I too am interested in this topic. I'll stay tuned!
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They are both excellent, but I bought the Ayre. Be warned that the Ayre works best when it in balanced mode (as do all Ayre components). Don't compare them unless you us the Ayre balanced. Also, compare it with your amp, speakers, interconnects, power cables, etc. I use everything Ayre...they were designed around each other, and am very happy. The Audio Research sounded too laid back in comparison to the Ayre, however, you won't make a mistake however you choose. I am using Anti-Cables (better than all cables I compared them to..Audioquest, Purist, Nordost..all top of the lines...and certainly better than Cardas or Ayre Cables. I use Oyaide 046 plugs with Accrolink cable for power cables....Wow!!
I agree with Stringreen that both are excellent preamps.
I own the K-1xe also, while my friend owns the ARC Ref. 3 preamp. I have not compared them in the same system, but I am familiar enough with his system to try to offer my opinions as to each unit's strengths and weaknesses.
First up, the Ayre, (as I know that unit intimately, having used it for about five years, and I have no intention of moving beyond it for the foreseeable future!)
Very transparent, excellent dynamics, and very revealing. The frequency response is flat and well extended on both ends. Soundstaging and imaging are very, very good. It has lots of inputs and outputs. It has a very, very good (optional) phono stage, (almost, but not quite to the great level), that makes the Ayre K-1xe one of the best full function preamps on the market, (IMHO of course!) ;-)
Designed and built to be used with fully balanced cables and other balanced equipment. (Which is okay by me, as that is exactly the way I use it!) This is not really a weakness, unless you prefer to run single ended. Even the phono boards use balanced inputs, which again, is fine by me!
Also, it is neutral to the point of "almost" being lean sounding in the mid-range to some people. (Notice I said "almost", because it is my belief that it is not lean at all, it is just that some people prefer the sound of tube preamplifiers, because they like that touch of tube bloom in the mid-range. And, since being an audiophile is all about taste, there is absolutely nothing wrong with liking a bit of tube bloom in the mid-range. I love Koetsu cartridges for exactly that same reason, as I love the warmth in the mid-range that they provide!)
Again, this is not really a weakness, unless you like a touch of tube bloom in the mid-range.
The only true weakness that the Ayre has (IMHO) is the remote control unit. First, Charles spared no expense in coming up with the absolute best remote control device that has virtually no impact at all on the sonics of the unit. (In speaking with Ken Stevens of CAT fame, he completely agreed with me about the Ayre's remote control. And this is why he refuses to put a remote control unit in his units, as they are too complex!) However, because of this almost Rube Goldberg (ie. complex) mechanism, the motors in the unit are rather clunky sounding when in use. One can not hear anything over normal music, but if changing volumes while muted, or during quiet passages, one can hear the unit from one's listening position. In addition, the remote control only controls volume and muting. It will not allow one to switch inputs or control the balance, (and in fact there is no balance control, due to the complex remote control unit).
In addition, there is no LED or any sort of digital display on the unit itself, so you actually have to look closely to see where position the volume control is pointing, and in the dark, you can't tell at all. (Although, to be honest, I kind of like that the unit is so Spartan, and I have enough lights on my equipment as it is, plus, there is just that much less to go wrong with it.)
Next up, the ARC Ref. 3:
Very transparent, excellent dynamics, and very revealing.
The frequency response is flat and well extended on both ends. The soundstaging and imaging are very good, and possibly slightly better than the Ayre. (It is difficult for me to tell absolutely about this, as the rest of my friend's system is somewhat better than my own.)
For a tubed preamp, this unit is very quiet. Much quieter than the ARC Ref. 2, which I found to be slightly noisy for my tastes. (But then again, I abhor tube rushing, and gave up on tubed preamps for exactly that reason. But, I could easily live with the Ref. 3.)
It has a remote control that will do just about everything, you could ask of it, including volume control, muting, switching inputs, etc. (I tried asking it for a latte the other day, and it only brought me a cup of coffee though!) :-)
This is an excellent line stage preamp.
None really, so I am going to nit-pick!
It is a tubed unit, hence it requires tube replacement occasionally.
Also, it is only a line stage preamp, which if that is all that you are looking for, is not a weakness. (However, for me it would be a weakness, as I could not afford this preamp and a separate phono preamp of the same quality as the Ayre's phono boards.)
The unit, while a tubed unit, is not very tubey sounding. There is a touch of tube bloom in the mid-range, but only a slight touch, and less than some people who really like tubes would want. (Those people would find the Ayre K-1xe lean through the mid-range, whereas people who like the ARC Ref. 3, would find the Ayre K-1xe neutral sounding.)
So which is better you ask?
Well, I think that is like asking which is better, a fine two seat sports car that slightly out handles a sports sedan, but can only carry two passengers. Versus the sports sedan which can carry four passengers, but takes an extra tenth of second in the quarter mile slalom.
