|CD Player Ayon Audio CD-5s
Manufacturer: Ayon Audio
Kraj pochodzenia: Austria www.usatubeaudio.com
Polish language www.ayonaudio.com
Text: Wojciech Pacuła
Photographs: Wojciech Pacuła | Eter Audio/Piksel Studio
Translation: Krzysztof Kalinkowski
CD-5s, here tested in the Special version, appeared for the first time in 2009 as CD-5. This was the top CD player from Ayon and was accompanies by the DAC Skylla, which was just a CD-5 without the transport section and a few cosmetic changes (like knobs instead of buttons). I tested both devices – CD-5 for “Audio” and Skylla for “High Fidelity”, so I think I know them quite well. The player and the DAC surprised with a mature, full sound, characterizing usually players with a much longer market presence. And Ayon is a company specialized in tube amplifiers and not sound sources. And it was something extraordinary to start with…
It seems, that many experiences of the company with small signals, like in preamplifiers, found their place in the players. And besides that, a large portion of the project, the drive and digital section, was designed by the Vienna company StreamUnlimited, founded by former Philips engineers. The same engineers, that were designing the Red Book standard. They were also the first in the world to construct a file player with a hard drive, something called a “hard disk player” now – but this is a different story, to which we will return with the S-3 file player from Ayon, shown on the High End 2011 show in Munich.
Here and now it must be said, that the CD-5s differs from its predecessor in a few vital places. Those differences are mostly in the sound, and almost all of them – suggesting some changes – were mentioned during my initial review of the Skylla, which created quite a stir and resulted in “6moons.com” resigning from reviewing Ayon products…
But let’s leave that aside, I closed that issue. What is important, that Gerhard Hirt, the owner of Ayon and their head constructor, has good “hearing”, because he not only manufactures splendid devices and loudspeakers, but also listens to what other people have to say. Because one of the two most important changes, at least for me, is the resignation of digital volume control in favor of an analog one. Due to this change the CD-5s is now not only a CD player, but also a fully fledged line preamplifier. Earlier the signal had to be digitized in the A/D converter, then processed in a digital IC and converted back to analog in a DAC. Although from an engineer’s point of view (this is the reason that I suspect StreamUnlimited people behind the idea) this is the same thing, and digital volume control is much more attractive when designing the unit, for everybody who heard it, it should be clear, that this is wrong, and that each operation of that kind leaves an imprint on the sound, usually a bad one.
The second change we get in the CD-5s is a much better USB interface. Earlier it was a 16 bit chip (48 kHz). In some American magazine tests of the CD-5 appeared, where the authors suggested, that the CD-5 plays high resolution files. This was a lie – the files were played by the computer, each kind of them, up to 24/192, but before sending the signal outside it was downsampled to 16/48 and then upsampled again in the device to 24/192. Brrr… Visibly Gerhard noticed also that, because since some time he uses in his gear the 24/96 converter from the company Tenor, a really nice solution. This is not yet a state-of-the-art solution, because this is not an asynchronous converter, or a 24/192 one, not even mentioning higher values, but it is already good enough.
And let somebody say, that it is not worth to get in the way of manufacturers/distributors and that you have to only praise everything. Although for me the positive aspects are most important, and I try to find place mostly for them, yet I try to remember about things that can be improved. So glory to Gerhard, that he did not get offended but drew his conclusions – the right ones.
The CD-5s is now a kind of center of a system – this is a Compact Disc player, 24/192 DAC with a USB 24/96 input and an analog preamplifier. Each of those elements can be examined separately, because each was treated with equal attention. And one more thing – the tested model is the “Special” version, with better tubes and capacitors. Except for that it does not differ from the basic CD-5s.
To date we tested the following Ayon Audio devices:
- Compact Disc Player Ayon Audio CD-2s;
- Compact Disc Player Ayon Audio CD-1s (in a system)
- DAC Skylla
- Compact Disc Player Ayon Audio CD-1
- Compact Disc Player Ayon Audio CD-3
- Compact Disc Player Ayon Audio CD-07
- Integrated Amplifier Ayon Audio 300B
- Preamplifier Ayon Audio Polaris II
A selection of recordings used in the test:Compact Discs
- Depeche Mode, Remixes 81-11: 2, Mute, cdmutel18, CD.
- George Michael, Faith, Epic/Sony Music, 7753020, Special Edition 2 x CD+DVD.
