Ayre K1xe vs First Sound Presence Deluxe Mk II

I own a First Sound Presence Deluxe Mk II and I'm contemplating for the MK III upgrade which promises to be even quieter!. I recently come across a Ayre K1xe for sale and I'm wondering if I should go for this instead. Read that the Ayre is also a very quiet unit. Is this an advisable move?
Well, I have not auditioned the First Sound Presence Deluxe Mk II preamp, but I do have the Ayre K-1xe preamp, with the optional remote control and the phono boards. I have owned it for about five or six years, and I have very little interest in upgrading. (Well, to be honest, I do have a little interest, but I realize that to honestly do better than the K-1xe, I would have to spend a lot more money.) In reading the reviews of the First Sound unit, it sounds like it is a top notch preamp in the same category as the Ayre.

So I quickly researched some of the features of the First Sound unit, and here are some possible reasons for you to upgrade to the K-1xe, (and some reasons for you not to).

1. The K-1xe does come with a remote control, which only controls the volume and muting. It will not control switching of inputs, balance control or anything else. I decided several years ago, that I really like the ability to control the volume (and muting) from my listening position, and I will very probably never have a preamp without one ever again. (For twenty years I lived without one, but to quote Poe, "Nevermore".)

2. And, speaking of balance controls, the K-1xe does not have one. The reason being that like the First Sound unit, it is a dual mono design. Therefore, in order to enable the volume control to work via a remote control, Charlie Hansen designed a very complicated dual stepper motor remote control mechanism inside the preamp. This control unit is incredible, as it, like the First Sound unit, uses only the finest materials available. Since the remote control must turn both controls at the same time, there is no way to only turn one, thus, no balance control. (And, I will state that one can hear the sound of the stepper motors when adjusting the volume, albeit only either between tracks, or during very quiet passages.) So, if you like to fiddle with your balance control, than the K-1xe may not be the preamp for you. (I will admit that it did take awhile to learn to live with those few recordings that have the image off-center, but now that I have, it is not a big deal to me. But I realize that for some people a balance control is a must. My room is pretty symmetrical, but if yours needs a touch to get the room in balance, than this is not the preamp for you.)

3. The K-1xe is very, very quiet, and it is also a fully balanced design, so it is advisable to use balanced (XLR) cables. I do use such cables from my primary sources (both my turntable and my CD player), to the Ayre, and then on to my amps, (Lamm M2.1 monoblocks). While one can use single ended cables, (and I do for some of my auxiliary sources, SACD, Tuner, CD Recorder), the K-1xe truly does sound best with balanced connections, IMHO.
The unit is set up to have 3 single ended inputs, and three balanced inputs, one of which is dedicated to the phono stage, (so this might mean using either adapters on your tonearm cables, or having your tonearm cables reterminated with XLRs, like I did).

4. The K-1xe is a solid state unit, and it was designed from the ground up to be very, very neutral. There is no bloom whatsoever in the mid-range. If you are used to a bit of tube bloom, especially in the mid-range, then you might consider the K-1xe to be somewhat lean. (In actuality, it is not, it just has zero mid-range bloom. This might take a bit of getting used to, if one is used to using tube preamps, as I, and apparently you, have used in the past.) However, the trade-off to having a solid state unit is that it is incredibly quiet, and there is (obviously) no tube rushing noise. (I grew tired of having tubed preamps, (Counterpoint, ARC), that had tube rushing noise, even if it was just audible during the quietest passages. But then again, since it is solid state, there is no opportunity to tailor the sound to you liking via tube rolling.

5. The K-1xe has optional phono boards, which are fairly flexible, as one can adjust the gain and loading via easily changeable resisters. These phono boards are of near reference quality, and make this preamp one of the premier full function preamps, IMHO. To better the phono boards, you would have to spend a considerable about of money on a separate phono preamp, (and a decent pair of interconnects). Now, to be honest, this is the one area that I have considered upgrading, as I have a few friends that have what I consider to be such an upgraded phono stage, (albeit only slightly better). Specifically, I would like to upgrade to the ASR Basis Exclusive, as it is very quiet, and very musical, but it runs about $3,500, used, and figuring another $500-1,000 for an interconnect, makes for a very expensive upgrade, for only a small sonic benefit. (Since I bought my K-1xe used for $4K, (about half price), that means I bought the $1,600 phono stage for about $800. Based upon my listening experiences, I figure it is in the same league as most new $4-5,000 phono stages. (So far I have resisted the urge to spend $4,000+ to upgrade from the $800 phono boards. (A five to one ratio does not make sense to me at this point in time.)
Again, I will point out that the phono boards are set up for balanced connections, which is somewhat unusual, (although the ASR Basis Exclusive is also primarily set up for balanced connections too, which is one reason I like it). I am not sure if the balanced connections make the phono stage so quiet, but it certainly is one of the quietest phono stages I have ever heard. I love having deep, dark, black backgrounds to my music played on vinyl!

