The latest Chinese lunar year kicked off February 8th, belonging to the sign of the monkey. By applying the five elements of metal, water, wood, fire and earth to their calendar, 2016 is associated with the fiery element and the colour red, making it the Red Fire Monkey year. Its launch set off the greatest annual human migration, of factory workers in the industrial south who, for New Year's, return home to their families in the north. The associated strain on the public transport system—planes, trains and overland buses—must be unimaginable to Westerns just as our kind couldn't envision how India's Khumba Mela, the world's largest religious gathering (32'000'000 a few years ago), can function without mass mayhem.

Being Chinese, AURALiC co-founder Xuanqian Wang must be genetically prewired to a most solid work ethic and severe logistic challenges. Why else would he have spent the last few dogged years pursuing his own Lightning app? Any updates and refinements to such software are free to existing owners. It's not a money maker but royal pain in the pancreass. Each time when programs miscommune, when firmware patches lag behind changes in iOS or Android, one gets boo'd. Only someone bloody stubborn or blessedly resourceful (the same thing perhaps?) would even bother to challenge iTunes/Airplay, Sooloos/Roon, Sonos & Co. Whilst I covered most of AURALiC's hardware from the very beginning (think Vega, Merak, Taurus, Gemini), I didn't Lightning or products which run it like Aries and Aries Mini. That's because my wife and I are allergic to WiFi. Like cigarette smoke, it triggers physical hate when tablet remotes or smart phone sources get involved. Being made of sterner stuff, we left the Aries to Aussie contributor John Darko. WiFi doesn't bother him. He's 6'6". He's probably got more brain cells than the two of us combined.

If writing your own operating system is asking for free troubles, another occasion arises when you begin with high-end gear, then bow more mass-appeal models to enlarge your customer base. Give that to the usual hifi review press. Chances are, their perspective will be skewed to prompt a "you missed the point" manufacturer's reply. That happened more than once to the Aries Mini. It's what caused NuForce to break off into NuForce (mass market) and NuPrime (high end). It's strict apartheid to avoid confusion. It pursues different press, distribution networks and target audiences. With the red fire monkey rising, AURALiC rejoin the high-end gravy train and the hard side of ware. It allows this dinosaur back on. If I were a betting man, I'd have predicted that their next product would be an Aries/Vega combination; a purist server slash streamer with wired and wireless network connectivity, onboard storage and a premium DAC with volume control all in one box. Why let Aurender and Lumin have all that fun? Because I'm a cheat instead—Xuanqian dropped a crumb a week prior to their official press release—I knew that it'd be a streamer. I simply had zero details on its hardware/software configuration. I only saw as predestined that Lightning would be a major part. If I could log onto it via Safari and Ethernet over my standard iMac, I'd bypass WiFi. Dinosaur smiles or crocodile tears? As regular readers know, I've been quite the fence sitter on audiophile streamers. Instead I'm already on my 3rd PureMusic'd iMac running into sundry DACs. I use Apple's keyboard and mouse to access local files on the 3TB FusionDrive which for playback are cached in 32GB of RAM. I access Qobuz and Tidal through their desktop apps with a 15-metre hard connection to the router. And for me, the 27" Retina 5K display beats all tablet or smartphone remotes to kingdom come. Would Xuanqian's latest prompt me to finally come off my fence and join the audiophile server community? Or would I remain a lonely outcast?

Selling for <$2'000, the Altair slots beneath the Vega in performance yet combines Vega plus functionality with the Aries by supporting 15 sources including NAS, USB, local files (optional 2.5" HHD or SSD internal storage), uPnP/DLNA media server, TIDAL and Qobuz streaming, Internet radio, AirPlay, Bluetooth, Songcast and RoonReady; AES/EBU, coaxial, Toslink, USB device to computer, 2 USB host for storage and DAC, RJ45 Gigabit Ethernet and 802.11b/g/n/ac tri-band WiFi. Of course Lightning DS figures in a big way. It's the operating system and GUI, offering DXD and quad DSD support, gapless, on-device playlist and multi-room functions. Memory playback will soon cache an entire track to memory to improve sonics and avoid glitches with low Internet speeds or iffy connections. For now, Lightning is exclusive to iOS but Windows and Mac desktop versions are in development. Housed in the familiar Vega enclosure, the Altair retains the on-chip digital volume of the ESS 9018 DAC and the yellow-on-black 512x64 pixel Oled display, then adds a full-size headphone jack of unspecified potency. The Tesla hardware behind Lightning DS relies on a quad-core Coretec A9 processor which runs at 1GHz with 1GB of DDR onboard memory and 4GB of system storage. This operates at 25'000Mips to support AAC, AIFF, ALAC, APE, DIFF, DSF FLAC, MP3, OGG, WAV, WV and WMA. A future feature à la HQPlayer will be on-the-fly upsampling to DSD. Also planned are room-acoustic plug-ins and MQA support, to be delivered via automated online updates.

A low-jitter dual-freq clock for the 44.1/48kHz sample-rate frequencies is powered by a 9uV dedicated power supply and said to operate with Vega 'exact' mode precision. The power supply isn't a switching but linear design to reduce line noise by up to 90dB. Retained from the Vega are four built-in filter modes called 'precise', 'smooth', 'dynamic' and 'balance'. Each of them is an amalgamation of various filters optimized for corresponding sample rates. Relative to my own search for a cost-effective audiophile streamer, until Lightning bows as a Mac desktop version to be accessed without WiFi, I'm still out. Given the Altair's comprehensive featurization and attractive price however, most should be in - and in a big way.