February 2004Ayre Acoustics AX-7 Integrated Amplifier
by Aaron Weiss
Among the blur of so-called reality shows that fill up network schedules these days, there was a particular specimen entitled Mr. Personality that famously hired Monica Lewinsky -- not unfamiliar with specimens herself -- as host. On the show, eligible males court a hand-picked woman all the while wearing masks. Although it sounds like a cross between the Dating Game and Friday the 13th, the program ostensibly measured the role of personality absent the influence of looks. And dont forget that Monica Lewinsky was the host. By reality-series standards this was practically a double-blind research study. We did learn, however, that humans at least claim to prize personality above all. Also, we learned that Ms. Lewinsky prefers to wear unflattering hairstyles.
There is less of a consensus on the role of personality when it comes to audio gear. On the one hand, reviewers spend long, hard (OK, not so hard) hours listening to their favorite music in the quest to pin a personality on a set of loudspeakers or an amplifier. Yet, the philosophy of the absolute sound, or at least accuracy as truth, would seem to suggest that audio equipment should possess no personality at all. After all, the argument suggests, thats what the music is for.
Whether by design or the limitations and constraints of cost-conscious engineering, most components do exhibit marked personalities. Some are weighed down by their bottom end, while others politely waltz along their upper registers. Some are bright or dull, fast or slow. It is against this backdrop that the Ayre AX-7 integrated amplifier stands as unusual.
Boulder, Colorado-based Ayre Acoustics produces a wide range of silver-hued audio components with a strong focus on preamps and power amps, ranging up to nearly $10,000 USD in price. The $2950 AX-7 integrated amplifier represents a budget-priced product in the companys lineup.
The AX-7 delivers 60Wpc into 8 ohms and 120Wpc into 4 ohms. It, like all of Ayres products, features fully balanced internal circuitry and zero feedback. Balanced lines, designed with two conductors at equal potential but opposite polarity with respect to the ground, eliminate induced noise and interference from external sources. Along these lines, the AX-7 features several design features intended to minimize internal noise and interference -- a balanced volume control with FET switches and metal-film resistors, and a ground that switches on with input selection to completely cut inactive inputs. The main control microprocessor shuts itself off when not executing commands. From the standpoint of electronic noise, then, the inside of the AX-7 is a lonely, quiet place.
The AX-7 accepts four input sources -- two balanced and two unbalanced. For the many consumers who own only unbalanced equipment with typical RCA connectors, this means the AX-7 has just two usable inputs. Ayre does offer XLR-to-RCA adapters for $75 per pair, however. There is no preamplifier output or phono stage, but the AX-7 does feature a processor-pass-through mode that's assignable to any input. The rear inputs are laid out in a somewhat inconvenient manner, with the left channels grouped left of center and the right channels grouped right of center. If, by odd circumstance, your interconnects are bound pairs, you need long leads to achieve the spread necessary to reach both left and right inputs.
Strangely, the input terminals and corresponding front-panel markings on the AX-7 are not labeled in the conventional manner using numbers or standard names. Rather, they are labeled with cosmic icons such as a moon and a shooting star. I found this to be unfortunate and confusing. Because there is nothing meaningful about these labels, it was difficult to remember whether the CD player was on the "stars" or "moon" input, for example, versus the DVD player. Frustration abounded when selecting inputs.
Ayre has chosen unique single-knob Cardas binding posts. With one easily gripped knob you release a bar under which the four-way binding posts are concealed. With your speaker leads connected by your choice of termination, you crank the knob, which clamps down over the binding posts. I found this to be one of the best binding-post designs Ive used, and the fit is extremely tight and secure with only moderate manual force. The clamp prevents the use of banana plugs, but Ayre thoughtfully offers a version drilled out for use with bananas at no extra charge. Also included is an IEC-style detachable power cord.
The AX-7 measures 17 1/4"W x 13 3/4"D x 4 3/4"H and weighs 25 pounds. It is housed in a silver steel case with brushed face and blue LED center display. The unit feels solid. A horizontal volume control sits above the display where, say, a CD drawer might otherwise fit. Volume can be set in 66 steps of 1dB each. There are two columns of four buttons each to the right of the display, allowing for mute, theater mode, standby mode, display mode (on or off), and the four inputs.
These functions are also accessible via the included remote, which is slim and plastic, lacking the steely weight of the AX-7 itself. Note, though, that the remote does not feature discrete input selections -- only a means of scrolling among the inputs.
The AX-7 was mated to a pair of ProAc Response Two S speakers, which are normally driven by a Primare A20 70Wpc solid-state integrated amplifier. Cabling includes Canare 4S8 speaker cables terminated with large spades at the amplifier and bare wire at the loudspeaker, and DH Labs BL-1 interconnects. Source is a Marantz CC65SE CD player fed through an Audio Harmony TWO harmonic filter.
The first time you fire up an unfamiliar piece of audio equipment your ears begin to hunt for something to latch onto. As humans we strive to transform the unfamiliar into the familiar. As I jump right into "In a Sentimental Mood," the first track on Mark Levinson Live Recordings at Red Rose Music Volume One [Red Rose Music RRM 01], I am reminded of those television commercials for fabric softeners -- perfumed air breezing through an open window on a spring day -- which is to say, fresh and clean. Chico Freemans tenor sax sounds unencumbered by gravity. You can almost reach out and grab the notes spilling forth as they tumble from the front of the soundstage. George Cables accompanies Freeman on an August Förster nine-foot concert grand that sounds assured and plucky in the upper midrange. I come away from this track, and the AX-7, with a sense of balance.
