My recent impressions of my Ayre Acoustics AX-5 head-to-head with the new AX-5 Twenty. Thanks to Tom @ Gifted Listener Audio for his gracious hospitality.
I listened to the AX-5 Twenty while my AX-5 was warming up. First I cued up “I’m Old Fashioned” from Blue Train. I like the track because it’s a lovely take on a standard, but also because Trane, Fuller, Drew, and Morgan each get their own solo, making it easy to compare different presentations. At first, I wasn’t impressed. The entire track seemed tame, polite even. I chalked it up to not being familiar with most of the components in the demo system – I’ve got an Ayre C-5xeMP and Vandersteen 3A Signatures at home. I confided to myself (rather foolishly, I might add) that I might not be able to discern a difference at all given the circumstances. Just how wrong that thought was would be apparent just a few tracks later.
Next I played some cuts from Florence + the Machine’s sophomore album, Ceremonials. Florence’s voice has the distinct quality of being able to test the midrange of any system. Certain passages have a ‘hardness’ to the recording that makes it difficult to bear at times. I noted that I detected only a shadow of that edge while listening to tracks on the AX-5 Twenty. I also realized that my toes were tapping throughout the songs I played. Could it be that my ears were at last warming up?
I exchanged Florence for The National’s Trouble Will Find Me. Matt Berninger’s plaintive baritone is a great test for male vocals. Just a smidge too much midbass and it sounds like he’s got a perpetual head cold. By now I could definitely sense that the AX-5 Twenty was doing something *different*. I couldn’t quite put my finger on it – much less whether I liked it. Still, toes tapped through this one too – a good sign.
Finally, I came to the last track. The ears and the mind were tired of listening so critically. I popped in Chesky’s release of Earl Wild’s Rachmaninoff Piano Concerto No. 2. I cued up the finale and sat back. The strings had real flow – the speakers seemingly effortless filling the room with sound. The piano, surprisingly, was almost overpowered by the orchestra, but nevertheless had good heft. I don’t know why, but the thought of ‘this is sound I could sink my teeth into’ sprung to mind. Whenever that happens, I know that my mind is being at least somewhat fooled into thinking I’m listening to the real thing and not some recording.
Now after all this, a veritable roller coaster ride of emotions and expectations, the moment had arrived. We swapped out all the cabling and listened to the tracks in reverse order on the stock AX-5. And there it was, plain as day – a huge difference. If I were blind, I’d swear that I was listening to two different integrated amps. To put it one way, the Twenty has something to its character that seduces you, subtly, perhaps imperceptibly even. The stock AX-5 demands your attention from the outset. It is vivid, vibrant – and possibly just a touch overzealous.
The strings during the piano concerto were now a touch drier sounding – the ease that I heard earlier now muted. The piano shifted forward in the soundstage. The notes flying from Wild’s hands had a distinct clarity and the space that it and the rest of the orchestra occupied were well delineated. Yet I couldn’t help but feel that something in the presentation was missing overall.
Somewhat disappointed that the stock AX-5 wasn’t knocking my socks off, I popped in The National again. Berninger’s voice was now highlighted against the rest of the mix and it also seemed the entire presentation lost some depth. Now I had a better handle of what was going on. I hurriedly swapped in Florence to confirm. It seemed that the AX-5 Twenty was now retrieving? adding? in a new layer of ‘information’ that only from direct comparison could I detect. The tonal balance was warmer and the sound ’rounder’. It seemed something was happening in the upper bass – lower midrange. Thinking back to the Rachmaninoff piece, I now concluded that the updated AX-5 could not only successfully reproduce the orchestra and piano, but also artfully blend in the contribution from the concert hall they were playing in. Paul Chambers’ bass in “I’m Old Fashioned” now had real heft. The tradeoff is that impact – e.g. the snap of the snare drum and dynamism (not dynamics) and clarity are subdued to a small degree – characteristics that drew me to the AX-5 to begin with.
So to sum up, it’s almost like the difference between a well-calibrated TV and one that’s been set up to stand out on the showroom floor. The showroom set’s colors really pop next to the calibrated display. But even though the showroom settings will probably get you to fork over your money, under the right conditions or to the right person, the calibrated display will bring more satisfaction. I also think it’s a matter of personal taste, if you’re happy with the way your AX-5 sounds now, I’d still schedule a comparison at your nearest dealer. You could be leaving with your wallet a little bit lighter – perhaps best to leave the checkbook at home.