Ayre C-5xe universal disc player Wes Phillips, February 2009

Wes Phillips wrote about the Ayre C-5xe in February 2009 (Vol.32 No.2):

When I read Robert Deutsch's Follow-Up on Ayre Acoustics' CX-7e CD player in the January 2008 Stereophile, I was startled to read that "at least two of [my Stereophile colleagues] said that, for CD playback, they preferred the CX-7e [$2950] to Ayre's twice-as-expensive universal player, the C-5xe [$5950]."

That was a bit of audiophile buzz I hadn't heard. But, like most 'Murricans, I do love a story in which the plucky underdog bests the champion. Besides, I'm the very happy owner of a C-5xe; if what RD said were true, it would mean that the CX-7e would be a monster CD player indeed. Determined to hear for myself, I requested a review sample. When it arrived, I installed it in my smaller listening room and began the process of (for lack of a better term) burning it in. Ayre suggests that the CX-7e won't achieve its optimal sound quality until after 500 hours of play.

Naturally, I listened to it with the system that occupies that smaller room. During the long burn-in period, what music lover could resist getting pulled into a room where music was constantly playing? In the context of that system—Parasound Halo JC 2 preamplifier, Musical Fidelity Nu-Vista 300 power amp, Usher Be-718 speakers—it would have been impossible to ignore the music: the Ushers created a tight soundstage, and the sound was sharp and detailed. Music had snap and sparkle. Methinks we have a winner, methought; the CX-7e is a giant-killer.

Finally, it was time to move the CX-7e up to the big room, where the C-5xe resided in a system that included the VTL TL-6.5 Signature preamplifier, a pair of Parasound Halo JC 1 monoblocks, and YGA Anat Reference II Professional loudspeakers ($107,000/pair). Everything was connected with Stealth Audio Cables wire: Metacarbon balanced interconnects, Dream speaker cables, and Dream power cords. And yes, Ayre's own Myrtle Wood Blocks supported and damped all components.

I'm being so specific because, where Ayre gear is concerned, everything matters. Turning off the CX-7e's or the C-5xe's display made a huge difference in the sound of each. Ditto damping each chassis with the Myrtle blocks. And making sure that both sources were connected directly to the twin Shunyata Research FP-20A(R) duplex AC outlets on the system's dedicated circuit was revelatory, even though I "knew" there would be no audible difference if one was plugged directly into the Shunyata outlets and the other to Ayre's L-5xe line filter. I don't tweak because I want audio to be complicated; I tweak despite wanting it to be simple-and brutal reality keeps refuting my lovely theories.

I began by listening to "Dedication," from Sheila Jordan and Harvie Swartz's Songs from Within (CD, M•A Recordings M014A) on the CX-7e. It opens with Swartz playing pizzicato very high up on the neck of his double bass-gentle plucks that are more harmonic overtones than fundamentals. Then Jordan enters with some wordless scatting that sent shivers down my spine. The image of the two musicians was tight and focused. The plucked bass notes shimmered delicately, and Jordan's breathy voice had body. No wonder the CX-7e is in Class A of Stereophile's "Recommended Components."

However, the C-5xe, too, is in Class A, and it delivered a larger but still tightly focused soundstage. The reproduction of the recording venue's acoustic was larger, and so were both musicians, in a very physical sense. Through the universal player, Swartz's plucked notes had more bass body-still ethereal, they were now more strongly anchored to the bass's soundboard rather than seeming to float free of it. When Jordan began singing words ("There are so many beautiful musicians / that have passed my way"), her voice shifted from head tones to body tones and, well, the C-5xe reproduced that body to scale.

Switching to a live album, KFOG's Live from the Archives 12 (CD, KFOG ARCH12; a gift from Stereophile Forums participant Buddah), I cued up the Ditty Bops' "Ooh La La" on the CX-7e. The soundstage was larger than that of the Jordan-Swartz track, and very airy-live in the best sense of that word. Amanda Barrett's and Abbey DeWald's voices blended fabulously, and DeWald's amplified acoustic guitar really popped. When, in the bridge, Barrett began shaking some maracas, they sounded as if they were in the room-and ditto when she switched to tambourine. The acoustic surrounding the percussion instruments sounded more natural than that of the vocals or guitar-FoH magic, I assume.

Through the C-5xe this track's soundstage was huge, extending beyond the speakers themselves. Before beginning the song, Barrett (I think) says, "Feel free to stomp your feet," and DeWald (I think) chimes in: "Please do!" I wouldn't go so far as to say I could hear the audience complying, but the C-5xe had more rhythmic drive than the CX-7e-through the former, I could better hear why the audience might really want to. And DeWald's guitar had more moxie.

Henry Mancini's main theme for the 1962 Howard Hawks film Hatari!, from Don Byron's You Are #6: More Music for Six Musicians (CD, Blue Note 32231), sounded focused, and the acoustic was immense through the CX-7e. Milton Cardona, Johnny Almendra, and Ben Wittman lay down a thicket of mixed percussion-talking drums, shakers, cowbell-while Byron and James Zollar (on flugelhorn) practically fade into the background. The soundstage was rock-solid and deep.

