Ayre CX-7 CD player Page 2

Setup consisted of sitting the CX-7 on four of Ayre's Myrtle Wood Blocks, using four more of these blocks to damp the player's rather resonant top panel, powering it with a PS Audio Lab Cable, and connecting it to my Levinson preamp with 0.5m lengths of Ayre's new Cardas-sourced Signature balanced interconnect. All comparisons were performed with levels matched at 1kHz, using the No.380S's input offset function. In general I set the CX-7's digital filter to Listen, but I could hear no appreciable difference between that mode and Measure. Sometimes I thought I favored one setting over the other on some passages of music, but there was no consistency to my preference.

First disc up was March's "Recording of the Month," Ry Cooder's and Manuel Galbán's Mambo Sinuendo (Perro Verde/Nonesuch 79691-2). Engineer Jerry Boys worked hard to set the sounds of the musicians within the acoustic of the EGREM studios in Cuba—within what Cooder termed the "bubble," in both acoustic and musical senses (see Robert Baird's interview with Cooder in March, p.49). Via the Ayre CX-7, this aspect of the sound was reproduced in spades. Even when the lead guitar is using artificial reverb, as in "La Luna en tu Mirada," the contrast between its character and the real acoustic surrounding the drums is laid deliciously clear.

The Ayre seemed to excel at preserving this fragile sense of an acoustic around recorded instruments, something that is so easily destroyed by mid-fi playback. Ella Fitzgerald's Songbook albums were recorded in the 1950s and '60s, when the band played live in the studio. Her 1959 take with arranger Nelson Riddle on George and Ira Gershwin's "Fascinatin' Rhythm" (The Songbooks, Verve 823 445-2) begins with drums vamping in a distinctive space that is further defined when the saxes enter with a figure that meanders upward. As the trumpets loudly take the tune in the instrumental break, you can still hear that same space around the drums. I'm talking about tiny details and differences in the reverb tails here, but nothing sounded confused or obscured via the CX-7.

This is relative, of course. Playing the same cut on the megabucks Mark Levinson No.31.5/No.30.6 combination revealed slightly better differentiation between the trumpets and trombones when they were playing the same line, and the high strings that make an appearance in the recapitulation of the tune floated higher in the image than they had through the Ayre. Ella's voice was set a little farther back in the image through the Levinson, with a little more chest tone. But it's a lot easier to write these words than it was to reach these conclusions during the auditioning sessions.

I had a brief opportunity to compare the CX-7 with Ayre's D-1X, which had to be returned to the manufacturer post-review just as the CX-7 arrived. There was no doubt that the more expensive player offered a more refined sound, the tiny tonal inflections in Ella's distinctive vocalizing being presented with better clarity, but it sounded a little laid-back compared with the CX-7. In my system, I actually preferred the "budget" Ayre overall for its more coherent character and more vibrant presentation.

Compared with the Musical Fidelity Nu-Vista player that I bought following Mikey Fremer's review in October 2001, the Ayre CX-7 sounded more forward, but with better upper-bass definition. On the Cooder/Galbán collaboration, the Musical Fidelity sounded more of a piece in the midrange and highs, but the double-bass sounded more lumpy. The Ayre player presented the bass instrument with the right combination of tonal body, LF extension, and the attack of fingertips plucking the strings. The Levinson's lows sounded more authoritative than both one-box players, but at $27,500, at a price way more than either.

Overall, the CX-7's high frequencies were clean, clear, and grain-free. Could the Ayre have been slightly exaggerating recorded detail? Through the Nu-Vista, it was certainly a little harder to hear what sound like LP artifacts in the JVC XRCD reissue of Fritz Reiner's performance of Tchaikovsky's Symphony 6 (JMCRXR-0021). Check out what happens at 6:50 and 9:20 in the first movement, just before the entry of the big tune—was the master tape damaged and a dub from the LP used for patches? Whatever their source, these peculiar spuriae sounded more homogenized with the Nu-Vista, more starkly revealed with the Ayre. Analog tape hiss on this 1950s recording was also a little more obvious, "whiter"-sounding, via the CX-7.

Yet this sense of detail was not achieved at the expense of tonal neutrality. The CX-7's high frequencies were silky-smooth, rendering acceptable the inherent brightness of one of this month's "Recordings of the Month," Yes's Fragile CD (Elektra/Rhino R2 73789). The lower mids on this recording actually sounded relatively warm on the Ayre compared with the 24/96 two-channel mix on the DVD-Audio version (R9 78249), which sounded thin on the Technics DVD-A10 player.

As I write these words, I'm listening to Stereophile's Mosaic CD. Everything sounds as I remember it at Chad Kassem's Blue Heaven Studios: the cello set back in the center between the two violins and the viola, and the clarinet on the right, its image occasionally splashing to the left as its sound at climaxes raises reflections. Yet with the Ayre CX-7's resolving view into the recorded soundstage, the acoustic is a little more apparent than I remember hearing when mastering the CD. Nice. Very nice. Closer to what I was trying to achieve when deciding on microphone placement.

Summing Up
Ayre's CX-7 sounds as clean as it looks. Its balance is vibrant, its bass well-defined and deep, its highs clean, detailed, and well-resolved. While SACD and DVD-Audio remain in the wings for most people, waiting still for their commercial cues, the money spent on a CX-7 by a music-lover with a large CD collection will be repaid by many, many hours of enjoyment.