Ayre AX-7 integrated amplifier Page 2

As I mentioned above, the Ayre AX-7 exhibited a tremendous clarity in my system: Not only did voices and instruments sound real and uncolored, but my Ayre-powered Quads seemed to float them into the room with a greater-than-usual degree of presence. About two-thirds of the way through the first movement of Mahler's Symphony 3—toward the end of the portion marked Zeit lassen, a tempo—five notes are played on the glockenspiel, spaced over a number of measures. Even on an average-sounding recording of the work, such as Barbirolli and the Hallé from 1969 (BBC 4004-7), these notes tend to stand proud of everything else. Yet the Ayre took the sound of that recording to another level, bringing each note into the room with stunning realism: the attack, the die-away, the full timbral fingerprint, the way the note seemed to pressurize the air in my listening room...all were uncannily right.

You might also consider that well-known Mahler Fourth on RCA Living Stereo: Say what you will about Fritz Reiner, the CSO strings under his direction had superb group intonation, and very good if not quite the best group tone. Their interplay at the opening of the Adagio is, on a good system, musically and sonically hypnotic, and by the time the oboe enters, the listener should be fairly drowning in a sea of texture and tone. The Ayre AX-7 filled that bill—not as well as the two single-ended triode amps I compared it to, but then, the SETs aren't powerful enough to keep note attacks from being mushy and unreal on the Quads. And forget about them doing the glockenspiel thing.

On the Reiner Mahler, the Ayre's spatial performance was also outstanding, and especially easy to hear in this recording's first movement: The triangle sounded very realistically distant, and the tam-tam, soft though it is in this piece, surprised with its entrance from the left. (Am I allowed to suggest that anything originates from that direction?) I consider a hi-fi's sense of scale to be more loudspeaker-dependent than anything, with full-range horns at the front of the pack for obvious reasons. But in a somewhat different sense, amplifiers and other components can tend to make the soundfield either small or large overall, and the Ayre fell into the latter camp. The imaginary stage extended well beyond the Quads' physical boundaries in every direction, even height (or so it seemed). And with well-recorded music of every type, images within that space seemed bigger than usual.

What I've described so far are the best aspects of the Ayre in my system: Warmed up, it was colorful, clear, well-textured, and spatially convincing. (Cold, out of the box, the Ayre AX-7 was timbrally chalky and colorless; that's true of most new amps I've heard, to a lesser or greater extent; in the AX-7's case, the extent was greater.)

Apart from wanting a longer break-in period than most—much longer than I would have guessed, but then I'm a bit of a skeptic on the subject—the AX-7 was among the pickiest amps I've tried, in two interesting ways:

First, it was very sensitive to the type and length of speaker cable I used. That doesn't mean you have to spend more money on the cage than on the hamster, only that you have to shop carefully. I've had the best results with the least expensive speaker cables in my closet: Nordost's affordable Flatline ($3.50/foot) and, above all, plain old Naim NACA-5 ($6/foot). Perhaps counterintuitively, I heard a better sense of musical flow and, in particular, better retrieval of low-level detail with those cables than with the more expensive alternatives, most of which involve silver. (But don't read too much into that.) For example, with a very long run of cheap Naim cable in place, it was easier to hear such things as the two soft kick-drum beats Ringo uses at the beginning of the second verse of "Hey Jude" (the version on the Beatles' Anthology 3, Capitol CDP 34451 2) than it was with any other cable I tried. Weird.

Second, I came away thinking that the AX-7 was more sensitive to AC power quality than average. I say that because the Ayre was in my system both before and after my family's recent move, and it sounded and played music better in my new house, where it was fed by one of two separate 200-amp services isolated from most of the rest of the house's wiring. (Dumb luck: Apparently, when an addition to the house was built in 1994, the electrical contractor just said "Screw it" and added a whole new service for this wing, rather than try to upgrade the old one.) Not only that, but our new house is in a very sparsely populated area, with no industrial users I'm aware of and darn few domestic users. It's nice here in the sticks.

From the moment I plugged it in, sans warmup, the Ayre sounded a lot better in this house—startlingly so. I'm at a loss to say what else could account for the difference: My old and new rooms are similar in size (1989ft3 and 1824ft3, respectively), and similar in layout and furnishings. I figure it has to be feng shui or the juice. I lean toward the juice.

But, as I've said: The Ayre AX-7 was colorful, clear, well-textured, and spatially convincing. So what if it needed a little coaxing to get that far? What's not to like?

But not much soul
I auditioned the Ayre AX-7 through my Quad ESL-989s almost every day and night for two months, and every time I listened I had to work—to sit up, pay close attention, make an effort not to let my attention wander—in order to "get" the music. If my attention wandered, as was often the case, it wasn't unusual for an entire album side to go by before I realized I'd dropped the plot, so to speak.

Loud was better. Soft music played loud, or loud music played louder, seemed more effective through the AX-7—like an overly compressed pop album you have to crank up just to keep it interesting. That made me wonder: Was it a question of dynamics? Anyone who's ever read an audio magazine has (over)heard the notion that some amps sound more powerful than they really are; could the AX-7 be the opposite? That depends on what you think power sounds like, I guess. To me, the Ayre wasn't so much undynamic as it was simply undramatic—it didn't get across the tension or the development or the sheer opening-up I find in virtually all the music I love, and which, under the best of circumstances, grabs my attention, holds it, and keeps me coming back for more.

The AX-7 did a superb job of showing off the beauty and, in some sense, the realism of the sound taken a sample at a time, like a CAT scan. But while it got the stills, it didn't get the continuum: I didn't come away knowing anything about the music as an event in time that moves from one point to the next. The Ayre let the CSO strings sound as good as I'd heard them, but didn't let the music they were playing stir me. It let the Beatles sound like studio whizzes, but not a great rock'n'roll band. And it let acoustic guitars sound pretty and tangible and real, but let flat-picker David Grier's brilliant Hootenanny (Dreadnought 9801) fall emotionally and viscerally flat.