Ayre Acoustics DX-5 universal disc player Kalman Rubinson, January 2011
Last month, Michael Fremer and John Atkinson had their ways with this long-awaited, $10,000 player from Ayre Acoustics, but here I take a different tack. Though I used the DX-5's analog outputs and USB input (primarily with a tweaked Squeezebox Touch), my focus was on its multichannel output via HDMI. Interestingly, the DX-5 has two HDMI outputs: one, HDMI A/V Output, is the same as that on the Oppo Digital BDP-83, on whose DNA the Ayre is based; the other, HDMI Audio Output, is based on Ayre's gene splicing. They are simultaneously active, but the Audio Output carries only audio and a control blank video signal. The Oppo's component-video outputs are eliminated, but the composite-video output remains, for those of us who use mini-LCD monitors to navigate the Ayre's on-screen menu.
Conveniently for Michael Fremer, the DX-5 factory default setting is its two-channel mode; as long as you don't insert an HDMI cable in the HDMI Audio Output jack, the balanced and single-ended analog outputs remain active. This confused me at first, when I tried to A/B the Ayre's analog and HDMI outputs via the Meridian 621/861: selecting an analog input on the 861 left the Ayre connected to an active HDMI input on the 621 and muted its analog outputs. But I gradually got the hang of it, and had no problems when I connected the DX-5 to the Classé CT-SSP surround-sound processor. The reason for this is that the DX-5 has two separate, ultra-low-jitter master audio oscillators, one each for analog and HDMI output, running at different frequencies to minimize jitter for each. As only one oscillator clock can be in charge at a time, plugging in a live HDMI connection activates the circuitry for that output and turns off the master clock for the analog outputs, effectively muting them.
Otherwise, setting up the DX-5 will be familiar to anyone who's set up an Oppo BDP-83, though Ayre makes some specific recommendations regarding speaker setup, including boosting the subwoofer channel output 5dB over the full-range speaker outputs. I connected both of the Ayre's HDMI outputs to inputs on the Classé CT-SSP (along with the outputs from the Oppo BDP-83SE and the Sony XA-5400ES SACD player), but immediately defaulted to the Ayre's HDMI A/V Output in order to compare it with the Oppo. Since this output path is identical to that in the BDP-83 but Ayre does support it with their linear power supplies, I wanted to know whether the latter offered an audible advantage over the original's switching power supplies. It didn't. While sometimes I thought I could hear a difference between them, I also was fooled as to which one I was listening to. I'd call it a draw.
Next, I compared the DX-5's HDMI A/V Output with its own HDMI Audio Output. Instrumental to this task was A Virtuoso Faceoff, which includes pieces by Biber and Muffat performed by Petri Tapio Mattson (baroque violin), Eero Palviainen (archlute), and Markku Mäkinen (organ), recorded in the very warm, ripe acoustic of the Church of St. Lawrence in Janakkala, Finland (SACD/CD, Alba ABCD 311). Indeed, it did sound warm and ripe through both the DX-5's HDMI A/V output and the Oppo. Through the Ayre's HDMI Audio output, there was a decided difference in clarity and transparency that extended throughout the audioband. The Ayre's HDMI Audio output preserved the rich sound, but offered much greater distinction between the instrumentsincluding the organand the ambience of the space. Switching to the Sony, I found that while it duplicated some of that experience, with greater treble clarity than provided by the Oppo, it failed to extend that clarity into the midbass and bass. As a result, the organ had too much reverberation, which somehow the Ayre managed to properly balance.
The ability to distinguish the instruments' direct sounds from the sounds reflected by the venue's boundaries has always been, for me, the hallmark of true transparency, as it is the basis of the human ear/brain system's ability to direct the mind's attention to the sources of sounds in the ever-changing acoustical contexts of the real world. (I had a similar revelation when I first compared S/PDIF to I2S way back in 1996!) Now, and especially with multichannel's ability to envelop us in a performance space, the DX-5's HDMI Audio output permits us to listen as we would at the performance, focusing our attention on the performers while sharing the ambience with them. This isn't an obvious thing at first, and certainly not as striking as a change in frequency response or harmonic distortion, but once my brain locked on to this parameter, the difference between the Oppo's HDMI and the Ayre's Audio HDMI was impossible to ignore.
From there, I played a number of my favorite discs (see sidebar, "Recordings in the Round"), and found that almost all were refreshed by this newfound clarity. In some discs, with drier and/or synthetic acoustics, the improvement was not as explicit, but it still permitted me to play them at higher levels and take advantage of their dynamic range without the music smearing into the ambience.
You might suspect, reading this, that the Ayre was thinning out the sound. That this was not the case was demonstrated by the DTS-HD MA track of Tom Petty's Mojo (Blu-ray, Reprise 523977-BA2). Here, the Ayre's HDMI Audio output was, if anything, a bit less bright than the legacy A/V output, yet with more presence and bite. Moreover, the exquisite layering of instruments in John Neschling and the São Paulo Symphony's recording of Respighi's Pines of Rome, Fountains of Rome, and Feste Romane (SACD/CD, BIS SACD-1720) was superbly detailed, while the exquisite antiphonal brass remained comfortably within the same acoustic environment. The Ayre's tonal balance was neutral, but through it, transparency and dynamics were enhanced. Not one of the dozens of recordings I tried demonstrated otherwise.
The superior sound of the DX-5 was apparent with the Meridian 621/861, the Classé CT-SSP, and the McIntosh Labs MX150 A/V Control Center (see below), but not with the now-dated Integra DTC-9.8 pre-pro, which proved an unsuitable mate even through an analog connection. Was all this due to lower jitter via Ayre's HDMI? I don't know. What I do know is that I preferred the DX-5's HDMI Audio output to that of any other disc spinner so far. Is it worth the substantial price multiple over the stock Oppo BDP-83 ($499, no longer in production) or stock Oppo BDP-83SE ($899). That will depend on what you connect it to and what you listen for. But if you want to extract all the subtlety and detail from the best multichannel discs, Ayre Acoustics' DX-5 demands your consideration.Kalman Rubinson