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Ayon CD-5 Reference CD Player With Integrated Preamplifier Review

That which gets Doug Schroeder so serious

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Magical Melding Of Upsampling And Gain

In my initial comments I enthused about the GAIN feature of the CD-5, and indeed this sets the player apart from virtually all other Redbook sources. An apodizing filter to control pre- and post-ringing on the signal is a hot new technology employed in high-end players. However, Gerhard will have nothing to do with it, “We do not use this and believe it can impair sound quality.” Instead, he has focused on the player’s gain. A while back I reviewed the Eastern Electric BBA Buffer Amp, which is a tube preamp with single RCA input and a variable Gain control. This was a fun device as it allowed not only for control of the level but also influencing the sense of intensity of the signal.

Combine the GAIN feature with the ease and openness of upsampling to 24 bit/192 kHz and the player takes on a lush, smooth sound which is quite addictive. I have generally not used the upsampling feature of players; while it “fills in” the music a bit it tends to smear the signal slightly. While the music becomes more analogue-like it also is less precise. The CD-5’s GAIN feature, however, works magic with upsampling such that I’m less disturbed by the extraneous information in the signal. The music sounds as though less converted and more diverted, as if it’s a stream guided in a different direction but not significantly polluted.

Close up insides of the Ayon CD-5 Reference CD Player

What Does It Profit To Gain The Whole World?

The GAIN feature of the CD-5 is a potentpart of its capabilities. I was pleasantly surprised by its ability to leverage the sense of power and scale. I had two perfectly affordable reference speakers on hand to investigate how it works, the Legacy Audio Focus SE at 4 Ohm 96 dB sensitivity, and the Kingsound King, having 83 dB sensitivity and requiring an amp which can handle a dip below 2 Ohms. The Focus SE has proven to be fairly easy to drive, while the King is, shall we say, difficult.

Speaking first in regard to the King, it is a speaker which benefits greatly from stout amplifiers, like the Moscode 402Au amps. The Pathos amps drove the King speaker with authority. However, the GAIN feature of the CD-5 allows more conservatively (under 150wpc), or even pusillanimously rated (under 50wpc), amps to be juiced in terms of dynamic power. The effect is heard immediately when the toggle on the back of the CD-5 is moved from the 4V default output position to Low (6V), then to High (8v). The switch can be adjusted on the fly, however, I strongly recommend doing so at low listening level. The sound will cut out only momentarily while the switch resets. Making the adjustment while standing to the side of these panel speakers, the distinction was easily audible. I had a pair of audiophile friends over to hear the rig with the Ayon and as I adjusted the switch they immediately said, “I can hear that!”

I’ll describe the effect as an illuminating of the sound, nearly like a three-way switch on a lamp – more of the same but at a higher intensity. It’s an interesting phenomenon as the sound thins ever so slightly, but sounds more corporeal at the same time. Think of it like make up on a woman; if it’s caked on she’ll look like a mannequin, but if it’s thinner more of her skin and natural complexion shows through, a much more desirable result. In addition, there is an inflation of the system’s acoustic envelope. Whereas the sound stage might be considered about 10 feet wide perceptually, with additional gain it expands to about 12-14 feet wide and deepens considerably.

The GAIN settings arepowerful in effect, such that I chose not to use the High Gain setting with the King. The exploded soundstage was so expanded with these panel speakers that the King made it seem too wide, almost as though the solidity of the instrument or voice was being atomized and the localization of the voice or instrument in the center of the field expanded too far. The Off, or null, setting was perfect for the King for most music. However, I did notice that quiet pieces, simpler works of solo instrument or ensembles, benefited by upping the gain from default (4V) to the Low setting (6V). On lilting songs like Erin Bode’s “Chasin’ After You”, one could hear so much more of her inflection and intonation that it was thrilling! In the same way that sitting at a sporting event in the upper seats is not as involving as being seated in the lower stands, one can consider the GAIN switch to allow you to “switch seats”, moving closer to the performers with each increase in gain.

