Ayre CX-7 CD player December 2004 Follow-Up
When I reviewed the $2950 Ayre CX-7 CD player in May 2003, I had a hard time determining its final rating in the magazine's "Recommended Components" listing. "Its balance is vibrant, its bass well-defined and deep, its highs clean, detailed, and well-resolved," I concluded, but there was an elusive something missing that prevented me giving the player a Class A rating.
I kept the Ayre in-house for a couple of months to compare with the Classé CDP-10, but a number of high-performance digital components have passed through my listening room since the CX-7 went back to Ayre: the Mark Levinson No.390S, the Benchmark DAC1, the Arcam FMJ CD33, the Lavry DA2002, and the Simaudio Moon Equinox. I thought it worthwhile, therefore, to ask Ayre for a more recent sample of the CX-7, to check how it stood up.
According to Ayre's Charles Hansen, they have made several running changes to the CX-7, including a new FPGA chip, "that have resulted in somewhat improved performance." Physically, however, the CX-7 looks unchanged, the central, blue display still dominating its appearance. The serial number of my original review sample was 9E001; that of the new sample was 9K0121.
I used the CX-7 in a system comprising either Revel Ultima Studio or Paradigm Studio/100 v.3 loudspeakers driven by either Mark Levinson No.33H monoblocks or a Halcro dm38 stereo amp, and a Levinson No.380S preamp. Cabling comprised balanced AudioQuest Cheetah interconnects and Kilimanjaro speaker cables. The player's digital filter was switched to the Listen position, which rolls off the top few kHz by a fraction of a dB to achieve better time-domain performance.
Without reference to any other digital sources, my impression of the Ayre's presentation was pretty much as I remembered it: a rather forward, grain-free balance and a well-defined soundstage. But the highs seemed smoother than I was expecting. I used the CX-7 as my workhorse digital source for a couple of weeks, and during that time it seemed to get even smoother, but without any feeling of suppressed detail or rolled-off highs. Despite its rather inconsistent perspectives and sometimes obtrusive noise (from the Royal Albert Hall organ?), the 2004 BBC Music Magazine CD of Leonard Slatkin conducting the BBC Symphony in Vaughan Williams' A Sea Symphony in concert (BBC MM244) sounded simply glorious on the Ayre, with velvety highs and an enormously deep bass.
It was time for some comparisons, matching playback levels at 1kHz to within 0.1dB, using the No.380S's input offset function. First up was the $2000 Simaudio Equinox. The presentations were very similar, with a slightly forward balance and a deep, detailed soundstage. However, the slight chiff that starts each note of the flute in the Mozart Quartet movement on my Editor's Choice CD (Stereophile STPH016-2) sounded slightly disembodied through the Equinox compared with the Ayre. While the bass guitar on "The Mooche" (from the same CD) had perhaps both a little more low-frequency weight and better-defined leading edges through the Simaudio player, the Ayre was better at presenting the ambience surrounding the vibraphone vamp at the start of this track. Billy Drummond's brushed cymbals also had less of a white-noise character through the Ayre, sounding more realistically metallic.
After prolonged listening, it became clear that the CX-7 was slightly better at differentiating the individual sounds of instruments than the Canadian player. As each orchestral "choir" took its turn offering variations of the underlying Purcell theme in Benjamin Britten's Young Person's Guide to the Orchestra, with the ECO conducted in 1964 by the composer (JVC/Decca JVCXR-0226-2), the Ayre more clearly allowed each instrument's tone quality to stand clear of the enveloping acoustic of London's Kingsway Hall. Even so, it was a close-run thing much of the time.
I turned to the $2900 Naim CD5x, which Art Dudley enthused over in our November 2004 issue. On the Mozart Flute Quartet movement from Editor's Choice, the Ayre sounded more incisive, the Naim slightly warmer, but also more muddled in the lower mids. The Ayre was again better at portraying the intimate acoustic of Santa Fe's St. Francis Auditorium, which came over as a bit more anonymous through the English player. With Antony Michaelson's performance of the Mozart Clarinet Concerto (K622, Musical Fidelity SACD017), both players reproduced the "Red Book" layer of this hybrid SACD with a full, rich balance. The solo instrument sounded very slightly more reedy through the English player, however, with the orchestral picture wider but flatter.
Dipping into the boxed set of Robert Silverman performing the complete Beethoven piano sonatas (OrpheumMasters KSP830), both players were excellent at bringing out the inner voices of the writing. The Naim was perhaps a bit better at reproducing the sound of hammers hitting strings, the Ayre at preserving the image of the Bösendorfer instrument within the small-scaled acoustic of the Santa Monica recital hall where I had made the recording.
My final set of comparisons was with the $975 Benchmark DAC1, which has indeed become my benchmark for affordable digital sound. I used the Ayre's digital output to drive the Benchmark, using a 2m length of Illuminati Orchid AES/EBU datalink. Playing a CD-R of the new CD of Cantus singing Christmas music (Comfort, Cantus CTS-1204), both the Ayre and the Benchmark were excellent at capturing the feeling of hushed expectancy on Morten Lauridsen's lusciously scored O Magnum Mysterium. The DAC1 had a little more top-octave air around the singers; the CX-7 was smoother-sounding overall, and was a little better at differentiating among the lower voices in this dense arrangement.
Returning to Editor's Choice, the CX-7 was slightly better at preserving the character of the Albuquerque church in which I had recorded Robert Silverman performing Liszt's Liebestraum. On the Britten XRCD, the Ayre was slightly better at integrating the leading edges of timpani notes with the body of the drum sound. Both CX-7 and DAC1 sounded superbly rich, smooth, and detailed on the new Linn hybrid SACD of Sir Charles Mackerras conducting the Scottish Chamber Orchestra in works of Kodály and Bartók (CKD 234).
Without access to the original sample of the CX-7, it is impossible, of course, for me to decide whether the current production of this player is better, or if I have become more appreciative of the design's mix of sonic virtues in the intervening 18 months. But when you get down to it, the CX-7 is one of the better one-box CD players around, and fully deserves a Class A rating in Stereophile's "Recommended Components."—John Atkinson