Ayon Audio CD-3sx CD Player/DAC/Preamplifier

Class A Tube Satisfaction

Equipment report
Tubed preamplifiers,
Disc players,
Digital-to-analog converters
Ayon Audio CS-3sx
Ayon Audio CD-3sx CD Player/DAC/Preamplifier

Playing CDs with the CD-3sx was pretty straightforward and trouble-free: Turn the power on, make sure CD is the selected input, remove the CD lid and CD clamp, place the CD in the top-loading tray, replace the CD clamp and CD lid, select the track to be played, and press play. Analog-sourced vinyl feeding a dCS 904 A/D converter’s 24-bit/96kHz and DSD outputs was used to briefly test the AES/EBU and DSD inputs. Both inputs synced the CD-3sx to the dCS 904 and were functional. The coax and optical interfaces were tested using the digital outputs of a Sony SCD-XA9000ES CD/SACD player. There was no I2S (RJ45) output source available during the evaluation period to test that connection.

The USB interface that receives data rates up to PCM 24/192 and DSD128 functioned flawlessly, but required a bit of hands-on setup of the computer and media server to get things going initially. The computers used for testing this interface were both Windows-based (Vista and Windows 7), so Ayon-specific drivers needed to be installed for the USB port to recognize the CD-3sx when connected. The installed USB drivers for the Windows 7 computer also worked for the Vista-based computer. Once the USB drivers were installed, I was able to configure the output of the chosen media-server software to send the digital music data to the CD-3sx via the connected USB port. In this setup, digital music files stored on an external hard drive would serve to feed whichever computer was being used for testing during the evaluation period. The media software, used to access and send digital music over the USB interface to the CD-3sx, was JRiver Media Center version 20. While the configuration procedure is not within the scope of this report, JRiver was set up to send DSD (DSD64 and DSD128) and PCM (16-bit/44.1kHz through 24-bit/192kHz) data files to the CD-3sx. If a digital music file outside of these bounds was selected, it was up/downconverted to be within the acceptable range by JRiver before being sent over the USB interface to the CD-3sx.

Playing “The Real Blues” off the Ray Brown Trio’s Summer Wind: Live at the Loa album provided a good comparison for the CD-3sx coaxial, CD transport, and USB interface. Starting with CD playback from the Sony SCD-XA9000ES fed digitally over the coaxial input at 44.1kHz, the Ayon digital player produced a response that was satisfyingly full range with somewhat stronger bass and nearly as extended higher frequencies as the Sony’s analog output alone. Moving the silver disc to the Ayon’s own CD transport provided more fullness in the midrange without losses at either of the frequency extremes, which was a plus. Moving to a digital 24-bit/88.2kHz FLAC file of “The Real Blues” from the computer, the CD-3sx produced similar sound but with slightly less focus and perceived soundstage width. The digital file was a download that wasn’t ripped from the CD; this may explain some of the noted differences. I spot-checked this observation with a downloaded 24-bit/88.2kHz file of “In the Morning” from Norah Jones’ Feels Like Home compared to the 44.1kHz file ripped from a CD. (Both files were FLAC.) In this case, CD-vs.-24/88.2 results were similar to what I observed with the Ray Brown Trio. However, the CD playback vs. 44.1kHz ripped file were identical. This thought-provoking observation tends to support the notion that Ayon’s CD-3sx playback of digital files derived from the same source is closer in sound than those retrieved by other means. This observation should not lead any readers to think higher-resolution files don’t sound as good as (or better than) their lower-resolution cousins. One listen to Reference Recordings’ 24-bit/44.1kHz vs. 24-bit/88.2kHz FLAC files of Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra from Britten’s Orchestra played back over the USB input on the CD-3sx showed how a higher-resolution source proved to be superior in smoothness, depth, width, image specificity, bass definition, and instrumental realism. During multiple observations, the CD-3sx seems to easily reveal differences in the engineering and mastering of digital files, just as a good analog setup reveals those same differences with vinyl LP pressings.

Over USB, Kenny Rankin’s voice on “’Round Midnight” from the Chesky Records album The World’s Greatest Audiophile Vocal Recordings (24-bit/96kHz FLAC) was rendered with a full, warm presence that projected directly at the listener; yet the surrounding ambience of the recording venue was still captured. This sparse arrangement, played back on the CD-3sx, produced sound that would most likely be considered reference quality by a listener. Pushing vocal performance further, Cassandra Steem’s singing “The Living Daylights” from Mister Bond: A Jazzy Cocktail of Ice-Cold Themes (24/44.1 FLAC) sounded just as good as Rankin’s in “’Round Midnight,” yet her voice had more sultry lushness to it. The arrangement for this track was much denser, but every instrument could easily be followed and enjoyed. “The Living Daylights” is more upfront and has less dynamic range between loud and soft passages, but none of this seemed to interfere with the realism of the track. The percussion instruments sounded just as good as the vocals. There was no edge to vocals or instruments on either track.

The Grammy award-winning album A Tribute to Miles (24/44.1 FLAC) features premier jazz artists such as Herbie Hancock, Wayne Shorter, Ron Carter, Wallace Roney, and Tony Williams. On the CD-3sx, “All Blues (Live)” showcases each individual’s delightfully crafted playing. The recording captures the mood of a live performance and a realistic impression of the audience. Whether it is trumpeter Wallace Roney’s musings in remembrance of Miles Davis or other players’ featured solos, this recording captures the imagination from beginning to end. Every aspect of this piece was more enjoyable when played from the computer over the USB interface to the CD-3sx.

I used a limited number of DSD files during the Ayon’s evaluation period, including the Opus3 DSD Showcase 2 sampler (DSD128). The digital file of Eric Bibb’s “Needed Time” came closest to sounding like the same song on 45rpm vinyl (Spirit & The Blues) than any other digitally sourced version of an analog original. Played back on the CD-3sx, this recording captured the beauty of the harmonica and the separation of the stringed instruments, while the delicacy of each remained intact, from the fingerpicking to the slide and sustain of each string. Bibb’s voice was depicted powerfully—rich and full with a touch of kindness as he sang this traditional blues spiritual.

As mentioned earlier, the Ayon’s interface and controls functioned flawlessly. Even the supplied USB drivers for the two Windows-based computers proved to be completely stable without a single lockup caused by the CD-3sx. Complete stability from a vacuum-tube-based digital player with high-quality sound reproduction can be a pleasurable experience for many users. The additional benefit of intuitively well-designed user controls is a welcome bonus. There was no perception of the sharp-edged aggression that often plagues digital playback devices. The CD-3sx produced an immersive experience with the music, without pushing too much detail, which can, at times, distract the listener from the performance. Capable of handling nearly every digital format (with the exception of physical SACDs), this playback device can nestle down comfortably within nearly any stereo system and perform at a high level.


Digital inputs: AES/EBU, SPDIF, TosLink optical, I2S (RJ45), DSD (three BNC jacks), USB
Analog inputs: Two RCA line level inputs
DSP loopback output: SPDIF
Analog outputs: Unbalanced RCA, balanced XLR
Output impedance: 300 ohms (unbalanced & balanced)
Dynamic range: > 118dB
S/N ratio: > 119dB
Power consumption: 85W
Dimensions: 48 x 12 x 39cm
Weight: 17 kg
Price: $8100

8390 E. Via De Ventura,
Scottsdale, AZ 85258

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