Boulder, Colorado – it’s the thinking man’s Denver. At least, that’s how I see it. For such a relatively small city (oversized town?), it plays host to nCAR (National Centre For Atmospheric Research), the Space Science Institute and the National Institute for Standards and Technology. There’s also the University of Colorado Boulder and its now in/famous 420 smoke outs, arising as a direct result of Colorado’s more progressive attitude toward – and legalisation of – the ‘erb.
Boulder has more than its fair share of audiophile brainiacs too: Boulder Amplifiers (obviously); Paul McGowan’s PS Audio; YG Acoustics; VinylMePlease’s HQ (now one of the USA’s largest vinyl suppliers); Steve Silberman – AudioQuest’s Vice President – Development; and Charlie Hansen’s Ayre Acoustics who are possibly best know outside of the audiophile enclave as the designer of Neil Young’s Pono Player.
With the annual Rocky Mountain Audio Fest taking place on their doorstep, Ayre again play the home advantage by pulling out all the stops with their room’s fit out. Last year (2014) it was a jazz club cum speakeasy, the year before (2013) a record store and the year before that (2012) a 1970s lounge room.
Ensuring full ocular impact in 2015, Hansen’s crew took twelve long hours the day before the show opened to recreate a recording studio (inside a hotel room). The results – as always – were spectacular. A pair of LS50s flanked a mixing console played to couch-sitters opposite. Atop the headphone listening bench music documentary DVDs played on loop. So much – too much – to take in during the fifteen minutes I’d given myself…so I sat for a while before chatting with Ayre’s North American Sales Manager Alex Brinkman. I took more than my fair share of photos too.
Product-wise, the emphasis this year was on the Codex, now shorn of its ‘1’ assignation. It’s a desktop DAC and headphone amplifier that debuted in Las Vegas back in January. Ayre had dotted five units around the room to ensure visitors didn’t miss it.
Driving the KEF standmounts was Ayre’s mighty AX-520 integrated amplifier (US$12950) which was fed by a Codex running not as a pre-amplifier, of which it is also capable, but as a standalone DAC. Decoding and digital domain volume attenuation comes via its ESS9018K2M chip. Did you honestly think that US$1795 and its desktop-sized chassis could accommodate Ayre’s VGT (variable gain transconductance) volume control? Nope – #sorryaboutit. No remote control either. (Feeding the Codex was a Melco music server).
Instead, the Codex adheres to Hansen’s strict insistence on zero feedback and fully discrete components. And it’s probably these two factors that keep me coming back to the the Pono Player more than any other portable doing the rounds at DAR HQ. There’s a golden aged beauty to its sound that I liken (perhaps not uncoincidentally) to Neil Young’s Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere or the look of old technicolour movies – no matter how cornball the content, you can’t stop watching or – in this case – listening.
Long term ownership has also revealed the Pono Player to be far more tonally satisfying than any of Astell&Kern’s devices to date. Yes, even the AK240 SS. There’s enough deep satisfaction on offer to look past its awkward Toblerone shape, sometimes janky interface and sub-10-hour battery life. The Pono isn’t cool but it sounds bloody marvellous.
The Codex promises more of the same and then some. Brinkmann will be hooking me up with a review unit sometime early next year. Oh – and it’s made right there in Boulder, CO.
Further information: Ayre Acoustics
RMAF ’15 coverage brought to you by Aurender: