Ayre DX-7 DVD-V/CD player

From the high hills of Boulder, Colorado, comes a $6000 DVD player that doesn't also play SACD or DVD-Audio discs—or, as is increasingly demanded, both. In fact, there are no analog audio outputs at all, only digital. Still, the Ayre DX-7 offers something that can't be ignored: a beautiful picture that, in some cases, compares with the best I've seen in my system. Welcome to the mile-high high end.

One glance at its rear panel tells you the Ayre DX-7 is no typical DVD player. Instead of the RCA connections typically provided for component-video output, the DX-7 has five multifunction BNC connectors. BNC connections are superior in ease of use and longevity, enduring none of the strain incurred by RCA connectors each time they're inserted or removed. Add to that the fact that they can be easily made in the field and you'll see why BNCs are used extensively in professional and high-end consumer gear.

Eight DIP switches recessed into the DX-7's rear panel control the functions of the BNC connectors, along with a host of other things. One switch enables three BNCs to act as analog component outputs (Y-Pb-Pr) or, alternatively, it turns all five BNCs into an RGB output with horizontal and vertical sync. If your projector requires that the RGB sync signals be sent along the same cable as the green signal, a practice popular with some older CRT front projectors, another switch can grant your wish. Ayre's inclusion of composite (BNC) and S-video (DIN) outputs is clearly perfunctory, considering that the intended audience will no doubt want to use this player with a high-end display. Still, these outputs could serve well for driving secondary displays in multizone systems, in which composite or S-video is more likely to be distributed.

For owners of newer fixed-pixel displays such as front and rear DLP and LCD projectors as well as LCD and plasma flat panels, the real star of the show will be Ayre's DVI output. This output keeps the DVD's video signal entirely in the digital domain, which potentially eliminates any artifacts created from the digital-to-analog round trip required when any of the analog outputs are used to send a signal to a fixed-pixel display. Nor is the Ayre's DVI output encrypted, which makes it compatible with older DVI-equipped displays that don't support the HDCP encryption standard.

The DX-7's DVI port can be configured to output in either digital RGB or component color mode (Y-Cb-Cr). Like most DVI-equipped display devices known to us, my 50-inch Fujitsu P50XHA30WS plasma was expecting color information encoded in the RGB mode, and so produced only violent shades of red and blue when fed the digital component information.

Digital component color information is not supported by the DVI standard, but is allowed by the newer HDMI specifications. The DX-7 has a DVI output, but can feed component digital into an HDMI-capable display through a DVI-to-HDMI adapter cable. It's unlikely you'll need this component digital option, but it's available if you do. According to Ayre, more flexible color adjustments might be possible via a digital component link. Ultimately, of course, all display technologies use RGB to produce their images, so the signal must eventually be converted to that form.

The RGB DVI format allows 256 possible signal levels (0–255). In the computer graphics world, this full range is used. But video graphics do not require headroom. Video does. So DVD playback uses a range of 16–235. This "restriction" allows headroom for signal excursions slightly below black (which is set at a level of 16, corresponding to 0 IRE) or above white (a level of 235, or 100 IRE). The DX-7 lets you select either range for the DVI output, though for all normal video applications you should select 16–235.

One final adjustment lets you select the black-level setup point as either 0 or 7.5 IRE. My video processor has routinely refused to pass the 0 IRE from players that offer both, meaning I can view the "below black" bar on a video PLUGE pattern only when the 7.5 setting is used. As originally provided, and as documented in the manual, the DX-7's black-setup switch affects only composite and S-video outputs; the component output is fixed at 0 IRE. However, Ayre has an upgraded firmware chip (which I installed) that adds this option to the component output.

As with the BNC connections, Ayre has taken the road less traveled for their digital audio connections. The DX-7 offers neither optical (TosLink) nor coaxial (RCA) digital audio connections, substituting a pair of XLR AES/EBU connections in their stead. Usually, the reciprocating AES/EBU digital input is found only on high-end pre-pros such as Theta Digital's Casablanca—and even then, it's an option. Ayre can provide a simple adapter that lets you run a standard coaxial digital cable to your pre-pro. Of the two XLR outputs, one is a dedicated 2-channel PCM output that you might wish to run to a favorite DAC, while the other passes PCM, Dolby Digital, and—when configured from the setup menu—DTS signals to your surround processor.

The Ayre's front panel is machined from a thick block of brushed aluminum and contributes substantially to the unit's 15 pounds. The top and sides are of heavy-gauge steel dressed to match the brushed aluminum. Recessed into the front panel are the disc drawer and deep-blue display. The backlit remote is easy to use, providing the only way into the player's setup menu. Only one scan speed is available, but it's fast enough. After five seconds, the scan mode locks in until you press Play, a feature I found useful.

Anyone familiar with Pioneer's operating software for DVD players will recognize their handiwork here. Ayre swaps out 90% of the stock Pioneer player's innards, as I confirmed when I opened the box to update the firmware. Ayre claims to scrap nearly everything except the transport and the MPEG processing. Oddly enough (or not), Ayre forgoes the latest in picture-enhancement technology, taking a more minimalist approach that befits their audiophile origins. Many of the video fine-tuning features found in recent and not-so-recent offerings from Pioneer, such as gamma, chroma, detail, contrast, sharpness, and hue, are completely absent from the Ayre.

The DX-7's user manual is more than 80 pages long and, contrary to usual practice—in which 80 pages = 4 pages x 20 languages—the whole bloody thing is in English! Full of much useful information beyond simple operating instructions, the manual ventures into discussions of aspect ratios and the history of DVD, and offers a short glossary of terms that's worth publishing on its own.

I was able to try the Ayre DX-7 in a variety of ways. My first instinct was to simply run the component-video outputs into the Dwin TranScanner video processor feeding my Dwin HDP-500 projector. Because the TranScanner doesn't accept progressive signals, I had to stick with the player's interlaced mode and let the TranScanner do both the deinterlacing and scaling (to 600p). I immediately ran into trouble, however, trying to set black level—I couldn't display the below-black bar of the PLUGE pattern on Digital Video Essentials.