Ayon Audio Crossfire III Review – High Fidelity
Ayon Audio Crossfire III
Review by: Marek Dyba Published: 5 July No. 122
To find out which version of Ayon Crossfire one is facing, one has to look at the back of the device. The reviewed unit is marked there with Roman digit „III”. Yes, it’s a third version of this Austrian SET integrated amplifier. It’s creator, Gerhard Hirt, claims that this is the ultimate version, that there is nothing to improve here. Is it really the final one? I don’t know. Not that I don’t believe Gerhard but who’s to say that one day he won’t wake up with some brilliant idea that would make Crossfire sound even better? Is it the best version thus far? That’s what I hoped to establish during this review. I had a pleasure of reviewing both previous version of this Ayon amp. Both reviews happened quite a long time ago (6 and 4 years to be exact) which is one element that makes comparisons difficult and the other one is my system that evolved during these years. The only way to check that out would be to place all three versions one next to the other which would be quite difficult (to get all versions now I mean, and to get a rack that would be capable of accommodating these heavy beast at the same time). Anyway I should try to figure out whether Gerhard managed to improve the second version, that was definitely better (sound wise) than the first one.
Looking at Crossfire 3 I had a problem to find anything that would differentiate it from previous version. It is the same external design that makes it easy to tell – this is Ayon – whether we look at amplifier, CD Player, or any device originating from this Austrian company. There is always this sturdy black casing with rounded corners that can’t be really confused with anything else. One might like it or not but if one buys Ayon that’s what one gets. As I said it was hard to find any changes comparing to version „2”, but obviously there were some between „2” and „1”. Crossfire is and always was a Single Ended Triode design build around large, powerful 62B tube. Some call this tube a „300B’s big sister”, and there is something to it. The famous 300B triode still has many devoted followers around the world, me included, but there is one thing many would love to see changed about it – output power. 8W is more than enough to drive high-efficiency speakers with speaker-friendly impedance curve, but there are not that many such designs. At the beginning Gerhard Hirt used 300B too, but then two other tubes were created for his needs – 52B and 62B. Both are based, to a point, on 300B design, but they are bigger, more sturdy, more powerful. Ayon Mercury using single 52B per channel delivers around 20W and Crossfire using 62B pushes around 30W per channel. 20 or 30W from SET amp that is already a lot and it allows its user to chose speakers from a much larger pool. Back to the differences – the first version sported 6H30 as drivers and the second used Tungsol’s 6SL7. The third version uses two 6H30, and four 6SJ7. There is one more obvious change comparing to first version that one could easily spot with naked eye – the first Crossfire did not sport a tube rectifier, it (5U4G to be specific) appeared together with an additional small silver „cup” in the version no. 2, and it’s still there in the „3”. Another novelty in the newest version is a small display next to volume control knob that displays for a few seconds after each change the level of volume. Then it goes dim so one might even miss it until first volume change. That’s about it regarding changes one could catch with naked eye. As for internal changes Gerhard said they revised power supply stage (it’s now a third-generation PS), tube regulator and developed a new gain stage technology. The gain stages have been optimized to provide for the shortest signal path and the most direct signal flow. Furthermore a new revolutionary MCU based volume control system with analog resistor switches has been installed. Obviously it is still SE and NFB design.
Like in the previous versions there are separate power transformers, chokes and filters that provide total isolation between the input and output stage. All of them are encased, damped and RFI/EMI shielded. Only high quality components were used like MKP capacitors, WBT sockets and high quality, shielded internal cabling. The power tubes (as far as I know) are made for Ayon in Czech Republic. There is another parameter that changes from version to version one would easily notice when carrying them – the weight has grown over time to reach impressive 45 kg (!) in the third version. The heaviest components are obviously transformers so the total weight is not evenly spread as the back of the devices is much heavier than front. My advice – don’t try to move it by yourself! Crossfire 3 sports 3 linear inputs, one XLR, direct-in input, pre-out output and separate speaker taps for 4 and 8 Ω. It gives user a possibility to adjust bias for power tubes using small pots on the back of the device and a nice VU meter placed between tubes. There is also, like in all Ayon devices, a proper polarization indicator. Next to the EIC socket there are two small toggle switches – „ground” (self-explanatory), and the other that changes the working mode and allowing to check and if necessary adjust bias. Those who can’t live without remote control will be happy to hear that there is one – a metal, nicely finished one. Since it’s a mighty class A amplifier in a mid-sized room it can replace heating during cold days, during hot ones… well, you get a „free” dry sauna (I wouldn’t recommend pouring water or any essential oils over tubes…). If your listening room gets visited by curious little ones, or some pets you might want to use small individual „cages” for tubes, although, to be honest, the casing itself and transformers’ covers get quite hot too so its better if you keep kids and pets away from this amplifier.
