Note: Due to receiving many questions, the Sony BP-2EX battery might be available at this link.
As a world traveler, sitting within the "tuna can" for over six hours can be a mind numbing experience. Other than the lousy airline food and ever-declining quality of onboard service, bringing your own entertainment during a trip is a must. Also, those who are allowed to enjoy music at work will find this review enlightening. Portable systems must be just that, completely portable and therefore mandate the use of headphones. So what is an audiophile to do with all the junk at mass market stores?
Any audiophile worth their salt would never choose mp3 or other lossy compression scheme devices. "The iPod" shouts the Apple Dumpling Gang from the back of the room. No thank you. While it is indeed a great mass-market product, its music reproduction abilities are far behind what is truly possible. As for portable DVD units, tried a few and feel they were just ok with higher resolution digital discs, yet most audiophiles have only one real choice. We are stuck with the decades old compact disc (CD) and finding a good set of headphones. As for myself, decided to make this a completely no-holds-barred affair. Have been seeking the very best there is within the world and this meant everything and anything was fair game. If you can beg, borrow or mysteriously acquire it, then it was "all good to me". My goal is to enjoy the music and find a way to make a portable system that audiophiles would gladly approve.
Back To The Future!
Many of you old timers will remember the Sony D-5. This unit comes from my personal stash of historic goodies. This, my friends, is the original world's first portable CD player with a date code of December 1985. Eventually i graduated to the Toshiba pyramid-like unit with wireless remote and Sony D-88 (words smallest CD player), yet the D-5 won its way into my heart as a way to feed into my then drum set's mix board for monitoring/concert breaks/jam sessions and portable music enjoyment. The D-5 employs no oversampling and probably one of the industries ugliest Brick Wall filters man ever conceived.
Basically, a Brick Wall filter ensures the digital to analog decoder's intermodulation noise does not reach the analog output stage. This filter also can add various distortions like phase shifting. Basically it is used to block the DAC's noise from interfering with the analog signal. Due to having a low 44.1kHz sampling rate chip, a very steep filter was needed. It is a apparently necessary evil akin to death, taxes, and the British class system. This is partially why consumers quickly saw 2-, 4-, and 8-times oversampling systems as a less aggressive filter could be employed. Then came various hybrids (8-bit DAC for upper, 1-bit filter for last/lower 8 bits) and eventually 1-bit systems arrived on the scene.
Getting back to the D-5, is it about as basic as they come. It offers the usual play, stop, forward, back, etc. No Super Bass, no skip protection, no hard drive, no mp3 decoding... You get a CD player that works... even 18 years later. These were not disposal units mind you like the $39 Super Save Mart specials of today. i paid somewhere around $400 for this unit. The case is mainly plastic and the overall feel of the unit is solid.
Next up is the Sony D-25 that was a few generations after the D-5. With a date code of August 1989, this was truly one sexy portable CD player. The all-metal case has some lovely curves and lines while the entire unit is about as solid as they ever made portable CD units. The unit is very slim and small, being about two CD jewel cases stacked atop each other. A nearly 9-Volt sized BP-2EX rechargeable battery (replacements may be available for sale here) fits within the unit to provide approximately three hours of musical bliss. The Sony D-25 also enjoyed the technological progress of 4-times oversampling, yet still no bass boost or other more modern features. The 4-times oversampling meant a less evil Brick Filter could be employed within this design. Still, the D-25 is your very basic portable CD player. Sony decided to place most of the controls on the upper right of the D-25 while small front buttons allowed for the usual time/index/memory/etc. features. Like the D-5, volume control was via a small potentiometer and not electronically controlled like many units on the market today. Purchased this unit recently from an EBay auction on a spur of the moment. Never intended to buy this, yet while shopping for the Sony D-555 i realized i have a soft spot in my heart for gear marked "retro", "classic", and "old school". $50 later and the EBay auction was won by Yours Truly.