That soundstage was deeper through the C-5xe, but the individual sounds were also somewhat more distinct. To say that I hadn't noticed that bassist Leo Traversa was singing behind the percussion choir in the B section of this ABAC tune would be an overstatement, but it was harder to miss through the C-5xe. And when Cardona began to intone praises (I think) to the deity Chango in the second A section, the words were more distinct and comprehensible-at least to my gringo ears. I still didn't understand them, but I could recognize that they were distinct words and not just background chatter.

The crescendo-rock band Explosions in the Sky has become a bit of an obsession with me lately, so I cued up "First Breath After Coma," from The Earth Is Not a Cold Dead Place (CD, The Temporary Residence TRR 61), in the CX-7e to hear some good new-fashioned rock'n'roll. The CD player again was extremely well focused and rhythmically zippy, emphasizing what a monster drummer Christopher Hrasky is. The jam, more than nine minutes long, has almost epic scope, unfolding at an unhurried pace that, as I have experienced with other CD players, at times can seem a little too unhurried. But the CX-7e's pace and ability to sort out dynamic shifts kept things moving along nicely.

The C-5xe didn't expand the scale of the soundstage as much with Explosions in the Sky as it had with the other music I'd played, but it did extend the bass, giving bassist Michael James more equal status in the mix. It also sorted out dynamic shifts slightly better than the CX-7e. In addition, it put minor timbral shifts into greater perspective. At the end of "First Breath," one guitarist (Munaf Rayani?) plays a chimey, downward-turning figure, while the other (Mark Smith?) just unleashes a sonic buzz saw, as the band (what else?) crescendos toward a climax. Through the C-5xe, I was convinced that the sustained grind was courtesy my old friend the Big Muff fuzz pedal-and yes, Virginia, rock instruments (even stomp boxes) do have timbral ranges as complex as those of acoustic instruments. What I will grant, however, is that not all rock recordings are created equal; The Earth Is Not a Cold Dead Place probably benefited from being produced by a small indie label that lacked the resources to ruin it with studio quackery.

One advantage that recorded classical music frequently has is that many (though far from all) of its producers can actually hear. Thomas C. Moore is obviously one of them, judging from a recent recording of Vivaldi's The Four Seasons with Boston Baroque and Martin Pearlman (CD, Telarc CD-80698). If you're an avid classical listener, you may wonder, as I do, why you'd want another Four Seasons, and perhaps one is all you need. I thought so with the old St. Martin-in-the-Fields recording on Argo, and I thought it again with the very fine baroque-music-as-death-metal performance by Il Giardino Harmonico on Teldec, but Telarc's latest charms me a great deal, not least for its wide, open, brilliant acoustic.

Then there's Christina Day Martinson's fiddling, which is lark-swift and very deft. The CX-7e captured the soar and swoop of Martinson's violin in the Allegro of Spring. The ensemble is centered in a very buoyant acoustic, and the violinist's flights are very much front and center, though not in the way of mid-1980s Deutsche Grammophon recordings, with their ruthlessly spotlit soloists.

The C-5xe was pretty much the same, only more so: bigger acoustic, broader soundstage, and the soloist better integrated, if only ever so slightly, into the ensemble.

But really-how big was the difference between the CX-7e and the C-5xe? Noticeable but not huge. More to the point, I suspect that in many audio systems the differences might be downright negligible-as was the case in my smaller listening room.

The Usher Be-718 speakers, good as they are, simply lack the bottom-end extension of the YGA Anats, so some of the differences in scale I experienced in my big room simply weren't audible in the small, where the CX-7e's focus and slight loss of scale actually worked in its favor. When I put the C-5xe in that system, the differences were practically inaudible. In fact, if I hadn't had a balanced preamplifier and amplifier in the big-room system, the differences would have been far less noticeable-as they were when I tested that hypothesis.

I had to repeat my listening tests, and reevaluate the differences, when VTL's Luke Manley pointed out that the line-level input of his TL-6.5 preamp that I'd connected the C-5xe to initially had a gain-matching pot that the input I had the CX-7e connected to didn't have. The pot wasn't activated, but it was still in the circuit, so I repeated the listening tests bypassing this pot. Sure enough, what I'd thought were minor differences became slightly more major.

And who knows what other factors contributed to this? Quite possibly, the big room's dedicated circuit was one. Certainly the YGA Anats, which will get a full review in next month's issue, provided a very powerful microscope for hearing tiny variations in reproduction. Even with a speaker as good as the Thiel CS3.7, I might not have noticed some of the things I observed. And as for cable rolling . . . let's not even go there.

My final final answer is that Ayre's CX-7e CD player is a whole lot of fun, and deserves its place in Class A of "Recommended Components." I recommend it highly. Is it better than Ayre's C-5xe universal player? Not in the best system I can currently muster-but in other systems it might possibly be just as good. I could live very happily with the CX-7e, but I'm not trading in my C-5xe for it (footnote 1). Yet.—Wes Phillips

Footnote 1: Both players are about to be updated with revised digital filters, that hopefully will reflect Ayre's considerable research into subjectively optimal filter design. As the players implement the filters in a Field-Programmable Gate Array (FPGA) chip, Ayre dealers will be able to update older players in the field.—Wes Phillips