rev92

Reviewer at Ear Fidelity
Yulong DA-ART Aurora
Pros: Elegant yet simple design
Well built
A lot of power (It makes the Susvara very loud)
Functionality
Easy to use
Perfect form factor for any desk
Class A amplification
Rich, bold tone
Highly engaging sound
Works well with most headphones and IEMs
All headphone outputs you'll need
Very good value
Cons: No USB-C
While making the Susvara loud, it doesn't drive it to its max potential
Bluetooth is limited to China for now

The Aurora is the newest DAC/Amp combo by a Chinese manufacturer Yulong. It's designed around the latest ESS ES9068AS chip, also offering a Class-A headphone amplifier. It's priced at $520.

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Introduction​

Founded in 2009, Yulong has been manufacturing audio devices for 13 years now. They mainly focus on all-in-one solutions, and they have some very popular offerings in their portfolio, such as the Aquilla, Canary, and many more.
For me, Yulong has always been a kind of a “niche” company that doesn’t launch new products every quarter of a year. Reading their story made me realize, that it is a company that’s led by audio enthusiasts and audiophiles, so honestly rivaling the biggest players like Topping or SMSL isn’t their goal.
Actually, I’m going to paste a fragment of “About Us” from their official page, to help you get a better grasp about their philosophy:

“YuLong Zhang, our Founder and Chief Engineer, is a talented, experienced and persistent engineer. He built his own DAC and amplifier back in late 90s and gradually turned his hobby into lifetime devotion. Over the years, YuLong has gathered musician, mastering engineers, electronic engineers and dedicated audiophiles into his team, playing different roles in R&D, product refinement and production management. The team also actively involved in sponsoring and using YULONG equipment to facilitate on-site setup for live music and musical software events. The team learned and developed hand-in-hand, established solid understanding of music and music reproduction, and providing check and balance opinion during the long and winding audio tuning process.
We shall continue to develop new skills and technologies, and deliver All-in-One products that enable audiophiles and music lovers to enjog in their beloved music. In addition, we shall remain cost competitive. Our reference products are relatively affordable, and we constantly adopt our technologies to our DA-ART products, a sub-brand we created to serve the younger generation. “

I get a feeling that the sound coming out of their devices is more important than raw measurements, something I think a lot of companies are missing nowadays. I’m not saying that measurements are bad, I’m not an audio engineer myself so I’m not in a position to tell what’s good and what’s bad. However, as an audiophile, I actually appreciate all the stories that they “sit for months near their listening systems tweaking the sound of the device they’re working on currently”. It’s been like that years ago, when audio manufacturers focused 90% of their energy on the sound that comes out of their new product because it was all that mattered. I kinda miss those days, but at the same time, mad scientists like Topping, SMSL, and iFi Audio gave us the biggest change to the audio industry in the past couple of years – good stuff got cheaper, and that’s the best that has happened to the audio industry.

The Aurora is the part of their DAART sub brand, aiming more towards affordable audio solutions.

Packaging​

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The unboxing experience of the Aurora was funny for me personally, as I wasn’t aware of the fact that I’ll be getting one. One day the box just came into my home, I put it on my table, sat in front of it, and went “what the hell are you”. I had absolutely no idea what was inside, so this was pretty interesting.

So, the box of the Aurora is pretty big actually. The outer sleeve has some cool graphics printed with most of the information you’ll need to read about the Aurora. This is a pretty functional feature to have, and it was definitely designed for audio stores to sit on the shelf and intrigue people. At the end of the day, the box basically says everything you’ll be getting if you’d be to pull the trigger for the Aurora, and that’s a good thing.

Inside, apart from the Aurora itself, you’re getting a power chord and a USB type B cable. Sadly, no USB C this time. As for the quality of the cables, they’re just standard, nothing to write a book about, but they get you started.
Lastly, the external power supply, as the Aurora has no built-in power supply.

Design, Build and I/O​

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I really like the build of the Aurora. It’s dense, well built, and just solid feeling in a hand. I really dig that curved design to the device, as it sets it apart from most of the competition (Topping, SMSL, I’m looking at you).

