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For many the decisive point may well be how the Ayon treats the piano. It is at once vivid and smooth. In recordings where it is merely one of many equally important contributors, this characteristic was audible but not dominant. If however we take on a Bill Evans with his wonderful album You Must Believe In Spring (lately I bought all his Warner Bros discs as SHM-CDs on CD Japan) and listen to "B minor Waltz (For Ellaine)" first over the Ayon, then the Leben, we will be sorry. Everything is far worse over the cheaper preamp though it is not its fault. Without direct comparison, everything is super but only the Ayon extracts the deep tones and bass foundation of Evans' instrument. It was similar with Willisohn's piano on Hold On where it combined with his deep voice for a powerful effect of transcending the boundaries imposed by the loudspeakers; without attacking us like classic tube amplifiers but by erasing the border between the stage created by the loudspeakers and the one that was recorded. And although the sound came to us with the Polaris II like the beautiful piano of Lars Danielsson on Mélange Bleu, which appeared out of nowhere close, big and resonant with emotions in the title cut, I had the same impression when listening to Salzau Music On The Water recorded live between him, Christopher Dell and Nils Landgren on a wooden lake-shore platform at 5:00 am. The intensity of sounds was overwhelming on the condition that we reproduce them well. The Leben with the Luxman M-800A fared much better at this than all the integrated amplifiers I know. Yet the Ayon transmitted this event at a completely new level, filling the space between the instruments with air, silence and a background of presence.

Special attention must be devoted to the bass. In that regard I clearly remember the BAT VK-3iX. In my experience only two preamplifiers bettered it: the VK-52SE sibling (I have not heard the REX) and the Reference 3 by Audio Research. These are two of the four best of their kind which I experienced in peace under controlled conditions. To those two and the Polaris II we should also add the Swiss NHB-128NS DartZeel. And Reimyo's CAT-777. So it comes to a comparison between state-of-the-art units. I will repeat what I always do for every comparison. I talk only about components I know well, which I heard under known conditions and of which I have absolute certainty that they sound exactly as I think. There are of course products omitted that are very good but which I have only heard at shows or read about. Those would include Ayre's KX-R and VTL's TL-7.5.

For today, only the Audio Research and BAT reach lower in the bass than the Ayon. In the bottom end, the Austrian is so well differentiated and defined that my Leben sounds as though it did not fully comprehend the goings-on in the cellar (I am thinking about the very low bass in pieces like "Makro" from Mélange Bleu or the bass from the single Only When I Loose Myself by Depeche Mode). Both American preamplifiers play this sub range a bit stronger than the Ayon but I am not certain their presentation is any truer. It will all depend on the entire system. If I had to compare the Polaris II to something, it would be another preamplifier but a solid-state one. It only happens once in a million to get something unique from a transistor but DarTZeel managed and that makes their NHB-128NS phenomenal. It sounds a bit sweeter than the Ayon and can cast a deeper soundstage. The perfect treble reproduction of the Ayon is not endangered however as the Swiss machine sounds smoother but with not as rich an internal life (remember that we are talking about state-of-the-art units here). The dynamics of the ARC and BAT seem a bit better than the Polaris II. This is audible after returning to the Leben which also throws a deeper stage if perhaps not as intense and natural. At first it also seems to have more treble, which is probably true but an oversimplification.

The Polaris II is a line preamplifier although looking inside we'll see that the bigger PCB (actually two) are taken up by a phono stage. It can be seen and sensed that this is one of the designer's hobby horses. Built around the same tubes as the line section, it also has a similar sonic signature. Regardless of the music selection, the reproduction is ultra pleasing (or whatever we shall call it), be it Depeche Mod's Violator, Madeleine Peyroux's Careless Love or most of all, Paul Demond's Summertime. All these performers played back very good 'sets', extremely even and well balanced, with a lot of treble and clearly no case of withdrawal but the midrange and its borders were slightly rounded, the bottom end balanced rather than dynamically unlimited. This rendered the recordings more alike than dissimilar. With the Kuzma Reference turntable this was extremely pleasing as it was earlier with the SME 10 and Avid Volvere deck reviewed for Audio. Bass did not reach down as low as over my own RCM Audio Sensor Prelude IC phonostage but tonal balance was stable and counter-weighted by a warm full midrange. Frankly speaking, the Ayon's performance was very close to the sound of the ASR Basis and still related to the C-27 Accuphase and its AD-20 phono card equivalent in the same company's integrated amps. Interestingly enough, those are solid-state devices which sound like tubes. On the other hand, the Manley Steelhead sounds more like my RCM...

The American competition is more resolving and has more extended frequency boundaries with better dynamics. The RIAA section of the Polaris II, for the money, has difficulty achieving the same fluency and coherence. It is not the most resolved sound I've heard but at the same time very attractive. It has body, differentiates and defines vocals and anything else that occurs in the midrange also in difficult mono recordings like Mel Tormé's Oh, You Beautiful Doll and the heavily processed 'enhanced stereo' My Cole Porter by Frank Sinatra. With the latter, it was clearly heard that the Ayon slightly masks the clicks by not allowing them to appear in front of the music.

I clearly have not heard all the world's great preamplifiers. But the Ayon is at the very top of those I have heard and thus in the company of a select few equally tasteful components. Its sound is incredibly vivid and involving, making my eventual separation from it very painful. Now I know that I need a better preamplifier. The rest of my system showed the changes clearly. Hence I need to sell my beloved Leben. But that's only a digression. The clue of this summary is simply that the Ayon is not perfect as there are no such devices. The soundstage could be more elaborate and the bass could extend lower. Still, it presents the sound in a very satisfying way. You have to listen to it longer to appreciate that this is the case. It would probably be better still if it were fully balanced but okay, it is big and it is black. And it comes with a remote. It's brilliant.

Technical data:
Description: Pure class A, pentode in triode setting
Tubes, line section: 2 x Siemens C3M
Tubes, phono stage: 4 x Siemens C3M
Tubes, power supply: 4 x CV135
Maximum output voltage: 40Vrms
S/N ratio: > 96 dB
Output impedance: 30Ω
Input impedance: > 1MΩ
Frequency response (line section): 0,5 Hz – 400 kHz
Harmonic distortion (1V), line section: <0.01 %
Harmonic distortion (1V), gramophone section: <0.1 %
Inputs: 5 x line RCA, 2 x gramophone MC
Outputs: 2 x RCA, 1 x XLR
Power consumption: 40 W
Dimensions preamplifier (WxDxH): 500 x 403 x 110mm
Dimensions power supply (WxDxH): 500 x 430 x 110mm
Weight: 33kg
Ayon website