In my humble opinion, nothing says “you’ve made it” quite like owning high-end music-reproduction equipment. And yet both you and I both know that audio gear is not the first thing people think of as a status symbol, although they should, because it’s hard to imagine anything with a lower practicality- to-expense ratio. Big, luxurious house? Well, unless it’s used only for parties, a house, any house, is very practical simply from the standpoint of being a shelter (both in the physical and tax sense). An expensive car? No matter what it is, it provides the very practical attribute of transportation, which we all know is necessary for modern life. What about a yacht? Again, still practical from a shelter, transportation, and as a second home, from a tax deduction point of view.
Perhaps we get closer along the lines of fine art collecting but even here there is utility associated with this activity that escapes the hi-fi connoisseur: Fine art is expected to increase in value. Substitute watches, stamps, Fender guitars, Pez dispensers; you get the same result. On the other hand a shockingly small sample of audio equipment has proven to increase in value as it ages (and you may not even like how it sounds).
So I say you keepers of the hi-fidelity flame have good reason to feel fairly superior to the benighted masses sprouting little white wires from their ears, or just about everyone else for that matter. Still, even among the enlightened there is a steeply ascending caste system. At the top of the ladder are the high priests of the Single Ended Triode altar, who like any devout individuals have vowed to live a restricted existence, a life of poverty if you will, not of money (although that may very well accompany this lifestyle) but of watts. By nature traditionalists and extremely conservative, some would say that these folks act like the last 106 years (!) of amplifier development never happened.
All the while, sitting at the back of the hi-fi church are people like me who know good sound from bad and search the market often for the best in lower-priced but great-sounding products. For us fancy metal-work, silver wire, even acceptable quality- control are grudgingly dismissed for the sake of good music vibes. We have no problem with plastic knobs, stamped metal chassis, or the occasional missing screw. It’s what’s on the inside that counts, right?
I for one have remained happy in the back pews for years since, quite frankly, much of the “aspirational” gear simply fails my personal cost/benefit analysis. Oh, that’s nice but my NAD integrated gets me 90% of the way there for a whole lot less (or so I tell myself). So I find it really annoying when something like the Ayon Orion II ($3910) comes along and bursts my bubble of self-delusion. Rightfully the Orion belongs to that couple stationed maybe ten rows in front and a little to the left of where I’m sitting. They’ve got money to spend, no small children or pets, are cultured, and appreciate the good things in life. And for this review they let me sit next to them.
Ayon is one of those special concerns that doesn’t just make and sell products; it makes ideas, and then works hard to make sure those ideas spread far and wide throughout the hills and vales. Ayon’s big idea: Vacuum tubes are and always were, unapologetically, the best way to amplify an electronic signal. In other words, they hope to change hard-boiled folks like me, who view tube amplification as akin to having a real, live puppy for a pet: great fun, cute and cuddly, and then it pees all over the rug and chews on the chair leg. Tubes age, and as they age bias voltages need to be adjusted, and when a tube prematurely dies the question becomes does the owner replace only the one or the complete set of power tubes? All this fuss, care, and feeding are what drove me toward the solid-state world (well, that and price), where amplifiers run forever and never ask for more than an occasional dusting—and all the puppies are stuffed ones. It may not be the most interesting world in which to live, but it is clean.
This is pretty much the divide over which Ayon has set about building bridges, and it begins with “leave the bias adjusting to us.” This, an activity that dramatically distinguishes the “valve- o-philes” from the rest of us, has major consequences for the sound quality as well as for the longevity of what may be very expensive (and numerous) tubes. Manual tube-biasing may be held a badge of honor for some, but Ayon guessed, and I think correctly, that if this became something automatic, or at least something very easy to do, then one more reason for not “going tube” would be eliminated. Unlike fully automatic biasing systems Ayon’s auto-fixed-bias (AFB) does not operate during normal operation; rather, a push of a button at the back of the chassis mutes the amplifier then sets in play an automated tube- test program, which adjusts bias and checks for tube failure, noting which tube has failed via an LED at the back panel. The system will also automatically “break-in” new tubes for the first ten hours, reducing bias to 60% of normal during that period. While Ayon’s system does not completely eliminate owner involvement, it strikes an almost perfect balance between optimal performance, carefree listening, and satisfying user engagement.
