First Sounds: Ayre DX-5 DSD

by Marc Mickelson | July 17, 2014

e began this series of blogs and titled it "First Sounds" with the idea of covering products that we were hearing first, before any other press. That applies here, but this blog could just as easily be titled "Last Sounds" for a reason that will become apparent.

Charles Hansen of Ayre has particular skill designing multi-format digital players. Introduced in 2003, his C-5xe universal player gave way to the DX-5 "universal A/V engine" in 2010. The distinction in nomenclature is more than mere marketing pap. While the C-5xe played all formats available when it was launched -- CD, SACD, DVD-V and DVD-A -- between 2003 and 2010, a digital revolution arose and then came to fruition. High-resolution PCM material became much more prevalent and file playback became commonplace. Along with this, a new disc format, Blu-ray, appeared, giving storage space for all of that extra data. The C-5xe, which couldn't play files or Blu-ray Discs, was soon outdated, and the DX-5, which played both physical media -- everything under the sun -- and files, was born.

But digital replay has continued to march on with the advent of DACs that can play Direct Stream Digital (DSD) files -- the data format that launched SACD. This, along with Ayre's running out of the Oppo transport mechanisms, meant that the DX-5's days were indeed numbered. While other makers would immediately begin to design a replacement, Charles Hansen redesigned his "universal A/V engine" instead. "At Ayre," Hansen wrote in an online forum, "we like to design and build products that have a long life span. We do not believe in introducing a 'new' version of a product every year or two, with the old model becoming 'obsolete junk.'" You go, Charles.

Hansen has truly put his money where his mouth is with the new version of his latest, greatest standalone player, renamed the DX-5 DSD. It continues to play every kind of physical media as well as high-resolution PCM files, but as the new name implies it adds the ability to decode native DSD files. This required much more than a quick update to the existing product; it's a thorough reworking of the DX-5, an assessment that extends to its sound too.

First and foremost, the player's digital-to-analog circuit has been extensively revised. Whereas the original DX-5 used Burr-Brown DSD1792A DACs, the DX-5 DSD uses ESS ES9016 Sabre DACs, which can decode PCM data at up to 32 bits along with DSD data, and feature onboard jitter reduction and DSP. The player's master clocks were replaced with low-phase-noise modules that run at twice the frequency, which, again according to Hansen, "allow[s] the ESS DAC chip to perform at a higher level." Changes were made to the analog circuitry and its power supply, and an AC-power supply for the USB input was added, providing "uniformly superior performance."

As part of the upgrade, which involves the swapping of circuit boards, the DX-5 must be completely disassembled. Given this, the $1250 cost seems more than reasonable. If you own one of Ayre's QB-9 DACs, the same suite of upgrades has been applied to it, making for an especially long queue. Contact Ayre for current wait times -- and don't expect to hear "Send it today." As I can attest after waiting for many weeks, the upgrade itself is done pretty quickly, but it will be a while before you get the okay to ship your unit back to Ayre.

Updates to all manner of audio gear, whether electronics or speakers, run the gamut from eh to tranformative. So I could get a clear idea of how the stock DX-5 sounded in comparison to the DSD version, and while I was waiting for the high sign to send in my DX-5 for the update, Ayre shipped me Charles Hansen's own DX-5 DSD, so I could listen to new and old without having to rely on memory.

The differences between the two players were not a matter of a bit here, a tad there, and owners of the DX-5 need not read between the lines and wonder if the sound of their updated player will be simply different and not better. While the DSD version displays speed and power that are obvious after only a few seconds of listening, they don't muscle out the analog-like smoothness of the original unit. Instead, they overlay it, imparting greater incisiveness along with the inherent grace.

I connected both players at the same time, matched levels, and played burned copies of samplers that I take to shows, which have cuts I know extremely well -- I've heard most several dozen times on several dozen different systems. "As Wicked As It Seems" from Keith Richards' Main Offender [Virgin V2-86499] had more snarling intensity and bass power, and "What Good Am I?" from Tom Jones' Praise and Blame [Lost Highway 001455502] lost none of its delicacy and pathos. The same was true with PCM files; the only DSD files I have presently are of music I don't know well, but they sounded terrific: airy, authoritative, powerfully real. I've heard a number of Esoteric CD/SACD players in my system, and it occurred to me while I listened to the DX-5 DSD that its sound in many ways halved the difference between the original DX-5 and, for instance, the Esoteric K-01, which I reviewed.

One very welcome byproduct of the switch in DACs was something I discussed in my review of the DX-5. The Burr-Brown DACs have multiple filters, and the one that Charles Hansen chose for DSD cut the player's output in half, with the DX-5's single-ended outputs halving it a second time. This means that when the player was connected via its RCA jacks and playing SACDs, the output was a mere 1V, which is extremely low. If your preamp or amp didn't have the gain to compensate, SACDs sounded "rather limp and boring," as I put it, "similar to using a low-output moving-coil cartridge with a phono stage that doesn't have adequate gain." Well, no more. The ESS DACs' DSD filter has the same output as for PCM, so not only will you not encounter what I long-windedly describe above, you also won't have to adjust the volume when you switch between an SACD and any other disc.

Now to explain what I was referring to in the opening -- how "Last Sounds" fits the DX-5 DSD. As Tampa Red put it, "You can't get that stuff no more" -- the DX-5 DSD has been discontinued. You can buy Ayre's QB-9 DSD DAC or the rare used DX-5 and have Ayre update it, the sonic result being more than worth the cost and effort. With this rather unorthodox strategy (if you can call it that), the gang at Ayre has built a product with a long life span and supported customers at the expense of sales of a "new and improved" universal player. Digital remains an ever-moveable sonic feast, but the DX-5 DSD makes sense of it all now and into the foreseeable future.

The Audio Beat • Nothing on this site may be reprinted or reused without permission.