Ideon Audio Ayazi mk2 D/A processor & 3R Master Time Black Star USB clock
I learned about music in places like this one, having figured out that the occasional eye roll was worth putting up with for the information and knowledge on offer. I grew up at a time when music was obtainable mostly on physical media: records, CDs, cassettes. It was usually necessary to buy a recording in order to hear it, so one’s budget had to be apportioned impactfully. Reliable insider dope was crucial.
Today, the internet and streaming have revolutionized access to music in ways that are frankly thrilling (if not for musicians, then definitely for listeners). I teach college classes, and my music-loving students know more about a broader array of music than I did at their age, thanks partly to YouTube and Spotify. During the most isolating months of the pandemic, Roon, Tidal, and Qobuz allowed me to spend many happy hours learning about Indian classical music, the pop traditions of Ethiopia, Mali, and Senegal, and some obscure corners of lover’s rock and classic reggae, propelled record by record through the Tidal and Qobuz catalogs by Roon’s machine-learning algorithms.
What I’m getting around to saying is that, for many of us, streaming has become a crucial part of our musical diets, more indispensable than CDs ever were. For me though, this musically exciting fact is sonically challenging, because I have a strong preference for music pressed on vinyl. I’ve listened to, and reviewed, plenty of nice-sounding digital gear, but I cannot remember many times I thought, “wow, this sounds incredible!” the way I sometimes do when I listen to a system organized around a wellset-up turntable.
Many digital sources excel at reproducing the contours of music, including the tiny sonic minutiae some listeners call “plankton.” What they struggle with is filling in those contours with realistic information that registers as texture, color, impact, physicality, presence, and, most importantly, a sense of tonal densityof music pressurizing the air. I tend to think of these qualities as reproduced music’s third dimension; for me, they are essential to the illusion of a musical event happening in my listening room. Unfortunately, these qualities do not show up on an oscilloscope (footnote 1). Engineering a digital source that is able to engage and hold your attention is not addressed by simple strategies like lowering distortion or minimizing jitter. It requires a more complex and multilateral approach.
The Ideon D/A System
Which brings me to the Ideon Ayazi mk2 DAC ($3950) and 3R Master Time Black Star USB reclocker (also $3950), a two-box digital source that made me think about the ways a component can encourage us to seek out certain musical experiences. Founded in Athens in 2016 by George Ligerakis and Vasilis Tounas, Ideon Audio manufactures only digital gear and takes some unorthodox approaches to getting it to sound good. Consider the Ayazi mk2, which is designed around the ESS9023 DAC chip. These days, some perfectionist DACs in a similar price bracket convert data using R-2R resistor networks, while others rely on many lines of custom code. In contrast, the Ayazi relies on the ESS chip and its onboard filters; according to Ligerakis, the special sauce lies in the way it’s optimized and used. Ideon emphasizes regulated, stable linear power supplies and “persistent” reclocking. If I had assumed that the inexpensive integrated DAC chip told me something about how the Ideon stack would sound, I would have been completely wrong.
In the metal, the Ideon components are as spare as they are elegant. Their petite yet reassuringly heavy battleship-gray cases, which measure roughly 11″ × 7″ × 3″, reflect their streamlined purpose; the front panel of the Ayazi contains only a power switch and an input selector offering a choice of USB and S/PDIF. The 3R Master Time Black Star (typing the full name of this product makes me feel a little silly, so I will refer to it henceforth as the Master Time) greets the listener only with tastefully dim LEDs marked “power,” “lock,” and “host.” On the back of the Ayazi you will find the two aforementioned inputs, a pair of RCA analog outputs, and an IEC power receptacle. The rear of the Master Time offers a USB input and output, a switch for the 5V power rail, and, of course, another power cord input. That’s it. The Ideon components boast no selectable filters or oversampling options, no network inputs, no I2S or MQA. They don’t even decode DSD. The choices reflect what Ligerakis described to me as the “particularly Spartan approach” he took to maximizing the listening experience; this reference from Ideon’s Greek CEO delighted the geek in me.
In use, the Ideon stack is simplicity itself: I connected the Sonore opticalRendu streamer to the Master Time using an AudioQuest Diamond USB cable, then routed another Diamond USB cable from the Master Time to the Ayazi. Then I set Roon to convert DSD files to PCM. Game on.
To get an obvious question out of the way: Yes, I did listen to the Ayazi without the Master Time. By its lonesome, the Ayazi reproduced music with less resolution and timbral accuracy and created a spatially smaller, less lifelike sound. Music sounded duller and less compelling. After checking this experiment off my list, I left the two components connected. This review is of the Master Time and Ayazi together.
The most obvious aspect of listening through the Ideon stack was how well it organized the recordings played through it. Nothing was exaggerated or missing, including deep bass and the high highs; nothing sounded strident or splashy. This sense of order was heightened by a profound silence. Digital components aren’t generally known for being noisy, but the Master Time/Ayazi created a musically significant silence, in part because of the remarkable resolution on hand.
