Some good things to know: are you mac or PC? Do you plan on using USB or optical? Were you buying the ayre new or used, as that changes the price (and it would be helpful to know anyway)?
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I would actually keep away from USB as (1) it's inferior and (2) it limits the DACs you can choose from. If you must have USB, you can always get a USB to spdif converter - and still get any DAC you want (I strongly suggest going the firewire route as it is a most noticable improvement). If you can go $5k, see if you can bump it up a bit and give the Esoteric D-05 a listen (+ a few hundred bucks for a usb/spdif converter).
Thanks for the input.
Could you please enlighten me on the firewire route option? I am not aware of any dac with firewire input. Or are you talking about firewire to spdif convertor?
The esoteric gears look impressive, but I have not heard it before. How would you discrbe the sound? Similar to Ayre's school of sound?
There are a few firewire interfaces available. I went with the M Audio Firewire Solo - $200 and awesome for me. It takes a firewire cable from my PC and has an spdif output (into a monarchy upsampler into MF X DAC). Firewire much better for passing audio as it does so in a stream, as oposed to USB which uses packets. USB was never intended to stream audio. It was intended to connect peripherials.
I had extensively auditioned the Ayre with the Esoteric X-03 SE and I felt the Esoteric has better retrieval of low level detail, more air around the instruments and a wider-deeper soundstage. The did both do a great job and didn't sound very different at first, but after about 5 hours of listening, the Esoteric became my preference. I felt the Esoteric brought me into the music as opposed to the Ayer, which brought the presnetation of the music to me. The D-05 had a tad wider and deeper soundstage than the X-03 SE (the dac was hooked up to an X03 SE as a transport). On the Stereophile recording, The Mooch, the Esoteric reproduced the music and the venue itself. I had never experienced this before on a CD. With Chesky's Rebecca Pidgeon, Spanish Harlem, the D 05 was slightly more holographic than the X-03 SE -
I would settle for an X-03 only Dac if there was one (I don't believe there is) which is why I am considering the D05 for my squeezebox (replacing the Benchmark).
there are 2 dacs you should definitely check out that are in your price range. Both the Berkeley Audio Alpha Dac and the Weiss Engineering Minerva are getting rave reviews and are approx 5 grand each. the guys who designed the Berkeley were responsible for the Pacific Microsonics Model 2 - one of the greatest dacs ever. Robert Harley has stated on the Forum of avguide.com that the Berkeley is the best front-end he's ever heard in his system.
the minerva just got a great review in soundstage.com. also, it does fire-wire which supposedly takes it's performance to another level.
Could you please describe the sound characteristic of the Berkeley Dac, since you have been playing with one? I could not find any review online as it is a new product. Have you heard an Ayre, a comparison will be awesome here?
The Weiss look really interesting, I am going to look into it.
Thanks. Your description of the esoteric is very helpful. I need to look up the price for D05 to make sure i can afford it:-)