Ayre V-1 power amplifier Page 2
Nor were the V-1's frequency extremes "tubelike"—not that tube amps these days have to sound "tubelike" either. While some listeners might find the V-1's top end to be somewhat reticent, I didn't. Rather, it was essentially etch-free and smooth, clear of grain and hash, but not in the sense that good tube sound is—it wasn't that kind of sweetness or purity. Transients and sibilants didn't "come to rounded points" and melt away as they do with good tubes, nor did they come to impossibly spiky and clean points as they do with some solid-state amps. Rather, they hit a midpoint between the two.
Deep bass response was outstanding, as you'd expect from a formidably powered solid-state amplifier, but it wasn't the kind of tightfisted control some solid-state fans expect and demand. Though not particularly well controlled compared to some other amps I've heard, the V-1's bass was rich and fully fleshed out—though, again, not tubelike. And it was somewhat on the lethargic side, and not as well focused as I'd like.
Where the V-1 exceeded my highest expectations was in its midrange, which was airy, sweet, and delicate, and projected an involving, tubelike sense of space. During the review period I received some of Classic Records' new 45rpm reissues, including old standbys like Belafonte At Carnegie Hall and Dave Brubeck's Time Out. Without comparison to any other amplifier, solid-state or tubed, the V-1 impressed on these classics.
Paul Desmond's alto sax on "Take Five" sounded rich, round, and well focused, but had the breathy, almost raspy quality a reed instrument must have to sound real—the V-1 didn't gloss over the horn's important harmonic and textural qualities. Joe Morello's bass drum was fat and springy, not at all overdamped or brittle, and Brubeck's piano struck a fine balance between the instrument's percussive and reverberant qualities: the felt hammers hitting metal strings, the sounding board reacting. Not too dry, not too effusive. With the V-1, I found I could forget what amplification technology I was listening to and just enjoy the music.
Yet whatever I played, LP or CD, I felt the amp sounded a bit sluggish, a bit too warmed-over, as if Hansen had tried to emulate a tube amplifier with solid-state parts. I liked the V-1—I liked many of its qualities, enjoyed listening to it, never felt its seams were showing, never lost interest in what I was listening to—but it didn't excite me. It lacked solid-state's usual vibrance and tube's usual lushness. That middle ground can lead to ambivalence. Ambivalent is how I felt.
ESP, Image, and a Dirty Little Secret
Maybe I was sending out ambivalent vibes, because just about then Charlie Hansen called to ask if he could visit. He showed up a few days later, listened for a while, and what he then said was what I'd been thinking. He had two requests: that he might up the V-1's output stage bias from 30mV to 35mV, and that I try to get a competing amplifier from one of the "prestigious" solid-state names, like Krell or Mark Levinson. Then I, a tube enthusiast, could compare his work with theirs, instead of to my tube references.
As for the bias request, I said "Go ahead." After making the adjustment, the V-1 ran somewhat hotter and lost its lethargic quality without becoming hyper. The change was immediately obvious: more punch but not more edge.
"So why'd you set the bias where it was to begin with?" I axed.
Well, some manufacturers have to alter their products for different markets and different tastes. While the V-1 is a zero-electrical-feedback design, the customer feedback from overseas does get in the circuit. Based on overseas reactions, Hansen had been setting the bias a bit on the low side, which emphasized smoothness at the expense of rhythm, pacing, and focus. But he'd also been listening, experimenting, and fine-tuning, and had decided to up the bias in future production. What I now had, with bias tweaked to 35mV, was the V-1 as it would be delivered—at least in America.
The issue of finding a competing solid-state product was a bit more complicated. Hansen allowed that he was frustrated when competing head to head with some of the bigger brands; his dealers tell him that some consumers buy by the label instead of judging the products on their merits. We then got into a big discussion about marketing and image—something I'm familiar with, having spent over a decade in advertising.
Though we audiophiles think of ourselves as purists, snob appeal does come into play; some people buy names. Ayre doesn't have the advertising or marketing budget at this point to indulge in the kind of heavy-duty image-making needed to play on the same level as Krell or Levinson. The money goes into the R&D and build quality, where I think Ayre does play on the same field as the others, even if Ayre's industrial design is more pedestrian (while still being attractive).
I told Hansen I'd get hold of one of those "badge" products, do the comparison he sought, and let the sonic chips fall where they might. I managed to borrow a Mark Levinson No.335, which is a close match to the Ayre V-1 in terms of price ($7495) and power (250Wpc), and a larger version of the No.334 reviewed elsewhere in this issue by Larry Greenhill. Carrying the 155-lb Levinson down a flight of narrow stairs was such fun.