CLONES Audio AP2, ASHER and 25IR review


These days audiophiles and music lovers are trying hard to find the balance between the investment and proper level of musical enjoyment. It's not easy anymore to balance the price/ performance ratio as many of the high end gear went sky high with pricing and global crisis affected many of audiophile and music lovers incomes.

Clones Audio was always striving to bring heck a lot of musicality packed into the little black mighty boxes and all of the three components under the review again proven, how proper design, know how and non the less voicing can ensure blissful moments even at reasonable pricing. Matt aka Funjoe lifelong experiences and love for music vividly reflects in his products. 

He manages to bring continually steady pacing with his designs  opening up the doors of affordable high end components to a people entering the high-end audio quest or for seasoned listeners with strict focus.

THE HIDDEN UPDATES


Most of the people might not recognize the hidden updates to the new products updates. All new chassis of the CLONES just updated line are already implementing the all redesigned internal structure and materials. Enclosures are of the high importance and priority with the sound tuning of the CLONES components. They are of much better finishing, newly acquired materials few fresh approaches that are introducing generally much better performance. Just to give a clue, newly materials cost double of the price of previous machines. 

CLONES AP2 PREAMPLIFIER


After a good year of the production of the original AP1 preamplifier many of the CLONES clients asked Matt to bring the AP1 with the remote control. This led to extended R & D and all new prototype was born. Funjoe wanted to completely redesign the preamplifier and bring the sound performance to much higher level. He wanted to avoid the AD815 as the main building block, but sticking with the Opamps in the heart of the operations. 


Reaching the point of when everything was ready for a production, and unsettling mind wanted to explore it further. He wanted to make it more special and bring the actual performance to even higher level. The simplification of the signal path was needed for creating better sounding and performing new model. After few months of the trial and error resulted in a completely new AP2 preamplifier. Funjoe entirely abandoned the design of the previous version as he wanted to create something stand out that will again enthuse the people like in the past with the introduction any new product coming from the company.

AP2 preamplifier is the three stage design. Each section of the power supply is addressed individually! The MCU is deliberately  placed at the front panel with the display module connected with the shielded data cable. This helped in reducing the noise from the MCU. The most challenging pursue with the AP2 was fitting everything into the already tiny enclosure. Now, there are two transformer inside of the AP2. The blue one supply power to the MCU/control section and the digital power supply for the PGA2320. The other one is dedicated solely for the Opamps only. I cannot recall easily any other preamplifier with such structure and built logic in this price range and far above.  

CLONES 25IR INTEGRATED AMPLIFIER


With all the experiences and knowledge gained from the AP2 preamplifier the all new 25IR encompassed a lot of what was learned. There were many ways of involving the preamplifier sections with 25IR. Preamplifier stage is the first circuit which addresses the incoming gain and cannot be taken with low profile importance. 


It is easy to make it operating, but its not easy to make it sound good. CLONES 25IR also spots an individual power supply for the preamplifier section, like with AP2. It shares the MCU design of the AP2 and this of course made everything packed even more closely together. 25IR preamplifier as default is always in active mode to ensure the the best performance.

ASHER DAC 


Matt decided not to do any new DAC after SHEVA. Cost and labor hour was quite high of the SHEVA, but when he shared the information of ditching it with his dealers, they asked him to find the way to keep this in product line. ASHER was then planned as the replacement of the SHEVA wit the lower price and tuned down performance. The foundation of the ASHER DAC is in fact almost same as with the SHEVA but with the new layout using the onboard transformer with multiple taps. Plan was to save the  time with the production. In a pursue of taking a bit of performance from SHEVA Matt created made something better! Basically the concept is the same and uses ESS9018, but with everything are redesigned. New ultra low-noise regulator module was chosen for the digital part, huge regulator for the Opamps and completely new output filter. At the end, newly digital isolator for the USB part was added. 


ASHER DAC follows the traditional CLONES point to point soldering to keep the renowned company sonic DNA. 


And not to forget. All new CLONES units can be controlled with the same remote!

FIRST IMPRESSIONS


I’m very found on Matt endeavors for brining the highest performance with down to earth pricing. Thats why its was needed to elaborate at least basically about his hard work and time spend in the paragraphs above. Its clear that he wants to continually impress people with the added value of performance with the newly introduced products and keep the attention of the high—end industry and non the less of the competition. Its not easy these day to keep up the pace with the fast forward pace of new almost daily product introductions and global impact of the audio manufacturing in all parts of the world. 

Funjoe dedication and passion was instantly recognizable through the first few songs played. New, next generation products revealed even more intrinsic values of price/performance ratio. All three new products are pushing the sound reproduction much further, to a higher, more involving level of musical listening enjoyment. 


As I’ve written in my previous reviews of CLONES Audio products, there are something special about their sound outcome. There might be similar designed products on the market, but non of them come close to the musical flow of the CLONES. Matt really did his homework profoundly and it shows on each turn. 


These days I cannot really stand the BS associated with many new products. Even from renowned brands. My hectic if not frantic schedule is always practically bombarded with vast gear incomings. Day in, day out. People are sending their prototypes, half finished or production level products constantly and I’m rarely excited. Many times, these electronics are just traveling back without any official write up due to the mediocre or even lower ability of the sound reproduction. These days you really need to push things to the max to ensure my attention. Not because of some sort of personal ego trip, luxury urging, but as in abundance of product offerings on the market, a dedicated component must deserve their place at any given price range. 

Its never an easy task to get the “voicing” part of the high end audio components right. For many this falls into a voodoo realms. Large and even smaller companies and ventures are hiring people who have a little or no clue regarding the high-end audio needed attributes being a cornerstone of playback. This all resulted in a magnitude of amplifiers, preamplifiers and DAC’s sounding completely bland and un-involving. I really respect and appreciate the level of Matt involvement and time spent with his creations. AP2, Asher and 25IR follows the established path of the CLONES DNA, resolving in a well controlled and guided sound performance, closely following the most important attributes of the musical realism. 


MUSIC


First part of write up installment revealed a bit more of whats updated at the technical side. In the second part I’ll be focusing on the music performance and and how all there new CLONES products are relating to it.

ASHER DAC 


Matt aka Funjoe is no stranger with digital. Sheva DAC was already reviewed back in 2014 and got a lot of attention for its performing abilities. Matt did quite a splendid job with Sabre ESS9018 via Sheva and all of the Asher DAC sound indications leads back to these positive attributes. Usually, not being too fond or biggest fan of the Sabre chips, Asher DAC again reminded me, that not only with preamplifiers and power amplifiers, but with all audio electronics in general, it will always come down to the design choices and component tuning. People got quickly disturbed or confused if your bring up the voicing part of the electronic design. Factually its all about what matters with high-end audio. The sound! With the clever selections of built in materials, power supplies and everything related designer  infuses his sound orientation and inspiration origination. Much like Matt’s other creations Asher DAC resembles the realism in musical nature and importance of such sonic path direction.

For many audiophiles Opamps automatically rules out the existence of high performing, musically potent DAC. Lurking closer into high-end audio industry reveals “bold” nature of some most renown long standing industry high-end players like Burmester. They dared to took this path long time ago.

Being critical and upfront, the most modern even highly regarded music is recorded via tons of gain stages implementing different opamps based gain stages in one way or another. So, Matt challenged himself again and push things further by his exploration of clever solutions starting with focusing on the power supply and filtering part of the DAC chip.

Asher is following the same intriguing path already set by the Sheva. Attributes spatiality, ambient sense, depthless and level of recreated focus points are much more on the level of higher priced DAC’s then the rivaling ones.

Blending the transparency with proper level of musicality is never an easy task. Push it to the brightening area and harsh,  analytic sound imprint prevails. Asher organic orientation and absence of typical vituperations associated with most DAC’s of similar design and pricing were surprisingly refreshing.



"Don't play what's there, play what's not there." - Miles Davis. I would translated into "Don't play what's already there, play what's not there" for Asher DAC. To often focus is laser like pointed to wrong attributing, making sound overexposing in a certain areas. Balancing act is utmost important with high-end audio gear regardless of pricing and this is something thats stands as Matt’s leit motif. Right aural direction!

Stevie Ray Vaughan & Double Trouble Little Wing embarks some real emotional flow ability. Paired it with the DAC of evenness like character and Stevie magical blues mojo gets deciphered uncompromisingly. Asher combined generous warmth with the expansiveness, making Little Wing sounding surprisingly aplomb.

Júlio Resende Uma Outra Mariquinhas from Fado & Further is one of my latest discoveries. Júlio Resende subtle, lyrical playing evokes sublime nature of both time and space.

Interplay and layering of notes too quickly stacks up cumbersome with DAC’s failing in layering intricate ability to transcribe Uma Outra Mariquinhas with natural flow. Asher lead it pleasantly lightly and involving. Something quickly evident further on with Chris Isaak Wicked Games well known pop song. Not your ordinary one, although recored with samples and lots of studio works this song encompass quite a production mastery. Even a pop song can reveal so much regarding the sound and performance. Asher followed so called Wicked Games simple progression with control and in expansive way, encapsulating the reverent mood and pace.


