Ayre Acoustics QB-9 DSD DAC Review
Over the last few years I've had the privilege of sharing presentation spaces at dealer events with Ayre's Alex Brinkman. Usually Alex talks a bit about Ayre Acoustics as a company followed by a specific product or two then hands the floor over to me for my presentation. Listening to Alex's presentation five to ten times per evening has enabled me to learn a lot about Ayre. In fact I could likely fill in for Alex at the next event if needed. One item that sticks in my mind is Ayre's policy of keeping products in the lineup for extended periods of time. For example the Ayre K-5xeMP preamplifier has been in production for twelve years. During those twelve years Ayre has continued to make advances in design and sound quality and offered these advances as upgrades to its customers. Many customers who purchased the original K-5 preamp have sent their components to the Ayre factory for upgrades and are now using a K-5xeMP identical to the current model on showroom floors. The Ayre QB-9 USB DAC was released in April 2009. The initial version of the DAC supported sample rates up through 96 kHz. In July 2010 Ayre offered its QB-9 customers the opportunity to upgrade the initial version to support 192 kHz for a nominal fee. This upgrade had no impact on sound quality so Ayre left the QB-9 name unchanged. In May 2013 Ayre released a major upgrade to the QB-9 and adjusted its name to QB-9 DSD. This upgrade was an overhaul that could have warranted a completely new product in Ayre's lineup. Sticking with its policy of upgradability Ayre has been upgrading QB-9 DACs to the QB-9 DSD version for $500, the same as the price difference between the new and old model. As the name changed to QB-9 DSD implies, the sound quality improvement to this DAC is well worth the price of the upgrade. The QB-9 DSD is a completely different DAC from the previous generation of the QB-9. Adding the letters DSD to the QB-9 name is a bit misleading because this upgrade is much more about everything else inside the DAC than it is about the ability to play DSD material. Ayre has elevated the QB-9 to arguably the best sounding USB only DAC in its price range.[PRBREAK][/PRBREAK]
Ayre QB-9 DSD
I called the original Ayre QB-9 a home run for Ayre Acoustics back in 2010. Based on performance I must call the QB-9 DSD a grand slam in 2014. The Ayre QB-9 DSD is so much more than a QB-9 that plays DSD files. The QB-9 DSD contains five upgrades from the previous model, the smallest of which is the enabling of DSD playback. The QB-9 DSD is really a completely new DAC. Ayre changed the DAC chip from the Burr-Brown DSD1792A to the ESS 9016S. The second upgrade was replacing the audio master clocks with low phase noise modules, that run at double the frequency of the previous modules, enabling the new ESS chip to perform at a higher level. Third, Ayre improved the analog audio circuitry and power supply for increased performance. The fourth upgrade was the addition of an AC line powered supply for the USB circuitry. Computer audiophiles take note, this upgrade makes a computer's USB bus power irrelevant. The QB-9 DSD doesn't require any power from the computer. Last and definitely least, the QB-9 DSD now handles DSD64 material. Don't get me wrong the QB-9 DSD plays DSD music wonderfully. I just don't want readers to get caught up in the numbers game and assume this major QB-9 upgrade has much to do with DSD playback when it's really about the other four major improvements.
The QB-9 DSD may have the best all around USB implementation of any DAC I've ever used. First, it uses the Streamlength asynchronous USB code developed by Wavelength Audio's Gordon Rankin. To date this is the most stable and best performing USB solution I've used. Second, the QB-9 DSD uses its own clean power supply for the USB input. Third, the DAC uses optical, not S/PDIF optical, isolation between the USB input and the audio circuitry. Combined these factors eliminated any need for power related tweaks to my computers during this review period. I keep about a dozen computers around here for testing with different software and hardware. One of these PCs emits so much electrical noise through its USB port that I can't use it with just any DAC. This PC is the ultimate test of USB isolation. Connected to most DACs I can easily hear all kinds of garbage as if five refrigerators were sharing the same power outlet with my audio system. However, when I connect this electrically noisy computer to the QB-9 DSD I hear silence through the speakers. The only other components I have right now that equal this quality of isolation are the Berkeley Audio Design Alpha USB ($1,900) digital to digital converter and the Bel Canto Design uLink digital to digital converter that uses a fiber optic connection to a Bel Canto DAC.
The QB-9 DSD isn't a flashy DAC with more features than sense. The DAC has a USB input and analog output. This design is classic Ayre Acoustics. Ayre thinks the best DAC should have USB input, no volume control, and a fully balanced design with XLR analog outputs. So, Ayre produced the QB-9. If it doesn't fit a users needs then so be it. Ayre was also smart enough to include unbalanced RCA outputs as well for those without fully balanced components. I happen to fall into that category. My Spectral Audio DMC-30SS Series 2 preamplifier isn't fully balanced and works best on its RCA inputs. I used the QB-9 DSD connected to this preamp for about 60% of the review period. Ayre wanted me to hear the full capability of the QB-9 DSD so the company sent me its fully balanced KX-5 preamp and fully balanced VX-5 amp for the other 40% of the review period. It was a real sonic treat to have this full Ayre system in my listening room.
