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Ideon Audio Absolute Digital-to-Analog Converter

What does it really mean to say that a luxury consumer good is a “no compromise” product? Sometimes, it means you’re getting the top-of-the-line model with as many bells and whistles as possible. You drive home in a loaded Cadillac Escalade—the Sport Platinum version with plenty of extras, including 22″ 12-spoke chrome-alloy wheels and a polished exhaust tip. The same paradigm can hold with an audio purchase. You go for the preamplifier with the optional phonostage, the server with the standard USB card replaced by one with more impressive specifications, the high-gloss paint finish (in a custom color) that added several thousand dollars to the cost of those already expensive loudspeakers. But other times, “no compromise” refers strictly to basic performance: Nothing is included that could possibly degrade sonic quality. Less is more. This was very much an issue on the table as I got to know Ideon Audio’s $34,900 Absolute digital-to-analog converter.

Ideon is based in Athens, the locus of Greece’s small but vital audiophile community. It’s been operating since 2016, co-founded by the company’s chief engineer Vasilis Tounas and its CEO George Ligerakis, an IT professional. Other principals include Angelos Gallis, representing Novatron SA (a firm assisting with logistics, importing, and accounting) and Greg Mitsacopoulos, the Operations Director and marketing maven. The four are close friends and, while all are highly qualified for their roles in this endeavor, Ideon Audio is also clearly a labor of love. Ideon’s first product was the Ayazi DAC, now in its Mk 2 iteration, which garnered considerable attention for its level of performance at its original price point of around $1200. Soon thereafter came the diminutive USB Renaissance 3R “reclocker,” reviewed in TAS 278. Ideon’s current offerings also includes two other reclocking devices of greater complexity and cost, a streamer, a stand-alone linear power supply, and its flagship Absolute DAC, in development for over three years. In late 2019, Ideon’s product line was taken on by North American distributor Audio Skies of Los Angeles, which carries a number of other top-drawer brands including Larsen loudspeakers, GamuT electronics, and Pear Audio turntables. It seemed an appropriate time for us to have a serious listen to a serious product.

The Absolute is one hefty piece of equipment—bend your knees if you pick it up!—thanks to a 22kg CNC-machined chassis. The enclosure measures 19¼” x 4¼” x 13¾”, the height parameter including four sturdy aluminum pillars. Rounded corners make the box look less severe, and the concentric rectangles cut into its top surface are a nice aesthetic touch. On the front panel are only two functional elements, the 4½” x 2½” LED display and a single large knob that does everything. It turns the unit and off, adjusts volume in the digital domain (if you actually want to—stand by), and changes the input filter or other settings. It’s a little tricky to use at first: You need to remember when to push the knob and when to turn it in order to navigate the menus as intended, but it quickly becomes intuitive. On the rear panel, to the right, is an IEC receptacle (BYO power cord) and an associated rocker-style main-power switch. In the middle are the three digital inputs, one each for coaxial, USB, and AES/EBU connections. Lastly, to their left, are balanced and single-ended analog outputs, one set of each.

Inside the box, students of digital design will find evidence of the innovations and meticulous execution that reflect Vasilis Tounas’ engineering choices. The DAC chipset is ESS Technology’s Sabre ES9038PRO, the most salient feature of which is a dynamic range specification of 140dB. Other manufacturers have utilized this device, but George Ligerakis emphasizes, “If you don’t make sure the whole design of the DAC is appropriate and state-of-the-art, you will never get that impressive result. What we have done, more than most of the others, is to develop many different ultra-low-noise local linear power supplies and a sophisticated analog stage.” The Sabre chip is a 32-bit, 8-channel converter—computations are occurring simultaneously in multiple pathways. Sounding like the computer expert he really is, Ligerakis continues: “We don’t use the classic way of parallelizing the channels of the DAC chip, an area where most manufacturers fail. We do a simple but sophisticated and highly effective parallelization to utilize the high current of these channels. I don’t want to say more, as this is one of the proprietary design elements that we have thought of and implemented!”

ideon_absolute_closeup

DSD decoding is done via DoP rather than natively, something I’m increasingly agnostic about. Most of today’s DACs rely on DoP (DSD over PCM), an interface that formats DSD data as a PCM signal, which then is “unpacked” back to DSD in the DAC.

