With “Folia Rodrigo Martinez” fresh in mind, I played the same piece from my iPhone 6 through the YBA-11 Bluetooth connection. My expectations weren’t very high, but I was pleasantly surprised at the quality of reproduction: plenty of sparkle and dynamics, maybe less detail than via the computer connection, but thoroughly enjoyable. If you have a lot of music on your smartphone, as many people do, it’s well worthwhile to invest in the YBA-11 Bluetooth adapter.
To see how the A-S801 handled a solo instrumental, I queued up Alex de Grassi playing “Shenandoah” from his album Special Event 19 [Blue Coast Records]. The A-S801 did a fine job reproducing the guitar: the initial transient of the plucked strings, the sustain as the string sounded its note, and the decay as the note slipped into silence. Treble was extended but not peaky. The A-S801 accurately captured the sound of the drone strings from de Grassi’s unusual instrument.
To evaluate how well a component handles soundstaging, I often turn to the piece “Miserere” from the Tallis Scholars Allegri’s Miserere & Palestrina’s Missa Papae Marcelli album [Gimell]. This a cappella work has two vocal groups: The main one is at the front of the soundstage, while a smaller solo grouping is located well behind them in the church where the piece was recorded. The main group was reproduced with plenty of detail and clarity, without any trace of the distortion that some components impose on the piece. I’ve heard the main (front) choir distributed more widely across the soundstage, but singers within the group were well localized. The rearward solo group was reproduced in a wash of reverberation, but the singers there were still understandable. I’ve heard this piece reproduced better, but by systems costing multiples of what the review system cost.
You can’t write an audio review without playing a Girl with Guitar piece, so I queued up Shelby Lynne’s Just a Little Lovin’ [Acoustic Sounds]. Although this album was recorded at quite a low level, the A-S801 had no trouble playing it. Even though the subwoofer was turned off on the title song, the A-S801 reproduced the bass (midbass, actually) with a lot of impact and punch, so that the song was quite enjoyable. With the subwoofer back on, the bass extended quite a bit deeper—the advantage of a 2.1 speaker system. As in other pieces, treble was once again quite extended but not peaky. Lynne’s voice was reproduced with just a little hoarseness, which I think is how it actually sounds. I could hear how she phrased the words quite clearly.
Finally, I challenged the A-S801 with full orchestra, playing Manfred Honeck and the Pittsburgh Symphony’s recording of a favorite piece: Beethoven’s Symphony No. 7 [Reference Recordings/NativeDSD]. (If you’re unfamiliar with NativeDSD.com, its rapidly growing catalog specializes in downloads of high-resolution music recorded in DSD and DXD formats, including DSD256.) The opening bars nearly blew me off the couch, since I had forgotten to reduce the listening level after playing Just a Little Lovin’. But even at that level, there was no strain to the sound. The DSD128 indicator light on the A-S801’s front panel came on verifying that the A-S801’s DAC was indeed playing that extra-high-resolution format, and the orchestral sound was gloriously natural—tons of detail, harmonically rich, with distinct but continuous dynamic levels.
Ideally, I’d compare an item being reviewed to a similar component; however, I had no similar integrated amplifier on hand, and there doesn’t seem much point in comparing it to my much more expensive reference system, with electronics alone costing over $23,000. I could sum up such a comparison like this: The reference system sounded better in virtually all respects, but so what? It doggone should sound better, given the considerable difference in price. It surely doesn’t sound 23 times better! Instead, let me draw on my memory of other integrated amplifiers I’ve reviewed fairly recently and compare them to the A-S801.
Most closely resembling the A-S801 was the $2600 NuPrime IDA-16 amplifier I reviewed in Issue 252. It included an equally versatile DAC and had even more power: 200Wpc from a Class D amplifier section. The amplifier section sounded smoother and never showed any inclination to sound ragged, even at obscenely loud levels, as you’d expect, given the power difference. Class D amplifiers have gained a reputation for sounding a bit odd, but the NuPrime had no such problem. It had several more sophisticated design features than the A-S801, such as ultra-low noise JFETs employed in its input stage, and a volume control with ninety-nine ½-dB steps implemented via an advanced, thin-film, switched-resistor ladder where only a single resistor is in the signal path at any volume setting. Its digital volume-level display was easy to read from a distance. It also had a full stereo line output which could be used to drive subwoofers or another external amplifier. This differed from the A-S801’s summed subwoofer output, and the NuPrime also had no built-in crossover. I don’t view that omission as a problem; most subwoofers have built-in low-pass crossovers. However, the NuPrime amplifier lacked a phono section, and had no headphone amplifier.
Another recently reviewed (Issue 255) integrated amplifier I’ll mention was the $599 Denon PMA-50. It’s a smaller switching amplifier designed for a different environment—a bedroom, office, or just as a headphone amplifier. I think of the A-S801 as an integrated amplifier that will also drive headphones, and the PMA-50 as a headphone amp that will also drive speakers. In the latter application, it has a more powerful headphone amplifier. I didn’t even try using the 25Wpc Denon to drive the 85dB-sensitive KEF speakers; I imagine the maximum volume attainable would be fairly limited. The Denon had only a single analog input, and no phono section or subwoofer output. But it did have a very versatile DAC and remote control. Although it looks very minimalist, a lot of controls are accessible through the tiny remote, including tone controls and three-level gain for the headphone amp. It also had an internal Bluetooth section, so you didn’t need an adapter like the YBA-11. However, I wasn’t nearly as impressed by the sound of the Denon’s Bluetooth connection as I was the YBA-11’s. Befitting its intended purpose, the Denon was less than half the size of the A-S801. If you have pretty efficient speakers and don’t want to play them loudly, or if headphones are your primary means of listening, the Denon amplifier could be a better buy than the A-S801.
Is there any other audio component with as many features as the A-S801 amplifier? And it’s not like the features were just thrown in to impress; the A-S801 surprised me by how good it sounded driving the low-sensitivity KEF LS50 speakers in my largish room. No, it didn’t equal my far more expensive reference system, but during a listening session, several of my audio buddies said they derived genuine musical enjoyment from the system anchored by the Yamaha A-S801 amplifier, and could happily live with it. Coming from a group of lifelong audiophiles, that’s high praise indeed.
The Yamaha A-S801 looks good, sounds splendid, and has a long list of useful features at a price that makes it a flaming bargain! I suspect many readers are lifelong audiophiles like me, for whom system upgrades are a way of life, possibly even the purpose of life. But for lots of people who just want a good hi-fi to play their music on, a hi-fi may be a once-in-a-lifetime purchase. For those people, or for anyone who wants good sound with lots of flexibility at a reasonable price, the Yamaha A-S801 integrated amplifier would be my top recommendation. It may be the only hi-fi electronics purchase they will ever need.
SPECS & PRICING
Minimum output power: 100Wpc RMS, 0.019% THD, 8 ohms, 20Hz–20kHz
Dynamic power (per channel): 140/170/220/290W (8/6/4/2 ohms)
Damping factor: 240
Frequency response: 10Hz–100kHz +/– 1.0dB
THD: 0.019% (50W/8 ohms)
SNR: 99dB (input shorted, 200mV)
Digital inputs: Optical, coaxial, USB (type B)
Dimensions: 17.125" x 6" x 15.25"
Weight: 26.7 lbs.
Yamaha YBA-11 Bluetooth Wireless Adapter
YAMAHA CORPORATION OF AMERICA
6600 Orangethorpe Ave.
Buena Park, CA 90620