James L. Darby
The first time I encountered the Ayon product line at an audio show, I had just walked into a large room filled with gleaming tube amplifiers and CD players sitting on about a dozen different racks. I vividly remember the initial impressions that Linda and I had. Everything looked immaculately made, beautifully designed and very expensive. As we began to look closer and inspect the individual products, we discovered that two of our impressions had been correct. However, we'd been wrong about the "very expensive" part, compared to what we had seen at that show and many previous audio events, the prices were not only reasonable, but appeared to be downright bargains. Seeing that, experience led us to believe that these products were made in China, wouldn't you assume the same?
A tall, silver haired gentleman came over and introduced himself as Charlie Harrison. (We later met his wife Susan who is much better looking...) He said he'd been following Stereomojo and was impressed with our honest reviews, something we hear quite often. He began telling us about the features of the different products and it didn't take long to conclude that he was very knowledgeable and genuinely excited about the products. We have written at length about how impossible it is to accurately judge the sonic qualities of the various demos under show conditions where you are listening to unfamiliar components, in unfamiliar rooms, that are usually acoustically awful at best, but when I handed him the Stereomojo Ultimate Evaluation Disk and he stuck it in one of the impressive looking CD players, it was easy to determine that these Ayon products were not your run-of-the-mill components. We ended up staying in that room far too long, but that's what happens when you find something out of the ordinary, and here was a whole room filled with components that seem to be extraordinary. It was only in parting that I asked Charlie, "These ARE made in China, right?” Well, Mr. Harrison looked at me like I had just shot his dog. "No", he calmly replied, "Ayon is designed and built in Austria, not China." Linda and I looked at each other as if we were just told that O.J. Simpson confessed. Talk about surprise.
Not long after that we were sent the Ayon CD 2 that not only ended up receiving our Maximum Mojo Award, but also ended up being a Product of the Year. So it was with great anticipation that we received the Ayon Triton integrated tube amp. Would it be anywhere near the quality of the CD2? Let's find out.
The Triton arrived in a huge box several times the size of the amplifier, which told me that Ayon cares about their products and their customers enough to go to the expense of triple boxing their amplifiers. When I finally laid down the box cutter, I found that Ayon had not only packed everything carefully, but had even dressed everything in red velvet, reminding me of the movie set of Gone with the Wind. I knew the amp was going to be heavy, but this thing weighs 125 pounds, that's why it affectionately became known as THE BEAST. It weighs more than my wife!
The Triton oozes power and quality and there's even more than meets the eye. We've said many times that vibration and resonance are The Great Enemy of sound quality; Ayon knows that too because the two separate power transformers, one for high-voltage and one for low voltage which is rather unique, are highly damped and RFI/EMI shielded and sealed with an anti-resonance compound. Even the ceramic tube sockets have beryllium spring contacts. The internal wiring is silver matrix and Teflon isolated. The whole aluminum anodized chassis is anti-vibration, anti-resonance and nonmagnetic. All these little details make a difference.
The amp also features zero negative feedback, delayed warm-up circuit that extends tube life as well as a automatic power protection circuit. Speaking of tubes, there are eight KT88 power tubes and six 12AU7 drivers. The 88s are Genelex Gold Lions made in Russia, carefully selected and matched by hand. In fact, the whole amplifier is hand assembled. The front panel is pretty simple with a volume knob on the left and a source selection knob on the right indicating four line ins and one "direct" which allows you to connect an external preamplifier and use the Triton as a power amp. When the amp is switched on, the red Ayon logo glows softly. Nice touch. I should mention that all of the switch craft has a very heavy duty, ultrahigh quality feel. When you felt as many knobs as I have, you get to know the difference. Wait... that didn't quite sound right did it. Oh well.
Yet another great feature is the amp's ability to play in either of two modes; triode or pentode. The latter gives you the most power at a muscular 125 W per channel while the triode mode reduces output to 80 W per channel. The two modes sound substantially different which we will describe in a minute, but it certainly is nice to have the equivalent of two different amplifiers to choose from without switching big, heavy components and tons of cables!
The Triton is designed and built for maximum sound quality, so it does not incorporate an auto biasing circuit -- you have to bias the tubes manually, so you will need to have or borrow a multi-tester. If you're a real audiophile, you should have one anyway and know how to use it. They are cheap with lots of them under $20. There are contacts and bias adjustments on the back; it's easy so don't sweat it. Also on the back you have gold plated RCA's for inputs and six gold-plated, very sturdy speaker posts so you can choose between 4 and 8-ohm operation. While the Triton comes with a high quality power cable, you can upgrade if you like. Rounding things out on the back side is the rocker style power switch and chrome ground lift.
The Ayon does come with a remote control that does volume and mute, but you can't switch between inputs. Though it only does the basics, the remote reflects the overall quality of the amp since it's constructed of matching black metal. You'd be surprised how many expensive components we've seen that have cheap plastic remotes. Kudos to Ayon for doing it right.
