Ayon Audio Spirit III / KT-150 : SoundRebels Review
AYON SPIRIT 3 – KT150
As I already mentioned on Facebook, this is my third meeting with the model Spirit 3 from the Austrian manufacturer Ayon. This situation may be seen as a joke, because you might think, that the distributor is sending the device as many times as needed for the amount of superlatives and positive remarks reaches the desired level, or that the reviewer has memory problems and does not remember what he already reviewed. But both, the Krakow based distributor Eter Audio as well as myself, we have esteem for the readers and would not allow ourselves to act like that. This confusing situation is caused by the manufacturer. The company modifies the product heavily without changing the name. No mk2, 3, or anything. The amplifier started its existence and as Spirit 3 and continues it under the same name, so we cannot determine the version based on it. Theoretically we could use the tubes as reference, but when the owner tends to change them often, the only way of detection of the version remains the serial number.
Let us start with some history of this product, looking on how the Spirit 3 changed over the last 24 months. The first version I reviewed in May 2011, was equipped with the jubilee Shuguang Treasure Series KT88 (50th anniversary) tubes, while the other stages were built around the JAN Philips 12AU7. The next version, described on the Soundrebels portal (link), used KT88 tubes branded by Ayon, while the JAN tubes were replaced by a pair of Tungsol 12AU7 and a pair of 6SJ7 NOS General Electric tubes. The newest version, we are reviewing now, boast changes in the output section, where instead of the 88 tubes the Tungsol KT150 were employed, which are gaining popularity among advanced tube lovers. No other modifications were mentioned to me, however there is a change increasing user friendliness of the device – the LEDs indicating faulty tubes, that were on the back plate, were replaced by a display, that has a similar function and additionally displays the countdown during power-up. Also the service USB port was removed, as many do-it-yourself freaks tried to use it, and the manufacturer was not happy about that. Besides those, quite insignificant, changes, the device looks the same as the previous version. There is a phase correctness indicator, massive loudspeaker terminals, dedicated to 4 and 8Ω speakers, four inputs (one of them XLRs), preamplifier output and power amplifier direct input. There is also a mode selector present (Normal/Direct).
The front panel of the current version of the Spirit does not differ from its predecessor – the centrally placed and red backlit logo (it blinks during start-up and power-down), knurled knobs for volume control (with a dedicated display) and input selector placed on the sides, with a column of ruby colored LEDs indicating the input and showing the mode of the amplifier. There is also a IR receiver. We can also see the close relationship between the older and newer version looking at the top plate of the amplifier, where we can see, that initially KT88 tubes were planned to be used for the amplifier. This was also confirmed by the manufacturer, who confirms, if we can use KT150 tubes based on the serial number of the unit. Of course we can also switch between triode and pentode mode for the output stage. To cut things short, when you know at least one model from the Ayon offering, you know them all. One more thing – to alleviate any conspiracy theories – in May I tested the amplifier with the serial number 04191, while the current unit bears the number 04402.
Before I unpacked the hero of this test from the double box and the perfectly fitting foam shapes, I was thinking, if Gerhard Hirt allowed the more lyrical side to surface, like in the newest version of the Crossfire 3 (link), or returned to the transparency he promoted for years. Because the tested unit came to me directly from a listening session, preceded by a two-week burn-in, I decided that the time required for fitting the tubes, setting up some internet radio broadcast, as well as preparing a brownie and placing it in the oven is more than enough for trying to listen to the Ayon using some of my favorite recordings.
In the beginning a small digression. Because the manufacturer/distributor provided the amplifier with a manual referring to the KT88 version only, I had to perform a small research. The web pages of the manufacturer and distributor quoted only “archival” data, only with some pictures of the newest version, so I needed to search further. Finally, the pages of a distributor in New Zealand quoted very important parameters, including the output power of this version. So I quote after Audio Reference Co. (15 Graham Street; Victoria Quarter; Auckland 1010; New Zealand) – pentode mode: KT88 2x55W / KT120 2x60W / KT150 2x80W; triode mode: KT88 2x35W / KT120 2x40W / KT150 2x60W. As you can see, the power output increases significantly, so that even the triode mode is fully usable even with conventional speakers.