My answer is they both are great at what they do best.
One is a great line stage preamp, while the other is a great full function preamp.
My two cents worth anyway.
The K1Xe doesn't have much gain so you need to make sure it can drive your amp.
I've had both and think the Ref 3 is hard to beat. Works with any amp and gives you that tube magic.
The K1Xe for the money is very good plus you never have to replace tubes. But I don't think it is at the level of a Ref 3.
I disagree with you about the gain that the K-1xe has. I think it has too much gain, if anything. (I am getting ready to open it up and change out the resistors in the line stage actually, in order to decrease its gain, so I can run the volume control at a better level.)
FYI: I like to listen to music at pretty realistic sound levels. (i.e. pretty loud.)
Currently my Resolution Audio Opus 21 cdp is very loud with the volume control at the 9:00-10:00 position. And my analog source (using a Dynavector XV-1S with 0.3 mv output) is running at about the 10:00-11:00 position, again running very loud. The preamp is really supposed to be used at about the 12:00-3:00 position, in order to have the best flexibility in using the volume control. (Note: Unity gain is at about the 2:30 position).
(FYI, the volume control uses 1 db steps above the 9:00 position, but 2 db steps, or more, below it, if memory serves. This is why I want to decrease the gain. And luckily, the Ayre is flexible enough to allow me to do this by simply changing a couple of resistors.)
And, since I was curious, I looked at both the Ayre and the Audio Research websites.
The K-1xe preamp supplies 16 db of gain using the balanced outputs and 10 db of gain using the single ended outputs.
The Ref. 3 preamp supplies 11.6 db of gain using the balanced outputs and 5.6 db of gain using the single ended outputs.
So Mtdking, I imagine that you, your dealer, (or a previous owner, if you bought the K-1xe used), had adjusted the resistors in the line stage so as to reduce the gain, which is why you thought it had less gain than the Ref. 3, when in fact it actually has 4.4 db more.
My two cents worth.
I appreciate all the responses. I actually have an Audio Research Ref 3 now running with an Ayre V-5xe amp and while I love the sound of the Ref 3, I am a bit annoyed by having to replace tubes, etc. I am wondering if I would be better off upgrading to an Ayre K-1xe preamp and with the money I save upgrading my amp to a V-1xe. From the responses, it sounds like I would get a lot more bang for my buck that way.
So are you guys saying that you need to run the K1x from the balanced inputs as well to get the most out of it?
I am running mine balanced to the amps (Parasound JC-1s)but my DAC and phono are both single ended. Is this such a problem that I am missing something?
I've never tried the Ref 3, but the K1x was probably the most significant upgrade I've ever done to my system. One significant advantage of the K1x over the Ref 3 not mentioned is that you don't have to bother with turning the thing on and off everytime you use it. Most tube pre amps I've used take up to a minute to fully wake up and then you have to worry about shutting it off when you are done. If you are already using a solid state amp and don't have any tubes to bother with I say why bother. The K1x sounds so good you won't care.
Also I owned the V-5xe amp, and while I thought it was pretty good I would say it wasn't in the same league as the K1x is. It didn't float my boat at all. I think you are wise to consider an upgrade there as well.
The REF 3 can output 30 volts on it's balanced output at 600 Ohms.
The K1XE Outputs 10 Volts on it's balanced output at 600 ohms which 600 ohms on a solid state preamp is very high.
Gain specs mean nothing look at output voltage. Gain is relative to your input. SO if I had a CD Player with a output of 10 Volts how can the K1XE have 10 DB of gain? The K1 would have 0 DB of gain right? Output voltage is the only way to gauge true gain.
Ayre's CD Players have a high output voltage so not much is needed for gain. ARC Ref CD7 is even higher. I'm not saying that is a bad thing at all but If you put a K1 on a MAC amp it will drive it unless you have a source that has a ton of output voltage. Trust me I tried.
To be honest I own a VTL 7.5 so I have nothing to gain here. Just trying to help a guy out. Preamp and amp matching is very important.
Having used a number of preamps, including the excellent VTL 6.5, Ayre K5 and now the KX-R...and having tried several ARC units I suspect that once you select one or the other that your gain can be adjusted to suit....my personal preference is the KX-R first, then the VTL 6.5 and then distantly the K5...I was using the V5 amp and now the MX-R...select something that pleases you. Personally if I were to select and remain with a tube unit it would be VTL...but I have always been concerned about aging tubes...because that can be a very sublte issue
Had them both and loved the gain in the Ref 3. I still prefered the overall performance of the Ayre K1xe, just a wonderful sounding preamp, its now the heart of my system.
Even single ended will sound fine but the balance mode was just perfect for me. It was smoother sounding than many other tube preamps I have tried and had including the BAT, Calypso to name a few. Works well with many other electronic pieces with different sonic characters producing very vivid sound so its good to experiment first. Stunning performance with Krell and Wilson combo that I have.