Sometimes I pity, that I do not give every review a title, as did some time ago. I was forced to do that, because while those titles made reading more pleasing, they were not necessary on the long run. For some texts those titled were natural, came from them on themselves, for others, they were not necessary. Because I wanted to avoid such situations, like in printed magazines (“Hi-Fi Choice” and “Hi-Fi News” are masters in that, but “Stereophile” and „Hi-Fi+” are also not far) where the border of good taste is often passed, so I resigned from using them at all. Sometimes I think this is an error, because something is missing, something to show, what we are dealing with, at one, single glance. But most important is continuity, so for the sake of clarity there are, and will not be, any titles. But if I’d change this rule, the text about Ayon Polaris II would bear the title: The fulfilled dream of flying.
A selection of the discs used for testing::
I spent over two months listening to the Ayon player – first to understand the phenomenon of its sound and later, for pure pleasure, prolonging the date of returning it as long as I could. I mentioned, that I use the phenomenal preamplifier Leben RS-28CX for quite some time now, and it is really hard to beat. Unless we have much more money to spend. Except for a few details, rather disputable than worse, Polaris II presented a sound a few classes better, getting away from hi-end and operating amongst something, that could be compared rather with live playing than reproductive sound. I exaggerate a bit, of course, but I do not do it for a hollow effect, but because the discussion about audio is crippled in some sense: having only a copy in our hands, a reflection, we try to play it and compare to reality. And there is the whole recording process and the carrier physical limitations that stand in between. This is the reason, that talking about any kind of “reality” is an overuse. But on the other hand it is difficult to judge that, what is coming from the speakers or headphones not having any, even unreachable, point of reference. This is the reason, that in case of this device it is better to compare to the sound of live instruments, rather than the sound of other preamplifiers.
However plugging the Ayon in our system we do not plug it in the place of a “hole”, or a cutout of reality, but in place of another device. So we need to tell, what differentiates the Polaris II from the ones we know. Switching from my Leben was a shock. In terms of the quality of what opened between the loudspeakers, but also a cultural shock. It is a completely different vision of the world. The first impression is, that the Austrian preamplifier sounds significantly softer. For some time I thought, that this is not fully right, that the Leben, with its stronger attack, with a more distinct “ascendant” line of the sounds is closer to that, what is happening in reality. After a few concerts and – this was maybe more important – the return to my preamplifier, it turned out, that I was wrong, that our experience of reality has nothing to do with any “strong”, “visible”, “distinctive”, etc, way of audio presentation. Everything comes more natural and closer to the way the Ayon showed sound. Its sound is incredibly balanced. This is why it can sometimes seem “soft”. But when you listen longer, it will turn out, that there are not many elements common with softening, or delaying, but it is about the intrinsic richness of the transmission, its maturity, it’s incredible resolution. This last characteristic hit me very clear (and painfull) when I returned to the Leben. This is an incredibly detailed and resolving device, but it cost what it costs, and I know, that it can be done better. The Polaris II shows, that it can be done muuuch better.
All the vocals, regardless of their timbre, the way they were recorded, etc, were incredibly energetic and just plain clear. I thought earlier, that the Leben shows them clear. And it does, at least when compared to all devices from the 20000-30000zl price range. The Austrian preamplifier showed them not “clearer” – that was the effect – but deeper, fuller, with much better microdynamics and better defined personal expression of each of the performers. I remember very well the first listening session of the new edition of the classic disc Layla Derek And The Dominos, in the splendid edition from Universal Music Japan (available on CD Japan). This is a disc recorded on a multi-track recorder, and not completely as it should have been, with flattened, compressed dynamics, and Clapton vocals deep in the mix. With the Ayon everything was clear, the choices were audible, the decisions made, that added together formed the final effect. And this was, despite everything, to my liking. But this was no “pushing out” of the vocals nor warming them, this preamplifier does not do that. “Warmth” comes from the incredible clarity, and not from distortion. This is a phenomenon, that can be heard in very good systems. Instantly, many discs, that we considered hard to listen to – due to the low quality of the recording – are now well audible. We know what is wrong, but we just don’t give a damn (please forgive my French) about that, as we receive a package, which is completely satisfying, we hear the music, and the recording is “behind” it.
