Ayon Audio S-3 Junior Review – SoundRebels
AYON S-3 JUNIOR ENGLISH VER.
We did write already about unification, where some brands reach levels nearing perfection, so many times, that we cannot count it anymore, but today’s example confused me a bit. This because remembering the previous unit, despite rumors about my senility and old age, I was trying to find even the smallest difference in external looks of the tested unit to its predecessor, and besides a small sticker on the back, I was not able to find anything. And there was nothing at all. Well, people say, that the devil is in the details, but after such thing questions are posed, where the thinning occurred; as the Ayon distributor supplied us the streamer S-3 Junior, which looks exactly like the “full” S-3. Does he want to test our vigilance? Or is he testing the market for more of such practices? But yes, this is not the first time Gerhard Hirt is doing things like that. Please remember the Spitfire, which was the slimmed version of the top Crossfire and things become clear. Although some brands race to the top of the always extended border of absurd, at least in terms of pricing, Ayon, silently and covertly, closes the gap between the classic, reasonably priced Hi-Fi and High-End stratosphere.
Describing the Junior as just a streamer would be as precise as reading tea leaves, so let me come closer to what this device is. Inside we find also a DAC capable of handling signals up to 24 bits/192kHz and a preamplifier. A very nice three-in-one. So what do we loose and what do we gain when we decide ourselves to the slimmed version of the S-3? The main argument in favor of the Junior is its price (16900 versus 24900 zlotys), what will make our negotiations with our wives much easier. Talking about internal design, the manufacturer claims, the changes are not big, and should not translate into any significant loss of fidelity of the sound. I will leave the answer to the question, how much marketing and how much truth is in this last statement open – for now. But sticking to the topic, instead of the matched 6H30 tubes in the output stage and NOS 6C3P-EB in the power supply, Gerhard Hirt used now the 6922 and 6Z4 tubes respectively. Everything looks fine at first glance, as there were tubes and there still are, but looking at the parameters of the device we can notice that the output impedance has risen from 300 to 900 Ohm. You need to have this change in mind, when matching proper amplification to the Ayon. The digital section remained the same, so we should see the same streaming circuitry prepared by Stream Unlimited and PCM1792 DAC chip as well as the Burr-Brown PGA2320 used for volume control. There are also two R-core power transformers inside (one is dedicated to the digital and the other to the analog section of the device).
I am sincerely sorry to all those that are waiting for the description of the external looks, but it turned out that it will come only now. Because how many times can we write about the same thing 🙂 But well, let us put jokes aside. Typical for Ayon we deal with a really battleship like build quality of the aluminum chassis, made from brushed profiles with characteristic rounded edges and the nicely looking vent holes covered with meshes on top.
The front panel carries two knobs, one for the volume control, the other for input selection, but that you could guess from the description of Junior’s functions. Between those there is an acrylic window with six navigational buttons, a 3” QVGA TFT screen and an additional, smaller display informing about the chosen input and volume level. There is also a discreet pictogram indicating upsampling is being switched on. There is also a front mounted USB port, which can be seen as a nod towards thumbdrive and smartphone lovers.
The back panel is clearly much more impressive. Doubled analog outputs – RCA and XLR – are placed near the edges of the panel, and the space between them is quite occupied. Looking from the left we have three pairs of line inputs (RCA only unfortunately) as well as a whole set of different digital inputs located around the power socket and polarity indicator. We have there the AES/EBU, coaxial, BNC, optical and even an I2S (RJ45). There is also an Ethernet port, as well as an antenna socket if we would like to go wireless. The whole is amended by and USB port for connecting an external hard drive. We can extract the digital signal from the Ayon by a coaxial output. In addition to this wealth the manufacturer added three switches, which allow to select the operating mode of the device (normal/direct amp), gain (high/low) and the used set of analog outputs (RCA/XLR).
