Do I need a digital streamer like the Aavik S-280? At first I wasn’t so sure. I’ve been pretty happy with just a DAC and my laptop for streaming Qobuz, just like I was happy with the AudioQuest Dragonfly Cobalt and a pair of headphones and my laptop before that. In fact, when I reviewed the Aavik U-280 integrated amplifier and DAC, I started to wonder why I needed the S-280 at all.
I’ve used network streamers before, but usually they were built-in modules already attached to some sort of DAC. In most cases, everything was so automated that I never had to worry about the streamer on its own. It was just there, doing the things that it did as long as I plugged into my network.
Words and Photos by Marc Phillips
But with the Aavik S-280 streamer, I got a crash course in a network streamer’s purpose in life and how it integrated with my existing digital playback devices. I hit a few roadblocks along the way since the curves for digital playback can be still be quite steep for me at times, and the S-280 did not pass my five-minute rule, where music from Qobuz must be playing within five minutes after plugging in the network cable or USB.
What were these obstacles? First, the owners manual instructed me to download the Aavik app. Since the manual itself was pretty slim when it came to step by step installation of the Aavik S-280, I assumed that the app–along with the S-280’s internal menu–would walk me through all the rest of the steps. So I grabbed my iPhone, and started searching for this Aavik app, but it was nowhere to be found.
Hmm, that’s a problem. I’ll come back to this later, I thought, which was no big deal because I was already quite smitten with the Aavik U-280 and its built-in DAC. I was streaming just fine without the S-280.
Two things happened, however, that put me back on track with the Aavik S-280. First, I realized that the app wasn’t appearing because the Aavik S-280 is designed for use with an iPad and not an iPhone. There are controller apps you can use–reviewer Anthony Kershaw tackled the Aavik S-280 for Audiophilia, and he encountered the same problem with getting the S-280 up and running. Kershaw went on the Aavik forums and discovered he could download another app, Mconnect Control, and that worked for him with his iPhone.
I was on the verge of trying Mconnect, but then I had a thought: don’t I have an iPad around here somewhere? I did! We bought it years ago for streaming content in our exhibit rooms at high-end audio shows but never quite got around to needing it. So I dusted it off, charged it, downloaded the app and the Aavik S-280 settled right in as expected and started streaming to my heart’s content. So if you sense some residual grumpiness about the inauspicious beginnings, just know that I’m the kind of guy who curses like a sailor the first time I have to figure things out for myself. That often includes getting up, walking away, coming back and saying oh, there’s the solution right in front of my nose. This was one of those times.
Inside the Aavik S-280
The $12,000 Aavik S-280, just like the Aavik U-280, sits in the middle of the streamer line. (The S-180 is just $7,200, and the beefier but still cosmetically identical S-580 is $25,200.) As you move up the line, you get more of AGD’s Tesla coil and analog dithering technologies, and with the 580 line you also get copper and titanium in the chassis to further reduce inductance. The composite case is identical to the one for the Aavik U-280, so they look very cool side by side. I also added another set of the Ansuz Darkz S2t isolation devices under the S-280’s feet.
As usual the main goal of the S-280, aside from streaming, is to add one more platform for those noise suppression technologies. You get 72 active Tesla coils inside, which matches the 72 in the Aavik U-280. You also get 164 square Tesla coils and six of the analog dithering circuits. There are six power supplies inside the S-280 as well. The sampling rate at 24 bits is 32-192kHz.
The case of the Aavik S-280 is made from the same non-metal composite as the U-280 (and the Ansuz PowerSwitch and Mainz8 I also used), and while this makes the S-280 extremely light, it also maintains that consistent dedication to lowering the noise floor:
“The testing of new circuits and electronic components is often done without the enclosing cabinet. The disturbing sonic influence, which emanates from the material the cabinet is made of – mostly aluminium – results from its mechanical resonance. To eliminate this sonic distortion, the challenge was to minimize the use of aluminium in the cabinet to the absolute minimum that is unavoidable to ensure sufficient cooling. We began testing various materials and designed an innovative natural-based composite material, which reduces the mechanical influence, particularly the hysteresis. The sonic result is distinctly audible and reflects a further prominent cornerstone in Aavik’s quest for the ultimate music experience.”
