It is provided everything else is truly balanced. Otherwise, no.
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My preamp does not have balanced input. Comparing different CD players is such a difficult task when the rest of the equipment is different from show room to show room. The only likely thing is that Stereophile probably reviewed the C5xe using its balanced output when giving it the highest rating. Back to the drawing board for me!
This is a first, in ownership, demos, and research of Ayre equipment. I have NEVER read an individual state that they prefer RCA over XLR, if the equipment was setup correctly and the equipment was synergistic.
Maybe the AudioQuest was the culprit? I have owned (and still own AQ speaker cable but will be replacing soon), and can personally vouch that this cable line is not the most synergistic with Ayre equipment. Highly recommend: Cardas Cables, particularly Golden Cross or Golden Reference. Since I have never personally owned or demo'd Ayre's cables, I cannot make a recommendation.
But, as an owner of a number of AQ cables (speaker and interconnects), I can personally vouch that AQ is not the best match for Ayre equipment. I suspect this hindered your audition.
I agree with you that everything I have heard, balanced should be better. I am pretty sure I had everything set up properly, even making sure that on the Ayre V-3 the RCA connections phase was inverted (per Ayre's instructions). I found it perplexing. The balanced had more pronounced and dynamic frequency extremes, but the RCA was more musical. My brother was in on the listening session and agreed with me on the sound.
I have since moved on to tubes and different interconnects, but I have to say would not go out of my way to get an all balanced system based on my experience.
Actually, I thought the AQ stuff was pretty good with the Ayre, although I understand that Ayre and Cardas are very synergistic, although one should order the Cardas without the ferrite beads, since Ayre stuff already has high frequency filters (Ayre conditioner).
I doubt the AQ cables were the problem. I have tried the Cardas GR and GC from start to finish and they took my Ayre system back two steps. (golden cross worse than GR) I use all AQ and the system has come back to life. I will however agree that running my system with SE cables while waiting for the Cardas to go away and the AQ to get here the system lacked in dynamics compared to the XLR outputs. Just didnt have the same rich, smooth, detailed, and powerful sound I'm getting now that I am back to balanced from one end to the other.