The MX-Rs are the latest in a very long series of amplifiers that I have owned over the years. That list includes both tube and solid state types, ranging all the way back to my very first separate, a Dyna Mk III, through the very fine amps that I have lived with quite happily for the past 18 months (modified Parasound JC-1s). Several months ago, I had the opportunity to borrow a pair of the MX-Rs from an audio buddy living (at the time) about 100 miles away in Austin. He was going off on vacation for a week, and I arranged to ‘watch after’ the amps. Jumping ahead a bit, I ordered and received a pair of my own 2 weeks ago.
I had been warned that the amps would not sound their best when after any significant period of power outage. Talk about an understatement…upon reconnection in my system and powering up, I heard what I would politely term ‘nice’ amps, but certainly nothing special. I would estimate that they took a good 3-4 hours to really warm up, during which time they went through quite an amazing array of character changes. None were terribly unpleasant mind you, but again, not top class stuff. However, at about 4 hours, things REALLY started to come alive, and progressing further and further towards sonic nirvana over the next full day. It seems very clear that at no time should these amps be turned completely off unnecessarily. I am happy to report, though, that the standby feature works beautifully. The amps are at 100% 5-10 minutes after switching out of standby mode. Since I tend to listen in fairly short sessions, this is a major positive feature in my eyes. The JC-1s, as good as they were, never sounded their best for at least an hour after power up.
One thing that should be kept in mind is that my speakers, Sound Lab A-1s, are a very unusual load for an amp. Apart from them, I have heard the amp only with my buddy’s Vandersteens and their self-powered bass. In other words, my conclusions are based on two quite non-representative speakers.
I suppose at this point, I should begin to describe the sound of the things, but I confess that I’m at a bit of a loss to do so. I promise to try to keep the clichés to a minimum. In an overall sense, there is a balance of musicality and neutrality that I simply have never experienced before. There are those who would argue that an amplification device cannot be too neutral. I disagree – or at least we need to come up with a better vocabulary. Those amps that I would characterize as being too neutral invariably also sound sterile i.e. robbed of harmonic life. I have no doubt that this will offend some, but as an example, this includes every Krell amp I have ever auditioned. OK, so how can something be ‘too musical’? SETs, SETs, SETs. To my ears, they are the sonic equivalent of the glaze on a honey-coated ham. Gorgeous and tasty, but also inaccurate and eventually unsatisfying.
The MX-Rs walk the fine line between these two camps perfectly. The traditional solid state bass control and power is there, along with an oh so difficult to describe harmonic rightness in the mid and upper bass that literally made my jaw drop. Just drop in anything with Edgar Meyer playing his bass, and you’ll see what I mean. It’s completely unclear to me why those particular areas sound so much better, but it’s definitely an ‘I know it when I hear it’ sort of thing.
Sound Labs have something of a reputation for displaying good, deep bass but without the ‘whoomp’ factor. In most cases, this is probably deserved, and is, I believe, partially a function of the listening room (I’m becoming more and more convinced that ideally these things need a BIG room), and also of an amp capable of delivering a lot of power into a high impedance load. The JC-1s were very good at this, but the MX-Rs take it to another level. I recently had three buddies over for a listening session. Throughout the evening, the most common comment seemed to be “where’s the subwoofer?”. ‘The Sorcerer’s Apprentice’ from Mephisto and Company (Reference Recordings) literally shook the house, and then – unlike most actual subwoofers – that tremendous bass drum roll was gone – exactly when it should be. No overhang, nothing.
In terms of harmonic integrity in the midrange, I have very little to say – with one exception. The Ayre amps are the equal of any amp I have ever heard in this area, period. My tastes run to unamplified music with an abundance of complex midrange harmonics (classical, jazz, and bluegrass). They simply do it right.
On to the highs, then. This is where nearly every amp loses it, as far as I’m concerned. In spite of the huge advances made in solid state amplification over the years, virtually all of that genre produce that sterility of which I complained earlier to a greater or lesser degree. Some, like the JC-1s, display just a touch. Conventional tube amps, on the other hand, tend to avoid that sterility at the expense of transients. There’s no better test of high frequency fidelity than well-recorded cymbals. The MX-Rs will tell you whether or not a drummer has cleaned his Zildjians lately.
I’ve never quite understood audiophiles who say ‘soundstage and imaging are very much secondary to linearity/harmonic fidelity/whatever’. To me, both attributes are part and parcel of the elusive illusion of the live event. Harry Pearson, in describing the way a component reproduced a soundstage, used to use the analogy of a rectangle as something of an ideal, but found that most systems tended to turn the stage into a trapezoid, with the truncated side at the rear. I always found the analogy to be apt, although the actual ideal for, say, an orchestra, is actually more like a trapezoid with the LONG side at the rear. In this regard, the MX-Rs perform beautifully, displaying a sculpted soundstage – when the source material permits it, of course. Similarly, image specificity is outstanding, with rounded, 3D mages of the correct size and shape, and completely avoiding that razor sharp edginess that never, EVER occurs in live music.
I realize that I have described various attributes on their own, and I fear that I’m actually doing these amps an injustice. In truth, I’m struggling to find the right words to properly convey the sum of the parts. It’s just…RIGHT.
I guess there are various bits and pieces that I haven’t covered. Let’s see, how about heat generation? I live near tropical Houston, where components that get really hot are a distinct liability. That reminds me, the only other amps that I have heard on the Sound Labs that approach the capabilities of the MX-Rs are the aforementioned JC-1s and the Atma-Sphere MA-1s. I’ve covered the former to a degree. As for the Atmas? Lovely amps, fall down in a couple of areas relative to the Ayres, and generate heat like you wouldn’t believe. I could not live with them 9 months out of the year because of this. The MX-Rs in standby mode are slightly warm. Turn them on with no signal, a little warmer. Driving them hard for 4 hours? OK, they’re hot, but not so hot that you couldn’t place your hand on them and keep it there. Something (probably the use of the entire case as a heat sink) is working pretty efficiently.
Hmm, aesthetics. My wife, an ardent non-audiophile, described them as ‘pretty’. We will celebrate our 30th wedding anniversary in a couple of weeks, and this is a first. For my part, I think they’re drop dead gorgeous.
Speaking of my better half, I think it’s instructive to find that she’s willing to sit down and listen to music longer than she ever has before, and even described a particular piece as “it sounds like they’re in the room” (Beatles’ Abbey Road on Mobile Fidelity).
I’m sure that it’s obvious that I am extremely enthusiastic about these amps. Typically, I share certain traits with every other audiophile, one of which is the proverbial honeymoon period in which we become enamored with a new piece of gear, only to become less so over time. That could conceivably happen here, but somehow I just don’t think so. If you are in the market for a high-powered amp with state of the art sonics, I would urge you to give them a listen if at all possible.Associated gear Click to view my Virtual System