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Krakow Sonic Society | MEETING № 134

Ayon Audio




translation Marek Dyba
images Wojciech Pacuła


July 1, 2022


AYON AUDIO is an Austrian company, founded in 1991. Its owner is GERHARD HIRT. It’s a company specializing in expensive and very expensive audio components: amplifiers, digital sources and loudspeakers. Gerhard came to Krakow to meet KSS members bringing the latest D/A converter / preamplifier with him, named KRONOS model.

UR REPORT FROM THE HIGH END 2022 EXHIBITION in Munich, the report I wrote, let me add, is becoming more and more widely discussed. For now, I have received emails with thanks, but probably the less nice ones will also come. As it turns out, I was one of the few, or maybe the only journalist who pointed to shortcomings, issues, and sometimes straightforward mistakes, and even unacceptable decisions of the organizer (more HERE). I encourage you to read it, and here let me recall and develop only one thought from this text that seems very important to me.

In conversations with me, quite a large group of manufacturers and distributors expressed doubts about shows of this scale. They said they were overly costly, at least for the results. Some of them even said that they were not going to Munich and intended to spend money and time - resources that would be consumed by the show - on other forms of promotion and reaching people. One of them was GERHARD HIRT, owner, boss and designer of AYON AUDIO.

He decided not to participate in the Munich’s High End Show this year, announcing at the same time that he would definitely be in Warsaw at the Audio Video Show 2022. The product that was to be premiered this year in Germany was a new top digital-to-analog converter and preamplifier in one, the KRONOS. Instead, Gerhard decided to present it at a meeting of the Krakow Sonic Society, two weeks before the Show. So it was its world premiere.


THE KRONOS IS CURRENTLY the most expensive and technically most advanced Ayon Audio D/A converter. As we read in the company materials: "The Kronos is one of the most exciting DACs with a tube output stage and the best sounding DAC that Ayon Audio has ever built". Strong words, but backed by evidence.

The Kronos is based on the design of the well-received CD-35 II CD player (test HERE). It has the same size, appearance and internal structure, minus the drive. It is even slightly improved in several places - the Ayon player has been on the market for some time, and Gerhard and his engineers do not like to sit idly ...

The Kronos replaces the STRATOS model, which has been working for several years in the systems of two KSS members: at Wiciu's and Tomek's. It is a D/A converter integrated with an analog preamplifier. It offers as many as seven digital inputs: S/PDIF (RCA), AES/EBU (XLR), I2S, TosLink, BNC, USB and 3 x BNC for DSD signal (professional standard). Via the USB input, it accepts PCM signal up to 32 bits, 768 kHz, as well as DSD up to DSD256. It can convert all input signals to DSD256 - I know from experience that this is one of the most important features of this device.

The Kronos also offers three analog line inputs: two RCA and one XLR. The analog output is also implemented in two ways - on the XLR and RCA sockets. The volume control is analog and can be turned off. The output stage is based on 6H30 and 5687 tubes, powered from a tube power supply featuring a GZ30 tube. This device, like the CD-35 before it, is available in three versions: XS, SIGNATURE and ULTIMATE. They differ in terms of equipment and price and are to cost 8,000, 11,000 and 15,000 Euro, respectively. As the DAC is a modular design, it can be upgraded at any time.


A few simple words…

Owner, designer

LET ME GO BACK ALMOST 20 YEARS back when we launched our first top DAC, the Skylla. It was based on Burr-Brown PCM1704 DACs and cost 6000 Euro. The PCM1704 was, in our opinion, the absolutely best D/A chip ever produced. Unfortunately, it was withdrawn from production and with time it was getting more and more expensive. The Skylla DAC remained on the market for eight years, and then we introduced the next generation of D/A Converters, the Sigma, Stealth and Stratos.

⸜ GERHARD HIRT at the KSS meeting, premiering the Kronosem

When I talked with distributors ten years ago, many years before COVID, they told me that we have had these converters for so long and that they were waiting for us to have something new for them. It took us some time, we were delayed for various reasons, but finally we managed to prepare the model I came here with - Kronos.

The previous DACs covered our targeted price range, but producing three different devices was very difficult for a small company such as Ayon Audio. Our subcontractors billed us higher, because each converter required different components, housings, etc. So our idea was to go back to what we had done with the Skylla model - to have one base DAC and build another ones using it as a base. So Kronos is available in three versions: XS - the basic one, Signature and Ultimate.

