Ayon Audio CD-35 Review by High Fidelity
Super Audio CD Player: Ayon Audio CD-35
By Wojciech Pacula January 2017 No. 152
The 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 an “audio 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.
Thus we have decided to devote two separate articles to this device. We began with the coverage of a meeting of the Krakow Sonic Society, where you could find basic information about the CD-35 and a concept behind it and the opinions of the people who were the first in the world to officially listen to this new Ayon Audio player prepared together with StreamUnlimited. This time you can read a regular review of this product.
Krakow Sonic Society, or its members, are not particular optimists. I would even say that optimism is an alien concept to them – they have listened to so many top quality devices and audio products that they are aware of the technical limitations of those means for sound reproduction. And these limitations do not inspire optimism. From time to time, of course, they witness some special products that introduce something new. They confirm that although the base of our industry was established in the first two decades of the development of sound reproduction, however, there are still some elements that allow us to get even closer to the reproduced music, to experience it more intensely.
It so happens that these are almost exclusively top high end products, such as: Siltech Triple Crown (in Polish) and Tara Labs Evolution cables, digital sources such as: dCS Vivaldi turntables such as: Transrotor Artus FMD, analogue master-tapes or digital processors, for example Accuphase DG-58.
The case of the Ayon Audio Super Audio CD CD-35 Player is different. Gerhard Hirt, the owner of Ayon, has set himself an ambitious goal – to design and produce a CD player, which would offer as good sound quality as possible while costing less than 10 000 EUR. It’s still a large amount of money, no denying that, but compared to the products that I mentioned above, its price does no longer seem so high. I would even dare to say that it is low. As Gerhard said, he wanted to give music lovers a tool that will extract as much quality of a Red Book CD as possible, and that will not expose its owner to the problems with the rest of the family when they ask for the price of this device.
CD-35 is a Super Audio CD top-loader. The disc is placed directly on the axis of the motor and one places a magnetic CD-clamp on top of it. In this case, to cause transport to load the TOC an acrylic cover, protecting mechanism against dust, has to be put on top. In some of the older players, one could play the music without this acrylic cover and I must say that the sound was than a bit better. As I mentioned, this is a SACD player, the first in the company’s history. But not quite – Gerhard told us, that all his previous players, except for CD-5 and CD-T, were SACD players, but he deliberately blocked SACD playback, focusing on decoding PCM signal from a CDs. The CD-35 is the first Ayon player that offers a full functionality of the StreamUnlimited drive without any negative consequences for the CD playback.
What hasn’t changed is a tube output stage. The CD-35 features a new circuit that combines the advantages of 6H30 and 5687 double triodes, powered by the next tube, full wave bridge rectifier, GZ30. The power supply features also R-core transformer and a choke. Interestingly, for filtration Ayon chose large, polypropylene capacitors, instead of electrolytic ones. The second transformer supplies power to the digital circuits.
It took the most time during the designing of the CD-35 – three years (!) – to prepare a digital section of the player. The DAC chips are nice, but classic ones – they come from a Japanese company AKM, one stereo chip per channel. The signal for them is firstly upsampled. The user can select one of two digital filters that have been implemented. The first is a conventional fast roll-off filter, and the other is a “slow roll-off” filter. They allow you to adjust the sound of the device to individual taste – in this particular case sonic differences are quite significant.
The Signature version – I’ll get back to that – has even more to offer, because it features also a DSP, which uses an upsampling algorithm for PCM to convert it to DSD (DSD128 and DSD256). There are some of-the-shelf chips on the market that do just that, and companies such as dCS create such algorithms themselves. Gerhard Hirt invited his friends from the Viennese company StreamUnilimited, formed by former Philips engineers, co-creators of a CD-format, to work with him on CD-35. A conversion of this type is a mathematical operation and the result depends on the applied calculations. Gerhard told me that the CD-35 uses a unique conversion method, and that they are particularly proud of it.
