Ayre Acoustics K-1 preamplifier Page 4

For instance, I've been listening to Blue Note's superb Dexter Gordon: The Complete Blue Note Sixties Sessions (Blue Note 8 34200 2, six CDs) a lot lately—almost constantly, in fact. Dex was unbelievably good at that time—his tone was lushly vibrant and his harmonic awareness of what was happening around him made him seem like he had the musical equivalent of "eyes in the back of his head." He sprinkled wry quotes into nearly every solo, and had a readily identifiable penchant for phrasing ever so slightly behind the beat. I've never actually heard a preamp that wouldn't present most of that information, but the Ayre presented it with a particular plausibility. I was going to say liveliness, because the quality I'm trying to describe has everything to do with sounding both alive and believable, but, properly speaking, neither word is quite accurate.

Whatever you call it, some equipment manages to conjure a sense of the realness of the musical experience. On some gear, you can hear "In the Mood" or "Christopher Columbus" and you connect to the swing era and all that it represented. On other gear, the drums pull you into the pounding center of a mass of hopped-up jitterbuggers—you don't understand what made the Harlem Club the "home of happy feet," you know.

Well, whatever arcane phrase we audiophiles end up attaching to this quality, the K-1 has it in spades.

As to the audible increase in dynamics and soundstaging, I attribute that to two things: 1) the utmost transparency of the Ayre's circuitry, and 2) gain. People are always insisting that gain is overrated, but there just seems to be something seductive about gobs of it—assuming that it's as fast and uncolored as it is in the K-1. The other thing I keep hearing from those same people is that the best preamp is no preamp. I follow their logic, and I really do hear how colored most preamps are, but when you come right down to it, I always seem to prefer a system's sound with a good preamp in the circuit.

I did feel that the KRC-HR gave deep bass more weight and heft, especially in natural-sounding orchestral recordings such as Corigliano's First Symphony (Barenboim/CSO, Erato 61132-2). The Krell is the undisputed champ at those qualities—nothing I've heard can match it in that regard. However, the Ayre came close enough to retire the field in honor.

Nor is the Ayre quite a match for the Premier Fourteen when it comes to soundstage layering and definition. Using that same recording of the Corigliano symphony, the Premier Fourteen pushed the outside edges of the Chicago Symphony even farther toward the sides of my listening room, and the distance from the front row of musicians to the rear one seemed at least a row deeper. Once again, I'm comparing the K-1 to a product that sets the standard for the field; the Ayre does a fine job on its own terms.

Embrace simplicity
So the Ayre K-1 can play in some pretty refined company, when considered as a line stage. The phono stage, however, takes it to an entirely different level. Simply stated, the Ayre's phono board may be the best I've ever heard: quiet as a tomb, and grainless as flowing water.

At $1600, it isn't cheap, but it's competitively priced with such superb outboard units as the Audio Research PH-3. I think the PH-3 ranks as one of the best RIAA sections I've heard, but I prefer the Ayre because it's quieter. Besides, the PH-3 requires that you solder the loading resistors into the circuit board, while all you have to do with the K-1 is loosen the screws on the terminal strip, insert the resistor, and re-tighten the screws. Not that I, as a card-carrying audiophile, would ever consider convenience, in and of itself, as a good thing, but you've got to love it when it doesn't come with a sonic price to pay.

Even for me, this has been a month full of listening to records—in addition to preparing this issue's "Quarter Notes," I've been auditioning four different sets of test pressings for Sonata (STPH008-1), Stereophile's latest LP. This has simply reinforced my love for the black disc, especially since the K-1's phono section has so amply shown me the detailed, dynamic, extremely musical resolution that is what I have come to expect from vinyl—even when listening at volumes that tax my system's extremes. A lot of phono sections, when you really have to crank 'em, start to produce a lot of noise, or sound strained and whitish. The K-1 sounded just as silent and sweet at Stupid-Approved levels as it did at more moderate ones.

Of course, I'm not recommending its phono section simply because it plays loud, but the absence of audio nasties at extreme volumes hints at the potential for low-level resolution. One of the most remarkable felicities of Sonata is its unconstrained dynamic range—Silverman just revels in swinging from the merest whisper to the loudest proclamation. Stan Ricker was extremely careful to preserve those extremes in his cut; the K-1, thanks chiefly to its dead-black, near-digital silence, highlights them in the most delightful way.

Michael Fremer once described his reaction to vinyl as that of relaxing into the music, rather than skimming its surface. The K-1's phono board reminded me of that with LP after LP. Its tonal richness pulled me further into the music than my reference Naim Prefix—not by night-and-day margins, perhaps, but consistently. Compared to the K-1, the $4650 Prefix bleached some of the tonal color out of the sonic picture. Impressive performance for a $1600 upstart.

Nothing is more simple than greatness
It should be apparent that I found the Ayre K-1 a remarkably refined preamplifier. I spent many happy hours listening to Charlie Hansen explain his rationale for each design choice—time reflected in the even greater number of hours I spent listening to glorious-sounding music through the unit. At $5500 (including the remote volume-control option), it ranks as an expensive line stage, but its performance places it with the finest I've heard. As always, with performers this refined, individual taste will dictate whether or not you prefer the K-1 to its worthy competition. But anyone contemplating a preamplifier with designs on state-of-the-art status must audition the K-1.

If you're looking for a preamp with phono-playback capabilities, however, the K-1 narrows the field drastically. Even though it adds $1600 to the price, the K-1's phono section is a bargain—and possibly the best I've ever heard. This is what analog is all about.

Congratulations to Ayre. Their first product, the V-3, was wonderful—judged by many to be one of the great bargains in hi-fi. Their newest effort, the K-1 preamplifier, just might be one for the ages. It's that simple.