Setting up the Crossfire III PA
The first thing I did after unboxing the review unit was read the 23-page manual. I know, that’s audiophile heresy. It was easy to understand, illustrated with useful drawings, extremely thorough, and full of background information that explains Ayon’s Weltanschauung. The Crossfire was way too big to fit onto my equipment rack, so I placed the amplifier on an über-sturdy maple Timbernation amp stand next to the rack. That location provided plenty of ventilation for cooling. I inserted the tubes into their clearly labeled custom-made beryllium/copper sockets. Since the Crossfire III PA uses an unbalanced circuit, I used unbalanced High Fidelity Cables CT-1 Ultimate interconnect cables to connect it to my Audio Research LS28 linestage. Van den Hul Cloud speaker cables connected the Crossfire to my Affirm Audio loudspeakers. I normally use Syzygy subwoofers with these speakers, but for an amplifier review, I disconnected them so I could assess the amplifier’s low end, without hearing the bass of the 1200-watt amps built into the subs. Unless otherwise advised by the manufacturer, I use the power cords sent with the review unit, although I’ve seldom found one that couldn’t be improved on by an aftermarket power cord. However, the stock Ayon power cord looked very sturdy, so I didn’t mind using it.
An easy-to-read diagram showed where the tubes went, and each box was labeled with the socket the tube should go into. Although some users might take those open sockets as invitations to tube rolling, the owner’s manual strongly recommends not to do this, as the circuits have been optimized to sound best with the stock tubes.
When I first turned the Crossfire III PA on, it played music for a couple of seconds, then “popped” loudly and turned itself off, leaving the “Ayon” logo on the front panel blinking on and off. I turned off the power switch, but the Ayon logo continued to blink, and the 6H30 tubes remained lit up. Fearful of damaging a $12k amp, I called for help. A bit of trouble-shooting, aided by a small rear-panel display, told us my initial fears were well-founded: One of the AA62B output tubes had been damaged by the rough FedEx handling. The Crossfire’s protective circuitry had been triggered, preventing any damage. The rear-panel display told us which tube was damaged, but just to be sure, Ayon replaced both output tubes. When the Crossfire III PA detected the new tubes in place, it went through a tube-biasing procedure that took about 10 minutes. When the biasing procedure was completed, the Ayon logo on the front panel quit blinking and glowed steadily. Music came out of the speakers. All was well.
Listening to the Crossfire III PA
I had been listening to the delightful Audio Research VT80SE amplifier (reviewed in Issue 285) when I plugged in the Crossfire, and when I switched amps, the improvement was immediately obvious. Of course, given that the Crossfire costs better than 30% more than the Audio Research, one would devoutly hope that would be the case. The 2018 Golden Ear Award-winning Audio Research amp does produce 75Wpc, however, making it useable with a wider range of speakers.
When I queued up “Folia Rodrigo Martinez” from La Folia 1490-1701 by Jordi Savall and his band of Renaissance specialists, the Crossfire showed several noteworthy improvements. More detail was audible, particularly in the high-frequency range. The sound was far from etched or peaky, just a little stronger than normal. That’s probably why more detail in the percussion was evident. I could hear each individual stick strike the drum, something I usually can’t detect. Not only was the treble more extended, so was the bass. It went deeper than normal, with lots more detail. I could now better distinguish what was going on in the low end. The Crossfire isn’t a replacement for my subwoofer, but it certainly revealed a lot of information I normally hear from the subwoofer. SET amplifiers are not known for their deep bass performance, but this one knocks it out of the park. Bass was the best I’ve heard from my speakers. Finally, the sense of forward momentum was remarkable. It sounded like the musicians were playing faster than normal. Micro tempo changes were easier to follow, making this ultra-familiar piece sound more exciting than I’ve heard in a long time.
Next up was “Miserere” from The Tallis Scholars’ album Allegri’s Miserere & Palestrina’s Missa Papae Marcelli. An a cappella choral performance in a small church, “Miserere” was also reproduced with tons of detail. The main choral group in the front of the soundstage displayed more texture and fine detail than I’ve previously heard. The distant solo group sounded distinctly separated from the main group. However, I heard a strange artifact: The reverberation that identifies the solo group as being behind the main group had a smidgen of a strange ringing/hissing coloration I’ve never heard before—or since. ’Twas kinda weird. In addition to the depth of the soundstage, the width filled the space between my speakers. The abundant detail enhanced the expressiveness of the solo tenor by letting me hear precisely how he phrased each word. The word “exciting” again came to mind.
“Snilla Patea” is a short piece by Bjørn Kåre Odde, with the composer expertly playing an obbligato fiddle along with the Schola Cantorum chorus under the leadership of Tone Bianca Sparre Dahl. I noted several strengths of the Crossfire SET amplifier. The chorus had an amazing solidity, palpably filling the soundstage better than I’ve ever heard from any other amplifier. Dynamics were effortless, so climaxes were unstrained. The solo fiddle, expertly played by the composer, sounded more detailed and thus more expressive than I’ve heard before. The Crossfire really nailed this piece.
It’s hard to go to an audio show without hearing “Spanish Harlem” from Rebecca Pigeon’s album The Raven. On the introductory bass notes, the Crossfire had the deepest, most detailed reproduction I’ve heard. SET amps aren’t supposed to have good bass performance, and the Crossfire doesn’t; it has great bass performance, better than most amps of any design I’ve tried in my system. When Pigeon came in, her voice was über-clear and undistorted. The Crossfire’s realistic detail reproduction let me hear how she phrased each word, clarifying the flow of her overall interpretation. The other instruments sounded harmonically accurate and realistic. I’ve heard this piece hundreds of times, but the Crossfire III PA made it sound interesting again. Can you think of higher praise for a component?