Ayon Spirit III Integrated Amplifier – HFA Review
Ayon Spirit III Integrated Amplifier: by Christiaan Punter (HFA)
In the Ayon Scorpio review, I mentioned that a review of the Scorpio’s bigger brother, the Spirit III would follow as soon as that amp was available. And indeed, not very long after publishing the Scorpio review, Hein van der Klaauw delivered the Spirit III, as well as an Ayon CD-10, entirely in line with his habit of always bringing something extra:-)
What differentiates the Spirit III from the Scorpio? Both amps use a Push-Pull configuration and both have the Intelligent Auto-Fixed-Bias (AFB) circuit and tube test program. Both amps have relay-driven input switching, which can only be done from the device, not the remote. But that’s ok for me because the important thing is that the volume can be controlled remotely. Now, that’s where the differences start popping up because whereas the Scorpio uses a potentiometer, the Spirit III uses an electronically controlled analog resistor switching circuit.
All Ayon products are built incredibly solidly and so is the Spirit III. With 46 x 34cm versus 48 x 37cm and 29kg versus 32kg, the Spirit is deeper than the Scorpio and slightly wider and a bit more heavy, but lifting it and moving it around is still doable by a single person. Rather than the Scorpio’s single speaker connectors, the Spirit III offers 4-ohm as well as 8-ohm tabs and the connectors have been upgraded to the higher-end WBT NextGen type. The transformer housings are the same size as those on the Scorpio and of the same material (Aluminum) but they are Chrome-Rhodium-plated rather than matte black. Whether or not the transformers inside have a different size or rating, I can’t say.
The Spirit III’s preamp section uses the same 12AU7 tubes as the Scorpio but the power amp section’s driver tubes are different: four 6SJ7 metal tubes rather than the two 12AU7 glass tubes for the Scorpio. Indeed: those black units are tubes, not capacitors. Very conveniently, the Spirit III also offers XLR inputs and pre-out and main-in connectors, for connecting an external preamp or power amp.
The most striking difference between the two amps is that the Scorpio uses KT88’s and the Spirit III uses KT150’s. This is also reflected in the power rating with 45 watts versus 65 watts, both into 8 ohms. The increase in power is not as big as I would expect, given that other KT150 amps deliver 75-100 watts using these tubes. But watt ratings are not the only thing that matters, as it would soon turn out that the Spirit III has power and control in spades, to drive the Wilson Watt/Puppy 8 as well as Kroma Audio Carmen speakers perfectly.
I used the Spirit III together with the CH Precision C1 DAC/controller, connected via an AudioQuest Water cinch interlink. I also tried the Cardas Clear XLR and while it sounded more refined, I found the Water to make a more synergistic match, making the best of the Ayon’s strong points. Speaker cables are the Jorma Design no.3 (via the 4-ohm outputs) and speakers are the Wilson WP system 8. The source was either the Melco N1ZH via a dedicated network cable or the Antipodes CX+EX via USB, both directly into the C1.
Some audio components don’t sound very good until they have been used for hundreds of hours. Fortunately, so far, this does not go for Ayon. There’s no sharpness, no edge or glare: their products always sound great right out of the box. However, they do undergo a subtle change as they run in. I find that the manual is pretty much spot-on when it states that extended burn-in is done in 30-50 hours of regular music playing. For me, the biggest change was perceived after three weekend days of playing for about 8 hours and about four 1-4 hour listening sessions. Somewhere at this point, I noticed that the amp started to sound fuller and more sonorous and also a little bit more relaxed while retaining its impressively articulate and dynamic behavior.
The manual offers a very clear explanation for the Running In effect:
“this is partially due to a residual polarization of the dielectric materials used in the PCB like resistors, capacitors, chokes, transformers, and internal wiring. As music is played through the unit, the electrical signal will gradually anneal these materials. The break-in process will occur naturally as music is played through the system.”
Intelligent Auto-Fixed-Bias (AFB)
The Ayon Spirit III uses a so-called AFB circuit that adjusts the bias automatically but only when there is no music playing. This way, the user does not have to measure or adjust anything yet, unlike is the case with some auto-bias systems, there is no loss of power or dynamics. If desired, the automatic bias circuit can also be triggered by a button on the rear panel to achieve maximum adjustment in comparison to the mains voltage and this takes only a couple of seconds. Additionally, a tube test program can be activated by running the same setup but during start-up of the amp. This process takes more time but will run elaborate tests of all tubes and report any deviating findings on the rear panel display.
