“Ker-chunk!” went the 132-pound package as it plummeted out of the FedEx truck and crashed onto the pavement in front of my house. “@#$%^&*!” went yours truly, contemplating the fate of the very expensive tubes within that package. That was my first exposure to the Ayon Audio Crossfire III PA power amplifier. Ayon Audio, an Austrian company, got its start manufacturing tube gear, but its lineup now includes a complete audio system—everything from digital file players to CD players to DACs, amps, preamps, speakers, and even cables. The only thing missing is a turntable and cartridge, although Ayon does make a phono preamp. Most of its electronic gear is tube-based but the lineup also includes a Class D solid-state amplifier.
Some descriptors that flitted through my mind after liberating the Crossfire amplifier from its three-layer cocoon of protective boxes were “gorgeous, heavy, and expensive.” There’s no arguing that the Crossfire’s $11,995 price isn’t a sizeable chunk of change; still, the Crossfire III PA is way less expensive than many other amplifiers that have recently graced these pages. The world was just introduced to Dan D’Agostino’s Relentless amp, which sells for $250,000/pair, so expensive is a relative term. What the Crossfire III PA offers is a single-ended triode (SET) amplifier that produces enough power to drive a wider range of speakers than most other SET amps, which have power outputs that can be measured with a single digit and, therefore, need extremely sensitive speakers to work with.
Style-wise, Ayon gear is typically built on a black chassis with sculpted, rounded edges, rhodium-plated cylindrical transformer covers that look like chrome, and several glittering glass tubes rising up from the chassis. It looks much more elegant than the pictures suggest. The Crossfire (love that name) is a stereo power amp based on Ayon’s proprietary AA62B triode output tube, which produces 30 watts. Although this is a review of the power amp (PA) version, there’s also an integrated amp version called the Crossfire III, which adds several inputs and a volume control. Not only is the Crossfire III PA more powerful than most SET amplifiers, it also has substantially lower THD: 0.05%. Many SET amplifiers have 2% or higher distortion; some are ridiculously high, as in 10%. That’s easily audible to almost anyone. Offsetting that is a palpable, lit-from-within sound that many find counterbalances an SET’s drawbacks. I know I did; at one time my system consisted of 3½-watt tube monoblock amps driving single-driver acoustic-labyrinth speakers with 101dB sensitivity. Despite their large size, the speakers had little deep bass, but after being bored out of my skull listening to a perfectly respectable, moderately pricey conventional system, the SET/acoustic-labyrinth system was just what it took to resurrect my interest in recorded music.
The unboxed Crossfire III PA is a large, hefty component, weighing in at 99 pounds. With a comfortably high input impedance of 100k ohms, and both RCA and XLR inputs, it should work well with most sources and with speakers of appropriate load and sensitivity. Actually, the XLR inputs are there for the convenience of those who have invested in expensive balanced cables; the circuit itself is not balanced. There are no solid-state devices anywhere in the signal path. There are a lot of tubes, however—two each 6H30s and four more 6SJ7s. The 6H30 tubes are in current production and easy to find, as are the unusual 6SJ7 pentodes, which have metal envelopes rather than glass ones. The 6SJ7 is made by Shuguang, and new old stock (NOS) 6SJ7s are still plentiful as well. A 5U4 rectifier tube, also in current production, rounds out the tube complement.
When buying a tube amplifier, it’s always important to know how difficult it will be to replace the output tubes when they fail (and they will eventually wear out—all tubes do). Replacement AA62B tubes cost $900 each, and are rated to last 5000 hours, but have been known to last much longer than that. The 6SJ7 tubes cost $61 and are rated to last 4000 hours. There is no tube timer, unfortunately. Like all tube amps, the Crossfire III PA should be turned off when not in use. It takes about 45 minutes to warm up fully after turn-on.
Ayon says the Crossfire III PA has “automatic and manual bias adjustment,” which is rather mystifying, so I asked what that meant. I learned that it refers to “Ayon’s fully automatic Intelligent Auto Bias. This system employs a tube protection system to protect the amplifier against catastrophic tube failure.” There’s a bias meter for viewing the bias setting, and a switch in the rear for switching between the bias reading for each output tube, but you don’t have to set the bias yourself.