Clones Asher DAC is clearly building up on Sheva established heritage. Whats supposed to come as lower leveling project act managed to surpass the expectations. Asher is a flamboyant representation acting above its given class and with hearts of gold, clearly revealing the highly positive nature of Funjoe.

CLONES AP2 PREAMPLIFIER


Clones Audio AP1 was very interesting and potent preamplifier. Especially for the price vs performance. With the revision of the components and other updates it was a right time to explore the new model.



Clones AP2 preamplifier is not a mare functional addition. It would be downer if Matt would keep everything same, especially with new AP2 naming. So not an MK2 version, but whole new number.

As I’ve been asked by quite few to describe main differences between Clones Audio AP1 and AP2. Its not revolution, but more an evolutional step. Funjoe mindset is set to quiet progression and letting his gear speaks up.

In recent times the importance of preamplifiers is being put upfront again. Many audiophiles and music lovers tried to settle directly with DAC and other front ends outputs, yet many were not satisfied with the sonic outcome. Return to the preamplifiers seems like an unavoidable thing. You can quote me…

In high-end audio setup up the role of preamplifiers is utmost important. This is where the gain matching happens and how it happens matter the most. I’m yet to stumble on either DAC or any other audio source convincing me in taking the main role of preamp. Some do offer great alternative and might even come close to some extend, yet compared to the great preamplifiers they fail to stand along.

Clones Audio AP2 “ from the same brand’s book, by the same author, but with different, more in depth and empowering story. AP2 is more uncanny, stress-less in performance and seamless in integrating between both power amplifier and DAC, CD, phono preamplifier etc.

AP2 generous warmth, without traces of cold logic, locked with trajectory focus points spreading outwards and into the listening space. Prolonged blackening exposed massively sounding The Philadelphia Orchestra & Eugene Ormandy take of Tchaikovsky The Swan Lake Ballet radiance and complex tone colors culminating with frenzied impact. Mandatory, via medium preamplifier ability is needed to experience this impact. AP2 delivered it with a noticeable difference compared to AP1 even within first few songs play feeling like removing a this curtain between musical event and the listener.



I remember playing Sade Diamond Life via AP1 and also dig out my listening notes from the time. Fast forward in present with AP 2; the foundation stood in time, yet everything was of more intimate nature and much more revealing with AP2. I don’t prefer using black background referral, still with AP2 this seemed quite appropriate. Diamond Life is really well recorded and one can quite easily distinguish the benefits or misdoings of high-end audio components. Especially the preamp. AP2 death with fragile gain perpetually ravishing for its size and price.

Prolonged and extended see through nature of AP2 managed to recreate musical happening surprisingly evidently with classical music. Eugene Ormandy conducting The Philadelphia Orchestra performing Peter Iliych Tchaikovsky The Sleeping Beauty, The Nutcracker and Swan like belongs to a close selection of my utmost intimate and seductive performance gems. Uber revelatory and emotionally packed these performances reveals natural potency of any components under the stress with and when on impact is on a certain level of realism it encapsulate life like feeling of live presence. I can simply dive into the lyrical universe of Peter Iliych Tchaikovsky when things are of balanced nature. Clones AP2 enticing nature acted as a small, flow packed reservoir of realistic musical core. Not on the level of the grand boys, its logical. Still what was rendered via AP2 points the performance of legendary classic preamps. AP2 did its jury plendidly and cathartic considering what it might appears as modest design.



Summing it up and putting context as succinctly. Clones Audio AP2 preamplifier upgrade matters! Not as giant leap, but as well versed and acting as grand purview of what high-end audio preamplifier can offer. AP1 to AP 2 upgrade deserves to be pointed out and highlighted. Well done Matt!

CLONES 25IR INTEGRATED AMPLIFIER


Back in 2013 I’ve called Clones Audio 25p power amplifier as - straight, no chasers. Simplicity in complexity and remarkable pureness pin pointed a magnitude of positive attributes usually not connected with such “simplified” device. Musically sounding amplifier can only sound good when its derived from something mighty and emotionally involving. More or less reserved for the upper echelon exotic gear, emotions properly conveyed won’t come easily in affordable price range and as mandatory with the compact devices. Matt endeavors with 25IR brought up again the light the core importances of higher performing sound translating into the flow and musicality. Clones Audio 25IR looked back to its proceeders and acceded as instant and constant reminder of the Clones Audio main audio focus. With 25IR in play, instant sonic deja vu sublimely materialized.


