The people at Ayon Audio, from the designer to the assemblers, seem to have all their ducks in a row (or electrons in a row?). It’s one of the few companies that can turn out a product that seems almost impossible to criticize. The Ayon components look fantastic and are based on sound engineering. Quality parts, from tubes to capacitors, are carefully chosen for low distortion and long life. I really have a hard time finding something wrong with an offering from Ayon.
To this point, my experience with Ayon has been with their amps, both integrated and stand-alone. What I hear in those pieces puts them into an exclusive group. I haven’t heard an integrated amp that sounds better than the Spark. Their reference system is superb, in every way that I can describe. So, what of their sources? This is my first exposure to an Ayon source component. When the CD5s arrived I was somewhat hesitant, fearful that the CD5s couldn’t measure up to the other Ayon pieces I know. In my experience, companies have specialties, like amps, or preamps, or tonearms. Their designers are good at designing a few things, but are great at designing one or two. McIntosh speakers come to mind. They are poor relatives to the McIntosh amps and preamps. (Different tastes. – Pub.) On the other hand, some companies are rather bland and have no special pieces at all. When a company has nothing but mediocre product offerings, everything seems to match well. More than one company comes to mind –definitely not Ayon.
Like every other Ayon piece I’ve handled, the CD5s is gorgeous, with superb fit and finish. All the Ayon products ooze class and quality. The CD5s was no different from its stable mates. The corners are large radii, firmly locking in place the four sides. The unit is quite heavy, but also very rigid. The finish is matte/brushed and does not show fingerprints. All the controls had a nice firm feel. You know when the button has been firmly pushed—no spongy feel. Something of a nuisance for me was the top loading mechanism. Honestly, if you spend this much, you should be willing to accommodate it. I’m accustomed to front loaders and I had to move things around somewhat. However, my wife loved it. She said it reminded her of a technologically advanced cookie jar, where you would get very state-of-the-art treats. Perhaps she was right, though not about the cookies.
Examining the back of the unit one immediately understands that the CD5s isn’t a “regular CD player.” It has both digital and analog inputs. This means that the CD5s is designed to operate as a DAC and a preamp. Much is made of a choke-loaded power supply, good news in my experience, multiple stages of voltage regulators, and multiple transformers. The features even include “separate analog output stage for left and right channel,” which I take to mean “dual mono” or separate power supplies. According to the lengthy feature list in the following, volume control is in the analog domain. Did I avail myself of all these features? No. I did try the analog input with my phono stage, using the CD5s to direct-drive a power amp. My angle on any digital review is how it stacks up to analog system, which is my reference. Therefore, I did not mix and match computer sound cards, digital interconnects, other transports, etc. So what if it makes my lesser DVD and CD transports sound better? It’s not relevant since you will have different transports/sources and cables available to you. What is important is how the CD5s sounds playing CDs. I may be wrong, but I bet most buyers of the CD5s are going to put a CD in and play it, almost exclusively.
As I was saying about a lengthy feature list, it has one:
- The volume is controlled in the analogue domain
- Logical sequenced soft-start power up for extended tube life
- Warm up function
- 0dB negative feedback (of any kind )
- Ultra short signal path
- Simplest direct circuit path for purest musical sound and high reliability
- Low output impedance for driving long runs interconnect to an amplifier, and any tube or solid state power amp
- No solid state devices in the analog tube output (signal path )
- Minimal discrete wiring for optimum signal propagation
- No followers or buffers in the signal path
- No DC servo that degrades the signal
- High quality parts throughout
- Fully hand assembled to insure the highest level of craftsmanship
- Separate analog output stage for left and right channel
- Burr Brown D/A converter
- Upsampling 24bit/192kHz and on/off switchable
- Digital input
- Analog input ( RCA & XLR )
- USB 24/96kHz input
- Digital output
- 3 separate R-Core / Low noise – insulated power transformer for digital & analog Bridge tube rectification
- Dual choke – filtered power supply and coupled with special film caps
- Innovative power supply provides a high speed energy delivery on transients
- Separate and isolated power supplies over each stage of amplification
- Regulated DC filament supplies with soft start for 6H30
- AC power filter to avoid noise and hash from entering into the unit.
- 10 separate voltage regulators
- Selected, premium quality passive components used in all applications
- High speed & high quality audiophile grade coupling capacitors
- High quality Teflon tube sockets with gold pins
- Superior capacitors ( MKP 1% )
- High quality – RCA & XLR jack
- Gold-plated industrial grade PCB
- Backlit function buttons
- Modified suspension system to isolate the CD-transport from mechanical vibrations
- Anti-vibration magnetic integral CD-clamp system combined with dark acrylic CD-cover
- Front panel descriptions are engraved
- AC phase polarity control indicator
- The aluminum feet are resonance absorbing types
- Metal remote commander
- Chassis finish: black / chrome
So, you are getting a solidly built piece with very high quality parts and materials, designed to be part of a system, or the heart of the system. What you do with it depends on whether you need a separate preamp to drive your amps, how many sources you have, whether digital is your only source, whether you have high-bit-rate sources, etc. Ayon’s attempt to satisfy as many users as possible is commendable, and noted.
