YBA. Am I the only one who thought Young British Artists? Tracy Emin and unmade beds, Damien Hirst and pickled sharks? Wrong answer. In the context of good music reproduction, YBA can only mean Yves-Bernard André, whose initials grace the brand he launched way back in 1981. Since then he has been dedicated to combining the best technologies with an overarching desire for the listener to experience true emotional connection with the music. His stated desire is to transport the listener to the heart of the music.
Many things have changed in the past 37 years, but YBA has continued to produce exceptional high fidelity equipment. The equipment is now manufactured in Shanling China, but the Gallic spirit and involvement is still much in evidence, not least in the distinctive styling of the various ranges. Look at the pictures – who else has an elliptical centre panel for the display? And while we are on the subject, the build quality of these units is exceptional. They are hefty without being back-breaking, the connections on the rear are good quality and the tripod of anti-vibration feet in the base do a fine job.
After a somewhat “now you see me, now you don’t” existence for YBA on the UK market, distribution has been taken over by Harmony HiFi in Welwyn Garden City who supplied first the amplifier and then, at my request, the CD transport. The Passion series under review sits below the Signature range in the YBA product hierarchy, but is visually similar, and so stands out from the crowd. There are two other ranges, Genesis and Heritage.
As mentioned, the amplifier arrived first and was soon unboxed and installed on my Quadraspire XL rack. The IA350 is weighty but a lot slimmer than my resident integrated amplifier. Having plugged in the phono stage and Naim NDX I had used up the two phono inputs (marked CD and Video), so connected my Yamaha CD-S3000 to the XLR sockets. There are phono outputs for pre-out, into which went the ‘Y’ lead for my subwoofer. I started out using the included IEC mains lead but once the unit had thoroughly warmed up I did an A/B listen with the standard cable and the Audioquest NRG Y3which I have been using since I reviewed it a while ago. The Audioquest seemed to add a little extra to my listening pleasure so I kept that in for the rest of the review period.
The sonic signature of this amplifier is very pleasing, it’s little cooler sounding than my Yamaha, and has more of the rhythm and timing that I associate with Naim products, but with a more three dimensional presentation. The longer it was here, the more I enjoyed it. My Harbeth SuperHL5+ 40th Anniversary loudspeakers were absolutely singing, whether I was indulging in hard rock at window rattling levels or rather more laid back classical music, I felt a tremendous emotional and indeed physical connection with the music. The IA350 offers 115 Watts into an 8 Ohm load. That translates into effortless delivery in a typical UK lounge. Whether playing vinyl or little silver discs, the music simply flowed. Music streamed from a Naim NDX, fed a diet of FLAC files from a Naim UnitiCore which is also here for review, really came alive. The gap between digital and analogue sources is narrowing! We also use our hi-fi for TV sound, and both dialogue and movie soundtracks sounded exceptional through the YBA.
Harmony HiFi also sent me the CDT450 CD transport. Why did I want to try it? Because the IA350 also contains a Cirrus Logic DAC, which I had left switched off to that point. I connected the two boxes using an Audioquest Carbon digital cable and let the transport warm up before sitting to listen more critically. The loading is via a sliding door on the top of the casework, and the disc is held in place with a chunky magnetic puck, bigger than the one which Naim used in their late lamented CD players. Top loading requires a bit of manual dexterity when the unit is not on the top shelf of the rack, but I just had enough clearance for it to work. The disc starts spinning once the door has been slid forward a couple of centimetres, I could hear no difference whether the door was fully closed or left partly open but I loved the tactile experience of loading a disc this way. Offering a disc to a slot in the fascia is just less involving.
What a glorious noise ensued. It is ironic that just as ‘CD is dead’ stories start to crop up a brilliant sounding device like this appears. Again the YBA combination does not care what musical genre the listener asks it to play – it does rock and it does solo cello, as well as delicate female vocals, blues, jazz and every other genre with equal aplomb. My wife is a big George Ezra fan and his most recent album sounded terrific, both via vinyl and CD. The CD was included in the vinyl purchase – I wish more artists did that. Overall, the sound was even handed across the whole frequency range, with the bass being tuneful and agile, the midrange just right and the treble has no harshness or spittiness. Bravo Monsieur André, mission accomplished!
So what criticisms do I have for these excellent units? Well, the very weighty remote control feels good in the hand but I found the amplifier did not always respond to requested changes in volume control, or to the selected input. It worked better straight on than from an angle but I don’t sit facing the system. The CDT plays red book CDs only, so no SACD option, which is not a showstopper for most potential customers, but as I have a good few SACDs it would be an issue for me. The beautiful elliptical displays are not the easiest to read from the other end of the room, but that is not a criticism unique to this brand!
In a week when I have read a review of a pair of loudspeakers costing £160,000, the question of what constitutes high end in hi-fi raises its head once again. Is the YBA Passion range high end? I would say that it is. Huge attention to detail in the design, a palpably high build quality and above all a sound which transports the listener as close as they can get to the original recording must surely mean that this indeed meets the criteria. And it feels like it is built to last.
I would be very happy indeed to have these two units at the heart of my music system. If you are in the market for new amplification or CD replay I can only urge you to seek out a YBA dealer and listen. Anyone with the budget and a desire to get real joy from their music collection really should short list the YBA Passion series.