AIYIMA A08 Pro Review - ELO


AIYIMA A08 Pro Review - ELO


Letter from Hong Kong (22-11): ELO on Aiyima A08 Pro (1kg vs 20 kg)
Sidenote on Belden 9497

Editor's Preface: 1) For regular readers, this article is somewhat unusual for a reason. For the longest time, this blog "reviews" things that the authors have bought on their own and want to write about (mrgoodsound and I bought T9 on our own). As a Stereophile writer remarked to me, we basically shoot from the hip. Although we can (not to the extent of youtube), we do not monetize and harbor no outside influence whatsoever (and, yes, sometimes we may even shoot a good guy, LOL). The only time I can remember otherwise was when VKmusic sent me an Elekit amp to review (which I sent back afterwards). So, declaration: Aiyima sent the amp to ELO for review, and he's buying the review sample. I have more to say in the Postscript, but I'd like to emphasize that I personally feel uncomfortable about getting freebies, no matter how cheap, either for review or measurement, and I ask our writers to do the same. It's fine to get shipped a sample for review, but to keep it for free is troubling for me, though that may be a widespread practice at the low end of Fi.

Aiyima A08 Pro Official Info

I have listened to many setups costing well above $1M HKD, but these days I am even more interested in what something selling for around $100USD can bring to the table. That was why some months ago I got interested in the Aiyima T9. This blog's journey with Aiyima started when I casually informed doctorjohn of it. (Not) Surprisingly, he bought one in Shenzhen and then wrote a long review (here). 4 months later, that review is still the most-read post of the blog, attesting to the interest Aiyima is stirring up. Ironically, as much as I have been intrigued by the company, I have yet to try out T9. Just when I was about to get one for fun, opportunity knocked, and I was given the chance to audition the A08 Pro, one of their recent amps! Doctorjohn had heard it (there is a brief video clip of the A08 Pro in his Aiyima Visit article, which is replicated at the bottom) and thought it'd be suitable for me, and I immediately jumped at the opportunity to test drive it! 

Aiyima A08 Pro Claiming 300Wx2, it is housed in a compact metal case which is quite cool and sturdy. The central depression can serve as an air duct if you stack something on top, but is designed to seat the vertically deployed "companion" T8 Preamp. It is even smaller than my reference amp, the iconic 47 Lab Gaincard. The front is simple, just knobs for volume and tone controls. And I like that SPL meter, kind of reminding me of Nagra and HiFi Rose (Ed: SPL, the expensive headphone amp brand, is another that comes to mind). Aside from the speaker binding posts, the back only sports the BT Antenna and RCA in (as there is no selector, BT has priority). The matching SM power supply is rated at 36V, which converts to 170Wx2 at 4ohms. I wondered if it would be powerful enough, or would I need 48V instead? But for the time being, I was going to stick with what I had.
Weighing barely 1 kg, will the Aiyima A08 Pro cohabitate with my more expensive peripherals and integrate into the system? Can this featherweight amp compete with other chunky amps weighing more than 20kg?? Well, let's find out.

After weeks of intense listening, my hitherto understanding of these cheapo Class D Amp had undergone significant changes. Mind you, most current NAD all-in-one integrated amps are running in Class D mode and they sound very decent too and people are buying them at much more expensive prices!

Before I even listened to this little amp, I had this typical review already well drafted in my mind (call me a biased bastard) and it would go like this:

😉My Predetermined script: “...As a class D amp, the unit does pump out copious amount of power, can go loud and clean and when paired with a $400USD speakers and a good entry level Streamer/Dac like Bluesound Node etc, you would get a great system that is off the charts in PQR! Sure, the sound may harden a bit when driven to its limit, but one must realise that we are looking at an amp costing only $120, give or take a few notes. So, what can one expect, right?”...and how wrong was I..."