- Holst, The Planets, Buzz Ensemble, Mélanie Barney, Fidelio Musique, FACD028, CD.
- Jonas Knutson + Johan Norberg, Cow Cow: Norrland II, ACT Music + Vision, ACT 9425-2, CD.
- Leszek Możdżer, Komeda, ACT Music + Vision, ACT 9516-2, CD.
- Lionel Richie, Can’t Slow Down [DeLuxe Edition], Motown/Universal, 181202, 2 x CD.
- Lisa Gerrard, The Silver Tree, 4AD/Sonic Records, SON212, CD.
- Max Roach & Clifford Brown, Daahoud, Mainstream Records/Mobile Fidelity, MFCD826, CD.
- Michael Jackson, Thriller. 25th Anniversary, Epic/Sony Music Japan, EICP 963-4, CD + DVD.
- Nina Simone, Silk&Soul, RCA/BMG, 596202, CD.
- The Modern Jazz Quartet, Pyramid, Atlantic/Warner Music Japan, WPCR-25125, CD.
- Brian Eno, Craft On A Milk Sea, Warp Records, WARPCDD207, 2 x 180 g LP + 2 x CD + 24/44,1 WAV;
- Charlie Haden & Antonio Forcione, Heartplay, Naim Label, 24/96 FLAC.
- Holst, The Planets, Buzz Ensemble, Mélanie Barney, Fidelio Musique, Master Flash, 24/96 WAV.
- Kankawa, Organist, T-TOC Records, UMVD-0001-0004, Ultimate Master Vinyl, 4 x 45 rpm 180 g LP + CD-RIIα + 24/192 WAV;
- Mikołaj Bugajak, Strange Sounds and Inconceivable Deeds, Nowe Nagrania 001, 45 rpm LP+CD+WAV 24/44,1;
- Stan Getz & Joao Gilberto, Getz/Gilberto, Verve, 24/96 FLAC.
Japanese versions of the discs are available on CD Japan.
The sound of the most expensive sound source in the Ayon Audio catalog is easiest to understand based on a real context – the Ayon system and the reference system of Gerhard Hirt. Because I can hear the influences of the one and the other.
The sound of the CD-5s Special can be described as “spectacular”. This is the best word I can think of. We could exchange it for the word “impressive”, but we will lose some of the meaning. The Ayon player has a sound, where directness, dynamics and edges of the sound spectrum are emphasized. And it is not even about the latter being above the midrange, although we could have that impression, but about them having a quite hard attack.
This is related to the history of the digital sources produced by this manufacturer. In contrast to its amplifiers, the line connecting the individual models, and then the subsequent generations, seems to go from a soft, warm, not fully resolved sound to this one – resolved, dynamic and with strong sound band edges. This is for sure the right direction to go. With the CD-5s Special we get a sound, which will function well not only in Ayon systems, but also in others. Not in all other systems, because this is not an universal sound (if something like that exists), but in enough of them, that we can talk about good compatibility of the unit.
Like I said, the sound of the CD-5s is defined mostly regarding high dynamics. Opening the listening session I used three disc, rather untypical for audiophiles: Thriller. 25th Anniversary Michael Jackson, Faith George Michael, also in the 25th anniversary edition, and finally Can’t Slow Down Lionel Richie, in the 20th anniversary edition. All those discs, except the anniversary edition share a common approach to mastering. And although the Motown sound (Richie) differs significantly from the sound proposed by Epic on Thriller or Faith, yet all those discs are linked together with a quite “harsh” production, concentration on listeners in disco’s and music clubs, and not on exquisite home stereos. Those are the 80-ties, aren’t they?
Ayon showed them in exactly that way – with a very strong, stiff bass, rich treble and large dynamic contrasts. Listening to such discs I never really know, how they should sound, I can only base on comparisons how they sounded on better players and turntables, where acoustical music sounds in a natural way. Extrapolating I can assume, that those sources show the Thriller and other discs in an equally credible way. However sometimes I get doubts about this “inductive” approach. I remember well, how brilliantly Michael Jackson and George Michael sounded on the PMC OB1i loudspeakers, constructions with studio provenience, where, from the audiophile aesthetics point of view, the bass subrange is stronger than it should. With those loudspeakers the new re-master of Faith sounded p h e n o m e n a l l y! With them I had a very coherent sound and an impression of dealing with concert material. The same thing happened with the Thriller.