NO A-YAWNS HERE
After about 100 hours of burn in, we got down to business. We started out in the more powerful pentode mode. Right away you can't help but notice how grain free and midnight black the soundstage is, indicative of all the attention paid to the anti-resonance and isolation. Listening to our 2009 Recording of the Year, Winston Ma's FIM reissue of Oscar Peterson's classic "We Get Requests", the soundstage was very deep and wide without being exaggerated and again, exceptionally clean and beautifully detailed. As I've told you before, ever since I reviewed the Sanders electrostatics I have become acutely aware of speed, not only in speakers but in different components as well. Tube amps can sometimes sound a little dull and slow (so can solid state for that matter), but the Triton handles percussive attacks like piano and guitar and lightning transients very well. Nothing sounded sodden or like the musicians were covered in mud.
Oscar Peterson was a big man who played with great power and authority. I recently had the privilege of playing his personal Steinway that he used in his Toronto home. It was signed by both Mr. Peterson and Mr. Steinway. When I say Oscar played hard, we could see just below the keyboard long, gray trails where rivers of sweat had dripped from his hands and wrists. The action was also beaten to death, very uneven from the major pounding it taken and needed a technician's attention, but hey, it was Oscar's piano! On this and all subsequent recordings, running out of gas when the recordings went down loud and low was non-existent, whether something like orchestral timpani or synthesized sub-bass.
In fact, the bass was so stentorian that I just had to plumb its depths a bit more with a few more bass enhanced tracks. These days that's pretty easy using my new Qsonix music management system, Stereomojo's Product of the Year For 2009. I can sit in my listening position and queue up any track on any CD in my collection (about 1,600) instantly via my iPhone. As “The Hammer” would say, "U can't touch this!"
Perhaps my most torturous track for low bass and clarity is "The Kraken” from the Pirates of the Caribbean soundtrack. You have to hear this to believe it. I employed three different pairs of speakers during my time with the Triton, all of which have exemplary low bass extension, particularly another Stereomojo 2009 Product of the Year, The Vaughn Cabernet. I also got in a new speaker from Carl Marchisotto, the new Nola Micro Grand - it's rather small, sits on a stand and only has two 4-inch drivers in each cabinet, yet it puts out low bass that's just unbelievable. The Triton drove all three pairs to levels that were way too loud without breaking a sweat.
But it wasn't just the muscular qualities that were impressive, the Triton also did an outstanding job of retrieving the all important low end texture of the heavily bowed bass viols as well as the skin and mallet texture of the timpani. After the "Pirates" torture test, I guess I was feeling a bit diabolical, because I then queued up some of my favorite pipe organ recordings, a couple I recorded myself. The weight and texture of 32 foot organ pipes is difficult for most amps and impossible for others. Here the Triton really strutted its stuff and produced thundering yet impeccably controlled deep, deep bass without the rolloff usually found with tube amps.
But what about the high end? Would treble give it trouble? Since the new Qsonix natively plays back high resolution files up to 24/192, I dialed up another Stereomojo Recording of the Year, Reference Recordings HRx version of Percy Grainger's "Lincolnshire Posy” performed by the Dallas Wind Symphony. This immaculate Prof. Johnson production features room shaking dynamic range and amazing timbrel texture and accuracy throughout the frequency spectrum, including the upper high-end. Here again, the Triton exhibited outstanding dynamics, especially in the pentode mode and its uncanny spatial qualities in both modes but more apparent in triode. The triode mode consistently added more old-school tube warmth - that famous golden glow and added airiness - to the festivities on every recording. But then, that's what it's supposed to do.
One thing that's important to note is that switching from one mode to the other requires you to turn off the amp. Not doing so could cause damage. We have reviewed dual-mode tube amps that can switch modes on-the-fly, even via the remote control, but again Ayon avoids extra circuitry and conveniences in favor of superior sound reproduction. That seems to have paid dividends in the high-end because piccolos, triangles, bells and cymbals all came through with the appropriate shimmer and sparkle as well as those extra degrees of texture and detail noted in the bass.
So, we've examined the frequency extremes, but how about the midrange where about 80% of the music lives? I don't know about you, but I have a passion for female vocals and since I'm putting together a special article on female vocalists about whom you may not be aware, I've been listening to a lot of them. Gwen Hughes, Katherine Jenkins, Lisbeth Scott and Beth Hirsch just to name a few, all ended up singing through the Triton. While both modes did an exemplary job of placing the girls in the room right in front of me, the triode mode with its extra spaciousness, 3-D presentation and added warmth really enhanced to the listening experience. Simply captivating. Some of these girls can rock baby, and the Triton rocked on right with them! The Triton does not discriminate among genres, it's equally at home with Black Sabbath as it is with a string or jazz quartet.
