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Sequential Shootout: Ayre QB-9, Lavry DA11, and a (modded) PS Audio Digital Link III

Summary: QB-9 wins.

Somewhat longer discussion is as follows ….

I’ve had a modded PS Audio DAC for about 2 years now based solely upon a recommendation from 6moons — well, that, and an effusive recommendation from a dealer. It was about $1400 or so with all the mods done to it (Cullen Stage 4, for those curious), and I’ve been running it through a couple of systems. First was an EL34-based tube integrated from Ars-Sonum, and paired with Merlin VSM-MMe speakers. The second is the system I’m currently running, Plinius paired with Totems.

The sound of this little box is pretty amazing. Very clean, open, detailed, yada yada yada. I have alternated between running it via optical and via USB, and once hooked an Oppo to it via the RCA s/pdif. Optical is an improvement over USB in my experience, but YMMV. I’m awaiting a HiFace to try running it off the computer via its RCA — I’ll be reporting on that in a few weeks. With that omission, I feel confident in recommending this DAC to anyone interested in it — and I’m told that the more “laid back” your system is, the more you’ll appreciate the sound of this DAC as it really seems to open warm sounding systems right up.

Aside: if you have tried a PS Audio, and wonder what the heck I’m talking about, all I can say is that the base platform might be dramatically improved by the mods that Rick Cullen put into it. As for me, not sure, but it’s been in my systems for a while and it’s what I’m used to.

I got the Lavry in about a week or so ago as a loaner with some mileage on it (read: broken in). I used it in unbalanced mode into my pre-amp, and also restricted myself to using both the optical and USB inputs (looking for a/b comparisons, so wanted to keep it apples to apples as far as possible.

I hooked both DACs to my G5 via parallel runs of the same USB cable (Belkin Gold, 16′ runs) and switched between them using iTunes w/ and w/o Amarra. Both were connected into the pre-amp using Acoustic Zen Silver Reference II cables (RCA). Both were plugged into my Audiophile APS and therefore run off of clean, fully regenerated A/C power.

A note about the Lavry, the PS Audio, and my G5. As I’ve mentioned elsewhere, this old G5 of mine only supports redbook out on optical. The PS Audio was restricted to redbook on it’s USB in. So, most of the a/b testing was with redbook material in order to keep things simple. All files were full AIFF rips.

Music on offer:
Norah Jones, Come Away with Me, “Don’t Know Why”
Brandi Carlisle, The Story, “Turpentine”
Jem, Finally Woken, “They”
KT Tunstall, Eye to the Telescope, “Black Horse & the Cherry Tree”
… and whatever else I felt like.

In all cases, the Lavry bested the PS Audio. It was smoother, more extended, more detailed, and more fun to listen to. But that said, the differences were all very minor and required significant a/b switching to catch the differences. In fact, the differences were minor enough that I was, by the end of it, convinced that swapping cables or interfaces might eliminate the differences altogether. So I did. I moved over to optical, and sure enough, the differences became harder to discern. By the way, both sounded fantastic.

Some notes: both DACs are upsamplers. The PS Audio takes everything to either 96 or 192, while the Lavry takes everything to 88.2 (or 96, I can’t get a straight answer out of those guys). Ratcheting the PS Audio down to 96 from 192 did in fact increase the differences b/w them, but at it’s “preferred” 192, those differences largely evaporated. Largely, but not entirely.

About Amarra: on my PS Audio, the impact that Amarra has is not necessarily beneficial. In fact, when I first got Amarra (demo, thankfully), I was totally nonplussed. What was the big deal and why was everyone so high on Amarra? I had no idea — and so I turned it off, and things suddenly sounded better. Ooops. The point of this DAC is openness and transparency and Amarra seems to close things in. A bit. And only with really well recorded material. Again, YMMV. With the Lavry, the impact that Amarra had was more apparent and Amarra had the benefit of removing a layer of what I think of as digititis — a shortcoming I didn’t even notice until I turned Amarra on. But the cost was, again, a constriction of both the soundstage and the openness of the presentation. All in all, I preferred the DAC without it. But, to my ears at least, the differences either way was very minor.

So, let’s sum up at this point — both DACs are very good, and at their price points, a steal. Both sound rather similar — open, very transparent, clean. The differences were more a matter of degree. If the Lavry was a 10 on a 10-point scale, the modded PS Audio was a beefy 9, and in many cases, very much on par with it’s peer.

Where things start to separate is high resolution audio. I have a bunch of tracks I downloaded from Linn and I’ll admit it, I’ve been playing around with Wave Editor and upsampled each of the tracks mentioned above into 96kHz after converting them to 24-bit files. I had to switch to my MacBook Pro at this point for playback and rely solely upon optical as a transport mechanism. The PS Audio sounded largely the same, regardless of the input — again, it’s an upsampler, so whatever goes in get’s converted up to 192 (no, I didn’t both ratcheting it down to 96 — it just sounds better at 192). The Lavry, by contrast, sounded more, well, everything. Not night and day. Not huge. Not “blows the PS Audio out of the water”. But, using my scale above, it went to (a modest) 11.