Chocolaty, With Tannins and a Bouquet of Kick-Ass
My first impression of the CD5s was 75% warmth, 25% grit. Something like rough wool. I wasn’t sure what I was hearing. I liked it on some recordings, but many seemed to be missing some info, covered by the personality of the Ayon. It went this way for a month: a kind of love it, love it not, relationship. I was lazy though. I hadn’t investigated my assumptions. I can also liken the sound, before I played with the adjustments, to classic tube sound that had a little too much 2nd order distortion, overlaid with the noise from carbon comp resistors. The sound of those classic pieces are warm, but have a slightly dirty character from the noise. The choice of the 12ax7 exacerbates the noise issue in classic gear, where the 6h30 tube is closer to the sound of an FET than to a 12ax7.
My assumptions were that the various features, like high/low output switch, upsampling, phase 0/180 degrees, volume control setting, etc,,, did not affect the sound. Just the opposite happens. Various changes in these settings produced quite dramatic changes in detail retrieval and naturalness, from overly warm and a little dirty, to very near as good as a CD player can sound. Because the various options produced quite different results, tweaking the controls can fine tune the player for various tastes. However, if an analytical sound is your “thing”, you’ll find no adjustment or setting that turns the CD5s into a hyper-fi piece that can tell you if the patrons in the club were drinking single malt scotch, or a blend.
I was thinking about an addendum. After I submitted the review, I put in a rebuilt transistor amp and drove it with the CD player. The results were surprising. First, the transistor amp has a tube-unfriendly input impedance. Yet, the CD5s had zero problems with the load and could drive it to full output, with full frequency extension, without difficulty.
Second, eliminating the preamp or the front end of an integrated amp or a passive preamp somewhat sharpened the focus while keeping the pretty tonal balance. The CD5s is a CD player with built-in preamp. If you drive a preamp or integrated amp with the CD5s, you are driving a preamp with a preamp, which doesn’t make any sense. Therefore, the recommended use for best sound is direct-driving an amp. Eliminating any/all further switching and gain controls opens the sound up and pushes the CD5s playback closer to analog and possibly state-of-the-art for CD digital.
Not only did the Ayon have upsampling, but there were added variables of the volume control and the switches on the back, most notably one that says GAIN). Thoroughness dictated that I investigate things further. The results, for this system, were that upsampling was bad, high gain was good, the preamp gain has a sweet spot at about -20, and my system was in phase (switch set to 0º, not 180º). Lucky you, I could’ve spent 500 words on that. The biggest difference was the gain switch, wherein the difference in clarity between low and high gain wasn’t subtle in my system. What does that little switch do? If it’s analog, it’s probably switching a resistor. Is it possible that the mere addition, or substitution, of a resistor can be that audible? Anyway, it is audible, and wide open (high gain) is how you should run the Ayon.
The sound of the Ayon CD5s is different from that of the Ayon preamps, amps and integrated amps, which are almost perfectly balanced. The CD5s has a personality. It’s warm, which is probably the first thing you will notice. However, the sound isn’t dark. It’s just warm. The bass is slightly prominent; the midrange is gutsy and vigorous, like real life; the deep bass happens when it’s supposed to happen; and the treble is a beautiful golden hue. The tonal balance of the Ayon is very close to that of my local symphonic hall, the Meyerson in Dallas. Actually, it’s closer to Bass (like the fish) Hall in Ft Worth, but I don’t know of any commercially available recordings that present the sound of Bass Hall. On the other hand, Keith Johnson has done a spectacular job of capturing the sound of the Meyerson in recordings of the Dallas Wind Symphony and Turtle Creek Chorale. If you know those recordings, then you can imagine the sound of the Ayon. In contrast, the Ayon amps are similar to Symphony Hall in Boston. Nearly perfect, that is.
Like all other CD players I have heard, depth is somewhat lacking when compared to good analog or extremely good high-bit-rate digital. That’s not a shock to me. (I’m a digital guy, imagine the stress I get editing this. And it gets more … intense. – Pub.) How it compares to other players though, is enlightening. Image depth was better than any CD playback I’ve heard. It’s more accurate than my favorite DACs, the Audio Note UK. The Audio Note DACs are also warm, but have more distortion and color than the Ayon. Playing a compact disc, the CD5s nearly fooled me into thinking it was analog, and from me, that’s praise. Taken with the warm balance, the sound of the CD5s is very analog-like. There are more accurate players available, but all they do is call attention to the shortcomings of the source. Whether the depth is engineered by Ayon isn’t important. It does a great job at depth.
