In his review of the Ayre Acoustics QX-5 Twenty digital-to-analog converter (DAC), published on May 1, 2017, Philip Beaudette acknowledged that its price of $8950 USD “isn’t exactly affordable.” However, he also stated that that price “isn’t unreasonable” -- partly because it includes a headphone amplifier as well as a volume control, the latter allowing it to also function as a preamplifier, but mostly because it sounded better than any other DAC he’s had in his system.
The QX-5 Twenty weighs 16 pounds and has a brushed-aluminum case measuring 17.25”W x 3.75”H x 13”D. Philip wrote that it “demonstrates high levels of craftsmanship and attention to detail.” The main features on the front panel include an alphanumeric display, headphone jacks, and, as Philip described it, “a control ring for navigating the setup menus, selecting inputs, and, when the QX-5 is used as a preamp, adjusting the volume level.”
On the QX-5’s backside are ten digital inputs, which should be more than enough for almost any system: two AES/EBU (XLR connectors), three S/PDIF (BNC), three optical (TosLink), one USB, and one Ethernet. Every one of them can accept PCM word lengths from 16 to 24 bits and sample rates from 44.1 to 192kHz, as well as DSD64. For higher-resolution playback, the USB input can support PCM up to 32-bit/384kHz, as well as DSD128. The QX-5 employs a minimum-phase digital filter, which Ayre claims eliminates signal pre-ringing to result in a more natural sound.
When the QX-5 Twenty was launched, in 2016, it was the first DAC ever to make use of ESS Technology’s latest converter chip, the ES9038PRO. As Philip explained in his review, “The ES9038PRO, ESS’s flagship DAC, is claimed to have the highest dynamic range (up to 140dB) of any DAC chip on the market. ESS says that their patented 32-bit HyperStream DAC architecture gives the ES9038PRO an incredibly low -122dB of total harmonic distortion plus noise (THD+N), for greater clarity and bigger soundstaging. With such impressive specs, it’s likely that this chip will be used by a growing number of Ayre’s competitors.”
Following in the footsteps of other Ayre components, the QX-5 utilizes a fully balanced, no-feedback circuit design comprising discrete components. It also comes with a built-in, Ayre-designed power conditioner that, Philip wrote, “converts high-frequency noise from the power line into heat, which doesn’t affect the sound.”
Before reviewing the QX-5 Twenty, Philip had reviewed Bryston’s BDA-3 ($3495) and PS Audio’s PerfectWave DirectStream Junior ($3999) DACs, which had impressed him. (In March 2017, we added the DirectStream Junior to our list of Recommended Reference Components.) Still, he found that the QX-5 sounded better in his system: “it struck the perfect balance of detail and warmth -- for lack of a better term, it simply sounded natural.”
Philip admitted that using the term natural “is no more helpful than saying it sounds musical: the terms don’t tell the reader much.” But, he said, “the ease and fluidity with which the QX-5 Twenty reproduced some of my favorite recordings kept me jotting down those adjectives in my listening notes. There was something very organic about its sound. No, the Ayre didn’t possess the warmth and fullness of a good analog system, but, much like listening to vinyl, the QX-5’s sound was so smooth I could listen to it all day -- and without the extra effort required to play LPs.”
Philip listened to the QX-5 with Ayre’s AX-5 Twenty integrated amplifier, which was reviewed in July 2015 on SoundStage! Ultra by Uday Reddy, and added to the Recommended Reference Components list in August 2016. But to assess the QX-5’s sound with unbalanced connections, he primarily listened to it with his longtime reference integrated amp, Bryston’s B135 SST2, which has only single-ended inputs. He found that the two
exhibited some audible synergy. The Ayre’s transparency well complemented the Bryston’s low noise floor, to result in a revealing sound. I especially came to appreciate this late at night, when I had to turn down the volume or risk waking the household. In Beethoven’s song “An die Hoffnung” (To Hope), Op.94, with baritone Stephan Genz accompanied by pianist Roger Vignoles (CD, Hyperion CDA67055), the piano seemed almost delicate in contrast to Genz’s powerful voice. The clean sound of the Ayre-Bryston combo helped accentuate the differences between the song’s quietest and most explosive passages, and so was able to preserve the powerful emotions evoked by Beethoven’s setting of C.A. Tiedge’s poem. The following song, “Maigesang” (May Song), felt altogether different -- Vignoles’s notes almost danced from the piano’s strings as the Ayre’s unerring transparency conveyed the composition’s playful lightheartedness. At low volumes, the QX-5 was admirable for the unobstructed window it opened on the music, inviting me to hear, apparently, everything in the recording.
Playing the War Dance, from the Suite from Respighi’s Belkis, Queen of Sheba (CD, Reference RR-95CD), a recording he often uses to assess digital source components, Philip found the QX-5 to be “a soundstaging champ. The QX-5 had no problem precisely outlining the position of each section of the orchestra as it performed this fiercely intense dance. Unlike the Beethoven songs, for only a single voice and piano, the richly orchestrated Respighi is dense and complex. However, the Ayre made it easy to sort out what I was hearing while communicating the full measure of its fiery energy.”
Phil then connected the QX-5 to the AX-5 Twenty, for a fully balanced setup, and his praise continued: “I heard an extension of what the QX-5 did on its own: a smooth, natural sound that was ever so slightly laid-back, but with a high level of detail. After spending time listening to this Ayre-based system, it became fairly evident that the two Ayre Twentys, the AX-5 and QX-5, shared a house sound. To say that I was impressed would be an understatement.”
In the “Conclusion” of his review, Philip summed up his impressions of the QX-5 Twenty: “a beautifully designed, well-built component that could easily anchor a state-of-the-art sound system for years to come. . . . Ayre Acoustics’ QX-5 Twenty is the finest-sounding DAC I’ve used in my system.”
All told, the QX-5 Twenty’s fine appearance, excellent build quality, rich feature set -- and, most important, its first-rate sound -- convinced us that it deserves not only a Reviewers’ Choice award, but to be added to our list of Recommended Reference Components as well.
Manufacturer contact information:
Ayre Acoustics, Inc.
2300-B Central Avenue
Boulder, CO 80301
Phone: (303) 442-7300
Fax: (303) 442-7301