Ayon Audio CD-2s: High Fidelity Review
It is not so long ago that I tested the cheapest, at least to date, player from the Austrian company Ayon Audio, the model CD-07. It does not take much cunning, to deduce from the test, that I liked it, and the conclusion of that article, “the best device Ayon produced” echoed in the Internet for a long time, returning also in your emails. Its “being the best” was not in the fact, that it sounded better, than the more expensive products of that company, but in the fact, that for reasonable money we got a competent, absolutely satisfying sound, and great workmanship in addition to it. But in time I come to another conclusion, that there is more in it, than meets the eye. The CD-07 was the second Compact Disc player in the second generation of players, this manufacturer produced. In the first generation we had the CD-1, CD-2 and CD-3. A change in the design, related to new drives, reworked converters and other things – including functionality – were brought by the model CD-1s. We could immediately hear, that this is a true leap forward, and that this player is not only better than the CD-1, which it replaced, but also the CD-2 and even the CD-03. It was even better with the CD-07 – in my opinion, in some elements of the sound, it sounds even better than the CD-1s. Not always and not everywhere (the distributor may disagree with me in this area…), but it happens quite often, that I prefer its sound. Seemingly the half a year of research, that separates the players, was enough to work some things out, to improve things. So when I heard, that a new player, the CD-2s is presented, destined to replace the CD-2, I did not wait, but ordered it for testing right away.The opportunity to it happened quickly, because the head or Ayon, Mr. Gerhard Hirt visited Krakow on invitation of the Polish distributor, the company Nautilus Hi-End, to conduct a training for the distributors. I grasped the opportunity, and Saturday morning, in the Campanielli hotel on the Krakow Planty, I was present – together with my camera and a digital recorder. The discussion was inspiring and surprising at the same time – Gerhard (to be as transparent as I can – we like each other, and have no financial dependencies what so ever) straightened out some errors I made in the Skylla text, he admitted I had some other things right – although not directly! – and told me about some of his plans for the future. The interview is being worked upon, and will probably be published in “Audio”. But I want to discuss briefly the things I told you above. First my mistakes. It turns out, that the Ayon gear is manufactured in Austria, and not in China, this is confirmed by large stickers, which are placed on the back of the devices recently – something, that is very well controlled by the customs. In China the cabinets are made, but not in the Raysonic factory, but in a factory owned by Ayon in Hong Kong. For that purpose a new company was founded, the Ayon Audio Hong Kong Ltd. I mentioned the brand Raysoni on purpose, because it is easy to notice, that their gear resembles earlier generations of Ayon. Gerhard confirmed, that the first generation Ayon enclosures and PCBs were manufactured by Raysonic. But when that manufacturer copied the design, and with small modifications sold under its name, then Gerhard Hirt dropped the cooperation and search for a new factory in Hong Kong, which he quickly bought investing almost all his money. This was an incredibly courageous move, because he could easily live with that, but it placed him in a very good light as a businessman. Another thing is related to a “mistake” made by Ayon. Gerhard will never tell this that way, but in my opinion this is the truth: installing old type USB receivers (16/48) in the CD-5 and Skylla was a mistake. They did not decode high resolution audio – it had to be downsampled and send in a 16/48 format. I wrote quite cold about that, what made a quite a stir. But it turns out, that criticism, a constructive one, favors everybody. So in the CD-2s we have a new generation receiver, accepting 24/96 signal. Even better, the PCB with this receiver can be retrofitted to all previous Ayon devices. So we got just what I postulated. Bravo! And finally the plans – I will not write much about that, enough to tell, that Ayon has a file player ready, with the computer part of it designed by the company StreamUnlimited (the first company in the world to develop a “music server”). The output features tubes, there is a line power supply, worked out just like in CD players. The product is waiting for being adapted for production, what will take some time. We will see what comes out of that…Finalizing this long introduction, I’ll just summarize the new things in the CD-2s mentioned by Gerhard:
To date we tested the following Ayon Audio gear:
Plugging the Ayon to a system we can immediately hear its most important characteristic: brilliant smoothness. The first generation players from that company had a tendency to boost the edges of the sound spectrum, playing the highest and lowest notes in a quite offensive way, what was not fitting all systems and all audiophiles. With the CD-5, and most of all – and that was a shock for me – with the cheapest CD-07 we got something better, a whole class better, something we could called refined without the need of using parentheses. The CD-2s goes a step beyond that. It adds coherence of all subranges of the sound spectrum. How pleasant, how natural, how well Stanko’s trumpet sounded on Lontano! It was not rounded, not fogged; you could immediately hear the class of the musicians and the recording itself. We could also hear splendid dynamics and differentiation of sound. The first thing was visible due to the clear shading of the trumpet play, and nice showing how drums and percussion works. Differentiation was something else than “separation” of the instruments. It was good here, but not underlined. It became a commonly accepted thing, that hi-end is resolution, and separation is king. This is a big mistake, it leads to many systems, that are “eaten out”, prepared up to the end, where we hear everything and nothing at the same time. Everything, because every details is treated as a real king, cleaned from any possible patina, has all the attention. And nothing because this does not combine into a coherent whole, it does not produce music, but only details. Ayon CD players never did that, but they also did not glue everything together, like the CD-07 and CD-2s do it. And the latter is just phenomenal in that aspect.