Image width, if you were paying attention to the architecture of the analog output, should be state-of-the-art, and it is. Having dual mono analog outputs means separation should be as good as it gets, and it is. Images weren’t etched or hyper-real, which doesn’t happen in real life anyway. The imaging was more akin to that of a concert hall, where you can sense direction, but where the diffuse soundfield of a concert hall tends to mask exact placement, the Ayon’s image placement was more certain. There remains the warmth and glow of a concert hall sound. Before you think I’m saying it makes everything sound like classical music, hold up. I saw Neil Young at the Meyerson (solo—no Crazy Horse), and it managed to sound like Neil Young, despite the beautiful decay. The same can be said for the Ayon. The sound is more forgiving than analytical, which is to be preferred if you have a large collection. It didn’t dress up ugly sounding discs to the point they sounded good. It is transparent enough to hear recording faults, but no so much that it reduces the number of playable CDs in your collection. On the contrary, it is much better than the vast majority at making pleasurable as many recordings as possible. Tangent: I wonder why none of the digital player companies put a “pretty” button on their players to make ugly recordings cozier? If there were a way of undoing the damage done by recording and mastering engineers, wouldn’t we want it? (Whoa, what a can of worms. Phillip, Phillip. – Pub.)
What the CD5s does to improve CD sound, where it is superior to most digital and analog sources I know, is grid itself with a ballsy output stage. The balanced and tubed output can reproduce anything your CD collection throws at it. Because it has low output impedance, it can drive any properly designed cable, amp or preamp. All budget players, and a good many high-end models, drop the ball on the output section. The dynamic range on CDs, and the difference in overall level, can be dramatic. Analog disc cutting puts limitations on dynamic range and overall level. It’s where the CD is superior to all but the most advanced LPs, namely half speed mastered 45 rpm. (I live! – Pub.) Most CD output sections will crap out on loud passages. Others have too much noise for low-level information. I wouldn’t at all be surprised if poor analog design is as much responsible for bad sounding digital, as are the artifacts of the digital process. Better than any other digital source I’ve heard, the CD5s lets you hear dynamic contrasts. It can, and probably will, stress your amps and/or speakers. When playing some of my friend’s mixes, I was sent running to the volume control on multiple occasions. Every other digital source I’ve used has, more or less, squashed down the dynamic range and compressed tracks, lending a similarity to everything they reproduce. I imagine that the CD5s’s digital goodness (low jitter?) has something to do with it, but I’m going to say it’s mostly the result of a beefy output. When called upon, the CD5s will kick your ass, or your system’s.
The textures are mostly accurate. It does warm things up, and in the process makes basses and cellos more wooden-y. Trumpets are a little more bronze-y. Horns and trombones are more guttural, with slightly more bark. What it did for John Hartman and John Coltrane makes the CD5s worth owning. It did the same favors for Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau. It seems purpose-built for tenor sax and baritones. Very good stuff! It’s enough of a bonus for me to make it a recommended component. It does just fine on female voices, but most high-end equipment does. On the other hand, many high-end pieces strip the power from Coltrane, Fischer-Dieskau, and the powerful sound of Eric Dolphy on Bass Clarinet, and the bass of Jaco Pastorius. Charismatic seems a good word to describe the presentation.
I don’t listen to audiophile dreck like Patricia Barber, so I can’t say how it sounds on those kinds of recordings. On the other hand, Ella, Sarah, Billie, Dusty, etc.., sounded fabulous. Not that they needed any help sounding fabulous; they sound good on an AM radio, boundless as their voices and talents were. The Ayon seemed very even-handed on most female vocals, while slightly warming up the sound of shrill sopranos. Thank God — my personal hell is a choir with three times as many sopranos as altos, tenors and basses—yuck!!! If you are into crooners, or the best jazz songstresses, you absolutely will not be disappointed. This is as good as I’ve heard from any digital.
A small miracle worked by this player, one that I thought not possible, is making the 6H30 sound good. With all the talk of super tubes and such, it seems that designers were taken in by specs on paper. Hold on. Isn’t this high-end audio, where specs don’t tell the whole story? (Heretical! – Pub.) Well, most designs with the 6H30 sound decidedly threadbare to me. It makes the warmth of the Ayon that much more impressive. The 6H30 has plucked out my eyes in other designs. With a couple exceptions, the Ayon manages to use the 6H30 and get a sound that is closer to a really good tube, like a 6SN7 or 7199, which are low distortion tubes, regardless of how much current they carry. Applying the same logic that the specs of the 6H30 are “best” to power tubes, the only “good” tube would be the 6C33C. It’s a flawed and stupid logic. However, the designers at Ayon make the 6H30 sound really good. Maybe the other designers are dumb? Hmmm. It’s possible. (My Summary Apologies to the entire industry to follow. – Pub.)