The CD-35 has been designed so that it can be upgraded at any time. The basic version called CD-35 Standard (31 900 PLN) is simply a Super Audio CD player with adjustable volume, with digital inputs and two analog outputs – balanced and unbalanced (it is worth noting that the output stage is unbalanced). Another 1,990 PLN gets you a preamp stage with three inputs, one balanced XLR and two unbalanced RCA, and the player in this versions is called CD-35 Preamp. At the top of this lineup there is a version called CD-35 Signature – it’s a player with preamplifier and additionally with the module that upsamples signal to DSD. That costs additional 5690 PLN. The latter is the version under review.
It is also a full-fledged DAC. This section features an abundance of inputs. In addition to the classic digital inputs, such as RCA, USB, I2S (RJ45), BNC and AES/EBU, there are also Ethernet (RJ45) and 3 x BNC ones, used for transmission of DSD Direct signal, eg. from the NW-T files player; Direct means in a native form. Note that USB input accepts PCM signals up to 32 bits and 356 kHz, as well as DSD up to DSD256.
I listened to CD-35 for the first time in Janusz system, during Krakow Sonic Society Meeting, when we compared it to Ancient Audio Lektor Grand SE CD Player. Next I placed it on a shelf of the Finite Elemente Pagode Edition rack in my reference system and I had a chance to compare it with two other CD players: Ancient Audio Lektor AIR V-Edition and Métronome Technologie DREAM PLAY CD: KALISTA.
All players sent signal via Siltech Triple Crown RCA interconnect to Ayon Audio Spheris III preamplifier, and than with Cristal Cable Absolute Dream RCA IC to Soulution 710 amplifier. I used also Harbeth M40.1 loudspeakers and Tara Labs Omega Onyx speaker cable. For all players I used Acrolink 7N-PC9500 Mexcel or HIJIRI SMT “Takumi” Maestro power cables.
I also performed listening sessions using a headphone rig comprised of tube Ayon Audio HA-3 and solid-state Bakoon HPA-21 headphone amplifiers and HiFiMAN HE-1000 headphones.
Recordings used for the test (a selection)
- Anthrax, For All Kings, Nuclear Blast Records/Ward GQCS-90112-3, CD (2016)
- Arne Domnérus, Jazz at the Pawnshop. Vol. I, II & III, Proprius/Lasting Impression Music LIM UHD 071 LE, 3 x Ultra HD CD + DVD (1976/2012)
- Camel, The Snow Goose, Decca/Universal Music LLC UIGY-9504, SHM-SACD (1975/2011)
- Charlie Haden & Kenny Barron, Night and The City, Verve 539 961-2, CD (1998)
- Ella Fitzgerald, Like Someone in Love, Verve/Esoteric ESSO-90143, SACD/CD (1957/2016) w: 6 Queens of Jazz Vocal, „MasterSoundWorks”, Esoteric ESSO-90143/8, 6 x SACD/CD (2016)
- Flo Bennett, Half Past Lonely, Gift Records/SInatra Society of Japan XQAM-1026, CD (1963/2007)
- Jean-Michel Jarre, Essential Recollection, Sony Music Labels SICP-30789, BSCD2 (2015)
- John Coltrane and Johnny Hartman, John Coltrane and Johnny Hartman, Blue Note/Esoteric ESSB-90138, SACD/CD (1963/2015) w: Blue Note 6 Great Jazz, „MasterSoundWorks”, Blue Note/Esoteric ESSB-90122/7, 6 x SACD/CD (2015)
- Madeleine Peyroux, Careless Love, Rounder Records 9836601, CD (2004)
- Miles Davis, Bitches Brew, Columbia/Mobile Fidelity Sound Lab UDSACD 2-2149, „Special Limited Edition | No. 1229”, 2 x SACD/CD (1970/2014)
- Pet Shop Boys, Super, Sony Music Labels (Japan) SICX-41, CD (2016)
- Peter, Paul and Mary, In The Wind, Warner Bros. Records/Audio Fidelity AFZ 181, “Limited Edition | No. 0115”, SACD/CD (1963/2014)
- Rosemary Clooney, Rosemary Clooney sings Ballads, Concord/Stereo Sound SSCDR-007, „Flat Transfer Series”, CD-R (1985/2016)
- Sonny Rollins, Vol. 2, Blue Note/Esoteric ESSB 90122, SACD/CD (1957/2015) w: Impulse! 6 Great Jazz, „MasterSoundWorks”, Blue Note/Esoteric ESSB-90133/8, 6 x SACD/CD (2015)
- Sting, Sacred Love, A&M Records, 9860618, Limited Edition, SACD/CD (2003)
- Yes, 90125, ATCO/Warner Music Japan WPCR-15914, „7 Inch Mini LP”, SACD/CD (1983/2014)
I think there is no point in beating around the bush about it so I’ll get right to it and say that CD-35 is a remarkable device. At first it surprises with its unique price/performance ratio, because it offers same level of performance as other, more expensive competitors. And I mean even those 2-3 times more expensive ones. The point is that in some aspects the CD-35 plays in the same league as the best digital players, and I know regardless the price. This does not mean that this is the bestdevice of this type available on the market, because the top sources by such brands as: dCS, Metronome Technologie, CEC, Ancient Audio and totaldac are able to deliver even better, more surprising performance. But not always and not in every aspect of the sound.
