You might think that after spending nine years or so reviewing DACs, there’d be no real surprises left.
If you read or watch DAC reviews, you’re bound to find your fair share of people suggesting that DACs pretty much sound the same, more or less, and the law of diminishing returns for DACs kicks in directly after whatever giant killer the writer or talking head has ‘discovered’. As if buying hifi gear represents an investment akin to crypto, as if listening to music produces a marketable good or service, and there are regulators out there keeping track of your hifi expenditures charting how they stack up against the savviest of hifi speculators.
The rank absurdity of this position, if it isn’t already painfully clear, lies in the purely subjective nature of perceived value, something that varies from person to person more than income levels, and the plain truth of the matter is the byproduct of listening to music on the hifi is first and foremost a form of pleasure, and its a sensual pleasure to boot, so putting an arbitrary cap on sensual pleasure seems unnecessarily monastic.
When I first situated the Ideon mk2 DAC & 3R Master Time Black Star in my system and hit “Play Now” in Roon, I was more than surprised. And I have to admit, my surprise startled me. I’d just come off reviewing the excellent Denafrips Terminator II DAC (review) using the Denafrips IRIS DDC to feed the DAC via I2S, a combo that clocks in at roughly $5K, and I admit I was expecting more of the same, more or less, from the Ideon stack. Maybe even a bit less if I let the Terminator’s forty plus pounds weigh into my thought process. Hell, you could fit the Ideon pair inside the Terminator with room to spare. This is one reason I take weeks and weeks of time listening to the thing under review — first impressions can lead to all kinds of silly thoughts and rash judgements.
Ideon is based in Greece and was founded in 2016 by CEO George Ligerakis and chief engineer Vasilis Tounas. The company’s focus is digital audio, offering what can be looked at as two lines — the Audio Ayazi mk2 DAC and 3R Master Time Black Star, and the more upscale Absolute DAC, Time, and Stream. I sat in on a presentation of the Absolute stack at last year’s Capitol Audiofest and walked away impressed.
The Ideon Ayazi mk2 is just a DAC, offering single Coax S/PDIF and USB inputs and a pair of RCA outputs. There’s no streaming capability, no internal volume control, no DSP, and no headphone amp. From where I sit, there’s a lot to like about buying just-a-DAC, especially if you share my love of integrated amplifiers. The Ayazi employs an ESS Pro D/A converter and if you think this tells you something about how it sounds, you’d be incorrect. Just like thinking that paprika tells you everything you need to know about how a meal is going to taste. The Ayazi is also PCM-only, so DSD files need to be converted to PCM somewhere in your playback chain (if you have any DSD files). I let Roon take care of this conversion for the handful of DSD titles I listen to every few months.
Ideon has put real R&D time and implemented their results into clean, stable power and the eradication of electrical noise in the Ayazi. These measures include the use of over-spec’d linear power supplies, a reclocking Coax S/PDIF input, and a high speed async dual clock USB audio input. Two CCHD-957 oscillators from Crystek are employed to help reduce jitter and noise below perceptible levels according to the company.
The Ayazi’s brushed aluminum front panel comes in Black or Silver and is similarly spartan, offering toggle on/off switches for power and input selection. Measuring roughly 7” deep, 2.75” high, and 14.5” wide, the same dimensions as the matching Ideon DAC 3R Master Time Black Star, the stack is smaller than a typical full-size component.
The Black Star is a USB external re-clocker, with USB in and out, with the input offering optional 5V of power for use with power-less DACs. The unit’s toggle switch power button also resides around back, leaving the Black Star’s front panel free from function with three LEDs indicating power status, signal lock, and host. I am happy to report that these LEDs are very subtle when lit, so they don’t draw undo attention to themselves.
The “3R”s in the Black Star’s name refers to re-generating, re-clocking, re-driving the USB source signal which is accomplished in part by using ultra-low jitter femto clocks and ultra-low noise oscillators to ensure phase correct restitution & drive. The Black Star also houses a proprietary triple (3x) ultra-stabilized, low-noise linear power supply to keep noise at bay.
