Producent: Ayon Audio
t’s an interesting thing about numbers. All of them, obviously, but what I mean here is the numbers next to the names of audio components. In November 2010, Ayon sent out information about having just completed a new version of its classic Spirit amplifier, now with the added mark “III”. Some time later, I reviewed it for the "Audio" magazine and it turned out to be a good amp. Maybe not outstanding, in the sense that it would put everything else to shame, but very well built and sounding very solid and well ordered. A strong “B” to denote a good, safe choice. Hence, when I recently heard the news about the launch of a new version of the Spirit III I was a bit confused. Looking at the manufacturer's website and at the amp sitting on my shelf, I had a sense of a split in my personality seeing one thing on my left side and another on my right.
I asked Gerhard for details:
We’ve done a mild exterior facelift and a few upgrades inside but didn’t want to brag about it, hence the amplifier is still called Spirit III. The implemented changes are, in fact, quite extensive: a new volume control with a display screen, a new driver stage, the latest version of the "auto-fixed-bias" circuit and an advanced tube protection circuit, which all brought a big sonic improvement.
Regardless of what we think about the amplifier name, the basic specification is not based on “numbers”. We know that it is an integrated amplifier with pre-out but also with direct-in. While the pre-out is a classic, the direct power amp input is quite rare for a tube integrated amplifier. Apparently, however, it is Gerhard’s nod towards home theater owners as the Spirit can work in home theater systems. Just connect your AV’s stereo pre-out to Ayon’s direct-in and you end up with a pimped out stereo and multi-channel system in one. The input can of course be use for something else and if you have a better preamplifier or a source with an integrated preamp that is better than the one in the Austrian amplifier, this way you can skip the Spirit’s preamp. The output stage is based on a pair of KT88sx power tubes per channel, driven by interesting 6SJ7 pentodes in triode mode, housed in characteristic metal cups instead of usual glass bulbs. KT88sx is a variant of the KT88 manufactured for Ayon by Shuguang. A new addition on the front panel is a an alphanumeric display with volume indication. Already in the previous Spirit 'III' the volume control was electronic, but the volume level indication was conventional via the volume knob position. The volume logic was controlled by a classic rotary potentiometer with a start and end point. Hence, there was no need for a separate indicator. The external differences between the "II" and "III" versions can be seen at the photo number 5
Albums auditioned during this review
How do we understand the term "tube sound"? I, for one, am deeply convinced that it is commonly understood in a rather clear-cut way. It is naturally a stereotype, but like any such simplification it helps to quickly assess the situation and there is lots of truth to it. Mostly historical, granted, but truth nevertheless. So how do we understand "tube sound"? Everybody knows it is warm. It also has a rolled off and rounded treble and not fully controlled bass. And there is no use expecting good speaker control unless we are talking about tube monsters. These are the minuses. Among the advantages the first is the so-called musicality. While itself a buzzword disliked by many, in such cases it automatically springs up to mind. It’s a bit like describing a stereotype with another stereotype, but it often works! Musicality would be understood here as vividness, smoothness and fluidity, combined with the absence of irritating sharpness and distortion. If that’s how we understand the "tube sound", then Gerhard Hirt has been for years doing everything to make his amps deny such a stereotype.
I'm talking about amplifiers instead of products, generally, because Gerhard "handles" his digital sources in a different way and his preamps in yet another way. At least that’s my understanding based on a comparison to other such products from leading manufacturers. His preamps seem to be the most neutral. Not only are they neutral but they take away the least from the sound. It’s because they are also natural. Gerhard’s digital sources sound incredibly natural, too, except that in their case it’s more difficult to talk about neutrality. Their bass is usually beefed-up and midrange strongly emphasized. It's very likeable and sounds great so it’s not surprising that to many they represent the “Ayon sound”. Last but not least, the amplifiers sound less natural than the preamps but perhaps even more neutral. If anyone is for example worried about tube amp’s bass control, Ayon shows that the problem is largely not in the technology itself but in its proper application. Ayon will prove wrong anyone who finds it hard to believe that a tube amp can drive speakers with a lower-than-average sensitivity. It will also cure of any complexes related to the treble presentation.
Jorgos Skolias & Bogdan Hołownia
As I wrote, the latest version of the Spirit III whose first ever review you are reading (the previously reviewed Spirit III with a front panel display was a "transitory" version) is difficult to get. Even the distributor has only a few units, all of which are on display in audio stores. Fortunately, a few people have already managed to buy the amplifier and I borrowed it for a review from one of them. That person is Jorgos Skolias.