Well, there are some of the differences in features and flexibility between the two units.

Good Luck with your choice. (I made mine several years ago, and I have been very happy with it so far!)
If your goal is quietness, I can't imagine any tube preamp being quieter than a solid state preamp.

It's really an apples to oranges comparison.

Having owned several tube preamps, in addition to the FS Presence Deluxe II, no solid state preamp I have auditioned has produced the same expansive image as the FS Presence Deluxe II (or a couple other tube preamps I have owned).

So, while you will likely realize more quietness (and more neutrality) with the Ayre, you may also give up the large, enveloping image the FS produces.

Another preamp I owned that produced an image akin to the FS, and that was a bit more transparent (and slightly quieter) was the Atma-Sphere MP-1 MK III. Priced in another level, however.
I just upgraded my First Sound Paramount SE MKII to the MKIII edition. Yes, it was a meaningful improvement to an already excellent preamp.

I've listened to many preamps and, for me, the distinguishing sonic qualities of my FS are a) very natural timber - instruments sound like they did when I played in the orchestra, and b) the sound stage is close and at times wall to wall and floor to ceiling.

I have not heard the Ayre, but in my experience tubes do better timbre and that is very important, to me. Jeff
Kurt Tank,

Your Lamm's are not balanced. Have You tried the RCA inputs? When I owned the 1.2 ref the RCA sounded better to me and Vladimir said it should sound better. Your kind of in a pickle. Your 100% right the Ayre sounds much better balanced but the Lamm's sound better unbalanced.
Thanks for all the very helpful comments and advice. As it is, I have just bought the Ayre k1xe with phono today. The first listen has been interesting but I would allow for a 3-day standby and will conduct a serious listening session.

** I've just changed the cartridge loading from the factory default of 50k ohm to 100ohm for my Lyra Helikon SL. I'm surprised that the owner has been using this default setting for his Shelter 901.

Report to follow on Christmas.

Congrats on getting the Ayre K-1xe.
Please let us know what you like, and/or dislike about it, and of course how it compares to the First Sound unit. (I don't think I've ever read of anybody ever comparing the two, so it should be interesting to see what you think.)

Hey Mtdking,

Actually you are partially correct.
The tubed Lamm power amps are indeed a quasi-balanced design, and would indeed probably sound better with single ended cables. However, the hybrid designs are fully balanced. (This is as per Vladimir himself, BTW.)

Whether or not RCA cables sound better, (with the hybrid amps, of course), I think depends on the cables and the preamps used. (And, since Lamm preamps are not fully balanced either, as I recall, I can see why Vladimir might indeed have said to you that RCA cables would sound better with the amps.) However, since I am using a fully balanced preamp, it only makes sense for me to use balanced cables. (Besides, I prefer the connections on XLR cables, to the RCA terminations. Better contact, and less chance of them loosening over time. And don't get me started on those "dang" locking RCA's!) :-)

And I am not trying to highjack the thread, (and since Shsohis has already bought the K-1xe, I don't think I am), I have a question for you mtdking:
What are you using for your system components now?
I have seen your posts on Audiogon before, (since we seem to respond to the same type of questions), and you seem to have gone through a number of the best amps and other equipment that I have ever heard. I am just wondering what you consider to be better than those we've been discussing. I would love to know what equipment I should make an effort to try to listen to next. Thanks!)

Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays everyone!

I spent one afternoon today listening to the newly acquired Ayre K1-xe after leaving the unit on standby for 3 days. I did not however take the trouble of switching back to the First Sound since I know the First Sound very well. This is a quick summary.

Now first, pricing - The Ayre with phono and remote goes listed at about $10,550. The First Sound (with Philips SQ 7308) plus Pass XOno on Symposium rollerblocks, Kimber KS1030 and an extra Shunyata Taipan Helix Alpha add up to about $12,190. The rest of the setup remains unchanged.

