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May / June 2004
Superior Audio Equipment Review
Enjoy the Music.com 20/20 Award

Sony SCD-XA9000ES SACD Player
Is this a Krell killer for $1000 less?
Review By Alvin Gold

 

Sony SCD-XA9000ES SACD Player  Just months after reviewing the excellent Krell Standard SACD player, along comes another high grade design, this time from the co-inventor of the format, Sony. The SCD-XA9000ES, a multi-channel player with all the usual trimmings and more besides, is currently the flagship of the range.

In a number of respects, it is a remarkable design. To look at, there is little to distinguish it from the relatively affordable SCD-XA3000ES, except that it is much, much heavier at no less than 16.2kg, which would do justice to a quality, high power integrated amplifier, rather than a disc spinner. The impression is only reinforced by the fact that unlike earlier flagship SACD players from Sony, this one is relatively compact. The Sony SCD-XA3000ES is not just heavy; it is also very dense.

Another, much more remarkable feature of the player is the way it fits into the Sony hierarchy. An important fact about the SCD-XA9000ES is that it is the first such player from Sony to be equipped with a broadband encrypted digital output. This is not a completely new feature of course. For some time Pioneer, Denon and more recently Yamaha have been prominent promoters of exactly this technology, in most cases using a variation of IEE1394 (aka i.Link), which is the interface that Sony subscribes to as well. To avoid confusion, note that although the physical connectors and pinouts are the same, the digital data interface is nothing to do with, and is not compatible with the i.Link interface used, for example, to stream video from camcorders for editing purposes. A key difference is that this interface uses DTCP (Digital Transmission Content Protection), without which extracting digital audio at greater resolution than 16-bit/96kHz would not be allowed. i.Link allows 24-bit/192kHz stereo and 24-bit/96kHz multi-channel audio PCM, or the equivalent in DSD, (Direct Stream Digital is the native file format for SACD). In the case of this player, it is the DSD capabilities that are being exploited.

The really intriguing feature here is not the i.Link interface per se, but the possibilities it opens up when the player is used with an amplifier that doesn't need to convert the DSD digital signal off disc to analogue before the very last moment. And it is this that Sony makes possible with the matching multichannel amplifier, the TA-DA900ES. I was able to use this combination, with the i.Link coupling the two together, and this combination is commented on below. But the focus of this review is the SCD-XA9000ES rather than the amplifier, which for all its excellent qualities remains primarily a home theatre component. I hope and believe that Sony will eventually use the digital technology from the TA-DA9000ES, which is undeniably impressive, for a purist audio design that will do full justice to the SCD-XA9000ES, but that time is not imminent as far as I know.

It is also worth noting that the TA-DA9000ES has some less than obvious limitations in its purist music role because at the time of writing Sony's version of the encrypted i.Link interface can't cope with the PCM data from a DVD-Audio player. The reasons are said to be timetable related. Sony didn't want to delay the introduction of the amplifier while this feature was added, but in discussion with Sony I received a less than full hearted promise that it would be added to the feature tally later. I was merely told that Sony would monitor the situation and in effect take a view.

Working with i.Link has some real benefits. First a single thin cable replaces six much thicker analogue cables, reducing the spaghetti around the back. Second, the link is not just a dumb piece of wire. It operates as a bidirectional control link, informing the amplifier for example of the identity of the source, which is shown in the amplifier's display. The mere fact that it transfers the data without prior or post conversion to or from analogue makes it much more transparent of course, but the link also has another more active role in the way that it promotes sound quality, which concerns jitter reduction. The technology rejoices under the rather labored acronym HATS, which stands for High quality Audio Transmission System). The way this works is that a buffer memory of data is stored at the power amplifier input which is metered out with the full quartz crystal accuracy of the amplifier's master clock, which according to Sony is 'jitter free'. The transmission speed across the link operates at variable speed, according to the amount of data in the buffer, the speed determined by a control signal transmitted across the link from the amplifier to the player.

At this stage of the game, Sony is unable to rely on users having access to one of their digital amplifiers, so much of the design effort has been expended on the design of the D/A stages and the analogue outputs, which should bear fruit with any well designed analogue amplifier. A key part of this is the unusual provision of full speaker management, which even more unusually does not require the signal to be converted from DSD to PCM. The secret here is the use of a hybrid DSP that processes the DSD signal in 1-bit form. The DSP provides bass redirection, channel levels and setup using a test tone. Speaker distances can be adjusted this way, and in contrast to other players with speaker management you're not stuck with using the ITU-R arrangement in which five identical speakers are distributed around the circumference of an imaginary circle with the listening seat at the centre. Remember that with most home theatre amplifiers, the multi-channel analogue input has no such adjustments on tap.

The D/A converters employ 8x oversampling and noise shaping for CD as well as SACD. CD data is upsampled by 64 times to the 2.8224MHz DSD clock frequency, and both are processed by a multi-level DAC -- essentially a number of 1-bit D/A converters working in parallel - which combines the key attributes of 1-bit and multi-bit conversion, that is freedom from zero cross distortion while reducing sensitivity to jitter. Six DACs are used per channel in two channel mode and two per channel in multi-channel mode. Separate power supplies driven from separate R-Core transformers are available for the audio and the remaining circuits to minimize noise leakage, and the optical system has two independent lasers and a common lens to provide the different wavelengths required for SACD and CD, which reduces moving mass over equivalent systems with completely independent optical blocks, reducing the load on the servos and improving track access speeds. Finally, the construction of the player, with its heavily reinforced frame and beam construction, combined with some judicious mechanical decoupling, is designed to minimize microphony.

