Ayon Audio S-5 Review – Six Moons

Ayon S-5 Network Player & Streamer

Joël Chevassus
Context. Following the stunning Lumin DSD streamer, the latest newcomer in this category for casa Chevassus was Ayon’s S-5. Their flagship digital source can’t yet stream DSD but includes a sophisticated single-ended tube preamp that can host other analogue sources. The sticker of this DAC/preamp/UPnP network player is in a different class from the Lumin as is the weight and size of its two-box chassis. Ayon’s strategy for network players seem to focus on full-featured integration for their S-3 and S-5 models. Ayon recently released also a pure streamer with the latest NWT network player. The Austrian company will also add an entry model with the forthcoming S1. Ayon tends to release a large number of products and their still recent development in the field of network players is another example. The concept of the music center itself is progresses. A €15K sticker represents a serious investment but if you consider how it might replace three machines costing €5.000/each, it seems a bit less daunting. Versus something like Audioaéro’s La Source or La Fontaine it even seems competitive in the cost-no-object sector.
Of course the DAC market itself is still expanding but a growing number of manufacturers now focus on streaming devices. Where Linn for many years was a forerunner in the field, the list of streamers has grown since to be quite impressive. In some ways network players are about pragmatism and simplicity. They avoid the noisy power supplies and fans of conventional computers, have more efficient jitter suppression as no audio enters the streaming/decoding device, produce no noise as hard drives are external, suffer no inherent storage limitations and present a stable platform which is protected from rapid app progress by dedicated chips not asked to perform various background tasks.
Compared to high-end audio servers, streaming devices have perhaps a longer useful life as they are less dependent on changes in operating systems and software drivers. The dedicated streamer is a no-brainer alternative to the PC/Mac strategy. As a Squeezebox and Lumin user, I am personally convinced of the inherent value of streamers. Whilst current SSD storage has become affordable, to me the network streamer is more convenient on connectivity and evolutionary progress.
Ayon’s flagship still lacks DSD support and beckons instead with highly accurate signal treatment through a special tube output stage and massive tube-rectified power supply to combine vintage with hi-tech relevance. Let’s take a closer look at this expensive but sophisticated machine.
Description. The S-5 network player is a full-featured streamer, DAC and preamp. As a specialist of class A single-ended circuitry, Ayon has designed a sophisticated device focused on the shortest signal path. Particular attention was given to signal integrity with short wire lengths and short PCB copper traces. The same signal path purity excludes any solid-state device in the tube output stage and says no to any follower, buffer or DC servo. The overall idea is to generate the highest current and energy over the shortest signal path.
At the same time the S-5 is stunningly versatile with a very complete set of functions. Build quality is first rate as is generally the case for Ayon’s entire catalogue. In consideration of its high sticker, it’s important to highlight the various functions of this flagship network player. It was undoubtedly the most complete device I ever reviewed in this segment and also the most expensive. Data available from the front panel display are outstanding and there’s confirmation of current status provided for each operation.
The S-5 has a small 3.5″ TFT display user interface that shows the most salient playback information and cover art. Most iPad users will consider it a a non feature but it nevertheless gives a a view of current operations and facilitates setup. The S-5 includes a native Internet radio function not always the case for the most expensive examples in this segment. It operates as a UPnP streamer from PC or NAS via 100MB base-T Ethernet but also allows streaming from USB HS mass storage devices and wireless. In terms of sample-rate resolution it’s not the most advanced but focuses on what represents 99% of current file types and reads WAV, FLAC, AIFF, LPCM up to 24/192 but is limited to 24/96 when used in wireless LAN configuration. The S-5 uses four Burr Brown DACs per channel and separate analog output stages for the left and right channels.