I WAS COMPLETELY WRONG!! Those who follow my posts will know that these days I’m kinda "go small, go cheap" type of guy and I have been confident that my acquired knowhow can translate to the ability to spot bargain equipment. Certainly, A08 Pro gave me great pleasure and off the chart PQR, but I have to admit I was completely caught off-guard, even having expected it would be good given the favorable review from DJ on Aiyima T9. There were many revelations during this review process, which are eye opening to say the least. Let me come clean to start with:
  • Discovery 1 Upon receiving this little amp, I had totally prepared myself to write something like my hypothetical review. How wrong was I! In many ways, this amp overturned my belief in HiFi equipment. With the A08 Pro, I was forced to use my best setup to squeeze out its maximum potential and I felt that it would go from strength to strength if paired with good associated equipment.
  • Discovery 2 I would have never imagined that the A08 Pro has the potential to take away the spot of my 47 Lab Gaincard! As of now, I have no intention to switch back to my beloved Gaincard, nor hook up to my TVC icOn4 (I will soon I promise).
  • Discovery 3 This amp has the guts and ability to drive my inefficient Dynaudio Crafft to a level which is simply FUN to listen with. Now I think I have finally released the full potential of my speakers. Sorry that it took so long, my Craffties...The Aiyima is much like an ant that is able to lift up objects that are easily 10 times its own weight.
Now, more details on the process.  

Setup and General Sound
When I received the A08 Pro, I hooked it up immediately, with source from my Streamer Wattson Emerson Analog (WEA) connected by my newly acquired “Dubious Studer” cable (which is indispensable to me by now), then Rayaudio’s magic little box. Speaker cables Gotham, and subwoofer from Audio Physic. I tested the BT with my phone and noticed there’s a gap when compared to playing Tidal music through WEA, so for most initial listening I used WEA as my source.

Once run in a little, the unit already sounded very good, with ample power driving my Dynaudio Crafft, to a level which I seldom was able to get to with my 47 Lab Gaincard, an issue that has been love and hate to me. Question is, will A08 Pro just play loud and lose all the nuance and musicality for which I treasure my 47 Lab? The answer is a big NO! This little guy got rhythm and PRAT and is also very musical as well. It also has great soundstaging; despite not being the deepest, it’s wide enough to fill my whole living room! I also hear nuances of musical instruments and details. Vocals are natural, uncanny and realistic, not at all without emotion. Highs are a tad on the dark side, but while they don’t sparkle there's no lack, smooth and soothing (perhaps it's also the signature of the Watt Emerson). Bass is solid, with body and authority, tuneful and with a tactility that is lifelike! Overall picture is very musical. On some music I detect some hardness on the edges, which may or may not be limitations or characteristics of Class D amp; I may want to use some softer cables to pair with it. My friend Dr Lo brought in his secret interconnect for me to try out, but while the midrange seemed fleshier and rounder, suddenly transients felt like the brake was applied and also missing were the previous foot tapping elements. Mystery IC turned out to be the VdH Carbon; there was just no synergy with the T08 Pro.

During the course of listening, I bought myself some LINN Skeet's on which to rest my speakers’ spikes. The result was that the music became more coherent, but with a slight shrinkage in width of soundstage, but I consider it a beneficial tradeoff. After listening to this combo for 2 weeks or more, I noticed that the amp had started to break-in, and the rough edges had mostly rounded off and the overall sound had become very balanced! Bravo, patience paid off!

Bluetooth with Youtube on TV
After a few weeks, I suddenly came to realize that I could hook it up to my TV, which has Bluetooth. The sound coming out from playing Youtube was such a joy that I kept searching for my familiar music video clips one after another and the sound had completely transformed. How to characterize? To describe it simply, it is fun to listen, very good organic sound; bass has kicks; vocals are natural - overall extremely enjoyable with the 55inch OLED screen playing pictures along with music.

Bluetooth vs Ethernet Connection
How is that different from my WEA? I would say the soundstage shrinks a bit, but not by much. Outline of instruments is a bit smudged compared to WEA but very close indeed. I have been utterly enjoying on Youtube all my favorite clips like Free National, Monsieur Perin, Alicia Keys, Masego from Tiny Desk, plus many others. I say it with confidence that I can live with listening to music using Bluetooth connection only. However, it seems like the BT from my TV sounds better than BT from my phone though. This is a huge advantage over my 47 Lab which does not have BT.

