First two words about the name: this is not about the bible, Jewish roots, or anything similar (about Jewish roots – this might be surprising – tells the star with the LED in the middle, on the front panels of Marantz devices, at least this is claimed in the official company monograph by “Stereo Sound” All About Marantz, Special Issue, 2003). The co-owner of Aaron, Thomas Höhne (who’s second passion is flight), claims the whole thing is very simple – he thinks his devices are the top of the audio products and wanted that his company would appear in the first places everywhere, where alphabetic order is used. Because it is hard to beat two letters ‘a’ in row. Only “Aaaaaaaagency seeks women” can be better…
I tried to get this device for testing since three years, from the moment I first saw the Aaron on the High End in Munich (reportage from the 2008 edition HERE). We agreed from time to time to have the test on a given date, moved this around and nothing came from it. But it seems that everything must have its time and maybe the test of Model No.1.a (do you see the consistency in the naming?) waited for “High Fidelity” to be the first magazine to celebrate the 20th anniversary of the most important product of the company, the first amplifier bearing the name Aaron, the model No.1. Maybe. But there must be something in it – I am sure that nothing happens without a reason, but sometimes we do not know it, or cannot find it.
Aaron (High End Unterhaltungselektronik Vertriebs GmbH) was founded in 1985, by a pair of music lovers - Marita and Thomas Höhne. Their first product was the amplifier A300.M. Those were sold first under the brand name Markus Neumann, taken from the name of the engineer, who designed it. Later, at the end of the 80. The family Höhne hired a few new constructors, to implement the project Sovereign (under the name Sovereign ultra-expensive, top-hi-end products are sold now, being the crown pieces of Thomas’ thoughts). On the company pages it is underlined, that on this stage the most important people were the brothers Andreas and Dr. Bernhard Fuss, and the Dutchman living in the USA Lion Kwaytaal. The cooperation with the latter was especially fruitful, and in 1989 all production was transferred to the Netherlands, to the city Hertogenbosch (known also as “Den Bosch”), and Mr. Kwaytaal took care of the supervision of it. Starting that year all products sold earlier under the name Markus Neumann were re-branded to Aaron. The first device with the new logo on the front panel was the integrated amplifier No.1.
Aaron is an extremely “thought-through”, I might say, company, where product exchange happens rarely; the company is focused on getting the best out of what it can offer at time. During the twenty years only a few products were presented:
I started the listening sessions during the test of the loudspeakers Katana from Gemme Audio. Those are brilliant constructions with only one drawback – they are a bit “closed”, they do not eagerly convey the energy of the recordings. This is partially due to the quite soft upper midrange and treble. Aaron turned out to be the only amplifier in my home (except the P-7100 Accuphase), that was able to move them. Maybe not to the extent I would have liked, but enough for me to hear what the ceramic speakers are about and what is “in” the Katanas. And those are two times more expensive loudspeakers, that can work with electronics twice as expensive as they are! We have to compare the Aaron to devices from the 20000-25000zl range, to be able to describe it well. Although two elements – sweetness and density of the sound – can be found in two of my other favorite devices from a similar price range - Trigon Energy and Luxman L-550A II – but all other characteristics make it an outstanding amplifier, and only in comparison to the upper hi-end (in this case my system - Luxman M-800A + Leben RS-28CX) some things surface, that can be improved, showing, that spending more money we do also get more in return. But listening to the Aaron we will not be able to pinpoint them from the beginning. Yes, we know that they are there, that some things can be done better, but only in direct comparison. Playing on its own, just listening to this amplifier for a week or two, we do not feel the need to go higher. I repeat – we know in can be done better, we feel that, but there is no “pressure” to make the jump, we are fully satisfied with what we get here and now.
I do not write this often, I try to avoid such statements, because they do no favor to the audio branch (the sellers and the buyers) and in reality they just dust the picture, but the No.1.a will fit flawlessly in a system with the surrounding elements twice as expensive as it is itself. Because this is one of the few amplifiers, that sounds as twice (and more) as expensive amplifiers from competitors. I fear such statements, because they are overused in magazines all over the world. If those would be taken seriously, it would mean, that all products sound like twice as expensive ones, and there is no competition at all. And this is simply not true. So OK, I’ll tell this in another way: Aaron easily surpasses the statistical mean of devices up to around 25000zl. This is not exactly what I think now (I think like I wrote in the first sentence of this paragraph), but I must assume, that I can be wrong, that there are other, even better amplifiers for this money, but I just do not know them, and finally, that you just may not like that kind of sound.
