Sonic Frontiers SFCD-1 CD player Page 2
Right from the start I felt that the SFCD-1 sounded musical and enjoyable, a feeling that continued to grow during the review period. The more I listened to the SFCD-1, the more I appreciated its subtle musical qualities. The presentation had an involving quality that made the SFCD-1's sonic characteristics take a back seat to its ability to convey the music.
The SFCD-1's overall perspective was very different from that of Sonic Frontiers' SFD-2 and SFD-2 Mk.II processors, and the SFT-1 transport. All these units have some degree of forwardness to the sound that tends to spotlight the midrange and soloists. This characteristic gives instrumental and vocal images an immediacy and palpability, but produces a lessened sense of ease compared with more neutrally balanced processors such as the Spectral SDR-2000 Pro and Mark Levinson No.30.5.
To my surprise, the SFCD-1 lacked this forward perspective. The player threw the soundstage slightly behind the loudspeakers, giving the music a more gentle and relaxed quality. I still felt a full measure of presence, but in a more subtle way.
Part of the difference I heard was no doubt because of the SFCD-1's liquidity in the mids and treble, along with its tremendous sense of ease. This was the player's major strength, and one that greatly elevated my opinion of the SFCD-1. Strings, particularly solo and massed violins, sounded ultra-smooth and natural, with no trace of the mechanical sterility often heard from digital. They were evoked with a wonderful enveloping warmth that stressed the body of the instrument rather than the bow on the strings. The high-frequency haze and coarseness that has been a characteristic of digital reproduction was missing from the SFCD-1's rendering.
The SFCD-1 was smoother and cleaner than the SFT-1 driving the Classé DAC-1. In my December '95 review of the $3995 DAC-1 (Vol.18 No.12), my main criticism involved a slight hardness to textures, particularly on transient leading edges. Replacing the SFT-1 with the Mark Levinson No.31 transport helped the Classé, but the SFCD-1's portrayal of timbre was softer, more refined, and more subtle.
In fact, if I had to describe the SFCD-1 with a single word, it would be "ease." The player had a wonderful relaxing quality that rivaled the Mark Levinson No.30.5 and No.31 combination. The No.30 and Spectral SDR-2000 Pro had a greater purity of midrange timbre, with the Spectral sounding a little brighter, with more top-octave air and extension.
In absolute terms, the SFCD-1 had a slight trace of grain in the midrange, but my attention wasn't drawn to it. The treble was pristine, but vocals revealed a hint of grain. I noticed this only in comparisons with the very clean-sounding Parasound C/BD-2000 transport and D/AC-2000 Ultra combination. This pair has one of the purest midrange reproductions I've heard. The SFCD-1's grain wasn't objectionable for several reasons: It was finely textured rather than coarse; it was confined to the midband; and the laid-back presentation tended to de-emphasize it. Moreover, the mids were anything but synthetic or mechanical-sounding, another point in the SFCD-1's favor.
As smooth as the SFCD-1 was, it didn't achieve this at the expense of resolution. The SFCD-1 presented a wealth of detail, but in an understated way. Fine nuances in timbral shading, the inner detail of brushes on cymbals, and resolution of spatial cues were well served by the SFCD-1. Particularly impressive was the player's ability to keep instrumental images separate from each other, both in timbre and in space. The SFCD-1 maintained the individual musical threads as distinct lines rather than congealing them into a continuum. Even in the presence of much louder instruments, quiet sounds could still be heard clearly and distinctly. The result was a greater sense of what each instrument was doing, a big asset in dense orchestral passages. I could even hear this quality on the beautiful piece "Les Douzilles" from the Oregon CD Beyond Words (Chesky JD130). Although the instrumentation is sparse (acoustic guitar, acoustic bass, and oboe), the SFCD-1's ability to portray the instruments as separate entities in space better conveyed the musical expression.