The Ayon repeated this experience. Not due to high amount of bass, because there was only a little more of it than in my Air, and still less than in the Soulution 540, but because it was so tight, had such an edgy attack.
The same thing can be said about the treble. It is strong, although not bright, it is expressive, although there is not too much of it. It is about the attack of the sound, the beat, that makes the Ayon sound so spectacular.
With smaller ensembles, like on the disc Cow Cow: Norrland IIKnuttson and Norberg, or Pyramid The Modern Jazz Quartet things are different. There you can hear best, what was the reference point for Gerhard. On one hand – I assume – it was the basic model CD-5. It is clear, that in the new version the coherence of the bass and its extension were improved, as well as resolution, especially of the treble. That is especially important, because in a system with an Ayon amplifier we have now a better balanced sound, especially in triode mode, in which – I can bet on that! – Gerhard listens most often.
Because another point of reference for the CD-5s Special had to be an analog turntable (I cannot be sure, but I have this sight in my head). And a very specific one: LumenWhite Mystere. This is a direct drive turntable, with ultra precise construction from titanium and with an incredibly high torque. Two years ago, when Gerhard told me about it, he hinted at some elements of the sound he achieved with it. Those were – attention! – precision, and ultra-stable sound. The elements I find in the sound of the CD-5s Special.
This is of course not possible to move the sound of the analog to the digital source in a 1:1 fashion, because those are different media, and they will always be different (in positive and negative way), but this is how a digital device, based on the sound of a mass-loaded, precise analog turntable, will sound.
I mentioned smaller ensembles. When we listen to vocal music, jazz from the 50-ties and 60-ties then the new Compact Disc player from Ayon should be placed in a rather soft surroundings. Then it will give everything it has; it will guarantee high resolution, much better than everything we find below 30000zl, and in addition it will keep the bass and treble in appropriate proportions to the midrange. And this final element seemed especially interesting to me.
Taking into account absolute categories, meaning the sound of the Kuzma tested last month, and the sound of my upgraded player Ancient Audio Air, the midrange of the Ayon is a little less three-dimensional and has a smaller shape. Its upper part is also slightly rounded, what results in the midrange not having the same beat as the sound spectrum edges. Nevertheless the voices of Nana Simone from Silk & Soul, or Lisa Gerrard from The Silver Tree were large and warm. Just like they should be. Especially Nana Simone surprised me, because in the piece The Look of Love she sounded in a very sensual, slightly melancholic way. Ayon underlined a bit the percussive elements, scattered around both channels, but it is hard for me to say if this is like it should be or not. It was stronger than from my Air or Soulution 540, but it did not cross the borders of generally accepted correctness – this was just a different look at the same material. The same thing was with Lisa Gerrard recordings, where another important characteristic of that sound became visible – vast amounts of space.
This is an elements, which, together with dynamics and sound band edges, defines this sound. Strong, resolved treble results in a very big sound stage. Although its naturalness is not so outstanding as in analog systems, or in the Soulution 540, yet its size can drive others into complexes. And if now somebody claims size does not matter…
The stage is very expansive, I mean it reaches wide and quite deep. In holography near planes are preferred, because the strong sound spectrum edges come into play, bringing the sound closer to the listener in a natural way. Ayon can classify, sort out and synthesize everything. Because the space is continuous and dense. It is not as coherent as from analog systems, but this cannot be surpassed at this time. Especially when we want to reach the effect of high energy of the sound, like in the CD-5s Special, what characterizes analog sources.
Talking about this, I would like to mention one element of the sound, that we can shape ourselves. The player, similar to all other Ayon sound sources, was equipped in a frequency converter, upsampler, which converts the input signal to the 24/192 format. In the CD-5s Special in can be switched off.
For me it was a learning experience – I can clearly hear, that the tested player sounds better with the upsampler switched off. I had to think a bit, listen to other devices, but I am almost sure – many digital players surpassed some kind of threshold, before which an upsampler improved sound. But clearly some of them – earlier the same case was with the CD-2s – is so resolving, has everything so well defined, that an upsampler is no longer needed. And in fact it worsens the sound. Why? For sure there are many reasons, but I think, that it is about jitter. Upsamplers, most of all asynchronous ones, changing the sampling frequency have to re-clock the input signal. This characteristic was usually used for minimizing jitter, and this is the reason, that an upsampler was treated, also by me, as something positive. But when we minimize jitter to a level smaller, than the upsampler is able to achieve, we get just another DSP in the sound path, with its own distortions and noise. This is why in the highest class of players the upsampler is heard as something additional in the sound. And not always something good. It is good, that in the Ayon we have the ability to choose, although I suggest to switch it off – the return to the on state will be impossible.