So I turned the output mode selector to the magical “T” and founded myself some repeat treat and turned on “La Tarantella – Antidotum Tarantulae” (L’Arpeggiata / Christina Pluhar). Before the first notes of „La Carpinese (Tarantella)” faded I had already a smile on my face, which later could only be removed surgically. The ethereal and aerial tube sound was supported by contours stable like a concrete wall and such an immediate articulation of the vocalist supported by the virtuoso playing of the ensemble, that I got up from my couch to verify the settings of the amplifier. There was place for beautiful timbres, passion and romance in “Lu Gattu la Sonava la Zampogna (Ninna Nanna)” or fiery, catching, Spanish rhythms in “Tarantella Napoletana, Tono Hypodorico”, which sounded with the Spirit almost like the guitar acrobatics of Rodrigo Y Gabriela. Well, I thought. OK, let me give you something to try – and keeping the previous playlist in mind I fed the player with the album “Lento” Youn Sun Nah and … I do not know, when I finished listening to the whole album. Each tap on a string was so clear and palpable, as if Ulf Wakenius would sit between the loudspeakers and play in my room. To be sure I listened also to “Enter Sandman” from the album “Some Girl”, by the same lovely artist, and I did not detect any veiling, rounding, slowing down or losing any agility or savageness. However this idyllic mood slowly disappeared when I started to play heavier repertoire. Although “Misplaced Childhood” Marillion was still OK, although I expected more kick from the drums solo opening the “Bitter Suite (I: Brief Encounter/Ii: Lost Weekend/Iii: Blue Angel)”, already with “American Idiot” Green Day I decided to stop torturing the Austrian integrated switching it off, as preparation for switching over to pentode mode. Cooling down the unit before the switch is recommended by the manufacturer.
Putting the switch over was like starting a second turbo, and the sound run forward as a classy, absolutely not ecologic, but very macho V8. Mad tempo, rough music, hitting your heart directly, did not allow to just sit down quietly. You could feel the hard rock roughness, roguish sparks in the eyes and lack of care for tomorrow. There was no finesse in that sound, and that was right, as trying to place rock musicians into black suits often results in hilarious, tragic or hilarious and tragic events. So I stayed in the area of untamed harshness and reached for things like “Countdown to Extinction” Megadeth, issued by MFSL, or “Inhuman Rampage” Dragon Force with the virtuoso “Through the Fire and Flames”. Both albums allowed me to quickly verify my ideas about placing tube amplification into my system. While the Crossfire 3 with Avantgarde speakers still seems unbeatable, given you will the main prize in a lottery, yet the newest Siprit 3, equipped with a quartet of 150 tubes, seems like a winner when your pockets are not so deep. It really can be very satisfactory, regardless of what we are used to listen to. Please believe me, or better try it for yourselves in your own listening rooms, but to date no other tube amplifier was able to reproduce the potential of the phenomenal melodic line, ornamented with truly byzantine guitar sounds, of the “Hangar 18” Megadeth (“Rust in Peace”) with such a finesse backed with a titanium skeleton and a touch of sweetness. I start to believe, that the presence of at least one Rammstein album during the presentation of Ayon electronics is not pure coincidence. I searched through my library, found “Reise, Reise” and played “Ohne Dich” and “Amour”. It was pure sweetness like in marzipan covered with dark chocolate and enjoyed with a cup of double espresso. The vocals of Till Lindemann, boosted appropriately, sibilants present, audible but far from becoming offensive, and the German edginess became a nice prelude to more civilized, yet placing the threshold even higher, challenges.
Starting with “Rhapsodies” Stokowski and ending with “Orchestral Works, Vol. 2” Lutoslawski, the newest Spirit produced a reference setup of a symphonic orchestra, building it far beyond the boundaries of my loudspeakers, and allowing to look inside the recordings, look at individual musicians, but without losing the overall view and coherence. It seems, that Gerhard Hirt finally combined fire with water – the, characteristic for older Ayon, analyticity with the legendary, tube musicality and emotionality. From the more “Hollywood-like” productions I often used the soundtrack of the “Space Battleship Yamato” Naoki Sato & Yasushi Miyagawa, which combines the romantic notes from “Pearl Harbor” and the bombastic apocalyptic vision from “Gladiator” by Hans Zimmer with elements characteristic for Japan. For such albums dynamics and breath are key. The sound must be big, bombastic, to be able to have the “wow!” effect. It was doable with the Spirit 3. I should say, it was the nature of this amplifier.
