- Category: Full-Length Equipment Reviews
- Created on Wednesday, 01 September 2010 01:00
- Written by Tim Shea
I don’t attend concerts in large venues much anymore. Sitting about 25’ from Patricia Barber as she performed in Chicago’s Green Mill some ten years ago made the prospect of viewing a band from a great distance in an acoustically horrid space seem absurd, especially considering the steep ticket prices these days. I was spoiled for the rest of my concertgoing life, and there ain’t no going back. I can no longer go to a large concert without constantly thinking about what I’m missing that a more intimate experience would provide. As an amateur musician (well, drummer) and audiophile, I find sitting close to excellent performers so much more rewarding and fulfilling, given how much more I can see and hear.
All that jumped to mind the second I pressed Play on Ayre Acoustics’ C-5xeMP disc player ($5950 USD). Normally it takes me a good bit of time to begin to assess an audio component, especially a digital source, but sitting closer to the performers at a concert proved to be the analogy that consistently described the latest iteration of this highly acclaimed model.
Description and background
The “MP” in C-5xeMP stands for minimum phase, which refers to part of the digital filtration process and Ayre’s latest attempt to rid digital sound of its often deserved reputation for being harsh, sterile, unnatural, etc. For the purpose of this review the folks at Ayre were kind enough to send me two review samples that between them incorporated four different filters, so that I could track and compare the evolution of the various advances. It was an interesting exercise; it was surprisingly easy to hear changes from filter to filter, and I found myself wishing one of those stalwarts who still contend that there’s little or no audible differences among CD players was present to eat a plateful of crow.
So what is a digital filter as it applies to a CD player? According to Charles Hansen, president of Ayre Acoustics, “The output of the DAC chip has a ‘stairstep’ shape to the waveform, as the signal changes from sample to sample. A digital filter is a low-pass filter that smoothes out the stairstep and reconstructs the original waveform. This was done in the analog domain in the first CD players, but it is less expensive and more precise to do it in the digital domain these days.”
The first mission Ayre’s designers set for themselves was to reduce the time smear inherent in conventional “brick-wall” filters. Their first solution was a slow-rolloff filter that reduced time smear by a factor of ten compared to conventional digital filters. With this filter, both pre- and post-ringing were cut from ten cycles to one, and the result was improved transient response and a much more natural sound overall, according to Ayre.
The inspiration for Ayre’s continued journey, and a natural extension of moving to slow-rolloff filters, came through an exploration of non-oversampling filters, if only to see what the staunch proponents of that extreme design choice were all excited about. Through their listening, Ayre learned that these types of filters indeed had a notable purity, particularly in the midrange, but that those benefits came at the expense of some treble rolloff and a lack of low-end heft. This set the company on a mission to preserve the midrange magic of a non-oversampling filter while banishing its shortcomings.
At this point Ayre latched on to a theory by Peter Craven, who had written an AES paper on the subject, that outlined a minimum-phase filter -- or “apodizing” filter, as Craven called it. Basically, this filter completely eliminated what was left of the pre-ringing by shifting it to post-ringing, with a byproduct: phase would now vary to a greater degree with frequency. Ayre felt this was more than a fair trade-off that, for them, yielded a far more natural sound, even if this filter, by necessity, also had more post-ringing than the original linear-phase filters.
So Ayre decided to marry their slow-rolloff filter to Craven’s apodizing filter, which resulted in cutting the post-ringing down to one cycle. In addition, Ayre also found a way to employ 16x oversampling -- a value they found optimal through careful listening tests -- in a single pass through the filter rather than the several passes it took to negotiate more conventional filters. As each pass through a filter further magnifies digital artifacts, Ayre’s contention is that doing away with additional passes greatly enhances sonic purity in ways similar to what they heard through non-oversampling filters, while banishing that technology’s shortcomings at the frequency extremes. There’s obviously more to it, including the custom tailoring of voltages and dithering parameters, but at least this provides some foundation for Ayre’s path down the digital road and what they were striving to achieve.
The C-5xeMP reviewed here included Ayre’s latest minimum-phase filter and Craven’s apodizing filter. The other unit Ayre provided incorporated their previous slow-rolloff filter and a Sony/Philips digital “brick-wall” filter, so the complete filtronic history was available for aural scrutiny.
First, I’ll get the bad stuff out of the way. The remote control. Don’t like it. It’s a solid-feeling rectangular prism of aluminum with a bunch of same-sized square buttons that sit almost flush with the surface, making it almost impossible to “drive by feel.” It’s so symmetric that if you pick it up without giving it a good look, you have a 50% chance of beaming the infrared signal backward into your belly rather than forward toward your system -- something I did on several occasions, in rushes to compare filters. That said, when I was able to find the right button and point the remote in the right direction (or use the front-panel controls), both units functioned flawlessly throughout the review period. My only other ergonomic quibble is that the display was too small to be easily read from my listening chair.
