Value, this is the key to marketing goods and services these days as we try to squeeze as much out of our hard earned dollars as possible. The audiophile world is not immune to this fact as audio manufacturers are scrambling to develop products that hopefully provide satisfying performance at accessible price points. Labour and ancillary costs in Europe and North America preclude the ability for most manufacturers located in these regions to accommodate the growing need for affordable yet high performance gear. Enter the burgeoning Chinese audio industry, the go to OEM manufacturing/ assembly center for many brand names in the marketplace today.
ShengYa Audio is a Chinese audio designer, manufacturer and OEM/OED for several other brands located in Zhongshan, Guangdong, which is the epicenter of Chinese audio manufacturing. ShengYa Audio commenced operations in 1991, and is led by a husband and wife team, Mr. Ho and Mrs. Zhang, handling the design and business responsibilities, respectively. Grant Fidelity, based in Calgary, Alberta, is the exclusive importer and distributor for ShengYa Audio in North America.
In this review, I take a look at one of the latest pieces of gear from ShengYa Audio – the A-S90 stereo receiver, priced at $950. The A-S90 is a class A/B integrated solid state amplifier which has a built-in tuner and a USB input for digital music sources. The amplifier is rated at a conservative 80 watts per channel into an 8 ohm speaker load and 120 watts per channel into a 4 ohm speaker load. When unpacking the unit I was surprised with its sheer weight, coming in at over 26 lbs. The fit and finish is well executed with a thick anodized black aluminum front panel bearing the centered ShengYa Audio logo and the power button. The front panel controls are symmetrically laid out with two large aluminum knobs flanking the logo controlling the input selection and volume levels. Centered and directly below the logo and control knobs is the LED display which indicates what input is being utilized. There is no visual display for volume level. On the far left is the USB input with front panel buttons to control playback of MP3 player or hard drive based sources. On the far right we observe tone controls for bass and treble fine-tuning as well as the tuner controls allowing selection of AM/FM stations, tuning presets and a tuning mode button which switches from preset to manual tuning. The quality of the knobs and buttons is somewhat flimsy but functional.
On the rear there is one set of 5-way gold plated speaker terminals located directly above the IEC inlet for the detachable power cord and the fuse housing. On the opposite end of the rear panel there are five sets of gold-plated RCA inputs for CD, DVD, SACD, AUX and Line sources as well as a Record Out for recording purposes. There is no dedicated tape loop. Above the input RCA jacks are the AM and FM antenna connections to accommodate both included antennas. The manual is sparse with half the pages dedicated to the tuner operation. Now let the fun part begin – I was really curious as to how the unit will sound.
Of course the big question is how does the unit sound given its attractive price point? Prior to burning in the A-S90 with the Isotek Burn In disc, I took a pre-emptive listen fresh out of the box. The speakers that I used were a pair of ELAC 208A floorstanders rated at 4 ohms, with an efficiency of 90 dB, and my source was a Marantz DV 9600 disc player. Right away the characteristic that jumped out at me was the sheer power that reflected the size and weight of the transformer. I’ve heard many 80 watt per channel integrated amps and the ShengYa A-S90 clearly has been conservatively rated.
I started by testing the tuner section and was pleasantly surprised at the sensitivity and clarity that was delivered to my ears. I live at one of the higher elevations in Toronto so that certainly helped with tuning but the resulting sound was spectacular. Even with the limited frequency response of FM, the Classical 96.30 and the mighty Q 107 both provided a highly musical experience that rivaled some of the better tuners that I’ve heard. I didn’t listen much to AM but I’m sure that traffic reports and news would sound adequate to everyone. So far so good.
Now the meat and potatoes of the performance capabilities of the A-S90 would be evaluated with SACD and CD selections. I started with the excellently produced Grammy Award winning Robert Plant and Allison Krauss CD “Raising Sand”. Again the A-S90 provided oodles of current providing very good bottom end heft with just a smidge of bloating that was not too obtrusive. Plant and Krauss’s vocal stylings came through with accurate timbre and presence indicating a very musical mid band response. Timing on percussive elements was bang on and strings were clearly delineated with no edginess apparent. I was pleased with the ShengYa/Marantz combo’s ability to portray the performers within a life-like soundstage.
