An Integrated Amplifier Shootout: Ayre Acoustics EX-8 vs Cambridge Audio

In our February 2019 issue, when I reviewed a new integrated amplifier from Colorado-based Ayre Acoustics, I concluded that "the EX-8 Integrated Hub is a high-end contender at a competitive price" (footnote 1). In that review I promised a Follow-Up in which I would compare the EX-8 with Cambridge Audio's Edge A integrated amplifier, which Ken Micallef had positively reviewed in our January 2019 issue (footnote 2). While I'd enjoyed my time with the EX-8, I'd found its balance rather on the light side, and that it projected voices somewhat forward on the soundstage. KM had commented that the Edge A had produced some of the best soundstaging he'd heard: "deep and wide, with excellent retrieval of micro- and macrodetail," and had concluded that it brought to the party "speed and swiftness . . . clarity, spaciousness, good tone, and solid drive."

As the Edge A has a USB input, I could feed them the same digital data from my Roon Nucleus+ server, using an Ethernet connection for the Ayre and a USB connection for the Cambridge (footnote 3). Speakers were my long-term references, KEF's LS50s, and levels for the two amplifiers were matched at 1kHz. (As I matched levels, an operational problem raised its head—both remotes changed both amplifiers' volumes, but to different degrees—so I used the front-panel volume controls.) The amplifiers weren't too different in power delivery: my measurements showed that, into 8 ohms, Cambridge's Edge A offered 145Wpc and the EX-8 105Wpc, but that into 4 ohms the EX-8 maxed out at 125Wpc, the Edge A at 230Wpc.

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"Solid drive," wrote KM of the Cambridge. I had to agree. Once this hot-running amplifier had warmed up, the Edge A reproduced the bass guitar and kick drum in "The Paper Trench," from Admiral Fallow's Tree Bursts in Snow (24/44.1 ALAC, Nettwerk 067003727250), with more apparent extension than did the Ayre. The synth bass in "Gorgeous," from X Ambassadors' VHS (16/44.1 FLAC, Interscope/Tidal—props to Roon 1.6's revised Radio function for finding this track), was a little lighter in weight through the Ayre than through the Cambridge. Even so, the EX-8's low frequencies were as well defined as the Edge A's—the tolling of the bell in the piano's left-hand register in Liszt's arrangement of Solemn March to the Holy Grail, from Wagner's Parsifal, on Daniel Barenboim's On My New Piano (24/48 MQA FLAC unfolded by Roon to 24/96, Deutsche Grammophon), reinforced the music's majesty.

How about the way in which the amplifiers presented recorded space? On the late David Wilson's recording of David Abel and Julie Steinberg performing Brahms's Violin Sonata 1 (24/176.4 AIFF, Wilson Audiophile W-8722), Steinberg's piano was a little farther behind Abel's violin with the Edge A than it was with the EX-8. However, the Ayre's sound was just a tad more—I don't like this descriptor, but a better one eludes me—organic. While the Cambridge's soundstage was very well defined, even with what sounds like a recording made with spaced omni mikes, the Ayre's imaging was more palpable, the images of acoustic objects sounding more "solid," a touch more fleshed out, more "organic."

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I had a good time with both of these amplifiers. Each offers a different balance of strengths. Both are listed in Class A of the Integrated Amplifiers category of our "Recommended Components." Neither has a phono stage, but both have analog and digital inputs and headphone outputs. (The Ayre offers balanced as well as conventional single-ended headphone drive.) The Ayre's front-panel screen usefully displays track information with network-sourced content, and incoming sample rate with its other digital inputs; other than its concentric volume and source-selector knobs, the rather Bauhaus-looking Edge A lacks adornment. The Cambridge is a sonic powerhouse; the Ayre is more subtle in its presentation, and less comfortable with low-impedance loudspeakers. Designed in England but manufactured in China, the Edge A costs $5000. The equivalent version of the Ayre—ie, with a USB port but no Ethernet port—costs $6650, the difference in price reflecting the fact that the EX-8 is made in the US. You pays your money, you makes your choice.—John Atkinson



Footnote 1: The basic EX-8 with analog inputs costs only $5950; as reviewed, with a full complement of digital inputs, including USB and Ethernet, it costs $7850. Ayre Acoustics, 6268 Monarch Park Place, Suite B, Niwot, CO 80503. Tel: (303) 442-7300. Web: www.ayre.com.

Footnote 2: The Edge A costs $5000. Cambridge Audio, Audio Partnership Plc, Gallery Court, Hankey Place, London SE1 4BB, England, UK. US: Cambridge Audio USA, 1913 N. Milwaukee Avenue, Chicago, IL 60647. Tel: (877) 357-8204, (312) 636-4817. Web: www.cambridgeaudio.com.

