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
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 listeners nuts.
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 11-year-old musician.
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 one.
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.