Remote access is via Ayon’s remote, Net API and Ayon’s proprietary app for iPad, iPhone/iPod and Android. The current iPad app is a clearly perfectible feature which derives from their partnership with Stream Unlimited but a completely new version with advanced features should be released soon and was previewed at the recent Munich High End show. I met some difficulties with third-party apps but a friend who owns an S-5 has no difficulties with other iPad apps like Kinsky or Song Book Lite. I was unable to identify what kind of technical limitation prevented me from using them but the main issue was being incapable of forwarding new tracks to the S-5’s playlist with a different control point. A few investigations showed no difference in NAS configuration or S-5 firmware between my loaner and my friend’s setup. It remains a mystery but what I briefly saw in Munich should definitely close the argument in favor of a far more sophisticated app.
Technically the S-5 appears to be close to state-of-the-art with zero NFB, ultra-short signal paths, low output impedance for driving long interconnects, full tube discrete output stages for each channels, no DC servo, no buffers, four Burr Brown converters per channel and a stereo analog volume control. The power supply has been refined with new parts and enhanced AC line filtration. Separate R-Core low-noise insulated transformer windings and filters provide total isolation between input and output stage which make this a pure power source (said to be a critical attribute of this 6H30 output stage which shares similar accuracy with my Rogue preamp using 4 x 6H30 versus the 8 in the Hera II). Ayon exploits an army of electrolytic capacitors with larger storage capacity to make up for the loss in filtering when using resistors in lieu of inductors. There are ten voltage regulators inside the S-5. The high-grade aluminum chassis is said to impart a richer more lustrous tonality with a cleaner background and less hash and grain. The brushed and anodized anti-resonant non-magnetic chassis are fully hand assembled and the feet impart further damping.
Versatility seems to be the S-5’s middle name. I couldn’t envision a more complete machine and since Gerhard Hirt did not scrimp on quality, it really justifies the price. The Ayon S-5 is like a fully optioned-out BMW which exceeds the base sticker by a factor of three. In matters of sophistication we’re on Linn Klimax turf. In terms of digital inputs the favorite of course is the RJ45 Ethernet for connection to a NAS but memory stick and USB drive may be used as well. Then there are the classic S/PDIF coax, AES/EBU, BNC, Toslink and two type ‘A’ USB slots, one front, one rear to complete connectivity for any imaginable digital source. There’s even an I²S input on RJ45 for max compatibility with the most sophisticated transports. Wifi makes for complete flexibility but does limit the transmission protocol to 24/96.
The analogue preamp inputs are 2 x RCA, 1 x XLR. There’s even a single-ended tape out. The S-5 auto-samples to 24/192 but is switchable to native resolution. As do many other models from this Austrian company, the S-5 includes an AC-polarity indicator, aluminum damping feet, a beautiful metal remote and black & chrome livery. It specs a dynamic range >118dB and channel separation >105dB from 20Hz to 20kHz. S/N ratio is >110dB and total harmonic distortion at 1kHz is said to be <0.002%. The dimensions are identical for the main and PSU units and 48x39x12cm WxDxH including feet and terminals. The main units weighs 12kg, the power supply 15kg.
Sound. Considering PCM files, the Ayon was the best source I ever tried at home, even better than the Lumin despite a few firmware updates to the latter since its review. After listened to the S-5 for a few months and exploring all configurations possible within my system, I think this stunning performance was due to its very efficient integration of the digital and analogue stages. In fact I could distinguish very little differences between the Ayon in standalone mode and when the Lumin was used as digital transport. There were some small differences but those were quite subtle. The very short signal path and energy generated by its 6H30P triodes really made for an outstanding level of transparency.
One could also describe the differences between the Lumin and S-5 as the currently permissible gap between solid state and valves but I think it is a bit more. Ayon’s DAC/preamp section is really impressive. To me it thus makes no sense to link the Ayon digitally to another DAC or even preamp unless you had the sort of bleeding-edge alternative I never yet had opportunity to host. By the same token if you had a CDP with digital output, I’d connect it to the S5 digitally rather than analog. The Ayon’s synergy as an integral source would be wasted if it were just used as a bareboned streamer.


