Ayre Acoustics DX-5 Universal A/V Player
by Marc Mickelson | August 26, 2011
The fast-changing landscape of digital entertainment is taking its toll even on the terms used to describe it. A few years ago, a "universal player" was one that could play CDs, DVDs (of both the audio and video varieties) and SACDs. Now, in order for any digital component to earn the "universal" tag, it has to play all of the above along with Blu-ray Discs and computer-stored media at varying bit rates and sampling frequencies -- a skyscraper-high order.
Ayre Acoustics addresses these assorted requirements head on with the DX-5, which the company calls an "A/V Engine." It fits, but only because the DX-5 delivers on the promise of playing every kind of digital media extant, including all currently produced audio and video discs, as well as acting as the centerpiece of a computer-based playback rig. Insert a music SACD or Blu-ray movie into the tray, and the DX-5 plays it without an objection. Connect a computer via the USB input, and the DX-5 will decode music sent its way. Of course, it also plays old-school CDs, and does so with the fidelity expected of a product bearing the Ayre name.
The heart of the DX-5 is either its transport or DAC -- take your pick. Ayre sources the former from Oppo Digital, which has been making reliable A/V players for many years, while the latter represents a refined version of the circuit used for the QB-9 asynchronous USB DAC. "We wanted to bump up the performance a notch or two," Charles Hansen, the design mind behind all of Ayre's products, told me. So "the power supply for the [DX-5's] analog circuit is double-regulated instead of single-regulated, and we use some of our stock of (sadly) no-longer-produced ultra-quiet Toshiba JFETs to lower the noise floor a few dB." Regarding the sonic difference between the two units, Charles said, "The consensus has been that the improvement is somewhere between 'noticeable' and 'significant.'"
Hansen believes that zero-feedback, fully balanced circuits yield the best sonic results, especially when coupled with robust power supplies. I'm with him, and my experience tells me that fully balanced circuits are most sonically significant at the source, where in the case of the DX-5, a pair of Burr-Brown DSD1792 DACs in dual-differential configuration convert the digital data from the transport to analog. As their model designation implies, these DACs handle the DSD from SACDs natively, without converting it to PCM, which they also handle at rates up to 24 bits and 192kHz -- high enough for the best sound that DVD-A and Blu-ray can deliver. The QB-9 uses DSD1796 DACs, which, according to Charles, "have half the output current (and [are] one-quarter the price), so the signal-to-noise is better on the high-output DAC chips."
In addition to balanced and unbalanced analog outputs, the DX-5 has USB inputs front and rear, the former for direct playback of digital files from a thumb drive or external hard drive. Achieving this is trickier than you might think, however, because only certain file formats are supported and these do not include WAV or FLAC. Of course, connecting a computer to the DX-5 is quick and easy; Ayre provides step-by-step instructions for achieving ultimate fidelity on its website. There is also an Ethernet connection that can be used for sending data to the DX-5, which, like thousands of digital cameras, TVs and game consoles, is DLNA compliant.
The DX-5 also has an HDMI output for multichannel-audio and video use, as well as an old-school composite video output that seems oddly anachronistic until you realize that you will need to have a video screen connected to the player simply for ease of use, let alone for making adjustments to the extensive onscreen menus. Playing music CDs or SACDs can be done without the video screen, but it's necessary for accessing the different groups on many DVD-As, allowing you to choose the highest-resolution program on the disc, as well as navigate Blu-ray Discs. If you're like me and haven't integrated your video and audio systems, you can buy a 7" flat monitor to use with the DX-5 at Best Buy or Costco for under $100.
Even though high-resolution video is a major feature, I focused solely on using the DX-5 as a music source. Once you've limited yourself to this, there is still something important to consider: how to connect the DX-5 to your audio system. Because the DX-5 is fully balanced, not using it this way, via its XLR outputs, doesn't make good sense in my opinion. Indeed, it sounds best balanced -- most resolving, authoritative and dynamic. Thus, all of my comments about its performance were derived from using it this way.
You may also encounter a thornier issue than not getting the most from the DX-5 if you use it single ended. Its Burr-Brown DACs have multiple filters, and the one that Charles Hansen has chosen for DSD cuts the output in half. Using the DX-5 single ended halves the output again. This means that when the player is connected via its RCA jacks and playing SACDs, the output is a mere 1V, which is extremely low. If your preamp or amp doesn't have enough gain to compensate for this, SACDs will sound rather limp and boring, similar to using a low-output moving-coil cartridge with a phono stage that doesn't have adequate gain for it. This is a long-winded way of reiterating that not taking full advantage of the DX-5's balanced circuit, whose parts redundancy you pay for, is rather like buying a snowmobile to drive down sledding hills.
