Ayre MX-R monoblock power amplifier Page 2
Dynaudio's Confidence C4 loudspeaker really likes to be bossed around by an amplifier, and the MX-Rs obliged, driving both of my C4s into submission with big orchestral crescendos, such as those presented in Leonard Bernstein and the New York Philharmonic's second recording of Mahler's Symphony 2 (CD, Deutsche Grammophon 433 395-2). I'd expect that from 300W amps, but the Ayres managed to pull it off without harshness or bloat. In fact, as I listened to orchestral recordings, I found myself not so much in awe of the power of the orchestra as drawn deeper into the music, which didn't so much envelop or overwhelm me as reveal to me its inner mysteries.
A recent recurring favorite chez Wez has been Paavo Järvi and the Cincinnati Symphony's SACD of works by Britten and Elgar (Telarc SACD-60660), which has gotten most of its play for its superb Four Sea Interludes from Peter Grimes. It sounded transcendent with the MX-Rs, but it was while listening to the work that followed, Elgar's Enigma Variations, that I began to grasp what might be the greatest attribute of the compact Ayre. To steal a march from the catechism, its sole purpose appears to be to praise music and to glorify it.
It's not that I never "got" Elgar. I rate his two completed symphonies quite high in the pantheon, and have been tantalized by Anthony Payne's reconstruction of his uncompleted Symphony 3. But Järvi and the Cincinnati's performance of Enigma hadn't seemed all that illuminating the first, say, 20 times I'd heard it. Perhaps the 21st time was the charm, you say? Perhaps, but I began to suspect it was the Ayre MX-R.
Before venturing too far down that particular road, I should describe the Ayre's sonic signature. It didn't sound "solid-state–like" (ie, dry, lean, or hard). Neither did it sound "tube-like" (ie, euphonic or overly warm). It was fast as the dickens, as evidenced by its delivery of the timpani transients on the Britten Sea Interludes, and was unusually clean in its retrieval of detail, as illustrated by its ability to isolate the quiet but penetrating harmonic overtones of that recording's triangle.
On the other hand, if "solid-state–like" means free from added color, yes, it did sound like that. On the other hand, if "tube-like" means capable of delivering convincing stereo solidity, well, it did that too. Reference-level tube and solid-state designs have been approaching convergence for some time now, but the MX-R rendered such distinctions more moot than most.
Far less mundane, however, was its ability to get to the inner music of recordings I thought I'd strip-mined for essence. This included those whose grooves I'd dug through a few zillion times, as well as those I'd never heard before. This was brought home with particular force when I pulled out Nat King Cole's last album, L-O-V-E (CD, Capitol 80536), after hearing the title song at Starbucks over the holidays.
"L-O-V-E" is such a swinging song that it's difficult to imagine it ever fading into the background, but the Ayres had me delving deeper into Ralph Carmichael's superb arrangements than I'd ever gone before. Sure, that solo trumpet is killer, but how had I missed that clarinet riff in the final four before?
That's not to say that the MX-R dissected music, highlighting just the juicy bits. It was unrivaled at presenting the whole picture, but its presentation shared with live music that quality of clarity of the parts as well as the whole.
The Ayres' presentation of the triangle on the Britten-Elgar SACD was an excellent example of what I mean. At an orchestral concert, there can be 100 musicians sawing and blowing and pounding away, but when the percussionist lightly strokes the triangle, it doesn't "penetrate" through the other notes, as we reviewers sometimes write. Nor do the other musicians mute their sound in order to allow that delicate ting to be heard. We hear the sound of the triangle within the overwhelming sound of the whole ensemble and within the room—and without benefit of its own spotlight microphone. That's something the Ayre did as well as, and quite possibly better than, any piece of hi-fi kit I've ever auditioned.
The Krell Evolution 600 monoblock amplifiers ($30,000/pair) that had so impressed me in the December 2006 Stereophile were still on hand, so a comparison seemed justified. In that issue, I wrote: "The low-level detail, sinuous pacing, and sheer power of the Evolution 600 amplifier captured music the way I hear it—and if the whole system is running CAST technology, you've got something that's very close to perfection squared."
