This is one battle royale that had been on my mind for a long time. I wondered how each audio-only source (sorry DX-5 DSD) stood in Ayre’s pantheon. This may be revisited once the QX-5 Twenty is available / shipping. The C-5xeMP is the old saw – the one shackled to physical media from a distant, bygone era. Ok, maybe not so bygone. The QB-9 DSD is the transitional middle child. And the Codex, well, it plays the role of the young upstart. Ladies and gents, we have a three-way comparison.
QB-9 DSD vs. C-5xeMP
I can’t tell these two apart. That’s the thought that kept running through my head as I switched between the two sources while I listened through the DNA Sonett 2 / LCD-XC fed from the tape output from the AX-5 Twenty. In fact, I’d occasionally hit a few keys on the keyboard to pause the playback only to realize that it was the C-5xeMP playing. Other times I’d be furiously pressing ‘Stop’ on the remote, which turned out to be totally unnecessary since it was the QB-9 DSD that was supplying the music. Whether I listened to whole tracks or quickly switched between the two mattered not one whit. The QB-9 DSD and the C-5xeMP were indistinguishable. Given this, I won’t belabor the point with details on sonic performance. After all was said and done and I had time to reflect on the result a bit, I realized just how groundbreaking the QB-9 must have been when it first broke onto the hi-fi scene. Here you have a DAC that could make virtually any laptop, cheap or expensive, sound like a top-drawer digital source component. It leveled the playing field between the high performance disc spinners and the computer and its attendant convenience of storing vast amounts of content. I never really appreciated this until now. However, I instantly appreciated how it simplified the job of comparing all three to each other.
C-5xeMP / QB-9 DSD vs. Codex (in DAC mode)
Both the C-5xeMP and the QB-9 DSD exhibited a slightly more refined and balanced presentation than the Codex. For example, on “I’m Old Fashioned” from Blue Train, the Codex lacked just a smidge of inner detail next to its USB-only and disc-based siblings. This meant brass instruments were just a bit less expressive. Images were less dimensional with the Codex pushing the bits as well – Jones’ brush work on the snare possessed more holographic presence and cymbal strikes sounded more complex through the C-5xeMP and the QB-9 DSD. Similarly, the C-5xeMP and QB-9 DSD came across as more articulate and balanced on the final movement to Rachmaninoff’s second piano concerto. Yet the Codex also displayed a warmer, more inviting presentation that might be preferred over the less forgiving natures of its elder brethren.
The Codex’ slightly less refined nature also revealed itself on modern pop and rock. On “Wildest Dreams” from Taylor Swift’s latest album 1989, the QB-9 DSD and C-5xeMP edged out its younger cohort by offering up more depth to the soundstage and a better layering of the different tracks within the song. It was this particular quality that distinguished the C-5xeMP from the Codex on the Cold War Kids’ “Go Quietly” from Hold My Home. The C-5xeMP offered up a tighter presentation with more verve, impact, and depth. The QB-9 DSD also telegraphed a more piquant aesthetic on Florence + the Machine’s “Ship to Wreck”. The Codex countered with a brawnier presentation that took a bit of the edge out of the mix – a trait that made the same song sound just a hair aggressive on the QB-9.
Clearly, the Codex was punching way above its weight class and it certainly held its own against the entrenched incumbents. Once you factor in its additional capabilities as a preamp and headphone amp, well, that makes it the better value to boot. In this light and with the C-5xeMP long fallen into the twilight of discontinued products, it’ll be hard to justify the continued existence of the QB-9 DSD. Yet with the QX-5 Twenty on the horizon and priced in line with the other Twenty 5-series components, it’s an ever larger jump to move up the Ayre ladder. It’s also conspicuous that the previous 5-series components are still listed as in-production. Given all this, there may be some life in the QB-9 DSD yet.