It's Good To Be King
Besides having a good (at the time) 16-bit, 8-times oversampling, it also was one of the first units to offer dual digital to analog converters (one per channel) within a portable CD player. While my years older Toshiba unit had a digital output, this very rare feature was also on the Sony D-555. Please keep in mind we are talking optical TOSlink, yet a portable with digital output was a "high-end" premium feature back in 1990. It makes sense my old Toshiba had optical digital output as TOSlink stands for Toshiba Link.
The D-555 also heralded the use of Digital Signal Processing (DSP) in a portable unit. While a big yawner here in 2003, in 1990 DSP was like the Almightily herself came down from heaven to grace the digital realm. While you could only enjoy one DSP effect at a time, you were offered an impressive five bands of digital equalization (63Hz, 250Hz, 1kHz, 4kHz, and 10kHz), or Surround, or Bass Boost, or not-so-glorious DSS (Digital Dynamic Sound). DSS is basically a dynamic compressor so that overall dynamics are more even. This helps boost very quiet passages and makes them louder and, hence, more audible in noisy environments. The point here is that the D-555 had features only dreamed about in 1990 as we must remember that CD appeared to the masses in 1983. Only 7 years later we have 8-times oversampling and DSP within a portable player!
More good news is that the D-555 is almost entirely metal encased except for the top and front displays. You can see above the effect MODE button, EQ adjustment button, EFFECT - +,and electronic volume control. That's right, no potentiometer to get in the way of the music! She is 100% digital, all the time with the D-555! The usual back, forward, stop and play buttons plus OPEN appear on the lid. The front of the unit had various buttons to check remaining time and change play modes. Many of us used the programmability of CD players back then to check remaining time as we would make cassettes of our favorite CDs. Automotive CD players being priced in the stratosphere so cassette was still King! Add to that the early generation car CD players would skip quite often during speed bumps and the like. My first D-555 was used and abused through various road trip gigs and DJ work. She paid her dues over and over again and is now nearly dead. Bought another unit on EBay a while back and she seems virtually band new. Due to it being a cult classic, the D-25 was bought for only $50 while the D-555 cost me around $250. Yes, $250 for a nearly 13 year old portable CD player! The D-555 was no cheap unit at the time when it was brand new, retailing at around $400 or so as i recall.
New Kid In Town
The Panasonic SL-CT470 has all the usual features. Bass boost, anti-skip, preset EQ curves... While it will not play MP3 files, it has all the usual features that make up the average unit of 2003. Unlike the Sony D-25 and D-555, the D-5 and Panasonic SL-CT470 are purely plastic encased. Not much to report here really, just the usual dreck thrust upon the unsuspecting public.
At the top left we have the Sony D-5. The upper frequencies sound hard, with cymbals and high-hat apparently rendered like a chain saw cutting through a pine tree. Bass is barely acceptable and muddy with a midrange makes you want to run away as fast as possible. It is that bad. Odds are the Brick Filter and early digital technologies are showing their age to the more modern and refined units. Still, the D-5 is the world's first portable CD player so i keep it here as a museum piece. i'll skip the D-25 and D-555 for now and move on to the virtually new Panasonic SL-CT470.
The SL-CT470 is not a bad unit per se, it just does nothing well. Bass is lackluster and bass boost just makes things muddy. The midrange is ok, if you like your music to sound sterile. As for the uppermost frequencies, it is a bit hard like an anvil banging on a steel plate. Not chain saw bad like the D-5, more like anvil banging bad. Probably great for those who enjoy house, trance, and other synthetic music, yet for audiophile recording of acoustic music you are better off using this unit as a paperweight. Maybe those consumers who enjoy lossey compression MP3 find the Panasonic a great unit, but those of us with audiophile ears know better. Ok, it is not that bad (close to it perhaps), yet when you listen to virtually any decent home CD player with headphones... you get the drift. Nearly the same comments could be said for many other modern portable equivalents. Sorry and all, not a great one in new CD player bunch and it matters not if you are using batteries or the included power supply. So this leaves us with two nearly decade-old units.
When Is A Legend Over Rated?
The Emperor Doesn't Need Cloths!
