In the history of music reproduction, multichannel formats have to be considered one of the significant failures. In theory, more channels are a great thing, and they can be in practice, too. However, for whatever reason, none of the various four-, five- or 5.1-channel formats has caught on. The two most recent examples, SACD and DVD-A, were expected to dominate the audiophile and home-theater markets by now, but home-theater enthusiasts are too busy playing movies to worry much about music only, and audiophiles continue to embrace stereo, even with multichannel formats lurking about.
SACD and DVD-A have found an audience, however, among two-channel audiophiles, who have welcomed the higher bit and sampling rates, and the corresponding increase in sound quality. Like vinyl, SACD and DVD-A have become niche formats, and while they haven't become the next big thing, they do have advocates in the music industry, with new releases appearing at a reasonable rate. So there is support of both formats, even if it's not great enough to make Sony and Philips care.
Into this void enters Ayre Acoustics, whose C-5xe digital player shows a finely tuned understanding of how audiophiles listen to music here and now.
In the Ayre
Ayre calls the $5950 USD C-5xe a "universal stereo," or "U2," player, and this signals a shrewd deviation for this multi-format digital source. Like other universal players, the C-5xe plays discs in all formats that are currently available; however, it does so only in stereo, not multichannel, and without video. While there are universal players from Esoteric that are primarily for two-channel use, they make concessions for home theater by including video playback and an iLink connection for use with a surround-sound receiver or processor. In contrast, the C-5xe is all about sound all of the time. It is hot-rodded for stereo playback, eschewing features that Ayre's customer base of two-channel audiophiles simply doesn't need.
In this regard, the C-5xe uses Burr-Brown DSD1792 DACs in a fully balanced configuration, which Ayre's Charles Hansen considers one of the core principles of audio-electronic design. Ayre modifies the unit's Pioneer transport mechanism to increase its rigidity. Two beefy custom transformers make the C-5xe's left side heavier than its right. One is for the transport mechanism and SACD decoder (a Sony CXD2753R), and the other is for the DACs and audio circuitry. "As far as transformers go, I just like using big ones!" Charles Hansen told me. "Over-specifying them gives them more reserve capacity, less heat, less mechanical noise, and better sound."
The Burr-Brown DACs process PCM and DSD in their native states, so the C-5xe does no DSD-to-PCM conversion. The DACs also have four built-in filters, and the best-sounding of them for SACD also happens to have noticeably lower output. So when listening to SACDs on the C-5xe, you have to remember to turn the volume up a few clicks.
As anyone who has used a universal player knows, maneuvering around CDs and SACDs, which are non-video formats, is easy, but high-resolution DVD-Vs and DVD-As are another matter. Both have video as part of their specifications, and most of the discs produced have onscreen menus at the very least. You might think that this would make the videoless C-5xe a bother to use when playing DVDs, but nothing could be further from the truth. Even without video, DVDs are a cinch for the C-5xe.
The C-5xe addresses DVD playback with a well-designed user interface and informative LED display. DVDs are authored in groups that are often different versions of the same material. One group will represent the highest sound quality on each disc. With the C-5xe, you can easily move from group to group, watching the LEDs on the front panel, which let you know when you've found a group with 96kHz (two LEDs lit) or 192kHz (three LEDs lit) sampling rate -- if either exists. Once you've identified the group with the highest sampling rate, you label it with a Post-It note on the DVD's case, so you don't have to explore the disc each time you play it. The specification for DVD-Audio is a maximum of 24-bit resolution, but it's the sampling rate that seems to make the greatest sonic difference. DVDs from Classic Records and Hi-Res Music are actually DVD-Video discs that make use of only the audio section of the disc and are limited to 24-bit/96kHz resolution. DVD-As offer up to 24-bit/192kHz stereo sound, although 24-bit/96kHz multichannel sound is more common.
Some DVD-As are a surprise. A couple I had here had groups that registered as 192kHz, even though there was no indication on the case or in the liner notes that this should be. On the other end of the spectrum, some were no higher than 48kHz, which is slightly above CD's 44.1kHz. The C-5xe can also detect and play Dolby Digital and DTS soundtracks on DVDs, but generally these don't sound nearly as good as 96kHz or 192kHz PCM. The C-5xe downmixes to two channels and plays the SACD area of hybrid SACDs by default.