Wait, I’m comparing A08 Pro + BT with my 47 Lab + WEA even without considering the gulf in price!? I realize that while I was reviewing this unit, I did not take into account at all the price differentials! Without realising it, I have been treating this unit as a "proper" hifi gear, regardless of the price! And I have been surrounding it with all the excellent equipment I have, when more than 90% of the people who bought it will be pairing it with a pair of budget speakers costing probably at most a few hundred USD. However, the Aiyima has not been shy, not even one bit in front of these wonderful gear. Instead, it flourishes and passes the tests with flying colours. I likely do not need the 20kg transformer of a high-end Class A or AB amp when just a 1kg unit of Aiyima A08-Pro achieves this kind of result. Kudos to the engineers at Aiyima! It’s kinda like David and Goliath.

Con's of A-08 Pro - it's not perfect, but it does not need to be perfect
Are there any con's in it? This is not a perfect unit of course and, if I tell you so, I will be lying to you! But if I were to nitpick, it does not provide the pinpoint focus which a lot of audiophiles crave for, nor does it give you the ultra-smoothness and shimmer which a selected few (and very expensive) are capable of producing. Perhaps it’s not as good in portraying a whole orchestra with ease, and violins may not possess the ultimate satiny feel on the strings. Perhaps a tad more smoothness will not be remiss but, man, so much fun and excitement come from this tiny box, and that makes it really easy to forget about these shortcomings.

Emancipation of my Dynaudio Crafft
Astonishingly, the amp not only drives my power-hungry Dynaudio Crafft with ease, it does the job with joviality, musicality and strengths in soundstage, tonal accuracy, punchy bass lines, natural vocals and relatively open highs (despite being a tad dark). Without looking at the size, it is already a fine piece of serious hifi equipment. If you factor in the price as well, this is one heck of a music bargain. I do believe that, if you pair it properly with decent equipment, it will give you a truly amazing musical experience at a dirt-cheap price, priceless by today’s inflated standards.

Next step, I will hook it up with my icOn4 preamp and see if there’s any improvement. Also, I’m still waiting for my Luna Cable Gris for my speakers and Gris RCA for trial and see if the sound can further improve.

So far there is not even one moment that I miss my 47 Lab, which speaks volumes on how good the A08 Pro is, since I do treasure the sound of my 47 Lab a lot and once regarded it as endgame gear for me. A08 Pro changed my mind and I’m buying the Review Sample, period.
iCon4 atop Rayaudio preamp. 

What if I hook up a preamp in front of the A08-Pro?
The above referred to using the A08 Pro as an integrated amp, meaning using its volume knob. The other day, Dr Lo and another old classmate of us came to my place to listen to this amp. We were all delighted by the dynamic, clean and exciting sound that came out from this little gem. Then I hooked up to Ray's tube preamp and played it against my iCon4. With Ray's preamp the music took on more flesh and smoothness, and that is a positive direction. My iCon4 seemed to have narrower soundstage due to restraints in highs, with more emphasis on midrange accordingly.

Conclusion is that this little unit will definitely benefit from pairing with a nice preamp, probably a tubed one. So next step will likely to be either Nagra PLP or Shindo Claret to go with it~~ (so far, just fantasy!)

