Sonographe SD-22 CD player

While many of the "modded Philips" firms simply replace the plastic "Philips" or "Magnavox" logo with their own after completing all their internal circuit mojo, for the Sonographe SD-22 ($895), Conrad-Johnson goes quite a bit further by wrapping the stock plastic flimsy-luxe box with their own heavy metal skin, making for a much stronger and nonresonant chassis. Unlike many of the modkateers, C-J doesn't replace the fairly flimsy stock RCA jack assembly of the Philips machine; in my experience, this is one of the first things to go bad on such a unit, as the contact integrity is usually poor and gets worse. Replacing the RCA assembly with high-quality gold RCAs would've raised the price of the SD-22 another $50–100, but I think the long-term reliability might be worth it. The SD-22 has no digital-out jacks, only analog outputs.

Looking inside reveals the previously barren right-hand side of the Magnavox chassis to be filled to the brim with C-J's own analog board and additional supply regulation. As with all Conrad-Johnson designs, extreme attention is paid to the power supply; in C-J's Tor Sivertson's words, "The audio circuit and the power supply can be compared with a scissor; to make a clean cut, both blades must be sharp."


And as with previous C-J designs, the usual electrolytic power-supply caps are eschewed in favor of expensive film types. While it's becoming fairly common practice for designers to bypass power-supply 'lytics with small-value film caps in order to lower supply impedance at high frequencies, C-J is one of the very few companies to utilize film caps exclusively in many of their power supplies. In a nice touch, the Philips CDM-4 transport's hold-down clamp is damped from vibration with what looks like white modeling clay.

The analog stage is unique among CD players; whereas the bitstream SA7321 DAC's analog output is usually taken to an op-amp–based filter/gain stage, in the SD-22 the DAC's analog output feeds a discrete-FET 35kHz 3rd-order buffered Bessel filter with unity gain. Tor Sivertson explained that to increase the SD-22's output to the de facto 2V RMS standard would require an additional gain stage, along with its attendant coloration. Because of the much lower than usual output level, Tor stresses that the SD-22 not be used with unity-gain preamps such as the many passive designs on the market as well as my own Homemade Buffered Passive Preamp detailed in the November '91 issue.

Well, where I'm from, we don't let no Norwegians tell us we cain't use no unity-gain preamps, no SIR; luckily, with my volume control fully cranked, I got a just-usable playback level out of the Sonographe CD player, although this is most certainly due to the higher-than-average sensitivity of the VTL 225 amps. I'm not saying I was blown out of the room, but it was loud enough to dig on a fairly consistent basis. I would recommend, though, that you couple the SD-22 with a preamp with a bit of gain under more normal circumstances; ie, if you're not bound by the Reviewer's Sixth Commandment: "Thou shalt not run one CD player through a gain stage when all others are auditioned without one" (footnote 1).

Ah, the Sonographe. What a sweetie of a CD player, what a musical, easy on the ol' hammer-anvil-stirrup sound. If it had enough output to go with my gainless preamp, I'd probably buy it outright; if your preamp's more typical—ie, has gain to lift the 10dB lower level of the SD-22 to drive your amplifier—this is where you should start shopping. The Sonographe is so good, so sonically pleasing, that I find myself smiling even as I two-finger this review out.

For starters, the SD-22 is LUSH. Oh man is it lush! The high end is a bit rolled-off for sure, but god, man, who cares when it's this LUSH? I put on Coltrane's A Love Supreme one night, and by the end of the disc I was wearing an orange Nina Simone dashiki and eating peeled plums in the lotus position. I just couldn't focus on matters of image depth, soundstaging, tonal balance, etc. with the SD-22; with well-recorded CDs, I got lost in the music every time.

Even though it's all FET, the Sonographe is clearly a C-J design: it's got the warm romance of tubes in spades! Is it accurate in the abso!ute sense? Who GIVES a damn? The SD-22 is clearly not the most neutral, straight-line-with-DAC player available; in fact, I'm not even sure it was ever designed to be that "accurate" in the first place. But what it positively excels at is communication of the real essence of the music, and I'm beginning to feel that THAT is the most important goal a piece of audio gear should strive for. Look, life is too damned short; the way I see it, you either: a) Lie on your deathbed with the whole family weeping around you, wheezing, "AHA! [cough cough] I finally achieved total, perfect accuracy in my hi-fi system! [gasp] It took 50 years and the kids' college money [gasp]...but I showed 'em! HAHAHAHAHA [UNGH!]...r-rosebud...[slump]"; or b) Find gear like the SD-22, the Spica TC-50 speakers, the old Dynaco Mk.III tube amps; components that somehow, in the face of obvious deviations from that straight'n'narrow, allow the organic, emotional feeling of music to stir, enthrall, and enrich your life.

