Philips SACD1000 SACD/DVD-Video player Page 3

Before moving on to SACDs, I dug out my most trusty reference disc, Ralph Towner's A Closer View (ECM 1602), and cued up "Opalesque." The Sony's kaleidoscopic quality of inner detail killed me as usual, but there was something alluring and intimate about the Philips' velvety resolution, and the way it conveyed the physical immediacy of Gary Peacock's bass without shortchanging me in terms of instrumental detail...although, for CD playback, I think I liked the CL-20's balance of euphony, body, resolution, and dimensionality a touch more than the Sony's airy ultraprecision. But now I'm spinning out into the ether of rarefied distinctions.

The SACD Experience
All that was left was SACD. After hours of listening, I narrowed down my SACD stash to a final pair of arbiters: a classic analog remastering of Miles Davis' Miles Smiles (Columbia/Legacy CS 65682), and Tom Jung's live-to-two-track DSD recording of drummer Steve Davis' Quality of Silence (DMP SACD-04). After listening to all the preceding reference discs at the same preamp setting, I was shocked to realize what a hot-rod mastering job Miles Smiles was. It sounded more vivid, dynamic, detailed, and dimensional than the CD master, but I was left wondering how much more open and refined the sound might have been had it not been pushed so close to the leading edge of glare—I mean, is this how the master tape actually, factually sounds? This is a good example of how a relatively less revealing digital source might make for a better system match; in this case, the slightly smoother, more distant perspective of the Philips gave the band's locomotive performance of "Gingerbread Boy" a certain sheen, a supple softness, a forgiving musical alternative to the fuller-sounding output of the Sony.

Of the SACDs I've heard, Tom Jung's recording of drummer Steve Davis' experimental improvisations represents the pinnacle of the art of DSD recording and mastering...or it at least rises to something resembling the format's full potential for frequency extension, resolution, and transparency. This is not the deepest, most unlimited soundstaging I've ever heard, but man, the spatial cues are just out of sight. Compared to other SACDs...well, in some of my most recent "Quarter Notes" musings, I've found that other all-DSD productions, while generally very satisfying, seemed to lack something in the way of depth. While each instrument sounded remarkably detailed and lifelike, the sum of the parts felt a trifle surreal. It still comes down to the eternal recording verities: the engineer needs to work creatively with the recording venue's acoustics through the careful placement of quality microphones.

I've always found Quality of Silence's title track (a quartet with piano and sax) to be somewhat fatiguing in the upper midrange/lower treble. I don't know if this could be defined as distortion, but in any case, as with Miles Smiles, the Philips' forgiving musical nature helped save the day. The album's trio tracks (acoustic piano or amplified guitar, standup bass, and cymbal-happy drum kit), such as "Smoke Gets In Your Eyes" and "I Thought About You," are breathtakingly intimate and revealing; and the devotional bass-drums duet on "One Two Free," which begins with the whippet sound of brushes vibrating nothing but air and proceeds through a coiled Afro-Cuban episode, depicts some of the blackest silences known to man. I mean, this is the last word in "live." (Note to Self: Ask Tom Jung to put a DVD-Audio master of this recording in my Christmas stocking so I can have some sort of definitive basis of comparison between the two competing digital platforms.)

A last word on the relative tradeoffs of $1999 and $2500 SACD decks, based on my listening to a rarefied SACD source such as this DMP disc: Pretty damn close. When I listened to Davis' dynamic brush attack on the trio's funkified jazz romp through "Yesterdays," the Philips captured the spatial dimension, while the Sony went one step beyond in terms of absolute resolution.

The Philips Experience
While I feel the two-channel Sony SCD-777ES to have the edge with respect to sound quality, if I were contemplating assembling from scratch a relatively hi-rez multichannel audio-video system and felt constrained by space and/or finances, I'd be hard-pressed to pass up all the goodies the Philips offers. And while the Sony is more massively built, has a more sophisticated transport, and evinces an enhanced level of resolution, it doesn't offer multichannel capabilities, and won't, of course, play DVD-Video discs. Curiously enough, the one area in which the Philips consistently trumps its more costly rival is that it boots up SACDs and DVD-Vs in significantly less time.

When I weigh the Philips SACD1000's tradeoffs against its attributes, the verdict comes back: It's simple, sexy, natural-sounding fun—a disproportionate amount of musical bang for the buck. Other than HDCD, it can play all the digital formats you've accumulated over the past three, five, or 20 years with an exceptional degree of resolution and musicality, while letting you enjoy the latest multichannel breakthroughs and all manner of digital video—to to mention the ultra-high resolution, transparency, and frequency extension that distinguish the Super Audio Compact Disc. And it's all available not next year in Jerusalem, but now, and at a come-on-down price that will let you stock up on SACD software (even at the current immodest prices). For those of you who never imagined there'd be an affordable local stop on the New Digital Millennium Express, people get ready, 'cause the Philips SACD1000's a-comin'.

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