Aavik U-300 Unity integrated amplifier

Integrated amplifiers
Aavik Acoustics U-300 Unity

Back to that ‘volume’ control. Freed from the tyranny of having a legacy of product design to cope with, Aavik went for an elegant solution that combines minimalism with a surprising degree of flexibility. Aside from a power-off switch on the rear of the amplifier, the controls are limited to three push buttons on the top of the centre cylinder, and that volume dial. Meanwhile, the ‘light show’ comprises a set of LEDs flanking the left and right side of the dial and one at the top of the dial to show the amp is switched on (in standby mode, pressing the button in the middle top of the cylinder turns off all the other LEDs and reduces power to this one, so it glows faintly). In typical operation, the display on the right denotes which input is in use, the one of the left shows volume in 80 steps from -100dB to 0dB.  The left button on the top operates mute, but press and hold this button to choose one of three gain settings for an individual source, using the main control knob. The right hand button typically controls navigation (source selection), but press and hold this button and you go into remote control pairing mode. Aavik recommends the standard slim Apple remote to control the U-300.

Press and hold both left and right buttons in a three second ‘power chord’ and the amp switches to adjusting the cartridge loading for the built-in phono stage. The steps on the left side of the display denote impedance, ranging from 50Ω at the -80dB setting up to 5kΩ at the 0dB setting.  Combine this with the gain setting and you can get a good match with most cartridges, although Aavik makes no differentiation between moving coil and moving magnet. Nevertheless, setting the cartridge loading without the Aavik manual in hand is difficult, because the booklet acts as decoder ring; you would never know that -55dB equates to 400Ω without the manual.

The manual is an eight-page affair that covers all the basic requirements of operating and using the Aavik U-300 Unity. Its rear panel is split between digital and analogue sides, with the power supply inlet at the centre of the rear panel. To the left, there are two RCA S/PDIF digital connectors, then two Toslink optical connecters and a single USB Type B (UAC 2 compliant) input and a further USB for updates. The right side has three RCA line inputs and a RCA phono input pair. A set of five-way fingertip-stripping Delrin speaker terminals per side flank these input blocks. These use the non-standard white and black indications for positive and negative terminals.

The amplifier itself looks remarkable, thanks in part to the Aavik name cut deep into the black anodised aluminium centre cylinder. The heatsinks too are elegant, reminscent of the ventilation holes to the sides of the D’Agostino Momentum designs (see pages 35-38 of this issue), except writ larger and ‘none more black’. The amp is also supplied in a black ABS flight case inside its cardboard box. This exudes a sense of quality and almost menacing mininalism. It sits low on its standard feet, however, in part because the expectation is those feet will be supplemented with Ansuz ‘darkz’ resonance control devices. The only real design ‘flaw’ at this price point is the reliance on a third-party remote, in particular the Apple design. It’s only a trivial thing, but I’d prefer to see something as robust and solid as the amp that also replicates its minimalist design cues. In black, of course!

I can’t really tell how much running in the Aavik U-300 Unity needs, because ours was the well-travelled demonstration sample that had enough air miles on the clock to buy itself its own Airbus. But the amplifier came on song almost immediately when powered up, and certainly it only took a few minutes to get to the right operating temperature. The Aavik runs warm for a Class D design, but not worryingly so. You do, however, need to check those LEDs are glowing as the U-300 has one of those ‘is this thing on?’ noise floors that goes right down into the car park below the sub-basement. In operation, once set-up in terms of cartridge loading and input gain, the Aavik design is one of the most ‘fit and forget’ models in high-end audio.

Cut to the chase, this amp sounds absolutely bloody fantastic, whatever input you choose. The phono input is whisper quiet, so much so if you play a record with little surface noise on the lead-in groove, the tendency to turn things up could leave you with ringing in your ears. The DAC – a from-the-ground-up design for the Aavik, rather than some off-the-shelf ‘application’ board is lively, dynamic, and very musical, and the line inputs make you think you are listening to a very well-crafted pre/power combination rather than an all-in-one.

The problem for a reviewer is this applies with unshaking consistency. Every input has the same exciting, yet even-handed sound, possessed of a fine sense of rhythm, a good ‘bounce’ to that rhythm, plenty of detail, and easy, unforced dynamics. Tonally, the Aavik is fractionally on the warm side, making music sound inviting and a fun thing to listen to, rather than a cold, bland thing one must endure for the sake of neutrality. ‘Warm’ is probably not the right word, as it might make people think the Aavik is somehow ‘soft’ sounding. It isn’t: it sits somewhere between the ‘half a Devialet 800’ I use and the D’Agostino in terms of tonality and timbre. In fact, it sits somewhere between these two points in practically all respects; bass has more drive than the Devialet, but not quite the energy and slam of the D’Agostino. Similarly dynamic range and even detail sit on the same continuum.

This is royally missing the point of the Aavik, though. To try and break down the sound quality into its component parts is to do the Aavik a major injustice, because what it does so well is bring those disparate musical parts together in a way so few amplifiers can do at this price point and beyond. Again the consistency issue makes singling out a piece of music a little bit pointless, because it does this universally. However, I did notice that ‘Royals’ by Lorde [Pure Heroine, Universal], which can sound a little disjointed as the large backbeat seems out of step with the vocals, hung together perfectly. This gives an uncanny sense of listening to performers, instead of listening to a band playing the 365th take of the week. It’s extremely refreshing and highlights just how much information and detail the Aavik passes to the loudspeaker. How much detail? It’s like the Julian Assange of amplifiers, without the self-imposed house arrest tan.

There is also a sublime harmonic structure and order to the sound of the Aavik U-300 Unity. This can get mistaken for ‘warmth’ especially by those who seek out and use amplifiers with a more ‘etched’ sound, and those used to the more stark and etched sound of many systems may find the absence of those traits hard to overcome at first. Stick with it, though, because what you get is a rewarding and truly wonderful sense of musical harmony, allowing you to swim through the themes of something like the Schubert ‘Trout’ Quintet [Amadeus Quartet and Emil Gilels, DG] effortlessly. The sense of naturalness and order extends to the soundstage, too. There is no overwhelming soundstage demand here, it just makes a soundstage large, wide, deep, and accurate. You could walk in and shake the hands of the musicians, but the overall sense is that of an amplifier that cruises through all the usual audiophile tests with no problems whatsoever.

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