The C-5xe is an attractive unit, partially because of its compact size: 17 1/4"W x 4 3/4"H x 13"D. Even so, it's a heavy bugger at 26 pounds, its thick aluminum outer casing being responsible for some of that weight and the unit's rigidity. I especially like the cleanliness of its front panel. The drawer has a metal trim piece that helps it blend in with the display directly above, the unique navigation wheel off to the right.
Around back are pairs of single-ended and balanced outputs, an AES/EBU digital output, a control port for use with a system controller, and two banks of switches that control the digital output (turning it on or off, and allowing 44kHz/48kHz or 88kHz/96kHz data to be output) and the unit's digital filter (which you should leave in DF Listen position unless, for some reason, you are measuring the C-5xe). Again, little in the way of needless frippery.
And, in these days of Asian goods with pitiful owner's manuals, the C-5xe comes with one that mirrors its own well-thought-out nature. Everything you need to know is in it, and it was written by someone who knew what he or she was doing. Even before the C-5xe plays a note, the intelligence of its design and presentation impresses.
The C-5xe took up residence among a distinguished group of products. Speakers were Wilson Audio Alexandria X-2s, which will very soon be supplanted by the MAXX 2s that were relegated to the bedroom for the X-2s' stay. Lamm ML2.1 SET or M1.2 Reference hybrid monoblocks, or an Ayre V-1xe stereo amp provided power to the X-2s. Preamps were an Audio Research Reference 3 or Ayre K-1xe. Sources were Audio Research CD3 Mk II and Reference CD7 CD players along with Esoteric X-01 and X-01 Limited CD/SACD players.
Everything was connected balanced, unless I was testing the performance of a source component single ended. Cables were primarily Shunyata Research Antares Helix interconnects and Orion Helix speaker cables, although AudioQuest Sky and Volcano as well as a mixture of Cardas Golden Reference speaker cables and Ayre's own Signature interconnects also saw use. Power came via Sound Application XE-12S and Shunyata Hydra Model-8 power conditioners. Power cords were again primarily from Shunyata Research (Anaconda Helix Alpha and Vx as well as Python Helix Alpha and Vx), although I also used an extra-long Cardas Golden Reference power cord with the Ayre amplifier. Lamm amplifiers rested on the very effective Silent Running Ohio Class XL Plus2 platforms, and near the end of my time reviewing the C-5xe, a Silent Running Craz Reference isoRack Plus equipment stand showed up in all its maple glory.
As if all that equipment wasn't enough, Ayre provided me with some of their myrtle-wood blocks, whose use under the C-5xe firmed up the presentation a meaningful degree. Ask for 'em by name.
In the C-5xe's owner's manual, Ayre recommends using the player balanced for "slightly higher sound quality." While this will likely depend upon the preamp and amplifier used with the C-5xe, and whether or not they are fully balanced, in my system, using the C-5xe balanced provided a marked improvement over single ended, maximizing each recording's individuality. As with the Esoteric X-01 Limited that I wrote about recently, the C-5xe's sound doesn't take on any undesirable qualities when the player is used single ended, but it is unmistakably at its best balanced.
The C-5xe review sample that arrived was a well-used demo unit that played every CD and SACD I loaded but had problems with a handful of DVDs. I mentioned this to Steve Silberman at Ayre, and he suggested sending a replacement transport mechanism. "It's easy to replace -- just four screws." I've never replaced a transport mechanism, thinking that, in most cases, it's the sort of thing an end user shouldn't do. I've seen the insides of many digital products, and there's no way I would attempt to replace any of the parts in most of them, least of all the transport itself.
But what the heck -- I had Ayre's blessing. Replacing the C-5xe's transport turned out to be a bit more complicated than "just four screws" would indicate, but not by much. There were four screws, but also a few ribbon cables and the decorative piece for the front of the drawer. Even without directions, it was easy to figure out what to do, and the whole procedure took 20 minutes, after which the demo C-5xe played every disc perfectly.