So how is the new Gerhard player? Shortly speaking: it is spectacular. Telling more: it impresses with very high dynamics, dense, resolved sound band edges and a huge sound stage. It can also surprise with a warm, dark midrange. There is something else: it is a potential center of the system.
Although I did not tell about that yet, although I concentrated on how the player does what it was designed to do, meaning how it plays CDs, in a system with an external preamplifier, the CD-5s Special is potentially also a DAC, including an USB input, and an analog preamplifier.
And this last ability, because this is a strong asset of this device, makes it different from the first version, still with volume control in the digital domain. It seems like a slight heresy and departure from what I told you many times, but the CD-5s Special does not need an external preamplifier, especially when working with the power amplifiers from that company. And my system has a preamplifier made by… Ayon, the model Polaris III, so it is a reasonable device. Without it in the sound path the Austrian player sounded in a more relaxed way and had a better shown midrange. So it was closer to the assets of my Air and to the analog reference point. This is the reason that I think, the CD-5s Special can be used without a preamplifier, regardless its price.
The DAC section repeats what we can hear playing CDs. With high resolution material played from a file player we get more information, yet the overall character remains same.
Listening to the USB input proved interesting. This is an isochronous (adaptive) 24/96 input, but working in asynchronous mode. The USB receiver in the Ayon is really good. I know it from the cheaper player CD-2s (on my laptop the USB label displayer for the CD-5s is identical: “Ayon CD-2s”) and from the Stello Audio devices. However Halide shows, that it can be done even better, in a smoother, more saturated way. But we should not exaggerate criticism, we have to look at it in broader perspective. When we use a PC as a secondary sound source, then the USB input in the Ayon should be absolutely enough. But when we grow beyond it and we will start to miss something, then we can buy a USB-SPDIF converter, a 24/192 one. Moving to 24/96, even asynchronous, does not make sense.
The CD-5s Special player from Ayon Audio is a big, heave and very “black” Compact Disc player. But not only that – one of the problems of the current systematic of devices is the fact, that those are no longer “clean” units, easy to classify. For example the amplifier tested last month Beyond Frontiers Audio (BFA) TULIP is not only an integrated amplifier, but also a fully fledged DAC. The CD-5s is of course a CD player, this is its primary function, but at the same time it is an analog preamplifier and DAC.
Like I mentioned it is big. It is made from thick aluminum plates, made in the Ayon factory in Hong Kong. This is a classic top-loader, it does not have a disc tray, but the disc is placed directly on the motor axis. The disc is covered from the top by a quite heavy cover made from acryl and aluminum, but the disc is clamped with the same light puck with magnets as in a standard player. This puck is integrated with the cover. In front of the disc chamber, made from milled aluminum, we have a line of red lit aluminum buttons. Besides buttons operating the drive there are also ones for controlling volume and changing inputs.
On the front panel we have only a big, red, dot-matrix display, covered with a red filter. We can read the track, total number of tracks on the disc, time and volume. The display is quite readable, so it is a pity we do not have CD-Text displayed on it. Changing inputs we can read the chosen input; for digital signals also synchronization with the sender is indicated. Until it happens the lettering blinks. Unfortunately there is no information about the signal itself, meaning no sampling frequency and no bit depth. I think, that in such technologically advanced device those are desired information. And there is a small 24/192 icon, indicating activation of the upsampler.
The back plate is very crowded. On both sides we have the analog outputs – RCA and XLR, both splendid. In the middle there are inputs and outputs. There are two kinds of inputs – digital, like RCA, TOSLINK, AES/EBU (all 24/192) and USB (24/96) and analog – unbalanced RCA and balanced XLR. There are also outputs of both kinds – I mentioned already the analog ones, and the digital are: RCA, AES/EBU and I2S with an Ethernet type socket (RJ-75). Such kind of input is in the Skylla II DAC, but I do not really see sense in such connection. The same kind of socket is used for the I2S signal by North Star Design in the Model 192 drive. Unfortunately there is no standard for this bus – for example Stello in the split player CDT100 & DA100 Signature 96/24 USB uses a mini-DIN, and Wyred 4 Sound in the DAC-2 a HDMI cable. The last solution seems most sensible, as there is a lot of high quality HDMI cables. But RJ-75 is also acceptable, because there are already some high quality Ethernet cables on the market.