Footnote 3: For logistical reasons, my sample of the Edge A was not one of the two that KM and I had written about in January. The new sample's serial number was HT C10972 6853 0013.

COMMENTS
Long-time listener's picture

In the measurements section of the review of the Cambridge, you noted that "Overall, the Cambridge Edge A offers superb measured performance in both the analog and digital domains." You also determined that its DAC had resolution of around 18 bits, which seems perhaps low by current standards. Could you please comment on to what extent the difference in resolution between, say, 18 bits and 20 or 21 bits would be audible? And to what extent does this measurement of resolution factor into your determination of overall excellence in measurements?

In other words, how desirable is it to seek out DACs with 20 or 21 bit resolution?

John Atkinson's picture
Long-time listener wrote:
Could you please comment on to what extent the difference in resolution between, say, 18 bits and 20 or 21 bits would be audible? And to what extent does this measurement of resolution factor into your determination of overall excellence in measurements?

In terms of measurements, the greater the resolution of a D/A processor the better, as it indicates skill on the part of the designer both of the circuit and of the circuit-board layout and recognizes the achievement of the DAC chip's designer.

Practically, whether resolution of greater than 18 bits will be significant will depend on the noise performance of the amplification used and on the level of background noise in the listener's room.

Certainly 18-bit performance will be audibly superior to 16 bits, I feel.

John Atkinson
Technical Editor, Stereophile

craigrobertallison@gmail.com's picture

A perfect example of elitism when a 5ooo or 6000 $ amplifier is thought of as 'high value.I have a 30+ year old Tandberg TIA - 3012a that sounds as good or better . I was a righteous high end dealer for 31 years. Sometimes I wonder if any real advances in amplification since then are really ' advances..'

tonykaz's picture

China is Exporting Deflation & Overproduction.

I'm speaking as an Exporter and Importer.

China is ATTACKING our lovely HighEnd Audio Business !! ( which has always been a fragile Industry )

Do we need reminding that Chinese Gear has dismal re-Sale value.

or that...

A person can own a 100% NEW 3 piece PS Audio Stellar System with the matching Power Plant for the same money as Cambridge Chinese piece.

Value for Money equations make USA Gear into wonderful choices. ( new Magnepan Full Ribbon Loudspeaker for under $1,000 -- Phew! )

Tony in Michigan

ps. Corporations choose outsourcing to China, regular people make & service things locally.

xmacdaddy's picture

In response to tonykaz about made in China. Did you know that the PS Audio stellar amp you mentioned uses amplifier modules from IcePower? The Icpower module is the majority of all components inside. Guess where they are made (hint: not the USA). Just because the PS metal case may be made in the USA does that make it any better?

tonykaz's picture

Individual components have ALWAYS been sourced Internationally.

For Example: All pencils have contained Lead sourced from far-off Shores. Even the keyboard you're typing on is made from Saudi Oil.
The United States Slave/Cotton Industry was Export Based.

"Genuine" Intrinsic Consumer Value comes from Uncompromising Good Product built by "Loyal" employees and Sold at a Fair Price.

The people defending Chinese Gear are People making a fast buck by attacking the integrity of this lovely little Cottage industry.

I will remain committed to defending against the Chinese War of Deflation & Over Capacity .

Tony in Michigan

Jim Austin's picture
Tony, you wrote:
The people defending Chinese Gear are People making a fast buck by attacking the integrity of this lovely little Cottage industry.
You're a positive, valued member of the Stereophile community. I request that you avoid impugning character or motives of those you disagree with. Let's keep discussions courteous and respectful. My Best, Jim Austin, Editor Stereophile
tonykaz's picture

I agree, I'm not naming.

High End Audio is a Fragile Industry.

I know and work in the World of people that outsource for labor pricing and relief from regulatory limitations. Our Boards of Directors decide on the Quarterly Profit basis, Manager's Bonus Structure rewards Short Term Profit decisions.

The UK is deep with Intellectual brilliance, regularly winning Nobel Prizes.

China is 1.2 Billion deep with cheap labor but intellectually vacant, having no history of Scientific Awards but takes others designs and overproduces the hell out of them, diluting the marketplace and Ghost Towning everyone importing their output. Nearly every small town in America has been hollowed out by Walmart.

I'm an old geezer thats a little bit pissed off at people that let this happen and I let it Show, I feel that I owe it to all our Grandchildren to reverse this trend, I'm not feeling lucky.