And I have to tell you something - Tomek's Stratos is our best DAC so far. It has become something of a legend because of its unique sound, a completely "non-digital" one. So the problem for us was to further improve its sound. It wasn't easy. We tried all D/A chips available on the market and the difference in sound between them was minimal, sometimes even inaudible. I know, it's completely different than what is usually said in forums and audio magazines, but it's the truth. What is really important are the low-pass filters and the analog circuit after the DAC stage.

And now - we all know about the disaster that took place at the AKM factory a few years ago (this Japanese D/A factory burned down - ed.). So there were no AKM chips available, and if they were, they were incredibly expensive. The standard price was $ 15. This is a lot for a DAC chip. However, I did manage to buy one of the last batches produced, but had to pay over $ 100 a piece. And we use them in Kronos. That's because they offer the best options when it comes to combining them with low-pass filters.

The design of these filters is the most important job we have done on the new converter. In our circuit, the AKM chips are the best way to get what we wanted. However, obtaining them was only the first step. The second thing is related to the increase in material and component costs caused by COVID. And we are not talking about 20, 30 or even 50% increases, but rather 100, 200 or even 300% higher purchase prices. The production costs of new devices are therefore 100 and 200% higher than before.

On top of that, there is the war in Ukraine and the matter of tubes availability. By the way, I will say that we have suspended sales in Russia for an indefinite period. In any case, tube prices have gone up a few hundred percent and sometimes even more. There are no tubes from Russia on the market. If they appear, they cost a fortune. For example, for 6N30, there are two such tubes in Kronos, you have to pay several hundred Euro per pair. You have to replace them every 8-10 years, and the rectifier every 5 years. Let me tell you an interesting fact: big, well-known American companies want to buy tubes from us and I have to refuse them. Luckily I am a collector and over the years I have purchased all the good tubes that were available. We're safe now. In fact, if I started trading my tubes now, I would make more than selling the complete devices ...

But we couldn't propose a converter twice as expensive as the previous one. So we started to think about how to reduce these costs without affecting build and sound quality. It turned out that we would gain the most from modular design, which is why Kronos is made of sections. It is based on the idea of the CD-35. In the basic version it can therefore only cost 8000 Euro, which is - in my opinion - an unbelievable price considering everything I said. The Signature version will cost 11,000 Euro, which is only 1,000 Euro more than the Stratos ten years ago! And, at the top, there will be the Ultimate version which will cost 15,000 Euro.

Thanks to this, we could order one type of transformer for all converters, the same chassis, but all components could be of a slightly higher class than before - these are the advantages of the so-called "scale". And all this while maintaining a good price. Because price will now be a key element in audio. This is exactly what Wojtek said in the introduction - he is probably a better businessman than me, because he has been saying it for a long time :) You can have a great device, but if it is too expensive, you will have fewer customers.

All that thanks to the success of the CD-35 player. I can tell you honestly that apart from Wojtek and me, no one believed in the success of this device. And it is one of the best-selling products in our history. It's still selling well and there's no end to the demand in sight… It gave us hope that Kronos will also be liked. After all, this is a large device with many tubes for 8,000 Euro that you can upgrade at any time. You will only pay the price difference between versions.

This device is not presented on our website yet (when you are reading this text, the DAC should already be on it - ed.), Only a few of the most important distributors, such as the one in Poland, have seen it, and it is its first public presentation - a worldwide premiere.

When we launched the CD-35, it was a breakthrough product for us, because we used solutions that were not available in our players before. It was 2016. We have invested a lot of money in these solutions. It was a very risky move, but it paid off. And even now, so many years later, it is a unique device. After all, you can't reinvent the wheel every few years, right?

I have to repeat that the sound of the new DAC was extremely important to us. However, it was equally important to us that it was available to people. When I see what is happening in the audio industry, it makes me sick. Many companies are increasing the prices of their products by 1000, 2000 and 5000 Euro overnight for the same product! Yet people do not earn more.

I meet our clients often. About a month ago, when I was in Poland, in the north, a man approached me. In really good German, he tells me that he has been saving money for the CD-35 II for a year and a half and only needs six more months. And, as he said, it is not easy for him because he does not earn a lot of money. Can you imagine that we are raising the price by 30% in six months, because that's how others do it? It's suicide - for one, we would lose that man's enthusiasm, but we would lose our client too, forever.