It is presumably that same Förster that Peter Muir hammers away on in "Alligator Crawl" from the same disc. This piano is surely in no sentimental mood this time out, with springy, bouncy, resonant lows. While entirely satisfying, there have been deeper depths plumbed from this track by other integrated amplifiers. I am keenly aware, though, at how much detail the AX-7 draws forward, especially when it comes to intangibles such as the squeaks and moans from the piano keys as Mr. Muirs fingers fly across the keyboard.
Despite being the only man on Earth who harbors no attraction toward Kim Cattrall, I often return to her spoken-word track "Little Dogs Day" from the Red Rose disc. But its not Ms. Cattrall that interests me here, its Mark Levinson. Specifically, I keep an ear open for his double bass, which proves to be a real litmus test for audio components, changing in character with every change in equipment. The AX-7 seems to bring the bass quite forward, lending it a prominence unusual for this recording. I had always perceived it to be quite a background character before.
Even with all I was hearing, I began to worry for the AX-7 and for myself. Other than a bit of a front-leaning soundstage, I was flailing to find hints of personality. I wasnt disappointed in any way with my musical selections, but they were not helping me define the characteristics of this integrated amplifier. What can an audio writer do when in such trouble? Listen to more music!
The semi-acoustic angst of Violent Femmes [Slash D19435] has a live-recording feel similar, if not in content, to the Red Rose Music disc. This is a raw record, both in attitude and production, but the AX-7 keeps it very listenable. The Femmes featured a solid rhythm section backing Gordon Ganos über-whiny vocals, but the record has a tendency to sound thin and slight on many systems. Its unfortunate, because the Femmes proved that solid angst doesnt require nu-metal crunch. Every track sounds particularly alive with the AX-7. The bizarro-Meatlof epic "Gimme the Car" spins lots of busy bass. Because the AX-7 is so strong at preserving detail, the music remains slithery rather than devolving into the muddled mess it easily could (and does) on lesser equipment. Whereas there never appeared to be any soundstage at all on this disc in the past, at least the ghost of one becomes apparent when piped through the AX-7.
Tori Amos has always excelled at creating dreamscapes with an authenticity lacking in, say, the ethereal production of Enya or '80s Heart. Scarletts Walk [Epic 86412] proves that Amos has still got it, and plenty of it. "Taxi Ride" is an extremely busy song and, when I first heard it on the car radio, I thought it almost unlistenably muddled. The experience is entirely different on quality audio equipment, and the AX-7 didnt back down from Ms. Amoss complex production. Rather than busy, the track sounds rich, dark, and yet also vibrant. The separation between bass and lower midrange, in particular, seems to be the source of problems on systems lacking in dynamic range. The exceptionally clean AX-7 keeps order. The same applies to "Sorta Fairytale," a similarly complex track. Swirling, flowing, and still coherent -- keeping this kind of production listenable is like reining in a wild mustang.
Like Tori Amos, the Red Hot Chili Peppers have disproved the axiom that artists shine brightest in their first few years. In fact, the Peppers seem to grow more mature, more melodic, and more masterful with each release -- especially By the Way [Warner 48140-2]. But despite the evolved songwriting, they cant seem to get rid of a love for the "loudness" button somewhere in the studio. Anthony Kiediss vocals seem to constantly threaten sibilance, or clipping, or both. The AX-7 doesnt let that happen. On tracks such as "Dosed," the band sounds expansive, enlivened by John Frusciantes soulful lead guitar, and Kiedis cant trip the circuit on the Ayre.
As fabulous as the Chili Peppers sound on the AX-7, though, the central mystery remains: Who is this amplifier? How can something sound so good and yet remain so difficult to describe? The key, in fact, is that very observation -- the Ayre AX-7 does not demonstrate a characteristic personality. It can be a little forward, but otherwise is an all-around player, as they say in baseball. It can play the infield and outfield, pinch hit when called upon -- the AX-7 doesnt miss a beat. But it also doesnt prefer any one position, any one strength. Clean and detailed, yes, but many integrated amplifiers are. Neutral, but not dryly so. Maybe personality is overrated.
At over twice the price of my $1400 Primare A20, the Ayre AX-7 should benefit from some obvious advantages. And, indeed, the Primare exhibits a more definable personality -- and thus, identifiable weaknesses -- than the AX-7. Where the A20 can sound slightly dry, the AX-7 is fuller -- more accurately so. And despite its higher wattage (70Wpc vs. 60), the Primare doesnt articulate bass as cleanly. Indeed, the A20 doesnt excel over the Ayre AX-7 in any particular category, lending credence to the AX-7s price.
Of course, usability counts for something, too. The A20 interface is relatively sleek and intuitive. I could never get used to the AX-7s wonky cosmic labels. The limited unbalanced inputs suggest that one would get more mileage from the AX-7 living among the upper classes of balanced components. The AX-7's remote control is somewhat underwhelming for a nearly $3000 product.
Still, there is no doubt that sonically the Ayre AX-7 makes none of the compromises of the Primare A20.
The integrated-amplifier market is seeing a lot of action these days. Companies such as Ayre, which traditionally design much more expensive separates, are introducing integrateds such as the AX-7 at relatively low price points, giving more people entry into their sonic realms. Still, at nearly $3000, the AX-7 approaches the top of its market. As such, it deserves to be auditioned alongside competitors from Bel Canto, Gryphon, Plinius, and Simaudio, among others.
What you get from the AX-7 is a refreshing lack of obvious compromises -- and thus personality. While it doesnt exhibit a strong bias toward one strength or another, it performed in my system admirably in all areas and weakly in none. That may not sound impressive, but it is. Consistency without compromise is a rare trait indeed, and it's what the AX-7 possesses.
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