The Ideon components presented recordings as though bathed in brilliant light, with every speck of information illuminated in high contrast. In particular, they portrayed decay and reverberant trails with more precision and sustain than any source I’ve heard at home. On “I Believe in You,” from Talk Talk’s otherworldly Spirit of Eden (16/44.1 FLAC, Parlophone/Qobuz), a record that has become deservedly recognized as a key precursor to post-rock and an unclassifiable masterpiece in its own right, the low-level notes from Tim Friese-Greene’s electric guitar were rendered with such shimmering vividness that they seemed less like sounds and more like tumbleweeds blowing across the soundstage.
The Master Time/Ayazi rendered music with none of the artifacts of early digital reproduction, which boil down to the sense of hollowness I touched on earlier: the impression that the music is a flickering hologram with little inside it. Best of all, the Ideon stack’s minutely detailed presentation didn’t detract from the music’s weight. Here, I’m not talking about the weight of low bass tones but rather the realistic sense of weight possessed by actual instruments and voices. And it imbued recordings with remarkable solidity, a genuinely lovely effect.
Over the weeks I spent listening to these Greek components, a funny thing happened. As much as I admired them, their way with texture, presence, and color saturationthe tonal juiciness of a recordingwas no match for the turntable and handful of low-output moving coil cartridges that lived on the shelf above them. I’m not sure any digital source can surpass a good turntable in this regard. But it became increasingly clear that the Master Time/Ayazi accomplished something that the analog source couldn’t: It created a pristine, spectrally quiet sonic world in which I could enjoy the unfolding of the most delicate musical events. After a while, I realized that the Ideon stack was subtly altering my listening habits, encouraging me to reach more often for music filled with these kind of diaphanous moments, which tend to be present most reliably on classical recordings.
Sviatoslav Richter’s 1960 performance of Beethoven’s “Appassionata” (16/44.1 rip of BMG 07863-56518-2) is one of the marvels of recorded piano. It was committed to tape during his first visit to the West, belated because the Ukraine-born pianista closeted gay man whose father was murdered during Stalin’s purgeswas politically suspect in his native Soviet Union. Richter turned the stately, flowing first movement into a harrowing statement; he dramatically extended the composition’s dynamics and took such liberties with the tempo that listening to it can constrict the throat with suspense. Weeks earlier, he had closed his first appearance at Carnegie Hall with a similarly radical performance of the Beethoven sonata, shocking the audience.
The Master Time/Ayazi reproduced the acoustic of New York’s Webster Hall, where RCA engineer Lewis Layton recorded him, in all of its cavernous vastness; hearing the hall reverberate with Richter’s violent attack on the keyboard made the performance disturbing and powerful. The Ideon stack also allowed me to hear that no matter how forcefully Richter struck the keys, his playing remained in perfect control, a testament to his unearthly technique.
I compared the Master Time/Ayazi combination to my Sonnet Morpheus, another highly resolving DAC, which uses an R-2R conversion scheme. Listening to the beguiling title track from Bert Jansch’s Rosemary Lane (16/44.1 FLAC, Transatlantic/Qobuz) through the Morpheus, Jansch’s John Baileybuilt acoustic guitar and quiet yet expressive singing sounded just as detailed but notably less coherent, both musically and sonically, than through the Ideon stack. The recording sounded splashier, with somewhat less weight, and didn’t hold my attention as reliably as it did when played through the Master Time/Ayazi. The Ideon rendition also sounded meaningfully quieter and slightly more dynamic. But then, even when I factor in the Denafrips Iris digital-to-digital converter I use to feed the Morpheus’s I2S input, the Dutch DAC costs about half as much as the Ideon stack.
During my time with it, the Master Time/Ayazi offered me something I didn’t know I wanted. No audio component offers every desirable aspect of sound reproduction, which means we have to settle for acceptable compromises. My version of audio heaven is the world’s best jukebox playing endless 45s; my choices in gear tend to prioritize dynamics, unambiguous bass, vast soundstages, and plentiful helpings of tone color, drive, and physicality. Of course, that is not the only path to paradise, and the Ideon components provide the kind of musical thrills one might hear through the original Quad electrostatic speakers: a crystal-clear, essentially neutral, hyperdetailed window onto the music that captures every nuance without sacrificing music’s weight and body.
During my time with it, the Ideon stack operated flawlessly, offering no intrusions on my enjoyment. With a combined price of $7800, it is by no means inexpensive, but it provides good value for the refined musical spectacle it creates. That it inspired me to explore music that usually forms a relatively small portion of my musical diet is a testament to how compelling the Ideon stack makes the files played through it, and it is by no means a one-trick pony: It can play every kind of music with all of its strengths intact. I simply found listening to certain genres on it to be a revelation. If I were a listener of primarily classical and acoustic music, I would travel far to hear one.
Footnote 1: Maybe they do if you know what to look for.Jim Austin