Now with all those positive things I wrote about the newest version of the Ayon Spirit 3, equipped with the Tungsol KT150 tubes, we should think, if there are any shortcomings there? Well … given the price you have to pay for it, I cannot find any. Maybe one thing – with the covers for the tubes in place, it looks horrible, but on the other hand, they protect well against over active youngsters, or animals. This is really one of the best tube amplifiers you can buy to a price level of 30-40 thousand zlotys I heard.
Text and photographs: Marcin Olszewski
Distributor: Eter Audio
Price: 15 900 zł
Class of Operation: Triode* or Pentode mode, Class-A*
Tube Complement: 4x KT150 Tung-sol;2 x 12AU7, 2 x 6SJ7 tubes
Load Impedance: 4 & 8 Ohms
Bandwidth: 12Hz – 60kHz
Output Power-Pentode mode KT88: 2x 55W / KT120 2x 60w / KT150 2x80w
Output Power-Triode mode KT88: 2x 35W / KT120 2x 40w / KT150 2w60w
Input sensitivity for full power: 600mV
Input Impedance at 1 kHz: 100KΩ
Volume Control: Potentiometer
Remote Control: Yes
Inputs: 3x Line In, 1 x XLR In, 1 x Direct In
Output: 1x Pre out
Dimensions 480W x 370D x 250H
Weight: 32 kg
System used in this test:
– CD / DAC: Ayon 1sc
– Digital source selector: Audio Authority 1177
– Stream player: Olive O2M; laptop Dell Inspiron 1764 + JRiver Media Center; Meridian Control 15
– Integrated Amplifiers: Electrocompaniet ECI 5
– Speakers: Gauder Akustik Arcona 80 + spike extenders
– IC RCA: Antipodes Audio Katipo
– IC XLR LessLoss Anchorwave; Organic Audio;
– Digital IC: Fadel Art DigiLitz, Harmonic Technology Cyberlink Copper; Apogee Wyde Eye, Monster Cable Interlink LightSpeed 200
– USB Cables Wireworld Starlight; Goldenote Firenze Silver
– Speaker Cables: Organic Audio; Signal Projects Hydra
– Power Cables: Furutech FP-3TS762 / FI-28R / FI-E38R; Organic Audio Power; GigaWatt LC-1mk2
– Power distribution board: GigaWatt PF-2 + cable LC-2mk2
– Table: Rogoz Audio 4SM3
– Ethernet cables: Neyton CAT7 +
– Accessories: Sevenrods Dust-caps; Furutech CF-080 Damping Ring; HighEndNovum PMR Premium; Albat Revolution Loudspeaker Chips; Acoustic Revive SPU-8, RST-38H, RAF-48H, RIQ-5010 & RIQ-5010
Ayon Spirit III was my second contact with this company. After the Crossfire III there was time to get acquainted with a device from a similar generation, but from a much more affordable price level. Marcin had the opportunity or misfortune – pick one – to listen to all incarnations of the model, while I had none. So without prejudice I welcomed it at my home. I always am very positive to everything that has tubes, and when a product comes from such a renowned manufacturer, my interest is raised even further. The amplifier that came for testing is quite universal, due to its buildup. There are two amplification modes: triode and pentode. This increases the amount of loudspeakers you can choose from. When you are looking for the tube charm, then triode mode is to be used, and you should rather look for easy to drive, high efficiency loudspeakers; but when you already have good speakers, you can try to use the pentode mode for that, which should be able to cope with most loads. This “two-in-one” may seem excessive, at first glance, but looking at this from the perspective of an audiophile, who has cyclic events of “audiophilia nervosa”, we can have significant savings, as turning one insignificantly looking knob, we have a completely different amplifier in our hands. The price level of the Ayon Spirit III is not so low, thus many buyers would not really be happy to sell it with a loss and buy another amplifier instead. I think, that this was a good move from the manufacturer.
