Ayon Audio CD-1s Review – High Fidelity
AYON CD-1s + ACCUPHASE E-250
Translation: Krzysztof Kalinkowsk
In general, testing devices is putting the tested device, cable, loudspeaker, in our reference system. This is a classic situation known from science, and means testing by comparison. Assuming that the reference devices are at least one class better than the tested ones, it allows for precise definition of the sound of the latter. Some variables play a role there, like adjusting the elements to each other, electrical, but also way of reproduction, etc. Those can ruin many systems. On the other hand, they will not make a good device from a bad one – this does not work that way. Some brand name lovers point to some inconsistencies of such tests. Every company designing the devices must make them in a such way, what makes them compatible with the broadest possible assortment of other devices (loudspeakers) from other manufacturers available on the market. This is normal – audiophiles like to pair, mix and combine. On the other hand their products are sound shaped in fixed systems, usually made by themselves. So it is true, that optimization, regardless of how “pluralistic”, happens mostly with a given brand. This is a known, and often discussed thing. And still, very rarely we (this is about us, journalists) test complete systems. We could do that only once to date with the brands Reimyo, Harmonix & Bravo!, owned by Combak Corporation. It turns out that there is a very prosaic explanation for this – you have to test the system as a whole, which is doable, and all the elements apart, to be able to define their influence on the final effect. And this means that a lot of time is needed, time no one has available.
But although it seems, that the sales of complete systems (mostly electronics) from one manufacturer reach a high place in the earnings of audio shops (and distributors, who own sales shops themselves), still quite a lot of the sales can be attributed to sets proposed by the sellers, and composed of devices from different makes. This requires knowledge, feel and preparation of the sales people, but it happens more often than we could imagine. This is the reason, that we would like to test, from time to time, and we will see what will come out of that, systems proposed by distributors – the same they offer to their customers. The first one to go on the test bench is the set composed by the company Nautilus Hi-End, made from the novelties: CD player Ayon CD-1s (replacing the CD-1) and the integrated amplifier Accuphase E-250 (successor to E-213). In addition we got a bunch of Japanese cables from Ovaide – interconnect Across AR-750/RR, speaker cables OR-800 Advanced and power cables – L/i 50 EXs for CD and Tunami GPX-R for the amplifier – both plugged into the power strip Oyaide MTB-4. To make the situation more difficult, the player and the amplifier together, were tested with the supplied cables and reference cabling as well as both devices separately in the reference system.
The CD-1s is a true pearl. Although the earlier version was not really worse, there is no talking about a jump, or changing the paradigm, or any of the things the reviewers love to write, still it went a step in the direction of richness of the sound. The Ayon player plays with an incredibly saturated, fantastically (even on the absolute scale) keeping the rhythm. The ability of doing that, without even a trace of hesitation, makes me think of Naim devices as reference. Yes, this is a good lead, but – in my opinion – Ayon is still without competition, regardless of which device we take as a reference. It pays a price for this, about that in a moment, but plays everything in a way that keeps the listener in tension, there is no talking about slow phrasing, no trailing, etc, there is rhythm and pulse. I remember the comparison between my Lektor Prime Ancient Audio and Lektorem Grand SE, where it could be clearly heard, that the first one slightly “accelerates”, goes to the front. Now the roles have changed – the Prime was quieter and sedated. The disc Thriller Michael Jackson, especially – Beat It and Billie Jean sounded great. The bass drum was strong, quick, it paced the heart, and it paced the legs. I have not lived through anything like that in years. This was like an element controlled. Many things happen there, but everything is under control.
And at the same time the CD-1s keeps a fantastic timbre. The gravity point is shifted to lower midrange and mid bass, what makes all recordings, regardless of their provenience, to be saturated and there is no “thinning”. This is of course a step away from neutrality, but one, that we not only accept, but thank for. Because everything depends on our point of view. If we look at devices costing 20000zl and more, like the DP-500 Accuphase, then we can talk about a change of tonal balance (the ideal). But below that amount, the only thing I can allow, is the discussion about character, choices, etc, because such a change does not undergo evaluation – and even if, then a positive one. The midrange is incredibly saturated and full. The vocals almost jump out of the frame, and the instruments, like the trumpets from the Hank Mobley disc, just stand in front of us. Interestingly, this does not lead to fatigue during longer listening sessions. Usually over-separation and throwing at us the elements of recordings is maybe attractive at first, but fatiguing in the longer perspective. The Ayon needs to be listened to by itself, and not for a moment, but for longer time, but I think, that even in that perspective, its active, dynamic sound, will be appealing.
