After my trusty Levinson no.390S cd player had been standing by the side powerless dunring the PS Audio PWD review it wouldn't come back to life like it did before. Its capacitors seemed to have given in at last. While the 390S was in for repairs, Audiac was kind enough to loan me an Ayre CX7 cd player. Here's a report on how it sounds.
As mentioned in the header, the CX7 was meant as a temporary replacement for my defective Levinson 390s. But soundwise the two players couldn't be more different.
Perhaps important to note that this particular CX7 is the latest current version: it has the Evolution upgrade on board. What this entails precisely is unknown to me.
Upon placing the CX7 atop my Spider rack, on the basic rubber Spider feet and connected with the same powercable and interlinks that previously connected my 390s, Harmonic Technology Pro ACII and Transparent Ultra XL, the Ayre sounded completely different from the Levinson.
Ayre CX7 on top of a Marantz CD74 (the latter is a classic player from 1986 that amazingly still plays, not at an audiophile level but has its moments and can be very musical)
Review sample kindly supplied by Audiac, distributor for the Netherlands
Retail price 3890 euro
Still, in spite of my optimizations and after being well run-in, I still occasionally found the CX7 to be slightly lacking in character. Admittedly the 390s has very, very good bass and so do the Wadia 27ix and PS Audio PWD DACs as well as most of the Marantz players that I keep around such as the CD85, CD80 and CD12 combo. So, in comparison I think it would be safe to say that the Ayre is slightly bass-light. But, to put this back into perspective: when digging into my memory and comparing the Ayre to some other players I owned some time ago, such as the Rega Jupiter, Sony XA50ES, Meridian 507, Arcam CD23 and others, the Ayre's bass is more in line with those players. Lastly, the Accuphase DP500 I had on visit a short while ago, had similar bass fulness but was a bit more incisive than the Ayre.
On balance I'd say that I am probably used to more bass than average, with the Levinson and previously the Wadia 861. Both players with incredible bass heft. The Ayre doesn't try to do the Wadia trick at all. Instead it does something quite opposite, something that the Levinson does partially and the Wadia cannot even do: to present music in an utterly unforced manner, in an almost ethereal soundstage with absolutely timbrally neutral portrayal of instruments and topping it off with excellent treble fluidity and smoothness, as well as (very important for me) lots of air.
With some cd's the Ayre was heaven. With others I found it lacking colour and weight. This is also a system synergy thing as obviously my system needs all fullness it can get and in this context the Ayre probably just wasn't the best match.
Let's start with the positive things I noticed. The CX7 is incredibly airy, light on its feet, very fluid and highly nimble without ever sounding agressive or dry. It has a free-flowing soundstage that offers lots of air around instruments and has excellent focus, in an ever-unforced manner. These aspects indeed remind me of the excellent Ayre QB9 USB DAC that I also reviewed.
But there were also shortcomings. I felt that it lacked drive, liveliness, colour and above all: bass fullness. It's not that it lacked depth or articulation but it did lack weight compared to the Levinson. Although the Ayre may be more airy, the Levinson 390s sounds richer, more present and more colourful. This is when I decided to put the Ayre on Ceraballs instead of the rubber feet and experiment with power cables and interlinks. It turned out that the Ayre liked the Transparent Ultra XL and that combination was quite synergistic. A Cardas Quadlink didn't offer any improvement in attack or slam, indicating that the Ayre's output stage is apparently up to the task of driving the somtimes difficult "filtered" Transparent cable. Powercables was quite another matter though. The Ayre wasn't happy with the HT Pro ACII as evidenced by hugely improved dynamics, drive, more colour and fuller bass upon changing the HT for a standard Lapp type. Also, the Ayre liked to be first in line in the power extensionblock, again aiding drive and presence. Other powercables I tried were less successful. Echole Obsession was too smooth, as were the Furutech cables I tried. I settled on a Lapp with IeGO gold plated connectors which gave the best combination of drive, colour and physicality.
On the rear is a little switch labelled listen/measure. Michael from Audiac explained that the measure position was really only there to satisfy people with measurement devices and that listening had to be done in the "listen" position. Being the headstrong person that I am, of course I had to try this out for myself. The immediate difference doesn't seem large but once you let it sink in and start listening with your heart, not your head, it is easy to notice how the "measure" position sounds more brick-wally and the "listen" position more free-flowing, more emotional.
The CX7 has an AES/EBU output and of course I tried it with all available dacs. The transport inside is nothing really special but apparently Ayre has made sure that the digital output is up to scratch. Of all dacs present, the best match was with the Levinson 360S. The combination made for a very synergistic sound. Much more bass, more colour, more substance than when using the Ayre standalone. In absolute terms the Ayre's transport provided a perfectly neutral sound. But I also found this sound lacking in terms of completeness. Somehow I felt like I could hear that the clock was being derived from the spdif signal, resulting in thess than perfect prat. I hasten to add that the same is true for any transport, the Ayre being no exception. My point is: even though I loved the added bass fulness and richer colour that the 360S dac added, I found the Ayre to be more satisfying, more complete, more in its element and more emotional when playing on its own.
While the Ayre CX7 wouldn't be my player of choice because my system yearns for more colour and bass fulness, nevertheless this player offers a unique sound that I haven't heard in any other player. It is extremely airy, unforced and relaxed while avoiding to sound slow or undynamic. It has very good microdetailing but never sounds agressive, dry or harsh. In addition it offers a free-flowing, ethereal soundstage and altogether produces a sound that never tires.
The drawer is standard plastic but it moves silently and smoothly and is sturdy enough.