Though the Absolute allows for both XLR and single-ended analog connections, the signal path within is balanced from start to finish. With his designs, Tounas is clearly obsessed with providing sufficient power, noiselessly, to wherever it’s required. There are independent power supplies serving each stage of the circuit that bypass the main power boards. Ideon describes a “massive multistage power reservoir” comprising 17 low-noise power-supply rails and individual regulation stages. To assure “phase fidelity,” the DAC incorporates three femto, low-jitter/low-phase-noise clock oscillators, each with its own dedicated power line. Additionally, the Absolute’s USB input employs a proprietary three-stage noise-eradication circuit. The output stage is direct coupled, with no capacitors in the signal path.

In the user interface there are just three menu screens that provide all the functionality one needs to operate the Absolute. The main screen allows you to select the digital input, and displays the active source name, upsampling filter identity, audio data frequency, and the gain level, if you’re using the Absolute’s volume control. On the Input Settings screen, the user makes a choice regarding the filter employed. There are seven options that I won’t list here but after listening to each with the same music—an hour or two of my life I’ll never get back—I settled on “slow roll-off linear phase.” Other parameters requiring a decision include settings for an IIR filter (47.44kHz is the default), lock speed (the number of audio samples the machine must see before the digital phase-locked loop, and the Sabre chip’s jitter-reduction algorithm kick in), as well as dithering, jitter elimination, and de-emphasis, for which the options are enabled or not. Finally, on the General Settings screen, one chooses either fixed or variable output for the Absolute, a default volume setting, and how bright you’d like the display to be.

There was no remote control, unlike most of the competition. Why should that be? Read on.

As I usually do with my T+A DAC 8 DSD, I connected the Absolute directly to the power amplifiers, a pair of David Berning Quadrature Z monoblocks. Loudspeakers were either Magico S1 Mk2s (usually deployed here as the surrounds in a multichannel system) or my new references, Magico M2s. Magico’s S-Sub saw some action from time to time, providing support below 40Hz. The digital sources were my long-in-the-tooth Oppo 103 used as a transport, and a MusiCHI SRV-1 server to play files stored on a Synology NAS. Analog cabling was mostly Transparent Ultra, and digital wires included Revelation Audio USB and Apogee Wyde Eye coaxial cables. Ideon encourages experimentation with anti-vibration devices, and I heard improvement with four Ariamateria decoupling feet placed underneath the Absolute’s aluminum pillars.

For my first few weeks with the Absolute, I listened only sporadically as I finished up other projects. There was an obvious “jump factor” going on—plenty of dynamic immediacy—and good detail. My interest grew as I heard the component improve with break-in. (The User Instructions maintain that the Absolute needs “a little over 300 hours to come fully into its own.”) But then the noises started—papery, scratchy noises that sounded like a damaged speaker driver (though the speakers were fine) or a failing capacitor. I checked in with the Ideon folks and their response was consternation. “Even the DAC chip manufacturers recommend that an analog volume control is better than a digital domain control,” replied George Ligerakis. “They recommend that, for critical listening, an analog preamp or analog attenuator should be used in order not to lose the resolution of the bits—meaning, in order not to lose the pure digital playback that is the essence of a good DAC.” This is why there was no remote: Ligerakis tells me that 100% of Absolute owners send output from the DAC to a preamp, which, of course, has its own volume control. Chastened, I started playing the Absolute though one of two preamplifiers on hand with analog volume controls—the Classé Delta PRE, the review of which I’d just finished, and a GamuT D3i on loan from Audio Skies. With both, the extraneous noises disappeared completely and I found myself reveling in the best digital sound I’d ever heard from my system, by a wide margin. As we were about to go to press, Ideon provided a considerably expanded User’s Guide that, among other things, details the benefits of using a quality preamp between the DAC and the power amplifier(s). It mentions the rare possibility that the design of some power amps could result in an impedance mismatch with the Absolute; this was responsible for the spurious sounds I heard when attempting to drive the Berning amplifiers directly with the Absolute.

