I was having an e-mail conversation with a distributor friend of mine, Boris Granovsky, of Absolute Hi End, in Australia. We were discussing different audio brands and models, something we’ve done ever since we first met, a few years ago at Munich’s High End, at a dinner hosted by Crystal Cable (the maker of swanky cables based in Arnhem, the Netherlands), where we had an enlightening (to me) conversation about all things extreme audio. Boris is in the unique position of distributing not merely a few but many of today’s great audio brands. If you peruse his company’s website, you’ll see brands that typically are represented by competing distributors all under his one tent. He has more opportunities to compare top-shelf products than even most audio reviewers. This is why I enjoy hearing Boris’s opinions -- I feel think they’re exceptionally well informed.
In our most recent conversation, Boris told me about Ayon Audio, an Austrian company that makes a full line of tubed electronics that include a number of highly regarded digital models. As editor-in-chief of SoundStage!, I’m always on the lookout for new and exciting companies and products, and when Boris described Ayon’s models -- and particularly the sound of their DACs when compared to some other highly regarded digital sources -- I asked for the company’s contact information. It seemed a good tip.
Australia’s Absolute Hi End features many exotic products onsite, such as the Crystal Cable Arabesque Glass Master loudspeakers.
Then Boris hit me with this: “I think a DAC-preamp is a good idea. I have sold the top-of-the-line Ayon Stratos [DAC-preamp, $14,000 USD] to a customer with dCS. He recently sold his dCS, and his comment was: ‘dCS might have slightly more detail but Ayon is more musical and enjoyable.’” The Ayon Stratos costs about one-eighth the price of the dCS gear it reportedly replaced in this audiophile’s system.
There’s a good takeaway from this, and I’m sure you’ll be delighted to know that I don’t mean yet another repetition of “high price doesn’t mean high performance.” I’m as bored with that discussion as you must be. We all know it’s true, but we also know that rich dudes need to feel good about themselves, which means there will always be ever-higher prices at the high end of the high end. It’s just the way it is.
What’s more interesting to me is that customers sometimes have better insights than reviewers. The Ayon Stratos is a tubed DAC. So the “more musical and enjoyable” line is perfectly believable, especially when the dCS component is all solid-state and renowned for its high resolution. Doesn’t it often come down to resolution vs. a warm, inviting sound? For many audiophiles, it does.
At Absolute, you can compare many competing products side by side, such as Magico and . . .
Right or wrong, and whether or not you or I share his taste in sound, the audiophile Boris was talking about wasn’t afraid to follow his ears. Here’s the scenario I imagine: The Ayon sounds better to him than his much-higher-priced dCS gear. He buys the Ayon. His audiophile buddies dismiss the very idea that the Ayon could actually sound better, because they still own -- or aspire to own, or wish they were rich enough to own -- the dCS, and all the reviewers they’ve read seem to think it’s the best. Those other owners feel they need to defend their position, so they counter with the idea that while the Ayon may be good for the money, in no way can its sound be compared with the more pedigreed dCS gear. The reviewers just follow along with the price-equals-performance line because it’s safe and expected. Who’s right? I don’t know. Everyone, maybe?
How does this apply to me, as a reviewer and an audiophile? Well, I’m searching for a great DAC to pair with a Soulution 711 stereo power amplifier ($65,000) and a pair of Magico Q7 Mk II speakers ($229,000/pair). Conventional audiophile wisdom would say that the dCS Vivaldi or the new top-of-the-line MSB Select DAC would be natural choices. Each costs about a bazillion dollars. But maybe these choices are really just about the status quo. And at this point in my life I’m not about to just follow along.
So I’m going to see about getting an Ayon DAC ($6500-$14,000, depending on model). If it’s a great match with the Soulution-Magico combo I have now, I’ll be delighted. But what if I could get the same amount of enjoyment at an even lower price? Would it be reviewer suicide to say so? He’s not pairing the Magicos with that DAC, is he? I hope not. You should have seen the flak I took when I said that the Devialet 120 ($6495) was better than any other amp I’d heard driving the Q7s. But it was. (Of course, that was before the arrival of the Soulution 711.)
. . . YG Acoustics speakers.
You can bet I’ll be staying in contact with Boris Granovsky -- not only for his opinions, but for the feedback his customers give him. Reviewers need to be educated just as much as the average audiophile does. It takes a village, and all that.
The bottom line is that we need honest opinions, absent any unquestioning acceptance of conventional audiophile wisdom. And it needs to come, first and foremost, from the audiophile press -- not just customer feedback to distributors that might never see the light of day.
. . . Jeff Fritz