dCS P8i SACD player Page 2
Throughout the review period, I kept returning to classical orchestral SACDs, both new recordings—Mahler's Symphony 6, from Claudio Abbado and the Berlin Philharmonic (DG 00289 477 5684), and Tchaikovsky's Symphony 6, from Daniele Gatti and the RPO (Harmonia Mundi HMU 807394)—as well as old favorites such as Gershwin's An American in Paris, from Leonard Slatkin conducting the St. Louis Symphony (Mobile Fidelity UDSACD4007). The richness of the P8i's tonal presentation with this kind of music, coupled with its detail and clarity, proved addictive.
Against the Ayre
My reference for SACD and DVD-Audio playback is the Ayre C-5xe universal player ($5000), which I bought following Wes Phillips' enthusiastic review in July 2005. The dCS was used with its volume control set to its maximum, and the players' levels were matched to within 0.1dB at 1kHz using the Levinson preamp's Input Offset function. As I was using balanced interconnects, the P8i's polarity was inverted to match the Ayre. For CD playback, the dCS was set to Filter 4 and the Ayre to Listen (which has a similar characteristic).
Listening first to the Mozart Flute Quartet movement on my Editor's Choice CD (Stereophile STPH016-2), the players identically reproduced the images of the four musicians within the acoustic of Santa Fe's St. Francis Auditorium. But if I had to swear to a difference, the inner voices, the viola in particular, were slightly better differentiated via the dCS. The same impression persisted when I moved on to the movement from Mozart's Piano Quartet in G Minor on the same CD, along with the feeling that the dCS was very slightly better at presenting the leading edges of the piano notes. However, on Duke Ellington's "The Mooche," Jerome Harris's acoustic bass guitar had slightly more midbass weight through the Ayre.
Moving on to SACD, the comparison was rendered more complicated by the fact that the Ayre's maximum output level on SACD is 6.6dB lower than it is on CD. Adjusting the preamp for that difference, I played Ray Kimber's superb-sounding IsoMike-recorded SACD of the T Minus 5 Vocal Band singing "Shenandoah" a cappella (Purity, no catalog number, available from Kimber Kable). Try as I could, I could hear no difference between the players. Each presented a vividly defined, stable image of the singers between the speakers; both preserved the subtle acoustic of Weber State University's Austad Auditorium as a halo of ambience around the singers; and neither emphasized any aspect of tonal balance.
Next I put on David Chesky's Violin Concerto, from Area 31 (Chesky SACD288), our July 2005 "Recording of the Month." The handclaps and percussion that punctuate the statements of the solo violin in the central tango section were set deep in the image via both players, yet their images were superbly stable. Ultimately, I felt the Ayre had just a tad more midbass weight, though it was a close thing.
Given the closeness of their sounds, this would seem to make the Ayre the winner of this horse race, given its significantly lower price and the fact that it also plays DVD-Audio discs. However, the dCS's having a volume control (and, eventually, digital inputs) means that it can dispense with the system preamplifier and a set of interconnects. Using it to feed my Levinson monoblocks directly, with its maximum output set to 2V to allow the digital volume control to be used near the top of its range, gave a sound with SACD—a wide sweep of soundstage and a wealth of recorded detail—that thrilled me. As good a preamp as I feel the Levinson No.326S to be, both the piano and the double bass on Diana Krall's recording of "Temptation" seemed to acquire another half-octave of bass extension, while the already deep soundstage on K622 more closely approached what I had experienced live in London's Henry Wood Hall.
One caution is appropriate here: Because the P8i's inherent character tends toward the analytical, using it with ancillary components of a similar character could be problematic. As much as I like the balanced Crystal Cable interconnects and Sonus Faber Amati anniversario loudspeakers, the combination of these reinforced rather than complemented the dCS player. I found that using the smoother-sounding AudioQuest Cheetah balanced interconnects with the Italian speakers gave the optimal system balance.
I ended my auditioning with Hilary Hahn's 2004 performance of Vaughan Williams' The Lark Ascending (SACD, DG 00289 474 8732, with the Elgar Violin Concerto). The violin figure at the start, repeated in the cadenza at the end of the work, is perhaps the most sublimely beautiful moment in English classical music. Which is just how it sounded on the dCS P8i.
Even as Sony appears to be backing away from SACD as a mainstream format, it has become the de facto standard for the highest-quality classical recordings. Yes, the dCS P8i is still expensive; yes, it ignores multichannel recordings; and no, it doesn't play DVDs. But for a classical music lover assembling a collection of SACDs who still wants the best sound from his CD library, the dCS P8i used straight into the power amps is almost as good as it can get.