Note: Measurements performed by BHK Labs can be found through this link.
The toughest components to review are those that have absolutely nothing to distinguish them visually or, most important for audiophiles, sonically -- drab, ho-hum stuff that lacks originality and leaves a writer with next to nothing to say.
That problem never seems to exist with products from Ayre Acoustics, based in Boulder, Colorado. That’s largely because of the leadership of its founder and chief designer, Charles Hansen, with whom I’ve spoken many times and who, I learned early on, marches to the beat of his own drum. As a result, Ayre products always distinguish themselves in how they look and sound -- and the subject of this review, the VX-5 stereo power amplifier, is no exception.
Ayre currently makes two stereo power amplifiers: the VX-R ($14,950 USD) and the VX-5 ($7950). The VX-R, which I reviewed a couple of years ago, belongs to Ayre’s R series, which includes the MX-R mono power amplifier and KX-R Twenty preamplifier. The VX-5 is the only power amp in the 5 series, which includes the AX-5, an integrated amplifier that Uday Reddy reviewed earlier this year, as well as the KX-5 preamplifier, which can be considered the VX-5’s companion model. (Ayre has announced upgrades of the VX-R and MX-R to, respectively, the VX-R Twenty and MX-R Twenty, to be released in a few months. The Twentys feature new circuit designs and new parts that, according to Hansen, will result in price increases of some 50% over the current models. Owners of VX-Rs and MX-Rs will be able to upgrade them for the differences between the old and new prices.)
The VX-R is rated at 200Wpc into 8 ohms or 400Wpc into 4 ohms; the VX-5 is claimed to output 175Wpc into 8 ohms or 350Wpc into 4 ohms. They provide identical gain: 26dB. Two stereo power amplifiers from the same company, so similar in power output but so different in price, just begged to be compared, and I’m glad I was in a position to do so.
The VX-R and VX-5 hew to Hansen’s design tenet of no negative feedback -- he feels it introduces timing-based distortions, which can destroy coherence and musicality. Both amps also feature balanced circuit designs, which Hansen is a fan of; balanced operation is costly to implement because circuits must be duplicated and parts strictly matched, but it can reduce noise. Built into each model is an Ayre power conditioner, to deal with anomalies of the AC supply from the wall, as well as AyreLink communication ports, which allow other AyreLink-equipped Ayre components to communicate with each other to automate certain functions, such as turn-on/off.
But the VX-5 does cost only a little more than half the price of the VX-R, and there are some significant differences between them. Most noticeable is the casework -- the VX-R’s striking looks are a result of its case being milled from a solid block of aluminum, which is about the most costly way you can do it. The VX-5’s case is made of the more usual thick plates of aluminum bolted together. Yet, surprisingly, despite the amps’ different construction methods and vastly different appearances, I didn’t find the VX-R better looking than the VX-5, or vice versa. Nor can I say that the VX-R is significantly better built -- nothing about the VX-5’s construction spells cheap. And while I liked the look of the VX-R and more than admired its build quality, I found the subtler appearance of the VX-5 equally appealing.
Then there are the smaller external differences, some of which, surprisingly, favor the VX-5. On the VX-R’s rear panel is one pair of Cardas posts, presumably because of its low height; the taller VX-5’s two sets of posts will be welcomed by those who biamp or biwire their speakers with double cable runs. The VX-5 has balanced and single-ended inputs (switches allow for selection), but the VX-R has only balanced inputs; in either case, balanced is the preferred way to connect a preamp; I didn’t try the VX-5’s unbalanced inputs. The VX-5 has a main power switch above its power-cord inlet, while the VX-R has only the inlet and no main switch at all. On their front panels, the single, unlabeled, central buttons used for day-to-day power-on/off also differ -- the VX-R uses an LED-based button, whereas the VX-5 has a round, silver button surmounted by an LED. Each LED glows green when its amp is in standby, blue when it’s fully on.
Bigger differences have to do with the choices of components -- circuit-board materials, transistors, transformers, resistors, capacitors, etc. -- made to meet the VX-5’s lower design budget. The R-series boards are ceramic filled, whereas the 5-series boards are of PPO epoxy; Ayre refers to the R boards as “ultra-high-speed,” the 5 boards as simply “high-speed.”
