Ayre V-1 power amplifier Page 3
After allowing the Mark Levinson No.335 to warm up sufficiently (with music), I began the head-to-head. I used DCC's reissue of Nat Cole's Love is the Thing, MoFi's Getz/Gilberto, Classic's 45rpm editions of Pictures at an Exhibition and Time Out, the late Mel Tormé's Mel Tormé and Friends Live at Marty's, and the Rolling Stones' Tattoo You—all on vinyl. I also auditioned the incredibly fine-sounding HDCD gold CD reissue of Patricia Barber's Café Blue.
First up was the Barber CD through the Levinson. I've never heard an amplifier control the bass on my Audio Physic Virgo speakers as the Levinson did. On "Ode to Billy Joe," the bass focus and intonation were astounding. The finger-snaps projected well in front of the speakers, with a nice sense of flesh. Barber's voice was also extremely well focused, though a bit cool, and the 335's ability to control her sibilants was unparalleled in my experience: cleanly delivered, without etch. The midrange was somewhat laid-back but nicely balanced. Overall, the 335's physical and timbral presentation was on the cool, restrained side, but organizationally it was sensational—ironfisted. The picture, while somewhat compressed from front to back, was locked in place. In fact, what I realized after that very first cut was that the Levinson made my Virgos sound like Revels! Or perhaps I should say that the qualities I was hearing I'd heard before—at Revel demos, which use Levinson amps exclusively.
When I switched to the Ayre V-1, the presentation was totally different. The standup bass was not nearly as physically focused in space or as rhythmically taut, but it had timbral and textural qualities that were lacking through the Levinson. The finger-snaps were not as tightly focused, but had a bit more flesh on them. The overall midrange presentation was more liquid and upfront, which put Barber's voice more in my face, but the transient delivery on her sibilants was clearly sloppier. In fact, the overall presentation was not nearly as well organized, but had an organic vitality the Levinson did not match. I could easily hear where some listeners would prefer one over the other. There was no clear winner.
When I switched to Classic's simply awesome-sounding 45 of Mussorgsky's Pictures at an Exhibition, the results were basically the same. The Levinson was cooler in the midrange, which resulted in less reverberant glow around the trumpet but better focus. There was less "grip" and texture to the strings, but phenomenal resolution of detail. During the explosive orchestral crescendos the Levinson's ability to portray the wide dynamic swings was awesome, but slightly steely in character at the peaks. The Ayre's renderings of the same crescendos were somewhat more restrained but more liquid, and more timbrally consistent with the less taxing parts of the music.
From disc to disc, so it went: The Levinson excelled at controlling the presentation, focusing the picture, and achieving a sense of seamless sonic stability, though in a somewhat cool and reserved way. The Ayre scored points with a rich, palpable, three-dimensional midrange that seemed to reach out to, grab, and draw me into the emotional center of the music. The Levinson went for the head, the Ayre for the heart. Despite its name, the Levinson was the WASPier-sounding amp, the Ayre more the hand-gesturing Jewish- or Italian-sounding amp.
Two great products. Two different sounds. One offensive analogy.
Charlie Hansen's purist approach to designing a solid-state amplifier—zero feedback, simple circuit topology, high-quality parts, hand-matched transistor pairs—has resulted in a solid-state amplifier with impressive midrange liquidity, ease, and listenability. The V-1's overall sound is as relaxed and fluid as I've heard from a solid-state amplifier. The plush, nonmechanical-sounding midrange drew me in while helping to create an airy, three-dimensional soundstage of enormous depth.
It's at the frequency extremes where opinions will diverge. No one will fault the V-1's bottom-end extension, but some will be disappointed with its somewhat diffuse bass focus and lack of slam compared to other solid-state amps. On top, some will appreciate the V-1's smooth, natural, etch-free high-frequency performance (though sibilants aren't always tamed), while others will yearn for a more crystalline presence. But no one auditioning the V-1 should be less than thrilled by its exceptionally rich, liquid midrange.
What's most important is that the overall sonic picture, from top to bottom, is cut from whole cloth. In other words, the V-1 paints a complete, involving musical picture, not a series of disjointed musical parts. Overall, the V-1 is a solid-state amplifier that should grab even the most hardened tube devotee and give him or her an impressive musical ride.
What's dangerous for the manufacturer of such a product is that tube devotees might like what they hear but be unwilling to switch, while solid-staters, used to hearing a more crystalline top and tauter bottom, will be unimpressed in a quick listen.
The V-1 demands some long-term attention. If you have an opportunity to hear it, leave your preconceptions at the door, sit a spell, and listen. This amp breaks barriers.