A few more sentences about controlling the device. In the box we will find a standard system remote, which will easily allow us to handle the S-3 working as a DAC and preamplifier. There will also be no issue with controlling the streamer as long as you have an iPad or iPhone from a recent generation. If we do not, in theory this is not a big issue, as the manufacturer released an app for Android devices too. However there is a “small” issue with the latter – during the three months of intensive usage of the Junior, the app was only able to find the device maybe five times within five attempts (that was the border of my patience). Additionally, even if the connection was established, within 2-3 quarters of an hour the app locked up completely and it needed to be shut down. Normally, at this moment the review would end, and the contender would leave the green with a red card, but not this time. And there were two reasons for that. The main one – was the sound, and about that I will tell later, and the other was ambitional, and this I will describe now. During the last few years I tested some streamers and other kinds of file players, and sometimes I just needed a bit of extra effort and will. So why would the Ayon be an exemption to that rule, especially as it does not support the more and more popular high resolution formats. In addition I decided, that the way Tidal is supported by the manufacturer, using an dedicated plugin on the NAS, what limits the choice of NAS to Qnap and Synology, is not very sensible. It should work much easier, if not by one click, then at least at a level offered by the competition priced at much lower levels than the Austrian. So let us start. Unfortunately the beginnings were not very promising, the Junior stayed untouched with apps I used successfully with players from Linn, Lumin, Bluesound, Auralic and others. I tried both manufacturer supplied software as well as third party products. I was only somewhat able to control playing from the NAS using Kinsky, although the device starting in loop mode did not make me happier. When I was close to giving up, I saw a light of hope. This light was the app Bubble UPnP for DLNA/Chromecast (there is a free trial version, but I recommend to invest in the paid version), with which was able to control my whole library and in addition it offered access to any streaming services including TIDAL HiFi. You just need to enter your login data, add an album to the playlist and voila! Everything works as it should have from the very beginning.
And now for the most important part – the sound. The Junior is another example for the evolution we are witnessing listening to new models, or their versions, created by Gerhard Hirt. The first S-3, which I tested in April and May 2012, sounded like a CNC machine – incredibly precise, thorough and analytical, exactly like all the higher models of Ayon at that time. The higher we went up the catalog, the more precise the sound got. But the world changes as does the Austrian sound, slowly, yet steadily, starts to add musicality and saturation to being analytical and precise. And here we deal with such a mix. I would even say, that the above average dynamics, which can be heard from the first notes, is accompanied by the very appreciated contour and hardness of the attack, and what is very important, proper saturation of those contours with living and pulsating tissue. As a result we get a proper, or maybe slightly bigger, and I confess that this may be liked by many people, size of the virtual sources, and after some consideration we can talk about a certain caramel touch to the sound spectacle. And I am not talking about any veiling or rounding off, as all transients as well as wind instruments sounded as they should, the whole is just more organic, more humane. I would like to use the compilation “Songs of Anarchy: Music from Sons of Anarchy Seasons 1-4” as evidence, which is not a reference in terms of recording quality, but has enough dynamics and aggressiveness at hand. There are also some quieter and more lyrical fragments on this disc, with frugal guitar accompaniment. But let us take something rough, like “Slip Kid”, where Ayon found its way around the dense arrangements and the wall of guitar riffs without any problems, it also had no issue with proper reproducing the harshness and offensiveness of the vocalist voice. Interestingly, this garage manner of sounding was enriched with some nice tubey aesthetics, what resulted with a slight lowering of the center of gravity and a delicate, amber touch to the upper tones. All in all this was very sympathetic “southern” sound, where timbre goes hand in hand with resolution, and analytical sound appears in only very rare conditions.
With much more complex and at the same time demanding symphonic material in the form of “The Planets” Holst by L.A.Philharmonic directed by Zubin Mehta (JVC XRCD24), the Junior handled the proper gradation of planes, as well as presentation of the individual virtual sources splendidly. You could go from the whole to the detail with ease, from contemplation of the whole musical piece as a coherent whole to the part of an individual musician. It is hard for me to describe, because the same way of presentation is offered by my CD-1sx, so I can just assume that the sound is good, or even very good. Of course only with the assumption, that you look for musicality and not splitting everything into atoms, hoping that things will mend together somehow.
The preamplifier section is a bit different, in the case of the Junior it does a great job. From the first notes you can not only hear, but also feel the breath and truly Hollywood-like dynamics, which makes even very meager systems get an energy boost. Of course this all is within the tube aesthetics, smooth and juicy, but without any irritating mudding and too much density, we are able to concentrate on music from recordings, which are far from being reference. The accent is placed on emotions and listening pleasure, the technical aspects are being moved to the background.
