Sony CDP-520ES CD player Page 2

In terms of detail, the 520 sounds moderately veiled in comparison to most CD players (particularly on moderate to high level passages), giving it a somewhat distant sound. Again, this proves to be a benefit on the many CDs that suffer from harshness or glare. The distant sound also imparts a more musical and somewhat slower char™ acter to the 520. The 520 also has a slight electronic air (resembling a very fine grain) that results in a somewhat dry sound, putting the 520 into an unusual category-dry and yet musical.

So, to sum up, the 520 is a mixed bag. Features and ergonomics are excellent. Sound quality is good but not outstanding. It has a "musical" character that's unusual for a CD player, and the ability to make most CDs listenable, despite their flaws. For these reasons, the 520 is recommended for use in upper mid-fi and starting-off high-end systems, particularly if convenience is an important consideration. However, the 520's sonic flaws, while not severe, are sufficient to prevent recommending it for use with a state- of-the-art system.—Steven W. Watkinson

J. Gordon Holt Closes
Japanese audio electronics have long been held in very low regard by audio perfectionists. This was probably only justice doing its thing, because Japanese audio electronics manufacturers have long held audiophiles in equal disregard, preferring instead to aim their products at the audio mainstream: the huge mass market that has established Japan as the leading supplier of home-entertainment electronics.

This perfectionist disdain of Japanese sound is well-founded; there is clearcut evidence that the Japanese ear is far more tolerant of high-end bite and sharpness than the Western ear. (Interestingly, though, our distaste for this HF edginess has not extended to cartridges, where Japan has held sway in the US for the past 10 years.) By and large, the typical Japanese amplifier or preamp or tuner or receiver has in fact been characterized by what most of us judge to be an irritatingly hard, gritty high end.

There have been exceptions to the foregoing rule. A few Japanese firms such as Luxman, Sony, and Yamaha have tried to crack the demanding US high-end market with some truly superb but very costly components, but they soon learned that a new image of audio excellence could not easily unseat a long-standing image of mediocrity, Today, most perfectionists still scorn Japanese electronics.

Although I was initially very impressed with many aspects of the first Sony CD player (footnote 1), the CDP-101, it has since proven to be one of the worst- sounding players ever marketed. Every player I tested since then has sounded a little better than the preceding one, despite the fact that the prices for these improved models kept getting lower rather than higher. My impression of Japanese audio (yes, I was prejudiced, too) was only reinforced by the first CD player from an English company, Meridian, which was the first one I had heard that had no high-end dryness at all. (We in the US don't much care for English electronics, either. Never underestimate the force of xenophobia!) 1 rather assumed that the next advance in CD sound would be the Mission or Cambridge units, both English and neither one auditioned as I write this. I had no idea it would be a Japanese player—and from Sony, no less!

Much of the discussion in recent years about the failings of CD sound have been based on assumptions that certain objective imperfections were audible —assumptions which have still not been conclusively vindicated (footnote 2). Yet the fact is that, as those measured imperfections have been reduced in the so-called second and third-generation players, the sound has grown progressively better. Which, of course, only serves to confirm once again the verity of that audiophile aphorism: "In audio, nothing is perfect and every imperfection is audible." In the CDP-520ES, it would appear that Sony has done everything right.

This is, in my opinion, quite simply the best-sounding CD player I know of. Its sound is crystal clear, exceedingly detailed, and almost totally free from any high-end texturing or roughness. I say "almost" because, with certain recordings, there is an extremely subtle edge at the extreme upper end of the range. And I do mean subtle. It is something that I would never have picked up at all a year ago, and am able to now only because my ears have become more attuned since then to the subtleties which distinguish one good CD player from another. In truth, I must also admit that I hear exactly the same thing, to exactly the same degree, from the high end of the Meridian MCD, which is generally conceded to have the best HF quality of any CD player, so this very slight edge could well be an artifact of those few recordings (or, possibly, an inherent characteristic of the CD system). But to put this in perspective, it is a very, very minor flaw, and occurs with far less severity in these two players than in any heard previously.

Even more surprising (to me) was the 520's low end, which for the first time brought to my attention a shortcoming in the Meridian MCD. By comparison, the MCD's low end sounds noticeably loose and ill-defined. The Sony's sounded awesomely deep, tight, and gutsy. (It turned out that some of the looseness I had been complaining about while reviewing MartinLogan Monolith speakers— review to appear in Vol.8 No.3—was the fault of my signal sources, one of which was the Meridian MCD.) It was undoubtedly that low-end looseness which accounted for the Meridian's somewhat "warm" quality, beside which the Sony sounds completely neutral.

Anyone who believes that CDs cannot reproduce low-level details or a decent soundstage should take a listen to this Sony unit and be prepared to recant! (Try the Opus 3 Depth and Image test record and Telarc's astonishing new Berlioz Requiem release.)

But that's not all. Along with the best sound you can get from CDs, add in the 520's very modest price ($650) and its inclusion of a full-featured remote control module, and this all adds up to a hands-down winner. My hat is off to Sony for demonstrating that a Japanese firm can produce a superlative audio product at a reasonable price.—J. Gordon Holt

Footnote 1: I gave the first solid-state preamps and amplifiers high marks too, being so impressed with their hitherto-unprecedented detail that I failed to notice their concomitant hardness. Mea culpa!!J. Gordon Holt

Footnote 2: Yes, but another large part of the discussion about the sound of CDs has to do with the fact that an overwhelming number of them sound lousy-and still do, even with the best players.—Larry Archibald

Sony Electronics Inc.
16530 Via Esprillo
San Diego, CA 92127-1708
(858) 942-2400

rexp's picture

Thanks for the interesting comparison Larry, so you played the same CD using the CDP-520ES in both systems and one sounded like the vinyl version and one sounded bad (be honest)? We really need to know why??

deckeda's picture

rexp, Mr. Archibald is a former publisher of the magazine; he hasn't been involved with Stereophile since 1999. This is a reprinted article.

John Atkinson's picture
I chose this 1985 review for the archives because of this statement of Gordon's "Although I was initially very impressed with many aspects of the first Sony CD player (footnote 1), the CDP-101, it has since proven to be one of the worst- sounding players ever marketed."

Gordon's review of the CDP-101 is still being touted by some audio skeptics as support for their claims that the first CD players were already as good as the then-new CD medium cold be, yet Gordon himself was honest enough to admit that his praise was misguided.

John Atkinson
Editor, Stereophile

volvic's picture

I have had two CDP 101's and two CDP111's for background music I loved the look but not the sound. Even by early 80's standards long listening sessions were bright and tiresome, violin playing would never sing like vinyl. But first listening sessions always sounded impressive and I bet fooled a lot of people. I laugh when I see people on ebay pawning them off for ridiculously high prices. They were lovely constructed machines but horrendously unreliable; servos, lasers failing after a few hundred hours and sticky doors. But the review brings back great memories of the early days of the CD and the mass marketing the record companies did to get people to buy. I remember Deutsche Grammophon promoting Karajan on CD and Decca doing the same for Solti and Philips for Haitink with posters and banners in every record store. Horrible sound but great memories of great musicians and record stores with physical media as far as the eye could see. Today we have better sound but no great giants in classical music and even fewer great record stores, sadly.