I do not know if you remember the interview with Gerhard Hirt, the owner of Ayon Audio, which was published in the August edition of “High Fidelity” (No. 88) – if not, I encourage you to read it HERE. To one of the questions, namely: “What is your hierarchy of sources: CD, LP, HDD, SACD?” Gerhard responded “LP, CD. That’s it.” This is a bit unusual for somebody whose company has a new product, quite revolutionary at that, and who told us a year ago, during a training for dealers in Krakow, that the company StreamUnlimited is preparing a file player for him. S-3, as it was called, was presented in Munich, during the High End 2011.
However, I think that this dualism, a kind of schizophrenic approach to digital technology is not unfamiliar to many other manufacturers and music lovers. Gerhard differs from his colleagues in being very honest about things and telling what he really thinks, while doing what has to be done. Maybe such approach is the only one that warrants success…
The S-3, costing 22000zl, is a file player, in the company nomenclature called a “Network Player”, which indicates its primary source of data – network drives. It is also a complete DAC and analog preamplifier. Its presence in the catalog of a tube amplifier manufacturer, as this is what Ayon really is, may be surprising. But such changes will be more and more popular. According to Gerhard the presence of digital products in the company portfolio was literally forced upon him by the distributors who wanted to offer their customers complete systems, complete thought-through, coherent sets.
In 2006 his first CD player went into production, the CD-1. I talked with the Ayon owner about problems with digital technology during the High End in Munich three years later, in 2009, when he added to his offer two more expensive CD-2 and CD-3 players as well as presented the completely new version of the CD-1 called CD-1s. As he told me, the preparation of the first player did not take much time. There was a nice “kit” available on the market in the form of a drive and servo from Sanyo, to which they added what they knew best – a tube output stage. A DAC module was designed for them by another company. So they were very surprised how well the market reacted to their construction and how many CD-1 units were sold.
To be fair to everybody, Gerhard approached his more ambitious projects with a clean board. He hired his friends from StreamUnlimited to design the drive and DAC, while he perfected the output stage. It was the starting point for a long lasting cooperation, which culminated with the CD-5 in 2010 and its improved version with an analog preamplifier, theCD-5s from 2011 (test of the CD-5s Special HERE).
As it turned out, this cooperation was growing. When many file players appeared on the market, and Ayon owners also started asking for such a player, Gerhard decided to prepare something that could satisfy them and would be guided by his views on digital devices. It was the year 2009. Then why did designing of the S-3 take almost two years? Although preparing a competent player, yet not much different from many others available on the market, is quite easy and can be done quickly, similar to the CD-1, Gerhard and Ayon were already in a different place. They needed something that would not be worse than their CD players – and they spent the last five years in bettering their sound.
Fortunately, Ayon already had a well working business model, based on the cooperation with StreamUnlimited. And this is a pioneer in hard disc players, as I wrote many times before, and one of the more creative companies in the business. Many well known manufacturers use their modules. The very successful CLiC player from Musical Fidelity is one of the newest examples. The S-3 uses the same display and a similar processor, but its programming is completely different. The software was developed by the SU people. And Gerhard did what he does best – he designed a tube output stage, its power supply and preamplifier sections. All this became the S-3 player – the Ayon Audio file player.
The preview of this unit was in Munich, and the official premiere was on November 1st. We had an opportunity to listen to it in October, and it was presented to us by Gerhard Hirt himself, who also told us interesting stories about its creation, the audio industry, etc.
What was the goal of this meeting, besides the obvious, social one? Well, we wanted to know how the sound of the S-3 fares against the CD-5s. We scheduled the meeting at Tomek’s house, one of the Krakow Sonic Society members who owns the CD-5s Special – (previous meeting at Tomek’s HERE).
His system is composed of:
- Ayon Audio CD-5s Special player, test HERE,
- McIntosh MA7000 integrated amplifier, test HERE,
- Dynaudio C2 floorstanding loudspeakers.
The listening session was split in two parts. In the first one we tried to find out how the S-3 plays files ripped from CDs (16/44.1) compared to the same CDs, and in the second one we compared CDs played on the CD-5s to the same recordings, but played from high resolution files on the S-3.
