You can't fail to be impressed by the appearance of the Ayon CD-1 CD player, which is exactly what its Swiss designers clearly intended.
But before we get hung up on the aesthetics of the design, let's consider the mechanical and electrical make-up of this distinctive player.
The CD-1 is a top-loader, with a Sony KSS-213Q transport centrally mounted in a well on its heavy-duty aluminium top plate. Discs are clamped onto the mechanism with a magnetic puck and then an acrylic cover is placed like a saucepan lid over the well covering the entire transport assembly.
While the instructions are at pains to note that one should not attempt to play a disc without the magnetic clamp in place - which is a fairly obvious consideration we would hope - they make no mention of the acrylic 'lid'. Indeed, discs will play regardless of whether it's in place, which suggests that some might treat it as a mere cosmetic appendage.
Some companies spend inordinate amounts of money on anti-reflective paint to counter laser scatter in their players' transport accommodations. So, is the lid cosmetic or functional? Only the listening test would tell.
Hazarding a guess, though, as the inside of the transport compartment is rather shiny, we can't imagine it having any dramatic effects.
Inside Ayon's CD player
The only practical problem, if one can call it that, with loading and playing discs on the CD-1 is that the lack of any automation means it's necessary to indulge in a little button pushing to get the player to initialise each disc.
Forget to do this and you'll sit waiting for 'play' to begin, while the display reads 'Open'. The correct procedure, although a little counter-intuitive in involving the Stop button, quickly becomes second nature.
Inside the CD-1's sturdy aluminium casing there's an unnamed DAC, working at 24-bit/192kHz and feeding a valve output stage consisting of pairs of 6H30 EH and 6922 EH valves.
While we always leave solid-state electronics permanently powered up during a review, we tend to power down valved components when they aren't being auditioned.
This means that when the unit is switched on there is a brief pause indicated by 'warm up' showing in the display window. And warm up it does... in the literal sense, eventually giving off the kind of heat that would melt chocolate.
The CD-1 seems to have no problems with extracting detail from a disc and it renders vocal lines, in particular, with impressive precision.
The individual who supplied the transcription of Cornershop's Brimful of Asha would certainly have benefited from using one. Reading what he thought Tjinder Singh was singing and then listening to the track on the Ayon, it's difficult to believe that anyone could manage to make so many mistakes.
For example, the clearly articulated "Ferguson Mono" in the chorus turns into some strange Anglo/Punjabi uttering on the transcription. Perhaps, more importantly, the player clearly delineates the bass, drum kit and percussion elements in the mix and renders the track's outwardly lazy rhythm at a decently brisk pace.
The CD-1's vivid portrayal of instrumental character and colour bolsters the track's life and vibrancy.
It becomes quickly apparent that the Ayon is very good at turning one's living room into an untidy mess: it positively encourages listeners to litter the floor with CDs while they search for a favourite 'test' album. We were fascinated to hear what it would do with the old Crowded House disc Woodenface and tracks such as Weather with You.
As before, it clearly delineates each instrument in the song and portrays it distinctly, with delightful character and musical acuity. By far the most impressive element of its performance is its wonderfully lucid and convincing portrayal of the glorious vocal harmonies, which had the hairs on this listeners' neck standing to attention each time the chorus came around.
All the songs on the album, especially There Goes God and Italian Plastic, demonstrate the CD-1's subtle, but assured handling of bass lines. Forced to choose just one element to enthuse about, though, we'd have to pick the emotionally influential way the CD-1 portrays vocals.
More realistic music
The next album we try is Mary Coughlan's After the Fall, which is guaranteed to test the player's ability to tug at the listener's emotions.
This it does superbly by wringing every ounce of sadness out of the singer's voice and the listener. On tracks such as Sunburn, though, Coughlan's delightfully blackened humour emerges equally as powerfully, as does the rather more light-hearted mien of the backing band. The CD-1 seems to be a first-rate emotional mirror.
All of which leaves us with just the lid-on/lid-off conundrum. While there might not be any night and day or significant musical differences evident between these options we prefer the lid down approach.
Details in the back of mixes and subtle dynamic inflexions seem more clearly defined with the lid in place and some music has a more convincing, easy-going flow with it in situ.
While it is difficult to specify which elements benefit by the lid being in place, our listeners felt that it made some music sound more realistic. And that is as good a reason as any to justify such a preference.
One disc that benefits perhaps more noticeably than others is the 1989 Dick Gaughan album Handful of Earth.
We've used this for many long years as a reliable test of vocal articulation and dexterity: even otherwise accomplished CD players can render Gaughan's singing barely intelligible, especially to the Southern English ear.
The CD-1, however, unpicks the strands of his strongly accented vocal lines magnificently and delivers each syllable with barely credible grace and intelligibility, especially with tunes that demonstrate the gentler side of Gaughan's often abrasive, aggressive vocal nature.
It treats his exquisite acoustic guitar playing with equal and thoroughly appropriate respect and delicacy, which just adds to the emotional impact his songs can evoke in the listener.
A beguiling CD system
Surprisingly, while being almost fiercely detailed, the CD-1 still manages a sweet, typically valve-like delivery that can be rather beguiling; even on material where one would least anticipate it.
For example, if you never expected to see the words sweet and Gaughan's voice in the same sentence, you might find this fascinating and highly individual hybrid CD player well worth a lengthy audition.