Music in the Round #46

As I wandered the displays and demonstrations at the 2010 CEDIA Expo last September, I found few multichannel products worth writing about. Sure, there were many interesting new speakers from Pioneer, GoldenEar, Atlantic Technology, Adam Audio, MartinLogan, and others, but really, you could just use two for stereo. I saw the requisite number of new multichannel players, processors, and receivers, but most boasted no more than some new features that made them easier to use (iPad apps were rife) and/or gave them access to new sources (audio and video streaming were obligatory).

So why was I smiling? First, it left me with lots of time to schmooze with old friends. Second, it was clearly apparent that, at this point, multichannel audio is simply presumed for every audio system, except for some based on network streaming devices. And third, new stereo components from high-end companies now incorporate the modern digital technologies developed for multichannel. In other words, the technological lines separating two-channel from multichannel and/or analog from digital are becoming increasingly blurred.

This is nothing new for home-theater systems, whose designs have always been based on the assumption that the user will also play music on them. There's no better evidence for this than the proliferation of iPod docking stations and streaming options offered with nearly every A/V receiver and home-theater-in-a-box I saw on the Expo floor. The High End, however, has a dogma of keeping as much digital stuff, with its accompanying RF problems, out of the picture, despite the dominance of digital sources in what was once a purely analog territory. Under the rubric of analog purity, digital sources—players, digital-to-analog converters, network sources—used to be isolated from the rest of the system, and the important tools of modern multichannel sound, such as bass management, are proscribed.

That logic no longer applies. Premium-quality analog preamplifiers were exhibited, by McIntosh Labs (C48, $4500; C50, $6500) and Classé Audio (CP-800, $6000), that incorporate digital functions, if in only two channels. This means that you can directly input digital signals from many sources, and employ bass management and EQ if you choose. It's not only these models' features and engineering that deserve notice; the inclusion of digital services in a fundamentally analog component is significant. As Ron Cornelius (McIntosh) and Alan Clark (Classé) explained to me how the digital portions of these products had been engineered to complement but not compromise their analog functions, I was reminded of all the old arguments for having separate multi- and two-channel components, and the consequent justifications for sticking with stereo. Clearly, such distinctions are going away. Imagine the wide appeal of an all-purpose preamplifier+processor (not a preamplifier-processor) that includes both uncompromised analog stereo and cutting-edge multichannel signal paths. With apologies to Duke Ellington, such a future would have only good sound . . . and, of course, that other kind.

Ayre Acoustics DX-5 universal disc player
Last month, Michael Fremer and John Atkinson had their ways with this long-awaited, $10,000 player from Ayre Acoustics (footnote 1), but here I take a different tack. Though I used the DX-5's analog outputs and USB input (primarily with a tweaked Squeezebox Touch), my focus was on its multichannel output via HDMI. Interestingly, the DX-5 has two HDMI outputs: one, HDMI A/V Output, is the same as that on the Oppo Digital BDP-83, on whose DNA the Ayre is based; the other, HDMI Audio Output, is based on Ayre's gene splicing. They are simultaneously active, but the Audio Output carries only audio and a control blank video signal. The Oppo's component-video outputs are eliminated, but the composite-video output remains, for those of us who use mini-LCD monitors to navigate the Ayre's on-screen menu.

Conveniently for Michael Fremer, the DX-5 factory default setting is its two-channel mode; as long as you don't insert an HDMI cable in the HDMI Audio Output jack, the balanced and single-ended analog outputs remain active. This confused me at first, when I tried to A/B the Ayre's analog and HDMI outputs via the Meridian 621/861: selecting an analog input on the 861 left the Ayre connected to an active HDMI input on the 621 and muted its analog outputs. But I gradually got the hang of it, and had no problems when I connected the DX-5 to the Classé CT-SSP surround-sound processor. The reason for this is that the DX-5 has two separate, ultra-low-jitter master audio oscillators, one each for analog and HDMI output, running at different frequencies to minimize jitter for each. As only one oscillator clock can be in charge at a time, plugging in a live HDMI connection activates the circuitry for that output and turns off the master clock for the analog outputs, effectively muting them.

Otherwise, setting up the DX-5 will be familiar to anyone who's set up an Oppo BDP-83, though Ayre makes some specific recommendations regarding speaker setup, including boosting the subwoofer channel output 5dB over the full-range speaker outputs. I connected both of the Ayre's HDMI outputs to inputs on the Classé CT-SSP (along with the outputs from the Oppo BDP-83SE and the Sony XA-5400ES SACD player), but immediately defaulted to the Ayre's HDMI A/V Output in order to compare it with the Oppo. Since this output path is identical to that in the BDP-83 but Ayre does support it with their linear power supplies, I wanted to know whether the latter offered an audible advantage over the original's switching power supplies. It didn't. While sometimes I thought I could hear a difference between them, I also was fooled as to which one I was listening to. I'd call it a draw.

Footnote 1: Ayre Acoustics, Inc., 2300-B Central Avenue, Boulder, CO 80301. Tel: (303) 442-7300. Fax: (303) 442-7301. Web: