We love integrated amplifiers here at SoundStage! Hi-Fi, especially when manufacturers pull out all the stops to maximize performance by incorporating reference-level circuits, subassemblies, and other componentry. Who needs the extra chassis, interconnects, power cords, and lost rack space associated with separate preamps and power amps? While we’ve been overjoyed with fantastic, reference-level integrated amps from the likes of Gryphon Audio Designs, Boulder Amplifiers, Simaudio, Vitus Audio, and Devialet, we’ve been on the lookout for source components of similar quality that we can recommend to you. The wait is over. The Ayre Acoustics DX-5 ($9950 USD) lives up to its billing as a Universal A/V Engine.
A what? The DX-5 is an integrated digital source device that unites, in a single chassis of svelte aluminum measuring 17.25"W x 3.75"H x 12.5"D, the functionality of a state-of-the-art SACD/CD player, a USB digital-to-analog converter for computer audio, and a video player for 2D Blu-ray and DVD. That’s right: It spins just about any 5" disc format: AVCHD, CD, HDCD, Kodak Picture CD, CD-R/RW, SACD, DVD-Audio, DVD-Video, DVD±R/RW, DVD±R DL, BD-Video, and BD-R/RE. It can also play audio files with resolutions all the way up to 24-bit/192kHz. Optimized for two-channel playback through its balanced or single-ended analog outputs, the Ayre also supports multichannel digital output to a processor via a dedicated HDMI audio output, as well as video via a traditional HDMI A/V output.
But it’s not the what of what it does so much as the how well it does everything that sets the DX-5 apart. There have been other universal digital players, but until now we hadn’t heard one that could muster reference-level performance across the board. The clever chaps at Ayre have gone above and beyond to shoehorn into the DX-5 everything they’ve learned about digital perfectionism in the past dozen years. It’s all here: linear power supplies, high-precision fixed-rate crystal oscillators, galvanic isolation, high-speed opto-isolators, field-programmable gate arrays, minimum-phase digital filters, Equilock analog circuits, NOS Toshiba JFETS. These guys are serious.
What took them so long? The fact is that it’s hard to get audio, video, and computers to play nicely together in the same sandbox. Ayre’s founder and head honcho, Charles Hansen, agrees that video and computer devices typically introduce significant barriers to good sound by radiating RFI from their switching power supplies, their competing digital clocks of varying frequencies, and interconnects and power cords. Nevertheless, Hansen is confident that the DX-5 does "everything possible to minimize or even eliminate the electrical pollution that [video and computer devices] inherently create."
The heart of the DX-5 is a subassembly that contains the digital filter, D/A converter, and analog output board. In essence, Ayre has combined the best aspects of the digital-conversion (including its proprietary Minimum Phase digital filters) and analog-output stages of its C-5xeMP disc player and QB-9 USB DAC to achieve a new level of performance in the DX-5. From its digital filters onward, the DX-5’s circuits are fully balanced -- it’s a true dual-differential design -- and each circuit in the analog output path is treated to Ayre’s finest linear, double-regulated, zero-feedback analog supplies. This all-important board is isolated from the transport and computer-audio receiver boards by use of high-speed optocouplers.
The built-in USB receiver for computer-based audio uses the Streamlength asynchronous USB audio protocol to ensure a bitstream essentially free of jitter. Music files with word depths of up to 24 bits and sample rates up to 192kHz are supported by the high bandwidth of the USB Audio 2.0 protocol and drivers, with one fixed-frequency clock dedicated to the 44.1, 88.2, and 176.4kHz sampling rates, and another for 48, 96, and 192kHz. Only highly regulated, linear power supplies are used throughout the DX-5, even for the transport and video boards.
The result is that this technical wunderkind produces absolutely fabulous sound. The DX-5 matches Ayre’s storied C-5xeMP strength for sonic strength, with even more refinement and dynamic range. In his review of the DX-5, Associate Editor Pete Roth found the DX-5 composed and compelling, detailed and resolving, but never fatiguing to listen to for long periods. He concluded that, regardless of which sort of 5" disc he threw at it, the DX-5 was a better player than any other he’s had in his home.
But as impressive as this Universal A/V Engine may be at spinning discs, it’s an equally impressive USB DAC, providing for computer-based audio easily audible improvements in flow, resolution, and natural ease over most other DACs, including Ayre’s own QB-9. That the DX-5 also maximizes results from the audio tracks of films on DVD and BD, and produces edge-of-the-art 2D video, makes its value undeniable. Further, it does all of these things while protecting an audio system from the ailments typically inflicted by the inclusion of video and/or computer hookups.
Now that we’ve finally found an integrated source we can unconditionally recommend as a reference, we’ll see how long it takes for other firms to throw down the gauntlet and attempt to match the DX-5’s universal appeal. In the meantime, be sure to include it on any short list you draw up for a state-of-the-art source component -- whether you’re shopping for an audio disc spinner, a computer-audio DAC, or even a BD player -- or any combination of the three.
Manufacturer contact information:
Ayre Acoustics, Inc.
2300-B Central Ave.
Boulder, Colorado 80301