Ayre AX-7 integrated amplifier Wes Phillips, March 2008
When I attended the CEDIA Expo in the fall of 2007, I had time to visit Ayre's factory the day before the show. I was allowed to participate in the company's "dealer education day," in which Ayre takes its dealers on a tour of its facilities, introduces them to its suppliers, and generally attempts to explain the Ayre philosophy while alerting dealers to upcoming products and plans.
This year, Ayre's founder and designer, Charlie Hansen, had a lot to talk about, having spent most of the preceding year designing and refining the cost-no-object KX-R preamplifier, scheduled to premiere at the Consumer Electronics Show in January 2008. By now, you'll have heard a lot of buzz about that groundbreaking preamp, but last September, it had all of us agog with wonder and lust.
In the midst of stunning us with details about the KX-R, Hansen's eye fell on the AX-7e 60Wpc integrated amplifier ($3500), and his face was suddenly suffused with the zeal of the true believer. Pointing to the AX-7e, he said, "You know, less separates that integrated—our least expensive component—from [the KX-R] than you might suspect. Of course, I had to make some choices to meet a price point, but I refused to make it anything less than an Ayre. It has no negative feedback, uses discrete components everywhere but the gain stage, and there's not a part in it that wasn't chosen because it sounds better than the others we tested. Anybody can make a $20,000 preamp—"
He broke up, cackling. "Well, perhaps not this preamp. But I gotta tell you, I'm every bit as proud of making that AX-7e as I am of the KXR."
Hansen had that group of dealers ready to charge the trenches and sell some Ayre. Me? I simply had to review the AX-7e.
"No," John Atkinson explained, "Art Dudley reviewed the AX-7 in October 2003, with a Follow-Up in January 2006, so you can't. I might commission a Follow-Up, though..." Oh, how I groveled.
The AX-7e "is actually a completely different product from the '7 Art reviewed," Ayre's sales manager, Steve Silberman, told me. "Our feelings were hurt that Art didn't unconditionally love our integrated, but after sulking for a bit, we listened long and hard to it, and came to realize that he was right. It didn't sound like an Ayre—so Charlie thought about it and had a few insights that ended up going into the 'evolution' upgrades we applied across the complete line.
"The power supply regulators in the original '7 weren't really up to Ayre standards, so they were redesigned. Charlie also designed 'Dynamic Power'—a combination of circuits that goes on the AC side of the power supply. What it does is increase instantaneous current delivery, reduce mains-borne RF interference, and eliminate residual switching noise made by the rectifiers themselves. Interestingly, every Ayre product benefits from those changes—even the CD players, where some people say power supplies have no effect on sound."
I paired the AX-7e with both the Bel Canto e.One DAC3 and Musical Fidelity X-DACV8 D/A converters, fed by the digital outputs of the Onkyo DX-7555 CD player and Oppo DV-970HD universal player. Usher Be-718 loudspeakers completed the system.
Actually, setting up that system presented a bit of a challenge—the Ushers require biwiring, and the AX-7e, like all Ayre gear, uses Cardas speaker connectors, which can accept dual spades but practically require you to be three-handed to tighten them while keeping the spades inside the connector. I had the same problem with Ayre's MX-R monoblocks, which cost $18,500/pair, so the Cardas connectors aren't on the AX-7e as a price-cutting measure.
Nothing about the AX-7e implies that any corners have been cut. Its chassis isn't milled from a solid billet of aluminum, à la the MX-R's, but it's a reassuringly heavy mix of stainless steel and aluminum rigidly bolted together and finished in the same high-quality anodization as the rest of the Ayre line.
The AX-7e has two balanced inputs, two single-ended inputs, and one single-ended tape output. Use the balanced inputs if you can. I tried it both ways with the Bel Canto and definitely preferred it balanced—and not just because it was louder. (I matched levels to 0.1dB.)