But we have to point out the differences with the upsampling switched on and off. This function is available on the remote, so we can compare the sound easily. With upsampling enabled the whole is more creamy, the midrange gets more saturated, and the treble is slightly blocked. But the most important information is this one: with upsampling the CD character approaches that of SACD and vinyl. I do not exaggerate, less information is less information, but the character of the sound is close. This is good, as the vocals are extremely palpable, full and nice. But in this mode the reverbs are shortened and the room acoustics is masked. This is the karma. The whole is slightly lighter, mostly due to slight thinning of the midrange, but also more resolved. This is why the whole rock, and the mentioned disc from Jackson, and the beautiful re-master 20th Anniversary Edition (I recommend it, it is just plain brilliant – the pack is available on CD Japan – banner below the text) of the disc Layla Derek And The Dominos and other discs, were played by me with the upsampling on, as well as discs with female vocalists, like Delihtful Doris DrewDoris Drew and Don’t I Know You From Somewhere? Sara K. But then jazz, like Lo Voltage Hank Mobley sounded better with it switched off. Anyway – we may choose, and this is a good thing. One thing we should turn our attention to is the lower bass. This is very strong and full, but not fully controlled, in a way the mentioned Accuphase DP-500 can do that.
As it turns out, the amplifier is a completely different “beast” than the CD and this is why this set conquered so many hears of Nautilus clients. It is much more linear than the E-213. The predecessor colored the lower midrange and upper bass, giving a “big” and warm sound, that really could be liked, but remained colored. The E-250 is different. Its tonal balance, based – but slightly, without exaggeration – on midrange is even and nice. And this is how all the sound is – even, “reliable”, one could say that it is surely seated in what it does. This is interesting, but the liveliness of the Ayon does not impress the Accu. I mean, the amplifier gets it with dignity and does not allow to be pushed around. This probably means a slight compression of the jumps, that is handled with grace by the E-450. Strong bass, nice midrange and thorough treble of the Austrian player allow this element to be added to the sound of the E-250, but they do not dominate it. I think that the preamplifier section is mostly responsible for this thorough emission of the “Japanese”. The CD-1 offers an unique function, namely this is not only a player, but also a preamplifier. Also the E-250 is equipped with an input directly connected to the power section, for an external AV processor. I took advantage of this and compared the preamplifier sections of the player and the amplifier. It turned out, that although the Ayon made good job in preparing the CD-1s for working with a power amplifier, still the AAVA-II turned out to be much better. Without any doubts the sound was more resolved and more dynamic, but first of all it showed a much richer treble. The brass from the Mobley disc got live with it, as did Doris Drew vocals. While the power section of the Accuphase was driven directly the sound was not bad at all. This was still even, good sound. But the Accuphase engineers constructed something, that improved the sound in almost every aspect. Interesting enough, the timbres, their drawing, their colors were better using the E-250 as an integrated amplifier than when steering its power section from my Lektor Prime! In that second case the resolution and the definition of the sounds was worse, only their saturation was better.
The set of Ayon with Accuphase offers a very even, very thorough, and at the same not de-personalized sound. A big kudos to the player for this, but the amplifier is open enough, to allow the assets of the first “flow” through. Like I wrote, it does not get commandeered, but it is also not “deaf”. After switching to the Ayon+Accuphase from the reference system, a system costing five or six times more, dynamics is the thing that goes down. This is natural, but you have to take this behavior into account, because if one thing can be blamed on the amplifier, is the sparse reproduction of dynamic jumps, playing with a rather safe sound, without strong hits and rides. This is the reason the CD-1s is such a good partner for it, because it does not lack those characteristics. This unifies some discs and recordings. But at the same time allows for stress-free playing at diverse volume levels. The system sounds nice playing soft and loud. In the low setting of the volume knob some of the top and bottom disappears, but this is not the problem of the devices, but our hearing. The system does not aggravate this phenomenon and does not compress dynamics further. The latter, while quiet in absolute terms, does not change, regardless of the volume we listen to the music at. I am sure, this is due to the AAVA-II, because it was worse during the tests with the Ayon built-in amplifier. The sound stage of the system is not especially deep, so it is worthwhile to search for loudspeakers, which would not flatten it even more. The first plane is mostly active, but without “jumping to the front”, before the stage, what happened sometimes to the player alone.