Believe it or not, there are not a lot of pure-class-a tube integrated amps out there with this level of power output at this price or more. The only integrated in my arsenal is the LSA Statement which puts out 150 W per channel, but it is a hybrid type so only the preamp section has tubes, the power comes from solid state. Still, at $12,000, it's an amazing reference quality amplifier. It has more amenities than the Triton with its built-in phono section and balanced inputs, but then it costs considerably more, too. The Statement does not offer dual output modes, but the one mode it does have is exceptional. If we compare the Statement’s output to the Triton's pentode, the big LSA is even a bit more pristine with a more expansive soundstage and midrange definition, perhaps more extended in the high end. I think if I rolled in some NOS 6922 tubes, the LSA might sound even more like the Triton, but the Triton definitely has more of a tube quality, for better or worse depending on your tastes. In short, the LSA may be a bit more accurate, but the Triton is a bit more musical. Does that makes sense? A reminder; while we often pick what we like best, that really shouldn't matter to you that much. It is our job to report to you how something sounds and performs in order to give YOU the honest information you need to make decisions, never to make them for you. We don't sell stuff at Stereomojo like many others do.
The Triton's triode mode is more delicate, spacious and honey colored than the LSA, and I can't deny that the Ayon's triode mode is very attractive and seductive. I ended up preferring that mode about half the time, mostly on content that has a wide dynamic range and a limited soundstage. Also, if the recording has a cool, harsh or cold character, the triode mode makes things much more listenable, especially for extended periods. Many recordings that feature lead vocals such as those from the 70's and 80's or any recording that sounds too digital benefits from the triode mode. I really can't choose a clear winner here, anymore then I could choose the best marinara sauce for your spaghetti, but it is extremely nice to be able to choose between the two modes. I just wish you didn't have to power down the amp to switch between them.
I recently went to a new audio show in Jacksonville, Florida and while it was nowhere as large as the Denver show, much less CES, there were about 30 or so rooms to visit. By far, the best sound at the show was the combination of the Ayon Triton driving the huge Legacy Whispers, an opinion shared by almost everyone. I currently have the Whisper XD’s here and just wish I had the Triton back to which to marry them. The combo at that show attracted large crowds all the time, the sound was mesmerizing and i ended up returning there several times just to relax and listen to more music.
An added observation: since I live in South Florida, heat output is very important. The Triton surprised me with its very moderate heat output, not bad at all, and it sure does look gorgeous in the dark with the tubes reflecting off those four chrome silos! On another note, my demo unit did not ship nor are there any pictures of the Triton with tube guards for those of you that have curious little ones, whether of the toddler or furry kind. (if your toddler is furry, you have other issues...) Charlie assures me that there are tube guards/cages available for those of you who need them.
The Ayon Triton at a price of $8495 in an all-tube class A operation, has few peers with its 120/80 watts per side. Most of its competitors use a hybrid design that incorporates a solid state output section. McIntosh makes the MA2275 that costs $7500, but it only delivers 75 wpc and lacks the Triton’s dual modes. Our friends at Grant Audio sell the Jungson JA-99D that is all tube delivering 100 Wpc and sells for $4500. It too lacks the Triton's wonderful dual modes, but it does include balanced circuitry that the Triton does not. If you like to actually see the tubes in action, both the Mac and the Grant hide them out of sight.
With its highly polished, massive chrome transformers and brushed black aluminum chassis with the classy illuminated red logo on the front, the Triton definitely looks as if it costs a lot more than it does. Here is that it also sounds a lot more expensive than it is. Ayon has apparently spared little expense in the design and execution of this amplifier, as it's 125 pounds attests. They paid special attention to anti-resonance and isolation techniques that paid off handsomely. Obviously, if you have very efficient, sensitive speakers at 96 dB or above, you may not need this much power. Anything less than that, depending on the size of your room and how loud you listen, you may be asking more of your 60 W or so amp then it can give. Often we found that muscle amps deprive us of the micro qualities that breathe life into recorded music. The Triton hunts them down like a blue tick hound that's got the scent of a squirrel and delivers them like Tom Brady throwing a quick slant to Wes Welker.
Its price is remarkable in that it is not sold direct but rather through a dealer network and still maintains a pricepoint that is more than reasonable.
Be aware that the Triton requires do-it-yourself tube biasing with your own meter. Since Ayon is sold through local dealers, your dealer should definitely bias the tubes for you. Tell him I said so.
All it takes is one trip to a high-end audio show and you will quickly discover that most of the amplifiers being sold are pure class-A tubes and there is a reason for that. It has nothing to do with nostalgia, it's just that at this point in time, tubes are more musical than pure solid state and the Triton is an outstanding example of why.
Because of its superlative build quality, ultra high level of performance and its level of power including the variety of two different sounding output modes, we award the Ayon Triton integrated amp our Maximum Mojo Award. Congratulations to distributor Charlie Harrison and the folks at Ayon.
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