Thrax Audio Ares Mk II (2024)

I went on holiday in Bulgaria a few years ago and stayed in a small resort on the coast not far from Burgas, among other things I found a bicycle repair shop there that had the best collection of vintage Italian racing bike frames I’ve ever seen; Bianchi, Colnago, De Rosa etc, all hanging from the ceiling. If I’d had a bigger suitcase and any grasp of the language one would be hanging on my wall today. Bulgaria is not a wealthy country but there is money there and there is a hi-fi manufacturer for whom budget appears to be unlimited, Thrax Audio makes a wide range of contemporary audio components many of which combine tubes and transistors. Thrax also uses an awful lot of precision machined aluminium to build its products, they must have a good metalworker because the finishes are superb. Their amplifiers can be seen at pretty well every high end show but they also makes a direct drive turntable and several loudspeaker models.

The Ares MkII is the least expensive solid state amplifier in the Thrax catalogue yet it’s inconveniently heavy at 27kg and plenty powerful at 120 Watts a side into eight Ohms. It’s not entirely clear why the Ares is so hard to extract from its flight case and put on the rack, it’s not particularly large at just under four inches thick, the feet add another inch, and 17 inches wide so either the machined aluminium casework is particularly thick or there’s a small black hole somewhere inside, or maybe a huge transformer. The website shows two transformers of fairly average scale, however, so it must be the metalwork… or a black hole. Thrax’s explanation is that the chassis is “carved like a sculpture from 45kg of aluminium alloy”, which explains the space age styling to some extent but not the capacitive buttons, something I thought had disappeared about the same time as CRT televisions.

One box solution

Thrax calls this a modular integrated amp because the option exists to add a DAC to the already strong input selection, one which includes a phono stage that can accommodate both MC and MM cartridges, line inputs on balanced and single ended connections and, perhaps most surprising, a Bluetooth antenna. The latter is in fact part of the DAC board module which is not your run of the mill add on by any means, it’s a discrete converter built ladder style with switched resistors that can accommodate data rates up to 32-bit/768kHz and DSD256 via the USB input. Other inputs are the usual range of S/PDIF and AES/EBU and the aforementioned wireless option. This module also includes a streaming input for direct connection to the network via ethernet, which means that those with a subscription to Qobuz or similar can run a system with just the Ares and a pair of speakers, controlling it with Roon or Mconnect.

Thrax Audio Ares Mk II (1)

To do so would not allow them to appreciate the full potential of this amplifier however, it is built for high resolution and the quality of input makes a significant difference to the output. The amplifier itself is fully balanced with transformer isolation on the single ended inputs, ground switching on RCA inputs to prevent interaction between sources and separate power supplies for the digital and analogue sections of the preamplifier. The phono stage offers alternative cartridge loading options for moving coils. The power amplifier consists of two independent solid state monoblocks that operate a sliding bias system with the aim of producing Class A qualities from a Class A/B circuit with no global feedback, heatsinking is achieved by the entire chassis, which gets fairly warm but not enough to put off a cat.

The buttons provide input selection and volume control as well as access to a menu that offers balance, phase inversion and choice of cartridge type and loading. There’s a sub menu for time and date (although it’s not clear when these would be displayed), display dimming/time and remote programming. Thrax supply an Apple remote handset which is a lovely thing with a strong IR beam; it may not be made in Bulgaria, but it is machined aluminium.

Solid yet nimble

Getting the Ares MkII onto the rack proved to be a worthwhile exercise, very worthwhile in fact. From the first few minutes it was clear that this is an excellent amplifier. The sound it produces being solid yet nimble and full of spatial information. Everything you play has a strong sense of depth, this may be artificial reverb or actual instrumental or vocal acoustic, but it’s there on a lot more recordigns that often seems to be the case with this Thrax amp. I hooked up PMC twenty5.26i loudspeakers in the first instance and the pairing worked so well that this is the way things stayed for the majority of the listening. I spent a fairly long evening in the company of music loving and sound quality conscious friends playing a wide range of material at pretty serious playback levels, the results were impressive to say the least. These are not the most ambitious loudspeakers that this bunch of connoisseurs have enjoyed in the studio but the general feeling was that this was second only to the experience encountered with PMC’s largest domestic loudspeaker the mighty Fenestria, for which much of the credit should go to the Ares.

