Sony CDP-520ES CD player

Publisher's Note: For the first time since I've published Stereophile, we are running two completely different—and opposed— reports on the same product. Normally, we try to reach some conclusion as to why reviewers come up with opposite views on a product, and resolve the problem prior to publication. In this case, the problem lies in the differing sound systems used for review. Since some readers will have systems like SWW's, and others will have systems more like JGH's, I felt it was valuable to run both reviews.

For the record, SWW's reference system consists of Dayton Wright XG-lO speakers, BEL 1001 amplifiers, a Klyne preamp, a SOTA Star Sapphire turntable, the Well-Tempered Arm (or Sumiko Arm), and a Talisman S cartridge. The sound on analog disc is far preferable to that from CD, being much more alive and present, and with a tendency to exaggerate sibilants. The low end of the system is awesome, the high end extended, and transients are rendered with a great feeling of immediacy and quickness.

JGH's current reference system consists of the MartinLogan Monolith speakers, the Eagle 2 or 7A amplifiers (or sometimes the Paoli S.O.B.s), the Conrad-Johnson PV-5 preamp, the SOTA Sapphire turntable, the Well-Tempered Arm, and the Ortofon MC-2000 cartridge. The sound is almost equally good on analog disc and CD (you have to nitpick the differences—which doesn't stop me!), possessing great midrange transparency and aliveness, good but natural high-frequency extension and delicacy, and low end that is only fairly well extended and tight—compared to SWW's system.—Larry Archibald

Steven W. Watkinson Opens
Perhaps the hardest task for a subjective reviewer is reporting on a product that is good but not great. By this I mean significantly better than most of the competition, but not a match for the best. To unfavorably compare the merely good component to the best available often leaves the reader with an unduly low opinion of a good product, but failing to mention the flaws can be equally misleading.

The Sony CDP-520ES ($650) is such a product. It certainly is better than most of the mass-marketed Japanese CD players; its overall sound is easy to take and there are no glaring problems. That is not to say it has no flaws, but they happen to be the type which are tolerable. To some extent, the 520's shortcomings actually compensate for the rather serious problems found with most CD software.

The 520 is one of Sony's new line of CD players and is the lowest-priced model in the upmarket "ES" series. It uses digital filtering and incorporates a number of technological spinoffs from Sony's development of in-car and Walkman CD players: direct-drive motors (which allow the 520 to locate programmed tracks faster than any player I've used), and improved laser tracking and transport mechanisms that have a very high resistance to both mechanical and acoustic vibration. The 520 is one of the few players I've encountered which does not sound better on a cushioned or suspended surface. Moreover, moderately hard raps on the top and sides of the case did not induce skipping or mistracking.

The 520's styling is sleek and attractive, and ergometrics are a strongpoint. Everything is well laid-out and user-friendly. Despite the very sophisticated programming offered by the 520, controls and features are easy to understand and use. Controls on the wireless remote are similar to those on the player (except for a feature on the remote that allows an instant change to any track simply by pushing the desired track's number). The remote worked flawlessly.

Those familiar with the sound of Sony's prior efforts will not recognize the 520 as a Sony. Its sonic character is about as far from the early Sony units as is possible. The 520's overall sound is warm, laidback, and somewhat veiled in comparison to most CD players. The highs sound muted and are—subjectively at least—somewhat rolled off (though Sony's response curve claims virtually flat response to 20kHz). I suspect that the apparent HF rolloff would pass almost unnoticed on speakers with limited HF extension, but on speakers that are flat at the high end (out to 18kHz or so) the 520's limitations in this area are readily noticeable. As a consequence, there is an absence of air and a slightly heavy character to the sound. This may, however, be more of a virtue than a fault; it makes bright and thin sounding CDs (clearly the majority) fairly listenable.

Except for the HF limitations, the 520 is nicely balanced. There seems to be an excess of warmth in the lower midrange/upper bass, but I expect this is more a psychoacoustic side effect of the 520's HF limitations than an actual anomaly. Certainly, the warmth in this area is not as severe as it is with several well-regarded British turntables.

The 520 does a good job of handling tonal colors and contrasts, both within a single instrument and between in™ struments. The 520's HF weakness again is the culprit that prevents perfor™ mance in this area from being exceptional. There is a loss of upper harmonics on midrange and upper midrange notes. Instruments with significant upper-harmonic content sound dull, and one's ability to easily distinguish certain instruments is reduced.

Bass performance is the 520's strongest point: it is the best I've heard from a CD player. Midbass is leaner than most players, but sounds more natural and less bloated. Deep bass is exceptional in all respects. The 520 puts my own CD player (an NAD) to shame below 32Hz. Energy and detail in the very low bass actually live up to digital's theoretical low-end potential. Low frequency ambience is preserved well and the 520 reveals more about hall dimensions than do most CD players. The overall soundstage and im™ age are typical of CD players: flatter than on a good analog system, but with excellent and very stable lateral placement.

Sony Electronics Inc.
16530 Via Esprillo
San Diego, CA 92127-1708
(858) 942-2400

rexp's picture

Thanks for the interesting comparison Larry, so you played the same CD using the CDP-520ES in both systems and one sounded like the vinyl version and one sounded bad (be honest)? We really need to know why??

deckeda's picture

rexp, Mr. Archibald is a former publisher of the magazine; he hasn't been involved with Stereophile since 1999. This is a reprinted article.

John Atkinson's picture
I chose this 1985 review for the archives because of this statement of Gordon's "Although I was initially very impressed with many aspects of the first Sony CD player (footnote 1), the CDP-101, it has since proven to be one of the worst- sounding players ever marketed."

Gordon's review of the CDP-101 is still being touted by some audio skeptics as support for their claims that the first CD players were already as good as the then-new CD medium cold be, yet Gordon himself was honest enough to admit that his praise was misguided.

John Atkinson
Editor, Stereophile

volvic's picture

I have had two CDP 101's and two CDP111's for background music I loved the look but not the sound. Even by early 80's standards long listening sessions were bright and tiresome, violin playing would never sing like vinyl. But first listening sessions always sounded impressive and I bet fooled a lot of people. I laugh when I see people on ebay pawning them off for ridiculously high prices. They were lovely constructed machines but horrendously unreliable; servos, lasers failing after a few hundred hours and sticky doors. But the review brings back great memories of the early days of the CD and the mass marketing the record companies did to get people to buy. I remember Deutsche Grammophon promoting Karajan on CD and Decca doing the same for Solti and Philips for Haitink with posters and banners in every record store. Horrible sound but great memories of great musicians and record stores with physical media as far as the eye could see. Today we have better sound but no great giants in classical music and even fewer great record stores, sadly.