Review: Ideon Audio ION+ – DAC with preamp

Review: Ideon Audio ION+ | DAC with preamp- Ideon Audio 3R Master Time Black Star | USB reclocker with Ideon Audio 3R Master Time Black Star: 3,480 euros

Anyone who does not (yet) know Ideon Audio and sees the company logo – a mountain peak – could assume that this is a manufacturer from the land of chocolate and the excellent, but unfortunately also very expensive hi-fi equipment such as that of Soulution or CH Precision trades. The impression is reinforced by the modern, reduced design and the dominant, high-resolution display. But the impression is deceptive: the two noble test devices, the DAC and preamplifier Ideon Audio ION+ (price: 18,400 euros) and the USB reclocker 3R Master Time Black Star (price: 3,480 euros), do not come from Switzerland but from Greece.

Incidentally, the name “Ideon” comes from a cave on Crete where Zeus, lord of Olympus, grew up (see Wikipedia ). The land of the ancient gods has produced some internationally successful hi-fi manufacturers in recent years. Just think of Tsakiridis, Lab 12, or Ypsilon Electronics. The fact that the still quite young manufacturer of digital audio devices with the divine name wants to be at the very top in terms of sound is shown not only by the company logo but also by its reference series, which bears the unmodest name “Absolute” and has caused a stir worldwide.

Test the best

Here, the potential customer interested in a certain component gets it sent home for about a week because the motto is: “Only home sounds like home.” The package comes to the customer complete with all the necessary accessories.

What the nice courier put under the tree just before Christmas was a pretty big box. Under a first layer of various high-quality Boaacoustic signal and power cables, the USB reclocker with the cryptic name “3R Master Time Black Star” came to light and then the real protagonist of this report: the still fairly new Ideon Audio ION+. (Actually written “IΩN+”, we’ll German it here.)

The little plus in the name refers to the optional preamp board in our test sample – without it, the DAC is 15,900 euros. Despite its relatively compact dimensions, the Greek high-tech briquette weighs 13 kilograms. Visually, the Ideon Audio ION+ is the little brother of the “Absolute Epsilon DAC” (price: 41,200 euros). Is that a good omen?

According to Ideon Audio, many development results and design innovations have been adopted from the flagship DAC in the ION+. In addition, according to their statements, the Greeks make no compromises in component quality, even in the “smaller” series. The ION+ uses the same high-precision femto clocks as its big brother and gives each of them its power supply, which guarantees extremely low jitter values, according to the Greeks. Two clocks are located on the USB board (one for each basic sampling frequency of 44.1/48 kHz) and another on the converter board.

Similar to the Italian manufacturer CanEver, Ideon Audio does not rely on the standard firmware from ESS Saber but programs its software for the ES9028 PRO converter chip used in the ION+ – it is the same as that for the Absolute Epsilon DAC. There it runs on an ES9038 PRO, but some developers consider the ES9028 PRO the better choice in terms of sound. Despite the different converter chips, there are no differences in the processed data formats: Both Ideon DACs process PCM signals up to 32-bit/384 kHz, plus DSD64 to DSD512 natively. I would call that practical.

On the entrance side, it is puristic – you could also say: sparse. You can choose between USB-B and coaxial S/PDIF via BNC or RCA, and that’s about it. The inputs are galvanically isolated, which should prevent interference on the ground. Anyone who has ordered the optional preamp section also has two analog inputs and a regulated preamp output in addition to the fixed level out of the DAC. The analog inputs and outputs are equipped with both cinch and XLR sockets. Since the preamplifier section of the Ideon ION+, which is consistently analog, was designed symmetrically, it seems sensible to prefer this type of connection.

In addition to clean clocking, Ideon Audio attaches great importance to a discrete, low-interference power supply for all consumers using linear power supplies – this applies to the ION+ and the USB reclocker 3R Master Time Black Star. When looking into the case, the toroidal transformer and the many low-ESR capacitors immediately catch the eye. Also consistent: After the conversion, the analog signal only runs through one amplifier stage before it goes directly to the outputs.

The listener discovers which input and output he has just selected via the razor-sharp and exemplary large display. But there is something to complain about. Operation via the multifunction rotary pushbutton on the device is quite a fiddly process. Again and again, I accidentally switched off the ION+ when I wanted to change something in the menu. This is also annoying because the operating instructions warn the user to give the Ideon ION+ a break of at least ten seconds between switching it on and off… It worked better with the high-quality aluminum remote control. Still, I guess I was there until the end of the test, too stupid to penetrate the unconventional operating logic completely. Well, so be it.