However, there is a limit in any given system to the amount of gain which contributes positively. After a certain point, the sense of power begins to corrupt, and we all know what absolute power does! Taking the GAIN setting to the High position resulted in an overage of intensity whereby bass notes began to ring a bit too much, the treble become too spatial, the voice a bit vacuous. This would be expected as I was working with powerful amps. One can easily find their own perfect setting, and I found that I was not often adjusting the switch; once set it could be counted on to sound satisfying for all genres of music. I can foresee many people simply setting it once and forgetting it, while tweakers would be in their glory discovering how every artist would play given the different settings.

Close up insides of the Ayon CD-5 Reference CD Player

4 Ohm Speakers Become 8 Ohm Speakers!

The real fun was had with the GAIN setting used in conjunction with the Legacy Focus SE speakers, VAC Renaissance Signature Preamplifier MkII and Moscode 402Au amplifiers (two used in Biamp mode). These speakers are not terribly difficult to drive, and even though they are 4 Ohm speakers they are 96 dB sensitivity. However, with the Gain setting of the CD-5 only at the null position, at a 4V output, these speakers came to life like I have never heard them prior. They snapped to attention as though they were 8 Ohm speakers, with a crushing bass at 16Hz and numinous highs.

Bumping the GAIN setting to Low (6V) upped their perceived efficiency to sound like 12 Ohm speakers; with each increase in gain the speakers had more “jump factor”, more pumping bass, creamy mids and tingling highs! The jump in power was evident by the digital readout on the Pathos amps. Prior to using the CD-5 and the Low gain function I had to run these speakers in the 40’s, but with it, I could achieve high levels (approx. 90 dB at 12 feet) with the setting at 20! Consequently, I could not optimally run the High Gain setting with these speakers either. Though the speakers handled it, once again the sound became unduly expanded and lost focus. Truly, amps are given staggering increases in presence through this feature!

High Power + High Gain = Noise

When I was familiarizing myself with the Legacy Audio Helix speaker system, I was surprised to hear a faint, continuous hum caused not by the media, nor a ground loop, but from the amplifier itself. This is not an uncommon occurrence. Initially it was frustrating, as ideally there will be dead silence when there is no signal. However, there are situations in which the additional low-level noise is tolerated in exchange for a much greater dynamic performance from the speakers. In the case of the Helix, which is 102dB sensitive, I was using six channels of Jeff Rowland’s MC-606 with 2,500wpc, so an elevated noise floor was part and parcel of the nature of the rig. I also accepted a certain amount of noise when I built several systems using the Tannoy Glenair speakers.

I found there to be a similar relationship between the voltage output of the CD-5, the preamp and the power amplifier. Two amplification setups exhibited a higher-than-normal noise floor, both pertaining directly to the use of the CD-5. One was the very high-end combo of the VAC Renaissance Signature Preamplifier MkII and two Moscode 402Au Amplifiers, and the other was a pair of Cambridge Audio Azur 840W amplifiers wired direct from the CD-5. In one case, a preamplifier was used and the amplification components were at a valuation of approximately $30K. In the other, the CD-5’s internal preamp was used and the valuation of the amps were approximately $5k.

What, then, would be the common factor between these two setups? High power, namely the utilization of very high power in conjunction with the CD-5’s higher gain output, resulting in an elevated noise floor. I had encountered this with the CD-2 when I used the 1,000 wpc Jeff Rowland 501 monoblock amps. It was manifested in a metallic sounding “ping” when the player was engaged. Though supposedly eliminated from the CD-5, I found that it still exists when the conditions are right.

This is a significant flaw. Ideally no noise should emanate from a player; however, most players are not attempting to feature variable gain and thereby offer audiophiles an ingenious improvement over standard Redbook playback. The weakness in such a design is the additional noise it introduces to the system when used with high-power amps. Anyone using a lower-power amp should never encounter it. With my Pathos Classic One MkIII integrateds running mono at 170wpc into 8 Ohms and 270 wpc into 4 Ohms, it never manifested itself no matter what speaker was used.

Close of rear panel of the Ayon CD-5 Reference CD Player

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