As for the size, it feels just about perfect. Not too big, so it’ll fit most desks, not too small, so you can put a headphone stand on top of it (I’m doing it personally, I have so much stuff that saving even a bit of space is a life-saver). It certainly looks unique and pleasant, not being too flashy at the same time.
So, let’s discuss I/O, where the Aurora shines. On the front, there’s an input switch on the left, a brilliant volume knob (it’s really smooth and great to use), and three different headphone outputs: 4.4mm balanced, 6.3mm, and 4-pin XLR balanced. This is basically all you need apart from the standard 3.5mm jack, but if you’re buying this kind of a device, then do you really need it? Just use an adapter to 6.3mm, or preferably go balanced.

On the back, there’s a lot going on. We’ve got a digital section with USB, coaxial and optical inputs, so you’re pretty much set. Next up, a power switch, and I want to elaborate. Audio manufacturers, please, don’t put the power switch on the back of your devices, please. A lot of us have many DACs and amplifiers on our desks, and we often stack them. Try turning on the device that has two different devices on top of it…yes, not very easy. Just put in on the front, I know power switches are mostly ugly, but it’s for the good cause.

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Next up, the analog section. We’ve got an RCA input, RCA output, and XLR output, which means you can basically use the Aurora in most scenarios possible. Standalone DAC? Go ahead. Preamp? Definitely, just toggle the switch on the back that lets you choose between Pre and DAC. You only want to use that sweet A-Class headphone amp? Sure, just plug into the RCA input. Oh, and don’t forget that you also have Bluetooth (Bluetooth feature is available to selected countries due to regulatory requirements).

This kind of approach is very attractive in my book. You’re buying a device that can serve you well in a lot of ways. It can do standard DAC/Amp for your headphones and PC, it can do active loudspeakers, it can do just headphones with no DAC section…the possibilities are surely out there, and it’s up to you to decide what you want to do.
Don’t forget the most important thing – the Aurora is $520, and for the money, you’re getting all of that. This is what I call a really good deal.

Tech​

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The Aurora has a lot of functions, hence it also has a lot of tech inside. Let’s discuss it briefly.
The DAC is built around the ESS ES9068AS chip with XMOS XU216 USB interface. It can do everything up to 768kHz, DSD512, and 8X MQA. Yes, it also has MQA, I don’t know how they were able to squeeze all that in a device that small and that inexpensive.

I’ve told you about all the inputs already, but what’s worth noting is that the USB Input does work with iOS, Android, Windows, MAC, and Linux. You can use it with basically everything. I know that most of you will still use it with a Windows PC or a MAC, but to have the possibility is a great thing, to say the least. Maybe you want to buy the Aurora for your bedside system next to your bed? Go ahead, just plug it into your phone and have fun. Brilliant.

The Aurora actually uses 1 ESS ES9068AS DAC chip instead of two, so it’s not a truly balanced DAC. Yulong Zhang decided that one chip sounds better than using two when he was creating the Aurora. I really like this kind of approach, instead of going for two just for the sake of it, he decided to test both options and find out which solution sounds better. This is the type of engineering I somewhat miss more and more. From the marketing point of view, using two chips and making the Aurora fully balanced would have probably been highly desired for many, but Yulong decided that the sound quality is more important, and I really appreciate it. Yulong said dual DAC properly make more sense for full size DAC, but for compact all-in-one, single DAC has a higher chance to achieve proper engineering . Take note that, unlike the DAC, the analog section is fully balanced though.

The Aurora has a built-in Bluetooth receiver that does Bluetooth 5.0, LDAC, and aptX. If all of the previously mentioned wasn’t enough, they squeezed a yet another feature that is highly desired by lots of people. That’s mental. Take note though, as the Bluetooth feature is available to selected countries due to regulatory requirements.

Let’s dive deeper for a second. The headphone amplifier section is operating in a discrete Class-A, giving you that legendary timbre (more on that in the next paragraph). The Aurora uses 7 OPA1612 op-amps, one of the best measuring on the market currently. As for the power, it uses a newly developed high power regenerative power supply.

