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Ayon Audio CD-3 Review

Doug Schroeder reveals what the German BMW, Italian Ferrari and the an Austrian CD player have in common

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The most pedantic aspect of the player is the lack of an automatic reset of the laser assembly when play ceases. Reset is manual; as with the CD-1, the listener must press the stop button two times to get the unit to read “Open” and read the newly inserted disc. Fumbling with the lid, magnetic puck, removing CD and putting in a CD is not quite a Cirque du Soleil act, but employs both hands. I find that I cannot get too annoyed with the fiddling around, as I never fail to be impressed with the event created by the CD-3. People wear Rolex watches, which are far from mechanically perfect, because there is something ineffably sublime about them. So it is with the CD-3; there is something sublime about the rightness of its sound.

I have been through a lot of players lately, almost a dozen in the past two years. I have been purposely moving toward a “steep end” reference quality spinner – not just an overachiever, but a player which would slip right into the best of rigs. The CD-3 is a contender. It’s embarrassingly rich compared to the best economical players. This past year, I have worked with the Rega Saturn, and the Cambridge Audio Azur 840C. Both of these players have large followings, and both have their fans who claim them to be best in class and/or best under several thousand dollars. I share this next thought with the utmost respect, but the CD-3 makes them sound unrefined. Yes, unrefined. I know that seems impossible to the many who would defend these players with their honor, but it’s the truth. In fact, the CD-3 is quite a bit more refined than its stable mate, the CD-1. The amount of refinement is such that for those in the enviable position of being unconcerned about the expense of the player, I would coach them to pass by the CD-1 and move directly to the CD-3 without hesitancy.

As an analogy, when a speaker owner finally moves to a new brand and is awed to hear acoustic vistas opening to him, he is at once gleeful and regretful. Gleeful that he is hearing from a vantage point never before achieved, and regretful that he didn’t know, or act, sooner. I am very happy that I did not succumb to the delusion that the mightiest of the sub $2,500 players was approaching state-of-the-art Redbook sound. They don’t, at least not while the CD-3 is around. This is in no way a slight to these other players, as I greatly admire their performance relative to their price. The CD-3, on the other hand, is a connoisseur’s player, fitted for extravagant performance.

Just what makes the Ayon so much better? A major contribution is its tube power supply. The 6H30 output stage is extended and improved over the CD-1. What is so important about these tubes? Gerhard thinks, “…it is perhaps the ‘best’ signal tube in the world.” It is a product of the Russian military, has low impedance, low distortion and very good harmonic behavior. However, it is difficult to drive, and requires a doubling of the power supply, something which is unnecessary with any other signal tube. It is used only in very expensive amps, such as top-of-the-line products from Audio Research and Balanced Audio Technology. The tube has only one manufacturer, and it is in Russia, but there are a few retailers such as Electro Harmonic and Sovtek. I’m seeing a fair bit of Russian tubes in gear I’m working with. If I recall correctly, Pathos in their third iteration of the Classic One tube hybrid integrated, made the switch from Sovtek to EH.

Ayon Audio CD3 CD Player power supply front panel

As I said previously, the CD-3 can embarrass even good players. What does a steep end player like the CD-3 sound like? If the Ayon is any gauge, then they sound a lot like high quality SET amps! That should not be surprising as a tube power supply rightly utilized in the service of a CD player should obtain many of the benefits of low powered amps. It hinges on how well the designer can pull it off.

Clarity, clarity, clarity…I could say it another nine times to emphasize. The CD-3 has gobs of clarity (Poor diction, I know, but oh, so emphatic)! I thrill to the lucidity of this player. Just the other night, I once again ran the digital output of the CD-3 to the $1,590 Monarchy M24 pre/DAC so that I might use that tube DAC with the Ayon acting as transport. The M24 has a bit of a warmer tonality and I like it. But every time I switch back to the CD-3’s DAC, it sounds significantly cleaner. I attribute this to the additional cable and component utilized with the outboard DAC. It cannot be avoided; if you send the digital signal out, it will degrade.

No combination of transport and DAC or straight-up CD player has bested the svelte CD-3. I have heard previously some highly respected digital sources, including the Linn Akurate and the EMM Labs CDSA, and to my ear the CD-3 belongs in such company. This is a music lover’s player, and it can capture the passion in the performance of nearly any recording.