Yet despite its more modest design-and-build budget, the VX-5 has something neither R amp does, so far: Ayre’s Diamond output stage. According to Hansen, the driver for the Diamond output stage runs in class-A; that’s why the VX-5 runs noticeably hotter than most amps, but is also claimed to provide better bass performance than the R models. When I first heard about the Diamond output stage’s alleged bass benefits, I got excited -- the one strong criticism I’d had about the VX-R was its bass control, which was lacking in comparison to other topflight solid-state amps I’d reviewed.
Including the Diamond output stage has created a bit of a conundrum for Ayre: It makes the VX-5 stronger, in this regard, than the far costlier VX-R. When the R Twenty models come out, they’ll have what Ayre is calling its Double Diamond output stage -- supposedly better than the Diamond, but at even higher cost.
While it had been some time since the VX-R had been in my system, when I first listened to the VX-5, what I heard immediately reminded me of the older amp, as well as of other Ayre components I’ve reviewed and/or heard: an utter smoothness across the audioband reminiscent of a great tubed amplifier, enough presence in the midrange to make voices sound authentic and alive, and thoroughly extended and truly effortless highs with no hint of grain or edge. Those things are, in my experience, part of Ayre’s unmistakable house sound, and are what I believe Charles Hansen strives for in designing and voicing his products. Also like the VX-R, the VX-5’s sound lacked any sort of dryness, thinness, or glare, qualities often associated with solid-state design. Its sound also had a slightly laid-back character overall, which put the VX-5 -- along with the VX-R -- in stark contrast to Hegel Music Systems’ H30 power amplifier ($15,000). The Hegel sounded very immediate and upfront in the same system, as did, to a lesser extent, the Simaudio Moon Evolution 870A amplifier ($22,000), which in that regard sounds midway between the two. (I’m currently reviewing the H30, and have just finished reviewing the 870A.)
Yet despite the VX-5 not sounding as immediate or upfront as the Hegel and Simaudio, it still sounded extremely natural, completely involving, and utterly engaging. It also had soundstaging and imaging capabilities that I found beyond reproach. For example, Willie Nelson’s Teatro, produced by Daniel Lanois (16-bit/44.1kHz FLAC, Island), showcases the iconic singer-songwriter and his band in a large theater, recorded in such a way that you can readily hear the distances between the musicians, as well as the size of the space they’re playing in. It’s an intimate recording that manages to sound huge -- not unlike the Cowboy Junkies’ The Trinity Session. In “The Maker,” which Lanois originally wrote for his 1989 debut album, Acadie, Nelson’s voice is center stage. Through the VX-5, Nelson’s voice was just forward enough on the stage and with ample presence, which I liked -- it was immediate enough to sound real, but not so much that it was in my face. Just as distinct were the sounds of the two drummers, which radiated from precisely delineated positions way, way back in the far left and right corners of the stage. In short, the VX-5 had a great ability to convey detail. In creating an expansive, well-defined soundstage, the VX-5 was on a par with the almost-three-times-as-expensive Simaudio Moon Evolution 870A, which I consider top drawer in those areas.
The VX-5’s bass performance proved interesting in light of my experience with the VX-R. While I didn’t use the same speakers as I had with the VX-R, I remember being slightly put off by that amp’s slightly blurry bass, regardless of what speakers I used it with -- it wasn’t as tight or as forceful as I would’ve liked. I never found myself criticizing the VX-5 in that way -- its bass was tight enough with all music I played through it, never sounding blurred or woolly. For example, the bass notes in the low-end-heavy Édition Studio Masters edition of Daft Punk’s Random Access Memories (24/88.2 FLAC, Columbia) were always deep, tight, and well controlled, with none of the apparent overhang I could hear with the VX-R. So while I still can’t say that the VX-5’s bass was as balls-to-the-wall tight as through the Simaudio 870A or the Hegel H30 -- big, beefy, solid-state designs that seem the very definition of bass control -- it couldn’t be construed as being in any way weak. This indicates to me that whatever Ayre is doing with their Diamond output stage is working, and is an improvement over what’s in the current VX-R, and likely in the MX-R.
My main criticism of the VX-5 has mostly to do with sheer power, and then only because of two of the many speakers I tried it with. The VX-5 drove the Magico S5s to fairly high listening levels -- levels I think would be sufficient for normal listening in an average-size room -- and sounded fantastic when it did. However, it distorted noticeably when I tried to play music at the ear-splitting levels that I know, from experience, the S5s are indeed capable of. Basically, the VX-5 ran out of steam. That’s not to say you can’t use the VX-5 with the S5s -- just don’t expect the combination to blow the roof off.