Sound​

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So far, the Aurora is incredibly impressive when it comes to its functionality, form factor, tech, size, and the asking price. It literally offers so many functions that it instantly makes it worth more than $520. However, to fulfill the aspect of being truly “great”, the Aurora has to sound great as well.


When it comes to sound, the Aurora offers something that is really unique with this kind of device. Despite being high-tech, absurdly functional, and just great in everything, it does offer a sound that is on a warmer, calmer side than most similar devices on the market nowadays. This is by no means a technical, analytical sound, but (mainly due to its Class-A headphone amplifier section) just simply smooth, pleasant, and very musical.

Right after unboxing it and giving it a few hours to settle down, I immediately plugged my Susvara into the Aurora via a balanced Cross Lambda Apollo GB cable (this headphone + cable combo costs an astonishing $12000!) to see if it has enough juice to power this behemoth. How surprised I was when I immediately heard that the Aurora gets very loud with the Sus, too loud for me to handle on the maximum volume. All this while still sounding lush, rich, and analog-like, Woah, what am I dealing with right now?

So, you think that the Aurora CAN drive the Susvara, which would have meant that it can drive everything, right? Well, that’s partially true. It does make the Hifiman flagship very loud, which is reminiscent of driving it for many. However, it is not the Susvara we all fell in love with. It does sound great, but the bass lacks energy, and the dynamics are somewhat limited. Still, for a $520 all-in-one, it performs incredibly well with the Susvara, which is just bonkers.

However, I doubt that anyone will buy the Aurora to drive their Hifiman Susvara, if your pockets are deep enough to buy a $6000 pair of headphones, they are sure deep enough to add a high-end amplifier to pair the Sus with. But, this little test gave us something more – if it can run the Susvara, it can run everything, and it is true. I’ve tried many headphones with the Aurora, such as the HEDDphone, Final D8000 Pro, Meze Elite, Drop HD8xx, etc, and I never felt that the Aurora even began to sweat. From my experience, Class-A amplification gives power differently than your typical amplifier, resulting in a sound that is more powerful and just simply stronger than what the specs say.

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Let’s start with the bass, and that’s a good place to start here. While it won’t squeeze a truly spectacular bass out of the Susvara, it sounds fantastic with most headphones I’ve used. Low frequencies are bold, crisp, heavy, and highly saturated. This is your “typical” Class-A sound that is heavy, but not too heavy, it doesn’t sound artificial. A lot of people praise this technology for its thick and romantic sound signature, and it’s definitely present in the Aurora. What’s important, it doesn’t seem to boost the bass or make it more dynamic than it really should, it just gives a lot of power to the drivers of the headphones so they’re able to move a lot of air. The delivery of the bass is on the firm and controlled side, which works well with most headphones.

The midrange is what drew my attention first when I got the Aurora. Vocals are rich-sounding, smooth, and very natural, with no sign of sounding plasticky. The first 2-3 songs I’ve played with the Susvara just completely blew me away, as I thought that I have finally found a great, affordable all-in-one that can handle the Susvara. Sadly, it was when I tried some rap and metal music that I realized, that it almost does that…except for the bass. You can simply hear that the Sus goes very loud, but the driver is not working as efficiently as it should, resulting in somewhat lazy bass response.
Back to the midrange though – the Aurora gives you that classic-sounding midrange, quite different than what most of the modern devices are doing. It’s thicker, heavier, and more colorful sounding than most SMSL and Topping devices I’ve heard. It is at the same time not AS clean and detailed sounding though, but the difference is pretty slim. This is a matter of perspective though, as I would have traded a little bit of technical performance for timbre like that (most of the time) in other devices I’ve reviewed and used. This part proves that the story of Yulong staff sitting in their listening room and tweaking the sound of the Aurora to their liking is indeed true. This is not a hyper-clean performing device that sounds like a lot of other devices on the market. This sounds different, romantic, rich, and pleasant.