The tonal balance is chosen wisely, without underlining anything. At first, it can seem, that the percussion brass sounds stronger than usual, that elements of the acoustics are clearer than before. But this is not a result of stronger treble, like I said before, it is a very even device, but because treble is so clean, so coherent and communicative. As if they would be cleaned from verdigris – they have the same “weight”, size, etc, but the shine brighter, are a more pronounced part of the whole. But most listeners will probably like the midrange most. The volume of the vocals, trumpets, etc, is really big, similar to the real one. I made a part of the listening session with the German Physics HRS 120 loudspeakers, which go in the same direction, and the final result was spectacular. I think, that those two elements fit together just as if they were designed together. Despite the six times price difference (in favor of the loudspeakers) it sounded exceptionally well. I mentioned vocals. And I had my reasons: Laurie Anderson, Laurie Allyn and Doris Drew sounded spectacular. Their voices were full, slightly warm and girlish and yet experienced (the dream of a frustrated man…). Frank Sinatra from the disc Strangers in the Night sounded similar, the volume was splendid, but there we could also hear a certain emphasis, which, after longer listening sessions, we could attribute to the player. This is a kind of vivacity in the vocal. This is not brightening, or sharpening, because the accent is placed lower, but enlivening. How will this influence a given system is hard to predict in 100%, but I am sure, that most systems will benefit from that. Compared to this sound, most “audiophile” players will sound dull and pallid. I am not saying, that this is a flaw, because this is also needed in reproduction – a certain withholding – but this does not allow to experience the emotions living in music fully, neither the emotions which drive the vocalist.
The bass is strong, full and solid. They are not so differentiated like in the reference player, or the CD-5 from Ayon, but the differences are by far not so big. It is mainly flattening of dynamics and slight unification of timbre. Like I say, those are not big things, but they are there.
Anyway, all this disappears when we listen to the whole sound. As usual, in the beginning I try to show, to characterize the individual subranges, so that the readers can make an initial opinion. In my opinion, this is the right methodology of the tests, and I will keep it. But as usual in audio, this is only a part of the description, a very basic one. Because the organization of all that, taking priorities, directions is equally important. Here we can see the taste and the talent of the constructor. Or the lack of those, if you will. CD-2s is a subsequent device from Ayon, that makes me look up to Austria and Gerhard Hirt with esteem, as he is the one responsible for the sound. Or when he is in his factory in Hong Kong – then I look in the direction of china. He is a very talented man. Probably I am a bit influenced with his nice personality and passion, with which he leads his company, but only a little. This is because the tested player is a splendid mix of many elements, which are present in many other players from the 20000-30000zl price range. Those are there alone or in small groups, but all of them were never found together in a player. For me, communicativeness is the most important thing. We have music, and sound follows that. It goes hand in hand, but we never have the idea, that we listen to a device playing music forcibly. The discs are played with lightness and imaginativeness. This is not an ultra correct sound, because we can show some departures from neutrality, and I already pointed to them. But this does not bother me. Frankly speaking, the first version of the text did not include them. Because listening to the Ayon I had no heart to be nitpicking and dig further. For the money – it is the sound of the XXI century, the first half of, but still. Clean, soaked in emotion, well glued together into a brilliant whole. There are no weaker elements, no cut corners and no elements not fitting. This is the reason I wanted to cross the borders and write, that I do not care for the weaker things. But finally my sense of duty and esteem for the readers grew stronger, because you want the learn more about the device, and not me. Hence this remarks.
Because the USB input is important for many music lovers, I listen how it works for some time. After plugging in the USB socket the Wireworld Starlight 5.2 cable, with my Hewlett-Packard laptop on the other end of it, the drivers were automatically loaded, and the system announced the readiness of Ayon Audio CD-2s and TE7028 audio device. So you can see, that at least a part of the programming was done by Ayon. The USB input is by far better than in the previous Ayon players. We can finally hear the breath, fullness and dynamics lacking in the earlier version of the port. Compared to the CD we can hear, that the computer is not the ideal source, because the sound was less differentiated, but in context of the price of the CD player and the computer it is completely negligible. What is important, is that the difference between the versions 44,1 and 96kHz is heard clearly, and even better between the 16 and 24 bit version of the same recordings.
Besides the outputs there are also four switches. One selects the absolute phase – 0/180°, the second one controls the overall gain – maximum output voltage of 2.5V or 5V, the third one selects the analog output we use, XLR or RCA. But the fourth one is most interesting – Normal/Direct Amp. In the Normal setting the player behaves in a standard way. In the second one, used in systems, where the CD-2s is connected directly to the power amplifier, after initial power on, the sound is automatically attenuated to -40dB, to protect the loudspeakers. In that setting, the volume control cannot be switched off. And it is available from remote – Vol Sel – we can select if the output level is fixed, or variable. Volume can be controlled between -60dB and 0dB in 1dB steps. From remote we can also activate a digital loop, just like in Accuphase. It allows a digital acoustic corrector to be plugged in the loop, one like the DG-48 from Accu.
