Onkyo DX-7555 CD player Page 2
Before I discuss specific comparisons with other CD players, I should talk about the effect of changing the DX-7555's digital filter characteristics. You'll recall that the Onkyo's Setup mode allows selection of filter slopes: Sharp (steep) or Slow (gradual). These appear to correspond to the Measuring and Listening options of the Ayre CX-7e CD player, and, as I note in the sidebar, I prefer the sound of the Ayre with this switch in the Listening position. With the Onkyo, however, my preference was the opposite: the Slow setting (corresponding to the Ayre's Listening setting) was very laid-back, with somewhat better spatial definition, but it was just too soft-sounding—at least in my system, and for my taste. I went back and forth several times between the two settings, using different CDs, and preferred Sharp every time. All of my comments about the sound of the DX-7555 are based on its filter slope being set to Sharp.
Trying to determine the contribution to a system's sound of only one of its components is no easy task, and although introducing a new component into a familiar system is a good start at getting a handle on that product's sound, I think it's important to make direct comparisons with other components. In this case, I had two other digital sources on hand: the Ayre CX-7e, my new reference for high-end CD players (see sidebar); and the Marantz DV8400, a DVD-Video/Audio/SACD/CD player that I've had in my home theater for the last few years, and which was described by Kal Rubinson, in his "Music in the Round" column of May 2004 (Vol.27 No.5), as "a capable performer offering balanced sound, extended frequency range, and good soundstage imaging and depth," though he noted that it "lacked a little in dynamics."
In making these comparisons, I tried to control potentially confounding variables: I used the same pair of interconnects for each player or, where the comparison involved balanced outputs/inputs, balanced interconnects of the same make, model, and length. I matched output levels to within ±0.1dB, measuring voltage at the amplifier output using the sinewave level signal on Stereophile's first Test CD (Stereophile STPH002-2), and using the volume control of my PS Audio GCC-100 integrated amplifier. The outputs of the Onkyo and the single-ended Ayre were pretty close to begin with, but the Ayre's balanced output was considerably higher, and the Marantz's single-ended output was quite a bit lower without compensation.
Comparing the single-ended output of the Ayre with the Onkyo, with their levels matched, it didn't require a great deal of intensive listening to conclude that, as good as the Onkyo was, the Ayre was in a different league. The CX-7e revealed more instrumental detail and a wider, deeper soundstage, with more precise spatial definition of instruments and voices within the stage. Music reproduced by the Ayre was more engaging, with a dynamic thrust that made the Onkyo sound slow in comparison (and remember, this was not with the Onkyo's digital filter set to Slow). The Ayre achieved this without its sound becoming too forward or clinical—a difficult balance for any audio component to achieve. The Ayre's treble was not more extended than the Onkyo's in any obvious way, but the bells and other treble percussive instruments on track 3 of the Chesky test disc had a more pristine clarity through the Ayre. The bass was seemingly deeper in extension, and more clearly defined—an effect particularly evident when I played Mickey Hart's Planet Drum.
These differences were even more obvious when the comparison was with the Ayre's balanced output, this no doubt related to the fact that the PS Audio GCC-100's circuitry is also fully balanced. Dynamics were more powerful still, a related effect being that, after listening to a CD on the Onkyo, and then to the same disc on the Ayre via its balanced outputs, the sound actually seemed louder. I even checked my settings to make sure I hadn't somehow failed to correctly match the levels, but the settings were correct. The Ayre CX-7e sells for $2950, almost five times the price of the Onkyo DX-7555, so it should sound better. It definitely does.
Comparing the Onkyo DX-7555 with the Marantz DV8400 was a different story. I seldom listen to CDs in my home-theater system, but when I have, my impression of the Marantz has been much like Kal's: "a capable performer," indeed. This impression persisted when I listened to the Marantz in my two-channel system, but when I switched to the Onkyo, it was apparent that the Onkyo had better dynamics, greater clarity, and more extended treble—call it a more-than-capable performer. Of course, the Onkyo plays only CDs—the Marantz also plays DVDs (with excellent video quality), DVD-As, and SACDs, and a good deal of its $1695 cost is to pay for these capabilities. Still, considering the DV8400 as only a CD player, I felt the Onkyo was superior.
The end of the road
A few days before it was time to pack up the Onkyo DX-7555 and send it off to John Atkinson to be measured, I hooked it up to the Onkyo A-9555 integrated amplifier. The combination worked beautifully—not surprising, given that they have many of the same technical design features, and were launched at the same time. And both components seem cut from the same sonic cloth, sounding smooth, laid-back, and slightly soft (the A-9555 perhaps a bit more than the DX-7555), and neither is particularly strong in dynamics. The combo of the Ayre CX-7e CD player and the PS Audio GCC-100 integrated is capable of producing sound that's more transparent to the source, and better at communicating the excitement of music. If you told me you had $6000 to spend on a CD player and integrated amplifier, I'd recommend the Ayre and the PSA. Still, the Onkyo pairing at just over one fifth the price produced a very comfortable sound that was simply very pleasant to listen to, and is likely to be more tolerant of excessive brightness and treble roughness in speakers. The DX-7555 at $599 and the A-9555 at $699 represent excellent value and are highly recommended.
Footnote 1: My system at the time consisted of a Linn turntable and tonearm and, I think, a Supex cartridge; a Conrad-Johnson PV-2ar tube preamp; a Luxman MQ-68c tube power amplifier for the top and a Bryston 3B solid-state amp for the bottom; and original Quad speakers paired with Cizek MG-27 subwoofers. The sound was uncommonly smooth, and not prone to exaggerating faults in the source.