Born in 1950 in Zgorzelec, this Polish musician and composer of Greek descent has been known for his deep, searing voice and his cooperation with Polish bands such as Krzak, Dżem and Osjan and jazz musicians, to name Tomasz Stanko, Tomasz Szukalski, Zbigniew Namysłowski or Bogdan Hołownia. He has studied archaic vocal techniques and is usually referred to as a "searching vocalist", which – I think – describes his creative approach to music. Poland has gained this great artist by way of politics as his parents were sent over here as political refugees. Although he participated in the events of the Greek minority, he moved in international circles not limited to an ethnic ghetto. In the 1970s he began cooperation with the rock-blues circles in Wroclaw, working with such bands as Nurt, Grupa 1111 and Spisek Sześciu. He started his professional work in 1982 in the jazz rock band KRZAK and became the object of interest to many searching and innovative musicians who invited him to both concert and studio work. For over a year he worked with the band Osjan.
From 1988 to 1991 he was a permanent vocalist for Young Power, a formation bringing together young and unorthodox artists who demonstrated an innovative approach to jazz. He was involved in new visions of music, working with Radosław Nowakowski (Osjan percussionist), Tomasz Stańko, Terje Rypdal, Nikos Touliatos, Bronisław Duży, Tomasz Szukalski, Zbigniew Namysłowski, and the bands Tie Break, Pick Up and Free Cooperation. For five seasons he was performing in the staging of Dziady (Forefathers’ Eve) in the J. Słowacki theater in Krakow, where I spent seven years working as a sound engineer. He participated in many recordings of theater and film music.
(Source: Jorgos Skolias - boisterous singer, see HERE)
It just so happens that the musician currently lives in Krakow and that, after a long search, he chose the Spirit III (new) amplifier for his audio system.
His collaboration with the Krakow audio salon Nautilus where he bought the amplifier goes deeper than a simple cash flow. Nautilus actively participated in a reissue of an extraordinary collaboration between Jorgos Skolias and the pianist Bogdan Hołownia that appeared in May 2012. Originally released in 2005 on ZezIvony label, it contains original interpretations of jazz, blues and soul standards. For years, the album was difficult to get. Now it is about to change. While the reissue is limited to 2,000 copies, there is a good chance that more people will hear this fantastic material. For the purpose of this review I secured the album No. 0001. As I didn’t have the original to compare, I auditioned it in the context of vocal and piano music from all over the world and from the past few decades. It was just as well as the music contained on the album and its sound quality are so unique and interesting that can’t be seen within the confines of a "Polish" label.
The sound is incredibly deep and dynamic. It's just vocals and piano, yet the complex, melancholic interpretations are full of dynamite. The disc is worth playing on your system if only to hear how the vocals and the instrument can be shown in space.
Due to a – presumably – low compression the sound is rich in micro-information and not choked. Its strong bass and unobtrusive treble are equally impressive. Vividness, resolution and depth are the three most important characteristics of this recording. This album is a must have, so hurry up while it isn’t sold out.
While I don’t find anything missing in the sound, I would love to hear the same material on a gold CD. After all it’s supposed to be an audiophile, perfectionist release. I also miss information about the recording session and a description of the studio equipment used for the recording and production. This should necessarily be added to the next Nautilus project. It may also be worth thinking of a more attractive form of the release. The CD is available in the Nautilus stores in Warsaw and Krakow.
The Spirit III is the first Ayon amplifier that goes in exactly the same direction as the best sources from this manufacturer, such as the CD-5s Special. It doesn’t ruin the image Gerhard worked for years to achieve, but it adds to it some characteristics that make it now an extremely versatile machine.
You'll love the soundstage it creates. It is a large and expansive. I think it has been achieved through the saturation of the bottom end. While the common opinion is that the accuracy and size of soundstage is determined by the treble, the reality is that its quality and maturity depends more on what happens on the other end of the frequency band. For the soundstage to have a reliable size, that is to resemble what we know a live event, the sound can’t be rolled off at the bottom or compressed. I know it well from practice. Almost every mixing console sports a switchable high pass filter, typically 100 Hz, at the microphone input. Sound engineers often use it to prevent the speakers from accidental pops and hum (50 Hz and harmonics) and as a kind of general "protection". Theoretically, the relatively low set filter shouldn’t specifically affect the vocals. And yet even a high female voice is thinner and shallower with the filter on. I have experienced this many times and avoid using it now, if possible. Linear bass means a higher sound volume and its better anchoring on the soundstage.
