I’ve run the Stealth directly into a power amp and have found its volume control to exhibit low coloration levels. I love its functionality; nevertheless, the question of how the PGA2320 compares to a conventional resistive potentiometer deserved an answer. It turns out that the Stealth’s volume control can be bypassed by switching over to Fixed Volume mode on the remote control, in which case the audio signal goes directly to the analog output stage. I connected the Stealth to the PrimaLuna DiaLogue Premium line preamplifier with its conventional Alps Blue Velvet motorized conductive-plastic potentiometer. I was then able to switch between Fixed and Variable volume modes on the Stealth and at equal volume levels try to discern any sonic difference with the PGA2320 in and out of the signal path. Although not necessarily a definite test, I did prefer listening with the Stealth in Fixed (2.5V) volume mode. There were improvements in spatial presentation (depth perspective and image outline separation). Additionally, the treble range was a bit purer sounding. These results suggest that the Stealth’s volume control does introduce a slight solid-state sonic signature.
It didn’t take me long to realize that I was in the company of a superb DAC, one that was free from annoying digital artifacts and that could flesh out tone colors with startling realism. One of the hardest things for a DAC to get right is violin overtones, especially on recordings that are less than perfect. Many DACs don’t react well to recording hot spots adding spurious grain, hash, and even sizzle to the reproduction. Not a pleasant phenomenon and one that had soured me on digital sound for many years. By contrast, the Stealth sailed right through recordings that had given me trouble in the past. Solo violin’s upper range was reproduced with proper levels of sheen and textural purity. The sound of massed strings, and in particular that of violins, the most numerous orchestral string instruments, represents another difficult challenge for any digital device, and one in which most CD players have scored poorly. The sound of massed violins should be layered and the spatial impression ought to float like a feather within the confines of the soundstage with plenty of tonal warmth and textural purity. And in these respects, the Stealth was able to put a smile on my face. Its performance at the frequency extremes bettered that of all previous DACs I’ve lived with, including the EAR-Yoshino DACute I reviewed in Issue 238. Treble transients were exquisitely refined and bass lines left nothing to be desired, being well defined and pitch-perfect.
The Stealth wasn’t just about tonal color fidelity and textural refinement. It lit a fire under the soundstage. Musical lines boogied with passion and drama. The dynamic range from loud to very loud was reproduced without hesitation or compression. A recording’s ambient information was readily discernible, as was low-level detail often fuzzed over by lesser DACs. I’m fussy about soprano voice and like to discern vibrato to the point of being able to count the number of pitch modulations per second. Not many divas out there can hit the ideal of seven cycles per second. With the Stealth in your system you’ll be able to resolve this sort of detail.
After auditioning numerous DACs over the years I have come to realize that a large slice of the sonic difference between individual units could be ascribed to the analog stage, and specifically tube versus solid-state designs. A tubed output stage appeared to present the soundstage more dimensionally. No matter how sophisticated the digital circuitry was, when mated to an op-amp buffer or gain stage, image outlines pancaked and depth perspective took a hit. And then there was the matter of textural grain. That’s the stuff that my auditory system generally finds to be indigestible. Some solid-state buffers had achieved a respectable level of smoothness, but it usually came at the cost of dynamic sterility. It seems to me that the best approach to defanging a DAC is to introduce tubes into the mix as early as possible. And that’s exactly what Ayon has done with the Stealth. It is perhaps a tad richer harmonically than the real thing, but it is far removed tonally from the sort of romantic, overly lush presentation that has been dubbed “vintage tube sound.” The Stealth is about tonal accuracy, but what you think of it will depend greatly on the associated amplifier and speakers. Mate it with reference-caliber gear and it will walk the line of neutrality.
In the pursuit of digital playback perfection, the Stealth ranks in the DAC elite. It’s all about the music and the Stealth delivers a superb musical experience. You could do a lot worse at a higher price point, but I doubt that you would do any better at its asking price. It’s a DAC that I could happily live with for years to come.
SPECS & PRICING
Inputs: One each coax SPDIF, BNC SPDIF, AES /EBU, USB, I2S, TosLink; three BNC jacks for DSD
Outputs: Unbalanced on RCA jacks, balanced on XLR jacks
Output impedance: 300 ohms (balanced or unbalanced)
Total harmonic distortion: < 0.002% at 1kHz
Power consumption: 55W
Dimensions: 48 x 11 x 40cm
Weight: 16 kg
AYON AUDIO USA
8390 E. Via De Ventura, F110-194
Scottsdale, AZ 85258
ENIGMAcoustics Mythology M1 and Basszilla Platinum Edition Mk2 loudspeakers; Lamm Audio M1.2 Reference and Carver Cherry 180 monoblock amplifiers, PrimaLuna Dialogue Premium line preamplifier; FMS Nexus-2, Wire World, and Kimber KCAG interconnects; Acoustic Zen Hologram speaker cable; Sound Application power line conditioners