So, final recommendation: Lavry by a hair, and mainly for its ability to handle high res audio. It’s user-friendliness leaves a lot to be desired, and it’s quite obviously where the designer’s time went into building the unit. Still, nothing a quick call can’t solve. Anyway, the Lavry at $1500 is a very nice, solid unit — and at this price point, would be really tough to beat. My PS Audio, at $1300, is getting a bit long in the tooth, but for those that can get it used (easily found on AudiogoN, unlike any Lavry product), it’s a steal — and for those un-modded PS Audio Digital Link III owners out there, send it to Rick Cullen — I can’t recommend those mods enough.

Okay, now, on to part 2.

It wasn’t until I visited Tom Unger over at The Gifted Listener in Centreville, VA that a lot of the above comments snapped into place for me. He graciously allowed me to bring the Lavry and do some a/b comparisons to his demo of the $2500 Ayre QB-9. It was this session that showed me exactly how incredibly similar the Lavry and the PS Audio really are — especially when compared to the Ayre.

We had some Piega TP-7 towers set up, powered by Ayre’s lust-inducing MX-R amps coupled to a Mark Levinson pre, all wired up with Ayre’s Signature cables (Cardas rebrands, if I’m not mistaken).

I repeated the same protocol above, this time run from my MacBook Pro. The Lavry sounded open, transparent, with all the vocals cleanly set out and clearly articulated. No strain. No stress. Just beautiful music. Switched over the the QB-9. And the sound was open, transparent, with all the vocals cleanly set out and clearly articulated.

Hmmm.

I posted some while back about the problem of how-to-spend-your-audiophile-dollar, and I posited that if you want to make a real impact on your overall sound, change speakers. Then amp/pre-amp/source. I couldn’t have asked for a better framework for this review.

Let me say this. No, the two DACs did not sound the same. In fact, if one were to draw an imaginary line called “neutral”, one could argue that upsamplers like the PS Audio or Lavry tend to fall a degree or two off to the lean side. Likewise, the Ayre could be said to make a similar error, but on the other side of the line. But they’re overall impact/contribution to the sound of the system? Tiny.

How so?

Well, in addition to selling Piega, Tom also sells Magnepan, arguably the greatest speakers ever created in the entire history of the known universe. LOL. Anyway, swapping out the big-box-sound Piegas for the no-box-at-all line-source 3.6Rs from Magnepan actually was night and day. The entire character of the sound changed. The dynamics changed. The coherency changed. The seamless integration of tweeter, mids and bass was uncanny and I was quite taken aback by it. Yes, the Piegas are great speakers, but these Maggies are at the same $5k price point, and they’re easily and clearly one of the best speakers in this world and several other parallel universes (read: that I’ve ever heard). Did I mention that I like these speakers? It took about an hour of marveling at their sound before I remembered why I was even there — to compare DACs. And I had to laugh out loud — I went from marveling at a radical change to splitting hairs. It was exactly at that point that I realized that being a “professional reviewer” is a largely thankless and impossible task of drawing out the tiniest differences between components that are pretty much lost in the overall sound. Also, that the descriptions that I’ve read in all trade mags and online forums — including this one — are all, to a one, exercises in hyperbole. And there’s no way around it! Because, yes, the DACs sound different. But way different? Well, it depends on the context. Different in the same way that these two speakers are different? No way. But different nonetheless. So, back to splitting hairs.

In all ways, the Ayre QB-9 is a superior DAC. It’s smooth, rounded (rolled off?) sound is not only detailed and open, but the word that came to mind switching back and forth between it and the Lavry was “coherent”. Everything seemed to just fit better, and this was verified again and again with redbook and high-res content. Tom called the Ayre “more 3d”, but for me, it was more subtle — the vocals were less lit than with the Lavry, which had that upsampler sparkle, but the Ayre just seemed more natural and real. Let me rephrase, with appropriate emphasis — the Ayre was all of those things, a bit. Again, the differences are all very minor and more a matter of teasing out the barest hint of an accent between two well spoken sentences of English. Was it imagined? Was it measurable? I think “no” to both — I think the differences were there, were real, but would be damnably hard to measure. But the Ayre was better.

So, overall? Ayre — again, by a hair. This is a great DAC. So, I’m done, right?

No.

In the end, while the Ayre was the best of the three, I feel uncompelled to buy it on the basis of that win. Two things hold me back. One, the differences between it and my PS Audio simply aren’t great. Real, yes, but enough to make me far more curious about what lies past the Ayre — is there a game changer out there? Something that would rock my experience as thoroughly as swapping speakers might? Second, being a USB-only unit, there’s no way of knowing whether it could be made to sound even better — which I think the Lavry could, fed either via AES with a Lynx or S/PDIF via a HiFace. With the Ayre, you get what you get. Unless, perhaps, you take Clay’s advice and go buy a very expensive USB cable. He seems quite taken with them, for some reason, so perhaps that’s an option.

So, in the end, a winner, even if that victory is largely Pyrrhic. I’ll sit tight, try out that HiFace when it finally arrives, and see how much more bang for the buck I can get out of my current system. There’s a lot of stuff that looks to hit at CES next month, so perhaps I’ll re-engage the search when some of that dust settles.

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About Scot Hull (979 Articles)
Founder, Editor and Publisher at Part-Time Audiophile and The Occasional Magazine.

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