Ayre AX-7 integrated amplifier Page 3

The Ayre always sounded good, but the difference between sounding good and playing music is like the difference between wallpaper and a painting: Both can be colorful and detailed, but only one of them goes anywhere.

Was the AX-7 a bad mate for my Quad ESL-989s? On closer listen, the Quads' bass panels weren't as well controlled by the Ayre as they were by my older, less powerful, and altogether cheaper vintage Naim NAP110 amplifier—and since the electrostatic Quads are grounded and the Ayre has a balanced throughput...well, to borrow a sentence construction that became popular a few years ago, doubts crept in.

John Atkinson drove to my house with oscilloscope and signal generators to check out the combination in situ. While he found that the Ayre's output didn't look perfect on the Quads—squarewaves showed a slight overshoot into the speaker compared with a resistive load—neither were there any signs of instability or other evidence of a mismatch. Both of the AX-7's output phases were well-behaved into the Quad, a speaker that had upset JA's Mark Levinson No.33H, also a design with a balanced output stage.

Wanting to be fair, John and I decided we should throw some "normal" speakers at the AX-7 before going to press. Spendor distributor QS&D had on hand a broken-in pair of SP2/3s—a straightforward 8-ohm, two-way, bass-reflex design with which I'm thoroughly familiar, and which I admire. They kindly sent them to me using UPS's special and expensive rush-ass service. Thanks, Mike and Randy!

Playing through the Spendors, the Ayre did exhibit a somewhat tighter, snappier performance on electric and acoustic bass and low-pitched percussion instruments (kick drum, floor tom, et al), resulting in a slight improvement in my system's ability to convey the music's momentum, flow, and overall sense of pace. But my 18-year-old Naim NAP110 amp also improved in that regard, and to more or less the same extent. Big dogs like pickup trucks, and amps like ported woofers of reasonable size. No surprises here.

In any case, it wasn't just a matter of good bass vs bad bass, though the former surely helped: It's the way the old Naim made all my favorite music sound as compelling as I believe it really is. I tried a new CD, the great Colorado-based string band Hot Rize in So Long of a Journey, a "lost-until-now" live recording from 1996 (Sugar Hill SUG-CD-3943), focusing in particular on Charles Sawtelle's instrumental "The Butcher's Dog." Through the Ayre-Spendor combination, Sawtelle's guitar had believable tone, and the scattered applause throughout the number never failed to remind me of the size of the hall—things the Ayre did better than the Naim.

But the Ayre made the song sound like more of an exercise than a hot-blooded performance: By comparison, the Naim-Spendor combination restored the nuance and...well, I hate to say it, but the verve of the performance. The same was true on vocal numbers such as "Won't You Come and Sing for Me": Both amps kicked it off well, but by the time the massed harmonies enter for the first chorus, the Ayre started to lose me: It was pretty and it was clear, but it was not compelling.

Taken as directed
Only one thing remained to try: Ayre designer Charles Hansen had gone out of his way to create a fully balanced integrated amplifier, but all I had used it with were unbalanced sources. So Hansen kindly dispatched a sample of his company's CX-7, a "Red Book" CD player with both balanced and unbalanced outputs (and casework identical to the AX-7's). The $2950 CX-7 had been favorably reviewed in the May 2003 Stereophile by JA, who had used its balanced outputs exclusively.

I doubted the CX-7 would make much of a difference. I was ready to put my name on a review that said, essentially, "Good construction, pretty sound, musicality needs work." Then I played that same Hot Rize album on the warmed-up CX-7, balanced output to balanced input.