I spent a fair bit of time listening to older discs, which often lack the vibrancy and immediacy of newer releases (Heaven forbid I get into music with compression issues!). I like returning to my nostalgia favorites such as Al Stewart, Jackson Brown, and rock groups like E.L.O. (Electric Light Orchestra). These are compromised digital recordings, and on lesser players I have difficulty getting involved with the music. Let me point out some examples of how the CD-3 breathes life into these discs…

As a teen, I listened to E.L.O. over and over. I couldn’t get enough of their odd rock orchestration. They open their song “Fire on High” with a hazy, ethereal background which is intruded upon by sound effects and backwards masked voice – strange stuff at the time, which is why it was so fascinating. On even decent players like the Saturn or Azur 840C, the background sounds like someone synthesizing in the studio. Through the CD-3, it sounds more limitless, like background radiation from the expansion of the universe.

The CD-3 animates seemingly “digitally dead” music. Jackson Brown’s piano in the song “Stay” sounds like it’s on the set. It’s so stark and open that one can envision roadies breaking down the stage while he’s playing. He pumps out the words, “PPack it up and TTear it down…” and I sense the force of the words as they hit the microphone. No other player had me relating to “The Pretender” like the CD-3. I almost felt sorry for Brown; the sap builds his house under a freeway – but Brown’s voice is so visceral, so honestly open and uncluttered that you want to root for the guy.

Then there’s Al Stewart, whom I recall hearing the first time as I walked past a dorm room and heard his voice emanating from a stereo, “The fishing boats go out across the evening water, smuggling guns and arms across the Spanish border…” Stuart’s music had a way of instantly placing me in a movie setting. However, the recordings sound tired, and the better the gear the more tired they sound. The tube magic of the CD-3 restores the newness, the freshness of these limp recordings. The track “Song on the Radio” begins with a blaring sax, ala David Sanborn style, but it sounds harsh and removed on most players. With the CD-3, the whole instrument can be heard, not just the note which emanates, and the sax sounds throaty, not thin-lipped.

What this all means in terms of sonics, is that the CD-3 has an uncannily similar set of characteristics to a SET amp (repeating a second time for emphasis)! I recall the clarity and “fragility” of the Melody Hi Fi P1688 preamplifier & S88 mono blocks – not a physical fragility, but a tender, clean sound. The strength of the Melody gear was their ability to reflect an image cleanly, like a still pool in a cave floor reflecting the ceiling overhead. The CD-3 has the same capacity to reflect a pure image of the information retrieved from the disc. The effect sonically is not unlike the picture quality difference between standard television and HDTV.

I have seen comments over time that the Ayon CD-1 does not sound like a tube player. There is a misperception in regards to tube equipment, that all such components should generate a sonic “warm fuzzy.” To readers who are seeking that warmth above other sonic considerations, I suggest they look into Van Alstine components and Vandersteen speakers. In other words, they all should have at least a taste of the syrupy, golden toned – and often slightly muddled sounding – presentation. Speaking for myself, I can only take so much of that; I do not care to listen long to equipment which sacrifices definition for tone. I do not care to sacrifice anything; I want it all!

Ayon CD players do not turn warm and wooly, even with other tube gear. That is a very good thing, as music which is too plump and relaxed sounding tends to put me to sleep, and it’s hard to enjoy music if I’m missing it! Depending on the player and the cabling, the CD-3 can sound less tube-like than some solid-state players. A Case in point is the Cambridge Audio Azur 840C, with the new top-of-the-line cable from Wire World, the Platinum Eclipse. I was able to get the Azur 840C to sound warmer than the CD-3, but I was never able to get it to surpass the exactitude and involvement of the CD-3. I have not found another player which has bettered the CD-3 in terms of putting me in a state of rapture when listening. When I am finished with a listening session of the CD-3, my spirit feels restored from being in touch with the music. Gerhard has indeed done outstanding work.

2 Responses to Ayon Audio CD-3 Review

  1. gino says:

    hello, i am french, i live in paris, i have a “Ayon Audio CD-3”

    this machine is stopping working, the cd does not turn anymore, the mechanism has been changed, but it is the same, and there is no service after sale, I like this machine, can you tell me how to get the electrical schematics.
    thank you, gino

  2. Hello Gino,
    The CD-3 was released over 9 years ago. Service is available globally. We apologize that your technician was unable to complete the service in France.

    Perhaps it is best to contact Ayon Audio in Austria. Ayon Audio in Austria will be able to recommend a service center to you in France, or better yet Ayon Audio in Austria can service the unit for you.

    Ayon Audio
    Hart 18
    A-8101 Gratkorn
    Ph: +43 3124 24954
    Fx: +43 3124 24955

    Thank you,
    Charlie Harrison
    Ayon Audio USA
    1-800-676-1085 Ext 2

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