Recordings used during test (a selection)
- Metallica, Metallica, 511831-1, 4 x LP.
- AC/DC, Live, EPIC, E2 90553, LP.
- Patricia Barber, Companion, Premonition/Mobile Fidelity, MFSL 2-45003, 180 g LP.
- U2, The Joshua Tree, UNIVERSAL, UNILP75094, 180g, LP.
- Isao Suzuki, Blow up, Three Blind Mice, B000682FAE, CD/FLAC.
- Tsuyoshi Yamamoto Trio, Autumn in Seattle, FIM XRCD 043, CD/FLAC.
- Eva Cassidy, Eva by heart, Blix Street 410047, CD/FLAC.
- Louis Armstrong & Duke Ellington, The Complete Session, Deluxe Edition, Roulette Jazz 7243 5 24547 2 2 (i 3), CD.
- Muddy Waters, Folk Singer, Mobile Fidelity MFSL-1-201, LP.
- Frank Sinatra, Live in Paris, Mobile Fidelity MFSL 2-312, LP.
- Kermit Ruffins, Livin’ a Treme life, Basin Street B001T46TVU, CD/FLAC.
- The Ray Brown Trio, Soular energy, Pure Audiophile PA-002 (2), LP.
- Cassandra Wilson, Travelin’ Miles, Blue Note 7243 8 54123 2 5, CD/FLAC.
- Marcus Miller, A night in Monte Carlo, Concord Records, B004DURSBC, CD/FLAC.
- Chie Ayado, Life, Ewe B00005EZRV, CD/FLAC
- Stevie Ray Vaughan, Texas flood, epic/LEGACY EX65870, CD i FLAC.
- Joseph Haydn, Les sept dernieres paroles de notre Rédempteur sur la Croix, Le Concert des Nations, Jordi Savall, Astree, B00004R7PQ, CD/FLAC.
- Beethoven, Symphonie No. 9, Deutsche Grammophon, DG 445 503-2, CD/FLAC.
I started this test (and text) with assumption that it would allow me to compare this version with its predecessors. But the fact is that I conducted review of the first version nearly 6 years ago, and of the second version 4 years ago. Additionally during that time my reference system evolved. So as much as I, and probably many Readers, would appreciate such comparison, the truth is it would not be particularly reliable one. Despite what many people think our sound memory is very short, add to it all the above mentioned changes and you have to conclude that such comparison is not really possible. So after couple of days of listening to Crossfire 3 I decided to trust Gerhard and assume that this, supposedly, ultimate version is the best one of the series (also because I know few people who started their adventure with Crossfire with the first version and then upgrade to the second and finally to the third, each time having a chance to compare directly the version they owned with the newer one it their own systems. And since all of them actually upgraded to new version each time I it is safe to say that they voted with their own money for the improvements each newer version brought.
As a fan and owner of a SET amplifier build around a pair of the famous Western Electric 300B tubes each time I start to listen to any SET design I look for this one and only SET magic that I fell in love with already during my first encounter of such amplifier. This magic is an enchanting, palpable midrange combined with mesmerizing holography of the sound that brings musical spectacles right into my own room, that makes listening to the music a real, soul touching, intimate experience. I’ve listened to many different designs from around the globe, based on different triodes and most of them were at least very good sounding amplifiers, some were absolutely astounding. Also some of them seemed superior to the legendary 300B tube in some aspects, while inferior in others. To be honest I’ve never had to much trouble going back to listening to my own system that offered me an amazing pleasure of experiencing music. There was one exception though – Kondo Souga – a power amplifier based on double 2A3 tubes per channel, that offered performance beyond anything I’ve ever heard in my room. Was it a matter of 2A3 tube, or Kondo-San’s magic – I do not know, but the fact is that I am to hear a better sounding amp yet.
And since last year Souga occupies the top of my „most wanted” list, I haven’t forgotten my first Crossfire encounter, which was also a „jaw dropping” experience. This amplifier not only offered a lot of 300B magic, but it supported it with amazing range extremes. It is in human nature to get used to „good things”, so when I listened to the second version of Crossfire (and a third too) I wasn’t so impressed anymore with dynamics, powerful and yet very well defined kick in the bass, and very clean and vibrant top end. There were all facts which is amazing for a SET tube amplifier, but that was exactly what I could expect knowing previous version(s). Crossfire always impressed me (when paired with matching speakers) with its explosive dynamics, something one would expect from a top notch solid-state rather than tube amp.
Paired with Biastanis Matterhorn Crossfire 3 did whatever was required of it whether it had to produce thunderous bass on Metallica, or go down to the gates of hell with Isao Suzuki’s bass, or to deliver fast, taut and yet powerful electric bass of Marcus Miller. It seemed not to care at all what kind of music it had to play – effortless, that’s the best way to describe its performance. Another great feature was a very good bass differentiation in terms of timbre, pitch, but also texture and individual way of playing. Especially when it comes to acoustic bass it all plays a key role in proper presentation. Because how could one appreciate performance of double bass, or what is happening in the lower piano octaves, or what organs can produce in the low end if these sounds are not properly differentiated? For Ayon it seemed an easy job done in a very natural, effortless way.
It became almost my tradition to listen to Patricia Barber vinyl version of Companion during my tests. I use it first of all to evaluate the treble. There is an abundance of percussion instruments used in this recording – some wooden, some metal once. Tube amplifiers often soften their sound, smooth it out which takes away some of huge variety of sounds as some of them become to similar to each other to tell them apart. Crossfire following footsteps of its predecessors offers an amazing treble presentation, vibrant, rich, lively and very natural sounding. Treble does feel smooth but only when it is supposed to. When it comes to some bit harsher, brighter sound Ayon will reproduce them in a proper way. One of such instruments that can sound very smooth, soft even but then it can suddenly turn into harsh, aggressive sounding one is a trumpet. And that’s what makes Crossfire different from most tube amplifiers – it is capable of delivering whatever treble is recorded in a way it is meant to be played, without rounded edges, fast, aggressive, even bright if needed.
When it came to more dynamic recordings, like electric blues of Stevie Ray Vaughan Crossfire III sounded like a good solid state amp with impressive dynamics, hints of aggressiveness even, drive, power and unlimited energy.
Female vocals like dark, deep voice of Cassandra Wilson or brighter, sweeter one of Eva Cassidy both sounded very palpable, both charmed with sex-appeal. Ayon on one hand delivered amazingly lively, i experience with music but on the other allowed me to study layers within layers of each recording, and to analyze them, or it rather would allow me if there was anything that could force me away from just enjoying the music. But still – anybody interested in deep analysis of the recording could do so because this amplifier is really good in differentiating texture and timbre, delivering all, even tiniest details and nuances, and show voice from quite up close. What’s important – this presentation made analyzing the sound possible but didn’t force listener to do that – there was no “over-exposition” of details, it was smooth, liquid, coherent and above all natural sound. It worked equally well for male voice – each of them sounded authentic, real, and different than others, it was the recording that decided about how particular voice sounded and not the device reproducing it.
A quality of recording was very important though. Crossfire III is not a tube amplifier that makes each and every recording sound nice, no matter its true quality. Differences between recording quality were quite obvious. Still, Ayon is a SET amplifier, no doubts about it, so by definition it’s not designed for the highest possible fidelity, there always is at least small element of triode magic. That is why even these less than perfect recordings still sounded good enough not to give up listening to them – I mean I could tell what was wrong but still enjoy them if only music itself was interesting enough for me. This was this sort of presentation that makes it easy to focus on everything that is great about particular recording and kind of “forget” about its downsides (not forget but rather ignore). That allowed me to truly enjoy for example U2 albums, that I really love but don’t listen to very often as the sound quality doesn’t equal their musical value. Crossfire III, just like its predecessors, was able to draw out the “artistic” value of such recordings, deliver great performance of musicians and vocalist. So apart from U2 I could also listen to, and appreciate a lot archive recording of a brilliant pianist Józef Hofmann. Again – it does not mean that Ayon smoothed out all the cracks 7 pops, that it got rid of all the noise – and there are plenty of these in this very old recording – nothing of that sort! These flaws very simply not exposed, they were there but somewhere in the background, “behind” wonderful music.
Another chapter of almost each test for me is listening to acoustic guitars – I play a bit myself so I know the sound of this instrument very well and I love it, plain and simple. When I started to listen to such recordings using Crossfire they sounded so natural, so real that I had to take my own 6 string out and (very poorly of course) try to play along with Clapton, Dżem or Rodrigo y Gabriela. Obviously I would dream about having their skill or technique but at least I could compare some sounds coming from speakers and my guitar and I loved what I heard. Reproducing guitar strings is not that much of a achievement, many amplifiers can do that, but delivering properly what a soundboard of guitar does – that’s entirely different thing and only some amps are up to the task. It didn’t seem to be a problem for Crossfire III – I could easily hear both strings and soundboard in proper proportions. Guitars were nicely rendered in a space with proper size and weight. Strings plucking was very fast, dynamic, and the decay build by soundboard long. Also small string ensembles sounded truly beautiful – smooth, liquid and crisp.