The C-5xeMP is heavy. Were I blindfolded and holding one in my hands, I’d guess I was holding a 100Wpc power amp. In fact, the Ayre weighs a hefty 26 pounds and feels like even more, and its dimensions are 17.25"W x 4.75"H x 13"D. What the hell do they put in there, anyway? I guess MP=MW (minimum phase = maximum weight). The front sports a perfectly functional circular mechanism by which all major operations are controlled, and other than the display and the power button, that pretty much covers the faceplate. Functional and tasteful -- just the way I like it.
Around back, things aren’t all that much more exciting, but again, they’re perfectly functional. There are both RCA and XLR balanced analog outputs, and only a balanced digital output, capable of outputting up to 24-bits/96kHz. Although the C-5xeMP can accept signals of higher resolution, it downsamples them before sending them through its digital output (an adapter is available if an RCA connection is required). A row of DIP switches allows you to turn the digital output on or off, change the sampling rate, and switch between the Craven filter and Ayre’s MP filter. There’s also a port for interfacing with an external controller, and an IEC inlet for the power cord. Ayre says that proprietary RFI filtering is built into the C-5xeMP, but that additional power conditioning can yield further benefits. I plugged the C-5xeMP directly into my dedicated AC line with no further power conditioning.
The C-5xeMP plays the CD, MP3, SACD, and DVD-Audio formats, but only the audio tracks of DVD-Video discs. I thoroughly reviewed it only with “Red Book” CDs, as they’re the only high-quality reference I have on hand. And given that there were four filters to experiment with, there was already plenty to do and write about here.
A Burr-Brown DSD1792 chip is used in the C-5xeMP, but according to Ayre they use very little of the chip because they modify so many of its functions to meet their own specifications. Despite the DSD designation, both DSD and PCM signals are handled in their native formats; no additional processing or conversion goes on behind the scenes. As mentioned above, the C-5xeMP is fully balanced, and though I’ve often heard that Ayre equipment is at its best using this connection, unfortunately I was able to run the review samples only single-ended. If it sounds better with a balanced connection, well, read on.
As mentioned above, the C-5xeMP’s general sonic character was apparent at first hearing. In a nutshell, I was treated to an up-front and intimate view of performances -- like sitting in the first ten rows. What did that really mean? Well, the first tangible result was that the player seemed to have the ability to reach inside individual instruments, rip out their guts, and display them in graphic, dynamic, stunningly real detail. I don’t mean that it did that in a hyped-up, overly euphonic, tubey sort of way. I mean that it dug deep into the DNA of an instrument and gave me all of it, without hesitation or bias. If you’re wondering if I’m exaggerating to compensate for the sort of relatively small difference typically heard among CD players, you’d be wrong. This difference was more on a par with making a significant upgrade in an amplifier or preamplifier.
The first disc I played with the C-5xeMP in my system was Joe Sample’s Old Places, Old Faces (CD, Warner Bros. 46182). Despite hearing this CD through many systems, I’d never heard the acoustic piano -- arguably one of the most difficult instruments for a stereo system to reproduce -- spring to life as it did with the Ayre. At first I was amazed at the comprehensive expression of the entire piano, and especially the soundboard’s contributions to tone and absolute scale. Those were easy to hear. But as I continued to listen, I heard something wholly unexpected: the Ayre’s ability to capture the sound of the felt hammers hitting the strings more accurately than I’d ever heard in my room. Was this a manifestation of that banished time smear, that pre/post-ringing stuff? Until now I’d always heard this particular sound as a harder, sharper impact; through the Ayre, I could clearly hear a much softer relationship between felt and metal -- which makes perfect sense, as that’s exactly what’s happening.
Just as impressive was that, while the keystroke itself was softer, the dynamics and impact of that stroke were dramatically improved, to the point where I actually felt it through my listening chair. I can’t remember that ever happening before (maybe there is a beefy amplifier hidden somewhere in the Ayre’s hefty case). I also felt I was hearing much deeper into Sample’s intent as he played, and the subtle nuances between notes became more readily apparent and meaningful. I think this was due to the C-5xeMP’s superior ability to reveal subtle dynamic shifts and allow the tiniest details to pass through it unscathed. As an illustrative aside, one of my bandmates recently bought a beautiful Steinway baby grand. It sounds stunning up close and in person, and as soon as I heard the Joe Sample CD through the Ayre, I immediately realized how much more completely and accurately I was finally hearing the sound of a real piano in my listening room. This was really good stuff, and it made me want to listen to this disc over and over, despite my having heard it literally hundreds of times already.
