(& Stereo Musicality)
Product Range: AYON Audio
Full review: www.dagogo.com by Doug Schroeder
Before we proceed, allow me to reassure that your preamp is likely not obsolete, that is, unless you own an Ayon CD-5. In that case, if you are like me you will find yourself streamlining your audio system to a degree not thought practicable only several years ago. You will be running your sources into your CD player, your CD player straight into your amps, and it will never have sounded better! In fact, as long as the Ayon CD-5 is in my room, it will be my explicit goal to see if, when building any system, I can avoida preamp and work solely with the CD-5 and amps. Surely, I jest, right? Wrong; I’m dead serious about building the best systems possible, and I’m dead serious about the CD-5 and amp combo.
As of this product’s entry into the marketplace your preamp is not completely obsolete, just mostly obsolete. If you have a hankering for top-notch Redbook, or to play steaming audio via digital coax or USB, then your preamp is obsolete if you obtain a CD-5. Why do I keep saying “obsolete”? Whereas most CD players contain no preamp function, or at best a functional but unimpressive level control, the CD-5 has an audiophile tube preamplifier function built in. It is impressive in quality such that only the very finest preamps will improve upon it. Gerhard points out that the Ayon Polaris II and Spheris, two-chassis dedicated preamps, are of higher caliber than that inside the CD-5. However, consider that when I was using the Ayon CD-2 I was already experiencing such good sound from the player direct to amp(s), through the elimination of a component and set of cables, the only preamp I had used which did not harm the sound simply by being in the chain was the VAC Renaissance Signature Preamplifier MkII, a $14K component! I have been spending a fair bit of time in the past two years working to perfect my rig as dual mode, operating either with a pre or without one, but at all times running at the highest fidelity. Using the CD-5, you can obtain results which will match or best most high fidelity systems using a dedicated preamp.
You might think that a reckless statement to make, however you don’t yet know what’s inside the CD-5. Once you know that, you may see I’m not so reckless in that assertion. For starters, the player is huge, at 50 x 41 x 13 cm (approx. 20 x 12.5 x 5 inches) it is quite a bit larger than most players. More volume means more space to include a nice preamp section, which is precisely what Ayon has done. It’s massive with a capital M, with a half inch thick aluminum-brushed anodized black chassis bringing its weight to 45 pounds (18 Kg)! It’s much deeper and wider than most players, so take care with placement as it may not fit your current rack. No problem, get a different rack. No shelving should stand in the way of this purchase decision. You may want a different rack anyway; this player should not get stuffed in between shelves as it gives off much more heat than a traditional CD player – it has eight tubes inside. You’re going to want an easy access set up anyway, as it’s a pain to reach into a shelving unit to access a top loader.
Externally the front mounted backlit top controls are expanded to include not only basic functions such as PLAY, STOP, PAUSE and SKIP TRACK, but also VOLUME +/- and INPUT. Should anything untoward happen to the remote, one is not SOL.
Initialization process of discs continues to undergo refinement with the CD-5. In the CD-2, there were occasions when initialization did not occur properly approximately once every fifteen attempts. I would lift the lid slightly to re-seat the disc for initializing. With the CD-5 all such niggling adjustments have been banished; not once has a disc failed to initialize perfectly, and I might add quickly. Gerhard pointed out that the “misfire” was a slightly touchy MCU (or “error” correction chip), which in the CD-5 has been reprogrammed to work flawlessly. Even upon turning on the unit, the soft start “Warm Up” for tube life preservation is fairly rapid and the player is efficiently prepared for play.
Finally, one of my favoritefeatures is the GAIN switch, which allows one to choose either Low or High gain. Interestingly, this switch has three settings, though only two are labeled. The lowest position being unmarked is set at 4V output, while the middle position “Low” is at 6V and the “High” at 8V. The Gain feature has the effect of causing lower-power amps, such as single ended triode (SET) amps, to be seen by speakers as having much more power. Consequently, lower efficiency speakers sound much more like higher efficiency speakers. Says Gerhard of the Gain feature, “…you can put more signal power in a SET driver stage….” Below I will discuss the benefits of this feature in my usage of the CD-5.
Internally, the player has a full compliment of mechanical isolation goodies; absorber/damping feet, anti-resonance-damped mounted gold circuit boards and a suspension system isolating the CD….. Phillips CD-Pro 2 transport, four Burr Brown 1704K D/A chips, said by Gerhard to be, “…perhaps one of the best sounding D/A chips,” in a paired symmetrical configuration and switchable 24 bit/192kHz upsampling make for a solid design. Much of the magic of the CD-5’s sound is found in the highly cultivated power treatment, including a “dual choke” filtered and stabilized power supply with “bridge” tube rectification.
In my initial comments I enthused about the GAIN feature of the CD-5, and indeed this sets the player apart from virtually all other Redbook sources. An apodizing filter to control pre- and post-ringing on the signal is a hot new technology employed in high-end players. However, Gerhard will have nothing to do with it, “We do not use this and believe it can impair sound quality.” Instead, he has focused on the player’s gain. A while back I reviewed the Eastern Electric BBA Buffer Amp, which is a tube preamp with single RCA input and a variable Gain control. This was a fun device as it allowed not only for control of the level but also influencing the sense of intensity of the signal.