Interlude: Gotham 54240 vs Belden 9497 小插曲
I have always heard good things about the renowned Belden 9497 and always suspect the Gotham is the weaker link, hence I ordered the Luna Gris Speaker Cable to try out. It just happened that my friend wanted to get a pair of decent speaker wires, and so I recommended the 9497, and ordered an extra pair for myself. Took 3 days and, upon receiving them, I tried it out without hesitation.
My oh my, fresh start with cold feet, the 9497 beats the Gotham 54240 by a very wide margin.
In a nutshell, 30%+ increase in PRAT, more solid bass, wider soundstage, better definition and microdynamics, better attenuation and decay of instruments. Seems like the better the equipment or accessory you insert into the system, the A08 Pro will benefit from it directly. Feet tapping ratio is now sky high and I faintly recall my Linn LP12 Naim pre/power combo some 39 years ago! Having gone around in circles for so many years, now I'm back to square one, LMAO, but definitely in a good way. Will run it in 24/7 to see how much it would improve!

Am I overly enthusiastic, or have I lost my cool by this amp (DJ asked this question)? Well, when something that costs less than 120USD can make such an impact on my system, this is almost unthinkable before for me. Previously, I was ignorant about what Class D can bring to the table, but now I know.  That is to say, when designed properly, like Aiyima. I'm sure their engineers have put in loads of effort, and not a little love, in getting the sound.

Do I recommend it? A thousand yes is not enough to express my mind! Wholeheartedly recommended!

Editor's Postscript: I'm actually somewhat astonished by the positively huge response from ELO. Not because of any doubt about the A08 Pro, not at all, just a question of magnitude. And I'm really pleased, as ELO has done what I'd have done for worthwhile cheap gear - that is, not comparing it to similarly priced stuff, but trying our best to get the most out of it. That shows again his commitment and integrity. Not to forget, many people likely have not run in the gear before commenting, and this review took well over a month!
  • Something about Dynaudio This is strictly my opinion (though icefox would likely agree with me). This company's tech savvy is beyond doubt, but does tech always ensure a good product? No. ELO's Crafft sports likely the most iconic tweeter ever: the ESOTAR. I kid you not, there are many people who embrace this tweeter to the grave. My treasured Sonus faber Electa Amator II is always less valued than Mk I because it does not employ the Esotar. I don't agree with this, but that shows you the fierce devotion to the Esotar. There is little question the Esotar is a little "darker" than modern tweeters, but then we also know many modern wannabees are simply too bright. No matter, the Esotar is a great tweeter for many, legendary for its texture. I provide this info just to put things in context. The thornier issue concerns Dyna's woofers, which I personally have always had a problem with, the more modern ones the more so (the best deployment to me was the BBC LS5/12; it's not just my opinion that other manufacturers use Dyna drivers better than they do themselves - witness the classic Sonus faber's and Ruark's). They are the antithesis of what I like, paper woofers and surrounds. To me, most Dyna speakers are not quite coherent in the integration between tweeter and woofer. The more modern, mostly the worse. Now, the vinatge Crafft is likely one of the best Dyna's in our opinion. It can sound deadly dull in the wrong hand, for sure, and I have experienced that eons ago. All this is to tell you, it's not that easy to get a lively and tactile sound out of high end Dyna's. That was why I thought the powerful and spritely A08 Pro would be a good fit for ELO's Crafft, and I'm happy that it turned out that way. As an owner of the Gaincard, I understand totally ELO's conundrum; with my efficient loudspeakers, the Gaincard would sail smoothly, 
  • My experience with the A08 Pro I haven't written it up, and my fellow writers don't even know about it, but maybe it's time to leak some info (a brief survey is underway). After my latest visit, I took home a bunch of Aiyima gear, and I immersed myself in them for quite a while. You'd be surprised, every outwardly similar model has its own personality, and there is no hands down best! I really enjoyed the A08 Pro with my reference system. Although my speakers are the total antithesis of ELO's, being very high efficiency, they threw up, just as ELO mentioned, such a huge soundstage that I was mesmerized. What I also noticed was the disarming rhythmic fortitude, seemingly a character of the brand. In terms of refinement, it was trumped by the older, and much less powerful, A8 (Infineon chip) but, again, the latter lacks some excitement. You can't have everything (true for the lowest to the highest end) but the A08 Pro held its own. Very youthful, engaging sound.
  • This has nothing to do with this article, but while I was researching Infineon I came across their How a chip is made article - fun!


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