The A-S801 may give up some absolutes in design and construction compared to the A-S3000 but build quality is still classic high Yamaha. It utilizes a double bottom with a 1mm iron plate, a separate ART anti-resonance tough base for the power transformer and heat sinks and a solid center bar to further dampen resonance and enhance rigidity. The parts are carefully selected - a custom-made power transformer, custom-made block capacitors, two signal-path speaker relays, star grounding and extruded aluminium heat sinks. The circuit goes alphabet-soup ToP-ART total purity audio reproduction technology which refers to a front-to-back direct symmetrical design. Yamaha have incorporated a number of effective measures to deal with chassis resonance. They use a combination of independent skeletal and solid substructures to mount components within to isolate, dissipate and damp vibration; plus rigid bracing to keep the unit as acoustically dead as possible. They also employ short direct signal paths to keep noise and distortion low. This is less-is-more engineering for both mechanical and electrical. The front panel controls are intuitively laid out, classic in appearance yet with modern touches. Small amber LED around the selector dials confirm settings and indicate on/off positions on switches. The DAC has a row of LEDs for PCM and DSD to show sample rates and file types. CD Direct and Pure Direct are square push buttons with LED confirmation when engaged. One enlightened feature of Pure Direct includes the headphone output. Yamaha’s classic loudness control is actually an advanced design, utilizing a mechanical pot to commune with a digital volume control using their proprietary DSP contour. Another front panel feature is a speaker selector switch between A, B, biwire or off. These features all seem quite standard, hence where is the less-is-more philosophy of the front panel?

Whilst the A-S801 sports standard tone, balance and loudness controls, one can bypass them for the shortest signal path. On the CD input, CD Direct bypasses the tone and balance controls. Pure Direct bypasses the buffer amp, tone, loudness and balance controls for the most minimalist path. Remember this switch. It’s key to unlocking the machine’s potential. If you’re into high-performance cars, this is the nitrous oxide booster. It elevates the A-S801 from very good midfi to white-knuckle thrills.

The rear panel is geared towards flexibility, the layout clearly marked and intuitive. The phono crowd gets a traditional ground terminal for the MM input. The wireless set gets a DC jack for Yamaha’s optional YMA-11 Bluetooth® adaptor. Toslink does a full 24/192, not the common 24/96. The purist subwoofer output won’t filter the mains but low-passes the mono sub signal at 90Hz. The standby switch initiates power down should the unit be inadvertently left to idle for 8 hours. Two sets of terminals accommodate A and B sets of speakers but bi-wiring appears to be the primary intent. Fans of spades will be a bit disappointed by the shrouded terminals which accept bare wire and bananas but not forked tongues. To optimize performance into loads of different impedances, there is a high/low selector with rear-panel documentation to indicate acceptable limits and configurations. Befitting an upscale component, the power cord is detachable to invite aftermarket rolling. The provided cord is a very thick 2-prong affair whose chassis jack still accommodates the more common 3-prong plugs.

Power specs are 100wpc into 8Ω, with a robust supply offering short-term 290 watts into 2Ω. This promises to be adequate for the majority of most likely speaker mates but no long-term sustainability into truly bearish loads. I tested that theory with my Apogee Duetta Signature full-range ribbons. Many would consider this a death match and act of hifi cruelty. But I had the Audiospace AS3/5As and Axiom M22s on standby and backup. System assembly beyond speaker selection became a case of choice by requirement. My current speaker runs of Arkana Physical Research Aequelibrium were replaced by Madison Audio Lab e3 Extreme 2. The Arkana has top-end performance in spades also literally so the Madison with its interchangeable connectors was pressed into speaker service. The Arkana interconnects remained. Digital duty fell to the Signal Cable optical and Belkin Gold USB, both stalwart overachievers. Phono eval was impossible because my turntable and record collection have long since left the building. I concentrated on digital with two sources. My Wyred4Sound server handled the bulk of the load but I also resorted to a Dell laptop for DSD and 32/384 music because the required ASIO Yamaha/Steinberg USB driver only supports Windows/Mac, not Linux. I conducted a head-to-head DAC comparison by running a parallel feed from the server to both the A-S801 and Wyred4Sound DAC-2, connecting the latter’s analog outs into the CD input of the Yamaha. I also did headphone sessions with the Audio Technica ATH-W1000 Sovereign, HiFiMan HE-400 and Sennheiser 598 thanks to my son’s extensive collection.

Many readers entering the arena of high-resolution audio files for the first time find the process daunting. There is a learning curve. Luckily, at this stage of the game there is an established bedrock of commercial support and infrastructure for a wide catalog of material from companies like HD Tracks; and easily accessible playback support up to the 24/192. 32/384 and DSD are newer frontiers so support is in the preliminary process of emerging. In terms of simple GUI, app or plug’n’play, it’s not quite there yet. There is limited program choice and even less specifically geared to native resolution playback at these levels. The availability of "ultra-rez" files remains very limited but growing. Here Yamaha get high marks for understanding the reality of said situation and making your foray onto the razor’s edge of new tech as painless as possible. Their website offers a high level of assistance to get up and running. 32/384 and DSD are only via USB to require driver downloads for Mac and Windows as provided. Yamaha also have an instructional PDF for the Windows freeware Foobar2000. They recognize that most people have an aversion to computer instructions which include the word configuration. Hence their PDF uses step-by-step screen shots to show driver download and installation onto your PC. It’s practically foolproof and gets you up and listening in a jiffy. This applies to Windows. Mac users will want PureMusic, Audirvana, Amarra & Co. to auto-switch between regular and hi-rez files and exploit DSD via DoP.

With the installation complete and my system assembled, it was time to make musical choices. Up to 24/192 resolution, life was easy. Finding samples of higher resolution was more difficult and most were unfamiliar. Listening to those was less about musical quality and more about confirming operational ability. Here are a few that were taken for a spin. "Trace of Grace" was a DSD sample from the analog master of Soyeusment Live in Noirlac: Michel Godard [Sommelier du son SDS 0015-1, courtesy of Positive Feedback]. This is a lovely mellow piece, rich with the acoustic ambience of the Cistercian monastery of Noirlac. Godard brings an unusual jazz fusion style which combines classical renaissance and modern instruments in a delicate interplay of instrument and environment, nicely captured to the advantage of the higher resolution formats.