Clones Audio 25IR builds up on the heritage of previous integrated and Clones mono block power amplifiers. As with other new models chassis were updated and they take even more important role in dealing with resonances, electronics positioning and RFI interferences.

Three unbalanced RCA inputs, two sets up non entry level speakers binding posts and IEC connector take all the space on the back. On the front LED volume/input indicator is partnered only with Clones logo in the middle and volume/input double functioning knob on the right side. As easy as it gets! 25IR is designed as audiophile epicenter musical machine. No hassles, simplicity, instant connection with the music. Sit down, turn on, forget about the world outside. This kind of lifestyle integrated amplifier. And Clones Audio 25IR explodes by all means the simplicity and pureness. Both aesthetically and sonically.

25IR follows the established brand sound orientation. Intricate lightens and fluid flow evidently stayed as main theme throughout the music - listening tracks. In the days and age where for many listeners instant locking into the music library is of top importance Matt’s “little sonic tank” pushes up performance while keeping it in the compact “miniature” sizing. Then again, there nothing smallish about 25IR nature…



25IR can operate on many levels. Be it a hands on desktop integrated for driving small intimate monitors or it can morph at once into the high-end audio integrated amp performing the higher duties of a bigger boys. Its high-end audio DNA is of added value in minutely ability to reach into the core of the music.

I’ve spent quite some time exploring 25IR in different setups and with both entry, mid and upper echelon DACs. Chameleon like nature of 25IR will act accordingly to the potency of the front end. Also, you cannot expect it to drive megalomanic speaker designs. It will handle properly smaller floor-standers and stand mounted monitors of proper impedance and power matching with innate sense of authority. 25IR can really sing with right match.

I’ve quickly recall what was so inspiring few years back with the first encounter of Matt/Funjoe creations through 25IR. Matt has long life experience with high-end audio products and his mileage with different gear allowed him to “tune” his electronic with the right set of attributes, evoking the majority of needed attributes of making it worthy of the high-end audio labeling, being so easily given these days regarding the price.


Do not judge this integrated by its size. Anyone having second thoughts must just lift it up. Thats the first sobering factor and explain my “little tank” labeling. Next 25IR self promoting and self positioning act happens with the listening. Involving factor of 25IR integrated positions puts it the envy worth of throne for its true musical and emotional packed DNA origin.


CONCLUSION


Its not easy to capture the mood, timing and pace of musical realism at this level of pricing, but CLONES are delivering it. You’ll be surprised how these machine relate to the music. They are in the David vs Goliath league, a true giant killers and darn good value for the money. 


What all three exhibited so far sonically clearly entitles this new Clones Audio creations with both Highly Recommended and Best Buy 2016's first Mono & Stereo awards. Well deserved.

Clones Audio products deserves much more attention then given. These mighty, small size packed (except Asher size) musical boxes really established and proven themselves again as fully embodied passionate Matt’s clever creations being able to emerge and expand according to the music connected to them. In the world of plaintively sounding gear Clones Audio products are remnant of the the true giants. Past and present…

Text: Matej Isak

PRICING


Asher DAC
HK$17,500.00

25iR
HK$8,690.00

AP2
HK$8,290.00

TECHNICAL 


ASHER DAC

Sampling rates

• AES/EBU, COAX, OPT up to 192kHz
• USB/I2S: PCM 44.1, 48, 88.2, 96, 176.4, 192, 352.8, 384kHz; DSD64, DSD128, DSD256

Features

• ESS Reference audio (ES9018) 32 bit DAC
• Automatic oversampling for precise output filtering
• VFD display for input, sample rate, volume control, and configuration
• Remote control with features such as control and phase inversion
• Defeatable - 32 bit volume control
• 1x Coax input
• 1X BNC input
• 1x Toslink input
• 1x AES/EBU input
• 1x I2S input 
• Proprietary drivers for 32/64 bit Windows XP, Vista, 7 and Mac OSX
• Factory selectable mains  115/230VAC
• 322mm(W) X 260mm(D) X 90mm (H)
• Weight: 6kg

25ir

Output power: 25W+25W (8ohms)
Input impedance: 10k ( unbalanced only, 3 inputs )
Gain: 30dB
Dimensions:170(w)x100(h)x170(d)mm
Weight: 6.0kg

AP2

Input impedance: 100k ( unbalanced only, 3 inputs )
1 Output 
Dimensions:170(w)x100(h)x170(d)mm
Weight: 4.5kg

CONTACT


Clones Audio
Hong Kong

EMAIL: info@clonesaudio.com
WEB: www.clonesaudio.com