Ayre Acoustics EX-8 Integrated Amplifier Review
Mark Gusew samples this versatile and powerful modular integrated amplifier…
EX-8 Integrated Amplifier
From (AUD) $11,500
Based in Boulder, Colorado, USA, Ayre Acoustics is an engineering-driven hi-fi company with a proud portfolio of products. These run from the flagship MX-R twenty 300W monoblock power amplifiers costing AU$55,600 a pair, through to the company's 'entry-level' EX-8 integrated tested here. Unusually, the latter is designed in a modular way, allowing customers to specify additional modules providing extra digital connectivity. The stock AU$11,500 EX-8 has analogue inputs only, or you can specify the 'digital base' with S/PDIF digital connectivity and DAC for AU$12,650. Then there's the fully loaded USB and network package for AU$13,000, which also has the digital pack. StereoNET's review sample arrived fully kitted out with all the option boxes ticked.
In a sense then, the fully specified EX-8 is effectively a one-box digital hub – it's a streaming DAC/integrated amplifier that just needs a pair of loudspeakers to deliver a fully functioning music system. In this guise, it will satisfy the needs of many buyers without requiring additional sources – because you already get a plethora of them via either Wi-Fi or the amp's wired Ethernet port. It's a Roon Ready endpoint with Spotify Connect, and is UPnP compatible – all worked by Ayre's mConnect Control app. For those wanting old fashioned wired analogue, this integrated duly obliges with two unbalanced and one balanced analogue inputs. Also, both balanced and unbalanced preamp or subwoofer out sockets are fitted, with two DIP switches that allow them to operate as either stereo or mono outputs.
With the 'digital base' option fitted to the EX-8 – the first step up the upgrade ladder – the amp gains four digital inputs, a single AES/EBU, an S/PDIF coaxial and two optical TOSLINK inputs. If the 'USB and NET' option is taken, a single USB type B port is provided for playing asynchronous USB audio from a computer or similar device. The network side has an Ethernet input for connection to your local area network and internet connectivity as well as two additional type A USB ports that are labelled as USB Host, which can be used to access music files from a USB flash drive and/or connect a USB Wi-Fi adaptor.
The rear of the EX-8 also contains two Ayre Link ports which look like standard telephone sockets, and these connect up additional Ayre products. Although the unit's firmware can be updated directly via the internet, a USB A connection also allows updates via a USB flash drive. Another feature not often seen is a Word Clock Output via a TOSLINK connection, said to be generated from a high-grade custom clock internally and suitable for connection with products that accept word clock inputs. Cardas Patented Binding Posts are fitted, designed exclusively for use with spade ends on your loudspeaker wire.
Brent Hefley, Marketing Director for Ayre Acoustics, told me that the company's products begin with the use of heavy-duty linear power supplies. “Analogue power supplies – while more expensive – still sound better than digital ones”, he said. All internal circuitry is balanced to help eliminate background noise, and Ayre is also is a believer in the zero use of negative feedback in any circuits, both global or local. This likely helps with maintaining the purity and coherence of the signal source. Hefley added that an Equilock gain stage is used, “a circuit that makes the solid-state transistors act and sound like tubes – in all the good ways…”
Another feature is the company's so-called Double Diamond output stage. “Ninety-nine percent of all audio products use the same triple emitter follower output stage. We also used this until we experimented with the diamond design. It sounded amazing, but produced a lot of heat and was difficult to stabilise. Once we solved these issues, our products became even more musical and we've never looked back.” This circuit also works with the headphone outputs at the front of the amplifier; there are three jacks in total, a single old school 'quarter inch' single-ended for standard headphones, and two 3.5mm jacks for listening in balanced mode, providing that you have suitable headphones. Rated power output is 100W RMS per channel continuous into 8 ohms, enough to drive most loudspeakers easily.
On the digital side, Ayre uses the popular ESS ES9038Q2M DAC chip for the delta/sigma conversion and a custom minimum-phase digital filter developed in-house and implemented on an FPGA chip. A custom digital clock is also featured, something the company has employed since the nineties. For some reason, there are no left or right channel markings anywhere on the rear panel or in the owner's manual. Some may find the lack of a Bluetooth input a bit of a bind, and others will miss Airplay – but these aside there's no denying the unit's great flexibility.
The fully loaded EX-8 lets you access digital music in several ways. Firstly, Spotify Connect is built into the hub. So with the unit connected to your home network, anyone with a Spotify account can choose the Ayre as the device to play through. This done you get a stable and fine sounding Spotify music stream, including the loop function and remote volume control. At the rear of the EX-8 are two USB Host inputs suitable for flash drives. I also tried a single cabled 2.5” WD 3TB drive, but there wasn't enough current available for it to operate, so stick to smaller flash drives.
You can also play music via the network input and the mConnect app, and this offers a plethora of options that include streaming Deezer, vTuner, Tidal, Qobuz and Spotify. You can also use a cloud server like Dropbox or OneDrive, or local servers, including shared computers and files stored on a network attached storage device. It quickly found all the songs stored on my Synology NAS and Melco N1A network music library; this proved stable and easy to use with remote control volume operational on the EX-8.
Roon is often a favourite with users, and the EX-8 is shipped as a Roon Ready endpoint allowing users to connect to and control the unit from a Roon control application. Also, as the EX-8 is UPnP compatible, most generic UPnP apps across various platforms support the DLNA standard, letting users stream music to the EX-8. So you are not locked into using mConnect and can experiment with your favourite UPnP compatible app. Finally, using mConnect and accessing albums from my NAS and Melco music libraries had the added benefit of sounding better than streaming via Tidal or Spotify.
