We have a running joke in the PTA War Room about the “big” DAC from Ideon Audio, which is rumored to be going to Dave McNair for review. Apparently it weighs over 1600 pounds, more each and every day, and it now contains ten separate boxes–per channel, that is. Every time Eric and I discuss Dave’s DAC, it gets heavier and comes with more boxes. On the other hand, I wound up with the “little” Ideon Audio Ayazi Mk. 2 DAC with the 3R Master Time Clock, which is merely a two-chassis affair and each box can be lifted with one hand, more or less.
Still, the Ideon Audio Ayazi package feels like a big DAC to me. I’ve just started out reviewing DACs, sticking with simple designs that still offer decent sound quality. I have a rule about reviewing digital products—I want it, first and foremost, to fire right up and start playing music. I don’t want to futz around with drivers that won’t download, or fiddle with endless settings with the interfaces on my digital streaming services. If I can’t figure out your DAC, network streamer, music server or any other digital product on the first try, I’m probably not going to like it.
The $3,490 Ideon Audio Ayazi Mk. 2 DAC was a little daunting at first, and not because it’s an overly complicated converter. It passed the Old Analog Guy test and started playing music from Qobuz in minutes. The music, in fact, sounded spectacular right off the bat. I was happy. That’s what I want from a DAC.
It’s the second box I found troubling at first. This is the Ideon Audio 3R Master Time, same chassis and approximate weight as the Ideon Audio Ayazi, connected with an umbilical. The $3,900 3R Master Time Black Star is a re-clocking platform that’s designed to be placed between the DAC and the source—the three Rs stand for re-generating, re-clocking and re-driving the USB source signal. While a separate digital device like this isn’t new—stand-alone “clocks” have been around since we started using outboard DACs oh-so-many decades ago. But it’s the first time I’ve been able to play with one in my own system, and to see how it changes the sound of a DAC and the source component.
Look at me, being too-cool-for-school with an outboard ultra-low jitter femto clock.
I did start to feel nervous about reviewing both units together, especially since I still feel there’s so much I have yet to learn about all this digital gear. I’ve been trying to move up though the various types of products gradually, learning how to troubleshoot when the magic little boxes don’t make pretty music, learning which connectivity options are right for me (heck, I just started using XLR interconnects regularly in the past year or so), much less SPDIF/AFL/CIO jacks. Ultimately, the 3R Master Time Black Star was hooked up, the lights came on to let me know everything was synched, and before long I was listening to Let It Be Super Deluxe on Qobuz and finally liking that album for the very first time. It sounded wonderful.
Ideon Audio Ayazi Mk. 2 and 3R Master Time
First of all, the big DAC from Ideon Audio isn’t really that big. It comes in a single box, although you can add a streamer and another clock. But it is called the Absolute Epsilon and it does weigh 65 pounds and it does cost about $44,000. I don’t know what I would have done if they had sent it to me. I’m not quite there yet. Still down in the mailroom trying to work my way to the penthouse office, where I can buy two Ideon Audio Absolutes if I want.
That said, the Ideon Audio Ayazi Mk.2 with the 3R Master Time is sophisticated for an “entry-level” digital product. The Ayazi DAC on its own is straightforward with inputs for USB type 2 and above, plus SPDI/F. Ideon Audio has described the Ayazi, especially in contrast with the Absolute, as “no-frills construction, solid and functional.” Ah, just like I ordered.
Ideon Audio brings sophistication to the inside of the unit, however, with input protection (through a proprietary electrostatic protection circuit), asynchronous dual clock input and femto clock architecture. Elsewhere, the finest parts are used—regulators, caps and power feeds are tested extensively for the best performance. Through the USB input, the Ayazi’s 32-bit sampling rates are 44.1 to 384kHz, and through SPDI/F it handles up to 192kHz. The chipset is an ESS Sabre ES-9023-P, but Michael Vamos from Audio Skies, the US importer and distributor for the Greece-based Ideon, reminded me of something I’ve heard from several other DAC manufacturers this year:
“It is the stock chip, but in all DAC designs the chip only accounts for a small percentage of the final performance of the DAC. The big factors in the final performance, is an ultra-linear quiet power supply, the analog stage, and quality of the components and clocks used. These things make a much bigger impact on the final sound which is why you can have two DAC from separate brands that use the same chip but sound vastly different.”
The Ideon Audio 3R Master Time, as I mentioned, offers plenty of technical complexity. Ideon starts with a “triple ultra-stabilized low-noise power supply,” and then the ultra-low jitter femto clocks and the oscillators start in on the re-clocking duties. It’s easy to hook the 3R between your source and the Ideon Audio Ayazi DAC—or any other DAC for that matter. Michael Vamos also reminded me that the 3R Master Time will work with any DAC, and the Ideon Audio website suggests the 3R is an incredible solution for anyone using a laptop to stream music. That’s me.
That last point appealed to me since I had plans to place the Ideon Audio Ayazi mk. 2 and the 3R Master Time in two very different systems.
Ideon Audio Ayazi/3R System #1
As I mentioned earlier, I placed the Ideon Audio Ayazi Mk. II DAC into my main system, which enabled me to stream freely from Qobuz for extended lengths of time. Speakers included the Rosso Fiorentino Pienza monitors from Italy, as well as my reference Trenner and Friedl ART monitors and my Brigadier Audio BA-2s. I used the gorgeous and refined Circle Labs A200 integrated from Poland—interesting since both Greece and Poland are quietly becoming major forces in the world of high-end audio. Cabling is from AudioQuest, Furutech and Cardas.
This was where I first compared the Ideon Audio Ayazi Mk. 2 with and without the 3R Master Time. With only the Ayazi, I immediately noticed a rich and stable sound which I enjoyed. I’m using the words rich and stable deliberately because a few of the less ambitious (aka inboard) DACs I’ve used had a problem with an image that seemed to move around independently of the performers, and an overall tonal balance that is a little on the lightweight side as if the music was infused with a quick blast of helium. The Ayazi immediately gained its footing and kept the balance on the ground, between the performers, where it belongs.
The Ideon Ayazi Mk. 2 DAC also excelled at creating a full, deep soundstage that was confident in the way it located the lowest frequencies, where they would be centered enough to project outward and beyond the soundstage. My listening room is optimized right now for over-achieving two-way monitors, and the quality of bass I’ve been getting is just so perfect and balanced and clean. Those deepest notes plunge down through the floorboards and connect with me on the other side of the room—sort of a cajon effect. This isn’t flabby or loose or distorted bass, either. With great two-way monitors such as the Qln Prestige Ones and the Brigadiers, this low frequency balance as all I could ever desire. (The only problem, unfortunately, is playing an occasional round of Whack-a-Mole with bass nodes as I move stuff around. But I know how to move stuff around to fix it.)
Once I connected the Ideon Audio 3R Master Time, everything snapped into focus. That’s a horrible audiophile cliché right there, so I’ll elaborate—I actually felt that same sensation as when I focus the viewfinder on my camera. The music tightened up and the overall presentation was much easier to take in all at once.
First conclusion—the Ideon Audio Ayazi mk.II is a spectacular DAC in terms of detail, image stability and the enormous space it recreates, but the 3R adds some fresh-ground black pepper to your mashed potatoes which prompts you to exclaim, “Wow, this tastes even better now!” You will enjoy the Ayazi for the rest of your life unless you hear it with the 3R, and then you will have to have the 3R. That’s sort of the way I felt—once the 3R was installed in the digital chain, I didn’t want it to come back out. So it stayed.
Ideon Audio Ayazi/3R System #2
I just received the Ferrum Audio Oor headphone amplifier and Hypsos external power supply, along with a pair of the Focal Clear MGs (oh my, I might have found a new favorite headphone). It took me a week to realize that hey, I had the makings for an absolutely killer headphone rig—the Ferrum/Focal gear paired with the Ideon Audio duo, and streaming Qobuz from my laptop. I used some of my best Furutech cables and power cords, plugged them into the Atlas Cables EOS power strip, used the balanced connections for the cans, and wow.
This might be it, folks. I’ve never had a headphone system in for review that sounded this good. Sure, it’s expensive–$7500 for the Ideon Audio, $3500 for the Ferrum, $1300 for the Focals, $1000 for the Atlas, and a few more grand for the cables. But yes, I’m pretty sure I haven’t heard anything better. I had only one problem—it’s a lot of gear for a headphone rig, with wires and cables going everywhere. You might need a separate equipment rack just for this rig.
This was, simply stated, one of the most noise-free headphone systems I’ve used. You know how you can always hear a little something through a headphone system once it’s turned on? That rush of noise that provides feedback about the impending volume level? Yeah, it’s still there but loitering way off in the distance. Occasionally I experienced that “are these things on?” feeling. It reminded me of the first time I heard a CD and the music suddenly rose out of the void and I gasped audibly.
Yes, the quiet is sublime, but what about that sound? Well, I’ve spent much of the last year exploring all sorts of products that address proper grounding, noise reduction, power conditioning, RF filtering and the like, and the Ideon Audio Ayazi and 3R, along with all the associated gear, and I know that lower noise floors result in more music getting to your brain. In other words, I was able to hear so deep into the recordings that I could close my eyes and easily imagine that I was in the room with the performers.
I mentioned Let It Be Super Deluxe. Remember all the silly banter between the songs, the stuff you could barely make out when you first heard it on your record player back in 1969? You’ll hear it all now—the giggling, the feedback from the booth, and all those electronics humming in the distance. Every time I listen to this latest round of remastered Beatles albums, I’m astonished at how much detail I’ve missed over my lifetime. It’s all so new now. The Ideon Audio and Ferrum headphone rig made me listen to all those remastered Beatles albums in a row, and then I feasted on Pink Floyd. And then Tool. I was a teenager again, closing my eyes, sitting back and rocking out.
You could cut corners here and there—remove the 3R Master Time and save $4K, go with a more affordable pair of cans, use another pair of RCA interconnects that don’t run for $2850/pair. But once I heard this headphone rig I wouldn’t want to go back to anything less.
I keep mentioning that I’m new to reviewing DACs, and that I’m starting off with simple units that place sound quality over an insane amount of connectivity options I don’t need. The Ideon Audio Ayazi Mk. 2 DAC with the 3R Master Time re-clocking platform isn’t quite simple—but it was simple enough for me to get straight to the music.
I’ll tell you a secret, though. I still want only one thing from a DAC—stunning sound quality. I want the hi-rez stuff to sound extraordinary. That’s it. I’m probably going to go USB (where the 3R helps), I’m probably going to stream 95% of the time, and one day I’m probably going to put my CD collection in a server and I want it to sound at least as good as the physical format. If it sounds even better, that’s okay too.
That’s why I really enjoyed the Ideon Ayazi Mk. 2 DAC and the 3R Master Time Black Star. I consistently achieved excellent sound from several sources and wildly different systems, and it provided me with a clear view of what the big DACs can do, converters like, I dunno, the Ideon Audio Absolute. I really want to hear what that can do that this rig can’t. Or maybe I shouldn’t listen to it at all—because I’ll want THAT.
Highly recommended, and a Reviewer’s Choice.