Ayre Acoustics DX-5 universal disc player Page 3

I compared the DVD-A and SACD of Peter Frampton's Frampton Comes Alive! (The sacrifices I make for you . . . but don't get me wrong: from The Herd to Camel to Humble Pie, I was a big Frampton fan.) That confirmed that the DX-5's SACD playback lacked its DVD-A playback's imaging precision, spaciousness, and three-dimensionality, not to mention bass punch. So if you have those DVD-As hanging around, the DX-5 will play them fully resolved. On the other hand, you can rip them to files to play via your computer and the DX-5's USB port.

The DX-5 as Blu-ray–Audio player
Again, you'll need the LCD screen to navigate the menus of many discs, and there aren't yet that many Blu-ray–Audio releases, but Tom Petty's Live played without a hitch, sounding really big, full, and flowing. Neil Young's Archives at 24/192 produced incredible detail resolution, weight, and three-dimensionality. It was great to finally get to hear the Young set in my main rig instead of through our less-than-optimal home-theater system, but the vinyl still sounds "wetter," more lifelike, less mechanical overall—especially on sharp transients and sibilants, even though the playback process is more mechanical.

The few classical BD-A discs I have, including Brett Mitchell and the Houston Symphony's of Holst's The Planets: An HD Odyssey, sounded far superior to any CD I've ever heard. The problem with this disc was that I got distracted by the NASA space footage, even on the tiny 7" screen.

Another one, Mira (BD-A, Jienat NCD002), composed, arranged, and produced by Andreas Fliflet, is a percussion sonic spectacular that should be in anyone's collection of "wow" demo discs (a second disc repeats the program on SACD). It sounds like American Indians meeting Argentineans meeting Norwegians to chant and bang drums—something Todd Garfinkle might produce for M•A Recordings, only more closely miked. If your system can reproduce really deep bass, Mira will deliver plenty. It was among the best-sounding discs or files I heard through the DX-5.

I tried playing Grieg's Piano Concerto in the recording made from a reperformance, with Rolf Gupta conducting the Kristiansand Symphony Orchestra, of the Duo-Art piano-roll recording made by Percy Grainger (BD-A/SACD, 2L 60SABD)—something I really wanted to hear to compare to the SACD also included in this release—but I could get only a blue screen, and the default audio mode was DTS-HD Master Audio. It appears that there are still glitches to be ironed out of Blu-ray–Audio.

The DX-5 as CD player
When you spend time with hi-rez files and discs, it's easy to forget CDs. However, the DX-5 proved to be a very good CD player, on the somewhat smooth and forgiving side of the scale, with less "bite" and top-end sparkle, and lacking the half-again-as-expensive Playback MPS-5's bass extension and, particularly, its punch. Still, many listeners will prefer the Ayre's smoother, richer sound, just as many analog devotees prefer warmer, more graceful-sounding cartridges.

The DX-5 as USB DAC
I transferred the 2009 Beatles remasterings from the 24/44.1 Apple USB dongle version to my laptop, converted them from FLAC to AIFF with Max, and they sounded clearly superior to the more cardboardy 16-bit CDs. Attacks were richer, more supple and natural, particularly with vocal sibilants, cymbals, and tambourines; and the decay was longer and more graceful before fading more naturally to black. Images were rounder and more solid. The stage space was more generously rendered. You can sit and listen to these 24-bit files for hours, and I did, particularly enjoying the band's precise, hash- and grain-free voices and the cleanly rendered percussion.

As for CDs played "live" on the DX-5's transport vs from computer, among the CDs transferred to the Mac mini were Andy Statman's Between Heaven & Earth: Music of the Jewish Mystics (CD, Shanachie 64079), an unusual hybrid of klezmer, bluegrass, and jazz; and a recent reissue of Ray Charles' great Genius+Soul=Jazz, recorded in 1960 when he was but 30 years old. This mostly instrumental album was originally issued on vinyl by Impulse! (IMP-2) in 1961, with Charles on Hammond B-3, backed for half of the album by the Count Basie Orchestra (minus the Count). This new edition (2 CDs, Concord CRE-31669) has been expanded to include three later big-band sets with Charles backed by an equally distinguished grouping assembled for the date, including trumpeter Clark Terry and drummer Roy Haynes (still going strong at 85!). The arrangements, by Quincy Jones and Ralph Burns, are big, yet leave a lot of space for Ray's organ work to be punctuated by big horn blasts. Rudy Van Gelder engineered at his studio in Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey, where Jimmy Smith recorded those great Blue Note Hammond B-3 sessions; Ray was thrilled to be doing likewise in the same venue.

