I've never written a review like the one you're about to read, but I've also never had an opportunity like this. Ayre Acoustics offered me a chance to spend as much time as I needed with its new QB-9 Twenty digital to analog converter and the previous generation QB-9 DSD. Ayre kindly sent both units to me and said, "Let us know if you have questions." At first blush, one would think the opportunity was a chance to compare these two components in the same system, as if doing a manufacturer sponsored shootout. However, the opportunity presented to me was so much richer than a simple head to head competition style clap trap. This was an opportunity that neither Ayre nor I could've planned.
As I listened to the two versions of the QB-9, I also discovered the music of a legend. This guy recently released two albums, containing the same music, but recorded in two very different settings. As I listened, I couldn't help but notice that the dichotomy between the albums was incredibly similar to the dichotomy between the two Ayre DACs. The more time I spent listening, the more clarity I had about the opportunity in front of me. A traditional comparison of two DACs wasn't going to cut it this time. I decided to use these "identical" albums for the entire review and to discuss how sonic differences between the same tracks so closely aligns with differences heard between the two versions of the QB-9 DACs.
An unintended benefit of this style of review is that readers with access to the music can listen to the differences on any system and get a very good sonic picture of the differences between the QB-9 DSD and QB-9 Twenty.
Shot with Hasselblad 503CW, Zeiss / Hasselblad 50mm CFi lens, Ilford FP4 Plus film.
I know it sounds preposterous but it's completely true. Until recently, I was more apt to listen to The Two Live Crew's Banned in the U.S.A. than I was Springsteen's Born in the U.S.A. That's because Born in the U.S.A. was the only music I knew from Bruce Springsteen and it had been so played out that I was content to never hear it again. I don't know how or why, but I stumbled upon Springsteen's latest album Western Stars and absolutely fell in love with it. Then I found out about the Western Stars documentary and accompanying album, Western Stars - Songs From the Film. I added both to my library in 24/96 resolution, clicked play, turned up the volume, and leaned back in my listening chair. What a time to be alive I thought to myself.
Western Stars is Springsteen's nineteenth album and according to Bruce it's "a return to my solo recordings featuring character-driven songs and sweeping, cinematic orchestral arrangements." It contains a "range of American themes, of highways and desert spaces, of isolation and community and the permanence of home and hope". The album as recorded at Stone Hill Studio, in New Jersey and mastered by Bob Ludwig.
24 bit / 96 kHz from Audiophile Style supporter HDtracks https://audiophile.style/bruce
Western Stars - Songs From the Film is an album containing the same tracks, but played with his band and a full orchestra in a barn at Stone Hill Farm in Colts Neck, NJ. This version of the album was also mastered by Bob Ludwig.
24 bit / 96 kHz from Audiophile Style supporter HDtracks https://audiophile.style/springsteen
The Ayre Acoustics QB-9 DAC has been around for seemingly ever and was one of the first to support asynchronous USB. The internal design has been upgraded over the years, first to the QB-9 DSD and now the QB-9 Twenty. When Ayre sent me both versions of this DAC I asked not to be educated on the physical differences between the two. I also hoped the units would be cosmetically identical, so I could listen without even knowing which version of the DAC was playing. Unfortunately, for me, but nice for customers, the new QB-9 Twenty has a nice gold badge on the right side that understatedly says "Twenty."
Once I had a beat on the sonic differences I setup a call with the Ayre team to get the scoop on what has changed in the new QB-9 Twenty. Given the big and beneficial sonic impact I heard between the units, I was very happy to hear that this $1,500 upgrade is pretty much an entirely new DAC. I would've been so bummed if my ears had played tricks on me and the only difference was the internal screw holding down the power supply or something similar.
Fortunately for audiophiles, Ayre Acoustics isn't that type of company. These guys want their customers to remain customers for the long term and to keep providing meaningful upgrades over the years. Business is a marathon not a sprint for the Ayre team and the company has been this way since its founding by the late Charley Hansen in 1993.
