User experience and Operation:
So while the outside of the Aries looks fairly basic, it’s only when you ‘tap’ the front panel and it lights-up with a glowing ‘SparkoS Labs Inc.’ logo, that it starts to further hint at its capabilities. The tactile, touchscreen multi-coloured display panel is used to control input settings, gain settings (+10dB, +20dB, and +30dB), screen colour and backlight settings, as well as the designation for the two main front-panel knobs – which can be assigned to control balance or volume. I was a little curious to see how the lack of physical controls would work, but in desktop-use switching between multiple sources, it’s simple, intuitive, and works well.
Relay stepped attenuator
Speaking of volume, this deserves some time to talk about as it is one of the standout features of the Aries, and quite simply the best volume control I’ve experienced on a device – ever. Rather than using a potentiometer on the Aries, a microcontroller is used to control 64-step reed relay-switched attenuator which can control volume in 1dB steps from -53dB all the way up to +10dB. The large knobs have an excellent tactile feel and play, and the relays have a soft, subtly satisfying ‘tick’ rather than an obnoxiously loud ‘clicking’ noise that plagues some stepped attenuators. It’s an incredibly precise system that allows for delicate adjustment and has perfect channel matching even at low levels. It’s an incredibly premium experience as well as superbly implemented engineering – an easy 10/10 in that regard.
It’s certainly no portable unit, and Aries owners will definitely be creating a permanent place for it as either their desktop amp or hooked-up in their hifi systems as a pre-amp. I tested the Aries both at my desktop hooked-up to a balanced source in the iFi Pro iDSD as a DAC, and connected to my Rega Turntable and Nakamichi CD player in my hifi system. I have mentioned that the Aries doesn’t have a remote, which may seem like a disadvantage in a pre-amp/hifi implementation. However, given the volume pot is simply so enjoyable to use I found I was only too happy to take a couple of steps to get up and change the volume from time to time!
I also found myself thankful for the inclusion of the 3.5mm input on the front panel when using the Aries on my desktop. Given the unit is 30cm deep, and most users are likely to have PCs, monitors, and other equipment on their desks, this would likely make fumbling around the back of the unit pretty cumbersome. When I wanted to switch DACs to my Mojo, for example, it was a simple case of tapping for the ‘FRONT’ input.
Build-wise, the Aries is entirely no-nonsense in terms of its form and function, yet balances this brilliantly with extremely tactile and intuitive controls that are great to use. Not bad for SparkoS Lab’s first outing – other manufacturers, please take note.
Click-over to page 3 for sound impressions, and our final verdict.