REVIEW + KRAKOW SONIC SOCIETY
VOL.1 | KTS Meeting # 105
Manufacturer: AYON AUDIO
he Super Audio CD Player, Ayon Audio CD-35 turned out to be significantly different from typical products of this type, both in terms of technical aspects, the sound quality and price/performance ratio. We believe that this is the player that changes - in a micro-world, but still - rules of the game, because it aspires to the level previously reserved for true "high-end" while representing a surprising, to say the least, price level.
As I already mentioned more then once before, the fast and straightforward conversion of many vinyl lovers to music files user could be surprising. After all, "analog is analog", and we heard many times that "digital signal is just a highly shredded one" and "it is not possible for a digital player to ever match a turntable." It was hard to argue with that, because the truth is that there is something special in the vinyl, which draws people into the analog world, regardless of how much they actually spend on their turntable... It offers warmth, smoothness, high (subjective) dynamics, there is something very "humane" about the way the needle reads musical information from a groove of an analogue record.
One of the biggest fans of the black record always has been and is still Gerhard Hirt, the owner of the Austrian company Ayon Audio. He is our friend, an honorary member of the Krakow Sonic Society (with a safety certificate :)) whose products are often reviewed by numerous magazines around the world. Also we, in "High Fidelity" regularly discuss his new products and he also is one of the most frequent visitors of KSS meetings. And it is so because he creates not only high quality products, but from time to time also, to a certain extent, groundbreaking ones, pointing a direction audio world will follow shortly (see HERE and HERE).
Such was the case, for example, of when he came to us to Krakow with the to present for the first time in the world his player that streamed DSD signal in its native form, not using the DoP protocol, as most companies do it today. I was surprised then with his enthusiasm when he spoke of DSD files. I knew that he was a collector of LPs and created a high-end turntable Mystere, which he sold under the Lumen White brand. Moreover, I perfectly remembered an interview he gave me in 2011, in which he excluded all SACDs from his interests (see HERE, No. 88 , August 2011, in Polish). More then once he also told me that his friends from StreamUnlimited, with whom he's been working closely for years, did not appreciate this format either, believing that it still wasn't able to offer sound quality comparable to the one of Red Book CD, as well as of PCM files.
And so we return to the question that opened this text, to the “conversion” of vinyl fans to DSD-men. Because it is not the Super Audio CD (SACD) that is in question here, but the Direct Stream Digital signal, in short DSD, that is used to code data for those discs. Direct transfer of DSD signal to Ayon file player was an idea that came from StreamUnlimited and it indicated that something had changed. It turned out that properly treated it is able to bring analog and digital worlds much closer together, and the reason behind it is that both formats feature similar sets of advantages and disadvantages. And that is, in my opinion, the key to understanding the said “conversion”.
Ayon Audio CD-35
I do not know whether this was Gerhard's intention, or maybe this is a results of brand's logic, but on the tenth anniversary of the premiere of the first ever Ayon Audio CD Player presented in 2006, called CD-1, now we get a product that doesn't have to much in common with it other than a similar chassis, being a top-loader and featuring tube output stage. And yet it is the culmination of research intended to close as much of a gap between analog and digital sound, as possible. Of course, I mean a culmination as a point in time, because perfectionist industries never stop their search for perfection, but it is such an important point that it should make a difference not only in the perception of the company, but in our way of thinking about the sound.
Its symbol – CD-35 - indicates Gerhard's main interest – the Compact Disc (playback). Nothing has changed in this regard and Gerhard during conversation pointed out that despite the fact that CD sales had been steadily decreasing in the world, the number of silver discs own by music fan makes it still a very important music medium. In addition, the player can play also SACDs – that's sort of a bonus for those who think that this is the format offering superior quality. The device plays SACDs, but only as a "bonus". The company materials emphasized that this is a "SACD/CD Player". It turns out that previous Ayon Audio players, except for CD-5 and CD-T, could also play SACD, but this function was turned off to focus efforts on delivering best possible performance with Red Book CDs.
The new model converts the PCM signal read from a CD to DSD. There are three user-selectable options – 64, 128 and 256 DSD. The idea is not new, it has been promoted for years by dCS (see HERE), and not it might be executed relatively cheap using off-the-shelf chip, such as the one used in Amare Musica Tube DAC DSD.
As always the devil is in the details. Digital conversion, especially from one format to another is an extremely complex mathematical operation that must be performed in real time. Any software engineer can create algorithms for such conversions, but same as with novel writing – anyone can write a novel but only very few are awarded the Booker Prize (The Man Booker Prize for Fiction). That is why for the years I claimed that it's best to listen to music in the format in which it was recorded.
