Ayon represent a new breed of hi-fi manufacturer, one that designs its products in Europe and manufactures them in China. The economics of the arrangement are very hard to beat; man hours on that side of the world cost so much less than they do over here where we have inconveniences like a high cost of living to deal with, let alone a raft of legislation that is so daunting it’s a wonder anyone wants to start their own company. What’s more, the sonic results of such an arrangement can be extremely impressive. China seems to be turning the QC corner in no uncertain terms and within five years could well be competing with Japan in the build quality department. At that point western brands will be in dire straits if they don’t find some cosy niche.
Ayon are based in Gratkorn, Austria where they make loudspeakers inhouse. They also produce a range of valve electronics and have even designed their own monster output triode, the 21cm tall 62B. However, the CD1 is their first source component and perhaps naturally also features glowing bottles inside its curvy aluminium casework. There are four of them, two 6H30 and two 6922 from Electro-Harmonix, but they do not run so warm that any ventilation is required. Nor, more surprisingly, could I clearly detect their presence in the player’s sound, even when compared with solid state alternatives, which is unusual but very welcome as I’d much rather be listening to the music than the output stage.
When first powered up a red light on the back panel was illuminated which seemed odd enough for me to look at the manual (all I found on the player is the word ‘phase’ next to the light). You won’t be surprised to hear that this relates to the phase of the mains supply, but as every standard lead I tried failed to defeat the LED, you might need to rewire yours.
The Ayon’s casework is very nice, the curved corners and top-loading tray in machined aluminium giving the impression of a rather more expensive player (an impression let down a little by the rather basic screen printed lettering and the feel of the acrylic disc cover and blue bling LEDs of the control buttons). The light show is hidden when looking at the front so can be forgiven, but the idiosyncrasies of operation are a little more wilfully unnecessary. In order to get the CD1 to read a disc once you have pucked it in place, it’s necessary to press the stop button twice in quick succession. I’ve reviewed numerous top loading players in my time and not had to do this before, so why here? Still I’ve had far more obscure players to operate and in truth this is a minor foible. Once in the system there’s not a lot to grab hold of with this player. It has to be the most neutral valve powered disc spinner I’ve come across, which is not very helpful if you are trying to write a review, but desirable if you want to listen to your music and not a piece of hardware. Despite the enthusiasm which some have for the sound of valves, it is still essentially a colouration rather than an enhancement. It may sound like it is making up for what the recording process has lost, by adding certain harmonics, but that is not what high fidelity is supposed to be about.
The Ayon arrived at the same time as the Boulder 865 integrated amplifier (of considerable cost and not inconsiderable transparency). Combining the two was not a great success, but certainly served to reveal the Ayon as a sophisticated sounding machine with good clean high frequencies and maybe as a result, an ability to reproduce reverb with ease. It is also usefully quiet, allowing you to hear low-level sounds without difficulty, and delivering excellent dynamic range. Instrumental timbre is also well served; not so much so that you think ah, there’s the valve sound, but it is the one factor that makes you wonder.
My solid-state Resolution Audio Opus 21 reference costs 50% more and gives you a better focused and more subtle sound, but it doesn’t extract much more detail or texture in the timbral department, qualities that set the Ayon apart from its price peers.
The CD1 also has nicely mobile and weighty bass. Manu Katché’s kick drum really kicks while his snare reveals plenty of reverb and space in the recording. It’s a tight sound and one that seems to have broad bandwidth as well. John Surman’s saxophone is big and rich on the album Thimar and the double bass that follows it actually manages to maintain ones attention – which can’t be bad for a bass solo. Barb Jungr’s rendition of ‘Who Do You Love’ on a Linn SACD is a fabulously snappy piece of music with which the Ayon does decent service, keeping your toes twitching and at the same time letting you hear the fingers on the tabla which sits down in the mix but provides much of the pulse. It also managed to keep Zappa’s guitar from going white-out on the somewhat angular ‘Filthy Habits’ from Sleep Dirt, keeping it just the right side of the edgy/uncomfortable divide.