As I write these words, it's the height of the fall catalog season in the Atkinson household. Whole old-growth forests must have died to ensure the everyday stuffed state of our mailbox, which adds to the sense of guilt I feel as I pitch the offenders into the trash without even giving their insides a passing glance. But there are three catalogs I do look forward to receiving, that I read from cover to cover, that I deface with multicolored Post-It notes. The Audio Advisor catalog is, of course, a no-brainer for an audiophile. But the Griot's Garage and Levenger catalogs get equal billing from me. For both offer tools (used in the widest sense of the word) that appear to have been designed by people who actually use tools, who appear to care about quality, and who appear to feel that a product that breaks while it is being used for its intended task is an offense against God (footnote 1).
There's an old Spanish proverb: "If six people call you an ass, start braying." A contemporary corollary might be that if enough audiophiles insist a product is the best ever, it behooves the "experts" to check it out. At least, that was John Atkinson's thinking when he suggested I audition the Oppo Digital DV-970HD universal disc player ($149).
I suspect that the faces of many of the readers who thumb through the pages of Stereophile must resemble those peering out of some Norman Rockwell representation of Americana: little children, their noses pressed hard against the display window of an urban department store in the weeks preceding Christmas, eyes aglow at the sight of some epic model train or exquisitely detailed dollhouse. So near, yet so far.
At the Consumer Electronics Show in January 2001, Pioneer announced the US launch of the DV-AX10, the first of their long-awaited "universal" disc players, previously available only in Japan. Right out of the box, it plays SACD (two-channel only), DVD-Audio, DVD-Video, CD, and CD-R discs. For two-channel operation—which is exclusively how I examined it—and via its easy-to-navigate menus (footnote 1), I set the DV-AX10 to two channels as the default for all modes, including SACD. Except for hybrid discs, which I'll come to presently, the DV-AX10 is, blessedly, a set-it-and-forget-it machine.
Playback Designs was founded less than three years ago. However, with the release in 2008 of its MPS-5 Music Playback Systema slim, full-featured SACD/CD player and DAC that costs $15,000 and is built in the USthe company has since established itself as a significant player in high-performance digital audio.
Rarely have I anticipated the arrival of a review component as I did the Sony SCD-1 Super Audio CD player. I'd first heard the machine itself with the enthusiastic audiophile hordes at Chicago's HI-FI '99. I'd also been lucky enough to enjoy a few of the Direct Stream Digital-encoded recordings Tom Jung had made for DMP right off the hard drives of a prototype DSD processor via Ed Meitner electronics. (See my interview with Jung elsewhere in this issue.)
Having the Philips SACD1000 in my system promoted me to spill some ink about the Sony SCD-777ES. In the months I've had this SACD player in my system, my experience of music has been enhanced to the point where I feel more and more confident about the aural judgments I'm called on to make—because I'm convinced that I'm listening to a digital source on which I can bet the ranch.
John Atkinson flapped his bushy eyebrows at me and smiled slyly. "Hey, J-10, why don't you do the Sony SCD-C333ES SACD carousel player for April?" Usually, when JA gets that look on his face, I seek shelter. The phone bripped suddenly in my office, but I knew it was too late. "Oooo-kay..." I smiled back, thinking of Stereophile's recent covers and the hubbub, bub, thick as it comes, that they'd produced. (See "Letters" in the February and March issues.)
It was a late Friday afternoon in May and I wasn't having much luck getting into Sony's multichannel SACD demo room at the Home Entertainment 2001 Show. Surely, as a member of the audio press and a freelance writer for Stereophile, I should have no trouble. Not this time. After several polite "Nos," a Sony consultant managed to snare for me the last ticket of the day.
Sony's first flagship Super Audio CD player was the two-channel SCD-1, reviewed by Jonathan Scull in November 1999. (The $5000 SCD-1 had balanced outputs; the cosmetically different but otherwise identical $3500 SCD-777ES had unbalanced outputs and was reviewed by Chip Stern in April 2001.) Sony's second-generation flagship player, the $3000 SCD-XA777ES, was reviewed by Kalman Rubinson in January 2002, and added multichannel capability with channel-level adjustment and bass management. Sony's third-generation flagship is the SCD-XA9000ES, also priced at $3000, which adds time-delay adjustment for its multichannel analog outputs and is presented in a smart new styling that Sony calls "Silver Cascade." The disc drawer and the most frequently used controls are on the angled top half of the brushed-aluminum front panel; in the lower half are the display, the headphone jack and its volume control, and the multifunction control knob.
If you search for "DVD-A" on this website, you can get the whole confusing story of the format, which has been the subject of one of the strangest format launches of recent years: First it's on, then it's off. The watermark is audible. No, it's not. Oops, it is—back to square one. There's software, there's no software. (There's not—only one demo disc officially available in September 2000, when I wrote this review!)
Perhaps I first should have consulted my horoscope in the local newspaper. But I can't imagine what it could have said that might have warned me off. So, in blissful ignorance, I went to the local big-box consumer-electronics chain retailer and laid down my lettuce. I thought I was buying the SACD version of Norah Jones' Come Away With Me (Blue Note 5 41472 8), but, by the end of the affair, I felt I'd gotten The Royal Scam (footnote 1).
Home Entertainment 2004 West in San Francisco might have been called off last November, but I wasn't about to let that stop me from taking a trip to visit the wine country—except that the wine country in question turned out to be the wine country of Southern New England.