And this is an incredibly open, quick and dynamic sound. This is the best we can find in solid state, what we do find in, for example, my Luxman, but also in the E-550 Accuphase and EVO222+402 Krell, regardless of how much the latter two differ from each other, and we find it here. And moreover… This is probably the clou of what I want to tell: Aaron does not take away anything from the sound, but tries to keep its original timbre, just like tube amplifiers do. This was the first time, that switching from my amplifying system to a completely different one did not change the timbre of the recordings at all. This was still the full, fleshy sound with expressive midrange and a strong, pearly treble. There were of course differences, but on different levels, one could say sub-levels. Immediately that “something” appeared, something I see as a very good combination of the characteristics of both technologies, what can only be beaten by amplifiers like the CAT-777 + PAT-777 Reimyo and Silver Grand Mono Ancient Audio.
Most surprising is the quality of the treble – in general, taking into account, that this is a solid state device, and also regardless of the price and technology. Those are ‘tubey’ in the German amplifier, but in the best meaning of that statement, not the stereotype. Cymbals are “loose” and at the same time have a very good definition. The beginning of the disc Lontano Tomasz Stanko Quartet (the details of all discs at the end of the test), the hits preparing the grounds for the trumpet, was shown especially well – with breath, with splendid differentiation of the kind of cymbals used, etc. The cymbals had a very nicely built upper frequency range, without the feeling of closing anything. The percussion on the disc Viaticum e.s.t. sounded similar. I mean it sounded different, as it a different recording, but it was shown in a similar, very true way. A common opinion about ECM discs is, that those are super-precise, but a bit cold, recordings. Maybe there were some made like that, but in general, looking at the discs I own, I can’t concur with this statement. Aaron showed nicely what I am talking about: the sound is very resolved, has an incredible depth and capacity, but is also incredibly balanced and even – I’ll take the risk, but I sometimes have to – is slightly warm on the upper midrange. At least, that was the way the mentioned disc from Stanko sounded. But also Officium by Jan Garbarek with The Hillard Ensemble and The Carnegie Hall Concert from Keith Jarrett. It is just that lesser systems cannot achieve this level, and stop at the phase of the attack, exposing the elements, that compose a very detailed, but cold, devoted from saturation, soundscape. The mentioned disc from e.s.t., as well as the last recording from the trio, the brilliant Leukocyte, are a bit warm and “fluent”. There is no such opening as on the mentioned ECM discs. And this can be heard immediately. The Aaron amplifier did not warm anything, did not brighten anything, so the music hit directly where it should – the head and heart of the listener.
The bass is on an equally good level. It is rather rounded, but not booming, or slightly loosened like the A-30 Accuphase, but rather like in... my Luxman. This is not the ultra-defined bass of the mentioned Krell but resembles most that, what I heard from the P-7100 Accuphase. And, at least for me, this is a big compliment. We go down low with it, in a strong, full way, and only on the lowest bottom sometimes the ‘i’ does not get dotted, there is no spurt. This is not a big thing, but on full range loudspeakers, like the mentioned Katana or my Dobermann this can be heard. The sound stage is deep and broad, resembling tube devices. In general the sound is quick and open.
So we arrive at the point, when I have to tell, what can be done better. I mentioned the splendidly drawn, detailed treble. I do not know how this was done, but nothing is over-emphasized, or brightened there. Even the open Harpia I use, did not show any trace of underlining the attack, anomalies in the tonal balance, or similar. But when we compare the sound of the mentioned discs Lontano, especially in the first minutes, then from the Jarrett disc, and finally the opening piece of the compilation Five Songbirds First Impression Music, Kinderspiele, then we’ll notice, that the back part of the background, the hologram we see in front of us, is a bit blurred, that the accent is placed on the first plane element. This is not something we see as a big issue, because listening to What A Difference A Day Made from Five Songbirds, we will be enchanted with the incredible resolution and dynamics. On all mentioned discs noise is a big element of creating the ‘presence’ of music – the noise of the background: the air in front of the microphone, the noise of the microphone electronics, and also (this in case of Kinderspiele - this is an analog recording), the noise of the tape. This cannot be taken for anything else – a wide band noise, that has nothing to do with the music itself and we do not listen for it, but it is a brilliant indicator of what is happening with the sound, what happens with the “useful” sound. The Aaron masks some of that noise. This is incredible, because listening to the instruments, this can not be heard at the beginning – those are open and carrying. Maybe this has nothing to do with timbre, but with resolution, that is better in more expensive devices? Maybe, because in my system, the elements that constitute the three-dimensionality of instruments are also drawn better. This is not about the stage, but about extracting the source of the sound, an instrument or reverb. Aaron draws everything splendidly, but it visibly is not capable of doing some things.