Uhm...I choose B.

About the only areas I found lacking in the Sonographe were the final octave of bass and the ultimate dynamic ceiling, both of which I felt were somewhat restrained. But it was only on certain recordings I noticed these faults, like JA's Chopin recording on the Stereophile Test CD; when Anna Maria bashes on them 88s, the sound doesn't quite leap out at you like it does with the Theta DS Pro Basic, or even the Audio Alchemy DDE, which really suffers in all other areas with the SD-22. The bass is good, but not spectacular; it's fairly tight and well-defined, but this is not a ballsy-sounding player. Rather than bowl you over with the thunderous drum thwacks on Reference Recordings' Fiesta! disc, the Sonographe reproduces them as clearly defined images at the back of the Myerson. Nothing bowls you over about this player, except how good you feel while listening to it.

I listened to a lot of rock on the SD-22, and I think that music lovers who listen mainly to rock should give this player a very careful audition. I liked it with every recording I played on it, but while discs like the new Red Hot Chili Peppers' BloodSugarSexMagik (Warner Bros. 26681-2) certainly came across as gutsy, raw, and powerful, the SD-22's superior focus tends to mercilessly unravel multi-miked recordings, sometimes to the distraction of the music. The slightly rolled-off high end helps with harsh-sounding discs, though; in fact, the SD-22 sounds very much like it was "voiced" to complement good analog-based systems. If you've spent a lot of time optimizing your gear, cables, and speakers for digital, you may find the SD-22 too polite. But if you're still an analog stalwart and want to add CD without throwing your system out of whack, the SD-22 may be heaven-sent.

One strange bit: the review sample stopped abruptly at 9:43 into track 8 of the Chesky McCoy Tyner CD, every time; it would simply stop playing, as if the disc had ended. It didn't do this on any other disc I tried to repeat this with, nor did any of the other players stop at that point with the Tyner disc. Maybe C-J, like the Navajos, purposefully sewed a "flaw" into the SD-22, so, like the Navajos with their legendary blankets, they wouldn't be forced to mock their gods. Attention: I am kidding.

If this player had a coax digital output, this would be the one I'd recommend for Chris, but the boy's got that Theta Fever; you can see it in his eyes, in the way he holds his fork and knife. Sooner or later, he will get the Theta, so the SD-22's lack of a dig-out jack is, for him, a fatal flaw.

Summing Up
With the shortcomings noted, the Sonographe SD-22 is a highly musical player, offering an even more involving listening experience than many of the lauded megabuck processors I've heard. If it's accuracy you strive for, look elsewhere. But if you're looking for a rich, emotionally stirring, always-satisfying CD player under a grand, the SD-22 is one you need to hear. Highly recommended for the peeled-plum eater in all of us.

Footnote 1: The others are:
I. Thou shalt not get Gear that representeth current production.
II. Thou shalt not finish writing a review of a Japanese product before it is discontinued to make room for a new model.
III. Thou shalt not cusseth, discusseth thy bodily functions, or otherwise deviate from describing the inner liquidity of thy Gear.
IV. Thou shalt not speak Jack Lord's name in vain.
V. Thou shalt not covet Scottish women with large husbandry.
VII. Thou shalt not sayeth "fart," even if thou dost.
VIII. Thou shalt not feel avarice toward Bob Harley when thou seeyeth all the cool stuff he hath in his system.
IX. Thou shalt resolve to write a little bit every day, but wind up writing the whole thing until 4am the night before deadline anyway.
X. Love Thy Reader.
Conrad-Johnson Design Inc.
2800R Dorr Avenue
Fairfax, VA 22031
(703) 698-8581

hollowman's picture

I was just looking at the print issue this review was in (Feb 1992).
The Sonograph was one of several CDPs CG and TNJ reviewed in a "shootout" of mid-priced players.
The Sonograph review above makes much more sense in the CONTEXT of ALL the reviewed units.
One important point being that the Sonograph was worst-measuring of the set.
Another important aspect was that each of the CDPs utilized different DAC and DF topologies (Bitstream, multibit, various oversampling rates, etc.).

So ... JA (or to whom it may concern): please publish rest of review! Thx!

hollowman's picture

BTW ... I noticed that Stereophile used to publish squarewave in its Measurements (as in this 1992 review) .
I haven't seen them in over two decades (??). When and why did Stereophile quit this practice?