I will repeat, because it is worth it: this is an incredibly even system, with a sound, that does not lack anything and nothing is exaggerated. We can play all kinds of music on it, and each will be treated the same way. This is a significant step forward compared to the E-213 and the CD-1. Although the new amplifier is much more expensive than the older one (the dramatic rise of the Japanese yen value only made things worse) but it also offers much more. The old amplifier was nice, but you had really to tinker to fit it in the system and show its strengths, while not exposing its weaker points. The new entry level Accuphase integrated is much more universal in that aspect. It will not impress with worked-out dynamics, like the for example INT-150 Pass, or extraordinary resolution L-550A II Luxman, but combines the best of those three amplifiers in one, neat whole. The Ayon fits perfectly in this aesthetics, adding its ten cents. Together with the Oyaide cabling, signal and power, we get a well thought, complete system. If we would like to improve anything, we would have to pay much more, and cosmetic changes will rather make things worse.
The CD-1s is the newest and cheapest proposition of the Austrian Ayon Audio in the digital sources area. Introduced to the market late 2008 it was a derivative of the more expensive model CD-2. Thanks to the latter it received a new enclosure and a new drive, switchable upsampling module, a much better display, and – this is important in times of music from Internet and alternative sound sources – a digital INPUT. So the CD-1s is a Compact Disc player, with a tube output and an integrated preamplifier. But the volume control is made in the digital domain. This means, that with every volume level diminishing, we also loose resolution. Converting the signal from 16 to 24 bits in the upsampler helps to alleviate some of the problems, because in the upper volume levels we cut only “empty”, added bits, and not the music signal (similar to the Wadia volume control). But it must be said, that this kind of work is only a partial solution and I would recommend to use it only in appropriate conditions. The output level is higher than the standard CD level of 2V – so you should be careful while comparing with other players.
The device has an extremely solid and rigid enclosure, made from 5mm thick aluminum plates, in the tested model anodized black. This is a classic top-loader, a player where the disc is put directly on the motor shaft from the top. In the CD-1s, different from the CD-1, there is no separate disc puck. The disc fulfilling that role (a standard one, like in a regular drive) is integrated with the heavy, acryl cover of the disc chamber. I am not sure, if this is a good move sound wise, but this surely allows for greater comfort – the puck does not get lost and you do not have to think about it. On the plus side there is a spindle in the ring, that fits in the motor shaft, what allows for centering the disc. The TOC is read after the acrylic cover is closed, as it presses down a micro switch.
The CD-1s enclosure has rounded edges – those are quarter cylinders, and not just bent plates – and a nice, red dot-matrix type display. Next to it is a red lit icon ‘24/192’ informing about the upsampler function. The red lit buttons are on the top cover. There are also ventilation holes for the tubes, covered with chromed mesh. This looks really nice. On the back we have a IEC power socket, a digital input and output (the first one can be activated from the remote) in S/PDIF standard, with fantastic RCA sockets from the American company CMC. There is also an unbalanced analog output, on the same type of RCA sockets, placed on both ends of the back plate, what suggests a dual mono construction. The device is suspended on very solid aluminum feet, with a milled deepening, where a rubber ring is placed. Lets add, that the power switch is placed on the bottom plate, close to the left side.
While the external looks are similar to the CD-1, the inside is completely different. The circuit is split between a few PCBs: the power supply (with a few digital parts), drive, display, I/V conversion and two PCBs for amplification and output buffers. Except for the drive control PCB, all the others have thick OFC copper traces, gold plated. But let us start with the drive. It is hung from the top, by means of soft rubber washers, to an aluminum plate, which is tightened to the top cover. The control PCB is below the drive. Its heart us the SAA7824, and the rest is also from Philips and was programmed especially for Ayon by engineers that used to work for that company. After reading and decoding (on the disc, the signal is not in PCM form) the signal goes by a short ribbon to the next PCB. Also the signal from the digital input goes there, via a shielded cable. It is received by a digital receiver Cirrus Logic 8416. Then we have the selector (disc/input) and we enter the asynchronous upsampler Burr-Brown SRC4193. So it seems, that the upsampling switch will also work for the digital input on the back plate. Next to those ICs we see a really beautiful, mechanically and temperature compensated word clock from the company TIC. Further on the same PCB we have a separated section for the D/A and I/V conversion. The DAC is a Burr-Brown PCM1792 IC, a very nice, multi-bit 24/192 converter with a sigma-delta modulator. After that we have filters and conversion on Burr-Brown OPA2134 chips, neatly seated in sockets, what allows them to be exchanged for something else if needed. The I/U part is symmetrical, but the buffers aren’t any more. The output of this section is coupled with nice capacitors Jantzen Audio Standard Z-cap. I cannot see any resistor ladder or IC which would be responsible for volume control, so probably this is done in the digital domain, in the Burr-Brown DAC. The output is amplifier and buffered in the 6N30Pi-EB tubes coming from the Russian Sovtek. This is a splendid double triode, some time ago used exclusively by BAT, which was not easy to get until in the mid 90-ties, because in Russia spy gear was constructed using this tube. Its halves are coupled by a polypropylene capacitor SRC, and the output by a polypropylene Mundorf. The output is keyed with a relay.
The power supply is extremely elaborate. It is based on a big R-core transformer, with many secondary windings. I counted seven rectifiers, but I am not sure, if I saw all of them. The power supply of most sections is filtered in Rubycon capacitors, but in the audio part, behind stabilizers and filters, we have the more expensive and better Nichicon Gold Fine on input and golden Fine Gold on the filter outputs. Wherever possible we have Wima capacitors, and all, really all resistors are metalized and precise. We can of course exchange the ICs in the filters and the coupling capacitors, but we have to remember about the incredibly, for this price range, good sound and the splendid construction from the beginning. This is only possible, because the enclosures for Ayon are made in China. The remote controller RC-1A is from metal.
The new Accuphase amplifier E-250 was introduced late 2008. It is similar to the E-213, but a bit higher, and the front panel has this characteristic x50 series split, that divides it in two parts – bigger upper part, and smaller lower part. The looks is typical for the company. The front panel is from aluminum and is colored gold. In the middle we have two small VU meters, covered with a smoked acryl plate. On both sides we have big knobs – one for volume control and one for the input selection. The first one works like a classic potentiometer, but works only as an encoder. The E-250 uses the AAVA-II circuit for volume control, which controls current, and not voltage. This allows to bypass the biggest problem of classic solutions – changing impedance of the input and output, due to the changing position of the potentiometer. Below the acryl plate we have six small knobs and four switches. The E-250 is a center, with many inputs, outputs and controls. There is a treble and bass control, and balance. We can activate one from the two loudspeaker outputs, both, or switch them off at all. Here we can activate the power section input or activate the tape loop. We can choose the mono or stereo mode, choose the MM or MC cartridge and activate the volume control.
On the back there is a lot of sockets – lines of inputs (four unbalanced RCA ones and one balanced XLR), tape loop and the power section input. There is no gramophone input, probably it is activated after placing the optional preamplifier in a special slot. It can also be used to mount a DAC or additional line inputs. The loudspeaker outputs are double, easy to lock. Below there is the IEC power socket. Lets add, that the XLR is pinned differently than the IEC suggest, with the hot pin being nr 3. So if we connect a classic equipped CD player it is worth to change absolute phase by loudspeaker cables (we make the change in both channels).
The inside is typical for Accuphase, and many other manufacturers. The signal from the sockets goes to a small input PCB, where a selector is placed, based on Omron relays. Here the signal is symmetrized using the JRC4580 chip. From here the signal goes via shielded cables to a vertically placed, at the right side, AAVA-II PCB. It is much smaller than in the more expensive models and works on unbalanced signal. In front of it we have the mentioned potentiometer – a nice double Alps in malachite color. The power section channels, working in AB class, are mounted on significantly sized heat sinks on both sides of the power supply. This section is based on two pairs of bipolar Sankens working in a push-pull setting. The whole setup is solid state. In the middle we have a solid power supply – a shielded big EI transformer and two big filtering capacitors. Between sections the signal is transferred by medium length shielded cables. The device stands on high-carbon steel feet.