June 15, 2010

Fully Ayre’ed – Ayre C-5xeMP Universal Player, K-5xeMP Pre-amp and MX-R Monoblocks

If you had followed this blog regularly, you’d know that I had the Ayre MX-R monoblocks in my system for a while. It has given me some really enjoyable listening time. The MX-R’s espousal of transparency, details and sheer unflappability have taught me a thing or two about truly high-end equipment.

With the MX-R in, the front and the back of my system were Ayre (my resident universal player, the C-5xeMP, in front, and the MX-R monoblocks at the back), but the middle, the pre-amp, was my Pass Labs X2.5. Not that I detected any compatibility issue, but there was also a certain curiosity in us to know how a complete Ayre chain would sound like.

So, Big E, being the great pal that he is, went to request for a Ayre pre-amp. Hi-way Laser’s Ayre KX-R demo unit, the matching pre-amp for the MX-R, was already sold, so we got the Ayre K-5xeMP instead. The K-5xeMP unit was a recently updated model, the MP moniker stood for Maximum Performance instead of its digital players’ ‘Minimum Phase’ technology. We heard some comments that the K-5xeMP took a big step up in performance, and it had a big measure of the KX-R’s performance at 1/5 the price.

So there it was, the Ayre chain was now complete.

Left, Ayre MX-R monoblock (the other is on the other side of the rack); Top, Ayre C-5xeMP Universal Player; Middle, Ayre K-5xeMP pre-amp.

Since this is the first time I write about the K-5xeMP pre-amp, let me describe it a little more. The K-5xeMP had impressive build quality, the chassis is the same as the C5xe-MP player other than, of course, the design of the display and control. Putting them together created a harmonized look on the rack. Convenience also took a big step forward, I could control the disc player and the pre-amp from the same remote. I love the volume control, it had 66 levels, at much finer steps than my existing pre-amp, so I could adjust the volume much more freely, a setting around 40 was loud enough.

Ayre K-5xeMP pre-amp front

Strangely though, my Ayre universal player’s display did not match the pre-amp’s. The pre-amp’s display was bold and bright, like the Ayre CX-7eMP CD player’s instead. I think the universal player’s display (small, dim and hard to read from a distance) is the odd one out in the entire Ayre range, they should probably do something about it.

Ayre K-5xeMP pre-amp back. Note the dual-mono construction

The K-5xeMP had 4 inputs, 2 balanced and 2 single-ended, and there was a tape output. There were 2 pre-outs, one single-ended and one balanced. The K-5xeMP is listed for RM14,700.

As a first step, I used it to replace my Pass Labs X2.5 driving my Pass Labs XA60 monoblocks, in order to get a measure of the K-5xeMP’s characteristics, while keeping everything else unchanged.

The Ayre K-5xeMP is an excellent pre-amp. It very much subscribed to the sound characteristics of the Ayre camp, and this impression was further reinforced with the hindsight from hearing an entirely Ayre system. With the C5xe-MP universal player passing the musical signal to the K-5xeMP, which was in turn mated to my Pass Labs XA60 monoblocks, the system gained in terms of transparency, the extra details heard was unforced and was not produced by turning up the brightness. The sound further improved in terms of naturalness, the music flowed better and was simply easier to listen to. With the X2.5 mated to the XA60 though, the sound was more dynamic, slightly more forceful, and with a little more excitement in the music taking. The K-5xeMP is excellently musical, listening became more relaxing and I just listened for longer periods of time.

With the complete Ayre chain (C-5xeMP universal player, K-5xeMP pre-amp and MX-R monoblocks), the Ayre house sound fully emerged. Every piece in the chain simply clicked and I felt they were totally at home together. The Ayre system sounded coherent and at ease, there was no inconsistency in the total sound picture at all.

The Ayre Evolution badge

Before I go on to tell you more about the Ayre system, I would like to debunk a possible conception. When a couple of my friends knew that I had a complete Ayre system running, they asked me how I rated it. I told them it was excellent and I was enjoying myself. They were just quiet as if I was not telling the truth, that my comment did not fit their expectation. I did not know why.

