Sony 333 SACD Player Reviewed

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Sony_333_SACD_Player.gif 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 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.

Additional Resources

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HTR Product Rating for Sony 333 SACD Player

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