Music in the Round #32 Page 2
A breath of fresh Ayre
I'd wanted to get my hands on an Ayre Acoustics power amplifier ever since Wes Phillips' feature review of the Ayre V-3 in the August 1996 Stereophile (Vol.19 No.8). The crispness of the design, both inside and out, compounded by WP's praise, resonated with me. And bumping into Ayre's founder and designer, Charles Hansen, at various Consumer Electronics Shows always further fueled my interest. While Hansen was always affable and seemed entirely forthcoming, his smile was that of someone who knew more than he was saying. How could I not be curious?
Finally, more than a decade later, I got a call from Ayre's Steve Silberman offering, for my consideration, a sample of the latest edition of Ayre's only multichannel product, the V-6xe power amplifier. This modular design contains three independent power supplies and is available in configurations of three to six channels, beginning at $8500 (add $1250 for each additional channel). With the split-up arrangement of my main system, I opted for the three-channel version to power my three front B&W 802D speakers, and left the rear channels in the competent hands of the resident Bel Canto S300 or McCormack DNA1 Rev.A.
Hewing to Ayre tradition, the V-6xe is a zero-feedback design with fully balanced discrete circuits and 16 high-power devices per channel. And Charles Hansen's abiding interest (one might almost say obsession) in the impact on sound of radio frequency interference and other sources of noise means that the V-6xe also incorporates the Ayre Conditioner, a proprietary power-line RFI filter. Consequently, after unpacking and making the input/output connections, I plugged the V-6xe directly into a wall socket. I don't usually use power-treatment devices with analog power amps, but the Ayre is specifically designed to be plugged directly into the wall.
However, Ayre doesn't blow off all audiophile customs. Ayre's Michael Wiedmaier visited with a bunch of goodies, including a proprietary AC cord, a quad set of Ayre speaker cables, and a bag of Myrtle wood blocks. Like their Irrational, but Efficacious! system-enhancement CD, these products are evidence of open minds: Just because something can't be fully explained by science, there's no reason to exclude consideration of its subjective value. And boy, does that open a can of worms. Still, Wiedmaier's advice was, "Try them." I did. All of them.
This was the setup: The V-6xe's balanced inputs were connected to the outputs of the Meridian 861 pre/pro; I didn't use the Ayre's single-ended inputs or pass-through outputs (which are handy for multiamping). Either the Ayre cables or my resident AudioQuest Mont Blanc biwire speaker cables were connected to the V-6xe's securely clamped speaker terminals. Curiously, the Ayre's three amp modules were installed in positions 3, 4, and 5 of the six slots available. This meant that the modules in positions 3 and 4 ran off the same power supply, rather than each amp enjoying its own supply. This, apparently, is not standard practice. I connected my left and right speakers to the amp modules sharing a single power supply because: 1) as confirmed by an e-mail from Charles Hansen, this would match the L/R performance as closely as possible; and 2) it would simulate the performance of the full six-channel version. I turned on the master Power switch on the rear. The front-panel LED glowed red for a few seconds, then green, indicating that the power supply was ready to go and that the front-panel Power button was now enabled. One touch of that button turned the LED blue and let out the music.
My first reaction: "Okay. So?" The sound was not substantially different from what I was used to, but with extended listening to a variety of recordings and sources, I began to appreciate the unique felicities of the V-6xe. I began with Robert Spano and the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra and Chorus's new live recording of Puccini's La Bohème (CD, Telarc 2CD-80697)so far, a stereo-only release. The original press-event demonstration of this recording had been disappointing because of the venue and the ad hoc nature of the setup, not the quality of the equipment. The orchestra lacked the bloom and depth typical of Telarc, and the voices were crowded together between the speakers. At home, I immediately noticed a broadening of this recording's soundstage, but only after I'd inserted the Ayre V-6xe into the system was I able to hear voices that were human, glorious, and present.
Having been impressed with the V-6xe's transparency, I was concerned about being distracted by it to the point of accepting a less robust low midrange or extended bass. Telarc's new recording of Brahms' Ein deutsches Requiem, also with Robert Spano and the Atlanta forces (SACD, Telarc SACD-60701), in marvelous multichannel, convinced me that no price need be paid for that transparency. The slow, glowing first movement, Selig sind, die da Leid tragen, provided confirmation about the amplifier's resolution, with an exquisitely detailed and terraced presentation of all the choral voices, but the low male voices were also full and clear. With the gain a bit higher than normal, the sheer size of the ensemble was imposing but never overwhelmingmuch as in the concert hall, where we tolerate levels that would overload a home listening room. Moreover, the orchestral bass, for all its subtlety, was powerfully rich and taut. Moving on through the stately Den alles Fleisch es ist wie Gras to the fervent Herr, lehre doch mich, baritone Mariusz Kwiecien's baritone emerged from the soundstage with startling immediacy. While listening, I was reading Wes Phillips' comments in the July 2008 Stereophile about the two-channel edition of this recording, and how impressed he was with the rich low end from the KEF Reference 201/2 and Usher Be-718 loudspeakers. Wes, to quote Claus von Bülow (from the film Reversal of Fortune), "You have no idea!"