Ideon Audio ION+ listening test

Since I’m one of the relatively impatient contemporaries, I wanted to know directly how the complete package sounds. The Ideon Audio ION+ could play directly with its integrated preamp and the USB Foreman 3R Master Time Black Star. More on how USB and S/PDIF sound in comparison and what can be heard with/without a reclocker below – and then some specific cross-comparisons with other high-quality digital sources.

But first, to the overall combo: I played from my Lumin streamer via a Qyaide d+ USB cable. The connection between the Reclocker and the ION+ was provided by a Boaacoustic Silver Digital Xeno USB cable supplied by CM Audio. A Wireworld Platinum Eclipse 7 XLR connector provided the analog route to my mono power amplifiers.


I must have listened to Jack Johnson’s album On And On hundreds of times over the years, and the first song, “Times Like These,” juxtaposes the wonderfully woody sound of Johnson’s guitar with his sonorous yet gentle voice. If you pay close attention, you can spot a pair of congas in the background on the right.

The Ideon audio combo reproduces the guitar’s body beautifully full, woody, and wonderfully resonant, and the drums in the background accurately differentiate it from Johnson’s rhythmic pounding on his guitar. The voice is resonant via the Greek digital combo, clearly articulated, and a little lighter in timbre than I usually do. However, “brighter” does not mean the Ideon-Audio combination sounds light or high-pitched. On the contrary, she is down to earth. And yet it manages to work out the finest tonal differences in the midrange, at least more clearly than I’m used to – that and an iota more energy in the presence range leads to the impression I mentioned. A few octaves higher, the playback is inconspicuous in the word’s best sense. So the infamous S-sounds on Katie Melua’s hit “Nine Million Bicycles” (album: Piece By Piece) are very well resolved and not unduly emphasized. That’s how it should be.

Interim conclusion: The Greeks cannot have a clear tonal tendency, but a slight tendency towards sonorous, earthy things can be discerned. For comparison: The network player Lumin P1 with DAC and preamplifier function (10,000 euros) tested about a year ago represents a tonal alternative. In the mids and highs, the Lumin plays very transparently – and in the bass, it is more wiry and slim than bulky and, with authority, the ideal.

Divine dynamic

What do you think of when you picture Zeus? Right: to his god, lightning, and the thunder that goes with it. The association of the gross dynamic talents of the Ideon Audio ION+ with the father of the gods is not far-fetched. I don’t have to look far for musical examples because the power of the Greek is almost always palpable. Even with more deliberate titles, such as Dominique Fils-Aimé’s “Birds” from the album Nameless, it is noticeable how seamlessly and powerfully bass impulses are snapped into the listening room. The Ideon Audio would almost add 2-3 points to the “official” dynamic range values.

With the album Black Acid Soul by Lady Blackbird, excellently mastered by Bernie Grundman, the Greek duo shows they are capable of coarse and good dynamics. The finely bowed double bass on “Blackbird” sets the dynamic rhythm, before which the haunting singing of Lady Blackbird alias Marley Munroe stands out. And that, although the double bass always remains discreetly in the background and leaves the main role to the voice.

Thunder & Bass

It is well known that Zeus was not squeamish and was able to get his hands on it. I wanted to check whether this also applies to the Ideon audio duo with “Bad Guy” by pop siren Billie Eilish (album: When We All Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go?). Last year, the song was even played by some exhibitors at the High End in Munich, almost like an audiophile accolade.

How controlled and powerful the Ideon audio components present the initial driving rhythm, and in the finale, the long and deep “Boom” at 2:30 min is one of the most impressive things I’ve heard so far. The basses are not even exceptionally “fat”, although they are more powerful than 100% neutral – above all, they seem to play more concisely and contoured than usual. And that practically consistently gives many music pieces an involving-emotional touch.

ruler of space

Let’s stay with strong female voices. Together with Boris Blank, Malia has created a new classic among audiophile songs with “Celestial Echo” (Album: Convergence). As usual from Yello, Boris Blank spans a wide sound panorama in which each tone is deliberately positioned in the virtual space. Amid this sound cloud, Malia’s voice is central and like a siren. The Ideon-Audio combination creates the illusion of a very deep space, giving Malia’s voice and every single note an immovable place.