Conversely, walking the streets of any English Town or Village and all the little shops are bustling, not a Walmart within thousands of Miles, not much Chinesium for sale anywhere and there probably will be a Hifi Specialist Shop where you can buy a Linn LP12 and a pair of Mission Loudspeakers.

A choice between Cambridge vs. Sugden is easy and should be easy.

Of course if Stereophile has a vast readership subscription base in Asia...

OK Mr. Austin, I'll try to be careful. Everyone already knows that I'm a Chinesium Basher, Green, Progressive and Politically aligned with the Bernie Sanders Movement. I'm about to Move my entire Operation to Tropical Florida and will be shut-down for the next two Months or more.

and...

I must say that I'm impressed with JA being replaced with JCA!, I admire your thinking and reasoning things trough, I hope good things for you. I wish you a Bon Voyage .

Tony in Michigan

ps. I was a JA fan from the HFN&RR days in England when I had an Export Office there. In the States I was selling and fulfilling a HFN&RR Subscription Business because HFN&RR was the finest Audio Magazine "ON THE PLANET". ( I was also an Advertiser in Audio Mag. ). I knew HP at TAS and couldn't coax him to review any of my Audio Gear. ( but he did tip me off about his review results so that I could pre-order for the Sales he boosted ). Other than the Automotive Audio gear my GM Corp. sells, I am in no way affiliated with any Audio Company or Audio Industry OEM. I was an early-on Dealer of PS Audio Products ( 1980ish ) and am still a believer in Paul McGowan's Integrity as a Audio Industry Blue Chip, Tyll Hersten & Steve G introduced me to Schiit ( RMAF 2011 ) whom I've also discovered to have and value HIGH Integrity in all things. Stereophile Magazine continues the HFN&RR excellence, I hope it finds it's way into every Barber Shop & Library in America & Canada. ( Mr. Schryer is wonderful )

ps 2) Stereophile's writing prose is on a very nice upwards glide slope & Jana left a Vacuum.

jgpmhl's picture

I think this is an important conversation. Some years ago I bought a new Stereophile Class A integrated that was designed in Canada and made in China. A year later it died. I sent it to the manufacturer in Ontario for repair. The shipping on this 75 pound brick was $300. A year later it died again and I put in the driveway. Last year, I bought my son a British designed - Chinese made - integrated and it broke within three months. Fortunately I didn’t have to pay for shipping and it was successfully repaired in three weeks. Nonetheless, I have learned a lesson. My set up is now all Bryston (made in Canada) and PS Audio (made in Boulder). Bryston’s warranty is 20 years on amps and pres and five years on digital products. PS Audio’s is longer than either of the ones offered by the companies selling the defective gear. I have heard tell of people sending gear in to Bryson after more than 20 years and having it refurbed for free, simply out of pride and a strong sense of customer service. Both companies have been super to deal with on the phone. Neither are dirt cheap but from where I sit, in a wide sweet spot, it makes more sense to listen to music than to wait to listen to music because someone chose to cut costs and quality to meet margins. I now consider where gear is made as a significant factor in making purchase decisions.

One of the things I wish could be included in reviews is reliability. I recognize that this information is hard to get (who is going to say that “this amp will look great in your driveway”) so I use country source as an indicator. So far, it works a charm.

Cheers all,

JP

tonykaz's picture

Thank you Mr.JP,

Of course, Bryston needs to be properly recognized and appreciated for it's Earned Integrity !

Tony in Michigan

Jim Austin's picture
It's hard, maybe impossible, to evaluate reliability early on in a product's life. What we an do is comment on apparent quality of construction--and, most importantly, filter manufacturers based on reputation, customer support, and so on. That's a major rationale behind our five-dealer rule, which ensures we don't review components from companies that haven't established a solid dealer network. I'll point out, though, that a component made in China can be backed by a company offering good customer support. If I had a need for such a component, I would not hesitate to buy, e.g., a Sprout from PS Audio--a Chinese-made component from a U.S. company with a reputation for excellent customer support. (I assume the new Sprout is made in China; I know the old one was.) My Best, Jim Austin, Editor Stereophile
rt66indierock's picture

At least we're off its a 24 bit world. We can have a great discussion about 16, 18 and maybe 19 bit and what is audible.

You take care.

John Atkinson's picture
rt66indierock wrote:
At least we're off its a 24 bit world.

24 bits is essential in recording where 16-bit data doesn't allow any overhead for tracking, mixing, DSP, and other operations. And if the master file has a bit depth of 24, then I don't see why that can't be true of the delivery format. That will allow the end user who wishes to pay for it to use a DAC that will have as high a resolution as possible. (The current state of the art in DAC resolution is around 21 bits' worth.)

