I’ve had the opportunity to listen to two of the most exotic and highly regarded CD/SACD “separates” in my own system—dCS’ $19,000 Verdi/ Delius transport/DAC combo and EMM Labs’ DAC-6, which costs $10k without the transport needed to drive it. With SACDs, the C-5xe isn’t as sweet and musical as the DAC-6, and not quite as insanely see-through transparent from front-to-back as the dCS stack. But it’s right in there, and doesn’t have the slightly analytical side the dCS occasionally shows. On CD, the Ayre is superior to the DAC-6 by orders of magnitude and is so close to the dCS that a head-tohead comparison would be necessary to declare a winner. Consider the prices, and that neither the EMM nor dCS play DVD-As, and you’ll see why I’m high on the Ayre.
The C-5xe also took hi-rez PCM to the next level. Classic Records’ Mike Hobson is the only guy who gets it. He makes DVD-As for people who are into music. Pop one of Classic’s 24/192 HDADs into the C-5xe, hit PLAY, and voila! There are no video menus to muddle through, and gorgeous, silky, extended hi-rez PCM pours right into the room. I pulled out a golden moldy, the HDAD of Casino Royale, and cued up Dusty Springfield’s “Look of Love” against Classic’s own 200-gram, 45rpm single of the same cut on an SME 20/2 turntable with a Lyra Titan cartridge. Switching between the two in real time, I heard some additional vocal textures and a slightly more natural cushion of air around the instruments and vocals from the vinyl, but the HDAD was exceptionally open and airy on top, with tons of midrange transparency and layers of frontto- back depth. I’m generally an SACD guy, but hi-rez PCM on this player floored me. The C-5xe joins the $11k Linn UniDisk 1.1 at the pinnacle of DVD-A performance, and may be more spatially accomplished in soundstage focus.
Having spent months living with Ayre’s D-1x CD player, I was initially taken aback by the C-5xe’s CD playback. Where the D-1x is smooth and refined, and lets you come to the music, the C- 5xe is far more insistent and even rambunctious. It commands your attention with a lively, visceral sound that says, “Hey, you and me, buddy. We’re going to party with some music and we’re doing it right now!” It’s not forwardsounding, but the midrange is crisp, with excellent resolution of low-level details (if just a hair less than the great D-1x), outstanding dynamic contrast, and better bass impact and articulation than any Ayre player I’ve heard. Not only is the lowest foundation rock-solid (i.e., the very bottom that anchors and solidifies a piano), bass speed makes drums sound concussive albeit tightly drawn and rhythmically alive.
Yet what really separates the C-5xe is that it sounds more like something has been taken out of the system rather than added to it. There’s a purity to the presentation that’s beyond transparency, and more than the dissolution of another layer between the music and listener. Digital playback is less mechanical-sounding with the C-5xe; the space occupied by the musicians sounds less like hi-fi parlor trickery and more like the real thing. There’s less sound of equipment, and more of raw artistic expression jumping out of the music.
With the C-5xe, Ayre has established a high-water mark for multi-format players. It’s not only consistent across all formats—it excels across all (stereo) formats by performing at or very near the current state-of-the-art. Hi-rez formats would probably be doing much better had a player of this quality come along earlier. But hey, it’s here now, and hi-rez digital badly needs a shot in the arm. Serving music lovers by eschewing video playback and multichannel audio allowed Ayre to deliver reference-quality sound at a price that, while not cheap, isn’t as lofty as the C- 5xe’s performance would lead your ears to believe.