ACURUS ARIES integrated amplifier
AS LONG as I have been involved in this crazy hobby, American hi-fi products have always conjured images of sheer bulk, grunt and macho image, with prices to match. Think Krell, Mark Levinson and JBLs. So the Acurus Aries was a pleasant surprise – I could carry this integrated amplifier into my listening room without breaking into a sweat or breaking my back! The Aries is much more like a typical British or French amp in its dimensions and its minimalist front panel.
For those who have only taken up hi-fi in the last decade or so, Acurus may not be familiar but it has had an illustrious history albeit somewhat chequered. It was originally founded under the Mondial Group as a more affordable offering, although its first preamp and power amplifier were designed by none other than Dan D’Agostino of Krell fame.
The brand came under Klipsch in 2001 but Klipsch decided to focus on its speakers in 2005. Current owner Indy Audio Labs, which was founded by two former Klipsch managers, bought Acurus in 2008 and since then, has been coming out with products that reflect the company’s philosophy of sound.
BITS AND PARTS: The Aries, touted as an “an analogue Class D” amp, is a cool and suave-looking animal, measuring a fairly typical shelf-friendly 44 x 33 x 9cm (w/d/h) and weighing a modest 7.7kg. Sporting a sleek black outlook with rounded curves in all right places, the amplifier is beautiful in a detached modern way, rather like the Micromega CD players of some years back.
There are absolutely no buttons in sight anywhere on the unit. Plug in the unit with the provided substantial power cord and the most unique feature of its look/functionality literally lights up – a beautiful large touchscreen. Just a touch on the on/off symbol in the centre of the screen brings the unit to life and the screen that follows is as intuitive as any smartphone screen. Quite clearly, this amplifier is for the now generation as further evidenced by the user manual – just one sheet of laminated paper!
The Aries is rated at 200W per channel at eight ohms, doubling to 400W at four ohms which equals my McIntosh MC402 at four ohms! The manufacturer says it’s a 2.1 integrated amplifier which allows for a subwoofer system to be easily connected – there is a set of balanced inputs and four pairs of single-ended ones. Of interest is a seldom-published specification relating to damping factor which Acurus says is >1000 at 50HZ. This suggest that the Aries should be able to control woofers with better speed and authority.
There are enough inputs and outputs, both single-ended and XLR, for most needs but of interest would be the expansion slot at the back to support future DAC input and other cards.
IN CONCERT: The unit under review needed further burn-in as on first listen, the sound was quite splashy and the midrange, a bit muddy. A further week of burn-in ensued during which I played around with the touch-screen like a new toy. I also noticed the amplifier ran very cool with the top panel just slightly warm to the touch after hours of running.
I also plugged in the rather antique remote control receiver, which seemed in total contrast to the state-of-the-art touch-screen. Surely this could be built in like almost every other product in today’s market?
Serious listening started with my selected discs of vocals, jazz , pop and classical. The immediate impression of the Aries is of a clean, natural-sounding but slightly thinner sound than what I am usually used to on my reference system. With both female and male voices, this allowed words to be heard very articulately but slightly lacking in overall fullness. This was borne out with operatic voices such as Marilyn Horne but Diana Krall was acquitted very well. Further listening with familiar material such as Ella Fitzgerald and James Taylor confirmed this characteristic but I guessed that the manufacturer likely voiced the amplifier with videos in mind. Indeed, playing a DVD of Titanic gave a very crisp and articulate rendition of dialogue.
Moving on to Sonny Rollins and David Sanborn, it was clear that the Aries is a fine performer in this genre (not surprising as one of the two owners of Acurus, Rick Santiago, is a semi-professional saxophonist!). The Aries is very quick and this allows saxophone and drums to both sound impactful when needed and yet the shimmer of cymbals was rendered with finesse. However, on more complex passages, there is a very slight discernible muddling of the instrumental lines, but certainly not a major issue on most material.
Onto more challenging material like Joshua Bell’s violin. Here, while the clarity serves the music well, the violin’s tonal richness was not fully captured and on higher notes, the Aries sounded slightly glassy but was still far from being unpleasant. Maybe some warmer sounding cables might serve the violin better.
Soundstage and instrumental/vocal placements as well as sizing were very good, with voices sounding life-like.
Inserting my analogue source proved to be very revealing A much-needed warming of the sound as well as better body took the Aries to a much higher performance level although its fundamental characteristics remained. Its slightly bright nature meant that ticks and pops were more apparent than on my reference and the midrange was slightly more lit up. But it was a most enjoyable phono playback session overall as the balance of virtues worked very well.
The Aries also proved to be as powerful as its rated output suggest. My Maggies 3.6 sounded smooth and well-controlled and there was nary a hint that power was lacking. Those looking for alternatives (and much cheaper) to behemoths to drive Maggies need to include the Aries in the short list.
APPLAUSE: Clean sounding, powerful, versatile and with good soundstaging. The Aries at its price point is almost too good to be true, comparing very well with my much costlier reference equipment. The sound qualities may be tipped slightly up but not anywhere near what other manufacturers have done. Being a hybrid analogue Class D integrated amplifier does suggests that Class D is evolving in the right direction.
BUT…: Very slightly thin, can be slightly bright to some listeners, plus a slight niggle about the remote control system. Nothing very serious at its price point.
FINALE: At its reasonable price for its power output, I can highly recommend the Acurus Aries integrated amplifier to anyone building a moderately priced system and looking to high-definition as a sound signature of choice. This is a great-looking piece of equipment that will serve as a source of pride, too, when showing off its beautiful touch-screen to friends.
Sources: Lenco L75 fitted into heavy plinth, with Fidelity Research FR24mk2 arm and Midas bodied Denon 103r cartridge, Marantz SA11S1, Marantz cd5004 / Amplification: Denon AU-S1 SUT, EAR834p phonostage, Shindo Masseto, McIntosh MC402, Cary CAD300 SEI / Speakers: Magneplanar 3.6QR, Aurum Cantus Leisure 2SE / Cables: Belden, Acoustic Zen and Nordost
Malaysian price: RM12,800
Malaysian distributor: A&L Audio Station (+603-2282 9884) / Find your distributor.