of course very basic and using software you can access the desktop but for the most part you will be using the control app we will get to later. This uses a custom JRiver as its music player and combines that with a lot of other programmes that make for the most complete audio experience. In terms of Meta Data for example they have implanted their own Sonata DB and much more to make it absolutely flawless in this regard.
Now for me as a reviewer I have and use lots of DACs so a Windows base has in that regard proved to be a bit of a pain. If you are a Windows guy and have been through a couple of DACs in your time you will know the hassle of installing drivers. As a one off experience it may be all right but as soon as you have a few installed or have to swap them around you will know the eye scratching terror it really is. Josh has often given me a call while pulling is hair out trying to get sound out of a new DAC I have handed him to review. Being a Mac boy and also with the Linux based PureMedia drivers are not a thing so I have never experienced it. That being said out of the box the drivers in Windows will be set up for use with the internal DAC. Connect the RCA outputs to an amp and voila, you have sound. But plug an external DAC into the USB output and whats that no sound. Well, of course not you have no configured the driver with Jriver. Of course that has to be done and I have done just that with Bill for my totaldac d1-tube-mk2. Using a programme that lets you access other computers on your network you go to the desktop of the basic Windows software that the Aria has. From there you implement the driver as you traditionally would, I had it on a USB stick so plugged that into the Aria and set it up as normal. As a one off it is fine but for someone like me who can change DACs on a day to day basis this is even more of a pain to do than on a normal Windows computer. That being said once the drivers are uploaded you can pick and choose them from within the app. Also don’t let this process put you off as Bill assured me this is not something you have to do, it is something that when you purchase will be done by the dealer.
An iPad Stand?
The design of this is far from conventional for a HiFi product. Instead of the usual rectangle that sits on your rack this is erected, standing up tall on a small plinth like a monolith. At first it may seem strange but the principle is solid, the idea is that you will use this as a stand for your iPad, which runs the iAria app that will control this. “But Bill, I don’t have an iPad” that was me and Josh’s initial joint reaction when we were told about this control scheme, which I must add did look great. This was back at Bristol Sound & Vision last year (2015) and we were simply told that an iPad was the only method of control and honestly if you won’t buy it because you don’t have an iPad and really won’t add the extra expense it doesn’t make a lot of sense and I half agreed. An extra expense is still a kick in the teeth in my opinion and I left the show a little disappointed about that being an Android boy. Had Aria kicked away half of the market? When Bill turned up with the Unit some 6 months later I was hoping he was going to let me borrow an iPad to do this review. In a twist of events though this was not needed. It went something like this “Good news Sonny, you can now use your phone to control the Mini, just download the iAria app from the Google Play store”. It turns out that Aria had not neglected us Android users, it just takes a little longer to develop an app on Android. Bill said the IOS app is no better and I can confirm it is way polished enough for me and laughs at any of the third party apps you have to download for my BMC.
Regardless of whether you use a tablet or phone, Android or IOS, that device is your screen and control for the Aria mini. It is screen less and has no HDMI out. Worry not though because even if you’re not into touch screen devices and maybe don’t even own one, grab an iPad and you will be well on your way. In fact while I have only had my experience with this on my OnePlus Two smart phone, I can only imagine the experience would be better on an iPad or android tablet. The layout is clean and navigation effortless. Meta Data is organised perfectly meaning all your music is easy to find and in whatever manner you want. Search through genres, artists, even by file format so you can bring all your DSD up in front of you. Even more interesting is Meta is editable on the fly, so if something is incorrect or maybe has info missing, edit it while listening to the album. Gives you a reason to listen through all your music again and edit it while going. I have been blown away by the app, the information it has, the presentation. It is made for music and gives the data audiophile want as well. Sampling rate, KBPS, artwork and more. When it comes to music collections and playback this did not seem to have one thing I wish it done, rate your music check, playback queue check, search and play quickly check. Stellar job!
Here is an Aria made video on the app and device itself.
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