Through many more discs and musical genres, the results and my listening notes were consistent in praising the C-5xeMP’s tonal completeness, dynamic superiority, and supreme cleanness and clarity of transient detail. Another notable strength of the Ayre was its spatial expansiveness. It very much reminded me of listening to hi-rez media, when the whole soundstage seems to explode outward in all directions, to border on a surround-sound type of experience. But here’s the rub -- that spatial ability didn’t seem to extend in depth as much as in other dimensions. Don’t get me wrong: there was depth there, but sounds that usually seem to emanate from beyond my room’s front wall were now shifted more forward; now they seemed to appear more against the front wall than beyond it. The plus to this was that I could now more fully identify what those sounds back there actually were -- I could now hear into them more in terms of their tonal and dynamic properties.
However, this consistent characteristic of the C-5xeMP was definitely a trade-off. In fact, I would say that, overall, the Ayre leaned more toward a smoother, more laid-back type of sound, and because of this I used throughout my listening my most revealing interconnects, Stereovox’s Colibri-R. I don’t mean that the Ayre seemed to roll off the highs or anything of the sort -- cymbals still had plenty of bite, and their character was communicated extremely well to this drummer. It’s just that the C-5xeMP had such an overtly natural way with detail that I wanted to hear as much of that detail as possible, and less transparent interconnects tended to make the Ayre sound too soft in my system and for my taste. Another way to say this might be: To make the C-5xeMP sound bad, I think you’d have to pair it with really crappy equipment and cables, or play on it your worst-sounding, ear-splitting-est recordings -- neither of which I did.
A tale of four filters
But which provides a very convenient segue to a discussion of the various filters Ayre so conveniently provided for comparison purposes. Despite my initial anxiety about splitting hairs in describing differences between digital filter characteristics, it was easy and instructive to step through them one by one and hear what was going on. For instance, when I switched from Ayre’s MP filter to the Craven apodizing filter, two things were immediately obvious. The first was that a good dose of the instrumental timbre and tone I heard through the MP filter disappeared: that “inside-out” quality mentioned earlier was not as present, and Joe Sample’s keystrokes lost a good bit of their dynamic realism and texture.
But just as notable was that the heightened sense of air, space, and apparent depth I was missing with the Ayre MP filter had largely returned through the Craven filter. It was as if the Ayre filter provided an inky-black, dead-silent backdrop vs. the Craven’s more clear-as-mountain-air, looking-through-a-window approach. I’m more drawn to the latter type of sound, but I have to say that the Ayre filter’s dynamics, tonality, and voluminous soundstage largely served to cancel out that bias. For classical concerts in large venues, where depth and small spatial cues are of greater importance, I preferred the Craven filter; but for virtually all other types of music, the Ayre’s strengths generally won out. It may sound overly simplistic, but a lot of the inherent differences I heard between these two filters could be captured by the oft-used metaphor of sitting ten or 15 rows back at a live performance. It’s less intimate and you feel a bit less involved, but you do gain a bit better overall perspective on the performance.
When I played “Black and White (As Simple As),” also from the Sample CD, another interesting characteristic surfaced that would make its presence known later. I noticed that the Ayre filter allowed each note of some of the dissonant chords to stand on its own; with the Craven filter, these chords sounded a bit more like a dissonant mishmash in which everything was fused together. This was important -- I found this to be an ear-opening experience because, up till that point, I’d heard only the mishmash version. I also lost what I felt was the ability to discern musical intent, and what was going on between the notes. In short, the feeling and flow of the music were diminished vs. what I experienced with the Ayre filter engaged. If you’re starting to make the connection that these are the characteristics often attributed to flea-powered single-ended-triode amps, that’s exactly what I was thinking. Pretty powerful stuff.
Shifting to the other filters proved to be a progression toward a more “digital” sound that, unfortunately, sounded more familiar to me. Things generally got more constricted in scope, thinner and harder, with a perceived increase in grain and etch. However, with each progression “downward” toward digititis came an increase in air and ambient detail. Was this increased transparency, or artifacts of distortion akin to turning up the Sharpness control of a high-definition TV? I’m thinking the latter, because in both cases the results were similar. While you’re initially fooled into thinking you’re seeing/hearing more, over time it’s actually more tiring to watch or listen to; what you’re seeing or hearing is unnaturally conceived, and your eyes/ear/brain sense it, and get tired of dealing with it. Anyway, that’s my guess.