Gerhard Hirt belongs to a group of designers who know what they are doing. He seems to fully control all aspects of his products, from their enclosure design to their sonic characteristics. We may not always agree with him, as these are HIS choices to which WE can say "no" and everything will be fine. But it will be a response to his specific, well thought-out proposition. One that helps us make an equally informed decision. After an endless parade of products that happen to turn out better or worse, sometimes with their designers not even knowing why, the Ayon is a really refreshing perspective. Here, we don’t need to reject the designer’s wrong and accidental decisions but can simply react to his quality proposition.
I spent with the Spirit much more time than usual because I also used to review all anti-vibration platforms presented in the previous issue of "High Fidelity", (see the archive HERE). While its mechanical design is very good, it sounded different and usually better with each of them. The best results were with the CEC ASB3545WF Wellfloat and the HRS M3X. They are expensive accessories but will help us achieve a much better sound without the need to upgrade the component. It’s also worth trying out the Resonator 1000 Hz from Finite Elemente, which brings clearly positive results. Or to check out quartz resonators, putting them on output transformer casings. The review had a character of an A/B comparison with the A and B known. The reference point was my reference system amplifier and the Corus + the 625 from Jeff Rowland as a two-box amplifier. Music samples were 2 minutes long. The power cord used was the Harmonix X-DC350M2R Improved Version, while the interconnects and speaker cables were from Acoustic Revive ("System II").
As strange as it may seem, Ayon components didn’t always have a "typical" Ayon look. Have a look at a 300B amplifier from this manufacturer reviewed by us in June 2008 (see HERE) to find out what I’m talking about. As you can see, its shape and enclosure design solutions brought to mind small manufacturers employing several people, which is actually what Ayon was back then. It turned out to be the last such design from early Ayon whose next components were soon to look like the CD-3, reviewed by us a month later (see HERE). Except for some details, it was the shape that remained with us till today – thick aluminum plates, rounded corners and hidden mounting screws. And a big Ayon logo in the center of the front panel. It all started in 2006 with digital players. Their enclosures were manufactured for Ayon in China by Raysonic. However, as often happens in such cases, this cooperation got out of Gerhard’s control and the market saw CD players and amplifiers with Raysonic’s logo and electronics that didn’t have much in common with the Austrian company. They were, however, associated with it as they looked similar and used similar enclosure design concepts. Gerhard ended it quickly by buying his own factory in Hong Kong, in which he has since manufactured all the mechanical components. And what about Raysonic? Well… Some time ago, Mr. Steven Leung, its owner, embezzled its money and fled, leaving the plant with despairing employees (part of the story can be found HERE). Once a thief, always a thief, it seems.
After transferring production to its own factory Ayon visibly improved assembly and finish quality of its products. Eventually, the contemporary "Ayon look" came about. It is based on black-anodized aluminum with touches of chrome. In the Spirit III, the latter is used for transformer casings, located behind the tubes. Silver are also octal valve holders for the KT88sx (Black Treasure) tubes, here one pair per channel working in push-pull AB. The tubes have Ayon logo and a distinctive black glass container. They are manufactured for the Austrian company by Chinese giant Shuguang that also sells them under the name "Black Glass" Treasure Tubes. The rest of the Spirit enclosure is black, including the two knurled knobs for volume control and input selector respectively. Next to the former we find a display screen that distinguishes model III from the II. It shows the current volume level (on an absolute scale, in dB) for a few seconds before going off. It's a proof that volume control is not via a resistive potentiometer but is probably based on a digitally controlled analog resistor ladder network. There are of course more differences, such as improved bias auto-calibration system, of which Gerhard is very proud, and different driver tubes. The input stage is classic, built on the 12AU7W from Tung-Sol, but next we see black metal containers of the 6SJ7, here NOS Russian military 6Ж8 from 1972. Registered for the first time in 1938, this octal base tube was originally intended for radio and then also television sets. It’s a pentode, unlike the input tubes, here working in triode mode.
