February 23, 2011

Beautiful Ayre - The KX-R Pre-amplifier


Sometimes a piece of equipment came along and so upset an audiophile’s cosy little world that he couldn't but consider it a landmark product. The Ayre KX-R pre-amp is such a piece of equipment.

I knew that the pre-amp, as the control centre of the hifi chain, was an important piece of equipment. However in my past experience, the pre-amp had not had such a big an impact on my system’s sound, compared to a change in source equipment or a change of loudspeakers. I thought as long as a pre-amp was neutral and transparent enough, it did not contribute as much to the sound characteristics or the sound quality of the system.

Along came the Ayre KX-R pre-amp. It upset entirely my neat little assumption and exposed it, in no certain terms, as a personal fallacy. I simply have not listened to one of the best, if not the best, among the pre-amp lot in the past.


The Ayre KX-R is an expensive piece of equipment. At RM77,700 a piece, some would probably consider it insane. For the same price, you can buy a pair (yes, 2 pieces) of Ayre’s 300-watts-per-side MX-R monoblocks, which is also the intended mate for the KX-R pre-amp. Well, with the MX-R you can at least console yourself by thinking that there is actually double the material, since both the KX-R and MX-R are built to similar size chassis, similarly hewn from a solid block of aluminium. This is me talking tongue-in-cheek of course. If you are playing at this rarefied level, price I believe is no longer a consideration. Like the guy who buys a Patek Philippe, it is not the price that he would consider, it is just a matter of whether he wants to get it or he doesn't.

The Ayre KX-R told me that in terms of sound quality I could have my cake and eat it too. You see, in my experience, a piece of equipment usually falls within one of two camps, on one hand we have those that are excellent technical performers – giving me excellent details and resolution, but speaking more to my brain and less to my heart; on the other hand, we have the musical performers – giving me goose bumps listening to music, but may be compromised in a number of areas such as the frequency extremes. I had not come across one that was performing at the very top level of both technical and musical performance. Until the Ayre KX-R.

I couldn't fault the technical performance of the KX-R. It let through oodles of details from my silver discs. The lows were taut and well focused. The highs were airy, clean and smooth. The mids had good body, was natural and showed excellent nuances. The pace was just right, as the music would call for whether it is leisurely or frenetic. The dynamic capability was simply exemplary, music came through with natural liveliness and bounce. When I plugged my resident pre-amp back into the system, I could attain the same level of loudness, but the performance somehow felt just a tad ‘lazy’ in contrast. It was like the musicians have lost just that bit of enthusiasm in music making (or as my audiophile friends would put it – “it is like they are not performing with a full stomach”).

The KX-R is a minimalist piece of equipment. On its fascia, there are but 2 buttons and 2 rotary controls. The buttons are ‘standby’ and ‘mute’; the rotary controls are input selection and gain control. Note that I say ‘gain’, not ‘volume’, therein lies the innovation that Charles Hansen has incorporated into this little fella. Rather than a fixed gain and an attenuator for volume setting, the KX-R let the user vary the amount of gain applied to the input signal, using what is called a ‘Variable Gain Transimpedance’ device, purportedly doing less harm to the signal. I’ll not go into the technical details of the design, if you are interested to know further, there is some information about this technology in Stereophile’s KX-R review - http://www.stereophile.com/solidpreamps/1108ayre/.

The operation of the gain control is totally cool. The gain setting scrolls and makes a solid, reassuring clunking sound as the mechanism works itself inside the chassis, just like a slot machine. It was actually quite a conversation piece among all who saw the KX-R. See this little video:
video

The KX-R has 4 inputs, all doubled up for both single-ended and balanced connections. There is one pair of balanced output and one pair of balanced record out (tape output). The remote control is the same as the one for the Ayre C-5xeMP universal player. So with one remote, I could control both my disc player and the pre-amp.


I played Pop Pop Music’s Brasileiro CD, specifically track 5 ‘Coyness’. Z Yan’s voice floated in the air in-between the loudspeakers. Other than the inner energy that her voice portrayed, which I am used to hearing, it has just a little additional sweetness which I did not quite experience before. The sound was also natural, unforced and very focused.

On the ‘Art Pepper Meet The Rhythm Section’ CD, the saxophone tone was in turn burnish, rounded, or just a little piercing as the music called for. The verve in those tracks was simple infectious coming through the KX-R. There were also details aplenty – from the brushes on the cymbals, the plucking of the bass, the pinging on the piano. Despite the way the recording was produced- sax to the left channel, everything else to the right, I could discern much clearer spatial information via the KX-R. The instruments were actually put further back from the speaker plane (i.e., there was stage depth) and they were not all bunched up together, but layered and separated from each other.

The KX-R sailed through the ‘Trittico’ CD too. The dynamic swing, separation and staging were so excellent I do not know whether it could ever be bested in my system. While it was technically very accomplished, the music was exciting to listen to too, with the emotion that the band put in laid bare for one to experience.


At the end of all this, I am upset with the Ayre KX-R pre-amp.

Yes, I am upset...

I am upset because I can’t keep it….

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


As promised by Big E, the following is the unadulterated and unabridged assessment of the Ayre KX-R pre-amp from one of our audiophile friends, Wilson Wong. Written in mandarin, his usual colourful language is beyond my ability to translate. So, just enjoy it in its native form! :

Ayre KX-R 的声音个人感受,

优点:

金黄音色,

温文有礼,

幼中带幼,

生动活泼,

轻松自然,

能收能放,

轻如燕子,

重如泰山,

中气十足,

刚柔并存,

文武双全,

点到即止,

不偏不移,

不加不减,

有血有肉。


缺点:

1 查尔斯太喜欢老虎机了!连开大小声都不忘老虎机的味道!哈!

2 到底真的声音是不是这样的?还是查尔斯喜欢这样的声音?

3 我不够钱买!!就算够钱买也对不起查尔斯,一朵鲜花插在牛粪上!

4 为了它, 我和一位高手不和!他讲那个机中气不足。哼!都没有耳朵的!

5 我的废话太多,查尔斯可能不喜欢? 哈哈!

3 comments:

Big E said...

To my partner in crime,

Don't be so up set, I am sure Kenny is more than happy should you choose to keep the Ayre KX-R, just give him some moo-lah!

Wilson,

What a sweet and direct to the point verdict!

Ha! Ha!

Wang said...

OS,

It looks mighty nice on your rack together with all your other machines! :-)

The "klunk klunk klunk" must be heard to believe! What a wierd feature....but unique.

OdioSleuth said...

Big E,

Ah, that kind of moo-lah I don't have. :-)

Wang,

Thanks.

Well, the KX-R is indeed one of the best made and best looking machine around.