The inside is different to what I remember from the CD-2. Although most modules are similar, not all of them are, and even those “look alike” ones were redesigned. Let’s start with the drive. This is a complete module prepared by the company StreamUnlimited, specialists from Vienna, former Philips engineers. As it seems, this is a multi format module, optimized for a certain application. Here it reads only CDs. The drive is suspended on elastic elements below a rigid, aluminum frame, which on its turn, is bolted to an even thicker and even more rigid top cover. The servo PCB is placed directly below it. We can see a few DSPs, with the SAA7824HL and AM5810 being most important. The first one is a CD decoder made by NXP Semiconductor. It handles CD-Text, but this functionality is not utilized here. The chip has also a built-in DAC, which is also bypassed here. Originally, this chip was designed by Philips. The AM controls the motor.
From here the signal goes to the main PCB. There it runs to a digital receiver Cirrus Logic CS8416. This chip can handle signals up to 192 kHz and 24 bits. There are also switches, which select the signal from the drive or the digital input. Then we go the asynchronous upsampler Burr-Brown SRC4193, which converts each input signal to 24/192. The last chip in this section is the DSP NC SM5847. This is an IC used in professional applications, with digital filters, including an interpolative one (here not used), de-emphasis, FIR, dither, and similar. But its most important function is volume control. This is a technologically advance process, with advance math, working in the digital domain, which cuts bits going down with volume (similar to the Wadia solution). But because the signal is initially “widened” by 8 bits in the upsampler, then it should not impair the signal significantly, at least in the upper part of the variable area.
From there the signal goes to another section, with the D/A converters. There are also sophisticated filters and voltage stabilizers, much bigger than the power section. The power section is a dual mono solution, with nice capacitors from Nichicon – Fine Tune and Fine Gold. The DAC is composed from two stereo chips from Burr-Brown, the PCM1704. Those are old, multi-bit chips, NOS. Nowdays those are regarded as being among the best ever. Interesting enough, although those handle 24 bits, the maximum sampling frequency is 96 kHz. So either the signal is down-converted from 192, or the upsampler works with a lower frequency. Or the Burr-Browns are working with higher parameters. Behind the DACs we have two AD847 per channel. This is the I/V converter section. Nice Wima and ERO capacitors were used here. On the output there are two, beautiful, big polypropylene coupling capacitors, the Jantzen Audio Superior Z-Cap. Yes, only two, although the player has XLR outputs. It seems, that the engineers concluded, that it is better to sum the signal after the I/V conversion, lead it in the unbalanced version, and prepare a splitter on the final tube. And the amplification and buffering section were on a separate PCB, turned by 180° regarding the main PCB, with output tubes. Because those are most important here. We have two Sovtek 6N30P per channel (exactly the same as in my Ancient Audio Lektor Air and in the Grand SE), coupled with the same Jantzen capacitors as before. To the left and to the right we see mighty polypropylene capacitors Spirit (the same are used by Ayon in the Polaris II) with 47μF capacitance. It seems to be the final touch on the power circuits. It is worth mentioning, that this PCB utilizes small metalized resistors and bigger Dale ones.
The power supply is a dual mono setting, with R-Core transformers, used in all Ayon digital sourced. They have many secondary windings, separate for the digital section, drive, output section, separate for the left and right channel. The transformers, with a small magnetic dispersion, are shielded. And finally, an incredibly important thing – differently than before, the USB input handles 24 bits 96 kHz signals. Maybe you do remember quite a stir, that started after “High Fidelity” and later “6moons” published the test of the DAC Skylla, where I criticized the USB input, which handled only 16 bits and 48 kHz signals. I showed, that this is a mistake, because it makes hi-res files obsolete, at least by USB. The thing got quieter, but Srajan Ebaen does not want to test any Ayon gear since. And it would have been enough to make something like it was done here – the Ayon engineers prepared a separate PCB, bolted to the back plate, with the programmable DSP Tenor Audio TE7022, used also by the company Stello (according to John Atkinson from “Stereophile” it handles sampling rates from 8 Hz to 96 kHz, with the exception of 88.2 kHz. The chip is clocked by a temperature compensated clock placed directly next to it. Talking about clocks – I have to mention the main clock of the unit – this is a really splendid, temperature compensated and mechanically stable UTECH clock, with a frequency of 27 MHz. All frequencies needed in the unit (44.1 kHz for the CD, 96 kHz or 192 kHz for the upsampler, etc) are derived in a PLL chip next to it. And one more thing – this PCB can be mounted in every existing Ayon gear, including Skylla and CD-5 – just contact the dealer.
Technical data (according to manufacturer):