The bottom panel is made of perforated aluminum plate, visibly thinner than the other panels. Electronic components are mounted on gold plated circuit boards and yet the interior is full of wires that connect individual sections. Some of them are used in other amplifiers from the manufacturer. Power supply and logic circuits take the most space. Output stage voltage is filtered by eight sizeable capacitors with Ayon’s logo and two large chokes, one per channel. Separate power supplies are used for the preamplifier and logic circuits including the volume control chip, and for filament voltage. The tubes are coupled via polypropylene capacitors without any logo. Attention is drawn to an oversized AC line filter on a massive choke and a capacitor. One of the circuit boards is potted with a black material, which prevents identification of its components. The audio circuit uses no feedback.
Specification (according to the manufacturer)
- Turntable: AVID HIFI Acutus SP [Custom Version]
- Cartridges: Miyajima Laboratory KANSUI, review HERE | Miyajima Laboratory SHILABE, review HERE | Miyajima Laboratory ZERO (mono) | Denon DL-103SA, review HERE
- Phono stage: RCM Audio Sensor Prelude IC, review HERE
- Compact Disc Player: Ancient Audio AIR V-edition, review HERE
- Multiformat Player: Cambridge Audio Azur 752BD
- Line Preamplifier: Polaris III [Custom Version] + AC Regenerator, regular version review (in Polish) HERE
- Power amplifier: Soulution 710
- Integrated Amplifier: Leben CS300XS Custom Version, review HERE
- Stand mount Loudspeakers: Harbeth M40.1 Domestic, review HERE
- Stands for Harbeths: Acoustic Revive Custom Series Loudspeaker Stands
- Real-Sound Processor: SPEC RSP-101/GL
- Integrated Amplifier/Headphone amplifier: Leben CS300XS Custom Version, review HERE
- Headphones: HIFIMAN HE-6, review HERE | HIFIMAN HE-500, review HERE | HIFIMAN HE-300, review HERE | Sennheiser HD800 | AKG K701, review (in Polish) HERE | Ultrasone PROLine 2500, Beyerdynamic DT-990 Pro, version 600 - reviews (in Polish): HERE, HERE, HERE
- Headphone Stands: Klutz Design CanCans (x 3), review (in Polish) HERE
- Headphone Cables: Entreq Konstantin 2010/Sennheiser HD800/HIFIMAN HE-500, review HERE
- Interconnects: Acrolink Mexcel 7N-DA6300, review HERE | preamplifier-power amplifier: Acrolink 8N-A2080III Evo, review HERE
- Loudspeaker Cables: Tara Labs Omega Onyx, review (in Polish) HERE
- Interconnects: Acoustic Revive RCA-1.0PA | XLR-1.0PA II
- Loudspeaker Cables: Acoustic Revive SPC-PA
- Power Cables: Acrolink Mexcel 7N-PC9300, all system, review HERE
- Power Distributor: Acoustic Revive RTP-4eu Ultimate, review HERE
- Power Line: fuse – power cable Oyaide Tunami Nigo (6m) – wall sockets 3 x Furutech FT-SWS (R)
- Power Cables: Harmonix X-DC350M2R Improved-Version, review (in Polish) HERE | Oyaide GPX-R (x 4 ), review HERE
- Power Distributor: Oyaide MTS-4e, review HERE
- Portable Player: HIFIMAN HM-801
- USB Cables: Acoustic Revive USB-1.0SP (1 m) | Acoustic Revive USB-5.0PL (5 m), review HERE
- LAN Cables: Acoustic Revive LAN-1.0 PA (kable ) | RLI-1 (filtry), review HERE
- Router: Liksys WAG320N
- NAS: Synology DS410j/8 TB
- Stolik: SolidBase IV Custom, read HERE/all system
- Anti-vibration Platforms: Acoustic Revive RAF-48H, review HERE/digital sources | Pro Audio Bono [Custom Version]/headphone amplifier/integrated amplifier, review HERE | Acoustic Revive RST-38H/loudspeakers under review/stands for loudspeakers under review
- Anti-vibration Feets: Franc Audio Accessories Ceramic Disc/ CD Player/Ayon Polaris II Power Supply /products under review, review HERE | Finite Elemente CeraPuc/ products under review, review HERE | Audio Replas OPT-30HG-SC/PL HR Quartz, review HERE
- Anti-vibration accsories: Audio Replas CNS-7000SZ/power cable, review HERE
- Quartz Isolators: Acoustic Revive RIQ-5010/CP-4
- FM Radio: Tivoli Audio Model One