Sony CDP-101 Compact Disc Player Page 3

Through the high-level inputs of the Conrad-Johnson PV-3 preamplifier (reviewed elsewhere in this issue), the sound was so opulently gorgeous it almost defied belief! It was a total incarnation of the perfectionist's wildest dreams: rich, velvety, airy, awesome, liquid, yet incredibly detailed. There were none of the analog disc's problems. No marginal mistracking, no subtle VTA-error distortions, no disc-resonance smearing, no feedback-induced low-end boom or mud, no ticks or pops or pressing grumbles even at the highest listening levels. And there was no analog-tape flutter or modulation noise or transient-rounding or print-through or hiss.

I was impressed, although constrained by what I already knew about the PV-3 preamps's sound from going out on a limb about what I heard.

We all know that digital must have problems, right? Right. Perhaps [the CD] does, but I am in no position as of now to say so with any certainty. What I can say is that the worst problem we have been hearing from many (if not most) digitally mastered analog discs—harsh, irritating high end, particularly from massed strings—was not audible from any of the material I listened to on the CD unit. But I did hear some things I questioned.

For example, chucking the C-J preamp and feeding the CD unit straight into an Acoustat power amplifier, via the passive volume-control box (with short cables to the power amp), revealed a pronounced dryness which was not exactly felicitous to live-music sound. There was still not a trace of stridency or edginess from string tone, but the complex spikes which concertgoers are accustomed to hearing from strings and lower brass instruments sounded distinctly exaggerated, as did all program transients. Turning down the high end on our Acoustat 2+2s helped but did not entirely eliminate a pervasive dryness. (And if your speaker has no high-end balance control, what can you do?) On the other hand, with the Precision Fidelity C-7A power amp, the spikiness sounded in proper perspective, even with the speakers' high end at a higher setting, although a hint of the dryness persisted.

The question I cannot answer is this: was I hearing the CD system or the recordings supplied with it? I can say that I have rarely heard multi-miking so blatantly exposed as it was through the CD. Solo piano, violin, and voice floated in the air fully 20 apparent feet in front of the "supporting" orchestra, and brasses and woodwinds often sounded 15 to 20 feet in front of the violins, thus inverting the usual concert-stage arrangement. And since multi-miking exaggerates detail (which is one reason it was adopted for analog recording), it could have been a major reason for the exaggerations I was hearing under certain circumstances.

Also, much of the material on the sampler disc was mastered during the past four years, a period in which, recording technology has been improving by leaps and bounds. (Most professional recording engineers who have compared the two report that Sony's $1800 PCM-Fl digital processor is significantly better than their three-year-old $20,000 professional PCM-1600.)

I also had a growing feeling that, whatever the dynamic-range potential of digital, most of the program material on the CD discs supplied to me sounded rather compressed. This was later confirmed by measurements (see fig.1). This is not the way to put digital's best foot forward.

Fig.1 Signal Output Readings from three high-tech symphonic recordings: 1) Le Sacre du Printemps (RCA Japan); 2) Russian Easter Overture (Telarc); and 3) The Flying Dutchman Overture (CD). Two segments from each output trace containing the softest and loudest musical notes (arrows) in each selection. The decibel span between arrows is the dynamic range of the recording, as shown on each readout. The Flying Dutchman was the widest dynamic range software supplied with our CD player. (Measurements by Neutrik AudioTracer.)

Thus, judgments about the potential sound quality of this system will have to wait until I gain access to software from audiophile recording companies. And that will not happen until some time in the future.

I did not try the CD on a crummy system, as did Bill Sommerwerck with the PCM Fl (see "Three Tape Systems" in this issue), but it was evident from the few components I did try it on that it has not eliminated or even reduced the audible importance of associated components. True, some different things in the sound (than with analog sources) are affected by changing components, but it would appear that compatibility will be no less important with digital sources than it has been with analog.

Different audio cables, for example, made an audible difference, much to my surprise. I was convinced that cable differences related to the handling of ultrasonic garbage from discs, but am far less convinced of this now, because there is no ultrasonic content from PCM reproduction, except for some noise spikes which are around 80dB below maximum signal level.

On the other hand, I did hear a cassette recorded from the CD on a Nakamichi 680, and there was none of the "spiky" quality that Bill observed when copying from the PCM-F1. Which settles absolutely nothing.