How an Ayon looks like everybody knows, and it is hard to forget it, after seeing it once. The main chassis is a flat, 8 cm high, aluminum body with rounded edges. On this platform, on the back end, there are three cups housing the transformers, and in front of those, near the sides, the power tubes were placed – in this case the KT150. Between those the rest of the tubes were positioned, and in the front the mode selector. The front panel has only two knobs: volume on the left, with a level display, and input selector on the right, with LEDs indicating the selected input. There is also a red backlit manufacturer logo in the middle. The back panel is much more crowded: four RCA inputs, one XLR, Pre Out, Direct In input, loudspeaker terminals with separate outputs for 4 and 8 Ohm, count down display for the soft-start circuit, phase control LED, ground switch, IEC power socket and bias control point. Despite the amount of things stuffed there, the whole is very clean and readable. The main power switch is located on the bottom, near the left front foot. Like I already mentioned during the Crossfire III test, the design uses two modern colors – black and silver (the latter being polished surgical steel), which combined with the glowing tubes, look fabulous. I like the design very much, and I think, that there will not be many people, who would dismiss the looks. As an addition to the device we get also a small remote controller, made from one piece of aluminum, which controls only the basic functions of the amplifier.
Tests of class D products spoiled me, in terms of dragging things around, but everything must come to an end and I needed to bring the 32 kg heavy amplifier two floors up all by myself. The well described connectors allowed for quick setup of the amplifier and problem free integration into my system. Due to my previous experience I allowed the Spirit III to warm up for two hours – cold it is not very pleasant, later the view of glowing electrodes packed into strange glass bulbs warms things up. The used tubes are really the strangest I have seen, and when I saw them for the first time I could not hold off my laugh. Fortunately further listening allowed to get acquainted and get used to this visuals.
It happened, that the first place, where I listened to the Ayon, was the Warsaw Club of the Audiophile and Music Lover (KAIM). The amplifier was set to pentode mode. When we tried to switch over to triode – it turned out to be a bad idea, and we completed the listening using only the more powerful setting. The place we use for listening sessions increases bass response and only lots of power can prevent the loudspeakers from become excessively booming (although this also is not always true). In this setting the sound was high classed, but without anything extra. My listening room is much easier to handle, but the loudspeakers are very demanding, so I started listening with the same settings as in the club. You can make a good first impression only once, so I did not want to destroy it. But what I heard did not differ much from my experience in the club. There was dynamics, the sound was edgy, but without the timbre I expected, and without the openness I know my loudspeakers produce. I felt this dullness of the treble and monotone bass. It was a good sound for a mediocre amplifier, and yet, this one came from a renowned, experienced manufacturer. So I was a little dissatisfied and driven only by the reviewers sense of duty I switched it to triode mode … and Eureka! That was it! Shine, timbre, freedom! It paid back to have a sense of duty and try out all settings. Otherwise this could be a very short and very dull story. Already a few times before, I noticed that big power is not the only thing needed to achieve synergy in an audio setup, and this was confirmed again. The sound got alive, became much more interesting and engaging. To have full nirvana I allowed the amplifier to burn-in for another hour in this setting.
When the synergy setting was found, integrating the Austrian amplifier with my Japanese set, the amplifier enchanted in most of the repertoire I wanted it to play. Chamber jazz with all its relishes sounded very good. The sound stage was nicely lit with far and broad planes, the positioning of the musicians was exceptionally readable, all the efforts of the mastering people were reproduced properly, with the emotions underlined with beautiful timbre as a bonus, known from the best tube amplifiers. This is the direction I took when searching for my sound, and it is not easy to balance. Too much saturation may slow down the sound and round off the bass too much, what in consequence can also round off the treble. And then this is far from a good sound. Of course a tube amplifier has more problems in getting such an edge I have from solid state, but that what was presented by the Ayon Spirit III was at an very high level. After listening to it with a digital source for a few days, weekend came, and suddenly I got an enlightening. So I have an open and vivid tube amplifier, it is Saturday evening, I have a very good analog setup, so why don’t I listen to it? The aura of a turntable rotating a vinyl disc supported by glowing vacuum tubes became a way of returning to the basics, and with the abilities of the tested amplifier, this journey went surprisingly well. Often such a setup gets too round, the treble becomes too softened, or dull, and with vinyl discs from the