And then there are the tubes themselves. Tubes are fun to watch and talk about. They project warmth both figuratively and literally. They are guaranteed conversation starters. The old reminisce and the young just stand there in awe. Tubes can also be maddeningly unreliable and, by nature, promote distracting behaviors such as “tube rolling.” Ayon understands all this. It acknowledges that tubes are, indeed, wonderful things and so displays them in all their skin-searing glory. Ayon doesn’t do tube cages. Cage your dog. Cage your cat. Cage your children. Don’t ask Ayon to cage its tubes.
But here’s some comforting news: Ayon does a five-point test on every tube it ships (so you don’t have to!) including plate current, transconductance, heater-to-cathode leakage, gas- ion current effects, and microphony. The Orion II comes with Ayon’s own Black Treasure SX KT88s and either Tungsram, RCA, or Mullard 12AU7 signal tubes. Ayon’s Charlie Harrison tells me Ayon will soon be providing its own BT SX signal tubes. My sample sounded fine with a trio of Tungsrams.
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.
Use and Listening
This from a famous-brand headphone advertisement, which appeared on my Kindle recently: “Crushing bass and dynamic sound from 50mm drivers . . . powerful bass from Direct-Vibe sealed acoustic structure.”
So you see folks, just in case you were wondering, it’s indeed all about bass. Dangerous and life-threatening bass. Although something tells me this ad was not intended to reach the demographic of e-reader owners, it nonetheless found me just as I was listening, quite happily by the way, to “animal” from Pearl Jam’s vs. [Epic] in pentode mode (of course) and getting a fairly accurate taste of the message the boys were sending 20 years ago. Tight and dynamic, with many tracks having a one- take, live feel, this album begs to be turned up loud, and the Orion II obliged. From side to side and top to bottom I got a coherent, rock-solid image of the band doing what they probably did best at decibel levels they would certainly approve of. My gut was feeling the music as much as my ears were hearing it. Bass was powerful and tight as were drums. The distinct musical personalities of guitarists Stone Gossard and Mike McReady were well delineated both spatially and musically. Eddie Vedder was almost in the room on some tracks. The best part is that all this was occurring with the volume control just cracked open at about 8 o’clock—achievable in a smaller listening room through suitably high-sensitivity-and-impedance speakers like my own Snells. And, of course, these ain’t just any watts—these are tube watts.
While the importance of measured harmonic distortion to the quality of an amplifier remains debatable, I almost agree with Ayon that the subject is, especially in comparison to other (especially qualitative) attributes, really not worth talking about. What is worth discussing (and certainly worth listening to) is an amplifier that is dynamic, fast, pushy, unapologetic, maybe even a bit rude sometimes—in other words, alive. This is what I believe Ayon has achieved with the Orion II: getting the macro-dynamics and the micro-dynamics spot-on. And I’m not talking about this being a secret truth known only to those who have the means of accessing it either through associated equipment, 180 gram virgin audiophile label LP, or 24/96 high-res digital.
A terrific example of the “aliveness” of which I speak can be found in the first few measures of Oliver Nelson’s great “Stolen Moments” from The Blues and the Abstract Truth [Impulse!]. Nelson, Eric Dolphy, Freddie Hubbard, and George Borrow start the piece with four successive chords each played as a crescendo followed immediately by a decrescendo. It’s fast and subtle but if it’s not there, well then the performance is missing too. This is the real “drop the book and take notice” stuff that good gear does for a living, and what the Orion II does expertly. Jazz recordings of this period (1961) were by nature “purist,” employing a minimum of takes, tracks, and microphones. Amplification was tube. This wasn’t because it was cool but because there was no alternative. Spitty, blatty, breathy, sometimes clangy, this is what brass instruments can sound like in an intimate setting—like the recording studio or my living room—and this much appreciated information came through unabridged.
