Ayre AX-7 integrated amplifier Art on the AX7e, January 2006
When I reviewed the Ayre AX-7 integrated amplifier for the October 2003 Stereophile, I wasn't completely taken with it. Heard at its best—which is to say, when I used it as a balanced integrated amplifier with a balanced playback source—it was wonderful. When I used it with unbalanced sources, it was acceptably good but certainly not a product I'd go out of my way for.
Apparently the folks at Ayre took my observations seriously and found a way to implement a few technical refinements. Those efforts have resulted in a new version, the AX-7e (e for evolution1), whose $2950 tag represents a price increase of nothing. Furthermore, anyone who bought an AX-7 can send it back for a full upgrade ($250–$350, depending on the age of the original).
The Ayre AX-7 combines a passive line stage—it has four inputs, two of which are balanced—with a feedback-free, class-A/B solid-state amplifier. Gain control is accomplished with discrete metal-film resistors and a bank of FET switches, and the AX-7's logic section is designed to drop all switching devices out of the signal path after a given command has been executed. The amp's power supply is a fairly straightforward thing built around a frame-style transformer of the usual sort.
That power supply is where all of the changes have been made. On the AC side, Ayre's designers applied three distinct, proprietary refinements that they refer to collectively as Dynamic Power: additional filtering of the AC mains, increased peak current delivery, and filtering of the rectifier switching noise. Of the last, Ayre's Charles Hansen says that, despite using the fastest, quietest rectifiers available, "there's a residual level of noise generated when the rectifiers turn on and off. Removing that noise yields improved resolution and a more dimensional, realistic presentation."
On the other side of the power supply, the operating voltages for the AX-7's gain stages were treated to a more rigorous and sophisticated round of governance, this time using two-stage voltage regulators (FETs driving bipolar transistors) in place of the earlier version's single-stage regulators (bipolar transistors left to man the turrets on their own). As with the original AX-7, all of the revised amp's regulators operate without feedback, but the new approach creates a stage with a higher-impedance input and lower-impedance output than before. The result is more effective regulation—simple as that.
I've spent a number of weeks with the AX-7e, beginning with one of those very nice and increasingly rare evenings when the listening continues well past midnight, often with the lights turned off. After all that, and after the days and nights that followed, I can say with confidence that the new version is a knockout: that rare integrated amplifier that not only has no sense of compromise about it, but one that has the audacity to stand on its own merits. You may wonder if you'd ever need anything else.
The Ayre AX-7e sounded big and open, especially in the sense that the music it played seemed to emanate from an unusually dark, empty background. It combined classic Brit-style pacing and tunefulness with near-SET levels of presence and a fine sense of musical flow. That last quality represents the area of greatest improvement: My biggest reservation regarding the original AX-7 was that, for all its noble clarity of sound, it played music in a way that was emotionally unstirring. Two years later I'm older, crankier, and harder to please in every way—yet the AX-7e made me happy, nonetheless. In my earlier review I mentioned Hot Rize's So Long of a Journey (CD, Sugar Hill SUG-CD 3943), and how the instrumental "The Butcher's Dog" fell flat through the AX-7. Through the AX-7e, even in unbalanced mode, the same tune fared much better: It was more like good music than merely good sound. The pickers' momentum seemed to have been restored, and subtler elements, such as the rhythmically nuanced guitar style of the late Charles Sawtelle (so like the late Clarence White in that regard), were easier to hear and enjoy.
Now that Ayre Acoustics had sent me an amp that played music so well, I found it easier to relax and enjoy the sonic attributes that had mostly been there all along—especially the aforementioned bigness of its soundspace, and how convincingly it portrayed the positions of the players and the singers within. Hearing the Vasari singers perform the Howells Requiem (LP, United 88033) was sadly magical, especially with the lights off. And the strange mix of very real, naturally recorded sounds and larger-than-life sounds on one of my favorite Neil Young albums, Sleeps with Angels (CD, Reprise 45749-2), was effective and right-sounding with the Ayre in my system: artful recording meets artful playback.
The revised Ayre didn't make me want to give up my own Fi preamp or my Fi and Lamm SET amps: The AX-7e had a smooth and acceptably tactile presentation, but my favorite tube components still do better in terms of texture, richness, and that last iota of presence. There was still a disparity between the Ayre's performance with balanced and unbalanced sources, but the difference was no greater than with other products I've heard that offer both modes.
So at the end of the day (literally, as it happens), as refinements go, the jump from AX-7 to AX-7e is significant, and I'm impressed that Ayre isn't using it as an excuse to profiteer. In fact, I'm beginning to see Ayre in the same light as Naim, Audio Note, and a few other companies whose production is motivated by something loftier than an effort to fill a certain price point (I can think of two prominent high-end audio companies whose expensive integrated amplifiers are little more than that), and where product design is governed by a consistent and comprehensive point of view. Ayre Acoustics seems to occupy their own branch of the tree, and the more I learn about them, the more interested I am in seeing—and hearing—what they'll do next.—Art Dudley
Footnote 1: Rumors that the same amplifier will be available in some states as the AX-7scot—for small changes over time—remain unconfirmed as I write this. And now that I've officially run that joke into the ground, I vow to retire it, or at least to try.—Art Dudley