Sony held off for quite a while before bring out its first progressive scan DVD player, and has uniquely combined it with a more reasonably-priced SACD audio player to attract a much larger cross-section of consumers. The early adopters have already been enjoying for some time the two earlier SACD players priced at $5000 and $3500 respectively. (Sony introduced at the same time an even more reasonably priced SACD changer! - but without DVD capability.) The third-generation 9000ES is also the first Sony DVD player to carry the high end ES label and is the most expensive DVD player in the line at present due to the progressive scan feature.
The first step in auditioning/viewing the 9000ES is obviously hooking it up, so let's go over the connectivity parameters to start with. Being progressive scan of course there are the three RCA jacks, labeled yellow/Pblue/Pred for the component video connection directly to your hopefully 16:9 monitor. Don't try to run this through your AV preamp or receiver, and get a good quality dedicated cable for this connection - I used Monster Cable's. Next are a pair of S-video output jacks (if you lack component inputs on your set, and for a second connection to your receiver), a pair of composite video outs, a pair of analog stereo audio outs, a coax digital audio out, and an optical digital audio out. On the rear of the player is a clearly-marked small switch which manually changes the unit from interlaced video to progressive scan. It has a third setting of "menu" which allows you to change the settings with the remote on the screen if the player is in a cabinet where reaching the back of it is difficult.
The appearance of the 9000ES is impressive, with a very narrow disc drawer that slides in and out silently and retreats to be nearly flush with the front of the cabinet. At top center of the case front is a bright blue diamond-like LED which makes a unique design statement. The construction of this unit is almost as heavy as the two previous SACD players, but the total weight is less. (The Sony 777ES was over 50 lbs.- necessitating a dolly to move it to other listening rooms during our evaluation a year ago - See March 2000 issue.) the small squarish illuminated buttons on the front of the player are a bit difficult to engage until you get the hang of it. The remote control is well laid out and even has a very bright light on the main motion buttons.
Since this publication focuses more heavily on the audio than the video, and I have been waiting quite a few months to have a SACD replacement for the 777ES in order to continue reviewing SACD discs, I'll start my auditioning report with the SACD playback, which was for me clearly the most important feature of this unit. And before I get to that, it's vital to discuss break in. Even if you think the idea of breaking in any piece of audio is completely nutso, put your skepticism in the closet and run a good sampler SACD disc in this player at least 400 hours before making any judgments about its fidelity. Then turn around and do the same with a sampler CD disc for at least 200 hours - I did over 300. Some reviews of the 9000ES out there complain of a "dry" quality, and one even found his very basic Adcom one-box CD player to sound superior to the 9000ES on standard CDs. Posh! The players obviously were not broken in. That's why I delayed reviewing the unit until this month to insure a fair appraisal of it, since it arrive the middle of January.
Be sure to read our reviews of 28 different SACD discs between this month and last month's issues. But here I'm going to give the overall impression of SACD listening vs. 44.1 CD. First, let me describe my CD front end, which puts together a series of reasonably-priced components to result in playback quality that to my ears gives the Wadia/Krell/Theta/Linn crowd a run for their money. I start with an Arcam MCD player used as a transport, sitting on Black Diamond cones on a very heavy MSB IsoPlate platform with a Bright Star sand-filled foot on top. The digital out goes first to a pair of the Monarchy SuperDrive jitter units in tandem and then into the MSB Link DAC III with the Nelson upgrade and 96K upsampling, also on an isolation base from Tekna Sonics. Lastly, the analog output goes into the Taddeo Digital Antidote II reviewed here last month and then via a short Nordost flatline interconnect to my preamp Input 1. By the way, removing either the two SuperDrives or the Antidote from the chain reduces the sonic result from superb to awful in comparison with the SACD. So I'm not pitting the 9000ES against a generic CD player to emphasize the differences.
The 9000ES analog output (no digital out on SACD for copyright reasons) goes via a Monster Cable 6-foot interconnect to Input 2 of my preamp. While one can always compare the CD layer on a hybrid SACD with the SACD layer, it takes the player some time to switch. With a totally separate CD player matching versions of the same recordings can be compared - SACD with CD or CD with CD. I also did considerable A/B-ing of SACDs with audiophile LP versions of the same material.
Often the results were very close at first hearing. After a bit the generally increased resolution and detail of the SACD comes to the forefront of one's ear/brain computer. I would say the overall major contribution of most SACDs is in the area of "air," venue ambience and acoustic space. If the source is a studio recording with little or none of those qualities on the original, then what comes forward is a greatly increased sense of resolving the most subtle portions of the sonic image.
Offering an A/B comparison in a noisy home electronics showroom is probably going to send most people away disappointed. The advantages of SACD over 44.1 digital are in nuances and details that the ordinary Joe may not even hear, or if he does won't concern himself about as would a true audiophile. The great unwashed masses are going to want something more spectacular - remember the trains roaring from one speaker to the other back in the days when stereo was introduction to the public? It will take the next step with SACD - multichannel reproduction - to excite the non-audiophiles. It has the capability of much higher resolution than Dolby Digital film surround, DTS film surround or even DVD-Audio 96K limited surround. The 9000ES doesn't cater to multi-channel SACDs - just stereo - and neither will it play CD-Rs or CD-RWs.