This was an A/B/A comparison with both sources identified. Each recording was played for 2 minutes. Impressions (opinions) of the listeners were recorded after each piece. The opinions below were prepared in two ways: during the CD quality session they are a compilation of all impressions of a given listener; with high res files those are split into individual sessions. This was done because the differences between CDs and files ripped from CDs were always similar, so one pattern could be discerned, differentiating the two players. So those could be summarized in one statement. It was different with hi-res files. I will return to this in the summary.
Besides us, the participants in the listening session were Irene Hirt, Gerhard’s wife and co-worker, and Gerhard himself. Other guests were Marcin Ostapowicz, one of the authors of the software player JPLAY, and two representatives of the Polish Ayon Audio distributors – Robert and Mariusz.
Part I: CD VS RIPY 16/44,1
Recordings used in the session:
- Cassandra Wilson, If It’s Magic z albumu Silver Pony, Blue Note, 29752-2, CD,
- Sara K., Don’t Know You From Somewhere z albumu Don’t Know You From Somewhere, Stockfisch, CD.
- The Doors, Riders on the Storm z albumu L.A. Wooman, Electra/Warner Music Japan, WPCR-12721, mini LP, CD.
- Eva Cassidy, Autumn Leaves z albumu Songbird, Hot Records, G2-10045, CD.
- The Modern Jazz Quartet, Vendome z albumu Pyramid, Atlantic/Warner Music Japan, WPCR-25125m mini LP, CD.
- Nirvana, Smells Like Teen Spirit z albumu Nevermind, Geffen/Universal Music Japan, UICY-93358, mini LP, CD.
- Steve Ray Vaughn, Pride and Joy z albumu Texas Flood, Epic/Sony Music Japan, EICP-1173, mini LP, CD.
Tomek: For me the difference between the recordings was not big. The CD had higher resolution and slightly better timbre. But in my opinion, this was not a big difference. Now I regret that I made the rips in the computer, and not using the network disc from Linn, RipNAS, because the latter are much better. I think I could replace the CD-5s with the S-3 to have all the discs on the hard disk.
Marcin: For me the difference was significant in favor of the CD-5s, especially in terms of stage depth. With the S-3 it seemed quite flat, at least in this comparison. This is the reason why the sound of the file player seemed less natural. Its asset seems to be a better control of the bass – it was clearer, more contoured, it was easier to follow the sound of the contrabass. I think that also its background and dynamics were shown better.
Janusz: For me the CD was better. The main difference was the bigger fullness, more physiological and nicer sound. It seems that some of the information was recessed, cut in the S-3. With the Doors the depth of the presentation was better with the S-3, I will not agree with Marcin on that point. Yes, it seems that the S-3 has a better controlled bass, but it is also shallower, not as saturated. The sound balance seems placed higher than in the CD-5s Special. In general, for me the CD player was better.
Mariusz: I agree with what Tomek said in the beginning – the CD player is more natural. Between it and the S-3 the difference is not big. They show the material differently – the CD-5s lower, deeper, the S-3 higher, more precise, more dynamic. But if we are talking in absolute categories then the CD is better.
Gerhard: For me the biggest difference was the deeper stage in the CD. For me this is an important element, because it usually allows to differentiate vinyl, which for me is the master of sound, from the CD. Here the CD sounds more similar to the LP than the file player.
Robert: The CD is better – as simple as that. The difference is not big, which is surprising, and if we take into account the price difference the S-3 is surprisingly good, especially given that we are playing from a pendrive, and we know from previous listening session that the S-3 and all other players of that kind sound much better with the signal from the Ethernet port. Anyway, the CD had better space, more information and was nicer.
Irene: For me the CD wins with no “buts” – it is nicer to listen to it, for me this is a more natural sound.
Part II: CD VS HI-RES
Recordings used in the session:
- Kankawa, Dear Myself from the album Organist, 24/192. Compared to the CD-R version from T-TOC.
- Alan Parsons Project, Sirius + Eye In The Sky from the album Eye in the Sky, 24/192. Compared to the version found on the sampler from the “Stereo Sound” magazine (Nobu’s Popular Selection, Sony/Stereo Sound, SSRR5, SACD/CD.
- Stan Getz & Joao Gilberto, Concovado (Quiet Nights of Quiet Stars) from the album, 24/96. Compared to the version from First Impression Music: Lasting Impression Music, LIM K2HD 036, K2HD CD.
- Keith Jarrett, Köln January 24 1975. Part I from the album Koln Concert, 24/96. Compared to the version pressed in gold: ECM/Warner Music Japan, UCCE-9011, mini LP, gold-CD.
