Hi-Fi+ Awards 2016: Amplification

Solid-state power amplifiers,
Tubed preamplifiers,
Integrated amplifiers
Aavik Acoustics U-300 Unity,
Ayre Acoustics AX-5 twenty,
Conrad Johnson GAT Series 2,
Naim Audio NAP-300DR
Hi-Fi+ Awards 2016: Amplification

Integrated Amplifier of the Year

Ayre Acoustics AX-5 Twenty

In making the AX-5 Twenty, Ayre Acoustics pulled together many important elements of design from existing higher-end Ayre amps into what has become the company’s only integrated amplifier, following the recent end of the brand’s entry-level 7 Series. The 125 watt per channel AX-5 Twenty uses Ayre’s VGT (variable gain transconductance) approach in its preamplifier stage, a design first seen in the company’s top KX-R preamplifier. This uses a pair of double-pole silver-contact rotary switches, connected to an array of precision, hand-selected resistors. This is not a stepped attenuator, however: these resistors alter the transconductance of two pairs of complementary JFETs in the power amp’s input gain stage. The all-balanced signal is then fed into a form of gateable bridge network of bipolar transistors; Richard Baker’s ‘diamond circuit’ that Charles Hansen of Ayre discovered languishing in an electronics book dating back to the birth of transistors. The ‘Twenty’ modifications add better thermal control and AyreLock output voltage regulation. 

In our test, Alan Sircom suggested 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.” However, it isn’t overly bright or detailed. “A lot of this”, says Sircom, “comes down to that fluid naturalness normally associated with valve amps, but this time without the associated softness in the bass or a laid-back treble, and with a lot of power in reserve.”

Reviewed in Hi-Fi+ Issue 132

Integrated DAC/Amp of the Year

Aavik U-300 Unity

This is a category that simply couldn’t have existed a few years ago. Such is the change in the industry from one-box-per-activity systems to all-in-ones that this category has grown faster than expected. So much so, in fact, that more integrated amplifiers are now shipping with built-in DACs, streaming systems, and increasingly fully-functioning digital hubs alongside the regular line-up of line level and phono inputs. This is a hotly contended sector at all levels, and deservedly so... such designs are increasingly taking the lion’s share of audio electronics sales, and the trend looks set to continue.

This year, however, we stuck our flag firmly in the high-end of this market, because it’s perhaps here that we have seen the biggest changes, both in product and perception. The Aavik U-300 Unity is at the forefront of that change, not just because it sports an incredibly good DAC, but because it also features an incredibly good phono stage and exceptionally good line inputs, all feeding into a powerful 300 watt per channel Class D amplifier that sounds truly world class. A few years ago, recommending such a device would have brought forth an angry audiophile mob demanding heretics be burned. But now, thanks in no small part to products like the Aavik U-300 Unity being demonstrated around the world, the scene is set for a truly open-minded investigation of what makes a one-box audio system in the future, at all levels. “Every input has the same exciting, yet even-handed sound,” said Alan Sircom in his test, and the U-300 Unity delivers “a fine sense of rhythm, a good ‘bounce’ to that rhythm, plenty of detail, and easy, unforced dynamics.”

Reviewed in Hi-Fi+ Issue 139

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