Next I popped in the SACD of Bob Dylan’s “Oh Mercy” disc produced by Daniel Lanois, the lushest sounding of the Dylan recordings. The first track, “Political World”, is the grittiest sounding track on the disc and the performance was, well, gritty sounding as it should be. Track five, “Man in the Long Black Coat”, has a dominant bass track that sounded sufficiently round and full, again with just a touch of over exaggeration but maintaining the emotional grip that is inherent on this track. The next two tracks are guitar and vocal oriented that showed the A-S90’s ability to maintain clear vocals and accurate string rendition with no homogenization of the sound.
A real low level resolution torture test for any system is Miles Davis’ “Kind of Blue”. We inserted the SACD version with trepidation as the brush work of Jimmy Cobb on drums can sound like a distorted mess on average systems. The first time I heard this album on CD, I thought my tweeters were fried when listening to “Blue In Green”. In fact, it is Cobb sweeping and swirling his brushes on the drum skins. The A-S90 allowed for a clear differentiation of the brush techniques be it sweeping or swirling which was impressive. The A-S90 is a very quiet piece of gear with no hiss apparent at full gain with no source playing and hence has the ability to render low level detail accurately. The stereo layer of this disc has had various listeners complaining that Paul Chamber’s upright bass sounded diminished compared to the multi-channel layer. Not so here as the bass sounded full and resonant with the correct harmonic balance relative to the other performers with none of the previous bloating experienced on the previous discs. Piano timbres were very life-like, piano being one of the most difficult instruments to reproduce in a home system.
So the A-S90 had successfully played back vintage jazz, a 20 year old Dylan piece and a contemporary production of a pair of unique performers presenting a distinctly different blue grass/country/rock sound. How would it perform with more complex pieces such as orchestral or Radiohead’s production extravaganzas?
I used the RCA Living Stereo SACD version of Fritz Reiner’s Chicago Symphony presentation of Mahler’s Symphony No. 4 as the classical test. Mahler utilized out-sized orchestras, thick scoring and big crescendos whilst maintaining an overall balance, a real test of a system’s dynamic and resolving capabilities. Soundstaging is exemplary on the A-S90 with a realistic sense of depth. String, brass, woodwinds and percussive elements were all beautifully rendered. The tonal colours and timbre are lush and sweet even during the big crescendos. It is at this point that I realized what a bargain this integrated amplifier is, seamlessly providing musically involving toe tapping presentations for various genres of music that would indicate a price point two to three times its asking price.
So, last but not least, the ever challenging Radiohead from who I chose the “In Rainbows” CD. Radiohead was a real challenge for me as the first several times I heard their albums they sounded like a garbled mess for the most part. It wasn’t until I put together a synergistic setup at home that I started to appreciate and enjoy their work. The A-S90 simply got it – the music was all sorted out with no mishmash and melding of sounds. The various sound elements scattered around the soundstage were clear and the sense of pace, rhythm and timing was evident, given my inability to stop my leg from twitching to the sonic tapestry that Thom Yorke and the boys were weaving. The bass tracks didn’t have any bloat and the overall frequency and tonal balance provided a highly enjoyable presentation.
This review of the ShengYa Audio A-S90 integrated amplifier provided me with an opportunity to experience a series of pleasant surprises. I must confess that I was not expecting this level of performance from a Chinese designed/manufactured sub-$1000 integrated amplifier. Now there are a couple of aesthetic caveats but at the end of the day the sound performance is what counts. The first caveat being no volume display which is a bit of a pain given the high gain levels. I was not able to turn the volume control much beyond 9 o’clock before we hit the average 90 dB level but that is as much a function of 4 ohm speakers. The last caveat is the remote control which was flimsy and broken out of the box as a result of mishandling during shipping. Please note being a bit of a purist I did not have a MP3 player/hard drive to test the USB input but given the performance of the unit with traditional sources this should be a worthy feature that adds to the value of the product.
In summary, as I noted at the beginning of this article, value is a goal that many of us strive for and I can unequivocally state that the ShengYa A-S90 integrated amplifier with its AM/FM tuner and USB input provides some of the best value currently available. This integrated amp will drive inefficient 8 ohm bookshelf speakers effortlessly given the high gain and massive current delivery, will support PC/MP3 based audio sources, and has an excellent clean sounding preamp section and a sensitive musical tuner. And it does all of this for under $1000.
Distributed in Canada by Grant Fidelity, 1-888-477-5379
ShengYa Audio A-S90 Receiver
Price: $950 CAD