Elements that cause jaw-dropping effect in CD-35 – yes, that’s exactly what I mean and I’m not afraid of the consequences of these words – are incredible density and energy of the sound. It manifests itself, among others, in the extraordinary density of the sound. Phantom images are large and extremely palpable. They have a three-dimensional, almost holographic body. One might say that they are somewhat approximated to the listened, but not in the sense that they are placed right in front of listener’s face. It’s not about the bringing them closer along the axis of the presentation to the listener, but rather that the intensity of the sound creates an impression, or makes us fell like we are closer to the sound. Most other digital sources deliver presentation in a more distant way, and only analog sources present something similar to what CD-35 offers.
The said intensity is not associated with emphasis of the attack, and it is also not associated with a greater presence of detail, or – even more so – of the treble. It’s a kind of maturity that results in a richer tone, slight emphasis in the midrange and incredible resolution. The latter is so surprising, that in conjunction with richness it creates a slightly different presentation than what other, even the best digital sources got us all used to.
Listening to Ayon we have no doubt that this is an attempt to re-create something very similar to the live event. It’s a cliché, a stereotype used and abused by all audio companies in their promotional materials. Here, however, it is firmly anchored in reality. It is all about the intensity of the emotions that resonate within us while listening to music. Any music. While CD-35 differentiates recordings really well, in this respect is one of the best CD and SACD player I know, this differentiation results from something, not cause anything.
The differentiation here is a derivative of the resolution. CD-35 brings out as much information about the recording that we begin to ask ourselves, if there is any limit of information actually written into these discs, that even their creators didn’t realize existed. Of course if you ask them they will all tell you they are well aware of that. But from my experience I can tell you that apart from a very few people in pro-audio, it is us, audiophiles with top quality systems, who are able to see much more than those who prepared the recordings. In achieving this goal a highly sophisticated devices can help us, and Ayon is one of the best there are.
There is a proper resolution and richness and dynamics. But all this would be nothing if it wasn’t for that “something” behind the sound, something that captivates our attention with every successive recording. You should have seen the faces of members of the Krakow Sonic Society, who probably were not quite able to and probably simply didn’t want to believe what they heard. My face probably looked the same. The intensity of the sound, its scale, ie. the volume of the instruments and the scale of space, are simply unparalleled. Only the best analog systems either with reel-to-reel tape recorder or turntable, are capable of delivering this type of performance.
It also didn’t matter whether I was playing a CD or SACD. Carefully listening to both I could tell that SACDs offered a bit more depth and even more powerful harmonics’ “punch”. The difference is not significant though. CD upsampled to DSD delivered a similar performance. Maybe only a differentiation was a bit smaller, because the qualities of that sound with each CD were equally intense. Listening was therefor very comfortable and rewarding. Even so unsuccessful transfers as Sting’s Sacred Love, with a SACD layer undoubtedly prepared using PCM files, will sound at least correctly.
And the best SACDs, I know, ie. SHM-SACD, will sound exceptionally well. And even if – as in the case of the Camel album – specificity of their sound, resulting from the times when these were recorded, will be more intense than with the other players, one should understand and accept it as an inherent feature of this recording. But, as I said, the difference between SACD and CD playback is not large, much smaller than with other SACD players.