Besides the inputs and outputs there are four switches – one inverting the absolute phase (but in the analog domain – there is no possibility to do that from the remote!), choosing the active analog input, and two allowing for working directly with a power amplifier. One of those changes the maximum output voltage (4V or 8V – both on XLRs) and the second one activates a special program, that powers up the unit with a low voltage on the outputs, protecting the loudspeakers.
The CD-5s is built a bit differently than other players from this manufacturer – the top cover can be unbolted, and not the bottom one. This means that the drive section is bolted to the bottom plate and not to the top one. This changes its mechanical properties.
The circuits inside have their own, specialized PCBs with gold plated traces. First we notice the drive. This is the top model from Philips, being quite old already (in contrast TEAC modernizes its VRDS drives constantly), CD Pro-2 LF. It has a cast top plate, bolted to the bottom using four strings. The springs are damped with soft elements inside. The companies handle this mounting in different ways, please look at the players Docet-Lector CDP-7 TL MkIII and Nagra CDC; Ancient Audio mounts them now like Ayon does, “rigidly” (Lektor Prime). In the CD-5s the drive is bolted to a big, aluminum frame, and that one, using spacer pins, to the bottom plate. One of those “legs” is bolted close to the transformer, I think it would be worth thinking about decoupling the latter.
The signal from the drive flows to the upper PCB, where we have most of the digital circuits. Here we have a digital receiver Cirrus Logic 8416, allowing for sending signals up to 24 bits and 192 kHz. There is only one chip before it, and only at the USB input – this is the receiver Tenor TE 7022L, working in adaptive mode with signals 24 bits and 96 kHz. It is worth mentioning, that all digital inputs and outputs are coupled by transformers. From the inputs and the CD the signal goes to the frequency converter SRC4193 Burr-Brown. This is a popular asynchronous 24 bits 192 kHz chip. However the IC can be switched off. Then the signal goes directly to the lower PCB, where most of the circuitry is housed, including the power supplies. But before we go there, it is worth noticing, that a very good word clock was used, mechanically and thermally stabilized one from UTECH. Because it works only with frequencies being a multiplication of 48kHz, all the other frequencies, like 44.1kHz for the CD, but also 88.4kHz are retrieved from the PLL loop.
Like I said, the signal then reaches the DACs. Those are four, beautiful, no longer manufactured DACs from Burr-Brown, the PCM1704, here in the selected version ‘K’. Introduced to the market in 1998 they were something special, a high-end chip for special applications. Those are 24 bit 96kHz chips. With higher sampling frequencies eight times oversampling is possible. And this is important, because the upsampler changes the signal to 192kHz.
Behind the DACs the signal is converted from current to voltage in four ICs from Burr-Brown, and then goes back to the top PCB, to the circuit regulating the analog signal. Earlier this was a digital IC, now the signal has a much simpler way – this is an analog chip, the Burr-Brown PGA2320. This is a nice, stereophonic IC. Interestingly, this is an unbalanced unit. The signal is decoded in a balanced way, the I/V conversion is also balanced, but the volume control seems not to be balanced. This assumption seems to be confirmed by the presence of only a single capacitor coupling the output of the IC with the tubes in each channel. It is a splendid, gold-silver oil Mundorf. The tube section is balanced – we have two 6H30P-DP tubes, in the military version, from NOS, still from USSR times, per channel. Their outputs are coupled with the outer world using subsequent, now two per channel, Mundorf capacitors, also from the oil type, but this time, the silver ones. It can be clearly seen, that those were chosen based on the sound.
Power supply is a different story. It is big and very differentiated. We have three big R-Core transformers with many secondary windings. Each section has a separate power supply. The anode voltage of the tubes is rectified in full wave rectifier, composed of four tube diodes – the Russian 6C4P. Then the voltage is filtered in two chokes and four, very big, polypropylene capacitors. It is similar to what Conrad-Johnson does. We will find electrolytic capacitors also in other sections – we can see for example splendid filtering capacitors Gold Tune from Nichicon. We have also Rubycons, and in the DAC section the brilliant, purple Sanyo capacitors – exactly the same, as in the Ancient Audio players. The whole is incredibly advanced and well made.
The remote controller is made from metal and we can use it to control all Ayon devices. It has many identical buttons, what makes it quite difficult to handle.
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