- Metallica, Enter Sandman from the album Metallica, 24/96. Compared to the Japanese mini LP version.
Tomek: There were differences between those versions. But from my sitting place it was not clear what it was – here they sounded very similar. Maybe the S-3 sounded more free? But I am not 100% sure.
Irene: I can say the same as the last time – the CD played better. Despite the S-3 playing a high-res file, the fluency, the smoothness of the CD convince me better.
Marcin: I hear the same thing as before: the S-3 has better controlled bass, now it is even more audible. With regards to resolution, detail, the differences between the recordings were minimal, almost negligible.
Krzysztof: For me the CD had better resolution. The sound from S-3 seemed smoother for me, softer, which made it more pleasant.
Mariusz: The CD still sounded better because it was more dynamic. But the difference was smaller than between the CD and files ripped from the CD.
Janusz: There is a difference. But now, for me, the S-3 sounds better. I have completely opposite impressions as before. The Hammond organ from the hi-res was deeper, more open, better.
Robert: The CD sounds better, but the differences were minimal. If somebody listens to this piece for the first time he will not notice the difference.
Gerhard: For me there is no difference now. It can be heard clearly that the S-3 sounds much better now than before. There is better micro-dynamics. But with the CD I still hear more reverb and better detail.
- Alan Parsons Project, Sirius + Eye In The Sky
With this recording the S-3 sounded better, in a more dynamic, natural way. It seems that the CD played louder – despite the fact that we matched levels. I perceived it as a slight pushiness, aggression.
With the S-3 we could hear more air between the instruments and behind them. With the CD there was a lot of treble, but the control of bass was also better, and bass was deeper. Despite that the S-3 seemed more pleasant, better.
Well: the S-3 is better. Without any doubts. The CD was more fluent, people can like that.
The S-3 means smoothness, but the CD sounded with more power. There were big differences in sound stage setup and stereo basis – both items were shown better with the S-3. Also bass was better.
For me the sound was very similar. If I had to choose, the CD would sound better, more dynamic, stronger. The CD had more treble, but it did not bother me.
The CD sounded more dynamic. Space was, for me, better from the CD. However in general the differences were not big. With the S-3 everything was more detailed. But the CD sounded better!
- Stan Getz&Joao Gilberto, Concovado (Quiet Nights of Quiet Stars)
The sound from the CD was nice, more dynamic, more “to the front”. But the differences were not big. If I had to choose I would choose the CD.
The S-3 is now better. Full stop. More breath, better microdynamics, nicer.
I definitely liked the CD better. I cannot understand why the others would find the S-3 better. Maybe because the sound of the CD is more natural for me, I am used to it. For me the saxophone sounded much better from CD, it played with bravado.
The CD sounded with a more open, stronger sound. The S-3 sounded in a more fluent, more natural way. It was not as harsh as the CD. Even if the S-3 didn’t have such a good attack of the sound, its definition, yet it was more “on-site”. For me the S-3 played this material significantly better, probably best to date.
In my opinion the difference was not as big as expressed by Janusz, but the CD sounded in a more open way, as if there were more sounds. Despite that, I was not able to point to the winner.
No, the differences were not big. The CD was more dynamic, more “rock like”. But the S-3 sounded more musical, smoother, more fluent, more “analog”, whatever that should mean. It was a more natural sound, closer to a good LP.
Small difference. For me the CD was still better – more dynamic. In the S-3 there was more music, but at the expense of details.
For me, with this recording the difference was bigger – in the CD bass was more extended, voices stronger. Space was better in the S-3, much better.
- Keith Jarrett, Köln January 24 1975. Part I
The CD was more open, more dynamic. I choose Compact Disc.
I do not agree – the S-3 sounded fuller, with much longer reverb, which has colossal meaning with the piano.
In the S-3 there is a much better volume of the piano, depth, resolution and reverb – it is just much better!
Of course I am for the S-3. Better reverb, the sound was darker and more natural. Better.
Yes, the S-3 sounded in a more natural way, the piano was aggressive on the CD, and with the S-3 it was smooth and yet dynamic.
I place my bet on the S-3: better space, lower aggression.
Besides dynamics, which was better from the CD, everything else you said about the S-3 is true. Smoothness, fluency, lack of aggression are the assets of the S-3. But the dynamics of the CD was closer to what I know about this disc from vinyl.