Last but not least I started to spin some classic music. That’s often a weak spot of low-power tube amplifiers that are not able to reproduce proper scale, dynamics range and complexity of symphonic orchestra. I like to challenge reviewed devices so I use Beethoven’s 9th Symphony performed by Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra under Karl Böhm. First of all that a great, powerful performance, secondly there are a lot of dynamics and pace shifts that seem to be quite challenging for amplifiers. Only very few of them are able to deliver this piece of music in a genuinely convincing way. Ayon delivered quiet fragments rich with details and subtleties, gradually building the drama to suddenly change the pace and hit the listener with full power of the mighty orchestra. And all the power and dynamics was delivered in a very orderly, clean way. Sure, the scale was a bit limited but it always is if one tries to reproduce orchestra with audio system in a mid-size room.
I couldn’t resist and had to listen to one more of my favorite recordings, that I enjoyed on both previous versions of Crossfire: Last seven words of Christ by Joseph Haydn performed by Le Concert Des Nations conducted by Jordi Savall. That’s a wonderful piece of music, an amazing performance and fabulous recording. I use it during my tests to assess capability of reviewed device to deliver this amazing huge space and acoustics of a church in Cadiz, Spain, where this recording was made. Crossfire III acted like a true, high quality SET – realism, tree-dimensionality, wonderfully rendered depth, reverberations traveling along the walls – all was there, all very convincing. And there was this absolutely mesmerizing presentation of a voice reading fragments of the Bible – I felt shivers traveling down my spine (without even understanding the Latin text) – amazing!
I already wrote that at the beginning – I can’t really compare Crossfire III with previous versions – too much time passed between my reviews. But what I can say is that already the first Crossfire became one of my favorite amplifiers. Each new version only confirmed that first experience and I could happily live with any generation of this fabulous SET. Now it means even more than at the time of the first or second version as in the meantime I had a chance to listen to much more different amps so my choice grew bigger. Crossfire is not only a tube amp, but a SET (Single Ended Triode), starting with version II even more of a tube amp because of tube rectifier. And while it offers a solid portion of famous triode magic it combines it with dynamics, speed and powerful presentation that are usually solid-state amp’s attributes. Surely the output power is still “only” 30W, which limits a choice of loudspeakers a bit, but this choice is much wider than in the case of any 300B amp. This, I think, could be the main idea behind this design – to offer a lot of 300B’s magic but with significantly larger output power and more even frequency response including much better range extremes. Job well done!
Ayon Audio Crossfire III as the name suggests is a third version of Ayon’s top integrated amplifier. It’s a Single Ended Triode design with zero negative feedback, using powerful 62B power tubes. The design of this tube is based on legendary 300B tube, but it is bigger, more robust which allows a single tube to deliver 30W of power. Small signal tube selection consists of a pair of 6H30, four 6JS7 driving power tubes, and a 5U4G rectifier in power supply.
Amplifier sports a very characteristic enclosure made of thick, black aluminum panels – this is Ayon all right – rounded corners and chrome transformers’ cups can’t be mistaken with anything else. This is a very heavy device – 45 kg is no joke! There are two nice knobs on the front – one is a volume control and the other works as input selector. Next to the volume control there is a small display that shows for a few second after each change present volume level – then it dims out. On the back there are solid speaker binding, separate for 4 and 8 Ω loading. Amplifier sports 3 linear RCA inputs, 1 XLR input, direct-in input and pre-out output. In the right lower corner there is a red led indicating proper AC phase polarity. Next to it there are two small toggle switches – one reads “ground” (used in case of some power grid hum), other reads “bias” and when used it allows user to check bias current of power tubes, using a very nice V/A meter placed on the top panel between tubes. The USB port on the back panel of the amplifier is used only for servicing purposes. Comparing to previous version changes include:completely revised third-generation power supply, tube regulator and new gain stage technology; gain stages have been optimized to provide for the shortest signal path and the most direct signal flow; a new revolutionary MCU based volume control system with analog resistor switches has been installed. Amplifier is equipped with small, metal remote control.
Technical specification (according to manufacturer)
Typ układu: single-ended, czysta klasa A
Lampy wyjściowe: 2 x AA62B
Impedancja obciążenia: 4 i 8 Ω
Moc wyjściowa: 2 x 30 W
Pasmo przenoszenia (0 dB): 8 Hz-35 kHz
Impedancja wejściowa (1 kHz): 100 kΩ
Stosunek sygnał/szum (pełna moc): 98 dB
NFB: 0 dB
Regulacja siły głosu: drabinka rezystorowa o skoku 1,5dB
Pilot zdalnego sterowania: tak
Wejścia i wyjścia: 3x liniowe RCA, 1x liniowe XLR, 1x direct, 1x wyjście z przedwzmacniacza
Wymiary (WxDxH): 520 x 420 x 250 mm
Waga: 45 kg