Ayon Audio CD-10 Signature CD/SACD Player – The Absolute Sound
Ayon Audio CD-10 Signature CD/SACD Player
A Perfect Marriage of Analog and Digital
by Dick Olsher | Oct 28th, 2019
Established in 1991, Ayon Audio quickly outgrew its domestic Austrian market to reach a global audience with a line of tube amplifiers. Its first CD player arrived in 2006, and with Gerhard Hirt as CEO, innovative digital products have become commonplace at Ayon.
The CD-10 CD/SACD player reviewed here represents a major re-design of the CD-1sx and is available in two versions, standard and signature. The latter is the only version sold in the U.S. It offers two additional features, a switchable PCM-to-DSD converter DSP module, and eight Mundorf coupling caps. In addition to playback of conventional music CDs, the CD-10 handles CD-R/RW discs and SACDs. With the PCM-DSD converter activated, incoming PCM signals, at any resolution, whether from the coaxial, optical, or USB digital inputs, are upsampled and converted to DSD, either DSD128 or DSD256. SACD playback can also be converted from native DSD64 to DSD256. The converter is based on AKM’s third-generation 32-bit stereo DAC, the AKM AK4490EQ, which supports up to 768kHz PCM and 11.2MHz DSD (DSD256). It is complemented by the AK4136 32-bit sampling rate converter IC. To my mind, it’s the DSP module that elevates the CD-10 to spectacular sonic heights.
So, who needs a CD-SACD player nowadays, you ask? Probably no serious computer audiophile who enjoys a hi-res streaming service such as Tidal in conjunction with Audirvana software. But for someone like me, with a substantial silver-disc collection and zero interest in spending days ripping my collection to a hard drive, the CD-10 is a perfect device. In the interest of full disclosure, I should mention that I had ripped a small subset of my CD collection onto my Mac BookPro, but that only captured the tip of the iceberg and still leaves my SACDs in search of a player. To be honest, I derive a measure of satisfaction from playing back music the “old-fashioned” way.
The CD-10 is designed around a top-loading Philips Pro 2 transport—the best there is. The transport is outfitted with an anti-vibration magnetic disc clamp, and the loading well is covered by an attractive acrylic lid. With its substantial brushed-aluminum chassis and overall heft, the initial impression is of a high-quality product. It’s also reassuring to know that each unit is hand-assembled in Austria and undergoes substantial quality control before leaving the factory.
The Ayon checks a lot of boxes for me and it feels a bit surreal, almost as if the unit were designed to meet my priorities. First and foremost is the Class A vacuum-tube triode-based output stage for both single-ended and balanced operation. For many years I have advocated for a tube gain stage or buffer at the output of a CD player as an ideal means of defanging digital nasties. Ayon gets it. A single Russian 6H30 dual triode is used per channel. This is a very linear and robust tube with a 4-watt plate dissipation and low plate resistance, making it a good choice for voltage amplification and line-drive applications. Not only that, but the output stage is also tube-rectified using a Chinese 6Z4 which is similar to a 6X4 but with a different pinout. In my experience, tube rectification is a critical factor in achieving a vintage sonic character. I am suspicious of any tube preamp that lacks tube rectification, and to be brutally honest, such preamps usually fail to deliver the sort of big-tone balance that pushes my buttons.
Nominal output level is switchable on the back panel between low (2.2V) or high (4.4V). Either balanced (XLR) or single-ended (RCA) analog outputs may be selected. The output impedance is approximately 300 ohms, sufficiently low to drive long interconnect runs. When the unit is powered up it enters a warm-up cycle allowing tube filaments to reach their operating temperature before high voltage is applied—a good idea for extending tube life.
Ayon strongly discourages tube rolling because factory tubes are rigorously selected and tested to meet performance specifications. Tube life expectancy is said to be about 8000 hours of use, though retubing is recommended after about 5000 to 6000 hours of operation. If you ever need to change tubes, be sure to check out the online video that shows you how (http://vidmails.com/v/wGRyTqamWt). It doesn’t appear to be a difficult process, just time-consuming, as it requires the removal of 18 screws. The tubes vent to the exterior though two small grilles on top of the chassis. It would be a bad idea to cover these up, or in general, to place anything on top of the chassis.
The AKM DAC includes a digital volume attenuator ahead of the delta-sigma modulator. As implemented in the CD-10, it increments the volume in 1dB steps from 0 (maximum volume) to -60dB (minimum volume). Channel balance is adjustable in six steps from 0dB to -6dB. In the 0dB position the audio signal is bypassed directly to the analog output stage. Two analog output modes are selectable from the back panel: normal and direct amp. For direct connection to a power amp, it’s best to use the direct-amp mode because the digital volume control is automatically set to -40dB during each power-on sequence, and the remote control’s volume-bypass function is locked out in order to protect the speakers.
This onboard volume control is darn good. In my listening tests I used both modes and discovered that I always preferred the direct mode to routing the output through an external volume control, whether it be a line preamp or autoformer volume control. The levels of transparency and clarity achievable via the digital control were superior (at least at normal listening levels) to any of my external analog volume controls. And that was how I spent most of my time with the CD-10. It’s good to know that if you’re strictly a digital guy, the CD-10 can serve as a complete digital front end, and that you don’t really need the added expense of a line preamp and extra interconnects.
