Yulong DA-ART Aurora Review
Aurora – The Dawn of musicality
Pros: + Excellent tonality
+ Natural timbre
+ Very musical and engaging
+ Visceral and impactful
+ Grand scale and holographic soundstage
+ Good technicalities and transparency
+ Powerful headphone amplifier
+ Excellent as a preamplifier
+ Line level input
+ 8x MQA decoder
+ Full size XLR plugs
+ Well made and compact sized
Cons: – The lack of a gain setting makes it pretty unusable with sensitive earphones
– ON/OFF switch awkwardly positioned between USB and DC inputs
– 4.4mm headphone plug is located too close to the volume knob
– Will not display sampling rate
– Switches of mediocre quality
– A better quality external PSU should have been included
– Bluetooth is not available in the international market
The review sample was kindly provided as an extended loan.
As always the review reflects my honest and subjective opinion, I haven’t received monetary or any other kind of compensation and I don’t use affiliate links.
The Aurora is priced at $520 and you can buy it from all authorized dealers around the world.
YULONG Audio and DA-ART
YULONG Audio designs and manufactures high-end audio products with special focus on All-in-One products for home and personal audio since 2009.
They combine leading-edge technologies, rigorous engineering principles, exquisite craftsmanship, and the passion of audiophiles into their R&D process, deploying all available resources and expertise to deliver products that sound good, measure well and function reliably.
Their DA1 768KHz balanced DAC headamp/preamp is one of the best regarded devices among the high-end headphone community.
And while the reference products are relatively affordable, they are still quite expensive for the younger generation, so the sub-brand DA-ART was created to adopt the main technologies into more affordable all-in-one products.
One such product under the DA-ART brand is the newly released Aurora, an all-in-one device that combines a DAC with a powerful, class A headphone amplifier and preamplifier in a desktop friendly chassis.
The unit is very versatile as it offers a powerful balanced headphone amplifier with three different output plugs, balanced and unbalanced line outputs that can be switched between DAC or preamplifier function while except for the three digital inputs there is also a line level input for connecting an external analog source like a phono.
The Bluetooth version of the Aurora is only available in China.
The Aurora is designed around the latest ESS ES9068AS 32-bit DAC chipset with XMOS XU216 USB solution and facilitates 768kHz, DSD512 and 8x MQA decoding capability.
Despite the very compact design, the Aurora offers extensive input and output options.
It accepts USB Audio, S/PDIF Coaxial, Optical and analogue line inputs.
YULONG MAS (Mobile Audio Source)
has enabled the USB input to work with iOS and Android mobile devices as well as regular Windows, Mac and Linux computers.
One of YULONG’s innovations is to design a fully balanced discrete Class A amplification circuit that can be used for headphone amplifier and preamp through optimized switching
The newly developed AC-DC regen power supply system can provide up to 5A transient current, together with OPA1612 op-amp LPF and low impedance line driver, the headphone amplifier circuit delivers immense energy and headroom.
Full specifications are available here.
Design and build quality
The Aurora has a trapezoidal shaped chassis that is made from thick CNCed aluminium which also acts as an electromagnetic interference shield.
Build quality is excellent, there are no sharp edges and the chassis has a smooth matte finish that is available in black, red or silver.
The unit is quite compact, measuring just 200x165x52mm so it doesn’t occupy too much space and is desktop friendly.
All the plugs and the volume knob are of good quality but it can’t be said the same for the three switches that feel cheap and of inferior quality, not worthy of a $520 device.
At the front panel, starting from the left side, there is the input selection toggle switch and then a series of seven LEDs that display the selected input and whether the unit is decoding DSD or MQA.
Sampling rate and lock/unlock status are unfortunately not displayed.
At the center there is an aluminium knob to control the potentiometer which has a smooth, precise and resistant free rotation.
Next there are the 4.4mm balanced headphone output, a 6.35mm single-ended headphone output and a balanced 4-pin XLR headphone output.
The 4.4mm port is located too close to the volume knob as a result adjusting the volume is a little awkward while using this output.
At the back things are more cramped but the plugs are still usable with one minor exception.
The tiny On/Off switch is squeezed between the 12V DC input and the USB port so it is very difficult to use it (especially if you have thick fingers) when both cables are simultaneously plugged in, which by the way is the most common use scenario.
Next you will find the optical and coaxial digital inputs, the line input, the single ended RCA and balanced XLR line outputs and a switch that toggles between fixed DAC and variable preamplifier function.
The Aurora comes with a good quality USB-A to USB-B cable, an external 12V power adapter and the user’s manual.
As per usual practice the Aurora was burned for 150 hours before the listening sessions.
The digital transport used was the Silent Angel Munich M1T with the Bonn N8 Ethernet switch and everything was plugged into an iFi power station.
Headphones included the Sennheiser HD660S, Focal Clear Mg, Sennheiser HD8XX, HiFiMan Sundara and the much more expensive Meze Audio Liric.
The Aurora is unfussy about headphone matching, there is no bad or good synergy, every headphone used sounded at its best.
The absence of a gain setting
The Aurora has a very powerful headphone amplifier, it can do 4W/32Ω from the balanced output but surprisingly a gain switch is missing.