Perhaps the most striking aspect of the Absolute DAC’s rendering of recordings, the one that’s most redolent of a real performance, is its representation of the dynamic life of music. To be sure, this has plenty to do with the wide dynamic range (and the associated high signal-to-noise ratio) of the Sabre chip and its implementation by Ideon—the Absolute plays loudly with authority and is wonderfully intelligible with the quietest material. A vanishing low noise floor gives intimately recorded music emotional acuity—Christy Moore singing “Shine On You Crazy Diamond” from his 2009 album Listen—and live recordings a captivating sense of occasion—Leonard Cohen’s autumnal Live in Dublin set. An even bigger payoff comes with the recreation of subtle dynamic inflections by vocalists and instrumentalists. You can hear this when Kevyn Lettau modulates the volume of a long-held note in “Everything She (He) Does Is Magic” (Songs of the Police) or in the way the woodwind soloists shape their phrases in the opening Allegretto of Bernard Haitink’s 2010 recording of Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 15. The mid-movement crescendo climax of that same selection crests gracefully, with a sense of ample headroom.

Also apparent with the Absolute was a resolution of musical detail and texture that never seemed unnaturally exaggerated. A receptive listener can make sense of simultaneous musical events in a way that’s typically much easier with flesh-and-blood performers. There’s not just the ability to discern the sound of a tiny triangle over the din of a full orchestra, but a world of subtly variegated tonal color is revealed, if it’s there on the recording. For many, the singing voice of the late Walter Becker, half of Steely Dan, was an unknown, at least until he released a solo album in 1994. Becker often sang background vocal parts on early SD albums, but his contribution was mixed with other singers in a way that obscured its individuality. Occasionally, however, Becker would sing in unison with his partner and Steely Dan frontman Donald Fagen. With the Ideon in the playback chain, he’s audible as his own man. Check out “Any Major Dude” from Pretzel Logic—for years, I thought I was listening to Fagen overdubbed with himself.

Two additional strengths of the Absolute DAC are clarity and speed; again, the kind that’s evident at a live concert, rather than an artifact of an overzealous recording or mastering process. Pianist Marc-André Hamelin is known for his superhuman technique and his 2001 CD Kaleidoscope, recorded for Hyperion in 2001 by Tony Faulkner, programs short, challenging pieces by 17 composer-pianists, including Hamelin himself. Hamelin’s Etude No. 6: Essercizio per pianoforte (Omaggio a Domenico Scarlatti) is a tongue-in-cheek tribute to the Italian baroque composer, and the blisteringly difficult passagework can blur with lesser digital playback. With the Absolute, not only is every note clear, but it’s evident that a machine is not responsible for what you’re hearing—each note is not exactly like the one before or after.

After another month with the Absolute in my system, it was apparent this is a product in the same league as the most ambitious gear from Berkeley, dCS, MSB, T+A, Meitner, and others. I’ve heard these DACs at shows, dealers, and in friends’ systems but, aural memory being what it is, I hankered for a more immediate comparison. I borrowed one of these top-of-the-heap components and devoted some hours to playing the same music through both machines, using the same source components and cabling, matching playback levels within 1dB with an SPL meter. I won’t name which one, as it would be highly irresponsible to declare a “winner” when two such complex devices were being compared for what was still a relatively short period of time. But, given my personal listening biases, I know which DAC I’d choose. The Ideon seemed subjectively louder, with more vital dynamics, and musically relevant details registered more clearly. On the Kaleidoscope selection noted above, there was a little less smearing of that demonically difficult passagework with the Greek DAC. Not night and day, but enough to make a difference. Listening to the competitor, you knew you were hearing an outstanding piano recording. With the Ideon, you could believe you were hearing a piano.

Negatives or compromises, if you will? No MQA, if you happen to be a fan. Even if you’re using an external preamp or attenuator, a remote would still be appreciated for switching sources and to make filter choices from the listening position.

But the fact remains that this is a world-class digital-to-analog converter, and even something of a bargain compared to its most elite competitors. There may be no sunroof or heated front seats, but Ideon’s Absolute DAC is a no-compromise piece of audio gear. In a good way, which is why I’m buying one.

Specs & Pricing

Inputs: USB, AES/EBU, coaxial
Formats supported: 44.1kHz–384kHz/32-bit PCM; DSD via DoP
Outputs: One pair each, balanced or unbalanced, fixed and variable
Dimensions: 19.25″ x 4.25″ x 13.75″
Weight: 57.2 lbs,
Price: $34,900

IDEON AUDIO
Parren 6, Neo Phychiko, 11525
Athens, Greece
+30 210 6199887
ideonaudio.com

AUDIO SKIES (North American distributer)
(310) 975-7099
audioskies.com
[email protected]

Tags: DAC IDEON AUDIO

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