That's still true—especially the part about the Evolution 600s sounding their best by far in a complete Krell CAST system. Isolating the 600s as a single element for comparison with the MX-Rs removed the CAST advantage, of course, but even without it, the 600 is an amp to reckon with.
With the Britten-Elgar SACD, both the Krells and Ayres presented the power of the orchestra and the rich inner voices of the woodwinds with comparable vigor. Did the Krells produce greater bottom-end solidity? Through the Dynaudio Confidence C4s, yes, absolutely. Other speakers in my system made the issue less clear-cut—either because they lacked the C4's bottom octave or, as in the case of the Vandersteen Quatro Wood, assigned it to their own dedicated amps.
On Nat Cole's "L-O-V-E," I switched back and forth repeatedly, able to hear extremely subtle differences but not having a consistent preference. Was the trumpet perhaps punchier through the Krells? Yes. Could I hear the slight rasp in Cole's voice better through the Ayres? Yes. Were both immersive and emotionally compelling? Yes.
Okay, why not try a solo instrument, to see if one of the amp pairs was overlaying simplicity with too much mojo? Out came Xuefei Yang's Romance de Amor (CD, EMI 677225); I cued up Albéniz's Asturias. Both pairs of amps did a remarkable job of getting out of the way of a solo guitar: no transient smearing, no heaviness, just purity and grace. I could listen to either all day long, all year long.
I began to pore over my listening logs, looking for discs that might highlight the differences between the Ayres and the Krells. I found 'em, but not in the way I'd expected. I'd assumed, you see, that there had to be one killer disc that would unveil the secret flaw of one or the other amp. Instead, I found a remarkable gulf between their sets of strengths.
During my time with the Krell Evolution 600s, I combed my collection, looking for the finest examples of the audio engineer's art. I would dig out discs I hadn't heard in years, thinking, I remember this sounded pretty good! Nine times out of ten, I'd end up thinking, Yeah, but never this good. The Krells sounded so good I wanted to hear only the best I had—and they elevated my sense of "best."
While my stint with the MX-Rs had some overlap with recordings, especially with discs that the Krell Evo system had spectacularly imprinted upon me, my listening logs ran much further afield. The Krells had me digging out discs engineered by Wilkinson, Layton-Moore, Johnson, Faulkner, and quite a few by Atkinson. My MX-R logs also included Jelly Roll Morton, Fats Waller, Ralph Stanley, and, yes, Casals and Cortot. I'm not saying that the Ayres made those sonically compromised discs sound better than they do, nor am I saying that the Krells made them sound worse. I did, however get impatient with less than superb recordings with the Evos. I felt I was wasting the amps' potential. The Ayres, without being euphonic, didn't make me feel that way.
I have a lot of "okay" recordings, and even more that are sonic dog food. I wish it weren't true. Lord knows, every time I buy a new record, I hope it will match fabulous music making with first-rate sound, but Holt's Law—"The quality of a recording is inversely proportional to the quality of its performance"—has been wickedly persistent for lo, these many years since JGH coined it. Given that reality, the MX-Rs have a leg up on most of their competition.
However—in a full-blown CAST system, the Krell Evolution 600s remain foremost among the finest amplifiers I've ever experienced, especially when unlimited power is required. The Ayre MX-Rs, which I never seriously challenged with any of the speaker loads I had on hand, weren't quite as impressive in terms of pure grunt.
On the other hand, even when you don't factor in other CAST components, the Ayres are half the price of the Evo 600s.
At $16,500/pair, the Ayre Acoustics MX-R isn't really a "bargain." However, the MX-R is competitive with the best amplifiers on the market, and in many ways—size, energy efficiency, stability—is one of the most remarkable performers at any price. And Ayre's engineering and construction are second to none—which, come to think of it, is a pretty good tagline for the MX-R: second to none. That the MX-R is sexy is just gravy.