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Will the $400 Pono Music Player sound like a $27,500 stereo preamplifier?

The Ayre KX-R Twenty costs as much as a car, but its designer claims the Pono Player will sound almost as good as the preamp!

The Ayre KX-R Twenty stereo preamplifier Ayre

No doubt about it, the Ayre Acoustics KX-R Twenty preamplifier's sound quality is truly revelatory. I should hope so, since it sells for $27,500, but here's the truly shocking part: Ayre's owner -- and the preamp's designer -- Charles Hansen, thinks the upcoming Pono Music Player will deliver "80 or 90 percent" of the KX-R Twenty's sound, for just $400!

Hansen should know; he had a hand in designing the Pono's electronics that were in part funded by Neil Young's hugely successful Kickstarter project. The KX-R Twenty and Pono share similar audio circuitry, though the parts used are entirely different. When we chatted a few weeks ago Hansen's enthusiasm for the Pono player took me by surprise. Hansen's a high-end engineer, and has always designed gear without budgetary compromises. That's what the KX-R Twenty is all about, and as for the Pono, I eagerly await production players, they're due in October. Hansen claims that once you start listening to the Pono you may find it hard to stop, it's that good. The audio circuitry is fully discrete, meaning there are no integrated circuit chips of the sort used in every other portable music player. It's a bona fide high-end component. Every Ayre component is designed and built in the company's factory in Boulder, Colo. Ayre won't be manufacturing Pono players.

Back to the KX-R Twenty stereo preamplifier, the sheer mass of the machined aluminum chassis was evident when I struggled a bit to take it out of the shipping box and put it in my equipment rack. This preamp is nice and compact, just 17.25 inches by 11.5 inches by 3.75 inches, and it has four XLR and four RCA sets of stereo inputs. The fit and finish of the metalwork is extraordinary; inside there are separate machined chambers for the power transformer, power supply, logic circuits, left and right audio circuits, etc. The internal wiring runs along grooves cut into the metal, I've never seen anything built like this.

The KR-X Twenty tracks the small and large dynamic shifts in the sax solo on Miles Davis' tune, "So What" with shocking precision. The music feels more alive than I've heard it before. Same deal with the Black Keys' "Brothers" album. Drums punched harder, so the 'Keys kinetic grooves were more interesting.

Pono Music Players Pono Music

This is what high-end audio is all about, getting closer to the music. When you listen to 1960s jazz records you almost feel like you're traveling back through time to the studio, and the musicians have materialized between the speakers in your living room. The illusion's not perfect, just a whole lot closer to being there.

Quiet details like the acoustics of the original sessions environment are revealed. That's what great components do: they strip away the artifice, and you hear more music. My Pass Labs XP-20 preamp is awfully good, but the KX-R Twenty is clearly better, as it should be, it's $27,500, the XP-20 is a third the price. Then again the Pono player will be just $400, so hold out for that one.

The KX-R Twenty is the first in a series of new Ayre designs, mono and stereo power amps are coming, possibly later this year.