Finally, the Aavik S-280 can be completely integrated into Roon–or not. Lars Kristensen told me that I might enjoy using the Aavik interface for streaming instead. That’s not a huge selling point for me since I’ve never really grown attached to Roon, despite paying for a subscription for the last couple of years. The Aavik app seemed to work in a way that emulated Roon, but in a way that felt more fluid and intuitive within an all-AGD system. Yes, I know that Roon can be used in so many creative ways, but I’m not there yet in terms of my streaming acumen. Maybe I’ll revisit Roon later, but I would be satisfied using the Aavik S-280 without it.
Ansuz PowerSwitch D2 Ethernet Switch
Since I received so much review gear from Audio Group Denmark at once, I’m reviewing everything in associated groups. For the Aavik S-280 review, I’m including tests of all the digital playback gear including the Ansuz ethernet cables and the PowerSwitch D2 ethernet switch ($6,600).
Ethernet switches have been been a contentious topic among many audiophiles–it’s the latest device that has its work cut out for it in terms of its perceived necessity. I’ll even go as far as to mention that we had an internet switch come in for review last year. We assigned it to our most knowledgeable digital guy, and he came away from the experience not hearing much of a difference. I told myself at the time, “I don’t think PTA is going to worry about ethernet switches in the near future.” I was wrong, of course.
Then, when I visited the Audio Group Denmark factory last summer, I spent three days A/Bing all of their products, up and down the Aavik, Ansuz and Børresen lines. Among the products I compared were the Ansuz PowerSwitch ethernet switches, which range from the $2,600 PowerSwitch X-TC to the PowerSwitch GOLD Signature, which retails for a cool $23,000. (It has gold in it.) The D2 sits right in the middle of the line.
Did I hear differences with the PowerSwitch line? Amazingly enough, I did. I heard linear improvements each time, which usually meant I heard less noise and more music with each substitution. To confirm these differences in my reference system, I used the Aavik S-280 with and without the PowerSwitch D2. Then, after all was said and done, I used the Ansuz PowerSwitch D2 in a simpler system consisting of the Naim Uniti Atom Headphone Edition all-in-one and a pair of Focal Celestee headphones.
Did the Ansuz PowerSwitch D2 make a difference in the headphone rig? Well, I was already enamored with the Naim Uniti because it sounds great and is fun and easy to use, but I wasn’t completely sold on the Celestees. I think the Focal Clear MGs, a couple of steps up the Focal headphone line, are my favorite headphones right now, the ones I would go out and buy without hesitation. The $995 Focal Celestees, in comparison, were a little dryer and little flatter, and they lacked the luxuriant warmth and space of the Clear MGs.
While the D2 did not magically transform the Celestees into Clear MGs, I noticed rather quickly that I found much less to fault with the Focals than before. The PowerSwitch simply lowered the noise floor once again, but it sounded a little more obvious through headphones. I heard more space and better dynamic contrasts and an overall sound that was far more to my liking than before.
Ansuz Cabling and Set-Up
This review of the Aavik S-280 is also a review of the digital cables from Ansuz that I used–specifically the Digitalz C2 ethernet cables ($9,900 each), and the Digitalz C2 coax ($3,300) for the connection to the Aavik U-280. Two C2 ethernet cables were used–one from the router to the PowerSwitch, and one from the PowerSwitch to the S-280. Again, these are middle entries in each line–you can pay much more, and you can pay less.
Since the Aavik S-280 and its excellence is somewhat dependent on its role with all the other AGD components, I kept the review system, as described previously, as constant as possible through the review period. That’s not to say I didn’t mix and match along the way, but each time I did I had the distinct feeling of adding noise back into the system, which is much easier to detect than moving in the opposite direction.
By the way, when you see the little black pods on Ansuz cabling, it’s merely how the Tesla coil and analog dithering technologies are integrated into the cable designs. Every Audio Group Denmark product is designed to lower inductance and remove noise–through either these devices, or using materials with low inductance, or cryogenics. I just got in an online argument with someone who still maintains the power cord argument that the ten miles of power lines to your house are far more important than the last couple of meters. If you still maintain that argument, you’re ignoring filters and conditioners and solid connectors and noise suppression technologies. Get thee to Aalborg!
Listening to the Aavik S-280
While I did have some difficulties during the set-up process, something I now blame entirely on my stubborn and curmudgeonly self, there seemed to be a point where the Aavik S-280 stepped in and said “I got this” and just started playing music. This happened soon after I successfully downloaded the Aavik app on my long-forgotten iPad. I didn’t even need to find the right input on the Aavik U-280 because music just started playing as soon as the app asked me which streaming device I wanted to use. I clicked on that, the screen immediately said Aavik S-280 and I clicked on that and the music came pouring out of the Børresen Z1 Cryos.