By the way, the SACD stage of the 9000ES is a different approach than used in either of the earlier Sony players. It was developed by the DVD group rather than the digital audio section. Word is that the frequency response is more extended in the high end and the signal-to-noise is also better. I notice this player has no 50K cutoff filter as did the 777ES. Neither does it have the choice of different filter settings that were offered on the first two models. I recall reading about the importance of having the 50K cutoff enabled unless you had amps that could handle the extremely high frequencies without being smoked. So is that no longer a consideration due to the new D-A design or is there some sort of protection built-in now? I don't know.
Those us living with SACD reproduction are smiling ear to ear, except when we have to go back to listening to standard CDs. Sometimes you have to live with the improved sonics for a while and then go back to the previous reference to be aware of what is missing. One of the missing things I find is the impression of solo instruments being the real thing up there on the stereo stage. On CDs they usually sound like an instrument on a CD - with SACDs there is a correctness about the subtle variations of tonality that constitute the unique timbre of a particular instrument that brings you much closer to the presence of the real instrument in front of you. The A/B comparisons were not 100% in favor of the SACD, mind one. One was nearly identical to the CD version of the same material, and something went very wrong with the Billy Holiday Sony Music SACD reissue reviewed last month - it was much worse than either the CD or the LP reissue.
I had been quite disappointed with the CD playback of the 777ES unit I reviewed a year ago. Now I know it was because the CD section had not been broken in. Previous reviewers who had had the unit did most of their auditioning in SACD mode and the CD side wasn't ready for serious listening. Now that the 9000ES is as thoroughly broken in for CD as for SACD, I can see (and hear) that this will now become my reference standard CD playback - even without any separate DAC or tweaks. Other than allowing for future A/B comparisons and the fact that the CD transport is also a CD changer, my primary motivation for keeping my present CD playback chain would be the HDCD capabilities of the MSB DAC. I may try the Digital Antidote with the 9000ES, if that's not gilding the lily. Since time to complete this review has become short, I see no need report on the player with either that added tweak or with an outboard DAC for CD playback. Let it be said that using the supplied analog outs this one-box player for CDs outperforms my present CD setup - by however small a margin - in richness, deeper bass extension, and general sonic impact.
DVD Video Performance
Since my Pioneer 510HD RPTV has a built-in type of progressive scan as well as 3:2 cinema pull-down feature, I haven't been rushing to evaluate any of the other progressive scan DVD players. But that feature came as part of the package with this SACD player, so naturally I put it through its paces. Using the component video inputs and feeding a 480p progressive signal to the Pioneer automatically bypasses its internal progressive scan and 3:2 pull-down circuitry, so there was no conflict between the two different approaches to improving video quality. I made comparisons with both the interlaced and progressive settings on the Sony as well as with the built-in progressive feature on the Pioneer using the Pioneer DV-05 DVD player to feed the monitor.
There are many more picture adjustment possibilities with the 9000ES than the DV-05. All are clearly explained in the owner's manual. The Avia video test DVD is included with the player, as well as some demo-quality motion pictures such as X-Men. Time didn't permit setting all the parameters on the 9000ES and I had recently done that on the Pioneer RPTV. I did tweak the Sharpness on the RPTV using the section on that item in the Avia DVD and found I could reduce the sharpness level in more than I had to eliminate the whitish lines that appear whenever sharpness is raised too high. The first thing I noted was greater resolution with the 9000ES over the DV-05. Even on interlaced setting the picture quality was subtly improved overall on the screen vs. The Pioneer DVD player.
Switching to the progressive scan showed a very pronounced improvement over the built-in facility of the Pioneer RPTV. The screen images instantly took on greater depth and clarity. The better the resolution on the DVD the better the enhancement of the 9000ES progressive scan. I used one of the ArtHaus music DVDs, and even on the practically still images of the concert hall exterior and the orchestra onstage before the concert started, there was greater detail and depth with the progressive scan. With the opening battle scene of Gladiator, the details of the fast moving action were much more identifiable than with interlace selected. This is shot as dark and murky images but the progressive scan brought out many details otherwise missed.
DVD Soundtrack Performance
A similar increase in depth and clarity occurred with the soundtrack of this motion picture as well as others. There was as much of an enhancement of sonic details and spatial localization of both the DTS and Dolby Digital tracks as the enhancement that SACD provided over CD in the audio-only area. I can see the 9000ES is going to be traveling back and forth frequently from my audio-only listening room to my living room home theater area since it now has the edge in both the video and audio departments! I also compared playback of DTS music DVDs and CDs using the DV-05 and the 9000ES. Studio Voodoo from DTS comes in both a CD version and a DVD version - the latter with some on-screen images. Due to the lesser amount of data reduction used on the DVD, the sonics were noticeably enhanced on the DVD vs. the CD. But the 9000ES brought out a bit more clarity and spatiality on the 5.1 tracks vs. playback on the Pioneer DVD player.
You may be wondering if there are any cons among all of these pros. Only that the 9000ES doesn't play multi-channel SACDs, nor CD-Rs or CD-RWs. There is no coax digital out from SACD, but then no other player has that and there's no DAC for that as yet either. The built-in Dolby Digital and DTS decoding provided on many recent DVD players is also not part of the 9000ES. Aside from that I can't find anything worth mentioning. I haven't checked any other progressive scan players so I can't agree or disagree with Sony's claim that their process is way ahead of others. I just see the improvement over the built-in one I have in my set. If the progressive scan made little difference it wouldn't make sense to spend $1500 on a DVD player today. And if the CD playback of this unit were not as excellent as I find it, it also wouldn't make sense to spend $1500 on a one-box CD player like this. However, since both are exceptional, plus you have SACD playback at less than half the cost of the previous generation player, the 9000ES almost qualifies in my book as a Best Buy.
- John Sunier