The EX-8 is supplied with a remote control that operates all 5, 7 and 8 series Ayre products, including CD transport controls. However, I found its buttons to be too small to use easily – the plasticky remote looks and feels like it came from a late nineties DVD player made in Shenzhen, rather than something befitting a high-end US manufacturer. This gripe aside, the amplifier's build quality proved beyond reproach – and it was totally stable over the audition period. I used the supplied Ayre Myrtle wood blocks placed underneath the amplifier to good effect, as they aided cooling and subtly improved the sound.
I hooked up the EX-8 to my reference Revel F228Be floorstanding loudspeakers with both a Bluesound Node 2i and a Melco N1A going into a Burson Conductor 3X Performance DAC as sources. I found the Ayre to be a fine sounding amplifier with great musicality, dynamics and transparency – a worthy digital hub in a modern sound system, in other words.
I started my audition period by using an external source going in via the EX-8's unbalanced RCA inputs; I streamed Radiohead's Talk Show Host via Tidal and focused on the short four-note guitar riff that opens the track. The guitar sounded clean and had good decay, but appeared somewhat small in scale. Vocals were clearly centre-stage, but a little lacking in depth. This changed when I swapped to the balanced XLR inputs – suddenly the recording sounded as it should, with the guitar extended beyond the loudspeakers and having more detail to its decay. Vocals took on additional depth, and the track was more relaxed and enjoyable.
Moving to digital, and feeding the coaxial S/PDIF input direct brought further gains to the size and depth of the soundstage, detail, smoothness and bass extension. The Ayre's onboard DAC is really good and certainly a step up from the Burson, which is itself a strong performer at the AU$2,000 price point. Lastly, I bypassed the digital source altogether and streamed directly from the EX-8 using the recommended mConnect Control application. Again via Tidal, the Radiohead track produced the best sound I'd heard so far, with an even larger soundstage and more of everything.
Pausing for reflection after the exercise, and it's evident that as an amplifier it does well – but fully optioned and using its streaming capabilities and onboard DAC, the Ayre EX-8 becomes a single-box digital solution with alluring qualities – with no need for additional expensive audio cables. If you wanted to add an external phono stage and listen to vinyl, there's the facility, but it's the digital domain that the EX-8 has been designed for and this is where it excels. Playing music from the Melco, I used the Ayre's USB audio input rather than the network input for the best sounding solution of all; it happily played everything, including DSD files and sounded fantastic.
For example, a DSD version of I'll Never Smile Again by Bennie Wallace highlighted the naturalness and tonal uniformity of the EX-8. Bennie's tenor saxophone was centred and forward, dominating the proceedings. His relaxed playing style makes this track enjoyable, and I love the way you can hear his breath being excited by the reed, and then exiting the saxophone sounding brassy and glowing just like it should. There was texture and tonal richness to the sound that makes good recordings such as this present in a truthful and lifelike way. The piano and bass drum in the background were realistically conveyed within their own three-dimensional space, and the timing of the brushes on the snare and cymbals was perfect – one got the sense that all the musicians were really enjoying playing together.
Via the digital inputs, this amplifier's soundstage proved to be huge. In Dreams by Roy Orbison, his voice was located a little way back in the mix with lots of reverb throughout the track, just as it should be. Yet when the accompanying strings come in, they further extended the soundstage sideways another half a metre or so, proving that the EX-8 is faithful in delivering the music that it's fed.
This track also highlights this amplifier's rhythmic prowess – something it gets consistently right. Its decent turn of transient speed allows bass, drums, guitars and cymbals to work together with accurate timing, so that you subconsciously want to tap your feet to the music. The Ayre thrives on good content that has been recorded well and doesn't seem to favour any particular genre. Spanish Mary by The New Basement Tapes highlighted the singer's excellent voice, which sounded free-flowing and unrestricted – the reverb on her vocal line, the impeccable timing of the instruments and the deep and powerful punch of the drums all sounded glorious.
Then there was the visceral speed and kick of New Order's Blue Monday. This classic nineteen-eighties dance track has a play-me-loud kind of vibe, and the EX-8 proved able to do just this, with zero loss of control or sense of artificial compression. The amplifier maintained a great grip over the loudspeakers, including the just-released Bowers & Wilkins 705 Signature standmounters that I had to hand – which take more driving than many small speakers I've tried.
I also enjoyed hearing how the Ayre resolved massed voices in Mozart's Requiem in D Minor, K626, conducted by Nikolaus Harnoncourt. I was easily able to hear two groups of singers, the male and female group, each in their own space in the recording, complementing one another. The resolution of the soundstage was very good, allowing some instruments to be well forward and others quite a way back, nearer to the choirs. The track played with serenity and had an easiness of flow that was relaxing and soothing, and the large dynamic swings were handled with consummate ease.
Ayre's EX-8 is a compelling high end integrated amplifier – especially when used in the way it was designed, with its optional modules fitted and via the onboard DAC and streaming services. The basic analogue-only package is impressive, but things really make sense when it's fully loaded with all the digital options – especially to those trying to simplify their lives and/or hi-fi systems. It's not cheap, but I still think it represents fine value for money given the flexibility and sound quality it is capable of. An essential audition then, if this is where you see your system going and you have the funds to take it there.
For more information, visit Ayre Acoustics.
Starting his first audio consultancy business in the early ’80s whilst also working professionally in the electronics industry, Mark now splits his time between professional reviewing and AV consultancy.