The SFCD-1's bass was better-balanced than that of the SFD-2 Mk.II, probably the result of replacing the large output coupling capacitor with a DC servo. The bottom end was extended and deep, with a good balance between warmth and articulation. There was, however, a family resemblance in the bottom end between the SFCD-1 and the SFD-2 Mk.II. The player still had a bit of bloom in the midbass that favored fullness and weight over taut pitch definition and detail. The extreme bottom end was also less powerful and punchy than I've heard from the best processors. Compared to the Classé DAC-1, which has stunning bass extension, articulation, and dynamics, the SFCD-1 lacked the extreme bottom-end solidity and impact. This may be less of an issue on loudspeakers that don't go as deep as the Genesis II.5s (which are flat to 16Hz). Overall, I found the SFCD-1's bass more satisfying than that of the Parasound C/BD-2000 transport and D/AC-2000 Ultra pair, which sounded thinner and less warm, and a big improvement over the Sonic Frontiers separates, definitely better than I'd expected from a digital front-end costing $3500.
The SFCD-1 didn't have the same degree of slam and impact as the Classé, but it excelled in dynamic reproduction in another way. I found myself acutely aware of subtle dynamic shifts in music when listening through the SFCD-1. The player reproduced such changes along a continuum, rather than in discrete levels. This fine resolution of dynamic shading infused music with a powerful rhythmic quality. I'm not talking about raw pace and drive—which the SFCD-1 also did well—but instead a "bouncy," flowing feeling. I first became conscious of this quality on Peter McGrath's excellent recording of Handel's Water Music (Harmonia Mundi HMU 907010). The dancelike feeling of this music was expressed by the SFCD-1 with a lightness and flow I hadn't experienced before from digital reproduction. Other baroque music—particularly Bach with his playful counterpoint—benefited from the SFCD-1's unusual dynamic agility.
This quality was also manifested as a more human feeling in jazz. The SFCD-1's fine resolution of dynamics (along with the wealth of inner detail) made jazz more expressive and free-flowing. Music can sound mechanical, synthetic, and devoid of emotion when these subtleties aren't resolved by the playback system.
The SFCD-1's soundstaging was world-class. The player excelled at revealing space, depth, and spatial cues. The presentation was surrounded (on naturally-miked recordings) with an ambient bloom that opened up the music. The HDCD-encoded From the Age of Swing (Reference Recordings RR-59CD) was reproduced with a huge sense of air and transparent space around instrumental outlines. The soundstage was also deep and wide, with fine gradations of depth. The SFCD-1's resolution of spatial information made instruments seem to "light up" the acoustic. I could hear distinct reflections from the rear and sidewalls, rather than reverberation fused to the image.
It was interesting to compare the SFCD-1 with a terrific-sounding and similarly-priced transport/processor combination, the Parasound C/BD-2000 and D/AC-2000 Ultra. The SFCD-1 had a warmer and fuller bass, with more pace and rhythmic drive. The CD player's soundstaging was also bigger and had more bloom, although image focus and palpability of image outlines were comparable. The SFCD-1 better resolved the music's inner detail, and better reproduced dynamic shadings. In the Parasound's favor, its midrange was smoother and free from the trace of grain heard in the SFCD-1. Both are superb digital front-ends costing less than $3600.
The SFCD-1 validates the idea that first-class musical performance can be realized in a one-box CD player. Indeed, the SFCD-1 outperformed Sonic Frontiers' excellent separate transport and processors, and at a much lower price.
This moderately-priced digital front-end consistently expressed the music in a way I found engaging and involving. The presentation wasn't one that called attention to itself, but one that communicated the music. Often during the auditioning I found myself forgetting about cataloging the SFCD-1's strengths and weaknesses and just enjoying the music. The highest compliment I can pay the SFCD-1 is that its musicality sneaks up on you.
Although I highly recommend the SFCD-1 for its sound quality and value, you should be aware that this CD player is just that—a player, with no digital outputs to drive another converter and no digital inputs for decoding other sources. The integrated design also precludes upgrading one section of your digital front-end as improvements are made.
The one-box design will, however, be an advantage to music lovers who just want to put in a CD and hear music. It offers less "system clutter," obviates the need to choose and buy a digital interconnect, and generally makes life a little simpler. You also benefit from the price advantage of a single chassis, a single shipping carton, and other economies conferred by a CD player over separates, as well as the technical advantage of virtually no jitter.
I continue to be amazed by how good some of today's moderately-priced digital gear can sound. The SFCD-1 is a perfect example of just how much performance $3500 will get you. In fact, I can recommend the SFCD-1 for even the most demanding high-end systems.