Ayre K-5xeMP line preamplifier Page 3

But inserting the K-5xeMP into my system was a pleasant surprise, in that much of what I had appreciated about the much-higher-priced preamps had been preserved. In particular, the palpability of images and the sense of musical flow that had so impressed me with both the Simaudio P-8 and the Ayre KX-R was present with the K-5xeMP. Its deathly quiet backgrounds allowed the K-5xeMP to step out of the way of the music. Although it's become an audio-reviewing cliché, the Ayre's "blacks" were indeed blacker than the norm.

This allowed me to both clearly hear faults in recordings and, having identified them as faults, set them aside. A recording John Marks recently recommended to me is Sure on This Shining Night, a collection of choral works by the modern composer Morten Lauridsen, performed by Voce (CD, Voce 0026129719). While the vocal sound on this album is beautifully natural, the piano that accompanies the voices in some works is set a little too far back in the reverberant acoustic. Through poor systems, this gives the instrument too much of a "bathroomy" coloration, to the detriment of the music. But with the CD played on the Ayre DX-5 player, fed to the K-5xeMP and the new Musical Fidelity AMS100 amplifier driving my 33-year-old pair of Rogers LS3/5as, I could hear that the piano was set back in the stage, accept that it was too reverberant, and then forget that fact as I enjoyed some of my favorite modern classical music—including the melodic "Dirait-on," from Lauridsen's Les Chanson de Roses. By contrast, the earlier version of the K-5xe pushed the piano forward in the soundstage so that it sounded both reverberant and a little closer than it should have, an aurally confusing combination.

The original K-5xe had great dynamics, lacking any sense of compression, and the K-5xeMP was its equal. Last Christmas, young Stephen Mejias, who hasn't yet given up on this incorrigible old fogey, gave me a copy of Four Tet's There Is Love in You (CD, Domino WIG254). Four Tet—actually a bloke from the UK called Kieran Hebden—is one of the new breed of "post-rock" musicians who operate as mixers and DJs, creating addictive aural soundscapes with found sounds (www.fourtet.net). The first track on this album, "Angel Echoes," begins with a four-to-the-bar kick drum and hi-hat beat over which a herky-jerky sampled female voice weaves hypnotic patterns. The earlier version of the Ayre preamp pushed the mix a little too forward at the listener; the MP kept the balance behind the speakers, but spread it wide and deep when appropriate.

The natural competitor for the K-5xeMP ($3500) is the Parasound Halo JC 2 preamplifier ($4000), designed by John Curl. I reviewed the JC 2 in March 2008, and felt its combination of superbly defined, well-extended low frequencies and delicate, high-precision stereo imaging made it a contender, though I did feel the transparency of its treble was a two-edged sword. The Parasound definitely worked best with amplifiers that were a touch on the warm side.

In direct comparison with the Ayre K-5xeMP, the Halo JC 2 definitely sounded on the lean side. When I listened to April's "Recording of the Month"—David Fray performing Mozart's Piano Concertos 22 and 25, with Jaap van Zweden conducting the Philharmonia Orchestra (CD, Virgin 5099964196404)—the Ayre preamp sounded warmer overall, with a more fleshed-out lower midrange that benefited the orchestral balance on this recording. While the Parasound's top octaves were a little more airy, the orchestra sounded leaner. Both preamps seemed equally good at representing recorded detail, however. The K-5xeMP's friendlier balance had not been achieved by smoothing things over, by relaxing into mellowness.

Did the Ayre sound too warm? A secret pleasure of mine is the Jacques Loussier Trio; I reached for their The Best of Play Bach (SACD/CD, Telarc SACD-65390), which has a rather phat-sounding double bass, balanced forward in the mix as if the player were in front of the rather metallic-sounding piano. But the bass didn't sound too phat with the Ayre. It held definition on the leading edges of the notes, so that the breakneck double-time bass figures at the end of Loussier's arrangement of the C Major Prelude didn't blur into one another. The K-5xeMP didn't sound dark in the way that my beloved but long-discontinued Mark Levinson No.380S, now in residence in the storage closet next to my listening room, does.

I was impressed by Ayre Acoustics' K-5xeMP. For what is these days a relatively affordable price, it offers much of the sound quality you can get from the megabucks solid-state preamps. While the original K-5xe was a solid Class B recommendation in Stereophile's "Recommended Components," this Maximum Performance version deserves a full Class A rating.

Ayre Acoustics, Inc.
2300-B Central Avenue
Boulder, CO 80301
(303) 442-7300