Although DVD-Audio will never go away because it's a fait accompli for future DVD players at all price points, SACD has reached a stage where some very finicky audio gurus are prepared to admitting to 'prefer' it to both CD and DVD-Audio. Hey, I'm even sniffing a change in attitude toward multi-channel. Am I telling you to buy an SACD player, then? No. But what I am trying to say is that, as with most computer-related purchases and pension schemes, now's as good a time as any. And the Sony SCD-XA333ES should be on all shopping lists which stretch to a low four figures.
So, from the outset, the 333 will probably see more two-channel activity than 5.1. And that's fine by me, because I already have 30 or 40 wonderful stereo SACDs, from Keb' Mo' to the Bangles' to Dylan to a slew of Chad Kassem's blues titles. Conversely, I'm using the 333 in a multi-channel system (MartinLogan speakers and sub, Theta Intrepid amp, Lexicon MC-12 processor), and the gains offered by the surround mode are inescapably, inarguably worthwhile...provide the material suits it. For those who are writing their own discs, the 333 also plays back CD-R/RW titles, plus reading the info in SACDs and conventional CDs with text information. As it's such a nice bonus when the latter appears, you have to ask why more labels aren't providing it.
Back to the player. The review sample is champagne-coloured, though I believe some markets can have black, and it looks like and is built like a CD player bar one small rotary control and an extra smattering of tiny buttons. As the owner's manual went walkies, I had a few days' use without being able to use correctly that odd rotary, which accesses menus for multi-channel optimisation and bass management, more of which anon. A glance at the back, however shows a distinct lack of complication as this player - unlike its main rival, the Philips SACD 1000 - does not include DVD-video playback and therefore requires no bank of video sockets. All you find on the back panel are coaxial and TOSlink optical digital outputs for CD playback into an external processor, and two sets of gold-plated analogue phono outputs: 5.1 channels' worth for SACD multi-channel and a stereo pair for two-channel systems.
Because the 333 and other SACD players need to deal with a few more functions than stereo CD players, there are some buttons beyond those dealing with the usual transport commands. To the left, between the headphone outlet/headphone volume control (a proper 1/4in socket!) and the main tray/display, are four buttons for choosing time readouts or text for discs with that data, a button to select the configuring menu, another to choose between multi-channel and 2ch, and a button to select SACD or CD (for hybrid discs).
At first, you will use the latter control a lot, if only to convince yourself that you made the right decision. As non-hybrid SACDs lacking the CD layer have been consigned to the category of 'historical anomalies', the button will only prove useful if you want to demonstrate SACD vs CD to friends. I've haven't yet found a disc wherein the CD layer betters the SACD portion. All of the controls are duplicated on the remote, so you can do it all from the hot seat; what you can't do a thing about is the need to stop the disc playing when you want the machine to change modes from SACD to CD or vice versa. It doesn't change layers 'on the fly'.
Sony fitted a smooth-acting and substantial tray to the 333, above a clear and informative florescent dot matrix display providing track and text info, a grid showing the number of tracks and which are played or programmed, and data concerning the format of the disc and the number of channels. To the right is the open/close button, and below is the intermittent twist rotary which scrolls through the menus. The last three buttons are for play, pause and stop, and those who revel in the feel of controls will love the way the buttons operate on this most luxurious of players.
Read The High Points, The Low Points and the Conclusion on Page 2