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- Written by Vade Forrester Vade Forrester
- Category: Full-Length Equipment Reviews Full-Length Equipment Reviews
- Created: 15 January 2015 15 January 2015
Introduced to the US at the 2014 AXPONA audio show, the DigiBit Aria, made in Spain, has several features that distinguish it from other music servers. Although its most immediately noticeable feature is its appearance -- its case appears to be an untidy pile of aluminum plates -- its true distinction is its software. Most server software lets you display recordings by album title, or by the name of the recording artist. While that works for rock or pop, it makes it hard to navigate large collections of classical recordings.
A typical classical album can be characterized by the composer of the music, the names of the individual singers or instrumentalists, the name of the conductor, or the name of the ensemble. If the work is an opera or oratorio, you have the names of the vocal soloists -- sometimes many, any of whom may be the item of chief interest to the listener, as may be the name of the choral group. You might also want to sort a collection by period: early music, renaissance, baroque, classical, romantic, modern -- or by solo instrument: piano, violin, cello, etc. Vanishingly few server programs offer enough metadata fields to let you manage a classical collection. To a lesser extent, jazz recordings are also poorly served. The designers of the Aria’s library-management software have made a worthy effort to meet the needs of the serious classical collector.
The Aria’s base price is $5495 USD, with no internal DAC or storage and with the standard power supply. The review sample came with a 2TB hard-disk drive, the optional linear power supply, and the internal DAC; that combination sells for $7995. The most expensive option replaces the hard drive with a 2TB solid-state drive, for $9995. The server plays PCM files of up to 32-bit/384kHz resolution, and DSD128 files, as well as DXD (32/352.8). The PCM file formats supported are WAV, AIFF, FLAC, and ALAC -- all of the commercially available files of interest to audiophiles as of this writing. DSD256 files have begun to appear -- but if you download one, I hope you have a fast Internet connection. Playback of all files is bit perfect, which these days we take for granted. The Aria reads files into its memory before playing them, which should minimize jitter.
The Aria measures 16.8"W x 2.5"H x 14"D and weighs 26.4 pounds. Its striking case, made of precision-machined plates of 6mm-thick aluminum (silver finish only), was designed by Ochoa y Diaz-Llanos, a well-known European design house. The fanless Aria is completely silent during playback.
Have you ripped all of your CDs to your hard drive? I haven’t -- too many CDs, too little industriousness. The Aria understands, and makes ripping as easy as possible: Insert a CD in the industrial TEAC optical drive, and the Aria automatically rips its contents to its own internal hard drive as FLAC files, and saves metadata about the recording it’s found on the Internet. When it’s finished, it spits out the CD. I don’t know how ripping could be much easier. The dealer can reset the ripping software to produce other PCM formats, though DigiBit cautions that the WAV files don’t and can’t include metadata, which would negate the Aria’s advanced handling of classical-music information.
The Aria software comes with 18 metadata fields that you can use to describe your recordings; you can add as many other fields as you wish, or delete any you don’t need. Be aware that most CD-ripping programs and most download sites probably won’t automatically fill in these fields for you. The Aria’s ripping program does populate those fields as best it can, and it did a pretty good job. It has access to the AccurateRip database used by dBpoweramp, and the premium databases AMG, freedb, GD3, MusicBrainz, and SonataDB (Classical) -- you’ll have a hard time finding a CD the Aria won’t recognize. You may recognize some of those databases as commercial, but worry not -- the Aria comes with licenses for their use.
The Aria’s all-important free control app, iAria, runs on iPads and iPad Minis. Apps for other platforms are in development. Since iAria is the only way to view recordings stored on the Aria, it needs to -- and does -- show all metadata fields, including custom fields. iAria includes an onscreen tagging tool with which you can edit metadata from your listening chair. Most programs offer minimal tagging support, and that only from the main computer. If you’ve had problems with other servers’ remote-control apps establishing contact with their servers, iAria is said to be effortless: just download it from Apple’s App Store, start it up, and it should automatically contact the Aria server. In other words, it’s plug-and-play, which should be the norm; in my experience, such ease is unique to the Aria.
I thought the iAria app looked very familiar, and then it dawned on me -- it’s a version of JRemote, the remote-control app for JRiver Media Center, the server software I use on my laptop. That flattened the learning curve. iAria differs from JRemote in some ways -- for example, a command to delete a file from the hard drive, which JRemote lacks -- but more important, iAria just works. Unlike some remote apps I’ve used with certain other servers, you don’t have to poke a control several times for it to work.
On the rear panel of Arias that lack the internal DAC are the digital outputs: coax RCA and BNC, XLR, USB, and I2S. There’s no official I2S interface standard, but DigiBit and several other manufacturers use RJ-45 jacks. There’s also a standard IEC inlet for the power cable. Arias that include the internal DAC have only a USB output. The Aria’s internal operating system is Windows Server 2011, so you’ll need a driver for your DAC.
The black front panel is pretty simple: on the right are the drawer of the optical drive and an eject button. On the left is an on/off button. A blue light tells you that the Aria is on. A small window to the left of the disc drawer shows the type of input (PCM or DSD) and the sampling rate. That’s it -- all other controls are on the iAria app.
The thick top panel is engraved “Aria.” On the bottom are four feet that look capable of absorbing vibrations. Also on the bottom panel is the serial number, which you’ll need if you ever need technical support, which is provided remotely from Spain. The serial number lets tech support find your Aria via the Internet.
The Aria comes with a two-year warranty. While two years seems a bit meager for a component costing $5495 and up, I like the part of the warranty that reads “full support and after sales service.” So many manufacturers apparently think their customers have degrees in computer science; it’s refreshing to see one that recognizes that its customers might need some help.
Setup and use
The compact Aria slid easily onto a shelf on my equipment rack. I connected it to my PS Audio DirectStream DAC with a Wireworld Platinum Starlight USB 2.0 cable. The DAC output was connected to an Audio Research SP20 preamp via Clarity Cables Organic unbalanced interconnects. A Clarity Cables Vortex power cord provided the Aria with AC.
Installing iAria on my iPad 3 was easy and straightforward -- just like every other app I’ve used. However, except for the downloading of high-resolution audio files, and connection to a network for Internet access to retrieve metadata for its rips, the Aria is unlike every other server I’ve used in not requiring an external computer. Many audiophiles still lack computer skills; the Aria should eliminate their objections to computer audio. Essentially, iAria does everything a computer would do.
I copied music files from a USB flash drive by plugging it into the USB input (labeled HDD) on the Aria’s rear panel, and used iAria to manage the copying. DigiBit warns against using portable hard-disk drives -- the Aria may not provide enough power to run a portable hard drive, but it shouldn’t (and didn’t) have a problem with a flash drive. You can listen to music through the Aria while copying music files to its hard drive; I did, and could hear no degradation.
To avoid filling up the Aria’s internal drive, you can link the contents of an attached USB or NAS drive to the Aria’s library, and iAria will display those albums as if they were stored on the Aria (though it doesn’t copy the music to the Aria’s drive). I couldn’t distinguish music recordings merely linked to the Aria from those actually stored on its internal drive. You can use iAria to delete files from the hard drive, or to unlink albums, in case you remove an external USB or NAS drive.
Albums are added to the Aria’s library one at a time. If you’re adding a lot of music at once, such as the contents of a new NAS, that can be tedious. For example, I have nearly 400 albums on my NAS; adding them individually would be a royal pain.
The Aria comes with a lengthy user manual and a single-page installation guide. The latter is a model for such documents, well illustrated and easy to understand. I’ve had experience with several music servers, and can attest that getting them up and running can range from straightforward to incredibly hard. I’m dumbfounded by how much expertise some manufacturers expect from their users. Maybe dealers do all the setup work for customers, but doggone few do so for reviewers -- go figure.
It took me about ten minutes to connect the Aria and play music. That’s amazing. Often, it takes hours of futzing around with the app and getting the settings just right before being rewarded with music. The Aria essentially set itself up -- there were even some sample recordings preloaded on the hard drive, so I didn’t have to wait to hear music. The fact that iAria only has to work with Aria servers eliminates a lot of setup options.
After cleaning several CDs with my fave cleaning system, Essence of Music, I ripped them to the Aria. Each disc only took two to four minutes to rip, then another one or two minutes to index, or retrieve metadata from the Internet. Sure enough, the promised, expanded metadata were available in the Aria’s database. Amazing! The Aria’s database has fields for album title, artist, genre, period, instrument, style, composer, conductor, orchestra, soloists, label, and sample rates. While ripped CDs had all the information shown in these fields, CDs ripped using other programs, and downloads, didn’t have all those fields. You can insert this information manually, but it’s a lot of work. DigiBit is working on a program called Auto Tag, which will go through your collection and fill in the missing fields, but that’s not yet available. You can use the Aria to play music while ripping CDs to it, but you probably wouldn’t want to; the CD drive is pretty noisy.
Manufacturers’ recommendations for break-in are usually the very minimum needed for best sound, so I try to follow them -- I figure they know their equipment. DigiBit recommends 350-400 hours of break-in for the Aria, so that’s what I gave it.
Since the review sample had an internal DAC, its only digital output was a USB port. With the help of DigiBit’s tech support, I was able to use both my PS Audio DirectStream DAC and the Aria’s DAC, using iAria to switch between them by changing Zones (which is what DigiBit calls the Aria’s output sections). DigiBit had to install in the Aria the appropriate Windows driver for the PS Audio, which they did from Spain via the Internet. We indeed live in a global society. I had another chance to experience DigiBit’s excellent tech support when I had a problem with how iAria displayed the music stored on my NAS when linking music over the network. In two days, the DigiBit folks developed a software modification and downloaded it to the review sample. I wish all manufacturers were as responsive.
I evaluated the DigiBit Aria with its own internal DAC and with my PS Audio DirectStream DAC. I expect that most people who might buy the relatively expensive Aria would already have a DAC, but there are times -- such as when shelf space in an equipment rack is limited -- when a built-in DAC would be preferable.
I ran my evaluation of the Aria’s internal DAC twice. The first time, the Aria had had perhaps 300 hours of break-in; the second, around 400 hours. After the first session, my notes boiled down to, essentially, “bright with attenuated bass.” After another 100 hours, the sound was very different. The comments that follow reflect what I heard in the later session.
Listening to “Spanish Harlem,” from Rebecca Pidgeon’s The Raven (24-bit/176.4kHz FLAC, Chesky), I heard a very open sound, with detailed enunciation from the singer. I fancied I could visualize how Pidgeon vocalized each syllable. Bass extended fairly deep on the first track, “Kalerka,” with excellent detail. As usual, the recording was squeaky-clean -- not analytic, just free from distortion.
Reference Recordings’ new sublabel, Fresh!, has issued recordings of Dvořák’s Symphony No.8 and Janáček’s Symphonic Suite from Jenůfa, with Manfred Honeck conducting the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra (DSD64/DSF, Fresh!). It sounded splendidly open and bright, with lots of instrumental and harmonic detail, and hard-hitting orchestral climaxes. The Aria’s DAC was clearly capable of reproducing lots of information from this DSD64 recording -- when the PSO reached a climax, the Aria conveyed the full measure of excitement. Only Honeck’s fondness for exaggerated tempos in the last movement of the Dvořák keeps this performance from topping my list of favorite recordings of the work. It’s great to have the PSO recording again, especially in such good sound.
Folia Rodrigo Martinez, from La Folia 1490-1701, by Jordi Savall and his ensemble (16/44.1 AIFF, Alia Vox), displayed sharp leading-edge transients when the opening cascabels (sleigh bells) were sharply struck. The Aria’s extended treble let me hear more detail from the percussion instruments than I’d ever heard. They play continually in the background but are usually buried in the mix; the Aria kept them audible throughout the piece and revealed the ebb and flow of their microdynamics, all of it adding to the excitement of this performance. At the other end of the audioband, the Aria delivered extended bass and impact from the subterranean bass drum. I can’t remember having heard this recording sound better.
Another old fave, Allegri’s Miserere, performed by the Tallis Scholars (24/96 FLAC, Gimell), exhibited a huge soundstage, with good portrayal of the depth of the recording venue. The small group of soloists well behind the main chorus had excellent detail; the reverberant field that tells us that the two groups are physically separate was present, but not overemphasized, as it is with some components. The voices sounded a bit bright, but not peaky.
