Music in the Round #36 Page 2

Heretofore, SACD's ironclad copy protection has prevented users from getting a digital DSD datastream out of the player and into a modern processor. Thus, users have had to get their DSD from SACD players' analog outputs, which has resulted in great competition among manufacturers to offer the best D/A conversion and analog outputs for the buck. It has also resulted in arguments and finger-pointing about direct conversion of DSD to analog vs conversion via intermediary transcoding to PCM. All that was quashed with the arrival of the universal players from Oppo and Pioneer, which output DSD via HDMI.

Sony can be justly criticized for what many of us see as their inadequate support of SACD, a medium they created and that many of us continue to know as the best available all-around physical medium for music. But with the SCD-XA5400ES, the latest in their line of statement SACD/CD players, they have stepped up to the plate, recognizing the importance of HDMI for current and future compatibility. And, for stereo aficionados who demand them, Sony has also paid admirable attention to the D/A conversion and analog outputs.

In looks, the SCD-XA5400ES resembles its predecessors, the SCD-XA777ES and SCD-XA9000ES, with a beveled front panel that places the operator controls on a conveniently slanted pane. In fact, looking at the front, one is hard put to identify anything strikingly new about this latest ES model. To the left of the disc tray are buttons for Power/Standby and for selecting Time/Text, Mult/2Ch track, SACD/CD layer, and HDMI activation. When HDMI is selected, the analog and digital outputs are muted. To the right of the tray are the familiar buttons for tray Open/Close, Play, Pause, and Stop. At the bottom of the front panel, from left to right, are a headphone jack, a headphone level control, the remote control sensor, and the track selection knob/button.

The rear panel is different. Stereo pairs of RCA and XLR outputs replace the multichannel arrays of RCA jacks on earlier ES players. No analog multichannel outputs are provided. Instead, a single HDMI jack is centered at the top. There are coaxial and TosLink digital outputs, but these are for CD playback only. There are also connections for IR remote link and an IEC power input. More telling is the presence of two switches. One turns on/off the digital output, the other selects between multichannel and two-channel priority for HDMI output. There are no controls, nor are there any menus in the SCD-XA5400ES, other than for selecting and programming tracks. The SCD-XA5400ES will not manage bass or channel levels, or mix down a multichannel signal to two-channel stereo. It outputs stereo analog, balanced or single-ended, or a digital signal via HDMI—a lean, simple, powerful SACD/CD machine.

Sony's Technical Background paper spends a lot of words on SACD processing but says little about the player's CD processing, except to describe an 8x-oversampling filter and a noise shaper that result in a 2.8224MHz signal-sampling frequency—the same as that of DSD. "In this way, the SA-DAC presents both CD and SACD signals to the final converter stage in the identical 1-bit/64fs form." The explanation, presumably translated from Japanese, is not entirely clear, but if Sony is implying that CDs played on the SCD-XA5400ES should sound pretty close to SACDs, I think they have a good case.

I connected the SCD-XA5400ES via its XLR or RCA outputs to the Parasound P7 for stereo in my main system, and thought the Sony a revelation with regular CDs. The differences between the two-channel SACD and CD tracks of many discs disappeared, and better CD recordings were revealed as sounding detailed, spacious, and luscious. Among the ones I sampled, I particularly enjoyed the open acoustic, low-frequency richness, and bass impact of Peter Oundjian and the Toronto Symphony's new recording of Bruckner's Symphony 4 (CD, TSO Live TSO-0608). The legendary Marc Aubort is listed as the engineer, so this recording's general excellence is not too surprising—but even so, the transparency and dynamic range were outstanding for the "Red Book" standard. Another was a collection of early symphonic works by Rachmaninoff performed by Gianandrea Noseda and the BBC Philharmonic (CD, Chandos CHAN 10475)—the SCD-XA5400ES illuminated Chandos's typically warm, reverberant acoustic with stunning new clarity. (If you appreciate, with good humor, the blaze of youthful impetuosity that is Rachmaninoff's Symphony 1, Noseda's reading is brilliant.)

There was good news with SACDs, too. Compared to the SCD-XA9000ES, which I've kept as a reference and which outweighs the SCD-XA5400ES by 36 to 22 lbs, it was a clear victory for the newcomer. Coupled with the top-to-bottom clarity and detail shared by both players, the SCD-XA5400ES was definitely smoother, especially in the treble, and much more satisfying for long listening sessions. The older player almost seemed to be saying, "This is what's on the disc, like it or not"; the new one, "This is what's on the disc. Isn't it glorious?"

But enough of things analog and stereo. It was the SCD-XA5400ES's multichannel digital output via HDMI that caught my attention when I first saw it at the CEDIA Expo last September. The Sony and the Integra DTC-9.8 preamp/processor shook hands in comradely fashion, as indicated by the stable HDMI display on the former and the DSD display on the latter, and that's all it took. Shouldn't multichannel digital audio connections have been this simple from the beginning?

Through the Integra, the Sony sounded as good as the best SACD and CD sound I have heard from my multichannel system. It wasn't consistently better, but I suspect that the DTC-9.8's analog stages might have been the limiting factor here. I very slightly preferred the SCD-XA5400ES to either of the Oppo players on hand, and, without question, to using the Denon DVD-3910 player via the Integra's analog inputs.

My final thoughts on the capabilities of the SCD-XA5400ES will have to wait until I can hear it in a more resolving system. So consider this the first of two reports. Very soon I expect to receive an Anthem Statement D2v processor for my Connecticut system, and a Meridian HD621 HDMI switcher for the Manhattan system. Both should permit me to come to a more subtle and determinate assessment of the SCD-XA5400ES's performance via HDMI than I can right now. Let's just say that, for the moment, I have yet to hear a better SACD/CD player.