No.1.a is a unusual amplifier, combining many best sound elements of the solid state and tube technology. Trying to place it somewhere in terms of the tonal balance, you will have to draw a line before your eyes, and place some of the best integrated amplifiers I tested on it. To the left, warmer than the imagined ideal, would be the E-550 Accuphase, a bit further to the left Trigon Energy. To the right the C.E.C AMP6300 and a bit further down the L-509u from Luxman. Between them I would place the equally brilliant, tested by me for “Audio” split Cambridge Audio system Azur 840E+840W. Aaron would be standing directly in the middle, just a few millimeters to the right from the G-spot, by way of speaking. I think, that it will be very easy to compose it with many loudspeakers, because while open (it will not clutter anything) it is not brightened. Dear cert systems:
Music used for the session:
Aaron No.1.a is an integrated stereo amplifier. Its enclosure is rather simple, but especially well made, and with a nice visual design of the front panel. We find there only two knobs in the form of cones, that do also have the function of buttons, and between them a blue display. The knob on the right hand side is used for volume control and stand-by trigger. The knob on the left changes inputs or enters program mode. In the last one we can set the sensitivity for each inputs and each channel, thus a balance function is possible, and we can also set the input used for unity gain, that turns the amplifier into a power amp, to be used in home cinema systems. The display is quite clear – it shows the chosen input, volume level and the sensitivity chosen. On the back we see a lot of inputs and outputs – we can use one of the seven line inputs, including one with a tape loop, and a loop for an external sound processor, like a room correction. There is also a preamplifier output, for a second power amplifier. On the top cover there is a thick aluminum plate with the company logo – it is a vibration damper. The loudspeaker terminals are singular and not very good. The company offers, at an extra price, a whole bunch of improvements, like better sockets and different finishes of the plaque or enclosure colors, you can for example have your name put on the plaque. The color of the tested unit is called - night shadow. The amplifier is accompanied by a very solid, metal remote, that can control the volume, the inputs and put it in stand-by. The only thing missing is a mono mode switch.
The inside looks very interesting. A significant part of it is taken by a very big toroidal transformer and the power supply. The transformer is packed in a big, plastic bin, and covered with something loose – maybe this is mechanical damping, maybe electromagnetic, like in power strips from Shunyata – I do not know. The circuit for the power supply is on the same PCB as the preamplifier. There are three separate lines, two with stabilization and one for the power stage, the last one with six capacitors with a capacitance of 10 000 µF each. The inputs (gold plated, but of medium quality) are switched in relays managed by a encoder hooked up to the knob on the front panel. The knob is actually a very nice looking mechanism, with a solid placement of the shaft, what guarantees trouble-free operation for years. The actual preamplifier circuits are on two small PCBs (one for each channel), plugged in the main PCB by means of small pins. The active elements are two – per channel – chips from Analog Devices, the OP27, and an integrated analog resistor ladder DS1808 (digitally operated). The latter is a 60dB range logarithmic potentiometer, with a mute function. The control is divided in three regions, differing in stepping: first 12 taps have 1dB steps, following 12 taps 2dB and the last 8 taps 3 dB. From the little PCBs short, shielded cables lead the signal to power stage PCBs. Those are mounted vertically, as the power transistors are placed a bit differently than usual. Usually, those are screwed tight directly to the heat sinks. Here the heat sink is placed traditionally, vertically, parallel to the side panels, but the transistors – the control ones (bi-polar pairs BD244C + BD243C) and the power ones – are first placed on an aluminum channel bar, and only this is mounted on the heat sink, common for both channels. The current stage works in a push-pull setting in class AB and is based on a single, complimentary pair of transistors per channel. The used transistors have an enclosure I did not see for a long time – TO-3, and all markings were removed from them. The control circuits (microprocessor) received a separate PCB near the front panel. Everything looks nice, is well though through, etc. Only the quality of the RCA sockets and speaker terminals should be better. I think it is worth to order the improved version. One more thing: the cables powering the power stage are tightened together with the (solid core) loudspeaker cables and interconnects running between the pre- and power sections. I know many companies do that, claiming, that the signal levels are high enough, to have no influence on the sound at all. But a practical part of me would like to see those as far apart as possible. But this is just my opinion.
The company gives only minimum technical information – only the output power is stated: 2 x 95W/8Ω, 2 x 160W/4 Ω,, 2 x 250W/2 Ω. I asked Mr. Thomas Höhne about that and he responded that this is on purpose, to not distract from the sound by showing the numbers.
CDs FROM JAPAN
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