This audio appliance packs a lot of 2-channel goodness into its chassis. Its simplified approach makes it an appealing option for budget-minded audiophiles.
Two-channel stereo remains relevant in the era of surround sound since it is the dominant format for music. Many audiophiles feel that a well-tuned 2-channel rig has no equal when it comes to reproducing a live musical performance in their home.
Yamaha's $1000 A-S801 integrated amplifier caters to music lovers looking for a device that offers a lot of 2-channel connectivity and no filler. It's a no-nonsense device in which all settings are user-selectable with knobs on the front panel. It sports a full complement of analog and digital inputs, covering a wide spectrum of stereo sources ranging from turntables to laptops.
The A-S801 outputs 100 watts/channel into 8 ohms with very low distortion (0.019% THD). It's capable of driving 4-ohm speakers and has a frequency response from 10 Hz to 100 kHz +/-1.0 dB, which is well beyond the limits of human hearing.
An ESS Sabre 32-bit DAC supports DSD (2.8 and 5.6 MHz) and PCM (up to 32-bit/384 kHz) audio decoding. A USB connection lets you connect the A-S801 to a Mac or PC. It also sports coaxial and optical digital inputs, but not HDMI.
On the analog side, the A-S801 offers a Pure Direct mode that bypasses the tone controls as well as a CD Direct mode that maxes out the S/N ratio to 104 dB when listening to CDs through a dedicated analog input. It also offers a phono input with a ground. Other analog inputs include one dedicated to a radio tuner and three separate line inputs—two of which feature record-out connections.
The front panel offers complete control over the device using seven knobs and three buttons. It's very simple and straightforward; you don't need the manual to get things working. The A-S801's remote offers input selection and volume adjustment, but it cannot adjust the tone controls or loudness function. However, the remote does offer dedicated controls for Yamaha's T-S500 tuner and various Yamaha CD players.
One of the front-panel knobs is a "loudness" control. Increasing the loudness control boosts the low and high frequencies to compensate for the human-hearing system's lower sensitivity in that range at low volumes. Some people like the effect at higher volumes as well, but it should not be used to compensate for a speaker's weaknesses.
The A-S801 offers a subwoofer output with a lowpass filter set at 100 Hz; the main speakers always get a full-range signal, but the left and right channels are summed and everything below 100 Hz is sent to the sub output as well. It does not offer bass management, but the subwoofer channel is useful if you have a sub with variable phase and crossover controls that allow for proper integration.
The A-S801 has a good number of analog and digital inputs.
There are two sets of speaker terminals, and the A-S801 can drive two pairs of 8-ohm speakers simultaneously. A small knob on the front panels lets you switch between speaker pairs A, B, or A+B—or you can turn them all off. The Speaker A+B mode is also useful for bi-amping speakers that support it. The unit also features a 1/4" stereo headphone jack.
The A-S801 is a pleasure to use thanks to its simple, thoughtful design. Its knobs look good, feel good, and work together to make basic audio adjustments extremely easy to perform. There is no menu system; you tweak audio settings using the knobs and buttons on the actual device. Then again, if you have a sufficiently good speaker system and room acoustics, you might not ever use the tone controls or the loudness function.
The included remote is functional and easy to hold. The buttons are a bit small and mushy, but at least there aren't too many of them. Notably, Yamaha placed the volume up/down buttons on their own near the bottom of the remote—far from any other buttons—making them easy to find by touch alone.
The volume buttons are easy to locate without looking at the remote.
Setup was a breeze. The A-S801's simplicity works in its favor; there is no complicated calibration routine. All you have to do is plug it in, attach a pair of speakers, connect one or more sources, (optionally) add a subwoofer, and you are in business.
I used a pair of GoldenEar Triton Seven floorstanding speakers and a ForceField 5 subwoofer for the review. A Sony Vaio PC laptop—connected via USB and running Tidal—served as my primary source.
I used a laptop running Tidal to stream lossless 16-bit/44.1kHz 2-channel audio.
My first task was finding out how the Tritons measured in-room powered by the A-S801. The Tritons are 8-ohm speakers with 89 dB/W/m sensitivity and 300 watts of power handling. GoldenEar's specs list a frequency response of 29 Hz - 35 kHz. I used Room EQ Wizard and a UMIK-1 measurement mic placed at my listening position and measured a few sine-wave sweeps to get an idea of what my room EQ curve looked like with this setup.
I noticed that the A-S801 easily moved the Triton's drivers when I sent it a 10 Hz pulse, and I started to hear a tone in the upper 20 Hz range. When I reviewed my REW measurements and correlated them with what I heard, I found that the Tritons played loud and clear from 34 Hz on up when powered by the A-S801.
I had integrated the ForceField 5 sub before I started my listening, even though I did not plan to use it right away. Getting the sub to disappear into the system was a bit of a challenge because the Tritons dig so deep on their own; I set the sub's crossover to its lowest point of 40 Hz. Ultimately, I wished the A-S801 offered a bit more control over bass management—one more knob offering a defeatable variable highpass filter for the speakers would have been ideal.