I should mention one more setting option, and that has to do with the DAC’s digital-filter roll-off. Filter 1 setting corresponds to a slow roll-off, while the Filter 2 position gives a fast roll-off. To my ears, Filter 1 sounded much smoother and that’s where it stayed for the remainder of the review period. The crux of the CD-10’s sonics has to do with the PCM-DSD converter. I realize that in some circles upsampling—and data manipulation in general—is controversial due to potential re-quantization noise, but my policy is to take an agnostic stance with regard to such technical issues and simply let my ears be the judge. It didn’t take me long to fall in love with the converter. To be clear, I’m describing here the sonic impact of converting a Red Book 16/44 PCM signal from CD playback or USB input to DSD before conversion to analog. When it came to high-res 24/192 files via USB input, the converter didn’t help matters. In fact, it resulted in grainer textures. In this case, just switch the converter off. In general, high-res files via USB input never sounded any better due in part to the excellent XMOS xCORE USB interface. Similarly, SACD playback sounded artificial when upsampled to both DSD128 and DSD256, as transients became somewhat etched in character.
Think of the converter as a useful tool strictly for Red Book PCM. Time and time again my ears preferred the DSD256 conversion, and the effect wasn’t subtle at all. In the process, the upper octaves sounded airier and more spacious, allowing greater access to the inner recesses of the soundstage. Sheen of stringed instruments and upper registers of brass gained in textural purity and clarity. This greatly benefitted Jacqueline du Pré’s passionate rendition of the Dvorák Cello Concerto in B Minor [EMI CDC-7 47614-2], a 1970 recording in Chicago’s Medinah Temple, a favorite recording venue for the Chicago Symphony Orchestra in the 1970s. Commissioned by the Shriners in 1912, this Middle Eastern extravaganza included a large auditorium. I have my doubts about its excellence as a recording space, and the fact that the building now serves as a Bloomingdale’s furniture store attests to that. Since this recording, like most at the time, used a mix of spot mics together with overhead mics, the success of the recording was very much in the hands of the recording engineers. Du Pré’s spot mic seems to be a tad too distant during standard PCM playback. Upsampling to DSD256 brings the cello slightly forward and into greater relief, benefiting du Pré’s style of intensely passionate abandon.
To my surprise, image focus improved versus the raw 16/44.1 program material, making individual voices in an ensemble much more distinct and lifelike. The CD-10 was able to dig deeply into a complex mix with exceptional resolution of instrumental lines. Despite its tube output stage, bass authority was undiminished relative to a solid-state analog output stage. No need for any apologies here. One clear benefit of the tube output stage was enhanced soundstage dimensionality, and in particular, a clear perceptual gain in depth perspective. As EveAnna Manley is fond of saying, “tubes rule,” and that’s true when it comes to 3-D dimensionality, and it’s a major reason to continue embracing tube technology, as Ayon has done, in an increasingly digital age.
The overall effect of the PCM-DSD converter on 16/44.1 music may result in a discernible tonal balance shift, since the presentation tends to have a livelier and more vibrant character. In the context of a system with a neutral to slightly laid-back balance, the impact of the converter would be most welcome. I certainly embraced it with open arms and found it to make for a much more engaging musical experience during PCM signal playback. However, a system that is already voiced toward the brighter side of neutral may be nudged further in that direction.
Opus 3 Records’ Jan-Eric Persson was kind enough to send me a copy of the Eric Bibb & Needed Time Good Stuff SACD, a must-listen for any Eric Bibb fan. Since its inception, Opus 3 has been committed to single-point stereo recordings using a Blumlein array. Here an AKG C-24 vacuum-tube microphone (complemented by a Neumann U-89 for bass only) is used to perfection to capture the sound of a small ensemble. Playback through the CD-10 resulted in an exceptionally wide and linear soundstage, extending laterally well beyond the speakers, while image outlines were arranged with believable spatial extension.
For years now, my reference SACD player has been the ModWright-modified Sony XA-5400ES SACD player that features a 6SN7-based tube output stage. Its biggest limitation has been the lack of a USB input which forced me to use an external DAC for playback of high-res files. And now my immediate problem became the realization that the Sony was being sonically decimated by the Ayon in just about every category you can think of. Advances in the art have been swift over the past several years, and with the CD-10 Ayon has forged a nearly perfect marriage of digital and analog technologies. The PCM-to-DSD conversion capability is a big deal for Red Book CD playback. Add an excellent USB interface, top it all off with an all-tube analog output stage, and what you have is a superb player that I would be proud to own for years to come. Simply put, with the CD-10 you’re in for one helluva musical ride.
Specs & Pricing
Type: Hybrid CD/SACD player (solid-state input, tube output) with switchable PCM-DSD converter
Tube complement: 6H30; 6Z4 (power supply)
Conversion rate: 768kHz/32-bit, DSD256
Digital inputs: SPDIF (RCA), USB, TosLink
Digital output: SPDIF (RCA)
Frequency response: 20Hz–40kHz ±0.3dB
Total harmonic distortion: < 0.001% (1kHz)
Dynamic range: >119dB
Output impedance: 300 ohms (RCA and XLR)
USB interface: 24/384kHz, DSD 64/128
Dimensions: 19″ x 4.7″ x 14″
Weight: 28.6 lbs.
AYON AUDIO USA
8390 E. Via De Ventura
Scottsdale, AZ 85258
(800) 676-1085 Ext 2
Loudspeaker: Analysis Audio Omega
Power amplifiers: VTL Manley Reference 200/100, D-Sonic M3a-1500M, Wyred 4 Sound monoblocks
Preamplifiers: Lamm Audio Industries L2.1, Blue Velvet (DIY), Supratek Chardonnay line preamps, Experience Music AVC
Cables: FMS Nexus-2 and Kimber KCAG interconnects, Acoustic Zen Hologram II, Wireworld speaker cable