I emphasize the bass because I was so impressed that an amplifier that seemed so utterly open and sweet from the midrange all the way up could be equally open and revealing all the way down. Turning off the Bag End Bass E-Trap that I wrote about in July made little difference except for the room modes at the very lowest frequencies, which are inhabited mostly by pipe organ and electric bass. The Ayre V-6xe seemed to grip the B&W woofers as no other amp has, and simply wiped out the wrinkles in the 100Hz region that had for so long been a fly in the 802Ds' otherwise liquid ointment. Low stringseven in small chamber and baroque ensemblesand solo guitar were addictive. Another telling revelation courtesy the Ayre V-6xe came with Valery Gergiev's new recording of Mahler's Symphony 1 (SACD, LSO Live LSO0663). I can't in good conscience recommend it as a great recording, but I have never heard the subtle voicings of the timpani and bass drums, which are so fundamental to this symphony, so precisely delineated.
Nor did I find the Ayre V-6xe only a very proper classical specialist. Pick any track on Dire Straits' Brothers in Arms (SACD, Vertigo/Mercury 9871498) to hear that the Ayre can kick it with the best. I can't listen to this album at anything lower than 11, and the Ayre, despite its "modest" ratings of 150Wpc into 8 ohms or 300Wpc into 4 ohms, had plenty of gas for me.
Overall, the Ayre Acoustics V-6xe was probably the best match for my current system that I have experienced. It combined the Classé CA-3200's upper-end transparency, the Bel Canto REF1000's midrange honesty, and the Mark Levinson No.433's low-end grunt into a uniquely pellucid soundstage and dynamic presentationeven though, on paper, it's less powerful than any of them.
I think I know why Charles Hansen smiles.
Audioengine AW1 wireless audio adapter
How to rewire an already-finished room to connect surround speakers and/or a subwoofer, and hide the wires that might need to span doorwaysall without major carpentry? The obvious answer is a wireless connection, but so far these have been unreliable and/or major compromises in sound quality. Here's a solution that is not.
I saw and heard Audioengine's little two-module AW1 at the 2008 Consumer Electronics Show, but as nice as their little powered speaker, the Audioengine 2, is, the real test of this wireless system would be in a system of reasonably high resolution. The AW1 is based on 802.11 protocol in the 2.4GHz range, with a data rate of 340Mbps. Still, the Audioengine guys readily sent me a sample of the AW1 ($149). It comprises two tiny modules, a transmitter and a receiver, each about half the size of a credit card and ¼" thick, with a pig-tail USB connector. Audio input to the transmitter and audio output from the receiver are via stereo mini-jacks. The AW1's target market are users of computer audio sources and/or typical powered speakers. Still, Audioengine supplies a miniplug-to-dual-RCA adapter and a USB power supply. I added another adapter and another USB power supply, as my system includes no USB or miniplug connectors.
First, I connected the AW1 between the main L/R outputs of the Anthem Statement D2 A/V processor and the L/R inputs of my Bryston 9B-STT power amplifier. The quality of two-channel sound was surprisingly okay. There was a clear reduction in HF sparkle, and the midrange lacked detail, but it didn't sound "bad" so much as compromised. Switching to multichannel, a <20ms delay for processing and transmission reared its ugly head, with the result that frontal imaging was smeared. Adding 20' to the center speaker's distance setting in the Statement D2 cured this, and the clarity of the hardwired center channel lifted the overall presentation significantly.
I then connected the AW1 in place of the link to the surround speakers. Here the compromised clarity was much less noticeable, even with recordings that place discrete voices and instruments in the rear channels. This might be because I tend to pay more attention to the front stage, regardless of what else may be going on. Again, a compensatory setting of the surround speaker distance was necessary for effective integration.
Finally, I used one channel of the AW1 to connect the Statement D2 with my sub on the other side of the room. Here, the HF and MF compromises were irrelevant and, surprisingly, the bass quality was excellent. With reasonable musical content, including pipe organ and bass guitar, the AW1 provided clean bass as long as the compensatory distance adjustments were made.
In all cases, even though I made a point of using my 802.11 wireless home network (based on a Belkin N1 router) while listening, there were no interruptions of the AW1's signal, no audible network problems, and no extraneous noise. Additionally, the little AW1 modules rapidly linked up with each other every time.
The Audioengine AW1 was a compromise for the main channels, but would be okay for remote listening on the patio or other secondary sites. I'd use the AW1 for the surround and/or bass channels, if necessary. It wasn't as open or as clear as a decent wired connection, but I'd rather have the surround channels, and/or a sub in the right place, than not. And if there's no way to run cables, the AW1 will do the job.
Next time in the Round
I promised to say more about the hi-rez formats on 2L Records' Divertimenti set, and of course there will be the next chapter in the Saga of Room EQ, including measurements taken with the simple and friendly XTZ Room Analyzer. Also, the Rives Audio sub-PARC bass EQ and amplifier, and the Talon Audio ROC subwoofer, are finally cooking and should be ready to taste by November.