One of the important features that can be added to the basic version of the CD-35 is that of an analog preamplifier. Thanks to it, one can minimize the number of components in the system and – potentially – to improve its sound. The latter may be true because this model introduces an integrated resistor ladder and relays while eliminating active elements of an external preamplifier and one pair of interconnects.
To find out what one could really gain and what to lose, I conducted a comparison between a setup with the CD-35 driving directly my power amplifier (Soulution 710), and with Ayon Audio Spheris III preamplifier working between these two devices. I also performed another comparison listening to my Ancient Audio Reader AIR V-edition connected to CD-35 preamplifier and then to Spheris III.
As you may recall, Janusz’ system, in which for the first time together with other members of the Krakow Sonic Society we listened to the Gerhard’s player, is a minimalist system with a CD player with adjustable volume driving power amplifiers. Any preamplifier in this system causes degradation of sound quality. My system is different – it sounds best with preamplifier. Personally, I think that a good preamplifier is in most cases the key to achieving a proper balance in the system, but as you can see, this is not an absolute truth.
The preamplifier section of the CD-35 may not have change my approach to the matter, but it directed my attention to some aspects of sound without active preamplifier in the system that were not so clearly present in my system before. The device connected directly to the power amplifier presented more distant sound, with elements such as reverb, reflected sounds, acoustics – so everything that creates what we like to call an ambiance or atmosphere of the recording – playing now more important role. The inclusion of Spheris III in the system resulted in bringing sound closer to me and shortening the distance between the musicians and listener.
This direct connection worked best with acoustic music. 1949 recording of Nat ‘King’ Cole probably had never sounded in my room in such an intimate and relaxed manner. Spheris III made his voice sound more “serious”, and the Cole seemed older. But this incredible ease offered by the system without external preamplifier simply vanished.
With the active preamp CD-35 sounded in a more focused way, as if it was more “busy” with something. It resulted in a better definition of sounds and a more powerful attack. Eliminating the preamp in a sense relieved the presentation from sort of a “strain”, but at the cost of blurred edges. The active preamp enlarged everything happening in the back of the soundstage, delivered it in a more distinct way. It didn’t bring them closer to listener, I would even say that the scene was deeper, but by enlarging them it reduces the differences between what’s in the front of the stage and what’s in the back. Without preamplifier these relationships were more nuanced, and the soundstage more vivid; perhaps less precise, but also more natural.
With recordings with a lot of sound engineers’ “intervention”, ie. with rock and electronic music, the active preamp offers a lot of good, because it lowers tonal balance, improves low bass focus and deepens the lower midrange. It also allows more powerful sound delivery, which makes the performance sound more dynamic. In turn, with acoustic music the preamp in CD-35 was doing something “extra”, giving a sense of distance, and at the same time of participation – a combination that in this type of music is highly required.
So I can not say for sure whether an internal preamplifier will offer sufficient benefits to dispense with an external preamp in your system. But you should note, that the comparison was done using a preamplifier from the top shelf, costing almost 150 000 PLN. Therefore I can say that without a doubt the Ayon CD-35 preamplifier is the most affordable and at the same time one of the most interesting high-end preamplifiers, I know.
so what about UPSAMPLING
All the above considers the Signature version, ie. including full upsampling. But to be clear it is not like without upsampling Ayon sounds poorly, let alone that it is not worth the price. I would say that a little over 31 000 PLN gets you a Super Audio CD player that plays CDs better than others, costing the same amount of money devices of the same type. Only such a great sources as Ancient Audio AIR V-edition and Audionet Planck (with external power supply Amprere) are capable of delivering even better performance.
Ancient is more accurate, more resolving, with range’s extremes better extended and it builds a far more expansive soundstage. On the other hand Audionet is even darker and denser, going in the direction in which the CD-35 is pushed by the DSD upsampling. For it is rich and smooth. But these are much more expensive players. The basic version of Ayon is in fact very competent. It nicely builds the presentation, it saturates timbre and tries in the most open way to present vocals and treble. At this or even slightly higher price level I can see no competition for the CD-35.