Off topic but pertinent to this review and the one I wrote of the Ayre MX-R mono amps last year: one of the most entertaining parts of being an audio writer is corresponding with Charles Hansen about his products -- and high-end audio in general. Ask Charles a question and you get a clear, concise, straightforward answer -- sometimes a little too straightforward. When I asked him peripherally about WiFi, he proceeded to let me know that, aside from harming the sound of my audio system, it "operates at the exact same frequency as your microwave oven, so it turns your house into a low-level microwave oven that is on 24/7, slow cooking your brain while you sleep." Too much information!
I normally try to be complete in discussing the features of products I review, but I've purposely glossed over certain things about the DX-5 in favor of covering what I think is important when it comes to using it as a music-only source. In reality, while its manual is over a hundred pages long, the DX-5 is easy to use right out of the box, just like any CD player. Configuring a computer to use with it is simple, and if it's one that's already been used with a USB DAC, this may be no more complicated than connecting the USB cable.
What's more complicated -- much more -- is determining the DX-5's sonic personality. Like any piece of audio gear, it possessed a base assortment of traits; however, it also revealed the differences among the various types of media it plays with unusual insight, sounding one way with CDs, another slightly different way with DVD-As and yet another way with SACDs. This made reviewing the DX-5 tricky in ways that other components are not, and it required more comparison than usual -- though not so much between the DX-5 and competing players but between different versions of the same music.
No matter the disc that was spinning within the DX-5, I would not call its sound hyped or ruthless. There was no showy sense of space or speed, no "neutral" but threadbare midrange, no hard-charging bass. Its overall mien was rather evenhanded in perspective, tonality and dynamics, sounding neither up front nor distant, thin nor lush, stout nor wispy. There wasn't any overt warmth to the DX-5's sound, although there was smoothness from top to bottom along with a touch of treble sweetness. These didn't so much take the sharp edge off digital recordings as much as make it less of an issue within the fabric of the music.
All of this was either more obvious or less, depending on the disc. During my extensive listening to the DX-5, I did something that no one without lots of time on his hands should do: I compared very good versions of the same music, starting with John Coltrane's Blue Train on Blue Note CD [CDP 7243 8 5342806], Mobile Fidelity gold CD [MFSL UDCD 547], Classic Records 24-bit/96kHz DVD [DAD 1028], and Analogue Productions SACD [CBNJ 81577 SA]. A few things are worth mentioning up front. First, yes, I realize that all of these discs were the product of different mastering jobs and probably different source materials. Second, the Blue Note CD was neither the first issue of Blue Train nor the RVG remaster, but instead a special version called The Ultimate Blue Train, which includes multimedia materials. I owned the other two versions at different points, and I got rid of them in favor of this one, which sounded best among them. As for why I've accumulated multiple versions of Blue Train -- at one point owning a half-dozen -- I'm pleading the fifth.
No matter which Blue Train I played, it was easy to hear the DX-5's sonic personality, especially the player's smoothness. The two CDs were closest in sound, with quick-paced, nimble transients and a slightly compressed lateral spread. The bass of the MoFi gold CD was more gripping than that of The Ultimate Blue Train -- tighter and displaying greater heft. The DVD sounded noticeably more open than either CD, having better inter-musical space (for lack of a better term) and easier-to-follow instrumental lines. The bass was improved again, showing slightly deeper reach and greater tautness. The first thing that I had to do with the SACD was compensate for its lower level, which, with the Audio Research Reference Anniversary preamp, meant increasing the volume by 20 ticks -- a significant amount. The DX-5 then merged the best things about the CDs and DVD, sounding bigger and more continuous in all dimensions and more complete from top to bottom.
I did a slightly different but no less telling comparison with Getz and Gilberto, that Latin-jazz staple. Nothing proves this recording's popularity among the audiophile crowd better than the fact that three different SACDs of this music exist right now, and a fourth is on the way. The first SACD release [Verve 589595] offered an up-front perspective and slightly dry tonality through the DX-5, while the stage of the Japanese reissue [Verve UCGU-7031] was pushed back amidst an airier, more layered presentation and deeper, more prominent bass. Given that the Japanese SHM SACD [Universal UCGU-9001] has the same catalog prefix as the standard Japanese version, I expected it to sound identical, or nearly so, to its Verve twin, but it didn't. Surprisingly, there was greater tape hiss, but this didn't obscure the most spectrally balanced, tonally natural presentation of the bunch. The bass was just as deep and throbbing as that of the standard Japanese SACD, but it was less prominent -- better integrated into the rest of the musical range. The music sounded both vivid and relaxed at the same time -- more like analog, to summarize -- and in line with the DX-5's own personality.