I compared the sound of the Aria and its internal DAC with the Aria feeding an external DAC, and with a different music server and DAC.
My usual reference server is JRiver’s Media Center 20 software, which runs on my Hewlett-Packard dv7-3188cl laptop computer, connected to my PS Audio DAC with a Wireworld Platinum Starlight USB cable. Files were stored on the same QNAP NAS used by the Aria. Unlike with the Aria, which must be connected by an Ethernet cable to my home network, I streamed files wirelessly to the laptop, using JRiver’s JRemote iPad app to remotely control Media Center. Media Center’s metadata fields are limited to album name, artist, and genre (though JRemote adds a composer field).
The bass of Folia Rodrigo Martinez extended just a smidgen deeper, but with a smidgen less impact. Although plainly audible throughout the piece, the wood blocks were now just a little less emphasized than through the Aria and its built-in DAC. By a small margin, JRiver seemed to throw a wider, more open soundstage.
Allegri’s Miserere sounded a little less bright through JRiver. The sense of depth was depicted similarly: neither server produced the smear that often occurs when the more distant group sings, only a bit of the echo generated as the sounds of their voices make their way to the microphones.
With the Aria’s USB output connected to the PS Audio’s USB input with the same Wireworld cable, the sound was similar to that of the JRiver laptop server. That shouldn’t be a surprise -- the Aria uses a proprietary version of the JRiver software, and was connected to the same DAC using the same cable. The sounds weren’t identical -- the laptop had more detail and resolution -- but the Aria’s USB output had had much less break-in time. Since I couldn’t simultaneously use the outputs of the Aria’s internal DAC and USB, I spent most of the time using the Aria’s built-in DAC. I’d probably played the Aria’s USB output less than 50 hours, and have already described the considerable difference that breaking in the internal DAC made. I suspect that, with more break-in, the Aria’s USB output might have sounded better.
I was surprised at how good the Aria’s internal DAC sounded -- PS Audio’s DirectStream DAC costs nearly six times as much as the Aria’s DAC, and I had found the PS Audio to be a top performer. While I very slightly preferred the PS Audio for its slightly flatter-sounding highs, the Aria came very close to it -- which makes it by far the better value.
DigiBit’s Aria music server has three compelling features: 1) it’s remarkably easy to set up, 2) its software is refreshingly friendly to classical music, and 3) except to download audio files and gather metadata, you don’t need a computer. At $7995, it’s hardly cheap, but DigiBit has other options that bring at least some of the Aria’s features to a lower price level: The Aria Mini looks like an iPad stand; and DigiBit’s kit of expansion boards that fit inside an Oppo BDP-105 or BDP-105D universal Blu-ray player can convert those players into servers using Oppo’s built-in DAC. I haven’t tried those, but they sound interesting.
I’ve tried many other servers, and have never encountered one so easy to get up and running. But that would be of only academic interest if the Aria didn’t sound good, and it sounds splendid -- its built-in DAC is especially good. And the Aria looks as good as it sounds. For me, the Aria’s features easily justify its cost. It gets my highest recommendation, and is a Reviewers’ Choice.
. . . Vade Forrester
- Speakers -- Affirm Audio Lumination, JL Audio Fathom f110 subwoofer
- Amplifier -- Berning ZH-230
- Preamplifier -- Audio Research SP20
- Digital sources -- Hewlett-Packard dv7-3188cl laptop computer running 64-bit Windows 7 Home Premium and JRiver Media Center 20; PS Audio DirectStream DAC
- Interconnects -- Audience Au24 e, AudioQuest Diamond USB, Clarity Cables Organic, Crystal Cable Piccolo (unbalanced), Wireworld Platinum Starlight USB
- Speaker cables -- Clarity Cables Organic
- Power cords -- Audience powerChord e, Blue Marble Audio Blue Lightning, Clarity Cables Vortex, Purist Audio Design Venustas
DigiBit Aria Music Server
Price: $7995 USD.
Warranty: Two years parts and labor.
Phone: +34 91-533-42-50
Source Systems, Ltd.
San Clemente, CA 92672-6000
Phone/fax: (949) 369-7729