Sony CDP-X555ES CD player

I'll give the Giant Japanese Conglomerates one thing: they build their CD players like Humvees. The Sony CDP-X555ES ($900) exudes pride in ownership; from the simulated-wood side panels to the copper-shielded chassis, the Sony is a very impressive-looking player. Typically, however, Sony chose to marry a very sophisticated digital section with what appears to be a standard mid-fi analog section featuring Texas Instruments 5532 dual op-amps, carbon composition resistors, and inexpensive electrolytic coupling caps. The 555ES has both fixed and variable outputs, and a Toslink optical output. There is no coaxial digital output.

Among the many engineering highlights are the "Direct Digital Sync" anti-jitter circuitry, 8x-oversampling digital filter with 45-bit internal registers, separate power transformers for the digital and analog sections, and the star of the show: Sony's own 45MHz Complementary High Density Linear Converter DAC system. Sony maintains that "the primary component inside a CD player that determines the sound quality is the digital-to-analog converter," and even include several graphs showing different DAC linearity patterns and their characteristic sound qualities. The Sony CXD-2552 DAC chip has four complementary outputs; in the '555ES, two such DACs (one for each channel) are used to create eight outputs, which simultaneously increases the dynamic range by 6dB by reducing even-order harmonic distortion and doubles the output current. In addition, Sony's Direct Digital Sync circuit minimizes jitter at this critical stage.

Like the Denon 2560, but unlike the JVC XL-Z1050, both of which I review eslewhere in this issue, the Sony player couples advanced technology and flawless build quality with mediocre sonics. And again like the Denon, its only real strength was its bass, which was lean, clean, and powerful. But good bass alone does not a CD player make.

The biggest problem with the '555ES is in its rendering of space; there isn't any. Faraway sounds are reproduced at the correct level, timbre, etc., but there is a distinct lack of ambient envelope that tends to sterilize all music played through it. Even JA's piano recording on the Stereophile Test CD was stripped of the ambient dome, the reverb tails that tell you this was recorded in a hall, not a black hole. This has the unfortunate effect of squashing depth, so that front-to-back distance is effectively neutered for all practical purposes. On the Cowboy Junkies disc, the drums sounded as if they were right behind the vocal, and you KNOW that ain't right!

Tonally, the Sony is quite bright, with the glare and stridency typical of mass-market CD players in general. I really heard no improvement with the '555ES over many of the sub–$300 players, Sonys included, that make up the vast majority of units found in non-audiophile homes. Strangest of all, there seemed to be a very odd phasing anomaly in the midrange, which absolutely destroyed any kind of image integrity. Margo Timmins sounded decent if I held my head locked in one position, but if I moved even slightly to one side, her image collapsed, wandered, or otherwise changed timbre. Listening to the same track over the Theta DS Pro Basic, Sonographe SD-22 CD player, and Audio Alchemy DDE, her image held up no matter where I moved my head. Subjectively, this quirk had the effect of forcing me to lock my head in a vise; hardly the kind of thang I want to come home and nuzzle up to at the end of a long day.

I found myself reacting to the Sony the same way as I had with the Denon: either agitation or boredom, and no combination of cables, plug polarity, or sticking a triangle of electret-foil between my cheeks made matters any better. Sony may build very reliable, solid CD players with a ton of features, but unfortunately in the case of the CDP-X555ES, good sound quality isn't one of them.

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