The Crossfire III PA is sturdily built of thick aluminum panels. A red Ayon nameplate on the front panel lights up when the amp is turned on and blinks on and off while the Crossfire is warming up or turning off. On the rear is a single pair of WBT NextGen binding posts, the RCA and XLR input jacks (and a switch to select the desired input), an IEC 15-amp power cord connector, and a button which manually triggers the automatic-bias set-up process. The aluminum feet are said to be vibration absorbing. The four huge cylindrical transformer covers and one tiny one are bright, shiny chrome that is realized with a rhodium plating process, making an elegant contrast to the black chassis. The transformers and the glass tubes glitter resplendently on the amp’s topside. This isn’t an amp you’ll want to hide, not that its size would make that easy—it’s really bigger than its pictures suggest. Maybe it’s vanity, but if I pay big bucks for a component, I want to enjoy the pride of ownership that comes from a component that looks as good as it sounds, and the Crossfire III PA definitely delivers an elegant appearance.
Ayon paid lots of attention to the Crossfire’s grounding scheme, equipping it with a switch in the rear to lift the ground. Sometimes that will reduce hum from ground loops, and is definitely a better way to go that than using a cheater plug, which negates all the desirable properties of your expensive aftermarket power cord. When you first try to turn on the Crossfire III PA, you may search for the on/off switch, which is on the bottom of the amplifier beside the front left foot. For those who think a power switch is ugly, this is an innovative way of hiding it and still making it (sort of) easy to reach. I’d personally prefer seeing the power switch, so I could visually determine if it’s on or off—but you may not. That said, I never had any difficulty turning the amplifier on or off.
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?
I wound up my listening sessions with Barber’s hauntingly beautiful “Adagio for Strings,” played by the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra under the direction of Manfred Honeck. The Crossfire expressively played the sad opening bars with great delicacy, slowly winding up to the tragic-sounding climax. Strings were sweet and smooth; no hint of their digital origin. Through the Crossfire, the orchestra had body and heft—that palpability thing again. Dynamic compression was notably absent.
So with my relatively sensitive speakers, the Crossfire III PA was a spectacular match. But how would it work with less sensitive speakers? To assess such a partnership, I connected the amplifier to my KEF Q700s, which have a fairly average 89dB sensitivity. These 8-ohm speakers cost $1500/pair, and it’s doubtful anyone would mate them with a $12k amplifier, but I wanted to find out how the Crossfire would drive them.
I’m no headbanger, but the Crossfire III PA surprised me by driving the KEFs as loudly as I cared to listen. It sounded divine, too—sweet, detailed, and dynamic. Even when I played Saint-Saëns’ Organ Concerto at a pretty loud level, the Crossfire didn’t flinch, producing plenty of volume from the organ and orchestra. Even the deep bass was decent.
The SET amplifier circuit dates back to the beginning of the electronic age and has generally been discarded in favor of the higher-power push-pull circuit. But Ayon has proven that, if you devote sufficient resources, it’s possible to build an SET amplifier that can overcome most of the shortcomings of the genre and that can drive a much wider range of speakers. The Crossfire still needs thoughtful loudspeaker-matching, but the amp is much more flexible than most SETs. It handily exceeded all my expectations.
Normally, I try to avoid listening to really expensive gear because I’m afraid I’ll like it enough to wreak havoc on my budget. But sometimes I let an expensive item like the Crossfire III PA slip past my guard. And as I said earlier, there are a lot of amps way more expensive than $12k. Few, if any, of those are as attractive as the Crossfire III PA. Even more important than how it looks, in my system the Ayon Crossfire III PA power amp is easily the best amplifier I’ve ever heard. It effortlessly jumped through all the usual audiophile hoops, but, most significantly, it genuinely enhanced my music-listening experience. Frankly, listening to hi-fi had been getting a bit stale and boring lately, but the Ayon Crossfire III PA made it fun again—and I truly needed that. If it fits your budget and your speakers, I urge you to audition it. It’s a great amplifier.