“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.