Combine the GAIN feature with the ease and openness of upsampling to 24 bit/192 kHz and the player takes on a lush, smooth sound which is quite addictive. I have generally not used the upsampling feature of players; while it “fills in” the music a bit it tends to smear the signal slightly. While the music becomes more analogue-like it also is less precise. The CD-5’s GAIN feature, however, works magic with upsampling such that I’m less disturbed by the extraneous information in the signal. The music sounds as though less converted and more diverted, as if it’s a stream guided in a different direction but not significantly polluted.
The GAIN settings arepowerful in effect, such that I chose not to use the High Gain setting with the King. The exploded soundstage was so expanded with these panel speakers that the King made it seem too wide, almost as though the solidity of the instrument or voice was being atomized and the localization of the voice or instrument in the center of the field expanded too far. The Off, or null, setting was perfect for the King for most music. However, I did notice that quiet pieces, simpler works of solo instrument or ensembles, benefited by upping the gain from default (4V) to the Low setting (6V). On lilting songs like Erin Bode’s “Chasin’ After You”, one could hear so much more of her inflection and intonation that it was thrilling! In the same way that sitting at a sporting event in the upper seats is not as involving as being seated in the lower stands, one can consider the GAIN switch to allow you to “switch seats”, moving closer to the performers with each increase in gain.
However, there is a limit in any given system to the amount of gain which contributes positively. After a certain point, the sense of power begins to corrupt, and we all know what absolute power does! Taking the GAIN setting to the High position resulted in an overage of intensity whereby bass notes began to ring a bit too much, the treble become too spatial, the voice a bit vacuous. This would be expected as I was working with powerful amps. One can easily find their own perfect setting, and I found that I was not often adjusting the switch; once set it could be counted on to sound satisfying for all genres of music. I can foresee many people simply setting it once and forgetting it, while tweakers would be in their glory discovering how every artist would play given the different settings.
Bumping the GAIN setting to Low (6V) upped their perceived efficiency to sound like 12 Ohm speakers; with each increase in gain the speakers had more “jump factor”, more pumping bass, creamy mids and tingling highs! The jump in power was evident by the digital readout on the Pathos amps. Prior to using the CD-5 and the Low gain function I had to run these speakers in the 40’s, but with it, I could achieve high levels (approx. 90 dB at 12 feet) with the setting at 20! Consequently, I could not optimally run the High Gain setting with these speakers either. Though the speakers handled it, once again the sound became unduly expanded and lost focus. Truly, amps are given staggering increases in presence through this feature!
While it can be fairly easy to set up monitors to pull off this “disappearing act”, it is not so easy for larger speakers, especially panel speakers. Prior to using the CD-5, I had not heard larger panel speakers disappear so convincingly in my room. One reason is that it is not a larger space, being 23’ x 13’. However, the Ayon is so good at enlarging the acoustic envelope that this helps in the creation of this effect. With the Kingsound King I was able to set up a fairly convincing example of larger speakers disappearing. In this case, the Kings were approximately 8 feet apart from each other’s inside edges, and four feet from the head wall. Considering the King is a speaker 6 feet all and 28” wide, they were quite adept at getting out of the way when playing live recordings in a fashion I would say was a semi-disappearing act. What made this experience so special was the ability of the CD-5 to, convincingly, not only set the vocalist deep into the center phantom image, but to fool my ears into thinking they were hearing spatial clues of reflections of a venue as if the sound was emanating from a distance. While I have heard other CD player’s move a voice forward or back in relation to the plane of the speakers, I have never heard one so thoroughly fill in the space between it and the speaker plane to create such a 3-D “acoustic hologram” of a performance. I have never heard any player, nor transport/DAC combo, come this close to sounding convincing. It makes players like the Cambrige Audio Azur 840C, the Rega Saturn, and yes, truthfully, even the Ayon CD-2 to a lesser degree, sound flat and two-dimensional.
Exquisite is the proper word to describe the sound of the CD-5. This is the closest to a perfect player I have used; apart from the Gain/amplifier matching question, it is difficult to find a meaningful criticism of it. It would take another reference quality player to discover what one might consider a weakness in its presentation as it is a very complete, well-rounded source. Whereas most CD player’s show their weaknesses readily, being edgier, veiled, clinical, lacking in bass, lacking in separation of the instruments, not good with older recordings, not good with certain types of music, etc. the Ayon excels in every aspect I have examined.
In comparison to the CD-2, the CD-5 is far more refined much more capable of rendering a deep and realistic sound space. It reveals more information but in an utterly smooth, appealing fashion. It also digs deeper in the bottom-end, refining and extending what is heard from the CD-2. This player absolutely refutes the assertion that along with higher detail is higher listening fatigue. I have listened to this unit for countless hours and have not had tiredness from harshness of listening to digital media at all.
One of my tests for high-end shrillness and fatigue is to listen at higher levels to sopranos. I’ll crank up Celine Dion or Sixpence None the Richer and see if my ears can take it for half an hour. If the system has treble which is too hot, then I’ll find myself turning it down to escape the sonic assault. But this never happens with the CD-5, nor does it with rock bands like U2 or Tears for Fears.
This illustration should impart several of my conclusions regarding the CD-5 in terms of sonic satisfaction, most obviously that I find it in a different category from most others. It also holds the greatest improvement in terms of increasing quality over any other step up in players I used. It is clearly the best of the Ayon players as well. One might suggest that it had better be far superior at the price point. Don’t doubt, it is… by a long shot. In fact, thinking back to all the sources I have heard and elevation of performance between sibling players, this may be the largest disparity in absolute performance I have encountered.