01 July, 2011

Overview: YS Audio aka Audio Experience

pic: YS Audio's humble showroom; Solo2

Overview: YS Audio (aka Audio Experience)
Review: YS Audio Balanced A2 + Sonata KT88
The Yumcha Diaries 飲茶後記: 25-06-11 Spendor SP100

History of YS Audio (official website)
YS Audio took its name from its founder YS Chui, a known tube designer in HK. In the heydays of the early 90's, they had a store in a Kowloon shopping mall 聯合廣場, near Prince Edward MTR. Although this area of HK had a large number of hifi stores then and the building is next to the largest second-hand store in HK, its location nonetheless was a little odd, since the mall largely catered to teenagers. At that time I visited the store many times but came away with nothing. The products always looked beautiful and there were many interesting designs (you should visit the history page), but the prices were above average. I don't know why, the sound then was always a little too soft and euphonic for me.

(官方網頁) YS-Audio 始創人徐日生是香港有名的真空管放大器設計師, 九十年代十年間曾在發燒音响音响天地等雜誌撰文1988年起生產高級真空管放大器, 由1998年全部 YS-Audio 的產品都以Audio Experience 品牌發售。公司產品全部由徐日生先生和徐志偉先生在香港廠房親手制造自從由1998年起本公司的產品以銷售到海外為主, 多年來得到很多外國音响愛好者的讚賞

Later, YS Audio closed its shop in 1998 and operated out of a unit in an industrial building, its current location, which is to say the least a little out of the way for most of us. By necessity YS turned to other methods of selling, via Ebay and the internet. It must have been hard for them to have build up their reputation bit by bit, largely by feedback and word of mouth. For more than a decade, until recently, I rarely heard about, or had a chance to hear their newer products. But I am glad they have come back with a vengeance!

Fast forward to now, although the father is still very much involved, I'd think the son, Nelson Chui, has a large input in the designs. I say that because, from what I hear, the sound of YS Audio has changed dramatically and, for my taste and no disrespect to the founder, for the better.

YS Audio Solo 2
Purely by accident, I became reacquainted with YS Audio. First, a friend bought one of their amps (report below). Then, in close succession, a friend in the US asked me to buy their Solo 2 phono pre-preamplifier for him. As almost no one makes an active pre-pre these days, I became intrigued, called up and went for the pick-up. Back home, I tested it out and was very pleased by its performance (reported here). I called my friend and told him the good news and soon another friend in NYC also wanted one, and thus I met Nelson.

Showroom Audition
My friend icefox has been trying out and considering phonoamps for quite a while, and was interested in some of YS's products from the good words-of-mouth he heard. When we first talked on this topic I had never heard any YS phono products. Later, after I heard the Solo 2 we talked on this again and decided to pay a showroom visit. icefox is also fond of my ICL Model 4 phonoamp (imho a great product on par with EAR834, but that is for a later article) and would like a comparison. So I called up Nelson and asked if we could do that and he agreed without hesitation. Thumbs up!

Sound in the YS showroom was excellent. Click on the pic to enlarge, as I don't really remember the equipment used too much (should have written this up much earlier), but roughly:

Turntable: An old Sota with a humble arm and an AT cartridge
Preamp and Amp: Reference one/Sonata Reference KT88
Speakers: KEF LS3/5A
Phonoamps used : Solo2 step-up amp, Concerto plus and Concero Plus MC-TSE phono preamp.

We heard several of the YS phonoamps, including using the Solo 2 in lieu of the built-in stepup. There were differences but they uniformly made music; even the cheapest one was very good. As for the ICL, perhaps it showed a subtly greater rhythmic finesse but not everyone is sensitive to that. The preamp used was a balanced one, and the amp a Sonata Reference KT88. Although we listened mostly to the LS3/5A, Nelson actually has several pairs of speakers around, and a brief listen to a pair of Maggies revealed their KT120 amp to be a good match.

Nelson was very relaxed and we wasted a lot of his time! But we came away with great admiration for the products.

Concerto Plus
The next time I heard a YS equipment in depth was at SG's place (report here). Judging by the very good mono playback, the Concerto Plus is a winner.

Balanced A2 + Sonata KT88
Back to my HK friend, you have met this classical music and opera lover before in this blog (previous visits). For the longest time, we tried to persuade him to convert to tube gears, at least a tubed preamp. Recently, to make space I made the painful decision of selling the Spendor SP100 to him.

At first, even after some re-run-in (absolutely necessary after long-term disuse), the SP100 was not really making a sound that I thought was appropriate. Imagine our surprise when one day he bought the Sonata KT88 (most basic version with Chinese c-core power transformer) out of the blue. Apparently he liked the demo and the very reasonable asking price. We heard the amp driven by a digital preamp and the sound was definitely an improvement over the digital amp before, although a little lean. A tube amp takes forever to run-in.

Not much later he surprised us again by acquiring also the Balanced A2 preamp. And on this day we went after yumcha for an audition. I am happy to report the YS combo made the best sound I have heard at his house. The SP100 sound came back like magic! A smooth and refined top, beautifully transparent mid-range, and extended bass (although the host likes it rather lean)! I should add that that the host had done quite a bit of small-tube rolling to have arrived at the present ones used, nothing too expensive, but effective. heroic length is not needed (nor recommended).

As expected, the YS made a sound that has the bloom of tube, but not at all euphonic, a modern and neutral tube sound. Although that may not appeal to many of HK's misguided vintage tube aficionados, who mistake euphonics for musicality, they certainly appealed to me.

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