Therefore, the price is extremely important, and the audio market is extremely fragile and not resistant to such things. And our governments act like madmen, they pull money out of our pockets like thieves. And audio is a luxury. That's why we lose money on some of our cheapest amplifiers. But we do it in order to survive this time and so that enthusiasts do not get discouraged towards audio. Maintaining prices is extremely costly these days, and we need to understand that, we have to be with these people, not lock ourselves in a glass tower and make them pay more and more.

We sold about 2,000 units of the Stealth DAC. We hope to sell several times more of Kronos in the next 10 years. For us, this is a project for many, many years. Hence such good performance of the USB input. It's no secret that we consider this a very weak link. Originally it was intended for data transmission, not audio, and it hasn’t changed. That is why we use IIS links for PCM signal and 3 x BNC in our devices, a professional link for DSD signal. However, USB must be present as this is the standard nowadays. It's a good compromise, but always a compromise.

Finally, I must say that we are very impressed with what Poland is doing for Ukraine. We are extremely impressed by your heart, your commitment and the help that you are offering for this country. This is very important to us. We must all help each other, especially in the face of such an aggressive opponent. GH


WOJCIECH PACUŁA Before we move on to audio, tell us why are you such a tough opponent of MQA encoding?

GERHARD HIRT To understand this, you have to go back to the times of mp3 - we are talking about the Fraunhofer-Institut für Integrierte Schaltungen IIS, a German institute from Berlin. This is real science in the service of audio. But it is also the birthplace of mp3. I'll come back to that in a moment. A few years ago we started testing the MQA - Ayon Audio together with StreamUnlimited in Vienna. This is a company that employs several dozen engineers-programmers, as well as people who designed the Philips CD drive. 90% of file transports on the market are based on StreamUnlimited modules. They know what they are doing.

We did MQA measurements and tests and thought that something was wrong, that someone was pulling a prank on us. We then found an article by two guys from the Fraunhofer Institute in which they confirmed what we had already figured out: it's fake format. Look - Meridian, the company that "invented" MQA, went bankrupt. Its boss, Bob Stuart, cannot fully explain what MQA is all about. He was just lucky to be able to sell the MQA license to Tidal. For me, it's just a marketing gimmick, empty inside. Qobuz - oh, it makes sense, this is a much better service.

I have a really big problem with Tidal. Why do I need MQA? If I need high-quality audio, I listen to Qobuz, and if not, Spotify, as I can find 95% of the music available on the market there. I would have to pay Tidal for a license that I don't need, for a format that is a scam. StreamUnlimited and Fraunhofer-Institut have the same opinion. But if people really need it, they can decode MQA in Roon.

Anyway, streaming has no chance to offer a signal comparable to a CD or truly high resolution files, it can be measured. When they say "CD", this is far below CD quality. And only Qobuz offers hi-res files, which are not as good as those played from local drive, but are slightly better than CDs. All others are simply wrong.


⸤ HOW WE LISTENED The listening session of the digital-to-analog converter and preamplifier in one took place at Tomek’s, one of the hosts of the Krakow Sonic Society. For seven years his system has been based on the Ayon source: Stratos DAC and CD-T transport. And it was the Stratos, the Ayon's top D/A model so far, that the Kronos was compared to; it was its middle version, SIGNATURE.

The output of both converters was led via balanced cables directly to the input of the Accuphase P-7300 power amplifier. We compared the digital and analog sections (preamplifier) of both Ayon devices separately, and only the analog section separately. In the first case, we listened to CDs through the digital input, and in the second case, LPs through the analog inputs of the Stratos and Kronos.

Recordings used for the test | a selection

⸜ AL DI MEOLA, Across The Universe, Ear Music 0214031EM, CD (2200).
⸜ MARK KNOPFLER, One Take Radio Sessions, Warner Bros., Reference CD-R (2005).
⸜ THE HANDSOM FAMILY, Singing Bones, Carrot Top SAKI036, CD (2003).
⸜ BILLIE EILISH, Happier Than Ever, Interscope Records/Universal Music Japan UICS-9172, Deluxe Edition, Limited Edition CD (2021).
⸜ OMNI, Omni, Savitor SVT 021, Test Press LP (1985).
⸜ PARTICIA BARBER, Café Blue , Premonition/IMPEX RECORDS IMP-6035-1, S1TEP 2 x 180 g LP, 45 RPM (1994/2020).


MARCIN (KTS) Let me start big: I liked Kronos very much. I think that it was better in every aspect than Tomek's Stratos. In my opinion, it was more resolving, it brought out background sounds better and overall sounded more musical. The difference, in my opinion, was considerable and I am talking about the comparison of the digital section. All the sounds came out more "forward". It was better at bass reproduction.

