Ayon Audio CD-1sx Review SoundRebels – “Vacuum Tube CDP Bliss”
The introduction to this review took me longer than expected. On one hand this was due to the unification of the product line of this manufacturer, on the other a highly recognizable design of the products. Probably this has launched your association mechanisms and you started to scan the brand names you know. It is highly possible, that you all will have similar results – Accuphase, Ayon, McIntosh, Pathos, Soulution, etc. Now taking into account the fluctuation of the models and vastness of the catalog all probability points to Austria. This is true – we are talking about Ayon, which can surprise with everything, but not with the design. So there is a risk, that when a new device appears, or an existing one gets updated, it may pass unobserved through the market. Please think about the stress of the manufacturer and the distributors to promote something, that looks exactly the same as the model withdrawn from the catalog. I do not envy them, unless … they decided not to lose funds on visual upgrades and consults with designers, and concentrated on things that should be obvious – improvement of the technical parameters and sound. This is exactly the case with Ayon – the design of the cabinets stays the same, while improvement of the insides allows to climb the audiophile ladder successively. Additionally, the fact that Ayon constructors do not want to introduce external changes to their design, especially in the sound sources, may be a blessing for people, who do not want to prone with changing the owned unit to a newer model, for example hiding it from their wives. Putting trifling aside, there is a lot of truth in the previous sentence. Once we have a well configured system, fulfilling our needs, we may not want too much of a visual revolution. Now having defined the target group – the potential buyers, I will present the tested device – the Ayon CD-1sx CD player.
Looking at chronology and company naming, 1sx should be the representative of the fourth generation of players. It is the youngest sibling from the family founded with the CD-1 and then prolonged with the CD-1s and CD-1sc. This is how I see it, based on archival articles and logic, but in case of audio, this is not always the truth. And in this case I was wrong. It turned out, that according to Gerhard Hirt, the owner of the brand and main constructor, the 1sx is a member of the … third and last (at least to date) generation of players. The first generation was the CD-1 introduced in 2006. The second generation – which was built almost from scratch – encompasses the CD-1s and the later CD-1sc, which had two different versions. This is a bit complicated, but this is the official classification. In addition, according to Mr. Hirt’s declarations, made during his recent visit in Krakow, the era of dynamic changes is coming to an end, so the portfolio should now be stable for some time.
You might have noticed, that this time I did not chase novelties, but being fully satisfied with the CD-1sc I own, I calmly waited how things will evolve from the premiere of the 1sx that happened on the turn of 2013 and 2014. However during the last Audio Show, Gerhard Hirt asked me, how I see the newest version of the 1, and I had to respond, that I have not listened to it. For my defense I used however, that I had an intensive episode with the 3sx, while testing the Octave dream system. I heard then, that I must catch-up and listen to the 1 at home. This has now happened, and a few days after the show I received a package, with the factory sealed player, which received a free cryo treatment during transport.
Now the milk got spilled, and I had to take on the role of an arbiter in the fratricidal war, which should respond to the question, if newer will be better. Frankly speaking my skepticism was quite shallow, as I had my experience with the 1sc (the version from May 2011 did not fit my system as good as the 07s, but already in January 2013 “small tuning”, some magic and adding an asynchronous USB DAC revised my attitude towards the 1) and I know, that in Ayon nothing happens without a reason.
I could copy the paragraph devoted to the looks of the CD-1sx from my archival notes about the earlier versions of this player, and frankly speaking, I would not be wrong. Yet searching for differences between the CD-1sc and CD-1sx would was not so difficult. While the chassis is similarly armored, has rounded edges and is made from black anodized, brushed aluminum plating, 5mm thick and the player is a top-loader, there are some things that did change. First of all, the red dot-matrix display got bigger, and displays, besides the basic information about the played discs and indication of upsampling to 24 bits/192 kHz, also information about the sampling frequency for the input signal, its kind – PCM/DSD and active filter – Filter 1/Filter 2.
The top cover houses the typical Ayon acrylic drive cover surrounded by a polished aluminum ring and a row of buttons (controlling the drive and other functions like volume or source), surrounded by red rings, which make using them at night very easy, while not being too obvious. Due to the usage of a tube output stage in the back part of the top cover there are some venting holes, covered by nicely looking chromed grates.
