Ayre Acoustics K-3 preamplifier Page 2

I listened to the EAD DSP-9000 Mk.3 HDCD processor directly out through its built-in analog/digital volume control. This is a switched resistive array that uses 0.1% Vishay resistors for large volume steps (6dB increments), and digital attenuation for smaller ones (0.2dB). Thus there is never more than one high-quality resistor in the signal path at any given time, and no more than 1 bit of degradation. The EAD fed either the Conrad-Johnson Premier 12s or the VTL MB-450s. Through the Ayre, the biggest difference I could hear was gain.

The K-3 was dead, dead quiet. If it imparted any tonal or textural difference that I could easily detect, it was a slight dryness and/or lack of bloom in the midband. But that was only until Charley Hansen came—annoyingly late in the review process—to replace the internal ferrite ring with his new nonmetallic device, and to remove altogether the ferrite ring on the umbilical cord between the power supply and the main chassis.

And then? Less dryness, more midrange "bloom" and overall liquidity—an easily audible improvement that did not change the K-3' fundamental tonal neutrality and transparency. I can't think of a "purer" CD transfer than Classic Records' Belafonte at Carnegie Hall (RCA/Classic LSOCD-6006), which really lets you "see" into the recording somewhat better than the LP. (Don't get me wrong—the LP still beats the CD in terms of liquidity, air, three-dimensionality, and image solidity, but the CD has a cool precision the LP doesn't.) Going from the EAD (which is on the warmish side compared to another player I'm in the process of reviewing) to the Ayre, I'm not sure I heard any tonal or textural differences worth mentioning. Swapping different brands of power cords on either the EAD or the Ayre made a bigger sonic difference than comparing the two using the same brand of cord.

The roundness and velvety-smooth tonality of Belafonte's voice (yes, it's somewhat icier on the CD compared to the LP), the resolution and "speed" of sibilants, and his focused, center-stage image didn't change to any appreciable degree with the EAD driving the amps directly or through the K-3. The same was true with the instruments—the bite of the brass and the chiming of the cymbals remained remarkably consistent.

I went back to the spectacular-sounding Shawn Murphy–recorded soundtrack CDs I used in my February 1996 review of the Audible Illusions 3A. Murphy used a Kenneth Wilkinson–style "Decca tree" mike setup to record Dances With Wolves (Epic ZK 66817, gold CD), Casper (MCA MCAD-11240), Moviola (Epic EK 52985), and Batman Returns (Warner Bros. 26972-2). These are all "audiophile quality" demo discs—tonally rich, with outstanding deep bass and bracing dynamics.

In the Audible review, I noted an "ever-so-slight overall darkening of sound" that I said was smaller than differences you can sometimes hear when changing cables. I didn't notice that kind of difference in this comparison. The Ayre matched the Audible's grain-free, etch-free top end, but offered slightly better high-frequency extension without sounding overtly "solid-state," much as the Audible didn't sound "tubey."

Love that phono stage!
The big surprise for me was the K-3's superb phono stage. I shouldn't have been surprised—Wes's K-1 review of what is essentially the same board was a rave. The K-3's vinyl playback performance was among the finest I've ever heard—and I've had some ridiculously good phono sections in-house. The K-3 was as dead, jet-black quiet and as see-through transparent as the FM Acoustics 122 phono section, though I don't think it offers quite the same level of inner-detail resolution. Hard to say, though, since I haven't heard the 122 in over a year, and other parts of my system have changed.

The far more expensive Sutherland PH-2000 sounded more rich and delicate, but it was also noisier, which masked some of the musical details the K-3 delivered with ease.

The Ayre's bass performance was clearly as good as I've heard, with a rock-solid foundation that really gripped the road. Deep, tight, lithe, and pitch-pure, the K-3 rendered all kinds of bass—skin, string, electric, and acoustic—with a richness and harmonic complexity that made it believable.

When my Rolling Stones fanatic friends paid me a visit a few months back (see the May issue's "Analog Corner"), the K-3's unraveling of "Can't You Hear Me Knocking" on MoFi's pressing of Sticky Fingers (Mobile Fidelity MFSL1-060) threw me back in my seat. My friends almost fainted. It was not at all what I was expecting. I'd never heard the bass quite so deep, tight, and powerful, or Bobby Keys' sax so timbrally and texturally rich and convincing—so "there," stage left. I used to think MoFi's cut was distant and sucked-out in the midrange. Not so. The imaging on that record was 3-D through the Ayre, with Jagger way out front, center stage, and Charlie Watts' drum kit tightly focused behind, his snare snapping and crackling viciously.

But more important than any one facet of the K-3's phono performance was the overall picture, which held together seamlessly and effortlessly from top to bottom. Whatever overall character the circuit imparted to the music, whatever flaws the design held, were so effortlessly balanced and well concealed that I can't tell you what they might have been. (But when I switched to a tubed preamp costing over three times as much, I immediately heard an overall, though surprisingly subtle, improvement. You'll read about it in that review.)

The bottom line: During the almost half a year I had the K-3 in my system, it revealed the character of the recordings I threw at it more than it did its own. Belafonte at Carnegie Hall sounded completely different tonally and spatially from Nat King Cole's fabulous Live at the Sands, or Sinatra's equally brilliant-sounding At the Sands. Bright-sounding recordings sounded bright, dull ones sounded dull, and rich ones—like Classic's reissue of the Living Stereo Pictures at an Exhibition—sounded full, sweet, and dynamic. The K-3 excelled at reproducing every genre of music. It didn't sound etched, thin, bleached, or warm in the midbass. It didn't sound sluggish or overly "zippy." Except in comparison to other accomplished products that perform the same vanishing act using other, equally effective tricks, the K-3 simply didn't "sound."

Compared to my reference Audible Illusions Modulus 3A, the Ayre K-3 was slightly less liquid and bloomy in the midrange, but it resolved low-level detail better—probably due to its ultra-low noise floor. The K-3's phono stage clearly bettered the 3A's somewhat lean and lackluster deep-bass performance, but it costs $2000 more, so that's hardly surprising.

Has designer Charley Hansen succeeded in creating a preamp offering "80 to 90%" of the K-1's superb performance for about two-thirds the price? I never heard the K-1, so I can't say for certain, but I'd lay odds that he has. I kept the K-3 in my system for half a year and never tired of listening to it—or, should I say, through it. The K-3 delivered the music with a rich tonal and harmonic complexity, dynamic integrity, and an overall ease that always satisfied and never left me wanting more.

I never caught on to what the K-3 sounded like—and that's the highest compliment I think you can pay any audio component. The only down side was the somewhat coarse stepped attenuator, which sometimes had me wishing for a position between two "clicks." Also, be aware that, in "unbalanced" operation, the preamp's output is down 6dB; and absolute phase is inverted, so you have to reverse the leads to both loudspeakers. Though the line-stage gain can be increased 6dB, I found standard gain in the unbalanced position sufficient to drive every amp I tried with the K-3.

That said, if you're in the market for a line section or a full-featured preamp and you're thinking of spending between $3500 and $4500, don't buy anything until you audition the K-3. I loved it; when you hear it, I bet you will too. More important, when you're listening to your purchase a year or two down the line, I bet you'll still love it.

Ayre Acoustics, Inc.
6268 Monarch Park Place, Suite B
Niwot, CO 80503
(303) 442-7300