More precisely, from virtual space to the concert stage to the Union Chapel in London. Here Fink recorded the song “Trouble’s What You’re In” at a concert in 2011, which was later immortalized on the live album Wheels Turn Beneath My Feet. Only Fink’s expressive voice and guitar can be heard – as well as the church room. The Ideon-audio combination now practically recreates it at my house: you can almost guess the height of the church nave and even estimate the distance to the enthusiastic listeners in the background. Even if the performance starts just behind the speakers’ baseline, you don’t feel like a “passive observer” but rather like a concert visitor.


So far, I have played the ION+ from my streamer via the reclocker via USB. According to Ideon, the USB input offers access to all resolutions processed by the DAC and the best sound.

To get a feel for this, I now connect my streamer directly to the S/PDIF input of the Ideon Audio ION+ via the BNC output popular in the studio world, which remains the 3R Master Time Black Star USB reclocker left out. I control Herbie Hancock/River: The Joni Letters via my Lumin streamer. There are quite a few musical pearls on this album.

One of them is “Edith and the Kingpin” with Tina Turner, accompanied on piano by Herbie Hancock and Wayne Shorter on the saxophone. The first bars sound, and as usual, the Greek DAC sets the rhythm of the drums softly yet powerfully. Herbie Hancock’s piano chords, which set in immediately, are captured wonderfully, directly and dynamically. I have the same thing about the USB connection in my ear. I swapped the BNC cable for the USB cable again to be on the safe side (the reclocker remains in the role of an extra) and heard the beautiful piece again: The tonality is the same, and I can’t identify any differences in the dynamics. Perhaps there were a few nuances or subtleties in the breath noise missing with the S/PDIF input, but those are nuances.

With/without USB reclocker Ideon 3R Master Time Black Star

The influence of the Ideon USB reclocker can be heard more clearly: With it, the music breathes a little more freely, gaining a little three-dimensionality without losing dynamics (piano from 2:35 min) or grip. On the other hand: Even without the additional clock, I wouldn’t be missing anything. Well, “actually”… the problem is: If you’ve heard both Ideon audio devices together, you know that there’s still a bit more to it: more space, more micro-information, more air around instruments and voices. Those icing on the cake are tempting.

Ideon Audio ION+ – cross comparisons

Of course, during the two months that the test components stayed on my guest rack, I kept plugging and switching the Ideon Audio with my references – the SACD player and DAC TAD D1000 Mk II (17,000 euros) and the Preamplifier Grandinote Domino (12,900 euros) – compared. I also liked the CanEver ZeroUno SSD (6,900 euros) and the Lumin P1 (10,000 euros) I tested last year.

I have already reported above about the exceptional talent of the Greek guests to open up a large, three-dimensional, and precisely staggered room. This spontaneously reminds me of the CanEver ZeroUno, which is also outstanding. Compared to these “space wonders,” my TAD depicts the audibly more compact and two-dimensional stage.

When I tested the CanEver duo, I was also enthusiastic about the always noticeable power and dynamics, so with the Italians – perhaps not surprisingly – the almost 70 kilograms heavy, two-part power amplifier of the Hercules. At Ideon Audio, the ION+ as a DAC and preamp now manages to leave a similar lasting impression of sovereignty and dynamics, which is quite astonishing.

It becomes clear that the preamplifier unit in the Ideon Audio plays a part in this when the ION+ feeds the Grandinote preamplifier as a pure D/A converter. While Houston Person’s “I Remember Clifford” (Album: Dialogues) is characterized by Ron Carter’s extremely clean and deep bass impulses with purely Greek conversion and pre-amplification, the duo Ideon Audio/Grandinote forego the last bit of coarse dynamics in favor of a more intimate spatial representation and stronger tones. And when Houston Person’s tenor saxophone joins in the dialogue with the bass at 1:30 min, it sets the scene more powerfully without Italian participation. In contrast, with the Grandinote Domino, a more intimate dialogue develops between bass and saxophone.

Tonally, the ION+ has no problems reproducing difficult voices or recordings that can quickly drift into babble (Freya Ridings from her album of the same name with “Lost Without You”) in a long-term manner. The Ideon Audio goes to work clearly in the presence range, but still more mercifully than my reference combo, which emphasizes the presence a little more, which puts the voice of Mrs. Riding more in the foreground. A matter of taste, what you like better here.