Given the choice, I prefer an AVR to an integrated amp—I consider HDMI and surround sound indispensable. However, the A-S801 pairs a good amp with a good DAC, and that's a recipe for success. Judged on sound quality alone, it qualifies as an audiophile-grade component. Crucially, there's no coloration to its output—it's transparent and neutral.
For this review, I put myself in the shoes of a 2-channel audio aficionado with limited space and a limited budget. I tried to think like someone who just bought a pair of nice speakers and has a laptop full of digital music and perhaps a pair or two of decent full-sized headphones. The A-S801 offers that person a lot of hi-fi capability for the dollar.
The USB connection supports just about any digital format you can throw at it, including double-DSD and 32-bit/384 kHz PCM stereo—and it matches up perfectly with the amplifier's hi-res audio specs.
I tested the A-S801s performance with two configurations. Depending on the song, I started with the Triton Sevens on their own, and then I added the ForceField 5 sub. Even without the sub, I found the system quite compelling. Sly & Robbie's "Drone Snipers" from their album Dubrising sounded pleasing to my ears; the horns had just the right timbre, and the bass was tight and thick. Most importantly, the imaging was lucid and detailed—the speakers totally disappeared, every instrument was in its place, and the whole soundstage had a sense of depth as well as extended width.
First impressions matter, and the A-S801 left me with a positive vibe. By the time the track "Bully Tactics" came up, I had to make sure my surround system was not running in parallel—that's how good the imaging was. When I sat in the sweet spot, the subwoofer-free 2-channel presentation sounded like a full-blown surround-sound system.
"Daydreaming" from Massive Attack's album Blue Lines (2012 Mix/Master) came through loud, clear, and precise. However, I felt like some of the energy I'm used hearing was missing. I turned on the sub and played the song again—that solved my problem. Not every track needed the help of a subwoofer to sound its best, but overall I found it was better to have the sub running. The key was keeping it at a level where the sub did not call attention to itself.
The A-S801 did not need a sub to produce sublime renditions of vocals. I'm no fan of Diana Krall, but I acknowledge that her voice is a reference of sorts—her songs are a fixture of high-end audio shows. The A-S801 made the Tritons sing and fully reproduced the dynamics of her well-produced recordings such as "We Just Couldn't Say Goodbye" from her album Glad Rag Doll.
A switch to rap also meant switching the sub back on. Lil Wayne's "Blunt Blowin" needed the extra heft provided by the ForceField 5. In fact, without the sub, the track sounded a bit thin, but that's neither the speakers' nor the amp's fault—the genre demands exaggerated bass.
Brian Eno's album The Drop features exceptional production, and it sounded perfect playing through the A-S801. A track called "Hazard" featured a bass sound that truly sounded like I was in a giant cave. The amp extracted incredible detail from The Drop.
I didn't find much use for the tone, balance, or loudness controls. However, they are there for anyone who wants to play with them. I engaged Pure Direct mode for most of my listening, regardless of the volume level.
The A-S801's headphone jack turns it into a high-performance DAC and headphone amp combo. Plugging in a pair of headphones disengages the speakers—you can't use both at once. You can easily pay more for just a DAC, or even for a so-called audiophile-grade USB cable, but why? The sound quality from the A-S801's headphone jack is great—there's zero audible noise. It had no problem driving all of the headphones I have on hand to very dangerous levels with ease.
If the loudness and tone controls have any real purpose, it might very well be for tweaking the sound of headphones to your liking. I'd still choose flat response as long as your headphones are not weak in the bass department, but it's nice to have options.
For under a grand, Yamaha's A-S801 offers audiophile-quality amplification and digital decoding. It happily assimilates a wide variety of stereo sources, both digital and analog. If vinyl is your thing, it accommodates that as well. A power rating of 100 watts per channel might not seem like a lot these days, but the truth is you only use a small fraction of that most of the time, and you lose only a decibel or two compared with high-end AVRs that cost much more—and I never heard it struggle.
The A-S801's support for double-DSD and 32-bit/384 kHz PCM via USB is not a common feature in AVRs—most top out at 24/192. If you have a need to play high-res audio at insanely high bitrates, you could do worse than this humble Yamaha.
For those whose music consumption includes a lot of at-home critical listening through headphones, the A-S801 has what it takes to make that a rewarding experience. You get high-res capability along with a USB DAC and enough power to drive full-sized cans to very high levels with great fidelity—so please be careful with your hearing.
When it comes to audio, the proof is in the listening. Whenever I presented the A-S801 with a well-recorded track, it delivered a nuanced rendition without ever getting in the way of the music. While it might not be the right device for an AV enthusiast who is into surround sound, it would make my imaginary alter ego—the 2-channel audio aficionado with limited space and a limited budget—very happy.
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