Ayre Acoustics Codex D/A headphone amplifier Page 2

The second track on Cruel Sister is a cappella: McShee singing "When I Was in My Prime." In addition to the you-are-there intimacy of the studio space captured in the recording, with the Codex I could clearly hear an odd artificial reverb that sat behind McShee at the center of the stage. I could also hear the compression-pumping artifacts each time she takes a breath. Then there was an obvious edit at 2:23, where they glued a different take on at the end of the song. I realize all this is diving into audio-geek territory (headphone listening can do that), but rarely does a DAC so precisely reveal the mechanics of that edit. In other words, there was plenty of detail to go around, as well as the ability to hear into the space with the performers. This was the quality of Ayre's QB-9 DAC that attracted me years ago, and it was clearly audible through the Codex.

Shel Talmy's production of early-1960s albums is noted for, among other things (the Kinks!), the bell-like sound of his technique of recording acoustic guitars. With Pentangle, this brought the guitars of Bert Jansch and John Renbourn right into the room with me. While not sounding particularly real or accurate—there's a bit too much steel to the sound for that—these acoustic instruments emerged very alive and attractive under Talmy's guidance: his sound influenced how acoustic guitars would be recorded from that point on.

Talmy produced Pentangle's second album, Sweet Child (CD, Sanctuary 354), and I used "Three Part Thing" as a typical example of those bell-like guitars to compare the Codex with a couple other headphone DACs. I set up the Chord Hugo TT ($4795) and the Benchmark DAC2 HGC ($1995), and switched back and forth after each playing of this instrumental. Both of these DACs are more expensive than the Codex, the Chord especially so at well more than twice the price. The big caveat is that the Chord and Benchmark have no balanced option for headphones, and so, at first, I did these comparisons unbalanced. And since I'd already established that balanced operation does indeed have the advantage, the comparisons got more complicated when I included it.

Compared to the Hugo, with the Codex set for unbalanced operation, the sound of the latter had a bit more edge—not brightness per se, but slightly less mellowness than the Chord, with more emphasis of the sheen of the guitar: a little extra detail, whereas the Hugo was more polite. One side effect of this extra detail was that the Codex's soundstage felt wider through headphones; the Chord's soundstage was more centered and forward in my head. In the long run, the Chord was more relaxing to listen to, but when I set the Codex for balanced operation and once again made the comparison, it seemed more of a draw. The Codex still soundstaged wider, and now its sound was closer to having the Chord's refined feel.

Unbalanced, in fact, the Ayre Codex veered closer to the Benchmark in the detail department. The Benchmark has always been a no-nonsense DAC; I found that the Codex further refined that approach, fleshing it out, returning a bit more life to the music. Where the Benchmark was a little lean, the Codex seemed just right, with more meat and dynamic pulse. Through the Benchmark, acoustic guitars sounded almost too thin, and not as pleasant. The Benchmark offers more features in terms of inputs and remote control—but if you don't need those, the Ayre seems the clear winner.

Against the QB-9DSD
In my main system, the Codex hewed closer to the QB-9DSD and Chord than to the Benchmark. The Chord is so musical and seductive, and both Ayres are hanging in the same ballpark, so credit to the cheaper Codex for making the team.

I spent an afternoon listening to the new high-definition remastering of Gary Numan and Tubeway Army's Replicas (PCM 24/96, Beggars Banquet), which is more analog than one might suspect for an artist who clearly ended up in the electronic category. I don't care so much for the sound of the more popular follow-up, The Pleasure Principle, and so tend to stick with this earlier album, also released in 1979.

Listening to "Me! I Disconnect from You," I pitted the QB-9DSD against the Codex and switched back and forth at least a dozen times before I began to sense a bit more control with the more expensive DAC. The Codex had all the attributes that first won me over several years ago, when the original QB-9 landed in my system, but sounded ever so slightly looser: there was a tad less definition of the soundstage—although this didn't affect the bottom end, or my system's overall tonal balance.