The S-3 is much better. Presentation was relaxed, smooth, better.
I will not split this session into parts. When the first notes of the guitar sounded in the 24/96 version, when the percussion entered, everybody laughed – the CD version sounded as if it was played from a toy player: shallow, aggressive, and unpleasant. The hi-res version, from which the 45rpm vinyl version was cut, is a few classes better. If somebody likes this band he should have the 24/96 version; if he has not heard it yet, he has not heard how Metallica really sounds.
The first of the goals of this meeting was to get acquainted with the new Ayon product. Gerhard introduced it brilliantly, not in a hyper optimistic way, as he could have done it, and he honestly noticed that for him no digital source sounds as good as vinyl. Even the S-3.
The second goal was to compare the S-3 with the best CD player from this manufacturer, the CD-5s Special, and to try to respond to the question, whether the one can be replaced with the other. The answer seems to be clear from the responses of the meeting attendants: NO. The Ayon CD player is much more expensive, better built and you can hear that. If we compare the file player with a cheaper CD, like the CD-2s, then things will be different. The S-3 is a very nice device but it cannot be compared with much more expensive players.
The third goal was the comparison between the CD-5s Special, which means the CD in the best possible version, and hi-res files. Things become interesting here.
You can see from the above opinions that the people who deemed the CD to be much better in the previous comparison, now say that it is “sometimes better”, “in some aspects better”, “in some elements better”. It doesn’t dominate so much. Those who earlier pointed to some aspects of the S-3 that they liked better, and for whom the lack of a physical carrier did not prohibit listening joy, designated the S-3 as being clearly better now. Interestingly, this player was now described as being more natural, more analog.
Equally interesting were the differences between the high resolution files themselves. While with the CD the quality of recordings is different, the format as such has a clear set of characteristics, which are imposed on the sound. With hi-res it seems that not everybody knows how to make them, and not every 24/192 will be what it should. Clearly this is the beginning of the revolution and sound engineers have to learn how to make those recordings.
And finally, we need to say that the S-3 users can immediately improve its sound with proper disc ripping, by connecting a network drive to it (USB sounds much worse and it does not display covers) and by using good hi-res files.
Previous meetings of the Krakow Sonic Society:
#79: Dr Ningsheng Liu (Synergy HiFi/Create Audio) and Ayon Audio KT88sx tubes
#78: Vacuum Tubes Takatsuki TA-300B
#77: 1. Power amplifier Reimyo KAP-777; 2. Vacuum tubes Create Audio Luxury Series 300B
#75: What sampling frequency? How many bits?
#74: Acoustic Revive RST-38 and RAF-48 – anti-vibration platform
#73: Kazuo Kiuchi (Combak Corporation) in Krakow
#72: Acrolink Mexcel 7N-PC9100 vs. Acrolink Mexcel 7N-PC9300
#71: Capacitors in loudspeaker cross-over
#70: Blue Note on XRCD24 Audio Wave
#69: Power in the walls
#68: McIntosh – MCD7000+MA250 vs. MCD301+MA275
#67: Tara Labs The Zero
#64: HQCD + Blu-spec CD
#63: Acrolink Mexcel 7N-D6300
#62: System RCM
#61: KT88 tubes
#60: Power cable Acrolink Mexcel 7N-PC9100
#59: Power amplifiers - Ancient Audio Silver Grand Mono Vs. Reimyo PAT-777
#58: Cables over the top
#55: Racks, part 1
#54: Power, part 2 (Furutech power cables)
#53: K2HD discs
#52: SACD player Accuphase DP-700
#51: Isolators (anti-vibration platforms)
#50: Power, part 1 (power plugs)
#49: Accuphase – digital (r)evolution
#40: Digital vs analog or 25 years of the silver disc
#35: CD players – Accuphase vs. Ancient Audio
#34: Jazz in The Pawnshop. Vol. 1
#33: Power amplifier Ancient Audio Silver Grand pre-premiere
#32: Power amplifiers Nagra MPA vs Ancient Audio Silver Grand (prototype)
#31: SONUS FABER Minima Amator vs Electa Amator vs Guarnieri Homage
#30: Loudspeakers Eryk S. Concept Nuvo in Krakow
Distribution in Poland:
ul. Malborska 24 | 30-646 Kraków | Polska
tel./fax: 0048 12 425 51 20/30 | tel. kom.: 0048 507 011 858