The upgrade from any previous QB-9 to the "Twenty" is a major overhaul. Everything inside the DAC, except the display and power supply, is replaced and the warranty is extended for two years (no matter when or where the unit was purchased). Included in this overhaul are a new diamond output circuit for improved bass response, new JFET differential stage that lowers the noise floor, AyreLock power supply regulation for better rendering of fine musical detail, new AC noise filtering for improved resolution, custom Ayre Asynchronous USB technology further reducing electrical noise in the system (more on this in a bit), new ESS DAC chip for improved signal to noise ratio and spacial detail (more on this in a bit as well), new six layer board design for optimal circuit isolation, proprietary reclocking to eliminate USB domain jitter, PCM play back up to 384 kHz, native DSD capability up to DSD256, and an oldie but goodie HDCD decoding.
I asked the Ayre team about many things, including its HDCD decoding. I wondered how the company was doing this without the Pacific Microsonics chip. As CEO Ryan Berry explained it to me, I couldn't help but draw similarities in my mind between Ayre and Berkeley Audio Design. Sure, both companies support HDCD in their products, but that's just the beginning. The biggest similarity with the companies is the fact that they use FPGAs to do almost everything inside the DAC and use off the shelf chips to handle only the final conversion from digital to analog. In addition, both companies disable nearly all capabilities in the chips of choice, in Ayre's case the ESS 9038. This gives them much greater filtering freedom and enables much better performance than using the ESS chip to its max.
The QB-9 Twenty is also the first Ayre DAC without Gordon Rankin's StreamLength asynchronous USB code for the XMOS USB receiver chip. The Twenty contains the XMOS 2 platform with some minor custom tweaks that make a big difference according to Ayre. This move to a different USB platform also enables Ayre to have more control over items such as Windows driver updates. This is a big deal because many HiFi manufacturers have let their USB drivers rot over the years without necessary upgrades required by new operating system versions. Sure it's possible to use compatibility mode to install old drivers, but in my opinion, a HiFi product that commands a premium price should also come with software that just works. Fortunately the team at Ayre agrees.
During this review I used the QB-9 DACs in many configurations, but settled on the best sounding configuration of the DACs both fed with optical Rendus from Sonore, then the DACs going into my Constellation Audio Inspiration Preamp and on to the direct input of the Constellation Inspiration power amplifiers and Wilson Audio Alexia Series 2 loudspeakers.
The Listening and Comparisons
Western Stars (studio album) = QB-9 DSD
Western Stars - Songs From the Film = QB-9 Twenty
Let's dig into the main course, the reason why readers are here, the sound of the QB-9 Twenty as heard using Bruce Springsteen's new albums Western Stars and Western Stars - Songs From the Film. You likely noticed above that I equated the QB-9 DSD to the Western Stars studio album and the QB-9 Twenty to the album recorded live in a barn. This is the foundation for everything that follows in the review. Stick with me and you'll see how these two albums track amazingly close to the two QB-9 DACs.
The title track Western Stars from the studio album sounds really good as Springsteen weaves a story with his iconic voice. As the song continues, Marc Muller's lap steel guitar is unmistakable, adding flair to the sonic story. This guitar sounds typical of a modern recording in that there isn't much air around it and there's really no environment to be heard. The same can be said of the backing orchestra that really brings the track to another level. The orchestra elevates it from an old school Springsteen story told in song to a real piece of music. If this was the only version of the track, all would be just fine inthe world and it would be a great song that sounds great. However, there's more to the story.
The same track on the Songs From the Film album absolutely blows the studio album away in every sense. Springsteen's 70 year old vocal chords show signs of wear and tear, as if The Boss is actually a human being. It's this human aspect full of feelings and "mistakes," from the very beginning of the track, that makes this version of the title track absolutely incredible. Bruce's vocal, Muller's steel guitar, Maureen McDermott's cello, etc... all have a sense of space around them that brings the song and the story to life. When the full orchestra kicks in the roof of the barn is metaphorically lifted as the listener is transported to the old west where Springsteen proclaims to have been "shot by John Wayne." I can't stress enough how much the imperfections and musicians playing in a single space matters to the emotional impact of this track.
