Ayre C-5xe universal disc player Page 3

Wow! How had I missed this disc's meaty sound, rock-solid bass, and loose, bluesy textures? I knew I'd given it a chance, but before hearing it through the Ayre, it hadn't knocked my socks off. And what a great song "Pixeleen" is—easily equal to the band's best work from the 1970s. If all DVD-As sound like this, what have I been missing?

Some good stuff, obviously, such as Immersion (DVD-A, Starkland 2010), a collection of short avant-garde works that includes compositions by Meredith Monk and Pauline Oliveros. The Monk piece consists of layered voices that float in their acoustic with startling clarity and, well, embodiedness, for lack of a better word.

On the other hand, I was hard-pressed to find much in the way of true hi-rez DVD-A, as opposed to remastered baby-boomer music. Of course, I did have Classic Records' DAD series—digital audio discs, or DVD-V with two-channel 24/96 remasters of stone audio classics, such as Pulse (Classic DAD 1002) and Muddy Waters' Folk Singer (Classic HDAD 2008). And once again, we have a winner! Actually, we have about 40 of 'em—and I'd almost consider this series by itself cause for owning a player that could do justice to them.

I'd heard these recordings before, on DVD-V players as well as on at least two universal players from mainstream but upscale mass-market manufacturers. Why was I hearing so much more in them now? Charlie Hansen credits his zero-feedback, no-integrated-circuit design philosophy: "I sound like a broken record, but 99.9% of the digital products out there have high-feedback op-amps in the analog signal path. High-feedback, IC op-amps make sense in a $500 product when you're trying to get the most bang for the buck, but when you're selling a $5000 product, it's like cheating."

Maybe he has a point. All I know is that the Ayre C-5xe was teaching this old dog some new audio tricks—like sitting up and begging for more.

Genius means...perceiving in an unhabitual way
Of course, if my previous experience with universal players was blurred, obscured, and diminished by their lack of high-end cred, it behooved me to compare the Ayre to something with higher aspirations. Fortunately, John Atkinson had a Linn Unidisk SC on hand. The SC, of course, is Linn's single-box, $4995 universal player, preamp, video switcher, and surround-sound processor. This means that it's designed with a lot of extras that will make it very attractive to someone who's combined his or her music system with a home theater, but that may also be unnecessary distractions for the sort of two-channel music enthusiast the C-5xe is aimed at. Still, he must needs go that the devil drives—and the Unidisk SC was what we had.

To make it a level playing field, I outfitted the Linn with Myrtle Wood Blocks and ran the Simple, But Efficacious! sweep tone through it before making my level-matched comparisons.

Playing CDs—Basie Big Band, for instance—the Ayre C-5xe had more bass slam and drive. John Duke's big bass sound locked into sync with Butch Miles' drums and Freddie Green's guitar to create a rhythm section that, through the C-5xe, could have marched the Verrazano Narrows Bridge to Queens. The Linn had less low-end presence and less midrange body, as well—with the result that Green's guitar sounded "tinkly" rather than integral to the band's motor. The Ayre also captured more of the breathiness of Eric Dixon's flute, as well as tons more dynamic wallop when the massed horns lunge in after the intro.

Matters were more equal in the SACD realm, but the Ayre captured the acoustic weight of the St. Ignatius Loyola Church with greater conviction on Music for Organ, Brass, and Timpani—again, I was left wondering whether there even was a noise floor for the music to rise above (of course there must be, but it made me wonder).

I don't want to imply that the Linn didn't sound great, because it did. I thought the organ was convincing and timbrally true, but the Ayre seemed to place the king of instruments (and all those other instruments) in a space that was more convincing—and who doesn't want "more convincing"?

Playing DVDs, the Ayre's high contrast between silence and sound, combined with its ability to capture the smallest dynamic shadings, caused me to prefer it again—especially with material such as Henry Cowell's Pulse, on the Classic DAD of the same name. I was particularly struck by how effortlessly the Ayre presented the stunning dynamic swings of Cowell's four-minute workout—and also by how much warm tonality it imparted to the woodblocks and tom-toms. Through the Linn, these last were dramatic but given a bit less tonal life.

There is no genius without some touch of madness
It ought to be fairly obvious that I found the Ayre C-5xe more than satisfactory. I didn't expect it to disappoint, but I was unprepared for just how much it delighted me. I've heard a lot of impressive audio components over the years, but I've heard very few that afforded me greater musical pleasure or sent me on as many voyages of musical discovery through discs I thought I knew well.

Is it the best universal player currently available? I can't say. It ranks among the best single-box CD players I've heard, and I have yet to hear an SACD or DVD player that rivals it for pure audio, ummm, purity. I'd buy it for its CD reproduction alone and consider the other formats very welcome extras.

Sure, the Ayre C-5xe comes with caveats. It costs $6000—not a fortune by high-end standards, perhaps, but four-figure prices always give me pause. However, it's fairly obvious that the C-5xe is an expensive player to manufacture. I'm not talking about its fancy faceplate but about its innards—the custom clocks, bespoke power supplies, and fully discrete design. I'm also reassured by the company's commitment to customer service, as illustrated by Charlie Hansen's remarks about Ayre's responsibility toward potential (and current) owners of the C-5xe. That's not audio jewelry, but things I am willing to pay for.

Another caution: Unlike any other universal player I know of, the C-5xe is a music-only, two-channel–only disc player. That could be either a bug or a feature, depending on whether or not you need to combine your music and video systems. I keep my HT system far away from my hi-fi, so I love the idea of a universal player that lets me separate the two—not to mention one that lets me listen to my DVD-As and DVD-Vs (such as The Crossroads Guitar Festival DVD I received as a Christmas gift) in the best-sounding room of my house.

Based on my audition, however, the best-sounding room in my house is almost certainly going to be the room with the C-5xe in it. As usual when talking to Charlie Hansen, what I took to be a joke turned out to be truer than most bald-faced statements of fact. Better than anything I heard at CES 2005? The Ayre C-5xe has proved to be the best-sounding product I've heard all year.