I know what some of you are thinking — is an external re-clocker, or DDC, really necessary? I’ve read all manner of arguments for and against, from extreme to extreme, from noise and jitter are not issues in digital audio, to people extolling the virtues of optical isolation, USB filters, external linear power supplies and so on. We could argue from now till the end of time over such matters and never reach a consensus. So what are we to do? I know, let’s listen!
Let me be perfectly clear — the Ideon 3R Master Time Black Star, when used with the Ayazi DAC, improves the sound of music in obvious and compelling ways. Chief among these improvements that come with using the Black Star are greater resolution, greater spatial delineation, an expanded sound image in every dimension, and more fully developed timbre. Things simply sound more like they sound in real life with the Black Star in use.
Of course the level of perceived improvement will depend on the room, system, and listener. I used the Ideon stack with the Qualiton X200 Integrated Amplifier (review) and Constellation Inspiration Integrated 1.0 (review) mainly driving the DeVore Fidelity O/96 and Perlisten R7t speakers. The Constellation Integrated is one of the most resolving yet musically satisfying integrated amplifiers I’ve had the pleasure to spend real time with, and both speaker pairings created a system context that allowed for as close a look into reproduction as I cared to go.
The Ideon DAC and Black Star were fed the USB output from a Raspberry Pi 4 which, all on its own, is a pretty poor sounding streamer. We could make the argument that a better server or streamer would render the Black Star’s improvements less dramatic, and this may very well be the case but I don’t have either on hand to test this theory. What I can say is that the Black Star makes the otherwise sloppy-sounding $70 all-in Raspberry Pi part of a great sounding digital system. And I do mean great.
Part of what startled me when I first played music through the Ideon stack was how exceptionally resolving my system became. A few minutes in, I was thinking there might be too much resolution. A few hours in changed that initial impression, and a few weeks in I can see how addictive this level of transparency becomes once you get a taste. The thing is, we can get lulled into thinking that the performance of our hifi, actual and potential, can be viewed as a staircase with all of the steps in plain sight. When we add a new component that offers better performance compared to what it replaced, we move up a step (or more) and at some point we reach the top. The apex, the summit.
When I first met my then-future wife, she told me in no uncertain terms, “You’re going to learn to ski.” She was an avid skier, so our life together would include sliding down snowy (and icy) mountains on narrow planks. Fast forward about a year, and we were driving to Mammoth Mountain with a few of her California ski- and surf-bum friends. Up until then, my experience was limited to the Catskills. As we approached Mammoth, the mountain, we rounded a bend and I got my first glimpse of the biggest slopes I’d ever seen. And I thought, Wow that’s big but not as bad as I expected. I can manage Mammoth. But the road continued to climb and I soon realized that I’d only seen the very bottom of the lowest part of the mountain. The bottom few steps of a stairway that reached into the clouds. Gulp.
The demand for certainty is one which is natural to man, but is nevertheless an intellectual vice. Bertrand Russell
This is the reality of hifi performance. When we think we’ve heard the peak, a new speaker or component arrives that introduces us to heights we didn’t even know existed. Experience teaches us that the more we know, the more we understand we don’t know anywhere near what we thought we knew. People who think they know everything being the most limited thinkers of all.
Listening through the Ideon stack for weeks on end, day after day, introduced me to a level of luscious clarity that made even the familiar sound surprising. Sure, I’ve heard and owned a number of great digital systems over the years, but the ones that really stand out, that struck me with similar sonic awe, were all more costly than the Ideon DAC and Re-Clocker. Compared to my Favorite DACs, I would put the Ideon’s level of performance in the same league as the Weiss DAC501 (review). While it’s been too long since the Weiss was here for me to make play-by-play comparisons, based on how I react to listening to music, my human response which is something that sticks with me longer than the exact silkiness of silky highs, I am confident with this assessment.