years of its reign, may destroy all the pleasure from listening. The Ayon Spirit III however, showed, that it is a very good contender in that area, so I could play something from my library. After careful consideration I placed on the Dr Feickert platter a vinyl disc from 1976. I like very well recorded ensembles with a vibraphone as lead instrument, so I chose Gary Burton in a quintet, with the project “Dreams So Real”. While Gary showed the vividness and depth of his instrument, the rest of the musicians skillfully supported him, not forgetting about their own mastery while playing solos. Although there was a solid state preamplifier in between – the RCM Theriaa – you would say it was. Smooth, pastel and saturated in the midrange sound caressed my ears, not allowing me to make notes. Despite that I finally wrote some positive remarks and one, but explainable, shortcoming. But first things first. When trying to keep the magic of vinyl on a leash, I looked thoroughly on the reproduced stage and I did not notice any problems with that. The musicians had a lot of freedom for their acrobatics with the instruments, and the individual planes and their readability were masterful. Regarding the acoustic spectrum – I already wrote in the beginning: openness of the upper frequencies and the tube typical timbre allowed me to enjoy every note played. The only thing that bugged me a little, were the sparse lower octaves. A bit more there, and the Austrian would be on a level hard to beat by anybody. I think, that this can be alleviated with properly adjusted loudspeakers. I would like to remind, that the tested amplifier was placed in a system, that can show every shortcoming of a tested unit, and if it would sound like my reference, then this would be a surprise for the constructor himself – Gerhard Hirt – this amplifier is somewhere in the middle of his catalog. There are more refined products designed to compete with extreme Hi End. But even this amplifier, costing about 16000 zlotys, showed, that you can build around it a very satisfactory system for listening to music.
The mentioned ECM disc was the material to show the assets of the Spirtit, so to make things a bit more difficult for it, I took the denser electronic material from Massive Attack. There are some softer pieces on the disc, but I used the sharper ones for the test. The used album was the three disc version of their best compositions called “The Best of Massive Attack” pressed on 180g heavy weight vinyl. Like often with electronics, there is enough bass present, so the slight shortcoming of the tested amplifier in that area became invisible. Its quality was a bit below the level I expect as master with such kind of music, but already the fact, that it did not flow over my room like lava was a very good sign. The rest of the frequency spectrum was as good as I expected. I think, that people, who like music to move internal organs, will not even look at tube amplification, but when you take care of proper, synergistic setup of the audio system, especially choosing high efficiency loudspeakers, then the Austrian Ayon will provide lots of joy.
Having to remove the Ayon from my system, I was a bit sorry, that time flew so quickly. Fortunately there are many similar products on the market, and I will have an opportunity to test them. I will remember well this time, due to the fears how the device will work with my loudspeakers, as well as because of the proper configuration for testing. The, theoretically, superfluous setup of the amplifier with a mode selector allowed for successful listening. My loudspeakers, usually very difficult to drive, fared very well with the less powerful triode mode, better than with the pentode setting. My first experience in the KAIM did not allow for much optimism, but the old audiophile rule – try it in your own room with your own stereo – turned out to be 100% true in this case. Weighing the pros and the cons of this integrated, which can also be used as a power amplifier, in two settings – triode and pentode mode – we can say, that it is very universal. Of course this does not mean, that we can go without listening to it in our system, being potential buyers, but as long as we do not own, or search for, loudspeakers, which require to be directly connected to a power plant, we should quite easily find a model fitting our musical taste. This test also reminded me, that I should never judge too quickly. You tend to think, that when big power has issues with openness and freedom of sound, when you switch to a less powerful mode, it will be even worse. And yet, the Ayon Spirit III showed clearly, that such circulating opinions cannot be the foundation for choices done during the search for your final configuration.
The system used in the test, a complete set of Combak Corporation.
– Separate DAC + CD player: CDT – 777 + DAP – 999 EX
– Tube preamp: CAT – 777 MK II
– Solid state power amp: KAP – 777
Speakers: Bravo Consequence +
Power cables: Harmonix X-DC-350M2R Improved Version
Speaker Cables: Harmonix HS 101-EXQ (mid-high section); Harmonix HS-101 SLC (Section woofer)
IC RCA Harmonix HS 101-GP
Digital IC: Harmonix HS 102
Table: Rogoz Audio
Accessories: Antivibration stand for the power amp by Harmonix TU-505EX MK2, Harmonix Enacom improved for AC 100-240V; Harmonix Tuning Room Mini Disk RFA-80i
drive: Dr. Feickert Analogue „Twin”
arm: SME V
cartridge: Dynavector XX-2 MK II
– Phonostage: RCM „THERIAA”