Most changes can be observed on the back panel. Of course there is the symmetrical setup of the XLR and RCA outputs, centrally placed, IEC power socket with a fuse, and to the left of it a section of digital inputs – optical, coaxial and USB, as well as a coaxial output. There is also a polarity indicator and there are switches to set the operating mode of the unit. There is an output mode selector (Normal/Direct Amp) and gain selector (High/Low), which were also present in the previous player, but there is an additional option in the output selector. You can chose the RCA or XLR output, but there is also a setting available to have both activated. This however results in a degradation of the sound quality, but is seems, that the market demanded such a solution.
The main power switch is located on the bottom, near the left corner of the unit, which is absolutely obvious in case of Ayon.
The tested player is the first tube CD player with an USB DSD input in the world, and the complete converter section (ESS 9018) is fully symmetrical. Similar to the complete analog stage, which is also balanced, and uses 6H30 triodes. The rectifier bases on 6Z4 tubes. This all should make the 1sx more suitable to drive a power amplifier directly. However the volume control, available from remote control and top panel (you can switch it off completely) is done in the digital domain, so while you can use it in the beginning, I would recommend to think about a preamplifier or switch to the 3sx.
More changes compared to the predecessor are visible when you remove the acrylic cover of the drive section.
I must confess, that I got used to the clamp integrated with the cover used in the models 7s and 1sc, and I was not really happy with the solution that was proposed now, with a separate clamp. This solution reminds me of the past. Really? Yes – maybe not all of you remember, but in 2006, when the first version of the 1 was introduced to the market, it was equipped with the Sony KSS-213 drive, and the disc was clamped with a light, aluminum disc. Now it is similar, however with the Stream Unlimited drive the ring is magnetic, what makes the weight of it not a critical item anymore. I have not heard anything about Gerhard Hirt wanting to return to silver colored chassis and blue lighting of the buttons (the black ones had red lighting from the start), but still we are witnessing a kind of return to the roots. But enough about that. It seems that evolution has its price and there was need to make changes.
Before I continue with the description of the sound, I will just mention, that the manufacturer consistently opts against usage of burn-in discs “as some of them have in reality bad influence on the performance of the system”. Instead, he encourages 30 to 50 hours of burn-in during normal music playing. It is hard to disagree with that statement, as the “repertoire” on the burn-in discs is very hard to digest for me, even compared with Sepultura, Prodigy and Lutosławski. But it is no joke, that I was confronted with situations, where after using such discs, after the marvelous demagnetization or other –zation, the owners of such systems were trying to bring them back to former sound for days or even weeks.
Maybe it is OCD, a phobia or just audiophilia nervosa, going chronic, but as always, also this time I approached the power supply for the player with care. From many years of experience I know, that the Ayon are very sensitive to proper cabling, signal and power, and I am not saying anything new now. It was already good with my standard Organic Audio cable, but I regarded this configuration as a starting point and reference to the 1sc. Switching to the Organic Audio Power Reference, recently introduced by the Danish, showed clearly, how much of the rich musicality is hidden in the newest 1. The sound gained extra vividness and increased its size, what made the Ayon sound bigger, more suggestive, yet without artificiality. I used the disc “La Stravaganza” Vivaldi (Rachel Podger/Arte Del Suonatori Baroque Orchestra) for testing, which allows me to hear any, even the smallest change in the stereo system. The classic instruments and virtuoso playing of the soloist and the accompanying orchestra, only confirmed the sense of my search. The shine and readability of the treble, homogeneity of the full spectrum and splendid reproduction of micro-dynamics in quieter passages gave more emotions to listeners. But that, what happened after switching to the, tested in parallel, Furutech Nanoflux surpassed my imagination. The space, depth and almost holographic presentation of the stage planes should not happen for 16 thousand zlotys. In most cases representatives from the 20-25 thousand zlotys level do not sound like that. And here it did. You can have such sound, but the price is high (the price of the cable is higher than the price of the CD player). Much cheaper you can play with anti-vibration accessories, because the 1 is also sensitive to that.
But let us return to music, because we must get over the fact, that the player will pay us back double, for what we treat it with.
