You don't have to be a marketing analyst with a subscription to the FT to understand why SACD might win the latest format war. Clearly, the SACD crew has delivered more hardware and - most importantly - something on the order of 10 times as much software than DVD-A, according to the estimates of music vendors I've canvassed. All of which makes the arrival of a high-end SACD player with a mid-range price point something worth considering. If, that is, the stupid format wars haven't put you off entirely. I'd understand completely if you said, 'To hell with this. I'm sticking with the million or so CD titles out their and Japan-and-Holland Inc can kiss my butt.'
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.
Aside from the ludicrous mouthful of a name (is Sony's marketing department full of ex-Akai and Aiwa personnel?), this multi-channel player in Sony's 'serious audiophile' ES range represents a level of maturity previously not found, at least not convincingly, in first or second generation players. Or whatever generation this represents. Amusingly, the multi-channel aspect is still not over-riding in importance; aside from either accidental or deliberate mis-labelling of discs which purport to be multi-channel when they're stereo, it seems as if two-channel discs outnumber multi-channel SACDs. More telling - and although I don't have any numbers to hand - I'd be surprised if even five percent of the hi-fi systems in the UK can handle more than two-channels.
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
Measuring 430x130x380 mm (WHD) and weighing a chunky 9.5 Kg, the 333
boasts rugged construction and suffers none of that nastiness which you
experience when a chassis is made from folded metal barely more
substantial than a Marklin tin-toy circa 1925. The 333's chassis is
reinforced for extra rigidity, making it reminiscent of the heftier
Denon CD/DVD players and certain American heavyweights. As far as pride
of ownership is concerned, the 333 delivers it in spades. Inside are a
fixed pick-up transport mechanism, a power supply with twin R-Core
transformers and eight multilevel SADAC D/A converters, the software
providing two switchable digital filters for CD playback, and that array
of multi-channel options.
SACD requires analogue output of its multi-channel signal, to stymie
piracy. Because of the need to address varying sets of conditions which
are outside of the bounds of digital processing, the 333 allows the user
to adjust the multi-channel playback to suit the system, just as you
find in A/V systems which encourage the user to feed in the size of the
speakers, the presence or lack of a centre channel or subwoofer and
more. Conditions which might require this are feeding the 333 into
multi-channel processors with six analogue-channel inputs without
bass-management, multi-channel pre-amps without any processing (see
sidebar) or other circumstances wherein the bass management is missing.
Of course, you can feed it straight in, sans adjustments, but this is a
minefield which - while causing no damage - will drive pernickety
Sorry, but among you are anal-retentives who actually get worked up
about this kind of thing, even when it barely affects your listening
pleasure...simply because you've been told about it. To be perfectly
frank, I ended up using the 333 with the same settings I use for DVD
film playback, after messing around with my sub's crossover points,
level and more to distraction. My advice? Set it and forget it or you'll
make yourself miserable.
With a vengeance, the 333 showed itself to be not only a magnificent
SACD player, but also a conventional CD player of great worth. So let's
get that out of the way first, given that you probably have a CD library
which you aren't ready to ditch. With subtle, refined and airy discs
such as the Persuasions Sing The Beatles on Chesky, the O Brother Where
Art Thou soundtrack, and Zounds' superb Best of Poco, the 333 displayed a
finesse on a par with my sub- 1000 reference, the Musical Fidelity
X-RAY. It sounded big and bold when asked to, dispatching Kodo drummers
with ease, but I suppose that Sony's tweakers (the UK division has its
hands and ears all over the 333) knew that the CD performance would
have to be good. After all, a press of a button means instant
comparisons with true surround sound. No way did they want it to fall
down for CD,m however badly they want SACD to grow.
Moving to SACD - even stereo rather than 5.1 - was revelatory. The
latest disc from Telarc, Chesky and Analogue Productions are, by
definition, audiophile discs, but close listening to both layers left me
in no doubt that SACD playback was airier and more open, and it seemed
to offer greater extension at both ends of the frequency range. In both
2- and 5.1 channel forms, the sound spreads were more even, seamless and
cohesive, creating palpably more convincing recreations of space. Lower
registers, in addition to offering greater depth, showed better control
and - when relevant - more snap, as on the magnificent bass'n'drums
opus, Telarc's Monty Alexander Meets Sly & Robbie. As m,y son put
it, 'The first one [SACD] has a better beat.' And he's an untainted
With only a few rivals out there - SACD players are still a minority
pursuit - it's clear that this 1200 masterpiece has to face off with
Philips' deservedly popular DVD1000. And that contains a very fine DVD
video player. But the Sony SCD-XA333ES offers the most convincing
argument I've heard yet for SACD in a context which applies more to
audiophiles than do either 5000-plus flagship machines, or sub- 400
units with obvious compromises. If the existing SACD catalogue appeals
to you, if you believe that SACD will continue to grow, and if you still
want more from a digital source than CD can offer, borrow a 333 for the
weekend. And don't expect to give it back.
And if it's any consolation, you can always use your existing CD player in part-exchange.
TAP-P9000ES Multi-Channel Pre-amp
Although the Lexicon MC-12 has a single set of analogue inputs for a 5.1
source such as SACD and DVD-A, I didn't want to get involved with all
of the hassle of configuring it to accept the 333. And I also have
another SACD player and a DVD-A player to accommodate. So Sony, bless
them, sent along the TA-P9000ES Multi-Channel Pre-amp, which I am about
to laud as the most useful product I've seen since the dawn of
(non-digital-output) multi-channel audio. This device is a godsend.
As all of you know, the arrival of SACD and DVD-Audio made obsolete
overnight every multi-channel processor/pre-amp or receiver which lacked
5.1 analogue inputs. And even those which arrived with one set didn't
allow for two 5.1 analogue output sources. It meant (and Pioneer is
probably grateful for this) that those who want both SACD and DVD-A
would have to share the inputs or buy a universal player.
Not so with the TA-P9000ES. This substantial line-level only pre-amp -
NO processing - is housed in a case which matches the 333, and it
provides THREE sets of 5.1-channel inputs, a stereo input for
two-channel sources and one set of 5.1-channel outputs. One of the sets
of 5.1 inputs and the stereo inputs completely bypass the '9000's active
circuitry and can even be used when the unit is switched off at the
mains. What the '9000 enables you to do is feed an SACD player and a
DVD-A player into it, with full control of their volume, while you can
feed a stereo pre-amp's output AND the output of a multi-channel A/V
processor, e.g. the Lexicon, into the bypassed section, using their own
volume controls. Thus, all of your connection problems are over. Bar
Sonically, the '9000 is silent, and it tainted the Lexicon not one
bit when I used the bypass. I could switch between all multi-channel
sources via remote, worrying not about swapping leads. To the best of my
knowledge, no other company offers a pre-amp with THREE sets of
six-channel inputs (and a stereo set, too). Problem? Sony isn't exactly
supplying this as a regular item. What you have to do is ask your local
Sony dealer to ask his Sony sales rep to order one. It will set you back
800, but you will thank Sony for the rest of your days if you plan on:
1) having more than one multi-channel audio-only source as part of the
same system as a multi-channel DVD video set-up and 2) aren't
necessarily buying a universal player, such as Pioneer's '747.
Grab one while you can, before it joins Sony's magnetic feet, the
Technics stylus gauge and other Great Lost Hyper-Clever Audio Tools.
Which now fetch collector tariffs.