Thrax Audio Ares Mk II (2)

It is an unusually transparent amplifier regardless of whether the signal goes into the line inputs or the USB, or for that matter the AES input. It delivers a degree of resolution that many pre/power combos at this price point have difficulty matching. A big power amp can produce a more grounded, solid result but not many have this ability to open a window onto the music. The result had me pondering the notion of diminishing returns that’s often bandied around when it comes to high end audio. Iappreciate that the Ares isn’t silly expensive but it’s more than most integrateds yet the returns provided by the extra few grand over the last ‘big’ integrated I tried seemed to be anything but diminished. The small sounds that this amplifier unveils in every recording contribute to creating a clearly more complete and compelling musical picture that makes a very good case for spending the asking price.

I had a DAC on hand that cost more than the Ares as a whole and it could not compete when it came to timing nor finesse in the high frequencies. The Thrax DAC delivered more convincing voices on Crosby, Stills and Nash’s ‘Helplessly Hoping’ and differentiated the singers more effectivley too. The depth of acoustic on this is pretty stunning too, this recording probably sounds better on good vintage vinyl but the streamed result can be totally inspiring when it’s done this well. The streamer onboard the Ares is good and capable of delivering good scale, detail and timing in an easy fashion but it’s not in the same league as the DAC. Using a very capable but relatively affordable external streamer (Lumin U2 Mini with a Network Acoustics Volt DC ground filter) connected over USB brought greater rewards in terms of clarity, low level resolution and thus fine detail. Using this streamer with an AES connection enhanced fluidity, which makes for a more musical experience but this came at the expense of detail. It’s more relaxed though.

Haunting

Using a turntable and external phono stage delivered superb results too. The extra openness and unbeatable timing of the format made for more emotionally impactful results that inspired many hours of sifting through the collection. I tried the onboard phono stage but couldn’t eliminate background hum, this may be because the Rega Planar 10 doesn’t have a separate earth wire although this isn’t generally a problem. With the external stage Joni Mitchell’s ‘The Fiddle and the Drum’ from Clouds had a crystaline clarity which gave the haunted solo voice extra emotional power, it proved that when it comes to the heart of matters a voice like hers is hard to beat.

Having heard ‘50 Ways to Leave your Lover’ on the radio I gave that a spin just to revel in Steve Gadd’s lovely drumming, the song’s pretty good too albeit a little over-polished in production terms. It too has plenty of depth as does Bella White’s ‘Flowers by my Bedside,’ which is relatively new and very clean in the Ares’ company, here the voice is projected over a bass line that is as solid as the amplifier reproducing it and almost as silkily finished.

Conclusion

This was my first experience of a Thrax product* and it has left me eager to hear more of their creations, fortunately there’s an Enyo Mk II tube integrated waiting for me to summon the energy to get it out of the box for the next review. In the meantime I have thoroughly enjoyed the Ares MkII, which will appeal to lovers of filligree detail everywhere. Its build quality is serious but the power to engage the musical senses considerably greater, in my experience there aren’t many amplifier/DACs near its price that come close, regardless of how many boxes they are in.

*Editor’s note: we ran the review of the Ares Mk II before the Enyo Mk II in print but ran them the other way around online. And the reason we did this is shrouded in mystery. And by ‘mystery’ I mean ‘stupidity’.

Technical specifications

  • Type: Solid-state, two-channel integrated amplifier with phono stage and optional DAC
  • Analogue inputs: One MM/MC phono input (via RCA jacks), three single-ended line-level inputs (via RCA jacks), one balanced input (via XLR connectors)
  • Digital inputs: Two S/PDIF (one coaxial, one optical), one USB port, one AES/EBU (via XLR), one streaming (via RJ45)
  • Analogue outputs: loudspeaker binding posts
  • Supported sample rates: Coaxial and optical S/PDIF not specified, USB up to 32-bit–768kHz, DSD256
  • Input impedance: High-level 40kOhms, Phono variable, Power amp N/A
  • Power Output: 120Wpc @ 8 Ohms, 200Wpc @ 4 Ohms
  • Signal to Noise Ratio: 112dB
  • Dimensions (H×W×D): 120 × 430 × 450mm
  • Weight: 27kg
  • Price: £12,900, DAC £2,900

Manufacturer

Thrax Audio

www.thraxaudio.com

UK distributor

Lotus Hi-Fi

www.lotushifi.co.uk

+44 (0)7887 852513

Thrax Audio Ares Mk II (2024)
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