Moral of the story? While Ayre would undoubtedly require that consumers return their units for a transport transplant, it's good to know that such work is not so complicated that your player will be tied up for months. You may even be able to do the deed yourself. If such simplicity isn't a bona fide design feature, it is certainly a welcome accident.
Ayre-ing out the C-5xe
In my initial reviews of multi-format digital products, I felt compelled to make strong and clear observations about each unit's CD playback, as, I reasoned, spinning CDs is primarily what these players will be doing. There are millions of CD titles available and only a few thousand SACDs and DVD-As; CD is entrenched in most audiophiles' music collections. However, the CD/SACD and universal players I am encountering now offer CD playback that rivals the very best available. While these players can accommodate other formats, their sound with CDs requires no special discussion.
So it was with the C-5xe, which sounded so good with each kind of disc I played that it became difficult, even needless, to evaluate its performance with CD, SACD, DVD-A and DVD-V separately. Its evenness -- the sense that no region draws attention -- deserves much of the praise here, as does the C-5xe's high level of musical realism. With any of the discs I played, the C-5xe was a reminder of how good digital playback has become.
I have 20 or more Classic Records DVDs that I haven't been able to play since I wrote about the Esoteric UX-1 universal player a year and a half ago, so I immediately became reacquainted with them when the C-5xe arrived. A stunning moment came when I played The Complete Sessions [Classic Records DAD 1031], a collaboration between Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington, a jazz dream duo if there ever was one. The C-5xe played this classic music in all its 24/96 glory, redefining the use of the word "holographic" in audio reviews. Because of their "aspherical group delay," which allows fine adjustment of each upper driver module to optimize time alignment and achieve ideal dispersion, the Wilson Audio X-2s give the most realistic portrayal of height from recorded music that I've ever heard. It was clear that Louis Armstrong was standing as he sang and played on The Complete Sessions. He was surrounded by air that not only helped define his location but also gave a tangible sense of the space around him. What I was hearing from The Complete Sessions was surely due to the DVD's intrinsic high resolution, but the C-5xe's sound was not merely resolving. Once again, it never pursued a single sonic goal to the exclusion of others.
With all this talk about holography and air, you might think that the C-5xe's sound is wispy and ethereal, lacking in physicality. Just the opposite is the case. The holography and air are all the more obvious because of the C-5xe's solidity and texture. This is not a function of obvious warmth and bloom. Instead, the C-5xe gives the most credible portrait of a performer's three-dimensional presence that I've heard from digital.
I am a fan of Rick Rubin's albums with Johnny Cash, so when I heard that Rubin had cut an album with another well-known performer, Neil Diamond, I immediately bought it. Diamond's 12 Songs [Columbia 8-2876-77508-2] is a collection of a dozen original tunes recorded with a profusion of studio veterans, including Billy Preston on organ. The recording is intimate, but not overly so. Presence and space are represented in seemingly equal proportions. If you're used to hearing Neil Diamond set amidst overblown Vegas-style arrangements, 12 Songs will be a revelation. Via the C-5xe, Diamond's voice had a familiar feel. It's uniquely his, and uniquely expressive. Diamond has always sung forcefully -- from his chest and through his sinuses -- and the C-5xe captured this, reminding us that he can be a very powerful singer. Each gesture on the recording came through with a sense of importance via the C-5xe, which also presented Diamond with a notable physical presence. Armstrong was standing, but it's clear that Diamond was sitting.
12 Songs also made apparent another of the C-5xe's strengths: its resoluteness. Notes start and stop decisively, without even the slightest bit of blurring. This gives the music a more varied sense of flow, and a greater sense of realism. This is obvious with all kinds of music, but it's a marvel with piano, each note taking up only its space in time and nothing more. Each well-delineated key strike of "Come Rain or Come Shine" from the Bill Evans tribute album Portrait of Bill Evans [JVC VICJ-61171] has real might behind it, eschewing a roundness that often passes for palpability.
Portrait of Bill Evans is an XRCD24 -- a CD -- and it rivals SACD, DVD-A and DVD-V in terms of overall realism. Even so, the C-5xe makes plain the differences among recordings and formats, with well-recorded and -remastered DVD-As and DVD-Vs ceding no ground to SACD. Even so, all three sound more authentic -- deriving from the master tape -- via the C-5xe.