And the files. Taking into account, that the Ayon does not handle any of the high resolution format, we may easily assume, that the manufacturer, at least for now, targets the music lovers and not the extreme audiophiles amongst us, and instead of pursuing all the novelties wants to relay on tested solutions. Due to that fact, it is better to search for 24 bit recordings instead of pushing the frequency, as those sound much fuller, saturated and organic on the Ayon, and actually on most file players. Material played back from Tidal also sounded very nice, it was maybe not the summit of resolution, and the reverberation could be more present, but if we did not deal with competitive solutions to date, and just want to access our beloved recordings and novelties without the need to get up from our listening couch, then the Ayon will fulfill this for sure.
The Ayon S-3 Junior, for an integrated 3 in 1, is a very interesting proposition, accumulating most desired functions in a very sleek and compact cabinet. The warm and mighty sounding preamplifier, the saturated and very resolving DAC and a streamer capable of extracting maximum emotions from our files, and with some effort, also from streaming services. If you would like to buy three separate devices, then the price would for sure two or three times higher than the price of the Junior, and that without all the cabling. So if you are searching a very integrated solution, which offers an above average joy of listening, then please have a listen at the S-3 Junior, because it may turn out, that sometimes less is more, and at the same time it is cheaper. If you do not believe me, please listen for yourselves.
System used in this test:
– CD/DAC: Ayon CD-1sx
– Digital source selector: Audio Authority 1177
– DAC/Preamplifier/Headphone amplifier: Moon 230HAD
– Headphones: Brainwavz HM5; Meze 99 Classics Gold; Audio-Technica ATH-A990Z; Audio-Technica ATH-A2000Z; Audio-Technica ATH-W1000Z
– Premplifier: Electrocompaniet EC 4.8
– Power amplifier: Electrocompaniet AW 180
– Integrated amplifier: Electrocompaniet ECI5; Spec RSA-717EX
– Loudspeakers: Gauder Akustik Arcona 80 + spike extenders
– IC RCA: Antipodes Audio Katipo
– IC XLR: LessLoss Anchorwave; Organic Audio; Amare Musica
– Digital IC: Fadel art DigiLitz; Harmonic Technology Cyberlink Copper; Apogee Wyde Eye; Monster Cable Interlink LightSpeed 200
– USB cable: Wireworld Starlight; Goldenote Firenze Silver
– Speaker Cables: Organic Audio; Signal Projects Hydra
– Power Cables: Furutech FP-3TS762 / FI-28R / FI-E38R; Organic Audio Power; Acoustic Zen Gargantua II
– Power distribution board: Furutech e-TP60ER + Furutech FP-3TS762 / Fi-50 NCF(R) /FI-50M NCF(R)
– Wall Socket: Furutech FT-SWS(R)
– Antivibration platform: Franc Audio Accessories Wood Block Slim Platform
– Ethernet cables: Neyton CAT7+
– Accessories: Sevenrods Dust-caps; Furutech CF-080 Damping Ring; Albat Revolution Loudspeaker Chips
The audio market, like any other part of the economy, has its own rules. Which ones? If we would follow it, at least roughly, we would see, that there are brands, which extend their portfolio very often, with new products that should be better than the old ones, and a set of brands, that do not offer novelties, that would bring only minor construction or quality changes, what translates into longevity of their products. Which approach is closer to you does not really matter for today’s test, as the newest trend in listening to music, meaning files and streaming, requires keeping the catalog up to date, due to its rapid development and the need to remain compatible. Looking at this from a side point of view, I think that this rapid turnaround is something that keeps me from really becoming engaged in the whole file business, as those changes are not made to improve sound quality. But I will rest my case; more important is the information what kind of devices I am talking about. I meant digital to analog converters. I have one in my system, in the form of a separated CD drive and DAC, but it is only capable to work with bit depth and sampling frequency of a CD, administered via SPDIF, what seems quite ancient for many. This is one of the reasons that manufacturers are enriching their offerings by implementing any kind of file playing, that would allow them not become alienated compared to their competition. The Austrian brand Ayon found itself exactly in the mentioned situation and proposed us their newest product for testing, the S-3 Junior, a DAC with the function of a line preamplifier and streamer. I will probably not be Columbus discovering America, when I say, that the tested unit was supplied to us by the Krakow based Nautilus.
An Ayon product will be recognized by anyone. Those are always enclosed in flat chassis, which use electron tubes, either hidden inside – CD players, DACs, preamplifiers, or expose them on top – power amplifiers, integrated amplifiers. Now, the S-3 is a DAC, so the product is quite compact, and due to its cabinet made from black anodized brushed aluminum, it also very elegant. But this is not all, some elements were finished in silver color, what adds to the visual appeal. Starting the more precise description of the S-3, it is worth mentioning, that the front has a dark red display in the middle, with some function buttons on its left and a USB port on the right. On the sides of the panel there are two knobs – the left one handles volume while the right one input selection. Looking from the top you can quite clearly see, where tubes were employed in the electric circuitry of the unit, as the top cover features holes protected by meshes, that allow for cooling of the unit. The back panel reveals, that the main aspect of the tested device is to process digital signals. This is given away by the sheer number of digital connections including an optical, SPDIF, USB, AES/EBU, Ethernet, I2S, BNC and a WiFi antenna socket. But there is also some analog part to the device – besides the digital we have also three analog inputs and analog outputs in XLR and RCA form on the sides of the device. And Ayon would not be Ayon, if there would not be an indicator of the proper phase of the connected power.
Starting to describe how the tested device presents the music, I must confess, that due to the lack of suitable digital file servers and sources, the sparring will be conducted using the SPDIF input only. If someone feels dissatisfied, then you may stop reading now. For those that continue reading I can tell, that even only using this one input, there will be a lot of interesting information. More so, as in my approach the Ayon DAC replaced two devices of my regular system (the Reimyo DAC and preamplifier Robert Koda), what increases the number of observations. And how does the S-3 play? I can just say, that it sounds typical for its setup, very nice with some tube aesthetics in it. But a good tube that is. What does it mean? It means that the sound is dense, smooth, homogenic but also without constraints. When I found out how the Austrian sounds, I put him to the big test. Playing for pleasure is one thing, but testing something else. This is the reason, that I started with the, phenomenally presented by my reference set, compilation of Monteverdi works by Michel Godard. This is usually a piece that is killing a tested unit, but I use it to see how an “alien” component handles my reference. And I must say, that the tubes inside the tested unit did have their voices, but it was done in such a subtle way, that after a moment of accommodation to the new proposition of how the audioscape is being painted, I was not able to tell anything bad about it. It was just a certain touch, nothing more. What was it exactly? I would describe it as a certain weight put to the whole sound spectrum, what made listening nicer, but in absolute categories resulted in the sound sources having thicker contours and softening the sparkling in the upper registers. But at the same time I must put you at ease, the complete presentation, despite a certain dose of mass, had still lots of freedom to it. Trying to describe this aspect based on the mentioned disc, I would say that the only instrument, that was negatively influenced, was the base guitar. Yes, yes an electric bass is also possible in ancient music. In my system I can hear every touch of the strings, which almost show how they are wound. Now playing through the tested DAC resulted in playing with a certain blur, what overemphasized it in this interpretation, as it stood out too much to the front. This still might be liked by many listeners, but is a kind of averaging with regard to the musical truth. Leaving the guitar alone, I must confess, that the rest of the instrumental and vocal parties rather profited from the sound of the tested unit. A simple result of the instruments being pulled to the front is that the planes on the stage are closer together. However still the stage retained very good proportions in both dimensions. Another step in testing was the disc “Exciter” Depeche Mode. When I placed it in the drive, I was a bit worried, if the tested Austrian will not try to make listening too easy. The result? For me it was good, for a friend, who listens more to this kind of music found treble to be a bit too golden. And it was really not the lack of resolution, as resolution is very good here. But in electronic music treble should be very ticking and whistling, and not covered in syrup. But we all know, that each and every listener has his or hers interpretation of what is good, so please see those two opinions as random, as both listeners had different musical priorities. He values the amount of sound in the sound, where I would gladly sacrifice some of that for nobleness. When time with the group I loved in my youth, Depeche Mode, passed, I asked a few professors of free jazz to enter: Marchall Allen, Hamid Drake, Kidd Jordan, William Parker Alan Silva. This choice was not by chance, as it prevented you to meet the Percival group again, and knowing what the mentioned gentlemen can do, I was sure, they will be able to reproduce the same spirit as in folk-metal. Summarizing the conclusions from playing the disc “The All-star game” I will say like this: it was OK in general, but the quick passages of the slightly thickened instruments, regardless if it was contrabass, percussion or saxophone, they lost a few very important nuances of their sound, like the sound of the valves of the wind instruments, or the moments the strings are picked. The sound got very pleasant, but for me it lacked the artifacts I am looking for. Of course I do not see it as true evil, but as a kind of homogeneity, what only confirms the fact, that there are no ideal devices, and the Junior did really well, especially considering what duo it was trying to replace.
