September 1999Ayre Acoustics V-1 Amplifier
by Todd Warnke
Why do they call it Boulder?
I live in Denver, Colorado just down the road from Boulder, and I gotta tell you that Boulder does things differently. So much is Boulder an entity unto itself that around here we refer to it as The United States of Boulder. And its not just the granolas that make Boulder unique, nor is it the eggheads at the University of Colorado (locally called CU, which raises at least one question: how weird is a university that cant spell its own acronym correctly?). Its not the high-techies of industry, nor is it the local hippie tea company (Celestial Seasonings). Its not having the highest concentration of Olympic athletes of any city in the world. And in spite of the mystics that are attracted to Boulder, it isnt the Flatiron Mountains to the south of town. It isnt even the NAROPA Institute, the leading Buddhist university in the US. No, Boulder is different simply because its people see things differently and -- this is the important part -- then act on what they see. And this is what makes Boulder the perfect home for Ayre Acoustics.
See, Ayre does things with their products that are different -- not different for kicks, but different because Ayres president and chief designer Charlie Hansen sees things differently than you and I do. When designing the Ayre K-1 preamp, Charlie thought about every facet of the layout. What wire to use to connect the I/O jacks to the circuit board? After thinking it through, the answer was obvious: no wire. Just solder the jacks directly to the board. And what about a remote control? How do you integrate a hand-trimmed resistor-ladder volume control and a remote without compromising performance? The answer is a Rube Goldberg system of pulleys and rubber bands. So what about amps? High power output is good, but to keep that power under control, you need at least some feedback in the circuit, and thats bad, right? Well, wrong and right. Sure, feedback is bad, but if you design and build the circuit correctly, you dont need feedback, even with a high-powered solid-state amp. At least thats how Charlie saw it, and so thats what he did. The result is V-1 power amp.
The V-1 is a solid solid-state amp, and for $7500 it should be. Its just slightly over-square at 18" wide and 18.5" deep. At 7" tall, its not a skyscraper, but dont let that fool you. Lift it. At 110 pounds, youll remember the experience. And it puts out power on a commensurate level: 200 watts into 8 ohms and 400 watts into 4 ohms.
Around back the amp is loaded as well, with both balanced and single-ended inputs (selectable by a pair of toggle switches) and, to make bi-wiring easier, two sets of the new super-cool Cardas binding posts per side, which mandate the use of spade connectors. Up front, the main features are the three sculpted oval indentations that stack up in the center of the fascia. The top oval has a status LED that glows red for warm-up, green for stand-by and blue for normal operation. (I know -- green would seem the normal operational color, but I did warn you about the folks from Boulder.) The middle oval holds the stand-by button and the bottom oval the IR receiver that allows the supplied remote or the remote that comes with the K-1 preamp to select stand-by as well. The casework is solid and beautiful, but I did have one issue. Remember that 110-pound weight? Well, the amp doesnt have handles and does have sharp edges. While lifting the amp onto the top shelf of the rack for my office system, I cut my fingers -- twice. After that I used heavy-duty work gloves when moving the beast.
But inside is where the really cool stuff lies. Fully balanced, the circuit is built around a cascoded differential input stage followed by a source-follower output stage with no negative feedback. Output devices are 32 FETs per side. Hansen stresses the importance of the power supply to overall sound quality of any component, and so he uses separate supplies for both the input and the output stages. Even the power-supply regulators completely eschew the use of feedback, making the V-1 a true zero-feedback design. The main input power supply also incorporates Ayres propriety "Ayre Conditioner" AC filtering. The Ayre Conditioner doesnt cool the amp, which is a shame since it is biased to spend most its working time in class A. While not extremely hot, with those 64 output devices idling, the V-1 reduced my winter gas bill noticeably, although the electric bill more than offset it, which unfortunately obviates the excuse, "But Robin, if we keep it we can have better music and lower utility bills."
From the moment the V-1 dropped into the system what came out of the speakers was musical to the extreme and reflective of a very different approach to amp design. Neither fish nor fowl -- actually, neither tube nor solid-state, neither analytical nor euphonic -- the Ayre V-I lacks the standard sonic reference points, which, by the way, is a very good thing. Still, first impressions are not what you always take away as lasting impressions, but as time on the V-1 increased, it became apparent that there really was something different happening here.
Lets start with the fine details of the soundstage. The images thrown by the V-1 conform to most of the audiophile criteria -- that is, they are smoothly arrayed both right to left and front to back. What the Ayre V-1 does differently from most amps is further delineate that space into a real 3-D location. Take the Cowboy Junkies The Trinity Session [Classic RTHCD8563], for example. The recording purposefully uses the acoustic of the church where it was recorded direct to DAT, while perhaps not so purposely also capturing the extraneous noise outside the church. Lesser amps tend to attach the hall sound right to the singer and players so that the hall sound and performers emerge almost as one. Besides defeating much of the intent of the recording, this clearly is not right, as the reverb is a distinct event from the singer and players. Also, with some amps, the outside noises are discernable, but as completely disconnected sounds. This too is wrong. While the outside noises are disconnected from the music-making, they are not disconnected from the church because they reach us through their effect on the solid stone walls.
Another more select group of amps makes the distinction between players and hall quite clearly, and can even make clear the way the outside noises are exciting the hall itself. The result is a an involving presentation as each event -- music, reverb, outside noise -- is resolved into a separate space. But in doing this, these amps go too far. By dividing up the sound like this they do to great recordings what mediocre recording engineers do to concerto recordings, i.e., spotlight the soloist against the orchestra, only in this case, the musicians against the rest of the recorded sound.
In a great concerto recording, the soloist gets room to breathe, to stand in front of the orchestra, but he or she is always a part of the orchestral performance. In the more "normal" concerto recording, the soloist sounds not just larger than life, but larger than the orchestra, an interesting if physically impossible situation. Also, such recordings can sound as if the soloist was recorded perhaps not in an isolation booth but certainly apart from the orchestra. A great many amps separate the music from the hall, and the hall from the external noise on The Trinity Session, but in actuality the events are distinct but related, and it is this relationship that many amps fail to get right.
What the V-1 does is resolve each of these three sound sources as separate, but also show you how they interact as well. Margo Timmins voice creates the first and main point of musical sound. The hall sound places Margo in a specific spot of a particular church, while the outside noises help to define further the shape and exact location of the recording venue. I know this may sound complicated, mechanical and very removed from music, but with the V-1 its not. Just as in real life, where all this information is present, easy to separate, but also part of a complete tapestry, the V-1 presents us with this same quality of sound, naturally and without hype.
More geek stuff
As for the rest of the V-1s performance, as youd expect, this amp puts out serious bass thats very deep, very powerful, very tuneful, and very natural. Ive referred to the opening bass drum on "O My Seh Yeh" from the Roy Hargrove album Habana [Verve 314 537 563-2] in the past. This is a very difficult track to reproduce correctly. Too much midbass warmth (read tube-like) and the extension of the drum as well as its impact get short shrift. Too lean (read solid-state like) and the tonal richness of the drum is sacrificed to the false god of Silicon Slam. The V-1 gets it right, going all the way to the bottom of that drum, while preserving both the tonal richness and impact of it. This is truly an amazing combination.
The mids are rich with tonal information as well. From the acid tones of Richard Thompsons voice and guitar to the pure beauty of Linda Thompsons voice on the 24k-gold pressing of Shoot Out The Lights [Hannibal 81303], the V-1 communicates all the emotional immediacy of this most public and oh-so-brutal breakup. (So when Linda was out "Walking on a Wire," "Did She Jump or was She Pushed," or did she just ignore Richards request to "Dont Renege On Our Love"? Because in the end they both ended up at the "Wall of Death," I guess it may not matter.)