The Scorpio also has this system but I did not try manually triggering it prior to writing the review. This time around, I have done so, with both amps actually, and the results are very similar. What happened in the cases was that the sound after recalibration was analogous to re-adjusting the lens on a video projector after it was slightly out of focus. Just as the video image, the sound became clearer and more focused, while retaining the amp’s character. Now, these differences were certainly not night and day, and the sound prior to manual calibration was already the opposite of fuzzy but still, the difference is noticeable and worthwhile. The manual advises after this initial calibration to perform this bias setup once a month.
Triode and Pentode mode
Triode mode is another feature that the Scorpio also offers but which I did not try prior to putting the review online. Meanwhile, I have indeed tried the Triode mode with both amps. Contrary to the PrimaLuna Dialogue Premium which I preferred in Triode mode, I definitely preferred the Ayon Scorpio and Spirit III in Pentode mode. I think this is due to the different presentations of these amps. The PrimaLuna is also a powerful sounding amp but it can be a little rough, especially in Pentode mode and in this case, the Triode mode adds a nice amount of smoothing as well as refinement to put everything more into perspective. The Ayons, however, are considerably more refined to start with and therefore, in my opinion, do not need any mellowing.
With the Ayon Scorpio or Spirit III in Triode mode, the amps sound more relaxed, smoother and more liquid and in some cases, this has its appeal, but in the process, a portion of the Ayon-typical speed, slam, and dynamics are sacrificed. In another situation or for another listener, this lusher sound may well prove more ideal but for me, with the Wilsons, at least, this mode was not for me. In any event, the button is there and it’s easy enough to just see for yourself which mode you prefer. The SET Crossfire III that I listened to a little longer ago, by the way, is a pure Triode amplifier but one that fully retains the powerful Ayon house sound, in addition to offering that elusive purity that only SET amps seem to offer. So, you see, Triode sound does not necessarily have to be analogous to “romantic” or “mellow”.
The first thing I noticed with the Spirit III, after having listened to the Scorpio for about a month, was that it has a different character, even though I also heard a very strong family resemblance. The resemblance is in terms of enthusiasm, tight bass control, dynamics, and the overall sense of power. The difference, I think, is mostly due to the difference between the KT88’s and KT150’s. Even though the implementation is potentially even more important than the tubes themselves, so far, I’ve always been able to link certain aspects of the sound to KT88’s and KT150’s in particular: the former always seem to be slightly rich and warm and the latter always seem to be very linear, articulate and extended and the same was observed here. I have to say that the KT150’s really are very impressive tubes. Perhaps for some people or some tastes, they are not “tubey” enough but for me, they combine precisely the right amount of “tubeness” along with a level of transparency, linearity, and precision, that is normally attributed to transistors.
Another thing that I noticed is that while the Scorpio sounded smooth and seductive from the very first notes, the Spirit III could sound somewhat cool during the first few listening sessions and with certain recordings or in certain conditions, even if it was simultaneously more impressive in many ways. From around the 40- or 50-hour mark, the amp seemed to have settled and this coolness was gone. Even while the amp was still running in, though, it was already abundantly clear that the extra cost for the Spirit III is well-justified.
Where the Spirit III really excels is in being considerably more focused and more expressive. Even if I never had the feeling that the Scorpio was lacking in this area, the Spirit III simply reveals more in the way of textures and subtle details. It’s not only that it is better with microdetails but it also delivers these subtleties in a more lively and dynamic manner. Vocals are locked between the speakers with higher precision and the sense of space around the speakers is more variable. With the Scorpio, the “sound bubble” or image size is more or less constant but with the Spirit III, it depends more on the recording. This amp will sound small or large, precisely as required. And, as one would expect, the Spirit III is also more authoritative and more powerful. The extra power, in this case, is not accompanied by a more static sound or by a more bombastic sound but simply by sounding even more solid yet also more upbeat and with more definition in the bass and lower midrange.
The Scorpio offers incredible value already but the Spirit III absolutely further raises the bar significantly. It’s crazy how quickly one gets accustomed to a better sound. Going back to the Scorpio after having listened to the Spirit III for some time makes the former sound a little dull, even if it is in an absolute sense a very dynamic and lively performer, much livelier, in fact than any other tube amp of any other brand that I tried so far. After a couple of songs with the Scorpio, though, I could also get back into its sound and I must say that the KT88 tubes certainly have their specific charms as well.
In the Zanden review, I mentioned that I did not know of a tube amp that comes as close to the CH Precision A1 in terms of bass performance. Zanden is rightfully famous for combining tube strengths with transistor strengths. But although the Ayon Spirit III is not as refined, obviously high-res or as transparent as the nearly 22k euro Zanden 8120, it actually sounds even more impressive in the bass and lower midrange to me, and in these areas, it does indeed come even closer to the A1’s performance. Now, of course, CH Precision has further upped the game with their 33K euro A1.5 which takes the bass performance to even higher levels. Having directly compared these two amps I can be brief: the CH is still my reference. But, amazingly, the Spirit III comes way closer in terms of bass solidity, articulation, speed, and dynamics, than it has a right to. And, of course, since it is a tube amp, it does have a way with vocals that even the A1.5 cannot match.