The Ideon Audio ION+ as a preamplifier

Before I forget: Yes, the Ideon Audio ION+ is also an excellent analog preamp whose balanced preamp section is anything but a fig leaf for the feature list. The Greek shows the same tonal strengths and characteristics as a pure preamplifier, recorded analog from my TAD, as a DAC/PRE, including the phenomenal bass.


With its powerful sound, the ION+ is aimed at solvent listeners who are looking for an honest, long-term viable, and maybe even “analog-sounding” D/A converter. The integrated preamplifier in the Ideon Audio ION+ hits the same note as the DAC regarding sound and is a real recommendation.

The USB reclocker Ideon Audio 3R Master Time Black Star represents the icing on the cake of the combination, which is often so important to us audiophiles: Even if the USB interface on the Ideon Audio ION+ is very high-quality. The reclocker doesn’t do anything “world-shattering” – with him in front of the ION+, the music sounds more airy and rich in information.

Another thing – the feel, workmanship, and design of the two Ideon components are appropriate for the purchase price, but if you’re looking for bling-bling, you’ve come to the wrong place. I still have one wish: Operating the Ideon Audio ION+ using rotary/push controls takes a lot of getting used to, which could still be optimized.

Ideon Audio ION+ profile

  • Tonally, the ION+ shows a character with its rich, earthy mids, powerful bass, and smooth, long-term viable treble, but it doesn’t overdo it either.
  • The Ideon’s bass goes very deep into the frequency range and is powerful and beautifully contoured without ever softening. Quantitatively, it is on the somewhat fuller side but always remains controlled. Overall, the ION+ delivered an impressive performance in the low-frequency range.
  • In the fundamental tone and the mids, the Ideon fanned out tonal colors very detailedly. Despite all the ability to differentiate, the timbres are more on the strong than on the light side. Voices and instruments are thus reproduced naturally and pleasantly on the one hand and separated from one another.
  • The ION+ goes one step further in the presence range, probably supporting the good differentiation of voices and instruments. Higher up in the treble. However, he is rather reserved, of course, without omitting details. Depending on the system environment, some may be missing a little “sparkle,” contributing to their long-term suitability for others.
  • The coarse and fine dynamic abilities also significantly contribute to the character, with the seamless power development, in particular, meeting the high expectations in this price segment.
  • The virtual stage begins with the idea at or just behind the speaker baseline and extends deeper than usual. The height and width of the stage are reproduced credibly, and the sound bodies are vividly depicted here.
  • The “plus” on the ION, the integrated preamplifier, hits the same note as the DAC department regarding sound and is a “best buy” with its relatively modest surcharge.
  • The Reclocker Ideon 3R Master Time Black Star increases the very high sound level of the ION with USB playback by a little more plasticity and fine resolution.


Ideon Audio ION+ (DAC & preamp)

  • Category: D/A converter with integrated symmetrical high-level preamp
  • Price: 18,400 euros / without preliminary stage: 15,900 euros
  • Inputs: 2 x high level (Cinch or XLR); 3 x digital (1 x USB 2.0, 1 x S/PDIF RCA, 1 x S/PDIF BNC)
  • Outputs: 1 x pre-out and fix-out each (cinch or XLR)
  • Compatibility: PCM up to 32bit/384kHz, DSD up to DSD512
  • Dimensions & Weight: 460 x 300 x 90 mm (WxDxH), 13 kg
  • Colors: front silver or black with black body
  • Other: remote control; 7 digital filters, display brightness, maximum output voltage, and other settings can be selected via the menu.
  • Warranty: 2 years, 7 years with registration with the manufacturer, lifetime warranty available on request for a fee

Ideon Audio 3R Master Time Black Star

  • Category: USB Reclocker
  • Price: 3,480 euros
  • Inputs: 1 x digital (1 x USB 2.0)
  • Outputs: 1 x digital (1 x USB 2.0)
  • Compatibility: PCM up to 32bit/384kHz, DSD up to DSD512
  • Dimensions & Weight: 290 x 170 x 80 mm (WxDxH), 6.3 kg
  • Colors: front silver or black with black body
  • Miscellaneous: USB power rail switchable 5 V on/off
  • Warranty: 2 years, 7 years with registration with the manufacturer, lifetime warranty available on request for a fee