Sony SCD-XA9000ES SACD player Kalman Rubinson May 2004
True to his word, after he reviewed the Sony SCD-XA9000ES multichannel SACD player last December, John Atkinson sent it to me for a head-to-head comparison with its predecessor, the SCD-XA777ES. Their control layouts are almost identical, but the XA777ES had a flat black front panel while the XA9000ES has a beveled silver faceplate, which makes the latter seem much bulkier than it is. Still, the actual control differences are few. The new unit replaces the Stereo/MCH switch with switches for iLink and SACD/CD, and the placement of the buttons on the beveled surface makes them marginally easier to use.
Save for the new iLink jack, the XA9000E's rear panel is also almost identical to the XA777ES's, but user-interface differences lurk just below the surface. First, because the XA9000ES has no LEDs to indicate whether the player is in stereo or multichannel mode or playing an SACD or a CD, this information has been transferred to the model's LCD display, where the relevant labels are illuminated in characters that were too small to see from my listening position. (The LEDs on the XA777ES are distinct from the same position.) Second, the XA9000ES's two-channel and multichannel output jacks are always active with all media, as long as the iLink is not in operation. So you can use the two-channel jacks for stereo sources, taking advantage of the triple paralleled (Tri-Powered D/A) DACs, and as your front L/R channels with multichannel sources. On the XA777ES, they were not simultaneously active and required eight analog interconnects (and two sets of preamplifier-processor inputs) for stereo and multichannel operations. Third—and this is of significance only for multichannel listening—the XA9000ES adds speaker-distance compensation, which the XA777ES lacked.
In neither machine can the bass-management facility be used in the two-channel direct or multichannel direct modes, but the XA9000ES's distance compensation does operate in these modes. This means that you can bypass the signal processing used for the crossover, bass redirection, and channel amplitude balance, but still adjust for a listening position at unequal distances from the speakers. In addition, the Tri-Powered D/A mode is available only in two-channel direct mode.
I connected both Sonys to the two multichannel inputs of the McIntosh C45 preamplifier via identical Harmonic Technology multichannel cable sets and found that the players had identical output levels to within 0.5dB (using Rives Audio's test-tone CD). In addition, as the two Sonys came with identical remote controls, it was easy to perform rapid A/B comparisons using duplicate discs: Load both trays, push Play on one of the Sony remotes, and toggle between the players with the McIntosh remote.
The results, too, are easy to describe. With regular CDs using the regular stereo or the Tri-Powered D/A output, I could not reliably distinguish between the two Sonys. At times, I could convince myself that the XA9000ES was ever so slightly smoother at the top end and microscopically tighter in the bass, but I could distinguish between them only with rapid A/B switching. The Tri-Power D/A mode was smoother with both players, but of course, the XA9000ES's reconfigured connections made this simpler to invoke. Moreover, switching in the optional filter made, as JA found, a palpable improvement that further distances the new player from the old.
I relied on the Chesky, DMP, and Telarc two-channel SACDs that I have in duplicate. The test results were the same as for CD. On the famous "Ubi Caritas," performed by Gaudeamus (DMP SACD-16), there was a bit more space around the voices through the XA9000ES, although the balance was about the same. Occasionally, there were other moments when the XA9000ES seemed a little airier and more spacious, as with the breaths between the heartbeats on Chesky's silly but impressive Dr. Chesky's Magnificent, Fabulous, Absurd and Insane Musical 5.1 Surround Show (Chesky SACD273)—but, again, this was discernible only with A/B switching. Both machines sounded open and dynamic, with taut, powerful bass, even playing the 20Hz heartbeats.
It was only with multichannel SACDs that I found that the XA9000ES had a consistent advantage, and it was an unfair one. The XA777ES lacks speaker-distance compensation, which the XA9000ES can implement even without other bass-management functions (MCH-Direct). When I set the XA9000ES for equal speaker distances in a system with small disparities (±1') in speaker distance, the two players were only subtly and, in my view, inconsequentially different.
But when I trimmed the distance settings, something magic happened. The center image became more solid, and the more laterally placed instruments were less tied to the L/R front speakers. This was quite noticeable with Salvatore Accardo's violin at the front of the Orchestra da Camera Italiana in a charming series of tangos by Astor Piazzolla (SACD, Fone 021SACD). The instrument had greater body and sweetness, and was more easily distinguished from the accompanying strings. More significant, and quite noticeable on the first two cuts of Telarc's SACD Sampler 1 (SACD-60006)—Monty Alexander's "Moanin' " and Jason Miles' "Badia"—the tendency for side and rear instruments to jump from front to rear, depending on the position of my head, was substantially reduced. The result was a greatly improved illusion of a seamless, stable acoustic environment.
Overall, this little enhancement in image stability was enough to set the XA9000ES apart from every other multichannel SACD player—including the Marantz 8400 and the Linn Unidisk 1.1—in terms of overall multichannel enjoyment. The Marantz, which does offer distance correction and bass management, is simply not as dynamic or as resolving as the Sony, while the slightly drier Linn lacks any individual channel management, instead relying on external components or a perfect speaker configuration. Yeah, right.
Everything I said about the SCD-XA777ES in my review in the January 2002 Stereophile was equaled or slightly bettered by the SCD-XA9000ES, and the new model is an advance on its predecessor in both appearance and operation. As JA concluded in his December 2003 review, after comparing it to competitors going for as much as eight times its $3000 price, the "SCD-XA9000ES is still among the better SACD players I have heard." And, I will add, it's a superb CD player. For all that, it's well-priced.
If you already have an SCD-XA777ES, is it worth trading up to an SCD-XA9000ES? Probably not, unless one of its two significant additions is important to you. With common domestic constraints on multichannel speaker placement, the ability to compensate for unequal speaker distances will be very welcome; for me, it was a dealmaker. The value of the iLink digital connection remains to be determined, as it depends on this standard being used in other components. I had nothing to connect it to, but hope to soon find out if iLink will open up new possibilities in audio-signal processing unconstrained by player hardware.—Kalman Rubinson