Ayre AX-7 integrated amplifier Page 4

It was brilliant. Amazing. Stirring, even. It was some of the best-sounding, most compelling music-making I've heard at home. I didn't know whether to laugh or cry: There was the snap in Charles Sawtelle's rhythm guitar playing. There was the dynamic give-and-take between the singers. There was the rhythm, the momentum, the out-and-out excitement of the music.

Now what I had in my system was an integrated amplifier with a clear, open sound, a somewhat larger sense of scale than average, and very good presence, that also played lines of notes with a convincing sense of rhythm, flow, and musical drama. It still wasn't as tight in the bass on my panel speakers as some amps, but it wasn't terrible, either. I still wish it had a balance control and a mono button, but I enjoyed using it otherwise. It was a fine thing.

Why hadn't I tried that two months ago?

By now I wanted to learn precisely what was responsible for the night-and-day change: Was it the balancedness of the connection between the source and the amp, or was that source, in and of itself, a really big deal? The only way to know for sure was to re-audition the CX-7, using its unbalanced outputs to drive the AX-7's unbalanced inputs.

The Ayre CD player, taken on its own merits, is a good enough product; I've spent a few hours getting to know the CX-7 in my other system, and it plays music about as well as anyone has the right to expect from standard CDs. But through the Ayre AX-7's unbalanced inputs, it did no better than my Sony. In fact, as I wrote in my notes when I made the switch, "Used as a balanced system, the CX-7 and AX-7 combination sounded alive; unbalanced, it was DOA."

The AX-7 simply didn't shine in unbalanced mode. By that I don't just mean that "balanced is better than unbalanced." I mean that, after hearing how well the AX-7 played music in balanced mode, the unbalanced AX-7 sounded almost broken by comparison.

There's no sense spending big money on an amp unless you intend to get the best out of it every time you switch it on.

With that in mind, I strongly recommend the Ayre AX-7 for use in an all-balanced system. If you already own one or more balanced sources—whether or not you presently use them in that mode—or if you're sold on the idea and you intend to buy balanced sources right away, this integrated amp is a superb choice. Used as a balanced amp, it sounded and played music better than its $2950 price might have led me to expect. (Too bad the relatively small number of balanced phono preamps on the market tend not to be cheap. In fact, most of the ones I know of cost more than the AX-7 itself—leaving me to wonder if the notoriously vinyl-loving Charles Hansen shouldn't get to work on a companion phono pre right away.)

Used as an unbalanced amp, the AX-7 still sounded good, but its musical performance lacked momentum and, ultimately, excitement. It didn't do enough to get across the excitement of real music—something that some other amps, many costing less than three grand, do well.

It's worth another paragraph to underscore this fact: The AX-7 is yet another product that confounds the idea that judging an audio component is a simple matter of plugging something unknown into a known system, then describing, purply or otherwise, what it did. Things aren't that simple anymore, if they ever were.

The AX-7 is a success after all, but a qualified one: It can play music brilliantly well, and it can be a very good value. Having spent more time with this pretty little thing than I usually do with a review sample, I feel unusually comfortable in recommending it—but now, all the more, I look forward to the day when the clever people at Ayre turn their attention to the comparatively cheap and electrically messy world that most music-lovers inhabit.