That was the case with Layla, but also with the solo disc from Martin L. Gore Counterfeit2, recorded with copy protection, so it was destroyed before it was even sold. I did not listen often to it, because this copy protection is heard as an incredibly sanded treble, and the presence of something, what leads to a headache in minutes (some kind of sub-harmonic, or kind of). With Ayon there were also no fireworks, but the sound was not as annoying as usual, it did not prevent me from listening. Also here the vocals was incredibly good (for the recording), what was repeated with the voice of Patricia Barber in Companion. The pieces from that disc were played with passion and rare mastery. This is a live recording, and the club was at the reach of our hands. I am talking about the energy and dynamics, although, just as I wrote, the Leben seems the livier device. Other devices as well, let me remind for example the preamplifier VK-3iX BAT, or the integrated Belles IA-01. But it was not fully the way I thought. Those only “pretend to”, rather “suggest” dynamics and microdynamics, sounding in a more penetrating way. I do not mean brightening, this is another story, but just penetration. Ayon seems much more contained, because it allows never for such playing. Never. When we turn up the volume in the Leben, BAT or in other preamplifiers, we get a stronger, louder sound. Good. But the Polaris II does not increase the level selectively, it enlarges the sound – increases the size of the virtual sources, their volume, and not the sound level. I hope you understand what I want to tell – playing louder does not irritate, but rather fills the room with sound, enlarges the “sound bubble” growing out of the loudspeakers.
But for many people it may be a decision point, how well the Ayon treats the piano. It is at the same time vivid and smooth. In recordings, where it is only one of many equally important instruments, this characteristic was audible, but not dominating. But if we take on a disc like Bill Evans, wonderful album You Must Believe In Spring (lately I bought all his discs recorded for Warner Bros – those are available as SHM-CDs on CD Japan) and listen to the first piece B minor Waltz (For Ellaine) first on the Ayon, then on the Leben, we will be sorry – that everything is so worse with the cheaper device. It is not its fault, without a direct comparison everything is super, but only the Ayon can extract the deep tones and the bass foundation of the Evans instrument. A similar sound had the piano from Willisohn on Hold On, what combined with his deep voice gave an incredible effect of getting out from the boundaries imposed by the loudspeakers, without attacking us, like classic tube amplifiers do, but by erasing the border between the stage created by the loudspeakers and the one from the recording. And although the sound came to us with the Polaris II – that was with the beautiful piano of Lars Danielsson on the disc Mélange Bleu, which appeared from nowhere close, closer, big and vibrating with emotions in the title piece. I had the same impression when listening to the disc Salzau Music On The Water recorded by him, Christopher Dell and Nils Landgren live, on a wooden platform at lake shore, 5 am. The intensity of the sounds in overwhelming, on the condition we reproduce them well. The Leben with the Luxman M-800A fared with this much better than all the integrated amplifiers I know. But the Ayon transmitted this event to a completely new level, filled the space between the instruments with “air”, silence, giving them a background with “something”.