What DAC was I listening through for this analysis and what does it matter how different these tracks sound? That's the crux of this review and I'll do my best to tell the story as clearly as possible. Think about it this way, the above description was written while listening through the QB-9 Twenty. If that was the end of the story, it would tell us that the Twenty is capable of great sound, but it would actually tell us more about the recording than the DAC and how it compares to the previous generation.
The raison d'être of this review is to show readers that the differences in these two recordings are actually the same as the difference heard between the two DACs. On its own the QB-9 DSD is a great DAC, capable of bringing much enjoyment to listeners around the globe. The popular expression, you don't know what you don't know, comes to mind here. The same can be said for the Western Stars studio recording. It's great. That is until one hears the "Barn" version of the album or one hears the QB-9 Twenty. The "Twenty" is analogous to the spacious, imperfect, human, realistic recording while the QB-9 DSD is analogous to the studio album that certainly sounds good as long as the listener hasn't spent time with the better version.
Let's move to another track, titled Drive Fast (The Stuntman). The song is the same in more ways than one, but I will try to describe what I hear, and why this album is analogous to the QB-9 series, in different ways. I want to make sure I don't end up confusing people more than helping. For this track it may help to queue it up and listen while you read along. Start with the Songs From the Film version and notice how human Bruce sounds, even from the opening 1, 2, 1, 2, 3, 4 count and first verse. There is space and imperfections and a real human being breathing. The subtle orchestra backing him up offers sonic support that's delightful and capable of giving the listen that warm fuzzy feeling. This is the essence of the QB-9 Twenty as compared to the QB-9 DSD. On the same track from the same album, this is what the "Twenty" does compared to the "DSD."
Now switch to the studio version of Drive Fast (The Stuntman). The sound is "perfect" if not corrected, all the instruments can be heard perfectly in their own recording booth, and Springsteen's vocal is technically better than the "Barn" version. But, and this is a huge but, the song is unemotional and robotic compared to the other version. If we only had this single studio version, I'd love the song and listen to it willingly. The same can be said for the QB-9 DSD. If I didn't have the Twenty in my system, I'd be happy with the DSD. However, this is the real world and we have both the "Barn" recording and the QB-9 Twenty. Both are better versions than what came before, and by a very long shot.
Listening to both versions of this song will provide listeners with a great sense of how different the QB-9 DSD and QB-9 Twenty are and what this upgrade should provide in one's audio system. If I used only the "Barn" version of this track and played it through both DACs, the results would be the same. No, the QB-9 DSD wouldn't remove the space and emotion from the recording to sound more studio-like. But, the sonic differences between it and the QB--9 Twenty are as big as the difference between the recordings and, the essence of these differences are exactly what can be heard (space, imperfection, reality) and felt (emotion evoked). In other words, if one wants to heard the difference between the QB-9 DSD and the QB-9 Twenty, without having the components on hand, just listen to these two albums. The differences are exactly what one will hear if they listen to only one of the albums, but they have both versions of the QB-9 on hand.
Note: I listened to tons of albums, tons of genres of music for many hours through these DACs. The differences described above hold true for everything I heard over the several weeks I used the QB-9 DSD and QB-9 Twenty.
The Ayre Acoustics QB-9 Twenty may be considered a remastering of the QB-9 DSD or an upgrade of this venerable DAC, but in my experience the "Twenty" is much closer to a remix. A remaster can only take what's there are bring out the best. A remix can completely change the album into something unheard heretofore. The QB-9 Twenty upgrade is a complete overhaul of the QB-9 series, and would certainly enter the market as a different model if it were released by any company other than Ayre. Ayre's ethos of supporting and upgrading existing products "forever" is a huge benefit to its customers worldwide.
The QB-9 Twenty really surprised me by how great it sounds in my system. I say surprised because I've been listening to reference level DACs for quite a while from the likes of dCS (Rossini), EMM Labs (DV2), and Berkeley Audio Design (RS3), and the QB-9 Twenty absolutely held its own against these guys and delivered a level of performance that it had no right to deliver.