Used as just a preamp, I found my Rogue Hera II to be more dynamic, with more powerful bass and sweeter treble. But the Ayon was quieter with a blacker background and had this slightly recognizable sonic imprint in the upper midrange which had me think my Rogue was the more neutral. I also used the S-5 as an analogue source connected to the Rogue Hera II (Ayon set to fixed mode which bypasses its active preamp stage) but lost part of the efficient circuit integration which downplayed the overall performance over using Ayon’s variable preamplification stage. Think of Ayon’s S-5 as your primary digital source. This leads to a strategic simplification of your playback chain and requires only a good power amp and quality speakers to be complete.
Focusing on the sonic fingerprint of Ayon’s network player I would say that it has the advantages of a tube design without its common faults as a kind of perfect merger. The S-5’s output stage uses big coupling caps that provide maximum current conduction with negligible resistance. It produces the most outstanding transparency I’ve yet heard from a digital valve source! Listening to Benjamin Grosvenor in Ravel’s Three Poems for Piano after Aloysius Bertrand [Decca B0054O8PYA], the piano was more liquid and full-bodied than over the Lumin. The soundstage also was significantly wider and harmonic shifts were more accurate. My Esoteric K03/G02 combo was a bit more sterile which highlighted dynamic shifts in a stunning manner with impressive depth but still felt less realistic.
On Antonio Forcione’s Ghetto Paradise [Naim B000025574], the guitar had less harshness and a deeper background even if perhaps it was also a bit thinner. It had more bass extension where the Lumin seemed to have the better attacks. I found timbres to be more addictive with the Ayon, offering a more genuine recreation of what a nylon-strung guitar should deliver. Guitars are always a good comparison point to put into perspective the balance between attacks and bloom. If it is easy to be thrilled by fast attacks, it’s more difficult to reproduce correct tone and decay. With the S-5 the aural palette took on a very attractive and at times absolutely mesmerizing signature.
On Peter Whelan’s reading of Weber’s Bassoon Concerto in F major, op. 75 [Linn CKD 409] the soundstage seemed wider and deeper with the S-5 but especially tone was convincing again. The instrument had this particular wooden nasal flavor which only people frequenting concerts halls or playing a woodwind would recognize. With the Ayon the bassoon was fully organic and modulated to achieved a higher degree of lyricism and laid-back serenity.
Listening to A night in Monte Carlo [Concord Records B004DURSBC] featuring bassist Marcus Miller, Raul Midon and the Monte Carlo Philharmonic, the piano on “So What” was wider and more defined with the S-5 and placed within a very liquid soundstage. The Lumin lost on all these battle grounds except perhaps for separation of instruments. Indeed the sole weak point of the Ayon could be its minor valve euphony which doesn’t always serve the utmost focus on accuracy.
Another small criticism could be undue emphasis on tone as can be the case with many tube circuits But it’s not really the case with the S-5 which provided with each recording the highest level of tonal diversity I have experienced with any digital source. And contrary to many tube CD players that deliver a very pleasant sound over the first months but lose my interest later with their excess colorations, the S-5 remained involving throughout the entire review period, delivering the various ambient tonalities of each recording with what seemed like extreme accuracy.
On Béla Bartok’s Music for strings, drums and celesta performed by the Baltic Chamber Orchestra [Calliope B0001KL2GU], the Lumin gave me the sensation of listening to a live performance in a very modern venue such as the new Pleyel Concert hall from the first row balcony. The Ayon S-5 moved me to the front seats. The soundstage was incredibly wide and dynamic. Small decays of drums and strings were highlighted which neither the Lumin nor Esoteric K-03 captured. That was no small thing taking into account the very lively generous nature of my Rogue preamp associated with the Lumin source. Listening to the Ayon was far more involving where the Lumin and Esoteric were more about contemplation and quietude. Yet this more lively nature of the Ayon was no detriment to precision, control or naturalness. Its sonic performance was simply outstanding and whilst I still remember Audioaéro’s La Source which cost more than twice, it was slightly inferior to my Austrian loaner.

