When a company makes a hit of an amplifier in the high-end – even if actual sales are not huge, it’s sometimes hard to listen to criticism. Especially when that criticism is muted next to the plaudits. The Aavik U-300 Unity is one such product. We loved it in issue 139 and loved it enough to give it an award, but if there was a complaint (sky high price aside), it was that the amplifier wasn’t too good in display terms. Two little white LEDs, three buttons and a volume control, echoed in the Apple handset supplied. OK, so this degree of minimalism was quite easy to understand, but you still had the occasional ‘senior moment’ when staring at two white lights trying to work out whether that means ‘volume’ or ‘source’. If I’m being honest, middle-aged eyes don’t help here because the legends on the U-300 box were not written for aging eyes.
The U-150 Unity is the response. And it comes with the kind of display you can see from across the room... even if that room is an aircraft hangar. Aavik has gone from having one of the smallest, most minimal displays, to one of the largest in the business. But it’s welcomed.
In fact, the basic layout of the Aavik design is more or less unchanged. It still has the three buttons along the top panel that control source selection, turn the amplifier on or off and mute the U-150. And it still has the huge, easy-turn central knob which behaves in a modal manner. It defaults to a volume control, but at the tap of a button turns into a source selector. I’d still like for there to be a way to access some kind of balance control, or maybe even greater set-up modes and display options from the three button, one dial combination, but... baby steps!
Functionally, too, the Aavik U-150 Unity shares much with its bigger brother. The connection count is lowered slightly and the circuit board has been re-laid to fit into the smaller footprint, but the two are more similar than they are unalike. There are three line inputs, and one set of preamp outputs. The DAC supports USB, two BNC-type S/PDIF coaxial connections and two Toslink optical connectors. Above this are the RCA inputs and earth tag for a turntable, and above the vinyl input is an RS232 port and two 12v triggers. The power connector is in the centre of the rear panel and the sides sport those finger-stripping knurled Delrin speaker terminals.
The big departure from the U-300 is that the digital and moving coil input are now optional extras, configured at purchase. In its standard guise, the U-150 is a very simple three-input integrated amplifier. This poses an interesting philosophical discussion on two sides. First, I’m wondering just how many people will take up the denuded U-150, or go with some or all of the options? I would imagine there will be very few takers for the line-only model, but more for the digital audio version and yet more for the complete system. At that point, it would be interesting to see how many people take this on as a traditional line+phono integrated amplfiier without the digital stages. Then, and this one’s the more sketchy issue, if the full-thickness U-150 offers a very similar performance to the U-300, will the cheaper model cannibalise sales of the big hitter? Interestingly, here I think the answer is a resounding ‘no’, even if the products sounded completely identical. There’s a different cachet to the none-more-black U-300 that I feel will appeal to audiophiles in a way that the more prosaic looking U-150 may struggle with. Also, and this is a cold indictment on the nature of the modern audiophile, there will be many who choose the U-300 over the U-150 simply because it’s more expensive. We in high-end audio sometimes dance around the subject of Veblen goods (expensive things that are valued for their expense), but the notion does exist in high-end audio.
Its optional circuits are not wholly identical to those fitted to the U-300. The phono stage remains a discreet, floating, balanced, ultra-low noise, bipolar input circuit with paralleled transistor pairs. This is a good match to the floating, balanced signal generator that is known as a moving coil phono cartridge. The Aavik U-150 phono stage has a base 60dB gain (which is adjustable to 70dB in 2dB steps), and the cartridge loading is adjustable from 50ohm to 10kOhm. This is slightly more flexible than the original U-300.