The Spectacularly Transparent AURALiC TAURUS MKII
Before we begin, I have to admit: I've been procrastinating a bit on this one. I've had the AURALiC TAURUS ($1899) for almost a year nowfirst the original model, followed later by the current MKII version. Typically, I would have penned a review within the first few months. The TAURUS is different though. It's been there, serving me well as I review this DAC or that headphone, without contributing it's own two cents. I suppose the more capable an amp, the harder it is to write an entertaining evaluation for it. I can't very well say "It's transparent!" and call it a day, can I? And so the amp sat there, performing like an unsung champion and helping me extract the most from my other components. Still, I realize I'm long overdo for putting some thoughts down on this remarkable amplifier. So here we go.
AURALiC is a Beijing based firm entering their 6th year of existence. Like many others in this segment, the company was founded by music lovers who felt they could offer something unique. They wanted to help folks get the most out of their music and figured they could do so in a way not yet seen from other companies. It's really the classic origin story that I like to see: two friends start small company, reputation grows, portfolio expands, and eventually they become something of a household name, at least among certain circles. AURALiC started off serving their local market and has now made a rather big splash worldwidechiefly on the strength of their Vega DSD-capable DAC, but also their Merak amplifier and TAURUS products.
I say TAURUS products in the plural since there are actually two separate modelsthe TAURUS MKII is the dedicated headphone amp, with pre-amp outputs as sort of a bonus feature. The TAURUS Pre is specifically designed as a pre-amp, and also happens to have a headphone amp on board. This is not just a marketing differentiationthe two designs appear nearly identical on the outside but have very different internals. Choice comes down to primary functionality which is where the focus lies, the extra feature being secondary.
The TAURUS MKII supersedes the original model which was very similar. The MKII brings a tweak to the power supply for better performance in regions which don't have access to 220 volts from their wall plugs. During my time with the original model I did run into some problems which AURALiC determined to be related to my power situation. The MKII has been flawless for many months and has the added benefit of even lower noise, better isolation of inputs, and (subjectively) better looks from the all silver enclosure (the original was black except for the front panel).
The TAURUS is undoubtedly a handsome piece of equipment. Among all the gear in my audio rack, it's easily one of the most attractive, with a sculptured faceplate that just reeks of class. From the sculptured volume knob to the soft LED lighting, no detail has been overlooked. And yet it remains somewhat understated, easily mixing in among other high end components. I really love what AURALiC has achieved here; it's clearly high-end, but not audacious about it.
Functionality is fairly complete and straight forward. Rear inputs and outputs come in both RCA and XLR flavor. The front panel has a standard 1/4" headphone jack as well as a 4-pin XLR balanced output. A pair of selection buttons allows any input to flow through any outputthe system automatically converts balanced to single ended or vice versa, as needed, with minimal sonic penalty. I've had some high-end amps that were finicky about that sort of thing, so I appreciate the flexibility of the TAURUS.
Popping the cover to investigate the guts of this machine, I was greeted with some serious heatsink action. No wonder this thing runs so cool. AURALiC was kind enough to supply pictures showing the board without the extra metal, to give us a look at the critical output stage which would otherwise be obscured. That output is based around AURALiC's proprietary Class A "Orfeo" modules which are said to be inspired by the classic Neve 8078 analog mixing console. Never heard of it? It's a legendary console which has been used to record classic albums by Chick Correa, Steely Dan, Pink Floyd, and numerous other audiophile approved artists. You can read a bit more on the history here. Heck, it's the only recording console I know of to inspire a documentarythe soundtrack of which topped the Billboard charts. That has to count for something right? AURALiC says their Orfeo modules give the amp a warm, natural sound, and I have to say that's a good description. But more on that later.
The Orfeo output stage is not the only thing the TAURUS has going for it. There's the ultra low noise input buffer, helping the device achieve a dynamic range in excess of 130dB. There's the linear power supply featuring a shielded toroidal transformer flanked by over 30,000uF worth of Elna caps. Each section is walled off from one another for better isolation. Oh, and did I mention how much juice is on tap? TAURUS musters 4,500mW into 32 ohm loads (single ended mode) or 120 ohm loads (XLR output), meaning it can drive any headphone out there with gustoup to and including the notoriously difficult HiFiMAN HE-6. The specs of the amp are among the best you'll find anywhere, regardless of price.
The astute reader will note the balanced and single-ended headphone outputs have differing behavior based on load. If you spotted that, good catch, pat yourself on the back. The TAURUS output stage has four sections in total. When operating in "STD" mode (the 1/4" jack), two outputs drive each channel in parallel. This results in maximum output current for low impedance headphones, with less voltage swing for high impedance loads. In BAL mode (the 4-pin XLR jack), two sections operate in a bridge-tied load configuration. The result? Much higher voltage swing at the expense of output current being comparatively limited. AURALiC is quick to point out that MOAR POWER is not always the answer. Just because you'd think planar headphones would do best from the 1/4" jack while high impedance Beyerdynamic models should use the balanced output, it doesn't necessarily always work out that way. I'd also add that "limited" output current or voltage swing, in this context, simply means "limited" compared to the max this device is capable of. Realistically the BAL output is still quite powerful into low impedance loads, and the STD output can still swing plenty of voltage. There's really nothing I can think of which the TAURUS can't handle (short of electrostatic models, obviously). Output impedance is low enough not to be a factorless than 1 ohm from the STD jack, and somewhere between 3 and 4 ohms from the BAL output. Users of multi-driver, balanced armature IEMs may want to avoid the BAL output but all other headphones should be fair game.
In order to give the TAURUS a workout befitting a statement amp, I went straight to my best gear. No doubt AURALiC would recommend their Vega DAC as fed by their new Aries streamer, but I believe my substitutes get the job done equally wellAuraliti PK90 file player with NuForce LPS-1 power supply, feeding an Audiophilleo 1 with PurePower option, out to the Resonessence Labs Invicta DAC, which then connected to the TAURUS through both XLR and RCA cables (just to see if there was a significant differencewhich there wasn't). Ancillaries included an APS S15 power conditioner and a bunch of Cabledyne Silver Reference cables. I used the TAURUS to drive a Sennheiser HD800, beyerdynamic T1, Audeze LCD-2, Mr. Speakers Alpha Dogs, HiFiMAN HE-500 and HE-6, Thunderpants TP1, Audio Technica AD2000 and W2002, Grado PS500, and some in-ear monitors like JH Audio JH13FP, Westone ES5, and Noble 8C. I figure this pretty much covers all the bases from the very difficult to drive to the ultra-sensitive, planars to dynamic drivers, sealed to open back models, etc. We've got thin, bright headphones and warm, thick models, and most everything in between. I've got balanced and single ended cables for most of these, so I was able to go back and forth to see which output paired best with each model.
So, given all that, how did the TAURUS acquit itself? Read on to find out.