AVM is one of those companies I discovered at Munich’s High End years ago. Like myriad other German manufacturers that display at High End, AVM annually has a large presence at this audio event in their native land, with a room in which they display their entire product line. High End 2018 was no different -- I saw so many components in AVM’s big room that I wondered how their customers keep track of everything they make. At that moment I vowed to learn more about AVM and their offerings -- and to seek out a review sample of one of them.
Producing practically everything hi-fi except loudspeakers, AVM has been in business since 1986 -- it is owned by Udo Besser, formerly of Burmester. (If you thought the chrome look on the knobs and buttons on AVM gear looked familiar, now you know why.) Although AVM has lines of power and integrated amplifiers and source components (CD players, turntables), it was their preamplifiers I was drawn to -- specifically, their preamps with enhanced functionality, such as built-in DACs and streaming.
I connected with Peder Baeckman, AVM’s Sales Manager Americas; we discussed potential review products, and settled on the Ovation SD 6.2 preamplifier-DAC-streamer ($9990 USD). It does everything I would want such a product to do, and a few more things I hadn’t anticipated enjoying.
What is it?
The first thing you need to know about the Ovation SD 6.2 is revealed in the title of this review. If you regularly read SoundStage! reviews, you’ve no doubt seen products we’ve identified as “DAC-preamplifiers” -- however, I’ve called the SD 6.2 a “preamplifier-DAC-streamer.” Just an inconsistency?
Nope. Without getting too deep into how we categorize products, I’ll tell you about two things we consider. First, all else being equal, we follow the signal path. For instance, if we’re reviewing a component that’s equal parts DAC and headphone amp, we call it a “DAC-headphone amplifier,” particularly if it has only digital inputs: the signal enters the unit at its DAC stage, and exits through its amplifier section. Simple. The second thing we consider is the weighting of functionality. When functions aren’t as important in terms of the model’s basic design -- such as an optional DAC section for an integrated amp -- we default to listing the product’s primary function first, followed by the secondary function(s). We’d call the example I’ve just given an “integrated amplifier-DAC.”
In the case of AVM’s Ovation SD 6.2, it’s no accident that the title of this review reads “Preamplifier-DAC-Streamer” -- first and foremost, the SD 6.2 is a full-function preamplifier. Here’s why: The SD 6.2 is all about input flexibility, and begins with analog inputs: one set each of balanced XLR and unbalanced RCA jacks, which allow you to use it as a conventional analog preamplifier for sources such as a standalone CD player or phono stage.
But that just scratches the surface. The SD 6.2 also has a multitude of digital inputs feeding a DAC section equipped with two ESS Technology ES9018K2M Sabre32 DACs per channel, which are capable of up to 32-bit/384kHz operation with PCM signals and up to DSD128, via the USB input. (Via its other digital inputs, the SD 6.2 decodes PCM signals up to 24/192.) The complete list looks like this: one AES/EBU on XLR, one USB Type-B, two coax, two optical, and one input labeled USB Stick/HDD, for connection to a USB drive. There are also two digital outputs: one coax, one optical. Analog preamplifier outputs include one pair of XLRs and one pair of RCAs, plus a second set of fixed-level RCAs. There’s also a 6.5mm headphone jack on the front panel, powered by what AVM says is a class-A output stage.
What really sets the SD 6.2 apart from anything I’ve reviewed is its streaming functionality. Its network connectivity includes LAN, Wi-Fi, and compatibility with the UPnP protocol. When it’s connected to your network -- I used an Ethernet cable connected to the LAN input -- you’ll have access to Qobuz, Tidal, and Internet Radio. (Of course, you’ll need to sign up for Tidal and/or Qobuz subscriptions.)
There are two ways of controlling the SD 6.2. The one included in the list price is AVM’s RC S app for Android or iOS. This gives you, via your smartphone or tablet, full control of sources and streaming services, as well as playback functions including volume control. I used this app exclusively. Optionally, you can purchase the RC 9 remote control ($400), a physical IR/RF handset that comes with a charging dock. For $9990, I think the RC 9 should be included in the price.
The Ovation SD 6.2 is a large box of brushed aluminum measuring 17”W x 5.1”H x 14”D and weighing 26.5 pounds. Its front panel is adorned with two large, chromed knobs that flank a central display screen: the right knob controls volume, the left source. To the right of the volume knob is the headphone jack, and to the left of the source knob is the on/standby button. Below the display are five small, chromed multifunction buttons (more about these below). The display gives you the usual information: volume level and source, and the status of settings such as Filter and Sample Rate. Speaking of the volume control, turning the knob slowly adjusts the level in increments of 0.5dB; a quick turn increases the increment to 2dB, so you can get where you’re going more quickly.
Lastly, as I highlighted last month in “Upping My Game With AVM, But First . . . ,” the Ovation SD 6.2 arrives not in a cardboard box but in a nice flight case. I love that -- not only can you expect safer shipping, it lends the touch of class that should accompany a $9990 product.