Even with very simple and very pessimistic tunes, like “My Shit’s Fucked Up” from “Life’ll Kill Ya” Warren Zevon, the emotional loading and evident getting in tune with his fate involved the listener completely into an microcosm, isolated from the environment. Minimalistic instrumentation and closely microphoned vocals and we forget about everything, time becomes virtual. We have similar magic with “American IV: The Man Comes Around” Johnny Cash or “You’ll Never Get to Heaven” Bill Morrisey. Maybe the mentioned repertoire is not too optimistic, but exactly with this kind of music – rough, completely ‘sugarfree’ – you can get the right distance and proper perspective to our lives, flowing through our fingers. The final nail to the coffin of depressive climates was “Make it Rain” by Ed Sheeran, from the inevitably last season of “Sons of Anarchy”. Please believe me, or not, but after such catharsis, even if you have not smoked for the last dozen years, there is an urge to…
The soundtrack to “The Last Action Hero” has a completely different esthetics, but it is still far away from smoothness and sweetness. The opening piece of the album, “Big Gun” AC/DC played by the Ayon was as stimulating as a double espresso with a drop or two of a noble highland kept in sherry oloroso barrels. Pugnatious, rough, simple playing did not allow to sit still and easily upped blood pressure and pulse. Similarly pulsating and equally moving is “Cock the Hammer” Cypress Hill. It is hard to find any virtuosity and audiophile concentration, taking care of nuances or similar, but this is not what you would expect from those guys in oversized clothes. It has to be rude and filthy, and we get exactly that.
Very suggestive was also the “Dead Already” Thomas Newman from the “American Beauty” soundtrack. Surprisingly low reaching bass was not only very differentiated and resilient, but also touchable – powerful yet nimble. The contours and motorics of that range we can really describe as being very good, and if someone experiences it flowing together and washing out, then that person should leave the player alone and search for flawed components elsewhere in the sound path. A vast sound stage, with almost ambient sounds appearing seemingly out of nowhere is only one of the surprises you can get with the Ayon, if he has the chance to present them.
Well, in the way of creating space and precision of defining contours and stability of localization of virtual sources you should look for the changes between the SX and the previous SC version of the player. It was similar with the perceived sound spectrum – as if the bass would reach lower, and the treble would put the threshold a few cm up. In general, in the tested CD player the sound seemed more organic, more based on the midrange, but at the same time it allowed to perceive a broader frequency response. It was very good before, and if I would not be able to make head to head comparisons with the older player, I would probably still live being convinced, that everything is fine. Unfortunately, or fortunately, the technology of digital sound processing made a few steps forward, and Gerhard Hirt with his R&D team did not just have drinks on a Caribbean beach. And you can hear that. To make the final confirmation of my observations I took on the “Avatar” soundtrack by James Horner, which should be last thing I would play.
However instead of packing the tested player into its transportation box and send it back to the distributor I started to devise more and more excuses to listen longer, to catch maybe some other nuance, something that would allow me to bash the player, to find some shortcoming, to be able to conclude the test with clear conscience, or rather the remainders of it. And? Nothing. I even got used to the need to remove and put back on the separate disc clamp. It was just that the Ayon CD-1sx fitted me like worn shoes. Finally the 1sc landed in the box, and the CD-1sx took its place on the rack. I will take care of the courier … oh, no, this will not happen.
Making the test I was aware, that the Ayon CD-1sx, similar to its predecessors, is a big sales hit of the Austrian manufacturer. I knew also, from first hand, how many nights Gerhard Hirt has pass awaken, how many “live” discussions he had to make, to have the player reach the market in this version – perfectly worked out. Maybe this will sound strange, but despite the knowledge I have, and practically the same price as the 1sc was sold, I have to say, that this time the potential clients got a sound worth much more money. I am writing this being fully aware, that the example of the Ayon goes against the laws of positioning a product by its price. You can listen to the SC-1sx yourselves and make your own conclusions, or search further for a sound source from the 20-25 thousand zlotys price shelf. The question is – why?
Conversion rate: 192 kHz/32 bit; DSD 5.6MHz/128
CD-Transport: Stream Unlimited-Austria
Tube complement: 2x6H30 (SE Triode), 1x6Z4
Dynamic range: > 118 dB
Output level @1 kHz / 0,775V -0dB Low: 0 – 2.5 V / variable
Output level @1 kHz / 0,775V -0dB High: 0 – 5V / variable
Output impedance Single-Ended-RCA: ~ 300Ω
Output impedance Balanced-XLR: ~ 300Ω
Digital output: 75Ω S/PDIF(RCA)
Digital input: 75Ω S/PDIF, TosLink, USB 24/192 kHz & DSD
S/N ratio: > 118dB
Frequency response : 20Hz – 20KHz (+/- 0.3dB)
Total harmonic distortion @ 1kHz: < 0,001%
Remote control: Yes
Output complement: RCA i XLR
Dimension (WxDxH)cm: 48x33x12cm
Weight: 13 kg