That’s certainly one reason for a digital network streamer–communication between devices.
My first choice through Qobuz was the brand new live album from Fred Hersch and Esperanza Spalding, Live at the Village Vanguard, and I felt like the music had leapt into my lap. Or maybe it felt like someone had grabbed me from the scruff of my neck and the seat of my pants and raised me up halfway to the stage. I’m not talking about the soundstage being too forward, I’m talking about the feeling of getting in closer to what’s actually happening. I had more detail, more dynamics, all against that elusive black background. I’ve never heard this level of clarity with just a DAC and my laptop.
My second choice for the Aavik S-280 streamer? I went straight to Tool and listened to Fear Inoculum in its entirety. This moment was revelatory, because deep down I was waiting for the Børresen Z1 Cryos and the Aavik U-280 to show me at least a little of the mind-bending low frequency performance of the $100,000 pair of Børresen M1 monitors that I’ve heard in Seattle and Munich. I wanted that effortless, deep bass and enormous three-dimensional soundstage. Once the Aavik S-280 hit its stride, I felt like my experience with digital streaming just started a new chapter–or it threw the old book in the fireplace and started over. I felt like the Z1 Cryos had taken a big leap toward the M1s.
This system went way down in the lower frequencies, as far as I needed, but it was also incredibly dynamic. The combination of these two strengths delivered visceral karate chops to my breadbasket in a truly consistent manner, and not just during “Chocolate Chip Trip.” With the entire Audio Group Denmark system broken in and chugging along like the machine that it is, I had very few ideas about how I could make it all better.
Aavik S-280 Conclusions
My only caveat about the Aavik S-280 digital streamer is that you need an iPad. There are two ways to look at this. First, if you’re spending $12,000 on a digital streamer, you’re probably not going to worry about a $500 tablet. The second, less insightful way is to grumble that the app should be available on iPhone, or to expect Aavik to include an iPad–preferably one that’s been cryogenically treated. (Heh heh.)
While I dislike the feeling of being challenged when it comes to installing digital gear with new technologies, this glitch turned out to be serendipitous when I realized I could use the iPad for dedicated streaming instead of tying up one of my laptops. So once I get past the feeling of being like Keenan Thompson’s Amazon Echo character on SNL, I have to say that a digital streamer is an amazing device, and it clearly offers so many advantages over my previous laptop-as-server digital strategy. How do I know this? Because I missed the Aavik S-280 a lot after I took it out of the system. It’s much better to get everything on the same network, all working together so you can flop down on your sofa with a tablet and not move for days.
Really, it all comes down to this. You’ve just spent $12K on a streamer, so ask your Aavik dealer to come on over and set everything up for you and show you how it works. Problem solved. (I know dealers who would probably throw the iPad into the deal.)
That said, the sound quality of the Aavik S-280, along with the rest of the products from Audio Group Denmark, was at such a high level that I thought I had stumbled onto a new, improved internet. I could have lived happily ever after with the Aavik U-280 and its built-in DAC, but I also realize that adding the Aavik S-280 streamer took my enjoyment of Qobuz to a new level. As far as I’m concerned, this is the future and I’m all in.
While the improvements were of the same variety as most of the products from Audio Group Denmark–incredible detail, an incredibly low noise floor, a sound that’s like music with nothing artificial added–I found that the entire ritual of streaming to be far more consistent and seamless and trouble-free over time. I felt like I spent less time wading through strange files and wonky network activity, although I do think that beefing up my wireless router set-up would get me even further down the road.
In a nutshell, I feel spoiled with the Aavik S-280 digital streamer and the Ansuz PowerSwitch ethernet hub and all those Ansuz digital cables. This is what I’ve always wanted digital streaming to be–effortless in operation, magnificent in sound quality. This is the set-up, along with the U-280, that could make me sell all my CDs and just go with streaming and LPs for the rest of my life.
Ten years from now I might laugh at how that last comment ages, considering there’ll be something new to wow digital audiophiles every single year from now until then. But I can’t imagine what that would be, unless they figure out a way to accomplish my audio dream of having the Aavik S-280’s capabilities into a car stereo, with voice activation and unlimited internet access anywhere in North America. The Aavik S-280, as well as the entire Audio Group Denmark system, took my enjoyment of streaming up to the next level, and I like it here. Highly recommended.
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