More piano, this time from Thelonious Monk. Straight, No Chaser [Columbia/Legacy CS 64886] was one of Columbia's early SACD releases -- its single stereo layer is a dead giveaway. Comparing it to the remastered CD [Columbia/Legacy CK 64886] proves SACD's worth. The treble was more finely drawn, like silk thread compared to poly-cotton, and inner detail was improved. The C-5xe laid all of this bare, making Monk's arrangements seem all the more meticulous.
Perhaps because of its beefy transformers, the C-5xe's chunky, well-defined low frequencies are as good as I've heard from digital. There is great slam, though in keeping with the C-5xe's overall character, it is never out of proportion with the rest of the musical spectrum. Once again, this is the C-5xe's true character. You can easily discern certain things it does, but it is no one-hit wonder. It's compelling with all types of music in all of the formats it plays. While I would be very upset at, say, a roofing bill for $5950, I would feel fortunate that I could buy a multi-format digital source like the C-5xe for that same amount.
My praise of Esoteric's growing line of digital components has been copious. With each new Esoteric product I review, I discover a new plateau from which I can survey the digital landscape. The latest and greatest from Esoteric is the $13,500 X-01 Limited, which I reviewed earlier this month and have been listening to since shortly after CES. I guess I like the X-01 Limited; here's what I said about it in my review: "It is an example of the best digital playback currently available -- with CDs and SACDs." Even though it costs more than double the price of the Ayre C-5xe ($7550 more to be exact), the two are sonic competitors that have more similarities than differences.
But this part of the review is all about differences, and there are some to discuss. The most obvious has to do with the pace and flow of the music. The X-01 Limited sounds smoother, the notes taking on a more liquid character. In contrast, notes from the C-5xe sound more distinct and angular, so the music doesn't achieve the fluidity it does from the X-01 Limited. With the C-5xe, fine detail is more evident, leading to a more variegated rendering of texture. Images are firm and solid with the C-5xe, a bit more round and billowy with the X-01 Limited. I praised the X-01 Limited's bass frequencies ("crushing in its power, drive and slam"), but the C-5xe is a little better defined from the midbass on down and has just as much bass power, though less bloom.
In any sonic sense, choosing between the C-5xe and X-01 Limited is a toss-up. Each time I listened to one, I'd think it was better than the other -- until I listened to the other again. Ultimately, I vacillated because these two products sound like each other to such a great degree. While, for instance, I was able to say that the original Esoteric X-01 was better-sounding than the UX-1 universal player (and there were technical reasons that upheld this), I can't do that with the C-5xe and X-01 Limited.
On purely sonic grounds, the only guidance I can give is the most obvious: Go hear both. However, when I take into consideration the C-5xe's much lower cost and ability to play DVDs, advising which unit to buy becomes an easy task. Get a C-5xe and every Classic Records DVD you can find. You won't be sorry.
One of the hardest subjects for an audio reviewer to write about is a product that sounds good but is also wildly expensive. All evaluative roads inevitably lead to the unit's price, which is out of line with its performance, and there's no way to ignore the concept of value, or lack thereof.
But what about the great-sounding product whose price just happens to be thousands less than that of its similarly great-sounding competition? With such products, reviewers have to keep their heads, making sure their words ring true and don't turn into the rambling of someone who doesn't know any better. This is the challenge of writing about the Ayre C-5xe. While there may be digital sources available that are unmistakably better, I haven't encountered them so far. On the other hand, I've reviewed a number of multi-format players, so I'm not exactly in the dark.
Reviewers' Choice is reserved for components that offer state-of-the-art performance or performance far beyond what their prices would indicate. In most cases, it's an either/or proposition, as extreme value and uncompromised sound aren't often found in the same product. However, the Ayre C-5xe is the rarest of components. In most ways, it fulfills both the Reviewers' Choice value and performance conditions. It plays every kind of disc currently available and sounds terrific doing so. And perhaps trumping even this, it costs thousands of dollars less than other products that reach the same sonic heights. It is a Reviewers' Choice times two.
From now on, I won't do without a universal player because of the way it expands my musical options. That goes double for this universal player. While SACD and DVD-A may be multichannel failures, the Ayre C-5xe turns them into stereo successes.
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