The treble is quite smooth sounding as well, but it doesn’t lack any sparkle or detail. It isn’t as forward and hyper-detailed sounding as some of its competitors, but at the same time, this is a beautiful springboard from what we’re used to hearing for the past couple of years. The cymbals have proper weight to them, something that I feel is often overlooked when we’re talking about the treble. Female vocals sound melodic and smooth, but they’re not recessed or too soft sounding. The overall tone of the treble is a bit sweet and warm, which works fantastic with worse masterings. You don’t have to listen to well-engineered albums only while using the Aurora, which is very important for many, myself included. By the end of the day, most of us shop in this market for a device to listen to music with, not to chase even the smallest and slightest detail in the recording. Don’t think that the Aurora is lacking in detail though, as it’s completely not the case here. It just doesn’t focus on technicalities as its main priority, and that’s a huge difference. The overall resolution and detail retrieval are really good throughout the entire frequency range, just not the best in the market. However, having its superb timbre and power in mind, very good technicalities are good enough in my opinion.

The soundstage is what you would have expected from a device like this. Deep, wide, and full of air. The imaging is spot-on, creating a very realistic 3D type of staging. It won’t make the soundstage of your headphones any larger, nor it won’t sound intimate when it shouldn’t. I often feel like we got to the point where basically most devices have a very good soundstage and it’s getting harder and harder to rate this specific aspect of the sound. Overall, the soundstage of the Aurora is nothing to write a book about, but it’s very, very good at the same time. Can’t think of anything more I could have said about it.

Pairing suggestions​

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I’ve tried the Aurora with most of my headphones and IEMs, and here are some pairings that really work. What’s important though, is that the Aurora pairs good with many, many different headphones. Usually, really technical and/or bright-sounding all-in-ones are problematic when paired with headphones with similar characteristics. Luckily, the Aurora has that smooth and warm-ish tonality which works great with everything you’d throw at it.


1. Hifiman Susvara

As I said previously, the Aurora works ridiculously well with the Susvara considering all of its functions and especially the asking price. No, the Susvara is not achieving 100% of its capabilities with the Aurora, but it does sound great. As I stated previously, the Aurora has plenty of volume to achieve ear-bleeding levels, but who on earth needs that?
So, what does the Susvara lack when paired with the Aurora? It lacks energy and dynamics when compared to some crazy high-end amplifiers that I’ve tried with the Hifiman flagship. On the other hand, the tonality, the entire midrange, and the soundstage all sound absolutely spectacular and there were moments when I couldn’t believe that I’m listening to a $520 all-in-one. For now, this is probably the best of what 500 bucks can get you to pair with the Susvara.

2. Hifiman HE-R9

I received the R9 a day after the Aurora, so both were used heavily ever since. It was pretty natural to try them both, and oh what a fun setup this is.
The R9 has one of the biggest and most epic bass responses I’ve heard on over-ear headphones, and the overall sound is very clean, warm, and firm. The Aurora has that natural and romantic-sounding midrange, that (on paper) shouldn’t really work with a warm-sounding R9. Oh, it’s totally the opposite. The Aurora evens the frequency response out slightly, mainly to its thick-sounding midrange, when the R9 is slightly recessed in the mids.
Additionally, the Aurora has that bass authority and power that truly allows the R9 to deliver absolutely huge and saturated low frequencies, which are the main attraction of the new Hifiman closed-back.

3. Hifiman Arya SE

This is probably THE setup to get if you ask me. The rich-sounding, thick and warmish Aurora paired with an incredibly fast, detailed and neutral Arya Stealth is a perfect Tinder Match.
The Arya is one of the best (if not the best) headphones under $2000 right now, but it ain’t perfect with its slightly polarizing tonality. I’ve heard some people claiming that the Arya SE is a bit too much for them in the lower treble, and I somewhat understand those opinions. Luckily, the Aurora works well with the Arya SE mainly due to its forgiving and fun signature that just evens the Arya out a tiny bit. The Arya begins to sound a bit more relaxed and soft, which is quite good. This headphone has so much detail and resolution, that losing a tiniest bit in exchange for a more pleasant tonality is not a problem at all.