Ayre to compare
Time for a reality check: comparisons of the Ayre with some known quantities. Switching to my in-house reference -- an Oppo DV-970HD universal player with an Electronic Visionary Systems Millennium DAC 1 D/A converter ($750) -- took another step down the more “digital”-sounding path, with yet more ambient information being thrown about, but again at the price of an even more grainy and etched sound. Going back to the original Ayre slow-rolloff filter reminded me of engaging a well-designed Loudness Contour: everything sounded a good bit richer and fuller, though without the nonlinearities typically introduced by such controls. My front end seemed to shout details at me, while the Ayre setup simply communicated them in a much more natural way.
Rather than go through the whole progression of filters again, I’ll skip to the part where I engaged the full-on Ayre filter to directly compare the extremes, as it were. The first thing I noticed was a veritable explosion in dimension and scale, with superior dynamics and tonality, to the point where previously obscured instruments seemed to pop out of the soundscape. As with the individual notes of Joe Sample’s piano chords, individual singers in massed choruses were now clearly recognizable, instead of everyone being mashed together. Wanting to hear more piano, I put on Cyrus Chestnut’s self-titled album (CD, Atlantic 83140), and instead found myself aghast at the greater tonality and character of the cymbals. Whereas before I was hearing what I thought was a stick hitting a heavy ride cymbal, which would naturally result in a sound more stick than cymbal, I could now hear a rush of metallic cymbal tonality along with the sound of the stick. As for the piano -- and this is not an exaggeration -- it went from sounding like an upright to a full grand piano in my room. My notes tell me that I felt as if I was absorbing rather than just hearing the music. The extraordinary way the C-5xeMP fleshed out musical information elicited such responses no matter what sort of music I played.
Although I didn’t have them both in house at the same time, my memories of the sounds of Bel Canto’s excellent DAC3VB ($2695) and CD2 ($2995) with VBS1 power supply ($1495) were fresh enough that I feel confident in making at least some general comparisons of these two digital heavyweights. First, both source systems exuded high levels of build and sound quality, and though they sounded quite different, both were refined enough that each sounded very right within the context of what it did. I found the Bel Canto setup more in line with the Craven filter on the Ayre, in that it couldn’t match the inner detail and presence delivered by Ayre’s MP filter. But, as with the Craven filter, the Bel Canto does a better job of communicating space and dimensional placements within that space, and is still unmatched in that regard among the digital sources I’ve had in my system.
My recommendation here, therefore, is an easy one. The Bel Canto and Ayre systems exhibited the same high level of sonic refinement, but if you prefer a more upfront and visceral listening experience, you’ll want the Ayre. If your taste is for a more mid-hall perspective with which you can “see” the entire performance within the context of the venue, the Bel Canto is the better choice. In other words, do you want to go to the performance or do you want the performance to come to you? Either way, you’re in for a treat. But the fact that you can switch to the Craven filter with the Ayre and get closer to the Bel Canto experience is an awfully nice bonus.
Before the Ayre Acoustics C-5xeMP came my way, the Bel Canto DAC3VB, CD2, and VBS1 were easily the best digital source components I’ve had in my system -- and in terms of holographic imagery and bringing a sense of the venue into my room, they’re still the best. But the Ayre trumps them in terms of subtle dynamic shadings, tonal completeness, and a level of involvement with both performers and performance that make it a more intoxicating and captivating device to listen to. Which is more accurate is impossible for me to say, and at this level I start not to care, so good is the sound either way. That you also have the option of switching between filters as the mood and music strike you, combined with the fact that the Ayre costs $1235 less than the complete Bel Canto setup, makes it a relative bargain (if anything at these prices can be considered such). Perhaps the strongest compliment I can bestow on the Ayre C-5xeMP is that it changed my perspective on what digital sound reproduction is capable of. It brought me closer to the music, and I’m spoiled all over again.
. . . Tim Shea
- Speakers -- Soliloquy 6.2
- Amplifier -- McCormack DNA 0.5 Rev.A
- Preamplifier -- Bryston BP 6 C-Series
- Digital sources -- Oppo DV-970HD universal A/V player (used as transport), Electronic Visionary Systems Millennium DAC 1 D/A converter
- Interconnects -- Acoustic Zen Silver Reference II, Stereovox Colibri-R
- Speaker cables -- Acoustic Zen Satori shotgun biwire
- Digital cable -- Stereovox XV2 coaxial, Apogee Wyde-Eye
Ayre Acoustics C-5xeMP CD/SACD/DVD-A Player
Price: $5950 USD.
Warranty: Five years on parts and labor (two years on transport).
Ayre Acoustics, Inc.
2300-B Central Ave.
Boulder, CO 80301
Phone: (303) 442-7300
Fax: (303) 442-7301