To recap my experience with the QB-9 DACs vis-à-vis Springsteen's Western Stars albums, the QB-9 DSD is like the studio version of the album. Less realistic, perfectionist, yet wonderful, until one hears the "Barn" version then there's no going back. The QB-9 Twenty is the equivalent of the live recording, with all the imperfections exposed, emotion evoked, sense of space and environment ever-present, and the ability to transport the listener into another place and time. This is one $1,500 upgrade that mustn't be missed for current QB-9 owners. I unequivocally recommend the Ayre QB-9 Twenty and happily add it to the Audiophile Style CASH List.
All images shot with Hasselblad 503CW, Zeiss / Hasselblad 50mm CFi lens, Ilford FP4 Plus or Kodak Ektar 100 film.
Community Star Ratings and Reviews
I encourage those who have experience with the QB-9 Twenty to leave a star rating and quick review on our new Polestar platform.
- Ayre Acoustics QB-9 Twenty ($1,500 upgrade)
- Ayre Acoustics QB-9 Twenty Product Page
- Ayre Acoustics QB-9 User Manual (163 kb PDF)
Where To Buy
Full Dealer list - https://www.ayre.com/dealers-page/
Other Ayre Acoustics Product Options
- Ayre Acoustics QX-8 Digital Hub ($4,450+)
- Ayre Acoustics Codex DAC / Headphone Amp ($1,795)
- Ayre Acoustics QX-5 Twenty DAC ($8,950)
- Source: QNAP TVS-872XT Roon Core, Aurender W20SE, LattePanda Alpha 864s, MinimServer 2
- DAC: dCS Rossini, EMM Labs DV2, Berkeley Audio Design Alpha DAC RS3, Schiit Audio Yggdrasil, Auralic Altair G1
- D-to-D Converter: Sonore Signature Rendu SE (optical), APL HiFi DNP-SR, EMM Labs NS1 Streamer, Berkeley Audio Design Alpha USB
- Amplifiers: Constellation Audio Mono 1.0 / Monoblock Power Amplifiers
- Preamplifier: Constellation Audio PreAmp 1.0
- Loudspeakers: Wilson Audio Alexia Series 2
- Digital Signal Processing: Accurate Sound
- Remote Control Software: Roon Remote, JRemote, Aurender Conductor
- Remote Control Hardware: iPad Pro
- Playback Software: Roon, JRiver,
- Network Attached Storage (NAS): QNAP TVS-872XT
- Audio Cables: Transparent Audio Reference Interconnects (XLR & RCA), Transparent Audio Reference 110-Ohm AES/EBU Digital Link, Transparent Audio Reference Speaker Cables, Gotham GAC-4/1 ultraPro Balanced XLR Audio Cable (40')
- USB Cables: Transparent Audio Premium USB Cable
- Power Cables: Transparent Audio Reference Power Cables
- Power Isolation: one 4kVA and one 5 kVA 512 Engineering Symmetrical Power Source
- Ethernet Cables: Transparent Audio High Performance Ethernet Cables
- Acoustic Room Treatments: Vicoustic Diffusion and Absorption, ATS Acoustics Bass Traps
- Network: Ubiquiti UniFi Switch 24, Ubiquiti UniFi Switch 8-150W x2, Ubiquiti UniFi Switch 16 XG, Ubiquiti UniFi Security Gateway Pro 4, Ubiquiti UniFi AP HD x2, Ubiquiti FC-SM-300 Fiber Optic Cable x2, UF-SM-1G-S Fiber Optic Modules x6, Commercial Grade Fiber Optic Patch Cables, Calix 716GE-I Optical Network Terminal, CenturyLink 1 Gbps download / upload
This graph shows the frequency response of my room before (top) and after (bottom) tuning by Mitch Barnett of Accurate Sound. The standard used for this curve is EBU 3276. This tuning can be used with Roon, JRiver, and other apps that accept convolution filters. When evaluating equipment I use my system with and without this tuning engaged. The signal processing takes place in the digital domain before the audio reaches the DAC, thus enabling me to evaluate the components under review without anything changing the signal further downstream.