Thursday, June 9, 2011

Go for the Ayre-y sound

Ayre QB-9 USB DAC (right) vs Benchmark DAC1 Pre

After you buy an Ayre QB-9 USB DAC from Hi-Way Laser in SS2, Petaling Jaya, the first thing you must do is to set it to accept 24/192.

The manual tells you to try 24/96 and get used to operating the DAC first before moving to the higher resolution. My advice is to ignore that and set the QB-9 to accept 24/192 from the outset as the DAC will sound much better when set to accept that level of quality even when lower resolution files like MP3 and ripped CD 16/44.1 files are played.

The difficult part is to set it to accept 24/192.

Firstly, you have to check if your Ayre QB-9 was made after the summer of 2010. Ayre’s website says: “Look at the serial number on the rear panel. - if  the serial number is 18Fxxxx or beyond (e.g., 18Gxxxx), then the unit was manufactured at the factory with the high-speed USB input PCB required to go beyond 96 kHz.” Older models can be updated.

Then you will have to check the OS of your computer - Mac or Windows-based - to find out if it is compatible with the QB-9. More information on this can be found at http://www.ayre.com/usb.htm

To receive the 24/192 files, the USB input has to be reconfigured. Ayre’s website says: “Standard computer audio with files up to 96 kHz typically operate under what is called ‘Class One Audio"’ which is a subset of USB 1.1. The transmission rate for Class One Audio is 12 MHz. To go beyond 96 kHz requires the use of a protocol called ‘Class Two Audio’, which operates in conjunction with USB 2.0. Class Two Audio uses a transmission rate of 480 MHz, or forty times faster than standard USB computer audio.

“Therefore to use a Windows-based computer beyond 96 kHz with a USB D/A converter, it is mandatory to install a special device driver. Ayre has chosen to use a driver made by Thesycon, a German company that specializes in audio drivers and software for the pro audio industry.”

Configuring for a Mac computer is different and there is a section in the Ayre website for Mac users.

After that, you will need to look at the back panel and search for the dip switches. Ayre’s website continues: “The default that works well for most users is that all switches will be in the ‘up’ position.

"The switch labeled ‘Rsrv A’ (up) and ‘Rsrv B’ (down) selects the operating class of the unit. Rsrv A puts the unit into Class One Audio mode, and will work without any special drivers as outlined on the main setup pages. Use a toothpick or ball-point pen to flip the switch down to Rsrv B and now the unit will operate in Class Two Audio mode.”

You will have to follow the procedure posted in the Ayre’s website, but bear in mind that laptops with different versions of Windows will have slightly different steps.

In my case, it took about 45 minutes to download the Thesycon software and get the QB-9 all geared up to go.

Oh yes, one more thing - make sure that the digital filter (the dip switch at left) is turned from ‘Listen’ to ‘Measure’.

Make sure the Ayre QB-9's digital filter is set to 'Measure' and
configure the USB to accept 24/192 and switch it to 'Rsrv B'.

Ayre’s website states: “One algorithm produces greater accuracy in the time domain and is labeled ‘Listen’. The other algorithm produces greater accuracy in the frequency domain and is labeled ‘Measure’

“Normally the selector switch is set to the ‘Listen’ position when listening to music. However some listeners may prefer the additional high-frequency energy provided by the ‘Measure’ position.”

I spent some time listening to both algorithms in Class One Audio (24/96) and I found the ‘Listen’ mode to sound too smooth. The treble and bass were rolled off while the mids became creamy. Also the images were ‘fattened’.

Upon switching to ‘Measure’ mode, the treble brightened up and the bass became stronger. Images slimmed down, transparency improved very much and the sound was more exciting and upbeat.

After setting up the Ayre QB-9 USB DAC to perform at its optimum, I did what I had wanted to do for a very long time - compare it with the resident Benchmark DAC1 Pre.

What I wanted to find out was whether there was any clear winner in the competing technologies - Ayre QB-9 uses asynchronous mode USB data transfer while Benchmark uses the adaptive mode.

In layman’s terms, asynchronous mode results in the DAC being the ‘master clock’ while adaptive mode means the clock in the laptop is the ‘master’.



The rear panel of the Ayre-QB-9 is not as crowded as that of the Benchmark.

Ayre's website has this say: “Connected via the ubiquitous USB port and using the Streamlength asynchronous USB transfer mode software licensed from Wavelength Audio, an Ayre USB D/A converter generates a fixed-frequency master audio clock and requests the audio data from the computer at the correct time for jitter-free playback of your music. Now the D/A converter is in control and provides the critical master audio clock; the computer simply stores the music files and is completely out of the picture when it comes to jitter.”

From various reviews that I have read, both technologies have their unique sonic signatures. I found out that all the other reviewers out there were correct.

Using a Furutech USB cable (which is rich-sounding) connected to the Toshiba laptop with Media Monkey as player, I tested both DACs in the resident system comprising Bryston 4B SST power amp,  MIT Shotgun MA Biwire speaker cables and ATC SCM40s. I used a pair of Alphacore Micro Purl Silver to connect the Ayre DAC to the analogue inputs of the Benchmark DAC1 Pre and a pair of Audioquest Panther dbs XLR interconnects to link the pre to the Bryston.

I played various files from MP3s to ripped CDs (16/44.1) to 24/88.2 Linn Studio Master FLAC files to 24/96 files (Alison Krauss and Robert Plant’s Raising Sand) to 24/176.4 HRx to 24/192 HDTT files.

The difference in sound between the Ayre and Benchmark was night and day - the Ayre had a fuller, richer and smoother sound while the Benchmark had a leaner, edgier and more analytical sound. The Benchmark’s bass had more slam while the Ayre’s bass was fuller, but a tad softer in the grunt department. Also the Benchmark's highs sounded more extended.

I felt that the Benchmark was better suited for hard rock songs while Ayre was fabulous for classical, jazz and ballads.

Vocals - both male and female - were rendered smoother, warmer and richer by the Ayre while the Benchmark could not shake off its characteristic lean quality even though the Furutech USB cable had already made the sound fuller and richer. If I had used the stock USB cable the Benchmark would have sounded even leaner.

In terms of sound quality, I believe most people would go for the Ayre, but in terms of value for money, the Benchmark wins - it offers USB (only up to 24/96) plus coax, Toslink and analogue inputs, a headphone amp and preamp for RM6,500 while the Ayre has only one USB input  and retails at RM10,500.

In terms of looks, the Ayre is a sure winner with its thick matt aluminium casing and clean lines.

If good sound is what you want and you don’t mind just one USB input, then go to Hi-Way Laser and audition the QB-9.

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