Compared to the resident totaldac d1-tube DAC/streamer (review), the Ideon stack sounds more resolving, more in control, while offering a similarly saturated sound. Yum. I’ve owned a few of the higher level totaldacs including the d1-seven and d1-direct, and memory suggests that the totaldac d1-tube mk2 (9100euros or about USD10,400) would offer Ideon-level resolution. Or thereabouts.
Over time, what really stood out about listening to music through the Ideon Ayazi mk2 DAC and 3R Master Time Black Star combo, was a sense of being presented with music’s endless riches laid out in full view in Barn. When music is presented with exceptional clarity and resolution, we can move our focus to any and every aspect of the recording, zooming way in on a particular part or player, moving out to get a broader view of interplay, and further out still to take in the full sonic picture and how scale, specificity, and space set the stage where music unfolds.
These sonic strengths can also do a funny thing with time. Because the Ideon stack is so resolving, allowing for as close examination of the musical proceedings as you care to zoom in on, it can seem as if we are listening outside of time, capable of slowing things down or speeding things up depending on our chosen focus. Crucial aspects of reproduction like tension, anticipation, and release can take on cinematic-like qualities when presented with the startling clarity of the Ideon combo. Lightning like attack with decay trailing off into silence for as long as it takes to get there, layered sounds that no matter how complex are easy to unravel, are aspects of reproduction that digital can have a difficult time getting right without stripping away tone and texture. This is why some people read words like “resolving” and “clarity” as negatives when it comes to digital replay, but in the case of the Ideon Ayazi mk2 DAC and 3R Master Time Black Star, they are steps in the right direction, leading to greater musical engagement.
There’s no better surprise in hifi than being startled by an unexpected level of musical engagement. The Ideon Ayazi mk2 DAC and 3R Master Time Black Star combination is among the most captivating digital solutions I’ve had the pleasure of spending real time with, offering a view into music that’s as unobstructed as I’ve heard.
Ideon Audio Ayazi mk2 DAC: $3900
Ideon Audio 3R Master Time Black Star: $3900
Ayazi mk2 DAC Specifications
|Digital Inputs||USB Type 2 and above, SPDI/F|
|Output Full Scale||2.0V RMS|
|Frequency Response||10Hz-25kHz (+/- 0.5dB)|
|SNR (DC to 20kHz)||>112dB|
|SNR (A-weighted 20HZ-20KHZ)||>130dB on all outputs|
|THD+N (1kHz FS 96 kS/s)||<0.002%E|
|USB Input||Transfer mode: Asynchronous (dual clock) Device class: Type 2 or above Bit depth: 32 bit Sampling rates: 44.1, 48, 88.2, 96, 176.4, 192, 352.8, 384 kHz|
|Dimensions (W x H x D) / Weight||29cm X 17cm X 8cm / 16 lbs.|
|SPDIF / COAXIAL Input||Bit depth: 24 bit Sampling rates: 44.1, 48, 96, 192 kHz|
|Controls||On/off switch, LED indicator USB / SPDI/F input, sync LED indicator|
|Power Requirements||230 / 110 V AC, 1A, 20W max|
|Operating Temperature||0-35˚ C|
|Relative Humidity||5-95% non-condensing|
|Output||Stereo unbalanced impedance: 250 Ω|
Specifications 3R Master Time Black Star
|USB||Type 2.0 hi speed: 480Mb/sec|
|PCM, DSD||Full Compatibility|
|Operating System Seamless Operation||With USB Stack Support (no special drivers required)|
|USB Power Rail||Switchable 5V on/off|
|Four Asynchronous Endpoint Buffers|
|Power Supply||Triple ultra-low noise linear power supply|
|Output Power||600ma ultra low noise 5 volt USB|
|Application||Computer audio systems / DAC / ADC|
|Dimensions (W x H x D) / Weight||29cm X 17cm X 8cm / 14 lbs.|