I can't think of a pursuit where the law of diminishing returns holds firmer sway than high-fidelity audio. As applied to audio, that rule-of-thumb states that as you ascend the price ladder, the rewards for spending more money inevitably decrease. To put it more concretely, the difference between a $4,000 amplifier and $5,000 amplifier is generally a lot less than the difference between a $1,000 amplifier and $2,000 amplifier.
Yamaha's A-S801 integrated amplifier/DAC is a case in point. Retailing in Canada for $1,000, the A-S801 delivers sound that approaches much costlier products with similar capabilities.
INSIDE AND OUT
The A-S801 is an attractive component, with classic styling fully in keeping with the design aesthetic Yamaha has followed since the 1970s. It's available in black and silver finishes.
Weighing a little over 26 pounds, the A-S801 has a high-quality look and feel, with smooth, positive controls and a cast metal faceplate. It's supplied with a very nice remote control, which can also be used to operate a tuner or disc player. On the left side of the amplifier's front panel is the power switch, headphone jack and speaker selector switch. On the right is a large round volume control, and to its left is the input selector. The four controls in the middle are for bass, treble, balance and loudness.
Yamaha has been offering continuously variable loudness control on many of its audio products since the 1970s. To use it, you start by setting loudness to maximum and set the volume control to your preferred maximum level. Thereafter, you use the loudness control to set output level. Our ear-brain systems are less sensitive to bass (and to a lesser extent, treble as well) at low volume levels. The point of Yamaha's continuously variable loudness control is to maintain a consistent subjective proportion of lows, mids and highs as you reduce level; and in my experience it works well. Especially with low-level listening, it really makes a difference.
You can also bypass all signal processing with the CD Direct and Source Direct buttons, located below the source selector. I did most of my listening with the Source Direct option engaged.
On the rear, you'll find two sets of speaker outputs; five sets of line-level inputs (labeled CD, tuner, and line 1 through 3), two of them with associated record outputs, a phono input, subwoofer output; plus optical, coaxial and USB digital inputs for the built-in DAC. The A-S801 can accept PCM streams to 384kHz/24 bits (32 bits with Macs); and single- and dual-rate DSD via its asynchronous USB input. Input sampling rate is indicated by LEDs on the front.
The laminate power transformer and power amplifier are supported by an "ART" (Anti-Resonant and Tough) base, which Yamaha says dampens vibration and lowers noise. The only area of the A-S801's construction that doesn't inspire confidence is the speaker outputs, which flexed a little too much for my liking when I was connecting Wireworld Mini Eclipse 7 speaker cables, terminated in banana plugs.
For my listening tests, I used a pair of shelf-mounted KEF LS50 monitors, mounted ISOacoustics stands. Playback material consisted of acoustic jazz, classical and pop/rock files at CD resolution and higher, from a Mac Mini running Audirvana 1.5 software. I connected the Mac to the A-S801's USB input using a Wireworld Platinum Starlight 7 cable. All components were fed by a Totus TOT power conditioner. Periodically, I returned to my reference integrated amp/DAC, the Simaudio Moon Nēo 340i, to get a perspective on the A-S801.
The A-S801 showed its mettle in its rendition of Pink Floyd's "Welcome to the Machine" from Wish You Were Here (EMI, DSD file from SACD rip). The machine effects sounded effortlessly powerful as they bounced between the speakers. The big synthesizer was equally impressive, completely filling my room. Transients on the acoustic guitar playing through most of this track were commendably fast.
Turning to something more subtle, I really enjoyed the way the A-S801 rendered stringed instruments on Dmitri Sitkovetsky's arrangement for string orchestra of J.S. Bach's Goldberg Variations, played by the Britten Sinfonia under Thomas Gould (Harmonia Mundi, 24/88.4 download from e-classical). During the opening statement of the main theme, the violins had lovely delicacy and sweetness; and then during the energetic first variation, the strings had wonderful rosiny bite, without sounding wiry. Throughout, the sound was convincingly dynamic. I was also impressed with the way the A-S801 conveyed lower strings: bass was well controlled and detailed.
Left-to-right imaging was very precise; but the soundstage had less depth than the Moon 340i. The Moon amplifier sounded a little more composed and dynamic in loud sections; the Yamaha sounded a bit compressed by comparison. The Moon had more bite on the strings; the Yamaha's sound was smoother.
I had similar impressions listening to k.d. lang's rendition of "Bird on a Wire" from Hymns of the 49th Parallel (Nonesuch, CD rip). The Hammond organ and acoustic bass in the quiet opening filled my room, and the acoustic guitar, which enters after the first verse, had lovely sparkle and detail. And the A-S801 perfectly tracked lang's vocals from the subdued opening to the more anguished verses that followed.
Again, the more expensive Moon amplifier had the advantage. The acoustic guitar had more body; and the overall presentation was a little more composed.
Played through the A-S801, "The Embrace" from Extended Circle by the Tord Gustavsen Quartet (ECM, 24/96 download from HDTracks) sounded big and effortless. The acoustic bass had superb snap, the drums (especially the rimshots) were wonderfully dynamic, and the tenor sax had great body and expression. This album also showed the A-S801's fine micro dynamics, convincingly rendering subtle touches in Gustavsen's piano work.
However, through the Moon amplifier, piano attacks were faster and sharper, and the overall presentation smoother and easier - and also more composed when the quartet was playing full-tilt.
The Moon Nēo 340 (also rated at 2x100 watts) costs north of five grand in Canada when equipped with a 24/192-capable DAC; so it's no surprise that it out-performs the Yamaha A-S801. The Canadian entry has better construction, a beefier power supply, and all-round better sound. Just not night-and-day better.
Which leads me to adapt another rule-of-thumb: the 80/20 rule. Applied to high-fidelity audio, it states that once you reach a certain level, you can get 80% of the performance of a high-end component for 20% of the outlay. I'd say that applies here.
This is no way a reproach of the Moon 340i, or similar products. It's just the way the law of diminishing returns works in the audio world. Audiophiles who can afford to do so will happily pay a premium price for premium performance; I certainly would in this case.
But other people who love music and sound may have different budgets and different priorities. The key takeaway here is that the A-S801 is a great-sounding DAC/amplifier, and a fantastic value. Match it with a good set of speakers priced between $1,000 and $2,000, and you have a very fine hi-fi system. Very strongly recommended for anyone looking for an affordable foundation of a serious two-channel sound system.