Philips SACD1000 SACD/DVD-Video player Kal Rubinson Followup
Even though digital audio was not my beat at the 2001 CES—see the report in the April and May issues—I thought the announcement of the Philips SACD1000 was a highlight. Here, for barely less than $2000, is an SACD player with audiophile trimmings and multichannel output. While $2000 is not quite the mass-market price that Sony has promised for such players in the near future, the SACD1000 was ready for market. Now I get my chance with it, barely cooled from its bouts in the April issue with Chip Stern and John Atkinson.
Chip advised me not to use the analog L/R output jacks on the lower part of the rear panel. The manual shows these connected only to a TV set, but that's too subtle. These outputs are of significantly lower quality than the upper-tier outputs, something made explicit in subsequent e-mail memos from Philips but decidedly underemphasized in the instruction manual.
More complaints? I've got a list. No current SACD or DVD-Audio player will output high-resolution and/or multichannel digital signals. But the SACD1000, unlike the Technics DVD-A10, will not output PCM of any bit-rate from its digital jacks—not even from standard CDs! The only signals at those jacks are for DTS or AC-3. Thus, no external high-quality DAC or digital processing device can perform any upsampling, control tone or balance, or—most important for multichannel use—manage the bass unless it redigitizes the analog signals.
And how about the DTS and AC-3 signals? DTS is digital-out only since the SACD-1000 does not incorporate a DTS decoder.
The SACD-1000 will decode AC-3 and output it as high quality analog. However, internal decoding means bypassing the speaker/bass management in the pre/pro, so I prefer using the digital output as the default for both DTS and AC-3. But, whatever your preference, for AC-3 you must connect both analog and digital links and switch between them in order to use all the capabilities of the SACD-1000.
But that's not all! The SACD-1000 does have facilities for speaker setup and bass management but these are effective only for audio from DVD-Video (Dolby Digital, Digital Surround, Dolby ProLogic, and a 3D-Sound mode that simulates surround from two speakers). Because the SACD-1000's speaker and bass management is ineffective on the analog outputs from all SACDs, you must use full-range loudspeakers on all channels. There's no way to tell the SACD-1000 to re-route bass signals from a small loudspeaker into a subwoofer or to create a phantom center channel.
Moreover, you'd better have a subwoofer for the LFE (low-frequency effects) channel no matter how big and extended your main speakers are—there's no way to reroute the LFE signals either! High-end speaker/bass management in the analog domain is rare (TMH is promising one derived from their professional models), so you're stuck between redigitizing or no bass management at all. Well, Sony said from the get-go that SACD was the new high-end medium; you'd better ante up with the rest of your system.
Okay. I've said my piece about the annoyances and inconveniences imposed by the SACD1000, but nothing about how I feel about the sound.
Well, exactly the opposite. Chip pretty well nailed the SACD1000's two-channel performance in his April 2001 cover story; I vacillate between the Philips and the California Audio Labs CL-20 for "Red Book" CDs and 24-bit/96kHz DADs. Via their analog outputs, both machines offer more open and satisfying presentations than the Technics DVD-A10. With DTS and AC-3 programs, running the SACD1000's digital output into the Myryad MDP 500 preamp-processor (reviewed elsewhere in this issue) was very satisfying, but no more or less so than with the DVD-A10 or the CL-20. In other words, the SACD1000 was as good a DVD transport for audio as I've used.
Particularly revealing was the DVD of NPR's piano GRAND! (Columbia CVD 50230). I was introduced to this entertaining homage to the piano at Revel's CES demo and was thoroughly enthralled by its quality of audio and video. How could this be our old friend Dolby Digital and not some full-bandwidth discrete medium? I have to admit that it was not as stupendous at home (27" Sony TV instead of HDTV from a megabuck Madrigal Imaging projector), but the video was surprisingly crisp. The audio, however, was damn impressive, with extraordinarily subtle balance and excellent but unfussy soundstaging to correlate with the visible images. However, while the SACD1000 played AC-3 and DTS DVDs, it failed to recognize any of the dozen or so DTS CDs I tried. Not a big deal—these, like 24/96 DADs, will probably not be important media in the future.
Still, the more discs I auditioned on the SACD1000 via its analog outputs, the more I was impressed with its tonal and dynamic performance. First, I played Gottschalk's Grand Tarantelle and A Night in the Tropics on CD (Vanguard Classics OVC 4051), and the "Red Book"-compatible layer from the SACD version (Vanguard Classics VSD 500) on the DVD-A10. I could easily hear how remastering has made individual instruments more distinguishable and cured the muddiness in the bass. Although the old CD sounded even better on the SACD1000, the differences between it and the SACD's high-resolution DSD layer were even greater. Gone was any hint of "blocking up" in the climaxes, and the new sense of space and venue was unmistakable.
Other two-channel SACDs, like Telarc's remastering of Stravinsky's The Firebird and excerpts from Borodin's Prince Igor (SACD-60039), were equally impressive. This was a favorite demo in the late '70s, but the SACD1000 showed how far we've come. The intelligibility of the chorus on the SACD was a revelation, and Telarc's famous bass drum gained definition but lost none of its weight.
The real big deal with the SACD1000 was playing discrete multichannel SACDs. My thrilling experience of the Ivan Fischer/Budapest Festival Orchestra concert demo (described in my review of the Myryad MDP 500) was, of course, courtesy the SACD1000. In all objective parameters, the sound was excellent: superb balance and clarity, HF grainlessness, heft and detail on the bottom, and an open, airy presentation of the concert hall. But more than that, it was emotionally involving despite the lightweight pops programming. I felt no residual audible boundaries between me and the performers, and, as I closed my eyes, I could picture the performance more vividly than I could have with any video or film. This, finally, is the next-generation medium for music.
Having been so swept away, I was disappointed that the other multichannel demo SACDs were technically impressive but aesthetic failures. Instruments and voices were often scattered around the room as if to show only that it could be done. Consequently, I found it much more satisfying to listen to two-channel SACDs, like the Florestan Trio's performances of Fauré, Debussy, and Ravel (Hyperion SACDA67114). This disc, produced by Tony Faulkner and Andrew Keener, who have been responsible for many of my favorite recordings, captures the richness and detail of a coherent ensemble in a real acoustic space. I hunger for the arrival of multichannel SACDs created with similar taste and responsibility.
With the limited multichannel program material available, one can draw few conclusions about the respective performance advantages of SACD and DVD-Audio. I can conclude, as I have before, that what determine how musically satisfying a recording will be, regardless of medium or number of channels, are artistic skills and sensitivities. I can also conclude that audible differences between similarly specified players still exist. Despite my grousing, I have to admit that the Philips SACD1000 sounded great on everything it played.—Kalman Rubinson