The highs of the V-1 seem to come in for a lot of commentary. A writer for one of the tree-killer magazines who used to write only about affordable gear complained that the Ayre V-3, the little brother to the V-1, was soft, and that when he listened to a solid-state amp, what he wanted to hear was a sizzling top end. Well, since most solid-state amps do have a bit of sizzle on top, I can see where someone coming to V-1 might be taken aback. But if you ignore the topology and just listen to the sound the V-1 puts out, the highs are simply superb. Extended? Yes. Detailed? Very. Hot? Not at all. Soft then? No, just very even and delicate.
Dynamics when using the V-1 were exemplary as long as one condition was maintained. I found that to get the V-1 to reveal both the macro and micro swings with even-handedness, the amp needed to be driven a bit. At low to medium levels, music was slightly lacking slam, although it had plenty of breath. At medium and above (80dB and up), both slam and breath were superb. Actually, at those volume levels, dynamics were rendered as well as Ive heard.
In fact, with the exception of the need to goose the V-1 to get it goose you back, the overall objective performance of the V-1 was so uniformly superb that finding negatives was about as rewarding as looking for musical insight on a John Tesh album.
The real stuff
Now we get to the best part of the review, not what the amp did to me, but what it did for me, which is the last and ultimate measure. And here the V-1 is in very select company.
In case you havent figured it out by now, Im a more of a breath person than a jump kinda guy, so at low to medium-low levels, the Ayre V-1 was still able to hit my sweet spot. And when I dialed up the juice, the sound only got better. With 200 zero-feedback watts on hand, effortless and sweetly detailed music, whether Hendrix, Mahler, Mitchell or Miles, rolled out into my room. Said more directly, the V-1 moved me. It presents images so cleanly and yet with such total power that I felt invited onto the stage. I conducted the Vienna Philharmonic, and I watched from a seat a third of the way back every single night of the 1965 Miles Davis quintet at the Plugged Nickel. Even my Brucelegs were thrilling.
Back to the geek stuff
So youd guess with such a deadly combination of talents that when put up against other amps in the house the verdict always went to the V-1, right? Yes, but not in every area. The Blue Circle BC6, at half the price, is as natural-sounding as anything its been my pleasure to own. Its delicate, but it has the power to deliver Stevie Ray Vaughan. It goes deep, although not as deep as the V-1. It stages with such holographic skill that the leap from my house to the recording venue is smoooooth. But where it really gets you is in the way it delivers the emotional subtext of the music. Hour after hour of pure joy, sheer terror, deep blues and sweet bliss roll by with the BC6 in place. Until I heard the BC6, I didnt know this type of musical interaction was possible with a solid-state amp.
The V-1, on the other hand, has more authority, more slam and more impact than the BC6. It also does a better job of drawing the shape of a recording. It can drive anything, whereas the 25Wpc BC6, while quite good, has practical limits. The V-1 has both single-ended and balanced inputs. And I think that at the end of the day what the V-1 does is a bit closer to the absolute truth of the recording. Also, the character of the V-1 is such that it does little to call attention to itself. Not that the BC6 does either, but it does accent the emotional side of any recording, while the V-1 neither accents nor inhibits the emotional flow.
Sweetness and sorrow
After all is said and heard, the V-1 has the best balance of high wattage solid-state skills Ive yet to hear. Exceedingly powerful, it can drive anything. It is very dynamic, as long you give a bit of juice. Possessed of superb clarity, it will reveal everything your system does, but it also has the good manners not to accent any weak links you may have. It places musicians in the acoustic in which the recording was made, but once again, it doesnt let an unnatural, multi-miked disc or platter upset it. Because it does this without hype, it takes a clearing out of expectations to really get at the truth of the V-1, but once you get those preconceptions out of your mind, the reward is immense. So the Ayre V-1 is not just recommended or even highly recommended. If you need an even-tempered high-power amp, it is perhaps the only recommendation.
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