SACD Player Shootout

I had previously started a thread regarding break-in time for my new Ayre C-5xe. There is background here:

The comparison took place this past Saturday. 14 people ended up attending this shootout. I think everyone had a great time. I know that I did.

Conditions and Associated Gear: All players were placed on a modified rack and powered up on the night prior to the contest. They were not powered down at any time. A pair of 6’ Jena Labs Symphony RCA-terminated interconnects was used, and, as per Charles Hansen’s suggestion, the same preamp input was utilized for each player (i.e. the swap was made only at the outputs of the player under review). Associated gear consisted of my own primary system – Aesthetix Janus, Parasound JC-1s, Sound Lab A-1s, Acoustic Zen Silver Ref II balanced ICs between amp and preamp, and Acoustic Zen Satori speaker cables. Each player used the relatively inexpensive but excellent Signal Cable power cords. The amps were warmed up for an hour prior to beginning the critical judgments. Each person was asked to take notes and rank the players based on tonality, imaging, soundstaging, and the rest of the usual parameters, and then on Redbook vs. SACD capabilities. We used three disks as standards: Area 31 (Chesky SACD), Alison Krauss and Union Station Live (Rounder SACD), and Mephisto and Co. (Reference Recordings CD).

The Results:

EMM CDSD and DCC2 – All but two agreed that the EMM separates provided the best sound overall on Redbook playback. The group was split 7 to 5 in favor of the EMM gear over the Ayre on SACD.

Ayre C-5xe – the Ayre came in a very close second to the Meitner gear. Every single participant placed the C-5xe in second place. Several people commented that it was the most ‘analog-sounding’ player that they had ever heard. There’s no question that it is an extraordinarily relaxed presentation – not in the sense of being laid-back in any way; rather, it seems to be completely devoid of ‘digititis’. In comparison to the EMM CDSD/DCC2, it lacks only a bit of transparency and a smidgen of macrodynamic capability.

Denon DVD-5910 (Underwood Level 1 mod) - an excellent player in almost every regard, and another that shows a distinct lack of digital fatigue. The EMM and Ayre bettered it in minor ways in several areas. It was generally acknowledged that this Denon had one shortcoming relative to the top two: there seems to be a pervasive fine grain in the upper midrange that is not unpleasant but tends to obscure details in large-scale works, somewhat to the detriment of the soundstage.

Dcs P8i (tie) – those who have heard the big Dcs stacks had high hopes for this single unit player. It has no glaring faults, but at the same time was judged as a cut below the best in virtually every regard. In particular, it seemed a little soft at both frequency extremes.

Esoteric X-01 (tie) – the X-01 provoked more debate than any other player in this group. The two two individuals who did not put the EMM gear in first place had the Esoteric in that spot. Three others put in near the bottom of the pack. Why such differing opinions? The X-01, in my opinion, is a study in ‘excesses’, both good and bad. It clearly had the best macrodynamic capability of any of the pack. I mean, this is come-up-and-smack-you-in-the-face territory. On the other hand, it became harsher more quickly than any of others. Personally, this is something that I don’t willingly tolerate. Just to ensure that it was the player and not some other variable, we later (after the main session was over switched to two other power cords (Acoustic Zen Krakatoa and TG Audio Silver). No doubt some X-01 devotee will berate me for not changing out the IC or placing Ceranuts underneath the unit.

Denon DVD-3910 (Reference Audio mod) – judged to be an excellent value for the money, this player generally does everything well and provides little in the way of irritating behavior. It’s main shortcomings were a somewhat compressed soundstage, slightly blurred imaging, and a less than stellar handling of the midbass (it was the ‘fattest’) of the group. Don’t misunderstand – it’s many miles ahead of the low to moderate-priced pack.

Music Hall Maverick (Underwood 1+ mod) – very similar in almost ever respect to the modded DVD-3910, with a little litter midbass but a distinctly softer high end. The latter aspect may be one reason why the Maverick was graded highly on Redbook playback – it’s a somewhat forgiving player. I’ll be sorry to see it go when I sell it.

Linn Unidisk – absolutely the biggest surprise of the day. This just did not sound anything like a SOTA contender. In fact, it sounded so much like a $199 Circuit City special that its owner has sent it off to be checked out. Because he has ears that I respect and claims that the Linn ordinarily sounds so much better, I would withhold judgment at this point.

So, there you have it. For the most part, both very experienced listeners and relative novices generally agreed on the above, with the one real exception being the aforementioned Esoteric. I am 100% sure that the rankings will ruffle some feathers, but please understand that there is only so much that can be done under the circumstances. I make no apologies for either my own opinions or for those of the participants. Needless to say, your mileage may vary.
Thanks very much for your replies. Why am I not surprised that there are a number of "wish XXX had been included" comments :)? Basically, we had what we had. I'm not under any illusions that this was as extensive as it could have been, nor that extremely strict procedures were followed...nor that my diminished supply of single malts had no effect on the results (see my (poorly updated)system photos at for a notion of the extent of the potential damage).

Let's see, I'll try to answer the questions and comments:

Yes, the APL mod had the current AKMs in it (per its owner).

Regarding the Linn - I have heard this guy's unit before, and while not terribly impressed at the time and believeing that one can do MUCH better for the money, it was definitely better than it sounded on Saturday. I believe that there was something wrong somewhere.

The current retail price of the Ayre is $5850.

I am reasonably sure that the APL mod was a 5910, but will check with the owner to make sure if I can get in touch with him. This was a person that I had not met until Saturday.
I believe the Ayre retails for $4950. I have one and can state that it is better than the Accuphase 75v for CD's. It is my first SACD player, so no comparisons; but, it sounds very good. Have fun.
I'm curious as to which Linn unidisk you used here. Although I've not heard most of the other units, my experience with the Linn 2.1 and 1.1, comparing to MF Trivista, just doesn't square with that you report here.