With that said I shall finish with one more thing: it is enough to listen to Ayon with upsampling module on for just one time to realize that there is no going back to listening to it without this module…
Filtr 1 | Filtr 2
Available to the listener is not only the upsampling, but also two digital filters. They are implemented in a DAC chip. The filter “1” is a fast roll-off one with a very good attenuation of mirror signals, and the symmetric oscillations before and after the impulse. Filter 2 is a “slow roll-off” one, that is, with milder filtering, but with lesser damping of reflections; its advantage is the absence of oscillations before the impulse, and hence less blur of signal’s energy.
The choice will be user-dependent because there is no “right” one, both have advantages and disadvantages. In the CD-35 case, however, the matter is more complicated, because the choice will depend also on whether one uses SACD or CD, and if he uses the PCM-DSD upsampling.
In my system, with CDs without upsampling, I clearly preferred the filter “2”, which offered richer sound. It slightly emphasizes part of the midrange which cause piano recordings to sound in a more illuminated manner than usually and with these the “1” filter seemed to be more neutral, less intrusive in the matter of sound. In all other cases Filter “2” made me more interested in music, because it had more layers, was more nuanced, and therefore richer.
It was different with SACDs. In this case, the filter “1” seemed to me more accurate, because it offered a more tonally balanced presentation. Filter “2” emphasized midrange, which was nice, but at the same it meant shifting tonal balance upward. It delivered more powerful bass and a more palpable sound image. Every time I eventually returned,to Filter “1”, which preserved a saturation of SACD, but with a better resolution.
Exactly the same happened with CDs with PCM-DSD upsampling. As if the DSD signal caused a multiplication of the smoothing of the sound caused by slow roll-off filter.
I know, there will be systems where the Filter 2 will assure an almost perfect copy of the “analog” sound and I can understand that some users will like that. However, I am more convinced by the neutrality of Filter 1, which combined with upsampling to DSD256 created an absolutely remarkable performance. Long story short, for those tired of this long explanation:
- CD no upsampling + Filter 2,
- CD + upsampling + Filter 1,
- SACD + Filter 1.
There is no doubt that the CD-35 is an remarkable device. But as each audio device it is not perfect. Even more so as it is not a particularly expensive one. Despite that, there are not many elements of the performance that more expensive players deliver clearly better. But let me try to indicated a few.
The Métronome and Ancient Players deliver low bass is a clearer way, it is better defined. It’s not about the volume, but tightness, attack and dynamics. Ayon rounded low bass, which is extremely pleasant and works great for acoustic music, but when it comes to rock and electronic music it makes the sound a little milder. Softness and roundness gives the performance a characteristics of an intimate contact with the performer, connects us with him on a slightly different level. With more powerful music is causes exactly the opposite, it introduces distance between listener and the band.
The soundstage, ie. the space and instruments in it, are by the CD-35 shown in a similar way as by the CEC TL0/DA0 3.0, setup, ie. without a clear definition, that is, as in real life and so, as I know it from analog master tapes. We perceive rather a big picture and do not analyze where each musician/instrument is exactly located. We pick up these relations under this big picture as the chords, the size of the instruments, their timbre, but we do not perceive them directly. Let’s say that it is how the Air Force One sounded like. But I also can not fail to notice that, in turn, in Jacek Gawłowski’s mastering studio hi-res files sounded more like the players Ancient Audio and Métronome Players.
During the CD-35 test I listened to both CDs and SACDs. I have to say that the difference between them was not big, and with the upsampling to DSD it was actually small. The discs when converted to DSD256 sounded incredibly emotionally mature. I prefer simple solutions and changing the format always seems risky to me; I believe that music should be played in the format in which it was recorded. Therefore the PCM to DSD upsampling never appealed to me and for me (even in the case of the most expensive devices) it always confirmed my intuition resulting in a sound full of artifacts.
What people of StreamUnlimited managed to prepare together with Gerhard Hirt is a completely different story. Upsampling changes the sound in a very significant way (besides it also increases volume by 4-5 dB). These are not subtle adjustments, but a transition from a very good, tasteful hi-fi to a full-blown high-end performance. The best digital sources present a slightly better differentiated sound stage in the back, their performance is also more detailed and dCS Vivaldi delivers even smoother one.
However, none of the players that I listened at home wasn’t able to deliver such a rich, saturated performance as Ayon did, nor such a big scale of the sound nor so large instruments. When one presses “Play” CD-35 fills the space between loudspeakers tightly with sound, and if particular disc includes such signals – equally dense sound surrounds listener.
