Emotiva Stealth DC-1 vs. Ayre C-5xeMP

Emotiva. This is a name familiar to all audiophiles who prize a high performance to price ratio. I’ve been intrigued with Emotiva ever since I first read about them on Audioholics a few years ago. I’ve never had the opportunity to listen to any of their products in my system – until now.

The Stealth DC-1 has some very impressive specs on paper. It appears to be a fully balanced design with dual AD1955 DACs operating in differential mono mode. There are single-ended and balanced outputs along with a slew of input options – coax S/PDIF, BNC S/PDIF, USB, and optical. The Stealth DC-1 is also capable of asynchronously resampling the incoming audio data at its native rate to reduce jitter  – defaulted to ‘off’ on first power-up but switchable to ‘on’ within the menu. This diminutive box can also serve as a headphone amp and a preamp. I don’t think anyone is going to complain about a lack of features for the price paid.

I was curious to test the theory that the Stealth DC-1 could compete with its much higher-priced company in the hi-fi world. In the one corner we have the Emotiva paired with an Oppo BDP-103 via coax S/PDIF and connected to an Ayre AX-5 Twenty via balanced out. In the other, the venerable but discontinued Ayre C-5xeMP, also connected via balanced out. Would the Stealth slay all comers? Read on to find out.

I first cued up “I’m Old Fashioned” from my HDtracks 24-bit/192 kHz Blue Train remaster. Through the DC-1, the track sounded warm and smooth overall. Any nits to pick were small: Chambers’ bass lines were a little softened, but still had good tone; dynamic contrast seemed a notch down making the presentation less impactful. Still, the DC-1 acquitted itself well. Switching over to the Ayre, however, restored the inner detail to the brass instruments that the Stealth had a tendency to gloss over. The C-5xeMP also possessed more dynamic contrast and transient speed, with snares seemingly having a smidge more body and snap.

Next up was another jazz classic, “Christmastime Is Here (instrumental)”. The DC-1 impressed with a wide soundstage and good sense of depth. Drums were set outside the bounds the of the left speaker and little farther back in the stage. Bass heft was good, but a little lacking in detail. Some of Guaraldi’s piano came across a touch too hard. The C-5xeMP, on the other hand, captured the air (sorry) around the performers, giving a sense of a real acoustic space rather than individual instruments spliced together on a mixing console. Bass lines were more expressive as well – the Ayre easily reproduced the subtle tonal inflections from finger bowing during the solo.

I swapped out Guaraldi for Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 2. While the Ayre handily recreated the feel of Walthamstow Town Hall, the DC-1 reproduced the performance with three distinctly separate ‘lobes’ that never blended together into a coherent, cohesive whole. Though the Stealth largely nailed the tonality of the orchestra, during a few passages the piano verged on clanginess. Not necessarily a disappointing performance, but not necessarily emotionally stirring either.

At this point, it was pretty clear that the C-5xeMP had a distinct advantage in the realism and emotional engagement department. Yet I wondered how its refined presentation would fare in the more artificial environs of modern recordings.

Popping in Taylor Swift’s latest release, 1989, and skipping to “Wildest Dreams”, I fully expected the Stealth to narrow the gap. The tight and deep bass that the Emotiva produced anchored an authoritative rhythmic drive. However, Swift’s vocals had just a tinge of harshness around sibilants that belied a (perhaps) coarser treatment of the top end of the frequency spectrum. The Ayre pulled away again with a more layered, nuanced, and composed presentation. It was easier to focus on different instruments within the mix and the soundstage possessed more depth.

Results on “Sorrow” from the National’s High Violet were similar. Here the Ayre made it easier to follow the supporting vocals from Berninger’s haunting performance and seemed to draw out more bits from the recording. The Emotiva sounded a little flatter and grayer, as if it held back the entire sonic picture.

Just for fun, I decided to pit the DC-1 against the Oppo’s audio output. It seemed both offered up the same flattened sense of space and less saturated tonal colors, though the Oppo did prove to be a little more aggressive in the highs. I came away with the impression that the Emotiva definitely had a smoother, more even balance to the Oppo’s somewhat hyper nature.

It’s somewhat comforting to know that as you pays your moneys, you do seem to get more performance, at least in this instance. I do wonder though, that if I’d never heard the Ayre, would I have settled on the DC-1 as my source of choice? I probably could have. It gets the big picture right and produces clean, warm, smooth sound. I can hardly complain about that. But in the audiophile mind, there seems to be this uncontrollable urge to be closer to the music, to have a visceral and emotional connection to whatever’s playing. If that’s the true yardstick that we measure system performance by, then I’m damn glad there’s companies like Ayre in this world producing some fine sounding kit indeed.

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