Many consider the Ayre to be extremely quiet and yes, the Ayre is very detail and gives a very relaxed presentation. Images seem very organised, well-sized and composed and the soundstage moves back behind the speakers but still remains between the borders of my Thiel 2.4. Vocals appeared to be natural without any hint of mechanical tint. The flow of music is very smooth and at the same time very dynamic without any whisper of "solid state". Indeed, upon prolonged listening, I found myself enjoying the music and forgotten about accessing the sonic quality. Very very musical.

Now, if the Ayre is quiet, then the First Sound is dead-quiet. However, I thought the Ayre appears to dig out details better than the First Sound even with the latter creating a completely black background. The First Sound doesn't arrange images nicely like the Ayre but its soundstage is HUGE and even extends beyond the speakers. Images on the First Sound are razor sharp with dark spaces between music notes and vocals. The Ayre does projects a better presentation depth than the First Sound. So is the First Sound better? etc etc. Yes, with the First Sound, I often found myself taking up a music critic position, always ready to access the music and perhaps not enjoying it as much as I should. I will conclude that listening to the the First Sound is like a watching blu-ray and the Ayre is like watching standard DVD.

Moving on to the built-in phono, the Ayre again exhibits a slight hiss compared to the Pass XOno. I was initally worried that the Ayre phono will surrender using the Lyra Helikon SL. No I was wrong! The phono is really excellent and really sounds very much like the Pass. The only area which I thought the Pass performs better is in its bass which is more rounded and full. For a built-in phono, I was really surprised!

Do I prefer the First Sound/Pass Xono combo to the Ayre? Initially in the digital session, I really thought the First Sound outclasses the Ayre because the Ayre sound seems processed and sometimes too polite. But, the gap narrows so much upon moving to analogue. And that Ayre remote controls both the pre and my Ayre amp as well. I'm still undecided - It is a struggle between being a musiclover and an audiophile.
Great discussion, guys! Keep it coming.

Thanks for the update.
Glad to hear that you like it so far, even though it is a toss-up as to which is better, at least in the analog realm. (Not bad for a solid state unit, huh?! I agree that I too was somewhat surprised when I switched from a tubed preamp to the K-1xe as well.)

A quick question for you:

What cables are you using, and are they balanced or single ended?

(As you are aware, the Ayre unit, (and pretty much the entire line, to be honest), is designed from the ground up to use balanced cables.) Using balanced cables reduces the background noise slightly more, and it just plain sounds better, IMHO. And this includes the phono stage, especially since cartridges have a balanced signal, (although some prefer the use of the term differential to balanced when it comes to cartridges).

Let us know the ultimate outcome of your shootout!
I must urge all that use Ayre to use a totally balanced system. By using some units balanced and others single ended, you can't experience what Ayre's sound really is. I'm not saying that there is a huge difference, but I would describe it as quite dramatic...and may well bring what you are looking for to the party. I am using an all Ayre system with balanced vinyl and Vandersteen 5A's, and the sound is quite extraordinary.

Ditch being an audiophile and just be a music lover, unless of course you enjoy torture.

I'm currently using a full range of Kimber KS-1030 unbalanced. I might just start looking for the balanced equivalents.

I'm actually starting to enjoy the Ayre more than the First Sound now....
Shsohis...Try Anti-Cables balanced with the Ayre
stringreen- I am curious what other cables you have compared the anti-cables to. I have read some good reviews. Thanks.
Great Review Shsohis!

With the way you describe the First Sound Mk II, it's scary to think how good the Mk III would be if it results in a significant improvement. I've always been fascinated by the FS preamps and may be getting one soon. The Ayre sounds like a terrific unit as well. Do you have any computer based source going into either the FS or the Ayre?
Kurt tank,

You are correct. I forgot it's there tube amps I was thinking of. Yes I've had most of the good highend amps. They are all good in there own right. I will never fault any of them but they all sound very different. I was a big tube amp guy but some of the solid state amps these days are very very good like Boulder and Goldmund, there a reason why those too are so expensive. A lot of it depends on your speakers when choosing an amp. I think CAT amps are amazing but they don't work for me because of the amount of tubes and the heat. You have to find the amp that works for you. The only amp's I really didn't care for was the Ayre MXR and Dartzeel. Those are way overpriced IMO.

The K1xe is still one of my all time favorite preamps. It works well with most amps but just make sure you use shorter cable length's with it. IT doesn't like driving long cables and you have to use it balanced.
I agree with you I don't see what people see in the Dartzeel. I much would rather have Lamm. I personally own Vac Phi 300 Monos.

Thanks for the tip on the Boulder and Goldmund amps. I will make an effort to try to audition them. I agree that the CAT amps are indeed amazing, but like you, they have too many tubes and run too hot for my use. (My Lamms already run a bit too warm for my non-airconditioned room. But a few degrees warmer I can put up with, several degrees I can not.)

(And I don't use "really" long cables for my K-1xe preamp to amp run, as they are "only" about 4 meters long, which for balanced runs is not that long.)

Jwm and Mtdking,

I think that one of the reasons that the DarTZeel amp did not make a favorable impression on any of us, (I somewhat include myself in your opinion), is that its design while quite good for the most part, (IMHO anyway), is a somewhat flawed design, in as that as its not very powerful, especially in the bass region. IMHO, one of the strengths of solid state is that one can make them very powerful and with lots of power reserves, so that it has great bass response. The DarTZeel's bass response is merely adequate, at best, and especially so for a solid state design. In fact, if I did not know going in that it was a solid state design, I would have thought that it was a tubed unit, because of the somewhat weak bass response, and because I thought that the mid-range was very, very good (especially so for a solid state design, (i.e. no grain, and fairly liquid), and its treble response was pretty good. (But not as good as either the Lamm M2.2 or especially your VAC Phi 300 monos, which has the best treble response I have ever heard to be honest!). I do think that Mike Lavigne uses it in the perfect way, in as that as his speakers have an active woofer, so that all the power goes to the mid-range and treble. (This might even help the treble response, but I never had the opportunity to listen to them in this manner.) My two cents worth anyway.

No, I'm not using any computer peripherals into my amps - I think you are referring to the Ayre QB-9? Yes, I have tried this and it is excellent but I'm more inclined to invest money in the analogue arena.

I'm close to getting a used Kimber KS-1130 for the balanced connection between the Ayre amps. I'm expecting a darker quieter background and transparency while maintaining the same level of musicality.

If this does not happen, then I'll switch back to the First Sound, sell off the Pass Xono and get myself a Audia Flight Phono.... and maybe sell off the Ayre.

BTW, the phono in the Ayre K1-xe is really really good.
Kurt_tank are you going to CES this year?

I wish!
I went a few years ago, when I had a bit more disposable income. I went with a fellow audiogon member, and we had a great time. Between listening to all the music, checking out all the equipment, and going to all the great restaurants, it was probably the best time I have ever spent in Las Vegas. (If I could have not lost $300 at blackjack, it definitely would have been the best time.)


Have you considered using balanced Nordost cables? I use the Quattro Fil cable for my preamp to amp connection, and Valhalla bi-wired speaker cables, and they work great. (When I get some spare cash, I will probably upgrade the Quattro Fil cables to Valhallas.) The Valhallas are definitely some of the most transparent cables I or my friend have ever tried. I did try some Jena Labs Pathfinder cables, but unfortunately, they had just a hint of darkness to them. and combined with the hint of darkness that the Lamm M2.1s have, produced a clearly audible dark sound. (But, the Pathfinders were wonderful in the mid-range. My friend uses these cables, and they sound great with his Lamm M2.2 amps.)

And I absolutely agree with you that the phono stage in the Ayre K-1xe is an incredible bargain. Sonically it is very close to your Pass Xono, and almost, but not quite up to the sonics of the ASR Basis Exclusive phono stage. (And all for just a fraction of the price of either of them.)

Good Luck with the next phase of your trial.
(And of course keep us updated on your results. This has been very illuminating so far! Thanks for doing this!)
Thanks Shsohis,

I appreciate the feedback. I was actually wondering if you had something like the Ayre QB-9 into your FS or Ayre Preamp. I keep wondering if direct to amp, or inserting a preamp provides for a better sound. I guess I'll just have to try and find out.


Well, I home-trial the QB-9 at my friend's place - using his VTL/Krell combo. Of course, the setup was not optimised but I thought the QB-9 experience was something like a revelation.


I'm not a big fan of the Nordost cables - I feel that the cables sound hifi-ish. But the Thor which I'm using now is brilliant. Anyway, I'm expecting my Kimber KS1130 early Jan 2010. Then the next test will begin. If the balanced mode should yield a quieter and more transparent presentation, then it's bye bye to the FS... or maybe I will still keep it.

I vow to drop by CES in 2011 for sure. Hope to catch up with you folks if the opportunity arises.