When we listened to KNOPFLER for the first time, the bass, which comes in at some point, was a bit annoying to me, it dragged on for a bit too long. It was even boomy at some point. It did not happen with Kronos. There was a lot of bass, and it was not exaggerated. In the case of the LP and the Kronos preamplifier section, both presentations sounded, in my opinion, better than the CD. I don't know if there were any big differences between them, because they were more obvious when comparing digital sections. As with BILLIE EILISH, when you could hear many things in the background, that with Stratos seemed to be some kind of error, but gained importance with Kronos, became part of the music.

JULIAN SOJA (Soyaton Audio) I have never hidden the fact that I am not a fan of the Stratos sound. It's a great, high-end DAC, but that's not my sound. It seems too bright, too light, etc. Here the stage is shallower than mine, at least that's how I hear it.

This time I understood something that was bothering me: why I didn't like the Stratos, and why in Wojtek's system CD-35 made a great impression on me (more HERE - ed.). How it is possible? Today I understood that - it is probably a matter of chips, because the Stratos uses Sabre chips that I don't like, and the CD-35 and Kronos feature AKM chips. I know Gerhard said 'chips don't play', there's no difference between them, but that's how I see it.

The Kronos sounds much like the CD-35 and I like this sound much more. It is denser, larger, darker, better filled and weighted. The biggest difference is the breakthrough of medium and high tones. It is very good. I heard these differences mainly when we were comparing digital sections. When comparing LPs, to be honest, I have not heard such a difference anymore.

RAFAŁ (first time at KSS meeting) From my perspective, the biggest difference was in the first track, that is, with KNOPFLER, in the guitar part. His guitar sounded livelier, more dynamic, better conveying the "presence" of the guitar in the room, as if we were sitting closer to it. But - in favor of Stratos.

TOMEK (KSS, our host) Thanks to you, I will save a lot of money, because I will not have to replace Stratos with Kronos :)

WICIU (KTS) I will say right away that I had the impression that Kronos did not perform worse than the Stratos. I think Kronos played louder. The guitars were better distributed with it, their "body", in my opinion, was larger and more "present". And musically I like BILLIE ELISH very much. So far I have not been a fan, but this time, with Kronos, she sounded fantastic. But, it must be said, the devices offer sound in a similar style.

RYSIEK B. (KTS) It seems to me that Tomek has a problem, because the difference - I disagree with the previous speakers here - was very big, in favor of Kronos. I am not a particular Ayon fan, but there was a gap here. Julian has already said many good things about it, and I will add that I was in a completely different music world. Presence, sensuality, it all sounded lively, natural and engaging.

However, I am disappointed with what we listened to on the analog, so I felt differently than Julian. I was, this time, disappointed with PATRICA BARBER.

JAROMIR WASZCZYSZYN (Ancient Audio) One problem was that there was a large time gap between the two auditions. But, taking into account everything you said, I want to remind you of what Gerhard said, namely that the analog section and the power supplies are much more important than the chips themselves. This is absolutely true. So let me start from the end, with the OMNI album, i.e. with the analog section of the converters.

In my opinion, these were absolutely two different versions of the same album. The first time it didn't take me on, but with Kronos the album showed great space, timbre, it was a different quality! And now - what constitutes the quality of Kronos? Chip or the analog section? Because the same things repeated for me while listening to CDs. The Stratos was a DAC that sounded a bit showy. He brought to the fore details that are not essential to the music. Kronos gave up on rubbish, which is the domain of "audiophile" equipment, and focused on music.

WŁODEK (first time at KSS meeting) I liked the Stratos more, just like Rafał. It's been a long time since I listened to something on such a high level, so maybe that is why it made a bigger impression on me, because it played as the first one. It was: "wow!" And it was imprinted in my mind that it was great - I don't know ... But maybe that's why I liked it more, because with it the music was more lively, more "forward".

BARTOSZ (KTS) As for the devices we listened to, I liked the Kronos much more. What caught my attention the most was the breath in music, space and calmness that gave an advantage to the new DAC. I heard the biggest difference with the Omni disc, i.e. when listening to the analog part of the Kronos.

GERHARD Even without understanding what Bartek was saying (the translation was a bit late - ed.), I understood what he was saying. And yet he is not sitting in the middle. And this is, in my opinion, the biggest change from the Stratos - this "air" is present throughout the room wherever you are sitting.