I have a dozen of these pricey (around $60 each) SHM SACDs, whose identifying feature is an emerald-green back with minimal text, including many titles for which I also own the Fantasy or Analogue Productions equivalents. In each case, the SHM discs sound as I describe above, making them the connoisseur's choice for digital playback, and the DX-5 made this plain. Even so, it was impossible to relegate PCM to permanent runner-up status, as so many of the DVD-As I played sounded wonderful. And taken on their own, it's difficult to argue that the Blu-ray Discs from AIX Records and Norway's 2L aren't the best-sounding digital recordings extant. They feature a maximum resolution of 24 bits and 192kHz sampling frequency, which together represents the digital-audio speed limit at this point in time. When you hear cuts from John Gorka's The Gypsy Life [AIX Records 85043] or Chamber Music Palisades [AIX Records 85052] on AIX or any of the classical titles on 2L, the wide-open sense of space sounds eerily real in ways that other recordings, no matter the format, simply can't equal. Here is where the DX-5 did its best work, not only revealing the abundance of fine detail on these discs but keeping it in the proper proportion to reality. Audio components that convey profuse air sometimes have trouble with tonality and presence, sounding grayish -- or worse -- and emaciated. Not the DX-5, which revealed without excess whatever was on the disc it was spinning.
Last -- but certainly not least for many listeners -- among the formats the DX-5 handles is downloaded music. Amidst all of this dizzying comparing of physical media, I also connected my PC laptop running Windows Vista to the DX-5 for even more comparison. This is the same laptop I use to do all of my work for The Audio Beat, so it's by no means a dedicated music source. For streaming I use foobar 2000, which is free and seems to work well. No, I haven't compared it to other programs, and yes, I know that supposedly better media players exist. As for music, I used CD-resolution data that I ripped with Exact Audio Copy so that I could be assured of comparing identical versions of the same music.
After a telling amount of back and forth, I preferred the sound of the DX-5 spinning the disc itself. The computer pushed the DX-5's smoothness with physical media into smoothed-over territory, homogenizing the character of various recordings. The music lost some of its high-frequency sparkle and transient pop -- enough to make me retreat to spinning discs in short order. There are no universal truths to be had from this, however, as my computer-based system is far from sonically optimized. Connect a Mac mini running Amarra, for instance, and the outcome could be completely different. In fact, that's what I would expect, although the best-case scenario would be for the CD and the computer files to sound identical, in which case I wonder why I should take the time to rip my CDs. As I've pointed out in other reviews, I play records, so the convenience of having a huge music library only a few mouse clicks away is not exactly a consideration when I sit down to listen.
Back to physical media, Andreas Fliflet's Mira [Jienat JNCD002] was especially interesting demo fare. Packaged as a Blu-ray Disc, it also comes with an SACD of the same music. In either format, it is a world-music sonic spectacular, a voice-and-percussion workout that transcends geographic boundaries. The SACD presented a huge, totally believable soundscape, with various drums and voices emerging from a dense blackness. The Blu-ray sounded largely the same, trading a bit of vocal presence for slightly snappier transients. This was consistent with what I heard throughout my listening to the various formats, and it was lesser in effect than the differences between the Blue Train discs, indicating that differences in mastering are more profound than differences in format.
Mira also underscored the fact that no one (sane) would listen in the way I did with the DX-5 -- parsing distinctions among formats and picking the commensurate nits. It was always refreshing, therefore, to switch off analysis mode, pop a disc into the DX-5, and listen to the music, not the disc or hardware. Digital sound has come a long way in just the last decade, let alone the two before it, and in its best sense it's come the way toward the easy resolution of analog, a description that fits the DX-5's performance well.
C-5xeMP and CD8
Ayre's first "universal" player was the C-5xeMP ($5950), which was introduced in 2005. It uses the same DACs as the DX-5 and in a fully balanced arrangement as well. It also relies on the same filter for DSD, so its output with SACDs is also considerably lower than with CDs or DVDs. The transport is different, however, the C-5xeMP using a Pioneer mechanism that plays CDs, DVDs and SACDs but not Blu-ray Discs. Designed from the ground up as an audio player, the C-5xeMP doesn't do video, which isn't an issue with CDs or SACDs but can be when it comes to playing DVDs -- those onscreen menus again. Ayre thought ahead, including the ability to choose different groups from DVDs without the need of a video display as well as a series of LEDs that indicate the resolution of the data. I can't say for sure, but the C-5xeMP might be the longest-running digital product available right now, and Ayre continues to support older players, introducing the "MP" upgrade for the C-5xe a couple of years ago.
