November 1, 2009

Ayre Acoustics and Boulder Amplifiers: (Mere) Miles Apart

It’s unsettling to realize that, for many years now, this audio-industry professional hasn’t known as much as he once thought he did. Looking back on my career of reviewing high-end audio equipment, I’m almost embarrassed to realize how little knowledge I started with. I’m still learning -- and finding that I might want to leave a little wiggle room in some opinions I’d once set in stone. Part of the problem for reviewers is that we like to think we know more than we do because of a presumed correlation between what we’ve heard from our systems and what we’ve been told about why we’re hearing it. Reviewers are notorious for being unable to reconcile the objective with the subjective; for not realizing that a hobby built on science and engineering as well as observational and emotional data requires that we delve into both with equal commitment and respect.

Reviewers have advantages over the average consumer: In consulting with experts in specific disciplines, we have almost unlimited access. Whether it’s acoustics, digital and software development, or the design of loudspeakers or electronics, there’s a multitude of people who know a great deal about each discipline and who will typically make themselves available to reviewers for the sake of accurate data transfer (cheesy, I know) to explain what they’ve done and what they’re doing. It’s my hope that, like all good journalists, audio reviewers will do their due diligence and take advantage of these resources in order to educate themselves enough to present their readers with solid, accurate, informed opinions.

Still, there are times when even experts disagree, and that can leave someone like me with nothing but more questions. Just such a scenario took place during the recent Great North American Loudspeaker Tour. With a day to kill in and around Denver, Colorado, I decided to visit two companies whose products I greatly admire: Ayre Acoustics and Boulder Amplifiers, both based in nearby Boulder. These companies have much in common; most obviously, both make high-end electronics that audiophiles around the world have found embody the current state of the art. Each firm makes a number of models of power amplifier both mono and stereo, preamplifiers, CD players, and DACs. Though neither makes what I’d call inexpensive components, Ayre’s prices start at the more affordable end of the scale, while Boulder’s reach far into the clouds. Both companies also specialize exclusively in solid-state electronics, eschewing tubes altogether. There are probably other similarities, but these are the first that come to mind -- and anyway, it’s the differences that are more interesting.

Left: Ayre's Steve Silberman explaining the company's forthcoming DX-5 Blu-ray player.
Right: Boulder's Rich Maez holding the output stage for one channel of the 2060 amplifier.

Some of Ayre Acoustics’ cornerstones could be said to be similar to those of Boulder Amplifiers: balanced circuitry and an emphasis on power-supply design. Where the companies’ chief designers -- in effect, Ayre’s Charlie Hansen and Boulder’s Jeff Nelson -- would vehemently disagree would be on the use of feedback in their circuits. I’m not going to wade into a discussion here about the use of feedback, because I’m not qualified to do so. According to Wikipedia, a source not universally respected, feedback in amplifier design can be defined as follows: "When a fraction of the output of an amplifier is combined with the input, feedback exists; if the feedback opposes the original signal, it is negative feedback and if it increases the signal it is positive feedback. A negative feedback amplifier, or more commonly simply a feedback amplifier, is an amplifier which uses negative feedback to improve performance (gain stability, linearity, frequency response, step response) and reduce sensitivity to parameter variations due to manufacturing or environmental uncertainties." Boulder states that they use feedback properly; Ayre doesn’t use it at all. Given my overwhelmingly positive experiences with both brands’ products, what do I conclude? That I don’t know who’s right.

An Ayre MX-R amplifier during assembly.

One thing I can conclude is that reviewers who tie their audiophile belief systems to a single methodology in any given product genre need to expand their horizons. It’s ultimately damaging to their ability to be fair and objective if they equate "correctness" with the design philosophy of only one company. The truth is that there may be more than one road to audio nirvana -- even if the reviewers and/or the companies don’t want to admit it. For me, the truth is that I’d be thrilled to call either Ayre’s or Boulder’s products my reference electronics. I consider both companies to be among the small handful at the cutting edge of performance of solid-state electronics. Perhaps they’ve taken different paths to that edge, but each has arrived at some remarkable products.

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A Boulder 2060 amplifier under construction.

What that says about feedback is anyone’s guess. All we know is that Ayre and Boulder subscribe to different design philosophies. You could say that, although those philosophies may be incompatible, each company exercises internal consistency in its specific implementations of its particular view. The proof of the pudding, they say, is in the eating, and both of these are delicious.

. . . Jeff Fritz


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