The SD 6.2’s multifunction buttons let you use several advanced features that could be handy, depending on your needs. I experimented with these, testing both their ease of use and their effects on the sound quality.
Counting from left to right, button 4 lets you adjust the input sensitivity for connected source components within a range -9.5dB to +10dB. Although this setting isn’t about sound quality per se, it will help if one of the source components feeding the SD 6.2 has a weak signal -- you can keep the volume level consistent as you switch among sources.
Each digital source’s Filter setting can be adjusted separately, with the user given the choice of Steep or Smooth via the first two multifunction buttons. Smooth sounded slightly more natural to me, so I stuck with that setting throughout my listening.
Tone controls can be activated using the central multifunction button by changing the menu setting for the Tone control from Bypass to Active. I adjusted these settings only gingerly, but I did find some use for them. The Bass control has a range of -5dB to +9dB (Treble has a range of -7dB to +7dB), and at times it worked like a charm. I was able to warm up some thin-sounding recordings without excessively thickening the midrange. For instance, I found about 3dB of boost helped “Misunderstanding,” from Marianne Faithfull’s Negative Capability (16-bit/44.1kHz FLAC, Panta Rei/Tidal), sound more human, more natural. However, using the same bass setting for “The Only Thing Worth Fighting For,” from Rosanne Cash’s She Remembers Everything (16/44.1 FLAC, Blue Note/Tidal), made the song feel slower, and generally bogged down the timing of the track. Going back into the menu and returning the setting to Bypass restored this track’s pace and rhythm, and made Cash’s voice sound more like I imagine she actually sounds. A Loudness contour function is also available.
Another setting that can be experimented with is Sample Rate. The SD 6.2 allows you to upsample to a multitude of frequencies: 48, 88.2, 96, 176.4, 192, 352.8, and 384kHz. Although I did hear some slight differences while playing around with these settings, they depended on the recording played -- I didn’t find one frequency that worked well for everything I played, and I didn’t have the time or the inclination to try different rates for every track I wanted to play. I mostly used the Native setting, which processes the digital signal at whatever is the track’s native sample rate. Perhaps it’s my imagination, but I felt this setting sounded consistently less forced, more open.
Other functions that were straightforward in use were Balance, Display Brightness, Skip (unused inputs), and Label (for naming the inputs). Overall, I found the Ovation SD 6.2 user friendly, once I’d learned how to use it. The key is that its adjustability of features is comprehensive -- you probably won’t figure it all out by just playing around with it, as you might with some components. I found that spending half an hour with the online owner’s manual tutored me right up; after that, I never had to look at it again.
With the Sample Rate set to Native and the Tone control to Bypass, I set out to listen to this wunderkind from Germany. The Ovation SD 6.2 was, overall, one of the more enjoyable products I’ve reviewed recently, and that was due to its sound quality and the fact that everything worked perfectly. There were no glitches of any kind during the review period.
One aspect of the SD 6.2’s sound that remained consistent throughout the review was its reproduction of fine detail. Well, hang on . . . it remained consistently that way as long as the Filter was set to Smooth and the Sample Rate to Native. The Steep filter could sharpen certain tracks just a touch, and Native sounded less processed, as I said above.
About 15 seconds into “From Cousteau’s Point of View,” from Florian Weber’s Lucent Waters (16/44.1 FLAC, ECM/Tidal), is some extremely subtle, amazingly articulate cymbal work from drummer Nasheet Waits. The combination of AVM SD 6.2 and EgglestonWorks Kiva loudspeakers, driven by my Coda Model 11 class-A stereo power amplifier, was fabulous. Even at very low volume levels, I was able to hear every tiny cymbal stroke and its decay, as if I were sitting right in front of Waits. My ability to hear even the finest details without much effort, particularly in well-recorded jazz, would be a constant throughout the listening period. I could hear very deeply into instrumental textures, and really drill down into the playing of instruments and the subtle inflections of voices.
I found that the high-frequency transparency I heard in the Weber tracks carried over to other recordings, and not only in the highs. When I listened to Andrea Bocelli’s single “If Only” (16/44.1 FLAC, Decca/Tidal), I could hear clearly into the Italian tenor’s voice, which made him sound more human than he usually sounds to me. This, too, remained consistent: There was a naturalness to male voices -- not smoothed over, but with rough edges intact -- that I attributed to the unprocessed sound of the AVM’s DAC section. For instance, when I adjusted the Sample Rate setting and/or changed the Filter setting to Steep, I could alter the sound and make it sound more, well, digital. I especially noticed this in the midrange, and particularly with male voices. But as long as I kept my fiddling to a minimum, I attained super-clear but, more important, open and unprocessed sound. The Bocelli single was a fine example of this.
As I listened more, I began to concentrate less on the performance of the SD 6.2 within specific frequency bands. For instance, when I tried to focus on what the AVM was doing in the bass, I realized I was assessing more the sound of the speakers than of the electronics. This became obvious when I swapped out the EgglestonWorks Kivas, which are fairly large, three-way floorstanders, for Monitor Audio’s smallish, two-way, Studio stand-mounts, then swapped the Kivas back in again. My takeaway from all of that was that the Ovation SD 6.2 had no problem of bass lightness or heavy-handedness. Its sound seemed perfectly neutral, feeding each pair of speakers exactly what it needed to produce excellent bass within that model’s capabilities.
