Ayre Acoustics V-3 power amplifier Sam Tellig Comments part 2
If I understand Charlie, eliminating noise is a good part of what the Ayre V-3 is all about. The balanced circuitry, lack of feedback, and two-stage power supply are all intended to reduce noise—ie, interference with the musical signal. Perhaps this is what gives the Ayre its air. And not only its air, but also its freedom from graininess, hardness, edginess—all the bad, bad things that transistorphobes associate with solid-state.
"It doesn't quite sound like a tube amp," I told Charlie, trying to get a rise out of him. I always like to be provocative, but this guy is unflappable. He agreed with me!
"Yes, I know. But the V-3 pumps 100 watts per channel into 8 ohms, 200Wpc into 4 ohms. It will drive virtually anything, any speaker that we've thrown up against it—like Thiel CS5s and any Martin-Logans you care to name. If you want that from a tube amp, it will cost you $10,000 or more. Big, big, bucks."
Charlie licked his chops.
No way around it—tube amps are expensive to make. And no tube amplifier I know of can do what the solid-state Ayre V-3 can: double its rated 8 ohm power into 4 ohms. Typically, a tube amp delivers about the same amount of power into 4 ohms as it does into 8. And below 4 ohms? With most tube amps—especially single-ended tube amps—don't even ask.
Tu-be or not tu-be
There are a couple more things you might consider before running out and buying a tube amp. Writers don't mention these drawbacks very much.
First is room heat—not so bad for a native New Englander like me, who looks on heat not as a way to stay warm but as a way to keep the pipes from freezing. If you have a total of four output tubes—two EL34s per channel, for instance, as you do with the Conrad-Johnson MV-55 or the AudioPrism Debut—the room heat in summer isn't too bad.
But if you run amps like the Quicksilver M135 monos on a warm day, with six output tubes per side—a total of 12 output tubes in all—your listening room can get pretty damned uncomfortable in the warmer months, unless you have quiet air conditioning.
Then there's the cost of retubing. As Bob Harley once told me, writers seldom talk about this, probably because they're so seldom faced with the need to buy tubes. (By the time they need new tubes, they're long since done with the gear.) If you replace a dozen output tubes every couple of years, that's probably an expense of $200 or more. Do it five times over a decade and it's an extra thousand bucks. What's more, as Charlie Hansen says, you don't know what the tube situation will be like in five or ten years, or even in two. Try to find real British KT66s, KT77s, or KT88s now.
So...how close to the classic tube sound does the Ayre get?
I compared the Ayre V-3 to a Conrad-Johnson MV-55—a $1995 tube amp rated at 45Wpc, which I will be reporting on more depth next month.
In terms of bass, it was no contest—especially through the Hales Concept 2 speakers, which have a very fine low end: tight, tuneful, extended. The solid-state amp won out. In terms of resolution, too, I would have to give the nod to the Ayre, although the difference was hardly staggering. (A Conrad-Johnson Premier Eleven A, at $3495, would be a fairer comparison and would likely give the Ayre a closer run for the money.)
Where the little C-J won, I thought, was in terms of harmonic richness, ripeness, and beauty. There was a midrange magic the Ayre didn't have. The C-J had even more bloom, more body. Vocals—especially female vocals—were more liquid, more lush...more seductive. Want to be seduced? Sure you do!
What to do? It probably depends on your speakers and preferences.
With the Hales Concept 2 speakers—floorstanding and full-range—I preferred the Ayre to the C-J. I liked the Ayre's flair—the way it took hold of the bass driver and gave these very solid-sounding speakers even greater authority. If you have the Hales in mind, then the Ayre V-3 would be an excellent choice.
The Ayre excelled with the Quad ESL-63 USA Monitors. I've always marveled at how well the Quads can do in the bass when driven with a good solid-state amp—the bass can be tight, quite extended, even gutsy...and fast. Not the kind of bass you want to muck up with the typical subwoofer, or perhaps any subwoofer. The Ayre was one of the very best amplifiers I have heard driving the Quads. I liked the dynamics, the speed, the resolution, the overall harmonic presentation of the combination.
Still, when I turned to the C-J, I got more body, more bloom, a more blended, rounded sound on massed strings. Vocals sounded more natural. Something of an edge was gone. True, I did lose some dynamics and possibly a tad of resolution. But if the speakers didn't always get it up on the C-J, at least I did. On the Quads, I preferred the C-J—$1500 cheaper than the Ayre. That would buy you a lot of EL34 output tubes.
Back to reality. On the ProAc Tablette 50 Signatures—stand-mounted minimonitors—I enjoyed the Ayre but ultimately preferred the C-J. Again, just a little more body, more bloom, and a slightly more natural, more "released" quality to the harmonics, especially on strings and voice. The Ayre delivered more bass, however—tighter, more extended, better articulated—in addition to more dynamic get-up-and-go. Also, I thought that the high end on the Ayre was, subjectively, just a little rolled-off.
As it turns out, the high end is rolled-off. Specs are scarce with the Ayre, but this is not a wide-bandwidth design. When Audio magazine measured the amp, they found it was 3dB down at 25kHz. [See TJN's measurements elsewhere in this issue.—Ed.] Can you hear this bandwidth limiting? I think maybe I can. The Ayre lacks a certain crystalline quality in the treble. Articulation of cymbals and sibilants is not quite so crisp as I might like from a solid-state amplifier, and have heard from such amps as the McCormack DNA 0.5 and the BEL 10001 Mk.II. It's interesting that neither the McCormack nor the BEL use MOSFET output devices—perhaps another reason for the Ayre's decidedly soft sound.
Dead set against tubes
Decisions are never easy—unless, of course, your mind is dead set against tubes for some of the reasons mentioned above.
The Ayre never turns hard, dry, or sterile. There is a good deal of richness, body, bloom—enough so that I can listen to the Ayre for hours without gasping for...air. When these elements are partly missing, your brain has to do too much work to fill in what isn't there. (My brain, anyway. Yours may differ.) Compared to the Ayre, most other solid-state amps I've heard sound harmonically threadbare. They leave me gasping for...well, Ayre.
But when it comes to bass performance, I found that the Ayre is no match for killer Krells, Mark Levinsons, etc. For that matter, I felt the bass was no match for the McCormack DNA 0.5. I'm also not sure that the Ayre delivers the most crisply articulated sound, especially in the treble. MOSFETs? Bandwidth limiting?
Take the McCormack DNA 0.5, a great solid-state amp that, even in its deluxe version, costs less than half the price of the Ayre. I think it has tighter, more powerful bass and, like I said, a more crisply articulated sound. What it lacks, compared to the Ayre, is a certain degree of body, bloom, and spatial resolution—the Ayre does air better. I haven't had enough time with the BEL to make a detailed comparison.
Overall, though, I think the Ayre V-3 gets you much of the way toward Class A for a Class B price. It's an innovative product and an interesting alternative to the usual solid-state fare. Now...how about a solid-state amp that simulates the sound of a Jadis SE300B?