John Atkinson
Technical Editor, Stereophile

rt66indierock's picture

I'm having a hard time finding where people can hear greater than CD resolution. So why make 24 bit files for consumers if there is no audible benefit?

Bogolu Haranath's picture

Read about 'ICEpower' in Wikipedia :-) .........

tonykaz's picture

ICE Power is Internal Combustion Engine powered Automobiles.

These are Obsolete transportation devices that I made a fortune producing. ( industrial whore that I once was )

I encourage you to advance into the 21st Century of Solar Powered Automobiles, The Entire World will LOVE and Admire you for it.

The sooner we re-cyle your Fossil Burning "stink-mobile" the sooner we can restore this Earth to it's Naturally Pristine Original Condition.

The Burden is on ALL of us.

Thank you for writing,

Tony in Idiotic, TV watching Michigan

ps. I've taken to the Bicycle & walking for most of my transportation needs. I'm reformed

Yoda's picture

Sorry John, but you are comparing apples and oranges because the basis for your "Shootout" is not really equivalent.

The USB input of the EX-8, connected to my Innuos Zenith MK3 with proper digital cables, is in my experience superior sounding in comparison to the currently embedded Conversdigital Ethernet module connected to the specific Ethernet port of the Zenith.
Beside this, the EX-8 is able to drive low impedance speakers very well as I can experience daily with my 4 Ohm Manger P1. They are a perfect match. Just compare the common approach to natural sounding music of Charley Hansen and Josef W. Manger!

I'm looking forward to a real apple-to-apple comparison.

Ryan Berry's picture

Comparing a USB input vs. the Ethernet input is really an interesting choice when conducting a product-to-product comparison, for what they’re worth. When the option is available, changing as few variables as possible is always preferable to comparing two completely different ways to transmit digital. I’m surprised that this comparison wasn’t done that way. It’s a shame really, but maybe more work can be done in future articles to keep all things the same.

I also appreciate your comments regarding the 4 ohm speakers. We tend to agree (as does my system at home!) The specs of the EX-8 are pretty close at 130 watts to the 125 watts the AX-7 used to put out, with the AX-7 running in systems for 17 years without any complaints about not being powerful enough. If anything, the EX-8 has been a bit “weightier” sounding than products in the past for us, so it’s been surprising to read that it sounded light. Perhaps it’s part of the trend to throw more bass at a problem and hope that it goes of way that’s been getting popular as of late.

John Atkinson's picture
Yoda wrote:
Sorry John, but you are comparing apples and oranges because the basis for your "Shootout" is not really equivalent.

The USB input of the EX-8, connected to my Innuos Zenith MK3 with proper digital cables, is in my experience superior sounding in comparison to the currently embedded Conversdigital Ethernet module connected to the specific Ethernet port of the Zenith.

In my discussions with the late Charley Hansen, founder of Ayre Acoustics, he was adamant that a properly implemented USB connection would be better-sounding than a network connection. I did comparisons and didn't find that to be the case in my system, though I did find that neither sounded as good as an AES/EBU connection from my Ayre CX-5MP player used as a transport. For this shoot-out, I wanted to do A/B comparisons and I didn't think I was compromising the EX-8 by using its network port.

Yoda wrote:
I'm looking forward to a real apple-to-apple comparison.

Both amplifiers have long since been returned to their manufacturers, I am afraid.

John Atkinson
Technical Editor, Stereophile

Bogolu Haranath's picture

May be Stereophile could review and measure the new Mark Levinson 5805/5802 integrated amp ($7,000 to $8,500) ......... That would be a good comparison for Cambridge and Ayre integrated amps :-) ..........

Jim Austin's picture
May be Stereophile could review and measure the new Mark Levinson 5805/5802 integrated amp ($7,000 to $8,500) .........
Hmmm--now there's an idea. ;-)
Bogolu Haranath's picture

Stereophile could also match the ML integrated with Revel Ultima Gem2 ($10,000/pair) ......... Gem2 was never reviewed by Stereophile ........ Gem2 has been in continuous production since 2008 :-) .........

Ortofan's picture

... $1600 Denon PMA-1600NE?

It can output about 110W into 8 ohms and about 190W into 4 ohms.
http://www.i-fidelity.net/testberichte/high-end/denon-pma-1600ne/seite-6-labor.html

Also, it has already won a shootout conducted by Stereophile's sister publication Hi-Fi Choice.
https://files.hifiklubben.com/4a500a/globalassets/tester/denon/2017/pma-1600ne-hfc-group-test-verdict.pdf

For those who might be concerned, it's made in Japan.

Bogolu Haranath's picture

Also, matching DCD-1600NE ($1199) CD/SACD player looks good:-) .........

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