4. HEDDphone

The Aurora could be the best of what $500 can get you as far as an all-in-one powerful enough to drive the HEDDphone can get you. The HEDDphone has a very unique yet intriguing and brilliant tonality, and the Aurora suits it very well.
This is a highly involving and pleasant-sounding setup that does everything well, especially if you like a heavy, rich tone to your music.
The HEDDphone has that unique sounding soundstage, and the Aurora with its transparent staging capabilities does great with showing what this headphone can do and what it can’t do. The biggest strength of this pairing is the tone – it sounds incredibly natural and pleasant, which is quite rare for a device in this price bracket if you ask me.

5. Cayin YB04

This one is really interesting. The YB04 by Cayin surely sits in the right price bracket to be considered as an IEM to get to pair the Aurora with. It is, just like the previous pairing, a highly involving and safe-sounding combo that works with most music genres. The tuning of both products is rich and analog-like, but not to the extreme, which results in a very mature and pleasant sound.
There’s slight background noise, as the output power of the Aurora is huge (it does make the Susvara very loud after all), but it’s nothing to really worry about unless you are very sensitive to it. Overall, the Aurora is a very good match with IEMs, but be careful with that volume knob.

6. Drop + Sennheiser HD8XX

Another great combo. The Aurora definitely has more than enough juice to push these big dynamic drivers rated at 300Ω. This setup has that legendary soundstage and bass energy to satisfy the most demanding people. I somewhat got used to planar sound so much, that using dynamic headphones feels like a nice change, even for a moment.
Luckily, the Aurora boosts the midrange and notes weight of the 8XX, which itself sounds rather lean in the midrange. This is a perfect example of a setup where one device complements the other in a way that just works, making for a better sound overall.

Summary​

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The Yulong Aurora really surprised me. I didn’t know I’ll be getting it for a review, so my expectations were basically nonexistent. How surprised I was to find that this is an extremely functional device that offers a soulful and rich sound at a price that is more than fair. However, the star of the show is probably its power output, capable of getting the Susvara very loud, which for a $520 all-in-one offering so much functionality, is extremely impressive. I hope the Aurora will get a lot of attention, as it is now my main recommendation in this price bracket. Now I’m really interested in what their higher-end models can do.

Highly Recommended.


Gear used during this review for the sake of comparison and as an accompanying equipment:
  • Headphones – Hifiman Susvara, Final D8000 Pro, Audeze LCD-X 2021, Hifiman HE1000se, Abyss Diana PHI, Drop + Sennheiser HD8XX, Crosszone CZ-1, HEDDphone, Meze Empyrean, Drop + Hifiman R7DX, Sennheiser HD6xx, Hifiman Edition XS, Fir Audio XE6, Final A8000, Cayin YB04
  • Sources– SMSL DO100 + HO100, Hifiman EF400, Earmen Tradutto, SMSL SH-9, LittleDot MK III SE, xDuoo TA-26
Big thanks to Yulong Audio for providing the Aurora for this review. I wasn’t paid or asked to say anything good or bad about this product, all of the above is just my personal, unbiased opinion. Yulong Audio hasn’t seen this review before publishing it.

J
Jarlaxle
Thanks for the review. I have been listening through this device for a week now. Haven't critically assessed it and compared it with other devices yet but I mostly agree with what you pointed out. Still I want to mention and please correct me if I am wrong; using a stereo dac chip not necessarily makes it "not truly balanced". Although some companies use two chips in dual mono mode for marketing purposes and maybe reduce crosstalk, produce better measurements etc, in my knowledge, most of the modern dac chips can and do feed balanced stereo circuit by default. I mean balanced as we know it a circuit thing anyway.
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rev92
rev92
@Jarlaxle Hi mate, thank you! Glad we have similar observations!

As for the DAC, this is what I've heard by Andy. Maybe we should address it in the thread to see his opinion on the balance thing? :)
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