 

Sound Quality
Setup is straightforward, but with this player more than most others, it is good practice to wire both the two channel and six channel outputs to separate inputs on the amplifier, which makes it easy to take advantage of the multi-DAC output when playing stereo material merely by selecting the appropriate amplifier input. Of course this is only relevant when using the player via its analogue outputs.

Broadly speaking, the Sony SCD-XA9000ES is on a par with the Krell Standard as an SACD player, or very nearly so. The Krell for me is a little firmer and bolder sounding, while extracting similar amounts of information from the groove. But the Sony has a whole extra layer of capability contingent on using the digital output with an appropriate amplifier, which in practice at the time of writing means Sony's own TA-DA9000ES as explained above. Presumably in due course there will be other possibilities.

As it stands right now, the TA-DA9000ES is arguably a little too compromised by its home theatre credentials to make full use of the capabilities of this remarkable player. There is a quality about the voicing of the amplifier that is both refined and finely detailed, but it can sound curiously inexpressive, almost hard nosed at times, a factor that Sony appears to acknowledge by suggesting that the absence of low frequency group delay in the design of the digital amplifiers affects auditioning quality with loudspeakers that were originally voiced for use with analogue amplifiers that do have this group delay as a matter of course. Indeed Sony goes further by allowing users to dial in some phase correction, but at least in my listening, the effects were subtle and didn't appear to address the full differences in the two radically dissimilar amplifier architectures. Perhaps it is even part of a process of acclimatization, in which case the clock was against me.

But even at the current state of the technology, the two Sony components make a remarkable match, one that delivers exquisite levels of resolution, and that in this sense digs down well below the surface of the music. Consistently, recordings that with lesser replay equipment tended to sound a tad soporific, or at least lacking in presence, came to life. The Channel Classics recording of the Bruch Kol Nidre with Pieter Wispelwey is a case in point. It sounded more tactile, better focused and more vital, though this is a recording that will always major on the subtleties.

In another recording which in many ways is more of a landmark, the Benjamin Zander recording of Mahler 6 sounded wonderful through the Sony amplifier, but it always sounded a little more literal somehow, more grounded than when reproduced through a high grade multi-channel amplifier like the Arcam AV8/P7 via its analogue outputs or the top end Pioneer or Denon home theatre integrated amplifiers. Each of these was somehow able to reproduce the work with an amazing sense of scale and envelopment, and with an even more impressive depth plane, which just seemed to go on and on. Indeed the sense of brooding depth and weight behind the speaker plane was remarkable, but again so was the fine but completely natural expression of incidental detail.

The long and the short is that the Sony SCD-XA9000ES is marginally the best sounding Sony SACD player so far. It doesn't lack presence and architecture, and it certainly doesn't lack detail-resolving ability. The bass is firm, tuneful and extended, and altogether the sound gives a sense of integration and precision that DVD-Audio often seems to do better. The difference of course is that at least SACD has a disc catalogue of sorts. DVD-Audio is simply in a mess, and apparently a more hopeless one with every passing month. A good case can be made for keen audiophiles to hedge their bets by going for a good universal player from Denon or Pioneer for example, but there is an element of compromise with universal players that doesn't affect more limited, but better focused players like the Sony.

There is one additional factor here too. Among its other talents, the SCD-XA9000ES is a remarkably fine legacy CD player. There is really very little to distinguish its performance from that of a quality dedicated CD player. The two-channel analogue output with its massively parallel output stage is capable of real blood and thunder from appropriately recorded discs. The bass has tremendous clout, and the mid/top regain is vital and energetic, in some ways better than same player's multi-channel performance.

 

Conclusions
Undoubtedly the fact that the Sony is a dedicated audio player with no video or DVD capabilities is a key factor here, but the same could be said of the well endowed power supply, the superb build quality and a number of other factors besides. A good high fidelity component is a happy combination of many different ideas working in unison, and it is good to see that Sony still has the will and the ability to design and sell high end high fidelity, of which this is as good an example as any in recent times.

 

Specifications
Type: stereo  and multi-channel SACD/CD player with i.Link encrypted digital output
Frequency Response: 2Hz  to 100kHz (SACD), 2Hz to 20kHz (CD)
Total Harmonic Distortion: <0.0012% (SACD), <0.0017% (CD)
Dynamic Range (in audio band): >108dB (SACD), >100dB (CD)
Analogue Output : 6 x RCA phono multi-channel, 2 x RCA phono stereo
Digital Audio Output: optical & coaxial, (CD only), i.Link (SACD & CD)
Dimensions: 16.93 x 5 x 15.24 (WxHxD in inches)
Weight: 35.7 lbs net
Finishes: Champagne gold
Accessories: remote control, i.Link cable, stereo cable, AC power cord, AA batteries x 2
Price: $2999

 

Company Information
Sony Corporation of America
550 Madison Avenue, 
New York, NY 10022

Voice: (800) 222-7669
Website: www.Sony.com

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

     
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