Special attention must be devoted to bass. I remember clearly, how well, in that aspect, was the BAT VK-3iX. In my experience only two preamplifiers were better: VK-52SE (I do not know the REX) from the same company and the Reference 3 from Audio Research. Those are two from four of the best devices of this kind I heard in controlled conditions and in peace. To those two and the Polaris II we should add the NHB-128NS from the Swiss company DartZeel. And the CAT-777 Reimyo. So come to compare with the state-of-the-art units. I will repeat that, what I always do at every comparison: I am talking only about devices I know well, that I heard in known conditions and to which I have absolute certainty, that they sound exactly like I know. There are of course products left aside, that are very good, but I only heard them at shows or only read about them. Those could be for example KX-R from the American Ayre and TL-7.5 also from an American company, VTL. I do not know the rest, so I will not talk about them. Anyway only the Audio Research and BAT go lower on bass than Ayon. On the bottom end the Austrian device sounds with a well differentiated and defined sound, compared to which my Leben sounds, as if it would not fully understand, what is happening in the lowest end (I am thinking about very low bass, like in the piece Makro from Mélange Bleu or the bass from the single Only When I Loose Myself Depeche Mode). Both American preamplifiers play this subrange a bit stronger than the Ayon, but I am not sure, if the presentation is more true – all will depend on the whole system. If I would have to compare the sound of Polaris II to something, then it would be another preamplifier, and a solid state one. This happens once in a million to get something unique from a transistor, but the company DartZeel can do that for sure, what makes the NHB-128NS phenomenal. It sounds in a bit sweeter way than the Ayon, and can show a deeper sound stage. The perfect reproduction of the treble of the Ayon is not endangered however, the Swiss device sounds with a smoother, and not as rich in internal life, sound (but please do remember, that we talk about state-of-the-art units here!). Dynamics of the AR and BAT seem also a bit better than the Polaris II. This is also audible after returning to the Leben, which also shows, maybe not as intensive and natural, but still – a deeper stage. Af first it seems also to have more treble, which is probably true, but it is visibly simplified.
Polaris II is a line preamplifier, although, when we look inside, we will see that the bigger PCB (actually two) are used by the gramophone preamplifier. It can be seen, and felt, that this was one of the hobby horses of the designer. Built around the same tubes as the line section, it has also a similar sound signature. The reproduction is ultra-pleasing, super-pleasing, or whatever we can name it. And this regardless of the music played – Depeche Mode from Violatora, Madeleine Peyroux from Careless Love, and most of all Paul Demond from Summertime – all those performers played very good “sets”, extremely even, really well balanced. There is a lot of the treble, this is not a case where it could be withdrawn, but the midrange and its threshold are slightly rounded. The bottom end is rather balanced than with unrestricted dynamics. This makes the recordings become similar to each other. With the Kuzma Reference turntable this was extremely pleasing, like earlier with the SME 10 and Avid Volvere (test in “Audio”). Bass did not reach far down, like with my preamplifier RCM Audio Sensor Prelude IC,but the tonal balance was not off, as this was counterweighted by a worm, full midrange. Frankly speaking, Ayon’s performance was very close to the sound of the ASR Basis, and partially to C-27 Accuphase or the phono preamplifier card for amplifiers (AD-20) made by the same company. Interesting enough, those devices are solid state, and sound like tubes. On the other hand, the Manley Steelhead sounds more like RCM... The American competition is more resolving, and has more extended frequency boundaries. Also the dynamics is better. But the RIAA section of the Polaris II has a difficult to achieve, for the money, fluency and coherence. No, this is not the most resolved sound I heard, but at the same time it is very attractive, because it has body, it differentiates and defines vocals and everything, that happens in the midrange. Also in difficult mono recordings, like Oh, You Beautiful Doll Mel Tormé, and in the heavily processed (“enhanced stereo”) disc My Cole Porter Frank Sinatra. With the latter, it could also be clearly heard, that the device masks the clicks slightly, not allowing them to appear in front of the music.
And I repeat: I did not hear all the preamplifiers in the world. But now Ayon is at the very top, in the company of a few equally tasteful devices. Its sound is incredibly vivid and absorbing, what made the separation very painful for me. But I know now, that I need a better preamplifier, because the rest of the system shows the change clearly. So I need to sell my beloved Leben. If there is somebody interested among you, please let me know. But this is only a digression. Clue of this summary is as follows: Ayon is not perfect, there are no such devices. The stage can be more elaborate, and go down lower on the bass. But it shows the sound in a very satisfying way. You have to listen to it for longer, to appreciate, that this is the case. It would be probably better, when it would be a balanced device, but – OK. It is big and black. But it has a remote. It's brilliant.
CDs FROM JAPAN
|© Copyright HIGH Fidelity 2009, Created by B|