Bass performance, which is rarely high among a tube amplifier’s bragging points, was certainly adequate in my experience, and I never felt the need for a subwoofer. If pressed I would say that the grand closing to the “Uranus” movement from The Planets [London] may have been a little soft but that low, low E of the organ nonetheless nicely locked with my room. On the other hand, it is generally held that space and midrange are a good tube amplifier’s calling cards, and the Orion II certainly met expectations here. When I played their Chanson D’Amour [RCA], the six gents of the King’s Singers were believably arranged in a semicircle before me with the location and distinct quality of each voice unerringly conveyed. Again, micro-dynamics were captured with alacrity as the Orion II was easily able to keep up with the speed at which the voices launched notes, changed pitches, and went from mezzopiano to mezzoforte and back again in a split second.
Instant comparisons between triode and pentode, possible given the Orion’s simple control layout, were not an option, both because of the need to shut down the unit before switching modes and because, not unexpectedly, gain levels were grossly different between the two. That said, after months of listening, I found myself favoring the pentode for most material. Dynamic, punchy, fast, and powerful were the adjectives I most often scribbled in my notes. In this mode the Orion II seemed at least twice as powerful as its rating. This is not to say that I did not enjoy the triode setting, because I did, but only on music that did not require strong and precise percussive or timing cues to sound believable and alive. The King’s Singers or Ravel’s Quartet in F [Naxos] were particularly well served. Triode also became my de facto late-night listening mode, adding just a little bit of body and richness to the sound at domestically approved levels.
There are so many reasons to recommend this amplifier: fabulous sonics, world-class build-quality, a manufacturer that seems to really care about what it is doing, how it is doing it, and has its customers’ best interests at heart, and yes, overall coolness. More? Ayon electronics are manufactured to EU standards, in the EU—Austria, in fact— so you can be pretty sure that the workers earn a living wage and the environment gets a break. Given a suitable pair of loudspeakers, decent upstream electronics, and, of course, good recorded material, the Orion II is a reminder that vacuum- tube amplification is an excellent way to do the job. Ignoring other factors such as cost, weight, size, flexibility, efficiency, maintenance requirements, and durability, tubes may even be the best way.
My friend Carl was smitten by the Orion II after hearing it at my home after a dinner party. “How can I convince my wife that it is worth the price?” he asked, hoping that I could feed him some good ammunition for the argument soon to take place. To his dismay, knowing he had two kids in college, I told him that he most likely could not convince her but that, yes, the Orion II was definitely worth it. Absolutely worth it.
Start saving, Carl.
SPECS & PRICING
Output power: 60Wpc pentode, 40Wpc triode
Tube complement: Four KT88, three 12AU7
Frequency response: 27Hz–40kHz +/-0.5 dB
Transformer taps: 4 and 8 ohms
Nominal voltage gain: 40dB
Input sensitivity (full power): 1V
Input impedance: 100k Ohm
S/N ratio: 85dB (2mV)
Dimensions: 18″ x 14″ x 10″
Weight: 62 lbs.
Ayon Audio USA (U.S. Distributor)
8390 E. Via De Ventura
Scottsdale, AZ 85258
NAD C325BEE integrated amplifier; Kenwood KT-8300 AM-FM tuner; Rotel RDD- 980 CD disc drive; Meridian 203 DAC; Dell Inspiron 530 PC running Windows Vista, J River Media Center 15; Hegel HD2 USB DAC; Thorens TD309 turntable; Dual CS 5000 turntable (78s Only); TP 92 tonearm; AudioTechnica AT-95B cartridge; Ortofon OMB 78 cartridge; Bellari VP129 phonostage; Snell EII and Vienna Acoustics Beethoven Baby Grand loudspeakers; Kimber Kable PBJ interconnects; Kimber Kable KWIK-12 loudspeaker cable; Staples 5 meter USB cable; Have Canare DigiFlex Gold coaxial digital cable
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