Eventually, as I began to focus more on soundstaging, I came to find out that this largely depended on how the SD 6.2 handled high-frequency subtleties. Basically, the AVM’s reproduction of the treble was so delicate and precise that its re-creations of the subtle cues of the acoustics of live venues were stunningly realistic. Concert recordings took on a more holographic nature in terms of soundstage depth, and my perception of the AVM’s ability to reproduce the ambience that placed me at the center of a soundfield -- as opposed to looking in at it from a distance, from the outside -- also increased.
I’ve been around top-notch digital gear long enough to know that a component’s overall design is more important than any single element of that design -- for example, which DAC chip is used. What came to mind again and again about the Ovation SD 6.2 was that it handled the audio signals of my finest recordings with care, letting them through to the speakers unfettered. I don’t think this was due solely to the quality of its DAC chip, or the robustness of its analog output stage, or the reduction in unwanted resonances effected by its sturdy construction, or whatever. I believe that the Ovation SD 6.2 is excellent throughout -- and that the entirety of its sound quality is greater than the sum of its parts. An aside: Although I was amazed that the large, 1.3"-diameter tweeters of the EgglestonWorks Kivas could reproduce the level of detail I was hearing, the takeaway for this review was of course that, courtesy the AVM, audio signals were reaching the Eggs in pristine shape to begin with.
Lastly, through the Ovation SD 6.2 I discovered the joys of Internet Radio. I’ve read for years, while editing his reviews for SoundStage! Access, about Thom Moon’s love of Radio Paradise, so when assessing this function of the AVM with the RC S app, that was my first stop. I had a blast exploring stations from all over the world. And the sound quality wasn’t half bad -- even if I did use those Tone control settings more often with this source selection.
AVM vs. Hegel
Yeah, I know -- it’s not a fair fight. The Hegel Music Systems HD30 ($4800) costs less than half the price of the AVM Ovation SD 6.2 ($9990). In addition, Hegel has now updated their best digital architecture with the introduction of the DAC section in their stellar H590 integrated amplifier-DAC. But since I had the HD30 on hand, and have raved about its sound quality for the better part of the past year, I figured I had to do it.
Here’s the deal: First, the AVM has tremendous advantages over the Hegel in features and user adjustability. It’s a more complex component that lets the user fine-tune the sound in ways the Hegel doesn’t. It also handles more sources of different kinds, and its streaming functionality will expand the way you listen to music. The fact that the AVM’s arrival meant I could ditch my computer and directly access Tidal streams was terrific. You can’t fault the Hegel for what it is: a basic DAC with volume control. But I won’t go back to a basic DAC again -- the AVM’s streaming functionality has won me over.
Where the Ovation SD 6.2 also upped the ante over the HD30 was in sound quality. The AVM bettered the Hegel in terms of transparency to the source and, in particular, the reproduction of detail. Playing again Florian Weber’s “From Cousteau’s Point of View” perfectly illustrated this. Through the Hegel, Nasheet Waits’s cymbals were clearly audible, with good texture. But through the AVM the detail was demonstrably better, as if the raw signal were revealed before me. The Hegel, by comparison, ever so slightly smoothed over notes, making this recording sound more like, well, a recording.
An analogy: Imagine the difference between a speaker’s frequency-response graph viewed with 1/12th-octave smoothing vs. seeing the same measurement without any smoothing. The true nature of the peaks and valleys are apparent only in the unsmoothed graph. The AVM revealed fine detail that much better.
I can easily appreciate what AVM offers in their Ovation SD 6.2 preamplifier-DAC-streamer. Even at close to ten grand, what you get in functionality, build quality, and, most important, sound quality, makes the SD 6.2 worth the price of admission. The only nit I have to pick is that I’d have preferred that the remote-control handset be included in the price. I don’t like being on my smartphone in my listening room -- that’s the one place I want to escape from it. But that’s the only criticism that I have of an otherwise superior component.
Before you spend more than $9990 -- perhaps assuming that more money will buy you an even better digital front end and preamp and streamer -- make absolutely sure that you give AVM’s three-in-one Ovation SD 6.2 a shot. I’d sure like to have one permanently installed in my system.
. . . Jeff Fritz
- Speakers -- EgglestonWorks Kiva, Monitor Audio Studio
- Amplifier -- Coda Model 11
- Sources -- Apple MacBook Pro running High Sierra 10.13.6, Roon, Tidal streaming; Oppo Digital BDP-103 universal BD player
- Cables -- Siltech Explorer interconnects, speaker cables, power cords
AVM Ovation SD 6.2 Preamplifier-DAC-Streamer
Price: $9990 USD.
Warranty: Three years parts and labor.
AVM Audio Video Manufaktur GmbH
Phone: +49 (0)7246-30991-0