Then there was the Polymer Audio MKS, a less-than-efficient speaker with fulsome, underdamped bass. The MKS seems to like a really powerful amplifier in charge, for both output and control -- the more power, the better. With both speakers, the Simaudio Moon Evolution 870A (300Wpc into 8 ohms) proved a better match.
So -- like the VX-R, the VX-5 is a moderately powerful solid-state amplifier capable of power output suitable for most speakers, but not all -- and fewer if you demand high SPLs. As with any amp, matching the VX-5 to the appropriate speaker, or vice versa, will be very important.
That caveat aside, and with the understanding that the VX-5’s sound leaned more toward the laid-back than to the forward, I found nothing more to criticize. Instead, there were only things to praise -- and remember that, for this review, I compared the VX-5 only with amps costing far more. That’s the kind of company the VX-5 fits in with.
What most impressed me about the VX-5 was its extraordinarily refined sound throughout the audioband. It left behind no telltale cues to let me know that I was listening to a $7950 amp and not one costing two, three, four, or ten times its price. Again and again as I listened to music, I found myself completely captivated and without criticism -- and for me, there’s almost always something I don’t like. Not here. For instance, Petra Magoni’s soaring voice on Musica Nuda’s self-titled debut (16/44.1 FLAC, BHM) sounded nothing short of spectacular, this largely due to the VX-5’s extraordinary clarity and smoothness through the midband and highs -- a clarity that the more expensive and more powerful H30 and 870A amps could match but not better. Likewise, Ola Gjeilo’s piano rang out lucidly and with top-tier transparency in “Snow in New York,” from his Stone Rose (16/44.1 FLAC, 2L), which I’ve used as a reviewing tool since it arrived in my listening room a few years ago. Chinese pianist Lang Lang’s performance of Erik Satie’s Gnossienne No.1, from the soundtrack to the film The Painted Veil (16/44.1 FLAC, Deutsche Grammophon), bowled me over with a breathtaking purity and extreme openness that belied the VX-5’s modest price. If there was something to criticize in the way the Ayre VX-5 reproduced these recordings, or the numerous others I played during its time here, I couldn’t find it.
Some might be tempted to think of Ayre Acoustics’ VX-5 as a scaled-down VX-R, and in some ways they’re probably right -- to create the VX-5, Charles Hansen had to consider his parts costs more carefully than he had with the VX-R, which is more or less a cost-no-object design.
However, the result isn’t so much a little brother to the VX-R, but something that can be considered a competitor in terms of appearance, build, and sound -- and for a much lower price. I wouldn’t be surprised if it was the VX-5 that led Ayre to up their game with the R-series amps and come up with the Twenty models. Likewise, the VX-5 should find itself competing with much more expensive amps from other brands. It fell short only in terms of total power output -- 175Wpc is decent enough for most systems, but not all. Other than that limitation, the VX-5’s distinctive, refined sound is truly hard to fault.
The VX-5 is an extremely accomplished-sounding power amplifier that I could easily listen to and live with as my personal reference for a long, long time, without ever feeling in the slightest shortchanged. For many -- even those expecting to spend a lot more -- it may be the perfect amplifier. But even if it isn’t perfect, if the VX-5 puts out enough power for you, and its excellent build, distinctive styling, and superb sound appeal to you as they did to me, then it might be all the amplifier you’ll ever need. Given its reasonable price, that makes the VX-5 one of the best bargains in high-end amplifiers today -- and that’s sky-high praise for what is actually Ayre’s entry-level power amplifier.
. . . Doug Schneider
- Loudspeakers -- Bowers & Wilkins 684 S2, Cambridge Audio Aero 2, Definitive Technology ST-L, Magico S5, Monitor Audio Gold GX50, Polymer Audio Research MKS
- Power amplifiers -- Hegel H30, Simaudio Moon Evolution 870A
- Preamplifiers -- EMM Labs PRE2, Simaudio Moon Evolution 740P
- Digital-to-analog converter -- EMM Labs DAC2X
- Computer -- Samsung laptop running Windows 7 and JRiver Media Center 18
- Digital interconnect -- AudioQuest Carbon
- Analog interconnects -- Crystal Cable CrystalConnect Standard Diamond
- Speaker cables -- Siltech Classic Anniversary 330L
Ayre Acoustics VX-5 Stereo Amplifier
Price: $7950 USD.
Warranty: Five years parts and labor.
Ayre Acoustics, Inc.
2300-B Central Avenue
Boulder, CO 80301
Phone: (303) 442-7300
Fax: (303) 442-7301