Some may prefer a warmer, more relaxed or smoother presentation but for me, the amp provides a highly realistic experience and I don’t think that the stereotypical “tube warmth” is what tubes are about anyway. Besides potentially sounding smooth indeed (which is more the influence of the transformers and the circuit than the tubes themselves), tubes can also sound incredibly dynamic and lifelike, with rich midrange textures and a sense of 3D imaging that transistors usually do not achieve and the Spirit III is no exception. In fact, it has none of the mid-bass bloom that plagues so many tube designs, yet it sounds utterly natural to me. This is precisely what impressed me so much when I first heard the 12K euro Ayon Crossfire III SET amp and the Spirit III very much reminds me of it. The more Ayon products I hear, the more I come to think that their house-sound is mostly characterized by huge dynamics, tight bass and a decidedly non-filtered, real-life sound. And this is precisely the way that I like it.
Naturally, I also experimented with the amp’s direct input which bypasses its built-in preamp section. When connected this way, the Spirit III only took care of the amplification duties, leaving volume leveling tasks to the C1 DAC’s built-in digital/analog volume control. Interestingly, while the sound did indeed become more direct and slightly more transparent with the Spirit III’s preamp switched out of the circuit, the sound was also drier and now moved me less, emotionally. Also, the soundstage was considerably deeper and more 3D via the Spirit III’s built-in pre-amp.
This is something that I noticed with the Crossfire III as well, that apparently there is a great synergy between the amp’s pre-amp and power amp sections, which seems logical but is still interesting to find. I’ve often found that built-in preamps were something of an afterthought but this is clearly not the case with Ayon. Besides the Spirit III integrated amp, there is also the Spirit III-PA, which costs the same but is a pure power amp. I don’t know if it sounds precisely the same as the integrated via its direct inputs but it has the same specs and offers almost the same functionality. The difference is that the PA version is fully balanced (it has 4 line stage tubes rather than 2) and offers XLR as well as cinch inputs. Because the built-in preamp is so very good, however, I would opt for the integrated version and worry about potentially adding another preamp later.
The Ayon CD-10 as a transport via coax into the Stealth DAC sounds fast and articulate and very expressive. As a transport, it is not quite as thunderously dynamic as the CD-T II, but very transparent and precise while retaining a nice fluidity. As a CD player, it has an even more beguiling quality, carefully threading the middle road between rich lushness and articulate dynamics.
There’s a new switch at the rear of the amp that the manual does not mention, which was not on any other Ayon amp so far, labeled DMP with 3 positions: 1, off, and 3. I asked Hein about this and as it turns out, this is indeed a new feature about which more information will be shared later on. For now, all that is indicated about this by the manufacturer is that one could use the “2” setting for speakers that are very difficult to drive. When I tried either the 1 or 2 setting, I found that this took away some of the amp’s distinctive enthusiasm, but then, the Wilsons are not that hard to drive in the first place.
Listening at JW’s
After having achieved very interesting results using the Scorpio in audio buddy JW’s system, I now took the Spirit III to his place. As can be read in the Scorpio review, the latter sounded great but was ultimately just a bit underpowered to really properly drive JW’s Apogee Duetta’s at higher levels.
Now, the Spirit III may be only 20 watts more powerful, but subjectively, it is obviously more powerful, more sonorous and purer of sound as well. In spite of its higher power, it is very fast and articulate, even with the Duettas, which are infamous for making lesser tube amps sound slow and lifeless. Interestingly, contrary to the perception based on numbers alone, the Spirit III with its 65 watts, seems to better control the Duettas than JW’s 100-watt Line Magnetic LM-150IA. With these speakers, the latter is smoother and creamier and also more refined, but in JW’s system, too, the Ayon is closer to the feeling of a live performance.
The Spirit III makes music in a manner that makes it impossible to listen to passively. All Ayon products that I have heard so far sound dynamic and lively first and foremost and the Spirit fits right into this description. It sounds solid and full-bodied, but also rich in texture and emotionally involving yet without the round and creamy-rich presentation, that for some people is synonymous with typical tube sound. Indeed, amazingly, the Spirit III’s bass performance is on par with some of the best transistor amps that I have heard. Its performance is much like a live act: not obviously super-refined or very polished but highly energetic, dynamic and powerful, with articulate, fast and very solid bass to make for a delivery that is instantly infectious.