"In a Mellow Tone" was a DSD sample from the remaster of Mellow Mood: Oscar Peterson [MPS, courtesy of Hifistatement.net]. This is classic trio Peterson, i.e. bouncy energetic jazz recorded in Germany in 1968 but given a dusting into higher resolution digital from the analog original. It manages a spirited performance grounded by big string bass in a lively studio venue. "Can Can Offenbach" from Top 12 in Gold Plus [GS DXD 001] is from a Winston Ma sampler CD using 24-bit 352.8kHz remastering to feature the All Star Percussion Ensemble in a rapid-fire dynamic bit of fun. The recording captures an enthusiastic bombastic performance in a large soundstage with remarkable air and detail. "Concerto #1 in F Major Adagio" from the 24/88 digital download of Bach Brandenburg Concertos: Academy of Ancient Music-Richard Egarr [Harmonia Mundi] accomplishes an intimate version of these works, focusing on the delicate balance and interplay between musicians. This track emphasizes those characteristics, infusing life into the material by subtleties of inflection and precision handoffs. The recording has good acoustics and the decision to adopt a lower pitch than common results in a warm rich reading.

"Karma Police" from the CD OK Computer: Radiohead Parlaphone [PRL2-552294] is from a darkly textured album that manages to combine moody lyrics, unusual instrumentation and subtle guitar work in an ambitious artificially layered soundscape. This single track is representative of a uniformly strong album. "Fever" from the CD Convergence: Malia and Boris Blank [Universal Music Group 374 186-2] is a stunning collaboration between British jazz vocalist Malia and Boris Blank of Yello fame. Blank is no stranger working this territory, having had prior success with the talents of Shirley Bassey. Here the mixture of snappy electronic pop and Malia’s virtuoso vocals work magic. The cut may be a chestnut but polishes pretty fresh in this version. The album is well recorded, with plenty of dynamic bounce and generous soundstage. Armed now with recordings of as many sampling rates and styles as I could muster, it was time for Yamaha to face my music.
Straight out of the box, the A-S801 exhibited good detail and dynamic agility. Performance into the Apogees didn’t prove problematic at all so the alternate speakers dropped from the roster. I experimented with the sub output into the Paradigm Servo 15. I got decent results but quickly realized how the 90Hz low-pass better suits speakers with more limited extension. Besides, the Yamaha showed surprisingly good bass control so it seemed logical to go for the gusto and drive the ribbons unassisted. I then explored the standard tone, balance and loudness controls and found them subtle and unobtrusive. The total sum was pleasant, mustering respectable overall sonics with moderate resolution but exceptional dynamics. At this point I was prepared to write a mild-mannered review about a technologically advanced product hitting above its price, with an inoffensive demeanour but showing nothing to challenge high-end standards. That changed with the press of the magic button when the A-S801 went Pure Direct.

From here on out, the review assumes its use in all applications including headphones. Once engaged, no self-respecting audiophile would go back, barring any dire need or desire for response tailoring. Pure Direct gives a significant performance up-kick across all parameters: much higher resolution, far more dynamic nuance and a huge increase in ambient recovery. Say goodbye midfi and bid hello to the HighEnd. This is where the Yamaha began to warrant a more in-depth investigation. Breaking in is always hard to do. There was an initial touch of grain and some minor added texture on top of female vocals which disappeared over time. Detail and dynamics were high but the devil is in the details. The A-S801 can translate a huge amount of information if source and speaker are agreeable. Out of the box, the presentation of that information was spectacular but quite overt. The effect drew attention to the quantity of data rather than the quality of the performance. Dynamics followed suit. Time and patience proved the answer to both shortcomings. Eventually the Yamaha developed a high level of sophistication by integrating that heightened detail and dynamic agility into aspects of performance and venue. As a result, they emerged as key strong suits which I attribute directly to a superior marriage of the Sabre DAC with the output stage.

At the core of my current digital decoding lies the Sabre-based Wyred4Sound DAC-2 now a generation removed from the latest DSD/32/384 capable USB chip set. It still remains a phenomenally versatile and capable performer with two hallmark signatures: high resolution and intensely lively dynamic range. Since the core attributes of Yamaha and Wyred mirrored, I was able to use the Wyred as benchmark and gauge the similarities and differences between both implementations. The news was very positive for Yamaha. In parallel feeds the two were eerily similar, with the Wyred being superior at translating spatial boundaries and dimensionality although I should remind you that the Wyred had the benefit of about $3’600 worth of Arkana cable. In terms of dynamics, both were close cousins. Both could make your blood boil. Could they hold on to their dynamic integrity over a wide range? Yes, and both possessed a very low noise floor, staying lively at low volume. How does this describe a superior marriage with the amplifier?

Any high-performance source remains only a potential unless the amplifier stage can pass it on unmolested. In separates, you can pick and choose your match. In an integrated, your fate is predetermined. Luckily, Yamaha tied a tiger onto the tail end of their feisty DAC. Subtle nuance and big transients emerged with startling precision and force. On those attributes the A-S801 marriage proved near perfect. Did the amp have limitations or character? Yes to both. You won’t mistake the tonal balance for tubes but this amp does not sacrifice smoothness or refinement to achieve its breathtaking liveliness. Yamaha don’t specify the type of power state employed but if I were to hazard a guess, it’s probably well-implemented classic A/B. Within the boundaries of system matching, the tonal balance was very close to what I would deem engineering neutral: squeaky clean especially in the critical midrange without extra warmth in the lower mids; smooth and articulate on top with no exaggeration or sizzle; and possessing quite a powerful detailed bass register as low as the full-range Apogees could assess. Combine that with the attributes of dynamics and resolution and you have quite a potent signature. Tube lovers will judge the character a little dry. Solid-state advocates will deem it pretty much bang on the money.

Which brings us to imaging, again largely good news. If you like your soundstage wide, the Yamaha does Cinerama with good lateral placement of individual images. In that parameter it keeps pace with the big boys. Where doesn’t it? While lateral focus was superb, front-to-back layering was merely good. The A-S801 produced a soundstage with an excellent sense of space and even managed quite good front-hall projection but also exhibited a bit of imprecision in delineating exact boundaries and images in the depth plane compared to my big rig. I attempted some different combinations of cabling and achieved partial success, indicating that there might be room for further improvements. Yet those who prioritize different points of character above absolutes in depth and placement information will weigh this as a minor shortcoming.

The other limitation of the amplifier is maximum output. For most, this won't be an issue. There are very few speakers today which present the double pain of low impedance and low sensitivity which made tmy Apogees such a classical tough nut to crack. Even in that context I was astounded by how much energy and sheer dynamic verve the Yamaha threw into these panels. At reasonable levels the A-S801 had the reserves to stay spirited. It was only at sustained louder levels that one could hear the onset of distortion and compression creep in. Up to that point it challenged my big rig in superlative fashion, giving up a small amount of exuberance on the quietest end of the scale but otherwise playing tit for tat up to its power limits. From a decked-out reasonably priced integrated, that’s remarkable performance.