Given that the Ayre players use the same DACs, you would expect for the C-5xeMP and DX-5 to sound rather similar. They do, but, interestingly, not identical. In general, the two share a middle-of-the-road perspective, a tonality that is unadorned through the mids and sweet in the treble, and bass that's stout though not overwhelming. Beyond this, however, the DX-5 differentiates the sonic differences of software formats better, revealing more about the intrinsic sound of each disc. The C-5xeMP is more arid through the midrange, portraying singers in particular with slightly less presence, and its bass is a touch bigger -- or more prominent, depending on the way you hear things. Yet, it takes careful listening to discern these things -- they are by no means dead obvious. In fact, as I switched between players with certain recordings, I sometimes thought I didn't hear them at all.
The Audio Research CD8 ($9995) is a different matter altogether. Here, the sonic differences were as profound as functional ones -- as its name implies, the CD8 plays only CDs. It sounded more forward in perspective, bigger in all dimensions, lighter and more light-filled through the midrange (though at the expense of some presence), and more delineated as well as powerful in the bass. Or, on the other hand, the DX-5 was more midhall in perspective, emphasized presence over space, sounded more corporeal through the midrange, and was less showy in the bass. I'm not playing a semantical game here; these two players are qualitative peers when it comes to playing CDs, even if there are quantitative differences. Your mileage may vary, in other words.
There are functional as well as sonic reasons to buy the DX-5 instead of the C-5xeMP, as it truly is best among near equals. When it comes to the CD8, sonic as well as functional considerations will make one the clear choice over the other.
Universal is as universal does
If you've been serious about digital sound over the past decade, you've accumulated a mish-mash of discs in various formats, as well as a hard drive full of digital files. The DX-5 is made for you, as it can handle all of that media, playing them with sonics that befit a high-end digital source circa 2011. Its sound was more engaging than commanding, more about a natural portrayal of the music than monstrous soundscapes and whip-crack transients. It is digital that doesn't sound like so much other digital. Its performance does not make for quick "wow" demos but is rather the kind that gratifies over the course of hours, days and years.
Audio reviewing in the second decade of the third millennium has become increasingly about making "the big statement." Proclamations of new standards and transcendent greatness are spiced with assertions of a company's singular reputation and know-how. I could go this route in summing up the DX-5, but doing so feels untrue to its solid design and gracious sonics. It's the rarest of digital audio products -- on the cutting edge technologically and functionally, while offering sound that seems almost primal in its naturalness. I don't think we can expect more from digital -- today or tomorrow.
Warranty: Five years parts and labor.
2300-B Central Ave.
Boulder, Colorado 80301
Analog: TW-Acustic Raven AC turntable, Graham B-44 Phantom Series II and Tri-Planar Mk VII UII tonearms, Dynavector XV-1s (stereo and mono) and Allnic Puritas cartridges, AudioQuest LeoPard and Nordost Odin phono cables, Allnic H-3000V and Audio Research Reference Phono 2 phono stages.
Digital: Audio Research Reference CD8 CD player, Ayre Acoustics C-5xeMP universal player.
Preamplifiers: Allnic Audio L-3000 and Audio Research Reference Anniversary.
Power amplifiers: Atma-Sphere MA-2 Mk 3.1 and Lamm Industries M1.2 Reference monoblocks.
Loudspeakers: ProAc Response K6, Tidal Sunray, Wilson Audio MAXX 3 and Sophia 3.
Interconnects: AudioQuest William E. Low Signature, Shunyata Research PowerSnake Series Anaconda and Python.
Speaker cables: AudioQuest William E. Low Signature, Shunyata Research PowerSnake Series Anaconda and Python.
Power conditioners: Essential Sound Products The Essence Reference, Shunyata Research Hydra Triton.
Power cords: Essential Sound Products The Essence Reference, Shunyata Research CX-series (various).
Equipment rack and platforms: Silent Running Audio Craz² 8 equipment rack and Ohio Class XL Plus2 platforms (under Lamm M1.2 amps), Harmonic Resolution Systems M3 isolation bases.