StreamUnlimited created software for CD-35 and then it was tested by Ayon Audio for three years. That's why they stopped making CD-5s and there were no news about a successor. One can try different degrees of signal conversion from CDs, but also with SACDs, converting the signal up to DSD256. The detailed description of the device you will find in its review. Now, let's just say that this player will be available in three versions:
CD-35 is a modular design. It means that even after purchase any unit can be upgraded. For out listening session and review we used the top version. This is a player with a tube output, which was developed specially for this project. In each channel there are two 5687 and one 6H30 tubes powered via a rectifier tube - the Russian version of GZ30. Power supply features two R-core transformers. The CD-35 player is a top-loader with a magnetic clamp and cover made of acrylic.
Gerhard came to us with his new player almost directly from Japan, where he's recently been spending a lot of time.
Recently for the first time I saw Ayon Audio's advertising in the "Stereo Sound" magazine. As he told us, his company is among the very few brand from outside of Japan, which were accepted by the retailers associations of this country. And in addition Ayon's products are highly appreciated by local audio journalists. Congratulations!
Our listening session of the CD-35 was an absolute world premiere. It was the very first time it was officially presented and evaluated. Comparison was simple – we threw into deep water from the start, ie. into a system that we know inside out since we participated as listeners and commentators in its evolution for the past several years. It's been built around devices made by Krakow based Ancient Audio company - active power conditioner, power amplifiers and three-box CD Player. Note that Lektor Grand SE version 2016 costs twice as much as the CD-35. We had a chance to listen to most available top digital sources in this system, including the majestic 4-box dCS Vivaldi SACD Player.
We first listened to several CDs using Lektor, and then the same CDs using Ayon. Then we compared all conversion modes still using CDs, and finally we played some SACDs.
Comparing Lektor to Ayon when we played a CD without conversion was quite difficult for me. The differences were not big, and I admit that did not put attention to nuances, because when he played CD on Ayon and used DSD (probably 64) conversion my jaw dropped to the floor. I did not expect such an effect, such a huge difference in favor of Ayon. The depth and space that I heard was simply unbelievable. I was wondering how was Ayon even able to read so much information from a regular CD? It was MY sound, I would buy it without hesitation.
The next step (conversion to 128) was not so spectacular anymore. In fact, the differences compared to the previous sound were insignificant. Comparing this to the music played with the SACD layer is again difficult. With the SACD layer sound was fuller and denser than with a regular CD, but I still liked the sound of the CD converted to DSD64 more. Another upsampling – SACD to DSD128 and DSD256 also gave no significant improvement. It was good, but not as spectacular as before.
I must admit that eagerly waited for the release of the new Ayon Audio "flagship" CD player. I was surprised by the fact that they stopped the production of CD-5s, and offered no successor. Now I know that Gerhard Hirt was busy over the years, and the long waiting time was due to work on the revolutionary, in a sense, technology.
Converting PCM signal read from a CD to DSD was a fantastic idea. The differences between "raw" CD and its “improved” version were in every case perfectly audible and the CD-35 delivered a large scale, pastel presentation that would be impossible not to like. The device has boldly challenged the Ancient Audio player in a complete and very hermetic system of this manufacturer, as in some respects it turned out even superior. I can not wait for the implementation of this converter in the next Ayon Audio devices, and I'd love an opportunity to assess it in my own system.
It was probably the most difficult KSS meeting. At least for me. It was nice to get to know the Ayon Audio boss personally and his opinions concerning. the market, but from my perspective there was not enough time for listening and comparing.
I sat on the side, so my I can't elaborate, go into details and I shall focus mainly on the overall impression. By far the best sound with upsampling to DSD256. The most improved aspects were: space, momentum and maybe even dynamics. The difference was obvious. When it came to playing the SACD layer and its upsampling I wasn't thrilled. To sum it up, I would like to once again listen to this CD player version with upsampling to DSD. This could be IT.
As you can see already after these short impressions the CD-35 stirred things up. Listening session during KSS meeting wasn't long (a few hours), but extremely fruitful. Tomek and Marcin clearly chose Ayon with upsampling, which compared to the Lektor was not an underdog at all. Wiciu and Janusz in their statements are more cautious, but I clearly remember their reactions in real time and I know that they were also surprised by the Ayon's performance. Probably never before, maybe except for dCS Vivaldi, we had to deal with so surprisingly mature, refined sound from the CD. And even if in this or that the reference Lektor is still better, the differences are not big.
So I'd like to encourage you to read the next part of the article covering a regular test performed in my own listening system - as early as next month (Vol. 2 | TEST). But I also would like to congratulate Gerhard and the StreamUnlimited crew already now on their achievement, because it is not so easy to move and excite Krakow Sonic Society members.
SYSTEM USED FOR LISTENING SESSION