As a result most regular and not power hungry headphones get loud too early leaving a small margin of volume adjustment, sometimes even reaching the channel imbalance region while IEMs are pretty unusable from the balanced output.
As an example, with all the above mentioned headphones I barely got past ¼ of the available volume from the balanced output.
This is a rather serious omission and a gain switch should definitely have been included.
The sound performance is stellar as the Aurora blends together in the most successful way, a supreme technical performance with the most musical and engaging sound signature.
Frequency response is absolutely linear without any kind of tonal shifts while both the DAC and the headphone amplifier are distinguished by their high levels of transparency and clarity.
The digital signals are precisely converted into analogue without any further coloring by the Aurora while the performance can be split into two parts, the technical and the musical.
The former is distinguished by the deep low end, the airy mid range and the well extended higher frequencies.
The bass is visceral and full bodied yet very controlled, tight, fast and precisely layered while it has great physical impact with fully convincing dynamics.
The sound intensity is maintained intact throughout the whole frequency range without losing body weight while reaching for the higher registers.
The mid range is refined, crystal clear and well articulated while the treble is airy, sparkling and agile yet smooth and natural sounding without a hint of brightness or aggressiveness.
The Aurora doesn’t allow the user to select between the native low pass filters of the ES9068AS but it doesn’t need so because it seems that the engineers have opted for the best solution as digital glare is kept on the bare minimum and is very difficult to get traced.
Detail retrieval is deep enough to offer a satisfying gaze into the recording session without venturing into the analytical side of things, the micro details are presented as an integral part of the music rather than scattered into pieces.
The soundstage is not only characterized by the great communication of the ambience but it also feels special for its holographic relief, the scale of the presentation and the accurate imaging.
Just throw in a large scale symphonic work and you will instantly find out that the Aurora can represent the grandeur of the symphony orchestra in the most convincing and realistic way, fully exploiting the technicalities of a good headphone.
As for electronic and other kinds of popular music the Aurora just didn’t break a sweat.
But listening to music isn’t only about technicalities and the Aurora delivers musicality in spades.
While using the Aurora, you can’t fail to think that it must certainly have been painstakingly tuned by the ear and not designed behind a monitor for the best measurements.
Both the preamplifier and the headphone sections sound deeply expressive and organic, the mild class “A” warmth combined with the very natural timbre make for a tonally convincing, engaging and emotionally intense sound experience.
What stands apart and gives the Aurora an edge in front of some of the competition is the diversity in the expression of the overtones and the harmonic saturation, acoustic instruments are reproduced with an eerily realism.
One great music example that can greatly highlight all the above virtues is the 22nd piano concerto by W.A Mozart with the delicious interplay between solo piano and the wind instruments where the Aurora gave a fully convincing and deeply enjoyable performance.
Vs the Topping DX5 ($449)
The Topping DX5 is another all-in-one device that features dual ES9068AS DAC chips with similar functions like the Aurora.
It has true balanced and unbalanced line outputs that can be set as fixed or variable, an NFCA headphone amplifier which is not balanced and it adds high resolution wireless Bluetooth reception.
The headphone amplifier is less powerful, at 1800mW/32Ω, but it is more suitable for sensitive earphones thanks to the gain setting and the low noise.
The DX5 is slightly more compact in size while both units have the same digital inputs but the DX5 is missing a line level analogue input.
Functionality is better for the DX5 because of the handy LCD screen where all information is displayed, the configuration menu and the remote control.
Sound-wise, while the DX5 is maybe the most naturally sounding and organic Topping DAC ever designed, the Aurora has the leading edge when it comes to musicality, naturalness of timbre and harmonic saturation.
The Aurora is a touch more musical, engaging, full bodied and visceral but in exchange not as clear sounding as the DX5 which is technically a bit superior with a more controlled and firmer bass, deeper detail retrieval, more extended but not sharp highs and superior overall definition.
Soundstage imaging is sharper and more precise in the DX5 but the Aurora is of grander scale and more holographic
While differences are not that pronounced from the line outputs (both balanced and unbalanced), it cannot be said the same for the headphone amplifier.
As you are going to find in the upcoming DX5 review, the headphone amplifier is not up to the task and is holding sound performance a little back when compared to the line output.
The result is that the Aurora headphone amplifier is on a higher level of sound quality and certainly more competitive than the DX5.
As a DAC the DX5 is more reference sounding, with greater transparency and technical superiority albeit not as musical as the Aurora but from the headphone output the Aurora just plays on another level.
In the end
The Aurora is a deeply satisfying all-in-one unit which deviates from the Chi-Fi “measurements for measurements” trend.
Instead it follows the old school tuning “by the ear” to offer the listener with the most natural and lifelike music experience with a very organic and analogue like sound signature yet not deprived of transparency and excellent technicalities.
Sound-wise, the Aurora is a stellar performer without any given audible negatives but unfortunately the lack of a gain switch for such a powerful amplifier is something that is really missing.
Thus said, the Aurora is so pleasing and musical engaging that there is no way for a missing gain switch to deprive it from the golden laurels it rightfully deserves as one of the best sounding all-in-one units that you can have at a very reasonable price.
Postlude – I was torn between deducting half a star for the lack of the gain setting but the sound performance is so good that I decided for the full five star rating
Copyright – Petros Laskis 2022.