How to turn a Ford into a Ferrari
Well, you can’t do it. A Ford is a Ford. The inclusion of upsampling is an interesting option for some, though I’ve never heard upsampling do anything beneficial. Being able to switch between non-upsampled and upsampled, on the fly, put upsampling on the hot-seat. The effect was to add some very high frequency noise or sibilance. It’s way up there and some recordings didn’t reveal the difference. Music heavy with trumpets, cymbals and violins was most revealing of the non-benefits of upsampling. Instead of replacing or reconstructing more information, it merely added noise, or perhaps it’s a shadow, or maybe an echo. Whatever it is, it doesn’t work. This isn’t a critique of Ayon. Perhaps they feel obligated to include upsampling. If they thought it was “way better” than non-upsampled, I bet they wouldn’t have given an option to switch between the two. The bottom line is this: No amount of tricks, psychoacoustic mumbo-jumbo, harmonic distortion, smoke or mirrors can undo what 16/44 does to music. The only thing I have heard to make CD actually sound better was Keith Johnson’s HDCD, which sometimes sounds superior to SACD in my very unscientific investigations. The XRCDs are really nice, too. So, some of you might like the upsampled sound. Good for you. I don’t. I suspect most adherents of oversampling/upsampling don’t have a good analog front-end for comparison, or they don’t go to hear unamplified music. This isn’t Ayon’s fault. It’s just a bad idea that gained traction with customers. All that being said, I like Fords and Ferraris.
Perhaps I should have investigated the CD5s as a DAC, but I really didn’t care to. I prefer to have the fewest number of digital boxes possible. In my system, I had the CD5s as the player of compact discs and a DVD player to play all other formats. It worked for me. My DVD player will not output undiluted SACD or DVDA, so I didn’t see the reason to down-convert and listen to the results, though I’m sure the results would be good. It seemed like a purely academic process, not a pleasurable one. I’m not a big Audio-Video guy, so I didn’t investigate how to best integrate it into a large AV system. I did try the built-in volume control with a budget phono stage and the results were very good. If you have two sources – CD and LP – then you might be able to skip a separate preamp and use the CD5s as preamp/CD player. The sound of the budget phono stage was improved when fed through the CD5s, and with the CD5s driving the amps. Eliminating extra boxes and cables can be very beneficial.
Is it real? Does it interpret?
The CD5s is not the most accurate CD player I’ve used. And I’m glad. The most accurate players I’ve used all sucked. Accurate players only accentuate the limitations of 16/44. On the other hand, since Redbook CD is such a disaster on purely technical grounds, why would one want an accurate portrayal of suckiness? (Everyone, stay calm. – Pub.) To a large extent, the CD5s mitigates the limitations of the CD, something which I welcome with open arms, and you should too. Along with the Audio Note DACs, this Ayon allows me to listen to, and enjoy, my compact discs.
While there is a legitimate question as to whether the purpose-built CD player is a dinosaur, for many of us the answer is NO. I do not have the time to burn my discs to a computer or music server, or transfer them to a flash drive. I want to put a disc in and listen. I want it to be, ahem, analogous to playing a record, not consuming a commodity. Hard drives will crash, and there is a greater than zero chance that you won’t have your library backed up. Also, the imbeciles at Microsoft or whoever will stop supporting your operating system, which will eventually require you to move everything to a new server with new software and hardware. That is a huge pain in the ass, if you didn’t already know it.
Also, there are some who still want a “player that does everything.” Well, there are players that do everything, but they do everything with mediocrity. If you have compared a good CD player to CD played back on a multi-format player, you know what I mean. It reminds me of the Space Shuttle or the F111 fighter: designed by a committee to do everything, but nothing especially well. If you are still buying SACDs or DVDAs, you should consider having multiple players; otherwise you are most likely handicapping the sound of your regular CDs in the process. My observations on multi-format players are somewhat limited, so perhaps there is a player that does everything equally well, or equally mediocre.
What it does then is make the most of the format, with a little interpretation along the way. If you like sterile or uber-detailed sound, the CD5s will disappoint. On the other hand, if the gestalt is important, the CD5s will satisfy deeply. It says a lot about the Ayon CD5s, that it’s the first component my wife really wanted me to keep. All the others have been met with cool disinterest. She spent hours listening to the system and is only interested in what “sounds good.” She says the Ayon “sounds good.” Since you don’t know my wife, you don’t know how much of a compliment that is.
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