QB-9 DSD In Action
Thanks to Ayre Acoustics I was able to keep the QB-9 DSD in my system for an extended period of time. This is a terrific DAC to have "stuck" at one's house over Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Years. As winter approached here in Minnesota I naturally started listening to darker music. Why not pour salt on the wound right? I listened to Leonard Cohen's album Old Ideas countless times during my review of the QB-9 DSD. The track Show Me The Place illustrates perfectly the capability of this DAC. The tracks opens with a short solo piano sequence. The decay between notes can be heard wonderfully. Twelve-seconds into the track Leonard comes in with his incredible baritone vocals. In the all Ayre Acoustics system (QB-9 DSD, KX-5, VX-5) his voice has so much texture it's almost too intimate. One feels as if they need to wipe spit off their face as he sings. On this track and a couple others it's possible to hear an annoying and unnatural silence between verses. I'm unsure if this is microphone channels closing and reopening when he sings or if this is a post production technique use for another reason. Nonetheless this is readily audible through the QB-9 DSD based system. Further into the track a quiet female backing vocal can be heard followed by a lush violin. Both the vocal and violin sounded so delicate and seductive I was sucked into the recording session. This type of delicacy at low volumes is only possible on a very quiet audio system.
Jewel, the former homeless girl from Alaska, is one of my favorite artists. She writes her own material, plays guitar, and has a collection of vintage microphones to record her terrific voice. Jewel's album Sweet and Wild is available with a second acoustic version of all the tracks. This is often referred to as Sweet and Mild. Among the many good tracks on this acoustic version of the album is a track called One True Thing. Listening to this track through the QB-9 DSD the smoothness of Jewel's voice was irresistible. One thing enables this smoothness to really come out and shine is the absence of noise. The QB-9 DSD's electrical barrier from the PC source and its power supply enable an extremely black background and low noise floor. At times it's possible to think some details are missing from a track. These details are usually not part of the track but part of the noise that traverses one's audio system. Jewel's albums will never be considered audiophile gems, but wow is her music enjoyable on a great system. The QB-9 DSD played a large role in my increased enjoyment of Jewel's Sweet and Mild and many other albums.
Mark Knopfler's seldom talked about album One Take Radio Sessions is another of my favorites. As good as they are, I'm pretty sick of the usual audiophile Knopfler / Dire Straits albums. One Take Radio Sessions is a go-to of mine when I want to hear something from Mark. The opening rhythm and lead guitar on The Trawlerman's Song have a terrifically warm and textured tone that sucks me in every time. Sure I'd like this track through a toothbrush radio but through the QB-9 DSD the tone of Mark's guitar is too rich to ignore. Listening to this track and most of the album is a great experience made better with great electronics. The excellent sound of the Ayre QB-9 DSD can elevate the intimacy between a recording and the listener to levels beyond the realm of most components. At $3,250 I can't think of another USB only DAC near this price that accomplishes such a feat.
I'm Frequently asked for DAC recommendations as if my opinion actually matters in another's listening room and between another's ears. I take it as a sign of respect that some people value my opinion and think I'm trustworthy. Respect feels good and should be reciprocated, especially in a sea of disrespect that can be Internet forums. Thus, I answer these recommendation questions as if I was spending my own money and wouldn't be able to purchase another component for quite awhile. More often than not the Ayre QB-9 rolls off my tongue as my go-to DAC people should audition. The price is reasonable for many audiophiles and it's an aspirational product for many others. Now that I've spent so much time with this upgraded version I must update my go-to DAC with three letters, DSD as in QB-9 DSD. If the QB-9 DSD feature set meets one's requirements and the price is right, it's foolish to start elsewhere. If the feature set doesn't meet one's requirements, maybe the requirements should be reexamined.
- Product - Ayre Acoustics QB-9DSD
- Price - $3,250 ($500 for upgrade of older units)
- Product Page - Link
- Source: 15" MacBook Pro w/ Retina Display, Aurender W20 Music Server, Aurender X100L Music Server, C.A.P.S. v3 Carbon Server with Red Wine Audio Black Lightening Battery Power Supply
- DAC: Auralic Vega, Berkeley Audio Design Alpha DAC Series 2, Berkeley Audio Design Alpha USB, EMM Labs DAC2X
- Preamp: Spectral Audio DMC-30SS Series 2, Ayre Acoustics KX-5
- Amplifier: Spectral Audio DMA-260, Ayre Acoustics VX-5, Pass Labs INT30A
- Loudspeakers: TAD Labs CR1 Compact Reference
- Remote Control Software: JRemote, Aurender App
- Remote Control Hardware: iPhone 5, iPad (3rd Generation)
- Playback Software: J River Media Center 19
- Network Attached Storage (NAS): Synology DS1812+
- Cables: MIT Matrix HD 60 Bi-Wire Loudspeaker Cable, MIT Oracle Matrix 50 Analog Interconnects (RCA), AudioQuest Niagara Balanced XLR Analog Interconnects, ALO Audio AC6 Power Cables, Wire World Silver Starlight USB Cable, AudioQuest Diamond USB Cable
- Network: Cisco SG200-26 Switch, Baaske MI-1005 Ethernet Isolator, AudioQuest Diamond, Vodka, Cinnamon Ethernet Cables, Apple AirPort Extreme, PFSense Router / Firewall, Cisco DPC3000 Docsis 3.0 cable modem, Comcast Extreme 105 Mbps Internet Service