This will conclude my adventure with the DAC-preamplifier from Ayon. It is a pity, that I do not have any files I could use, but I think, that my description still gives you an idea about the sonic capabilities of the new S-3. In my opinion, this is a very good performance, despite its clear sonic signature. It is known, that nobody loving extreme speed and contour will think about buying a tube based device. And even if this somehow happens, then the Ayon will most probably not be the reason for failure, but lack of knowledge of the person buying it. The tested representative of tube technology is recommended by me for music lovers, who want to find emotions related to music, and not to extract every single sound. Of course people, who have very thin sounding systems may also profit from placing the Ayon in those, as vacuum tubes are able of finding sources of pleasure everywhere, even in systems you would consider capable of having it. Will it be like that in your systems? You would have to try it for yourselves. But I ensure you, even if synergy will not be complete, you will not be bored even for a second.
Conversion rate: 192 kHz / 24 bit
Tube complement: 6922
Dynamic range: > 118 dB
Channel separation: >105 dB (20 Hz – 20 kHz)
Output level (1 kHz/0,775 V -0 dB/RCA): 2V fixed or 0 – 2V rms variable
Output impedance (RCA): ~ 900 Ω
Digital output: 75 Ω S/PDIF (RCA)
75 Ω S/PDIF (RCA & up to 24/192 kHz), TosLink (up to 24/192 kHz)
110 Ω AES/EBU (up to 24/192 kHz)
75 Ω BNC (up to 24/192 kHz)
I2S (up to 24/192 kHz)
Front mounted – USB type ‘A’
Rear mounted – USB type ‘A’
Network inputs:RP-SMA plug Wifi Aerial input („wireless” network connection) 802.11b/g; UTP RJ45 10/100Mbps socket („wired” network connection)
S/N ratio: > 110 dB
Frequency response: 10 Hz – 50 kHz +/- 0,3 dB
THD (1 kHz): < 0,002%
Remote control: Yes
Analog – Line Inputs & output: 2 pair RCA and 1 pair RCA out
Analog – Main outputs: 1 pair / RCA & 1 pair / XLR
Dimension (Wide x Deep – incl. terminals x High – incl. feet): 48 x 39 x 12 cm
Weight: 12 kg
System used in this test:
– CD: Reimyo CDT – 777 + Reimyo DAP – 999 EX Limited
– Preamplifier: Robert Koda Takumi K-15
– Power amplifier: Reimyo KAP – 777
– Loudspeakers: TRENNER & FRIEDL “ISIS”
– Speaker Cables: Harmonix HS 101-EXQ (mid-high section); Harmonix HS-101 SLC (bass section)
– IC RCA: Hiriji „Milion”
– Digital IC: Harmonix HS 102
– Power cables: Harmonix X-DC 350M2R Improved Version, X-DC SM Milion Maestro, Furutech NanoFlux – NCF
– Table: SOLID BASE VI
– Accessories: Harmonix Beauty Tone Milion Maestro, Harmonix TU 505EX MK II, Stillpoints „ULTRA SS”, Stillpoints ”ULTRA MINI”; Harmonix AC Enacom Improved for 100-240V; Harmonix Room Tuning Mini Disk RFA-80i; antivibration platform by SOLID TECH
– Power distribution board: POWER BASE HIGH END
Drive: SME 30/2
Arm: SME V
Cartridge: MIYAJIMA MADAKE
Phonostage: RCM THERIAA