Getting back to the Sony D-25, this unit is so far ahead of anything else out there that it, in fact, challenges some of the better audiophile home CD players of today! Now i realize this is a very strong statement, and one that is not made lightly as my loyal readership knows that i rarely make such sweeping statements. In fact i would award this CD player the best damn thing since sliced bread, yet it is made of virtual Unobtanium and if you can find a working, good condition D-25 it will be a rare day indeed. So why on her Almighty's green Earth would i go out of my way to recommend this unit?
Because my friends, until you have one in your possession all other portable CD players (including the legendary D-555) will only be a shadow of what is truly possible. You are simply fooling yourself thinking the Panasonic or iPod are the best thing since sliced bread. Heck, other units are akin to a Ford Pinto in comparison! Now a Pinto may be a good car and all, yet a Ferrari it aint! So what does the D-25 sound like? Stop the teasing and start the pleasing!
I -- Smiling Next To You
Disc after disc i sat there in awe. Not just through headphones, but also within my reference system. In fact it is within my reference system where the soundscape depth and amazing 3D ability shines as headphones leave a bit to be desired in this department. The D-25's inner resolution is amazing using my new reference headphones (see below to learn more). After a few days it finally hit me what might make the D-25 so good.
Look at the close-up of the D-25's lid. Digital tweakers and those in the know will quickly realize the 4-times oversampling text. It is no secret that many audiophiles out there swear by this system over virtually anything before or after it. Not the hybrid 8-bit/1-bit systems, not the 1-bit systems, not the mega-resampling... just a basic 4 times oversampling system. We must also understand that there is very little going on within the D-25. No mega-bass, no DSP, no EQ, no anti-skip... not even digital volume control! Here is a purpose-made unit with potentiometer-based volume control all wrapped in a metal case. The case should not simply be dismissed as audio inventor/guru Ken Ishiwata of Marantz and i were discussing the Sony D-25 and how he feels the case of a unit (like his tweaked out Marantz units) plays an equally important role in the ultimate music reproduction abilities.
i could go on and on with how amazingly the Sony D-25 is at reproducing music on compact disc. It truly redefines what is possible, and sadly, nearly impossible to find on the open market. Seek and ye shall find. Sometimes the fun is in the hunt, though when you finally find one the fun is in the listening! Listen and believe!
Best Portable 'Phones
My exposure to in-ear monitoring is a long and torrid affair. It started nearly two decades ago with various Sony "fontopid" earbuds. These were small round units that were simply small encapsulated drivers. One driver per channel/ear with amazingly thin and delicate wires attached. Headband need not apply. You placed the unit horizontally within your ear and a sponge-like cushion around the small driver assisted in holding the unit in place. As some consumers did not like placing things within their ear, Sony also offered vertical units that had a more normal headband (see yellow headphones below). The photos below, by the way, show Sony's newest offerings.
The in-ear fontopid (as seen left) was an amazing accomplishment of its time. Sony had many different versions and qualities thereof over the years. It was not until Panasonic came along and eventually offered a dual-driver unit. This was sometime around 1990. It was a large affair with a separate tweeter and bass driver "fontopid" with a black and gold colored motif. The unit was quite large as the bass driver was squarely outside your ear. The unit also had porting to further increase the sound quality (as we find ported loudspeakers of today, yet on a very miniature scale of course). Back in the day i was a fanatic collector of such devices and the Panasonic was far and above the sound quality Sony offered at the time. In fact i would still have the Panasonic dual-driver units, yet they were stolen when my then car was towed.
As we fast forward to today, the quality of in-ear monitoring has vastly improved. Various devices from both consumer and professional audio companies abound. Most audiophiles are familiar with the Etymotic ER-4S (as reviewed here by Todd Warnke) and Etymotic ER-4P (as reviewed by Chris Boylan) as they have been touted by many as a great alternative to other types of headphones. Always on the lookout for the best of the best, it was with great joy that the new Shure E5c came along.
