Tubes or no, this is a Thoroughly Modern Millie of an amplifier in its minimalist execution. Two eminently grab-able knurled knobs greet the listener on the front panel—a motorized volume control on the left and a non-remote-controllable input-selector on the right. To its right is a vertical laundry list of functions, the operation of which is indicated by a red LED. From the top there are Line Inputs 1 through 3, plus USB, Direct, Mute, and Triode. The small but nicely finished all-metal remote control works the volume and mute functions and is satisfactory except for a bit of overshoot. It also contains two extra buttons, which are not shown or discussed in the manual, labeled Amp and Pre. These I assume are meant to toggle between the Orion II and something else (the “pre”). “Direct” is switchable from the rear panel and activates a set of “Direct In” and Pre Out” RCA jacks, useful for an A/V processor, equalizer, subwoofer, or headphones. Speaking of headphones, the sharp-eyed will notice that the previous iteration of the Orion did, indeed, have a proper headphone jack. Charlie says that with the total redesign of the Orion it was decided to drop the jack—evidently customers preferred to do without.
A tour of the back panel from left to right begins with an IEC AC receptacle. Next is what could be called the bias- control center, consisting of the AFB initiation button, four LEDs indicating which KT88 is being adjusted/analyzed or has failed, and a “Bias-Ref” knob which is factory-set at 3 out of a range of 1 to 5. While this control is easy to leave alone, it also almost begs to be played with. Three sets of gold-plated speaker terminals optimize playback through speakers rated at 4 or 8 ohms or thereabout. The latter proved to be a good match for my Snells. While I was impressed by the overall massiveness of these terminals they were really best suited to spade terminations. I was also a tad surprised that they were completely unshielded and so, I thought, could not possibly be CE approved. Charlie set me straight here, informing me that as per European Union regulations shielding was not required for voltages less than 50V. Well, now you know.
Rounding out the back panel are the aforementioned Direct In/Pre Out jacks and switch, the USB input, and three line-level inputs which were top-notch-quality gold-plated and chassis- mounted. That USB (and associated internal D/A converter), although garnering barely a mention from Ayon in its literature, proved to be quite a right-sounding thing, accepting up to 48kHz/16-bit datastreams. Way over-qualified for the streaming radio I usually fed it, but obviously not suitable for hi-res music files.
Triode or pentode operation is available at the twist of a knob located on the top plate—the amplifier delivers 60Wpc in pentode and 40Wpc in triode. As easy as I just made that sound, Ayon strongly suggests that the unit be shut down completely before this switch is thrown. Why the two modes? Partly because the KT88 tube allows for this, and partly because there are definite differences in the sonic signatures of the two modes, which may serve the material being played. More on this later, but keep in mind that no matter how attractive the idea of purity of design (the three parts of a triode tube—cathode, plate (anode), and grid—are the minimum possible to construct an amplification device), the fact that it was found necessary to later add more devices to, among other things, improve linearity and reduce distortion is worth noting. Keep in mind also that at the end of the day a KT88 is not a pure triode like, for example, a 300B because of the way the grids are assembled within the tube.
Did I miss something? Oh yes, the power switch, which is, indeed, easy to miss. It is located underneath the unit, which seems an odd place to put it until you think about the advantage, which is that it makes it difficult to inadvertently turn the unit off and on again in quick succession—a practice that Ayon frowns upon. I think this is also in keeping with its overall approach and aesthetic of listening through a tube power amplifier. Tubes are thermionic devices and so you literally cannot get music out of them until they come up to temperature, which takes a while. Even after the Orion II warms up, it takes about a minute for the auto-biasing system to run through its checklist, making sure that all is well. Until then the amp is muted. The same is true for the shut-down procedure. So while there may have been no technical reason not to put the on/off switch right there smack in the middle of the front panel, or even on the remote for that matter, the overall deliberateness of this amplifier made the choice of switch location a natural one.