So far, so original AX-5: this sounded great, but in environments with ambient temperatues as high as 35°C or more, the AX-5 occasionally tripped the amp’s thermal protection circuitry (living in the UK where 35°C is the stuff of holidays abroad and oven temperatures, I have to take that as read). The chance to celebrate Ayre’s 20th year led to the ‘twenty’ modifications, which revised the output stage with a ‘double diamond’ circuit to run cooler. This also allowed for additional AyreLock regulation to better control output voltage. This is available as an upgrade to existing Ayre AX-5 owners.
Ayre is the kind of product that attracts engineers, real and wannabe. Products like the AX-5 are extremely well designed and built, they perform their allotted task beyond expectation, and without extraneous goodies, and they are often more than a little counter-intuitive to us ‘civilians’: in the entry-level AX-7e integrated amp, for example, normal legends like ‘CD’ or even a spinning disc are replaced by stars and moons and meteors. Here, it’s the set-up procedure: you have to allocate an input a name to activate it and – because we aren’t of engineer mind – this means some Tekken-style button mashing on the front panel until you begin to get the hang of things. The amplifier is also said to be best after 100 hours of running in (mine arrived with many more hours on the clock) but also needs several hours of ‘settle time’ on standby to bring it back from the cold. Once it’s plugged in and left in standby, it can be battle-ready in about as long as a live Carlos Santana guitar solo to sound great.
What the AX-5 twenty delivers is absolutely stunning amounts of detail retrieval, always staying the right side of ‘forward’, but with a fine sense of musical order and a good deal of enjoyment thrown in for good measure. It’s the resolution that hits you first, though – you get a sense of being almost injected into the music, an up-close directness and energy that could make you smell the rosin on a violin bow. It’s a vivid, visceral, and lively presentation. The secret here is to spend as long as possible listening to the AX-5 twenty with as wide a range of music as possible, then go back to your previous amplifier… and wonder how you failed to spot the blankets your old amp threw over the loudspeakers.
At which point the AX-5 twenty is quickly pressed back into service, and you begin to delve deeper into what it does so well, and the next element that presents itself to the listener is the sheer musical enjoyment it delivers. It’s strange, but normally amplifiers this vivid and detailed suffer musical fools badly; anything less than beautifully recorded material sounds like a musical experiment gone horribly wrong. The Ayre amplifier is one of those rare exceptions that serves up insight and entertainment in equal measure: I listened to ‘Dimples’ by The Spencer Davis Group [Somebody Help Me: The Best of 1964-1968, on Raven], which is a great piece of British Invasion Blues straight out of the John Lee Hooker playbook, but is a harsh, brash, screechy early 1960s recording cut loud. The Ayre – like any good audiophile amplifier – doesn’t mask these qualities, but it also doesn’t destroy the music by emphasising the flaws. A lot of this comes down to that fluid naturalness normally associated with valve amps, but this time without with the associated softness in the bass or a laid-back treble, and with a lot of power in reserve.