No surprise, but the Ayre Codex and QB-9DSD sounded much closer to each other than to the Chord. "Are 'Friends' Electric?," from Replicas, features a constant if tempo-challenged acoustic drum part that, through the Chord, sat farther back in the mix than it had through the Ayres. But, in fairness, all three DACs were able to reveal detail galore from this analog recording and mix, and without any hardness or edge. The Hugo TT, of course, comes with more input options, fanciful packaging, and remote control, and though I might prefer it in the long run, as the price increases you enter the realm of diminishing returns in sound quality.

A last sonic note: The one area in which the Codex did not perform miracles was with bright or problematic recordings. It revealed all, and it refused to butter up dry, hard slabs of toasted music. What they mastered is what I got. Take, for example, the recent hi-def remasters of Elvis Costello's albums, especially the earlier ones, such as This Year's Model and Armed Forces (PCM 24/192): the Codex revealed them in all their bright, sizzling glory—I could take only a minute or two before I had to turn the volume down. In the end, I consider this a small price to pay for a DAC that can elevate great recordings to their rightful heights.

With the Codex, you get a humble-looking component for your desktop, without that flash Ayre metalwork you've ogled for years, at a price that's attainable by a greater number of people—all while keeping the family sonic heritage intact. In fact, if they could all come out this good, I'd encourage Hansen and company to make an entire line of generic-case electronics that also sell for lighter-than-Ayre prices.

Probably the best words to describe the Codex's aural character are neutral and detailed—and add Control, with a capital C. It was easy to listen into the soundstage of a complicated recording and pick out filigree and nuance. But the Codex also presented a simple, well-recorded, unaccompanied voice with ease, humanity, and that essential breath of life.

Add to that the Codex's secret weapon: balanced operation for headphone listening. Unbalanced, it did fine, but the Codex's Balanced mode reminded me why I liked Antelope Audio's Platinum DAC and headphone amp so much—and, more recently, why I've been crazy for the Chord Hugo TT: effortless detail that doesn't fatigue.

Taking into account the price difference with the QB-9DSD ($3450), the Codex is the most value-packed DAC in the Ayre Acoustics repertoire, and its modest enclosure hides a pyramid of technological achievement rarely available at this price point. The Codex should be part of the roundup for anyone looking for a DAC under $2000—even if they never need its headphones options.

Ayre Acoustics, Inc.
2300-B Central Avenue
Boulder, CO 80301
(303) 442-7300

headphile's picture

It seems like a missed opportunity to not have Tyll Hertsens at least co-author headphone reviews when they are posted to Stereophile instead of Innerfidelity (Stereophile's review of the Chord Hugo TT is another example of this). I am an avid reader of The Enthusiast Network's audiophile websites and I have consistently found Tyll to be a trusted reviewer with invaluable headphone experience. His reviews include accurate comparisons and measurements that give useful context that can be used to make informed purchase decisions. I hope in the future more reviews like this will at least be co-authored by Tyll or posted to Innerfidelity.

Jon Iverson's picture
Great idea - will see if this is possible for the next headphone/DAC review.
cgh's picture

... watch stuff grow.

lennykp's picture

Did you try AYRE Codex as balance preamp? how does it perform?
Please ask manufacturer if USA model work on 240V also?

acuvox's picture

Ayre Acoustics has always scrupulously minimized or avoided generating RFI signals in its boxes. This means putting the control micro to sleep or hibernating, analog power supplies and static, non-matrixed displays.

This example is retro visually. The seven segment LED display goes back to the first pocket calculators from Bowmar in 1971, and the first digital watch in 1967. Pin count was a major issue, so calculator displays where multiplexed, switching the digits on and off in succession on the first microprocessors.

For only two digits, you just need 14 pins for the segments to run on DC. The extra 5 pins are insignificantly expensive in parts cost and circuit board space, but this critical design decision improves sound quality better than expensive internal mu metal shielding.