I’ve never heard anything like that before. I’m not claiming that this is the best possible performance, because it is not. But it is, however, one of the most interesting sounds that I heard from any audio device. For the first time ever I decided to grand the GOLD Fingerprint award to the product that costs less than interconnects used to hook it up.
Ayon Audio CD-35 is a Super Audio CD top-loader player with digital inputs: 75 Ω S / PDIF (RCA), USB, I2S, BNC, AES / EBU and BNC x 3 for DSD. Optionally, it may also operate as an analog preamplifier with three inputs – one balanced XLR and two RCA unbalanced. It features also XLR and RCA outputs. A small switch allows user to select which of them is active, but they can be both active at the same time too.
The device sports a solid, aluminum housing, that we know from other Ayon products. On the front there is a large dot-matrix display with a red filter, that allows user to read a lot information. Except for CD-text and SACD-text, as these are not active. The icons on the sides and underneath inform about a selected filter, upsampling and the sampling frequency of the digital signal.
On the top side there are illuminated control buttons and a recess for a disc. The disc is placed directly on the motor shaft and pressed with a small magnetic clamp. It does not have such a sophisticated method of attachment as such players as: Vitus Audio Metronome Technologie or Audionet, but it seems to be well-centered and equipped with a point on the axis. On top one places an acrylic “grille” that suppresses noises coming from transport. But not entirely – one can hear it through the cut-out on the upper wall, that is there to help cooling tubes working inside the device.
On the back one finds really nice sockets – RCA come from CMC. There are also two more switches. One changes gain, ie the maximum output – “Low” equals 2.5 V, and the “High”, 5 V. Using the second one determines whether the player shall work directly with a power amplifier or not. In the first position after turning the player on the volume is automatically set at – 40 dB and one can not turn the “Bypass” mode off, which bypasses the volume control. This is a safety measure not to damage the speakers if there is nor preamplifier between player and power amp.
Bypass can be accessed from the CD-3D remote control, that features also buttons allowing user to select a digital filter and upsampling, as well as the volume control. The remote is quite nice and its build quality is solid, but it features many identical buttons, which does not make its operation easy.
The circuits inside the device spread over several PCBs. At the outputs one finds PCBs with analogue output circuits, featuring 6H30 and the 5687 tubes. They are coupled using Mundorf capacitors. On the left there is a power supply for this section with GZ30 tube rectifier. The filtering circuit uses polypropylene capacitors. Next to the front panel, one can find R-Core transformer and a choke dedicated for this section. A second, identical transformer is used to power transport mechanism and the digital section. They are placed on two separate PCBs, and build around two analog-to-digital AKM converters.
The player’s operation is pretty straightforward, despite its complexity. The remote might be a bit tricky, but one can get used to it. The only thing that is not so convenient and requires some more attention is a configuration of the digital filters and upsampling. Namely the CD-35 does not have a “standby” mode so one needs to turn it off using the mechanical on/off switch. When one turns it back on the “factory” settings are restored, ie. Filter “1” is on and upsampling is off. I would prefer if the player remembered the setting, if possible separately for CDs, SACDs and for the digital inputs.
Specifications (according to manufacturer)
Conversion rate: 768 kHz/32 bits & DSD 256
DAC: 2 x AKM
DSP module (optional): PCM→DSD & DSD→DSD
Tubes: 6H30 + 5687
Dynamics: > 120 dB
Output signal (@ 1 kHz):
• 0.775 V/-0 dB, Low – 2.5 V fixed or 0 – 2.5 V rms variable
• 0.775 V/-0 dB High – 5 V fixed or 0 – 5 V rms variable
Output impedance (XLR | RCA): ~ 300 Ω | ~ 300 Ω
Digital output 75 Ω S/PDIF (RCA)
Digital input: 75 Ω S/PDIF (RCA), USB, I2S, BNC, AES/EBU, 3 x BNC for native DSD
S/N: > 119 dB
Frequency range: 20 Hz – 50 kHz (+/- 0.3 dB)
THD (1 kHz): < 0.001%
Dimensions (WxDxH): 480 x 390 x 120 mm
Weight: 17 kg