I engaged in an extensive and flirtatious courtship with multichannel music, but never really sealed the deal. The best surround mixes use either little or no center channel, and add just a splash of ambience in the surrounds, bringing little to the experience of listening to music that a good stereo doesn’t already do. On the hardware side, multichannel is unequivocally a step backward—or at best a heinously expensive step sideways. I’ve heard the best surroundsound processors and a number of analog multichannel linestages. None withstand comparison to a good, $3k stereo linestage. Tabulate the price tag for tripling up on top-quality stereo linestages, amps, and speakers to grab a little ambience, and you see where I’m headed. Stereo rules.
With its $5950 C-5xe U2, Colorado-based Ayre Acoustics has designed and built a reference-quality multi-format player for music guys like me. Although I’m sure the Boulder boys are fans of Irish rockers U2, the model designation is catchy jargon for “universal stereo.” The C-5xe is a music playin’ machine that only outputs stereo audio (nope, no video) from CDs, SACDs, and DVD-A/V discs. The C-5xe is sooo about stereo music that it’s practically a turntable for optical discs.
The box is typical Ayre, substantial at 26 pounds (seemingly half of that weight in power supply transformers) and simple almost to the point of austerity, with the added flair of a navigation wheel on the right side of the front panel. Actually, it’s two concentric wheels with six basic playback and navigation buttons. Whatever it is, it looks slick and adds tactile panache.
Although eliminating video circuits keeps the audio signal path quieter, it makes DVD-A discs a challenge to navigate. DVD-A discs do many things, but something they typically don’t do is just play music when you pop one in and hit PLAY. Many DVD-As are loaded with multiple mixes, sample rates, and formats, and often boot-up to an on-screen menu that must be navigated to select the hi-rez stereo or multichannel mixes. With the C-5xe, you obviously want hirez stereo. Getting there is a little tricky without the benefit of going on-screen.
Ayre’s non-GUI solution to this problem involves three front-panel display LEDs. With a DVD-A disc in the player and the machine stopped, the PREVIOUS and NEXT buttons on the remote or front panel switch “Group” numbers on the disc. When you play a group, you determine which has the highest sample rate: the 1x LED lights up for 44k or 48k sample rates; 2x for 88.2 or 96k; 4x for 176.4 or 192k.
There’s one problem with this approach, as demonstrated by Warner’s DVD-A of Fleetwood Mac’s Rumours. As with most DVD-As I’ve seen, the jacket has no information regarding which groups of songs have what mixes and sample rates. Rumours has 96k stereo and 5.1- channel mixes. When played, both groups trigger the 2x LED. One is real stereo, one is a phony downmix from multichannel. Is it a bad mix or a downmix? The only way to tell is to listen. Any wonder why DVD-A has been D.O.A.?
The plus side of Ayre’s non-video approach is that it allowed president and chief designer Charlie Hansen to do the audio the Ayre way, which is to the nth degree. In addition to the overdone power supply, Ayre exclusively uses fully balanced, discrete circuitry, with no inherently high-feedback opamps. In fact, there’s no feedback at all. Truly balanced circuits require higher parts count, and Ayre doesn’t skimp on quality. While manufacturers typically use off-the-shelf clocks and digital filters, Ayre rolls its own. DSD is converted to analog without being converted to PCM first, and Ayre employs and offers digital filtering algorithms that favor time-domain performance over frequency response. I say “offers” because the C-5xe has switchable filters (DIP switch on the rear panel) marked “Measure” and “Listen,” the latter offering better time-domain fidelity and sound.
None of this would mean jack if the C-5xe wasn’t the best multi-format player I’ve heard. Multi-format players typically fall on their face with at least one format, or make all three sound equally mediocre. The Ayre not only doesn’t fall, it sounds absolutely scintillating with Red Book CD and hi-rez PCM and DSD alike, to a degree that’s unparalleled in my considerable experience with multi-format players.
Another bugaboo with universal players is that, too often, SACD sounds either so relaxed that it’s downright soft (as with Simaudio’s Orbiter) or its extra high-frequency information is emphasized to the point of sounding hard or brittle (i.e., Esoteric’s X-01 and UX-1). The C-5xe is the third bowl of porridge— it’s just right. SACDs are clearly more hi-rez, with substantially increased midband resolution and an utterly free and open top end that makes CDs sound broken. Tonally and spatially, many SACD players sound like they’re in a fog compared to the C-5xe’s focused and remarkably dimensional clarity. The sound is also balanced, with enough ease to remind you why SACD often draws comparisons to analog.