Then they came to audition the Ayre system themselves, and they gave their approval to the Ayre system too. Only then did they tell me that they heard remarks that a complete Ayre system would sound slow, soft and lack of dynamics. What they heard did not fit that picture at all. We played the Manger compilation CD, tracks 13 “Walking on the Moon” and 15 “Jazz Variants”. They sounded fast and equally exciting. We played The Best of Fourplay, on “Chant”, the initial drum work went loud and the transient was lightning fast. Granted, the Ayre system may not match, say, a Krell system in these aspects (but Ayre replied with virtues of its own too, which I shall touch on later). However, in the absolute sense, no one could say that the Ayre system was slow, soft and lacked dynamics.

Ayre C-5xeMP universal player, my resident frontend

The Ayre system gave a consistently smooth and refined presentation. It was easily the champ in these aspects in my system’s context. It was also highly coherent and organic sounding, the sound just sounded more like music than ever, so to speak. The combination of these qualities made listening very easy and enjoyable. No, it was not euphonic, it did not gloss over things or add flavours to make bad recording sound good. Via the Ayre system, you could still hear the quality of the recording, the good ones sounded absolutely excellent, the bad still sounded bad, but somehow they were not so irritating, Ayre's refinement probably really helped in this respect. I found that I could listen to many recordings from beginning to end.

With Ayre, my old audiophile habit where I skipped from one track to another instead of listening through no longer applied. Take music from 2 starkly different genres, ‘The Best of Fourplay’, where much of it was rhythmic, with relatively high dynamic range and complexity; and 2V1g’s debut album of the same title, where there were just a guitar and 2 female voices, relatively simple but atmospheric and emotional. Both were rendered well by Ayre, at the end of a track, I found myself anticipating for the next, I wanted to continue listening. And in no time I found myself reaching the end of the CD.

My musical enjoyment also stemmed from Ayre’s ability to dig up much more details from the recordings. I was impressed with the system’s transparency that allowed the extra nuances and low level information to emerge. Each music phrase was fully rendered and traced until it disappeared into darkness. Seems that all this information was there in the disc, the C-5xeMP universal player could get it but it was throttled somewhere down the chain previously. My Pass Labs combo, at about half the price, was trumped in this aspect.

Image definition and separation was excellent, instruments and various music threads are well defined and focused; Things didn’t smear into one another. The imaging was rock solid. The sound was also clean. The Ayre system neither sounded thin nor was it fat. I found it to be just about right. There was also one benefit Ayre brought to my system that I did not anticipate. The control that Ayre exerted on my EgglestonWorks loudspeakers eliminated the excess mid-bass problem (some charitable friends of mine called it ‘voluptuous’) that I had all this while. The Ayre MX-R controlled the bass extremely well, it was focused and rounded, yet punchy, with no part getting over-blown. A ‘flat’ bass response was the best way I could put it.

Ayre MX-R sitting on Cardas blocks. The blocks made the MX-R sounded a little richer

The Ayre system had a comparatively civil and gentle demeanour than others. It was ‘emotionally neutral’, in that it did not wear its heart on its sleeve, like some tube system, where it was simply dripping with emotion everywhere; Nor was it hard charging and aggressive like some solid state, which can be exciting to listen to in the shorter term. However, like I mentioned, it was not slow, soft or boring. It just let the music affect you. It was not a system that grabbed people’s attention on first listen, it did not do that to me for sure. But over a 2 week period, I found myself drawn towards Ayre more and more, such that I dread more and more the day I have to return it.

I know that the K-5xeMP pre-amp was not considered the matching partner for the MX-R, though I did not hear any discontinuity between them, the whole chain just gelled together. What would happen if it was the KX-R pre-amp that was used instead? I do not know (further increase in transparency? Even more musical?). However, Hi-Way Laser had taken delivery of their new stock and we shall try to get a unit ourselves to check it out.

So, no, we are not done with Ayre yet, I still have a chance to visit these beauties.

Ayre is available from Hi-Way Laser. Contact Kenny 03-7873.8325; 019-281.3399 .

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