Changing genre to female Jazz vocals, the Ayon demonstrated this very particular tube transparency and supremacy which solid-state gear hardly ever reaches even without any regard for price. Listening to the Diana Krall album When I look in your eyes [Verve B00000J7S8], the Ayon network player delivered a rare feeling of presence which the Lumin could rival neither on the 16/44.1 file nor the DSD recording. Perhaps the DSD version was no genuine DSD remaster but it did have a bit more detail relative to ambience and strings attacks. Nevertheless the voice of Diana Krall had a clarity with the S-5 which the Lumin didn’t reach regardless of resolution density or format.

Against genuine DSD tracks over the Lumin however, I honestly thought the result delivered by my DSD streamer was more convincing than the Ayon S-5’s read of the CD layer. The superiority of the high-resolution format now provided the Lumin with an undeniable advantage. I consider this fact due to the format itself and the quality of very specific DSD masters. All Channel Classics recordings and a good part of the Pentatone DSD recordings sounded better on the Lumin than as their Redbook layer over the S-5. A recent upgrade to the Hong Kong network player also enhanced upsampling of PCM data to DSD but such files did not sound as good DSD’d as they did natively on S-5.
Conclusion. What did Ayon’s flagship miss to get my highest mark? Not that much. In terms of sound quality nothing. The S-5 was the most pleasant, transparent and exciting musical source I’ve ever experienced. And it really was an enthusiastic performance. From the start of this year, this was the second computer source which completely outclassed my very good CD transport references on sound quality. One is no longer obliged to make sonic compromises only to take advantage of all the functionality a dedicated computer audio source has to offer. Since the beginning of 2013, I have reviewed two top network players, one more oriented toward transistor listeners (Lumin), the other designed for tube lovers (Ayon S-5). When during this review I had opportunity to listen to another S-5 streamer in a complete Ayon system (except for its French loudspeakers), I thought that despite its exceptional transparency the S-5 there exhibited a slight coloration that was due to its 6H30 fingerprint. I apparently misunderstood what the exact nature of that coloration was since this little brilliance in the upper mids was apparently more linked to the speakers or amplifier. My friend has since acquired brand new Sonus faber Guarneri Evolution and now the sound is perfectly balanced.

Don’t forget that the elevated sticker of the Ayon S-5 is linked to the fact of not merely being a network player but also a very versatile DAC and fine analogue preamp. So what could be improved? First off, the iPad app is one of the worst I’ve seen to contrast like black does white the outstanding quality of the player itself. It is possible to use other UPnP apps like Song Book Lite or Kinsky. I simply experienced difficulties making those work. I was not able to get precise answers as to why and had to use the Ayon app by default. The only way to get to a minimum comfort level with Ayon’s control point was browsing the folder directory of my Synology NAS that had been segmented into various musical genres. In my opinion the quality of the remote control interface is a massively vital issue.
When it becomes difficult to browse my music collection, it impacts and kills my desire to use the system and listen to music. The Lumin app by comparison is really friendly and pleasant but doesn’t work with Ayon streamers (Lumin uses the Linn UPnP protocol exclusively). There are some good news for S-5 owners however. Gerhard Hirt should release a new control point app by the beginning of the third quarter which ought to overcome my sole reservation. I shall try to pen a brief follow-up or invite Gerhard Hirt to present us with screen captures of the new app directly. Other good news is a forthcoming firmware/hardware upgrade to enable DSD streaming. Stream Unlimited is working on it and the new Ayon Stealth and Stratos converters are DSD-enabled already. The S-5 can swap its digital board mounted to the rear panel with 4 screws to fit the new PCM/DSD module.
Summing up, with a proper new app aimed at replacing your current D/A converter and preamp, the Ayon S-5 could be considered a real bargain for tube lovers. In the global panorama of audio network players, Ayon’s flagship stands apart from all other solid-state challengers. It definitely sounds as precise as the best CD transports and as robust and liquid as the best turntables. If Gerhard Hirt is serious about adding DSD to his big boy, it really could end up on my very short purchase list despite already owning a tube preamp, Lumin’s DSD network player and Esoteric’s SACD deck…