Music In The Round #5 Page 2

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.

Audio Refinement Pre5
Yet another multichannel preamplifier? Nah. Just as the McIntosh C45 that I wrote about in March is dressed up to look and work like a traditional stereo preamp while accommodating two multichannel inputs, the Audio Refinement Pre5 is a true two-channel stereo preamp with a concealed multichannel capability. Apparently, Audio Refinement, the value-priced line from YBA, took a simple stereo preamp package and added four more decks to the input selector and volume control (but not to the monitor switch, footnote 1). They then adorned the rear with a few extra jacks to handle the ins and outs. That's it. What they have achieved for $995 is a very attractive package.

You either love the Pre5's sleek but Spartan design or you don't. I do, and for that reason found its operation obvious and uncomplicated. The front panel has input-selector and volume knobs. Between them are five LEDs that indicate the inputs. The knobs are flanked by two pushbuttons: Power on the left, Tape Monitor on the right, each with its own small LED. On the back are stereo outputs for main amp and tape deck and stereo inputs for CD, Tuner, Tape, and Aux 1 and 2, as well as a power input socket, power switch, and fuse post. Power control jacks for associated power amps are provided. The remote control is optional.

The Pre5's small but rigid chassis sits stably on three isolation feet. Inside, the power transformer is suspended to reduce vibrations; outside, the construction is of nonmagnetic materials. So far, nothing to divulge to the inquisitive that this is anything but a tidy stereo preamp.

All is revealed, however, by the presence of what Audio Refinement calls a DVD input and a DVD output. Of course, one can (and I did) plug a universal player into it. These arrays of six RCA jacks each could be used as an additional stereo input in the absence of a multichannel source. Also, the front L/R outputs parallel the main outputs, so that the Pre5 can do double duty. This wiring arrangement permits the Pre5 to run a stereo power amp and a multichannel power amp simultaneously or alternatively, as needed. It's a neat arrangement for those who wish to keep some separation between these operations, employing a fine audiophile amp and speakers for stereo and a more HT-oriented setup for multichannel.

Hookup is almost nostalgic: multiple stereo inputs labeled with traditional names, and no setups or displays. The lack of a standard remote control is hard to accept today but that is amendable at some extra cost. Operation is uncomplicated. Turn the Pre5 on, wait a few seconds for it to stabilize, pick your input, and set the volume. If the source is stereo, it comes out that way. If it's multichannel, you get that. A no-brainer.

The sound was decidedly punchy and impressive but untiring—sort of like putting a dynamic tube preamp into the system. The Pre5 added an excitement to the sound that often made me want to dance. (Those who know me will be stunned.) Bass had heft and definition, the midrange was nicely balanced and detailed, and the highs were even and open. I missed a little detail in the upper end compared with other multichannel preamps, but the difference was tiny and my ears readily adapted.

Nonetheless, the Pre5 was not so good a match for the Adcom GFA-7805 power amp, with which it shares that limitation, as it was a complement to the Bel Canto eVo6 or Bryston 9B-THX amps. With those amps, James Taylor was clearly front and center, although surrounded by his group, on the SACD reissue of Dad Loves His Work (Columbia CH 90750). His voice was full, with its characteristic raspy edge, and the instruments had presence and impact.

Like the McIntosh C45, the Pre5 lacks any interchannel level trimming; that job must be performed elsewhere. With the channels trimmed in the Marantz 8400 and bass-managed by the Outlaw ICBM, the Pre5 made an easy and excellent intermediary between its two- and multichannel functions. At its asking price of $995, it's a bargain as a stereo preamp. Throw in the multichannel input/output and it's hard to even think about comparing it with the Bel Canto, McCormack, or McIntosh units, which are all much bigger and more costly. For the money, all of those offer a bit more transparency and air, with the right sources and amps, than did the Pre5. With all its blandishments, the C45 is functionally similar, but the Pre5 had a warmer, somewhat less forward sound. It mated well with any of my speaker-amp setups and made hunting for the discontinued Sony TA-P9000ES multichannel preamp unnecessary.

The Pre5 is an incomparable value for those wishing to make a gentle transition from two channels to more.

Footnote 1: If you hit the Pre5's Monitor button while listening to a multichannel source, only the main L/R channels are switched to the stereo tape inputs, and the remaining channels are not muted. While a multichannel tape loop was not promised, I had been using the Monitor button as a mute and was surprised when only two channels behaved as I expected. This only underscores the very stereo nature of this device.