On the AX-7e, Ayre identifies the inputs with various "runes"—pictographs such as a shooting star, crescent moon, sun, and ringed planet: We hates its preciousness, oh yes we does. Art liked them, though: "Why saddle a poor, innocent amplifier with the words Compact Disc when we might not even be listening to those things 10 or 15 years from now?" Perhaps, but Line Input 2 lasts forever.
On the other hand, a few things that irritated Art struck me as reasonable. I liked hearing the click when the AX-7e when using the front-panel volume-control bar; and, having grown used to the lack of a balance control on the Ayre K-1xe preamp, it never occurred to me to resent its absence on the AX-7e. No variable-output preamp outs for a subwoofer? In a passive preamp, wouldn't that function as a distortion-generating variable load?
If noisy switches are a deal-breaker for you—or if you need to run a 2.1-channel system—the AX-7e might not be your ideal integrated. But I suggest you listen to what it sounds like before letting a particular feature set make the decision for you.
That's because, whatever the AX-7 Art listened to sounded like, I found Charlie Hansen's rethink, the AX-7e, one heck of an involving amplifier: gutsy, warm, dynamic, and, yes, oh yess oh yess, did I mention involving?
I auditioned the AX-7e in my small, dedicated listening room at the same time I was auditioning the Linn Klimax DS in my large listening room upstairs. You might think that with a big rig comprising a $20,000 network player, $10,000 preamp, $30,000 power amplifiers, and a pair of speakers costing over $35,000, my downstairs listening sessions would be wham, bam, thank you, ma'am—and then up the stairway to heaven.
But darned if I didn't keep getting trapped in my listening chair in front of the AX-7e, listening to just one more track, one more disc, yet another musician. "Stairway to Heaven"? Well, if I must, but I've always preferred "When the Levee Breaks," also from Led Zeppelin IV (CD, Atlantic 82638-2), with John Bonham laying down a beat that rivals the trump of doom, Robert Plant's humongous harmonica sound, and a Jimmy Page solo every bit as rifftastic as the one on "STH."
I cranked the AX-7e to 11 and rawked. The Ayre had the Be-718s' woofers popping out, and I liked it. I did it again, then chased it with "Rock and Roll." Then, just for the hell of it, I listened to Houses of the Holy (CD, Atlantic 82639-2) all the way through. Twice.
The song does not remain the same. Sometimes it gets better.
I performed more or less the same journey through Carla Bley's catalog. I started by listening to Bley and Steve Swallow's Go Together (CD, WATT 24) and ended up working my way through another five CDs with the whole band. So many discs, so little time.
Want to know what the AX-7e did even better than rock and big-band jazz? Quiet music. Cantus's new CD, titled, for no particular reason, Cantus (CD, Cantus CTS-1207), has a dynamic range so extreme that some listeners will undoubtedly complain that it sounds soft. It don't. Engineer John Atkinson packed so much sound into those pits that the quiet parts have to be really quiet in order to fit all the loud in. This shows in Al Jordan's spectacular falsetto reading of "Who's Loving You?," in which his power belies the sweetness of his tone. The AX-7e really got that muscle, without stinting an ounce of the sweetness.
Then there's the CD's high point, for me at least: Peter Hamelin's setting of "Casey at the Bat," which reminded me of nothing so much as one of George Martin's sonic vignettes. There are worlds in that track: massed voices, barbershop harmonies, real birdies, and some sound effects that'll send you leaping out of your listening position and into full fight-or-flight mode. Now that's scary accurate. And although I've heard that track in some pimpin' systems—including in Ayre's own R&D listening room with the TAD Reference One speakers driven by the MX-Rs—I can't say I enjoyed it more than through the AX-7e. Well, no, that's stretching the truth a little. It was better at Ayre HQ, but I was not let down by the AX-7e.
The Ayre AX-7e really is pure Ayre. $3500 isn't a budget price, but Ayre, to its credit, hasn't designed a budget product. The AX-7e is an integrated amp that Ayre can be proud to pin its badge on. It's not just good, it's damn good.—Wes Phillips