WOJCIECH PACUŁA I agree that the Omni album, which seemed to be the worst recorded one, showed the biggest differences. And the smallest ones could be noticed with the AL DI MEOLA’s, which sounded so great. I guess that's because if you have to recreate small differences in dynamics, tiny information, then you need to do it right right away. Resolution has to be high, noise low, etc. And that is why the Omni sounded so good with the Kronos. And Di Meola's album is heavily compressed and with it the differences were the smallest. That's why the Kronos seems to me a much better device.

BARTOSZ (KTS) The second major change came when we listened to Billie Eilish. Also here I could hear another difference in favor of the Kronos, although it was a comparison of not only of the analog section, but also of the DAC chips. There was more breath and space again. There were also more details, not gimmicky, but those that just were there.

And a word about the fact that there was a break between the listening sessions. Thus, it was not a purely technocratic test conducted under a scientific regime. Any scientist would laugh at us and say that we are scammers. But high-end is about something more, about the man in the center, about his emotions. And that's not easily measurable. That is why ONLY in this type of auditions and comparisons one can understand why one device differs from another. You can't do it with measurements and rigorous ABX tests, because they just don't work. And from this point of view, it is easy to point to Kronos as a much better device.

MARCIN (KTS) That is correct - when we listened to Knopfler for the first time, he seemed to "pop" out of the speakers, but there was no room around him anymore. And with Kronos everything was even more "present", but behind the musicians there was still some slack - the breath Bartek was talking about.

DOMINIKA Sitting next to one of the speakers, I felt the music more than I heard it. So it was hard for me to spot the differences. There were some, of course, but it's hard for me to define them. I can say that the sound of the Stratos appealed to me more, but because I know it, that is how I listen to music here. Therefore, if someone is used to a certain type of sound, they may like the Kronos less. With Knopfler I liked the Stratos better, but Eilish was much nicer to listen to with Kronos.

TOMEK (KSS, our host) Yes, I will buy a Kronos. I am very pleased that the sound of the Kronos is an evolution compared to the Stratos, not a revolution. It was a surprise for me when Gerhard said that there is not a single screw from the old DAC in the new one, because the way the music is presented by the Stratos, which I have had for eight years, is similar to what Kronos does. Perhaps before this meeting I expected something completely different, which would knock me off my feet, and it did not ...

GERHARD Sorry to interrupt you, but keep listening to Kronos for a while and THEN go back to Stratos, that when you will truly hear what you’re talking about :)

TOMEK (KSS, our host) Well, I just wanted to add: I've been in this industry too long to not understand it. I know that what causes the "wow" effect during the first listening session is usually unbearable in a long run. That is why all the CDs and LPs we listened to were better for me with the Kronos. Therefore, I will buy it for sure. And that's it…

GERHARD I am pleased to hear it, because we have devoted many years of work to this project and there is probably not a single element in Kronos that was used in the Stratos. Wiciu said earlier that he thought Kronos had a higher volume level - and it didn't. I took a closer look at how Tomek was setting it up and it was the same every time. In fact, the output voltage level of the Kronos is lower than that of the Stratos, so the impression should be the opposite. And it wasn't - Kronos seemed louder.

It was so because that was our concept for this sound. The output voltage is lower because we wanted to increase the current level. And when you increase the current, with the same load, you have to decrease the voltage, it's simple Ohm's law. Increasing the current for tubes is a bit more stressful for them, but the sound we get in this way is, in my opinion, simply better.


˻ SOURCE: Ayon Audio CD-T ⸜ CD transport
˻ PHONOSTAGE: Phasemation EA-350
˻ POWER AMPLIFIER: Accuphase P-7300

Speaker cable: Acrolink 7N-S8000 ANNIVERSARIO (2 x 3 m)
Analog interconnect XLR: Siltech Classic Legend 880i Oyaide Focus XLR
Digital interconnect AES/EBU: Acrolink 7N-DA2090 SPECIALE (1,5 m)
Phono cable: Siltech Classic Legend PHONO 680i

Power cables AC:
Acrolink 7N-PC6700 ANNIVERSARIO CBN (1,5 m) for Stratos
Acrolink 7N-PC6500 (1,5 m) for Accuphase
Acrolink 7N-P4030 ANNIVERSARIO (1,5 m) for CD-T
Vovox TEXTURA for Phasemation and turntable’s power supply