Comparing "live" CD playback on the DX-5 with "raw" iTunes playback via USB (ie, without Pure Music) produced a noticeable difference. The "live" playback sounded smoother and definitely more transparent, with more compact and better-focused images. The computer playback was grainier and less pleasing overall, with sloppier bass, grittier horns, and a less juicy-sounding Hammond B-3—but when I opened Pure Music and bypassed iTunes, the improvement was immediate; playback of the disc and the same bits via the DX-5's USB input were then indistinguishable.

The same differences were obvious with the excellent-sounding Andy Statman recording. The timbral warmth of the clarinet, the graceful attack of the piano, and the surrounding acoustic were all greatly diminished—until played back through Pure Music.

While some listeners claim hard-drive playback sounds better than from the original discs, I heard no differences once Pure Music was in the chain. Via the Ayre DX-5's USB input, computer playback sounded like disc playback. In other words, an inexpensive Mac mini laptop used as a music server can store and play your CDs and hi-rez files, and you'll pay no sonic price for the convenience of instant access, so long as you bypass iTunes with something like Pure Music or Amarra.

I won't clog this up with a page more of musical examples. All I'll say is that, in addition to superb CD playback indistinguishable from "live" playback, the Ayre DX-5 offers its owner access to high-resolution files from a variety of online sources. Computer audio is the future—for some, it's the present—and it will change how you listen to music, for the better and for the more convenient.

Conclusions
Ayre Acoustics' DX-5 is a unique way to meet your current and future digital playback needs with a single box. It plays every disc format in your collection now, and it's ready to play 24-bit/192kHz Blu-ray–Audio discs. Its asynchronous USB port can reliably handle up to 24/96 files, and, with a chip upgrade, files with sample rates up to 192kHz with claimed "virtually jitter-free" performance. Using an inexpensive computer like a Mac mini, and with 1-terabyte hard drives now costing around $100, you can use the DX-5 as part of a server-based music system, storing all your music on an external hard drive (or two or three), and backing it all up and storing it at another location (such as a safe-deposit box), all for the cost of some audio cables.

Of course, you can also do that with far less expensive, driveless USB DACs available now from Ayre and other companies, so the real question is this: How many DVD-A discs do you currently own, and do you want to prepare now for an audio-disc future that will possibly be dominated by BD-A?

In my case, with so much software and so many formats available, having a player capable of decoding everything was liberating. I could play hundreds of the discs that have been gathering dust here. I really loved listening to DVD-As; it's too bad the format died due to poor planning and the need to have a screen back when you couldn't add a small TFT-LCD for under $100, as you can now.

I don't know why the DX-5 performed so much better with PCM than with DSD signals, but it did. Not that the DX-5's SACD sound was unacceptable—it wasn't. But if you already own an SACD player you like, trading it for a DX-5 to get the Ayre's other features will probably be, at best, a sonic step sideways.

That said, I truly enjoyed the time I spent with the DX-5, discovering all the great and great-sounding hi-rez music that's sat unplayed on my shelves for so long. And that's what it's all about.

Company Info
Ayre Acoustics, Inc.
2300-B Central Avenue
Boulder, CO 80301
(303) 442-7300
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Comments
LinnLee's picture
A Quick Question

Hi! Was DX-5 connected to the system via the balanced output? If that's the case, what's the XLR input polarity of DartZeel? I could not find this information on DartZeel's website. Thanks.

John Atkinson's picture
Dartzeel Balanced Input Polarity
The preamp's balanced input is non-inverting with pin 2 of the XLR wired hot: see http://www.stereophile.com/content/dartzeel-nhb-18ns-preamplifier-measurements .
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