REFERENCE AUDIO – WITHAM ESSEX
BOB’s Review Series - No 62 – Ideon Audio Absolute Series
Introduction – Having recently posted a first impression review of most of the Ideon Audio product catalogue I have since had the chance to listen over a more extended period to their Absolute Epsilon DAC, Absolute Stream and Absolute Time and hope this of further interest.
System Components used in this Review: This updated review was largely carried out with the Ideon Absolute Stream and Time installed in my home system and the Absolute DAC in our showroom due to availability at the time. My home system comprises the following equipment:
CD Player and DAC: Gryphon Ethos CD/DAC
Streamer: Innuos Statement (Pre the Next Gen PSU upgrade)
Reclocker: Ideon Absolute Time
Streamed Sources: Tidal HiFi Plus, Qobuz Hi-Res Audio and Roon Management / Virtual Library
Pre-Amp: Gryphon Essence
Power Amp: Gryphon Essence Stereo
Analogue Sources: Magnum Dynalab 106T Valve Tuner
Speakers: Marten Mingus Quintet (Mk 1)
SUB: REL Carbon Special
Cables: Jorma Mains, Interconnect, USB and Ethernet Cables
Power Supply: IsoTek Aquarius V5 Mains Block. SBoosters on network switches and Home Hub.
Equipment Stands: Gryphon StandArt
To accommodate the Absolute Stream into my home system and wishing to use it with Roon I set it up by taking an ethernet feed from my resident Innuos Statement streamer which for this exercise became a digital transport or NAS drive if you like and acted as the essential Roon Core. The Absolute Stream was connected to my Ethos DAC via the Absolute Time which is also now resident in my home system. This set up enabled me to access my full library of ripped and streamed albums because the Absolute Stream was able to render music files saved on the Statement and to stream directly from Tidal or Qobuz. Fortunately, the Statement has a pass through ethernet connection to facilitate this set up. All listening of the Absolute Stream and Time was via the non 5v USB connection available on both units, i.e., with the 5v supply turned off. As noted above it was not possible to listen to the Absolute DAC at home and listening was carried out in one of our demo rooms.
Absolute Epsilon DAC – Let’s face it, there are virtually no poor DACs these days, technology, bit rates, parts and knowledge have moved on considerably from the mid 80’s when standalone DACs first appeared. Why then spend a fortune on a modern DAC? It’s not that easy to explain to someone who has not had the privilege to listen to a variety of expensive DACs but being one of those lucky few who has access to many products I can assure any sceptics that the more you spend the better they get with the £20k+ price tag being where the magic really starts. Sure, great DACs can be had for £10k or below and most of us would not be at all disappointed with their performance. However, many of those currently lauded in this price bracket are using technology developed a decade or more ago and they are starting to show their age.
Over the last few years, I have listened to and reviewed several DACs in the £20k+ price bracket including the MSB Discrete and MSB Reference, Pilium Elektra, Gryphon Ethos, Nagra Tube DAC and the BAT REX 3 and all of them have given exceptional performance, none have disappointed. There are of course others in this price bracket that I don’t have access to and have only read about and heard at HI-Fi shows such as those from dCS and Esoteric Grandioso that also give outstanding performance. The Ideon Epsilon Absolute DAC retails at £44,000 in silver of £45,500 in black and believe it or not it’s not the most expensive DAC I have reviewed. However, it is one of the very best and when attached to a high-quality digital source such as a CD Transport or Streamer can bring such refinement of sound to a system that it’s hard to put into words just how it does this. Plenty of high definition but not on the overly bright side this DAC will have you spell bound with its ability to lift your musical collection onto another plain of enjoyment and discoverability. It will bring those CDs you have stored in the attic back out ready to play and stream the highest available files with ease and true hi-fidelity. Listen to ‘Grizzley Bear’ by Angus & Julia Stone to hear what I mean.
The Absolute Epsilon DAC can also be used as a preamp via its digital volume control and the large dial on the front but Ideon themselves suggest this is only a ‘get you by’ method until you have a proper stand-alone preamp in your system. And I would agree. Fortunately, the onboard volume control can be turned off in the settings menu and this is how I used it for this review.
- ESS ES9038 Pro 32 bit 8 channel DAC with in-house designed control software
- Dynamic range up to 140dB
- Balanced operation throughout with Balanced XLR and unbalanced RCA outputs
- Digital inputs on RCA, XLR and USB (1 of each)
- Outputs on balanced XLR and unbalanced RCA
- Selected audiophile components and power supplies used throughout.