Unlike small "bud" units, the Shure E5c is a larger affair and to my knowledge is the only new, two-driver unit on the market today (like the Panasonic was during it's time). A small tweeter and slightly larger bass driver are all encapsulated within a single housing. To save some time and questions, here are some excerpts from Shure's website:
So basically you can now understand the advantages of in-ear monitoring. Less fatigue, more direct sound, and a lowering of external noise. One advantage not yet discussed is that you can have custom ear pieces made for the Shure E5c. These custom molds are made from your actual ears to insure a perfect fit. This would also mean better sound and increased comfort. While i am only reviewing the standard plugs, those with a few extra dollars can seek out custom moldings from companies such as Sensaphonics (312-432-1714, www.sensaphonics.com). According to them "Because of our high quality standards, Sensaphonics has been chosen by Shure Incorporated to be the designer and manufacturer of custom, silicone ear molds that fit over your universal e1 or e5 earphones. An audiologist in your area will take ear impressions, send them to us and we will customize your E1 or E5c with an add-on silicone sleeve." As a side note, the E5 and E5c are sold in different places and the E5c includes an attenuator for portable devices, whereas the E5 does not. And with that out of the way, let us get to the listening.
Hearing Is Believing
Experience has taught me well as i did indeed have the right sized plastic ear fit piece. Hmm... Perhaps they need time to break in? Easy enough as i placed the CD by Prodigy titled Fat Of The Land in my Sony D-25 on endless repeat. This CD is great at thoroughly breaking in units as you have plenty of fast-paced rhythms, deep bass, and highs. After a few days i decided to give the Shure E5c monitors another listen.
It was as though an exorcism had been made! Be gone you Satanic sounds! Gone were the aggressive highs and lack of dynamics as my ears were treated to a wonderfully balanced frequency response with an abundance of micro dynamics. After quite some time with the Sony D-25, the E5c also saw time with my Roland V-Session "state-of-the-art" electronic drum set. If you feel your system is good, or any system for that matter, try using it as amplification/monitoring of electronic drums. This is a brutal test for virtual any system as the demands are extremely high in speed, dynamics, and headroom.
If you desire transient speed, it is virtually impossible to beat an in-ear monitor. If you want to hear nearly every single detail in a recording/sound, in-ear is quite probably the best way to go. Even the Sennheiser HD600 may to be lacking as compared to in-ear monitoring. As for outside noise isolation... in-ear monitoring my friends. This is also why a vast amount of professional musicians reply on this type of sound monitoring. An added benefit is that it virtually eliminates stage monitors blasting out sound at high volume levels, and the hearing damage occurred through employing such devices. Anyway, back to what truly matters... the music!
The uppermost frequencies are very smooth when the upstream equipment dictates. The midrange is very precise as the e5 easily unravels layers upon layers of sound. My point here is that the e5 are neither forgiving (like the HD600) nor lacking in revealing every detail. Garbage in = garbage out. The lower frequencies may take some music lovers a bit of time to understand, as it is not like normal dynamic driver headphones or loudspeakers. Yes, the bass is very fast, tight and deep. Must also point out that simply using difference Fit pieces can alter the way the uppermost and lowermost frequencies sound. Fortunately the e5 comes with three pairs of different Fit piece sizes and also foam inserts. Since each ear is different and swapping out the Fit piece is fast and easy, try the medium size first and go from there. As i have smallish ear canals, the small worked best for me.
Am basically going to avoid the whole discussion of binaural recordings and the like, as those are covered in our partnered publication's sister website www.binaural.com by all around great guy John Sunier. Yes, binaural recordings with the Shure E5c are wonderful and free audio samples are available by clicking here.
An added benefit of the Slappa cases, including their smaller offering (32 HardBody), is that the Sony D25 easily fits inside. This makes my traveling life easy as the CDs and Sony D-25 are secure within the Slappa 32 HardBody as the Shure e5 include their own case. Slappa makes other cases that hold from the aforementioned 32 to a nice library of 192 discs. Having a few examples/sizes here, i can attest to their solid construction and smart design.
So there you have it my friends. While the Sony D-25 is a rare bird, your hard work will be greatly paid off in knowing you have what is probably the best portable compact disc player ever made. The Shure E5c in-ear monitors serve not just for portable duties, but also within your home system while the Slappa disc case will store your traveling collection. Of course in the end what really matters is that you...