- Two transformers
- Three exotic ultra-low jitter clocks
- PCM 44.1 to 384kHz – DSD x 8
- 490 x 350 x 110mm (WDH)
- Weighs a not inconsiderable 28kg.
Absolute Stream - After allowing the Absolute Stream to come to room temperature and then powering it up for a few hours I started serious listening. Although this is our demo unit it has had little use to date, so I was mindful of Ideon’s suggestion that it needs 300 hours to run in, but not having a couple of months to spare I dived straight in. I don’t have many DSD files because they are expensive to buy, and I’ve never really noticed much difference to general high bit rate 96 or 192kHz files but playing the few I do have via the Absolute Stream lifted playback quality to a significant extent and if I was to own the Stream then I’d consider buying more DSD files. The first thing I noticed was what I imagine people mean when they describe products as having an analogue sound. This might sound odd from someone like me who is fully committed to digital replay at home (FM Tuner aside), but I am convinced that digital sources are now so well engineered that CD and streaming sources have long since moved on from those early days of digital when the sound was a tad brittle and continued to lose out to vinyl. Digital replay via equipment of this standing is easily the equal of any high-end vinyl-based system (better because of the lack of faffing about required by vinyl). This is why for me I now only listen to digital sources, and I can almost hear the shouts of “seriously” from the vinyl addicts out there when I say this. Of course, spending nearly £20k on a streamer that still needs a high-quality DAC is not affordable to many, but neither are cartridges and phono amps that retail at £60k that still need equally expensive arms and six figure turntables to perform at their best. Something that most of us will never have a chance to listen to let alone contemplate owning.
In my previous reviews I have often talked about dynamics and that’s because for me the way notes start and stop, the volume levels that can be played without distortion and the ability to hold onto a musical composition without loosing pace is where a musical event becomes something special. I guess that what some mean by PRaT. This is what I think of as harmony and timbre and it’s where the Absolute Stream scores highly, especially when connected to the Absolute Time and DAC. I know that many audiophiles don’t get just how much high-quality streamers bring to the party in their belief that the quality of the DAC makes most improvement and to some extent they are right but until you experience a streamer like the Absolute Stream, Innuos Statement or Pink Faun Ultra with an appropriately well engineered DAC like those I mentioned above in a highly resolving system then you are missing out.
With the Absolute Stream it really doesn’t matter what you choose to play, everything will bring added excitement, discovery and emotion, and surely that what we are looking for.
- Audiophile music server/streamer
- Playback from external hard drive or external NAS
- Playback from all internet and web services such as Tidal and Qobuz or from an external attached NAS drive or USB drive. Internal storage of 1TB-4TB is an additional option at point of order.
- Roon Core not included.
- One Ethernet input and two USB ports for connecting an external NAS drive or USB drive.
- Two USB outputs for connection to a DAC, 1 with 5v supply and one without.
- 490 x 350 x 87mm (WDH)
- Weighs 22kg
Absolute Time – There are two versions of the Absolute Time, the standard one that comes in a half depth box (it can be ordered with a full depth box for an extra £1,000) which retails at £9,500 in silver and £10,300 in black and the Absolute Time Signature which only comes in a full depth box and retails at £22,000 in silver and £23,500 in black. This review concentrates on the standard half depth model.
What can I say other than I bought one. I had intended to buy the EOS Time but once I heard the Absolute Time there was no going back. What it does is subtle, but boy does it grow on you. Ideon tell me it only needs an hour to warm up, but I reckon more is needed to hear it at its best. I use it between my Innuos Statement and my Ethos DAC where it performs just fine bringing yet more resolution to your musical choice. I have heard the Time Signature but not in a critical listening environment, hopefully I’ll get a chance soon. By the way Ideon told me that cascading Time devices brings yet more performance and they say 3 is the magical number of Time’s in one stack. Again, I’ll try this sometime and let you know what I think.
- Designed to re-clock, re-energise and re-drive the digital signal.
- Digital in and out on USB taking feed from the Streamer and feeding it to the DAC.
- Digital inputs and outputs on SPDIF RCA only to use with a compatible CD Transport.
- There is a 5v on/off switch on the USB output and we recommend using it with the 5v supply turned off unless for some reason your preferred DAC needs the 5v supply.
- 490 x 175 x 87mm (WDH) for the standard half depth version
- Weighs 15kg.
Conclusion – All three Ideon Absolute components are great additions to the high-end scene, and I can recommend any of them as individual items but when all three come together the magic really happens. The three together cost between around £73,000 to £90,000 depending on spec and colour and although mightily expensive they are a great investment for those few who can afford them. I’m not one of those fortunate few but I do feel privileged to have been able to listen to them.
Bob – Team Reference Audio – Late October 2023