Sony CDP-X77ES CD player

With Sony's latest flagship single-box player ($1700), we find yet another variant on 1-bit D/A technology—High Density Linear Converter, or HDLC. At the heart of this Pulse Length Modulation (footnote 1) D/A technique is Sony's CXD-2552 Pulse D/A converter (two per channel in complementary mode in the CDP-X77ES). This complex LSI chip incorporates a third-order noise shaper, the PLM converter, and a digital sync circuit receiving its input from the system clock. Preceding the Pulse D/A converter is an additional CXD-1244 noise-shaping digital filter which performs the initial oversampling; combined with the filtration within the Pulse D/A itself, the total oversampling rate is 64x. A third-order, high-pass analog filter at the output converts the PLM pulse train into an analog signal. In addition to exceptional linearity, Sony claims that this converter achieves a dynamic range of 124dB. Impressive, but perhaps a moot point; the dynamic range of the signal coming off of a CD is limited to 96–100dB by the basic limitations of the CD system itself (16 bits times just over 6dB per bit).

Most of the features of the CDP-X77ES are controlled from the supplied remote. Sony has its own variation on FTS, dubbed Custom File, and their own Shuffle Play. With Custom Edit you can determine the best way to fit selections onto a cassette when dubbing your CDs. A digital fade feature is also available—it fades the current selection to silence and puts the player in pause. Unbalanced fixed and variable outputs are provided (the latter not controllable from the remote, but via a front-panel potentiometer—which also controls the headphone output), as are balanced outputs. Coaxial and optical digital outputs are also found on the rear panel.

The CDP-X77ES has a solid, substantial feel and look which seem more than skin deep. Everything about its physical appearance and feel says "expensive" in no uncertain terms, from its gloriously smooth and quiet drawer action to the feel of its controls. (The only tacky touch was the artificial wood-grain over particle-board endcaps—though the grain and finish were first-rate.) It did, however, develop a glitch after a few weeks of operation. The drawer began making a "chirp" just before it opened with no disc inside (it was silent when opened with a disc). It sounded rather like a brief scrape of plastic parts. Other than that, the action remained smooth and silent.

The Inside Story
The external visible quality of the Sony continues with its internal appearance. The case is jammed full of multi-layered, multi-sided boards with good-quality parts visible throughout. The two large (large in the context of preamps and CD players, not power amplifiers) transformers are located well away from the rest of the circuitry. Two other small transformers near the balanced outputs clearly are used to drive the latter. The weight of the X77 is reflected in what's inside. The slight noise heard just before the drawer opens appeared to be caused, not by plastic parts, but by the bottoming of the CD center support (the mechanism which actually rotates the CD) as it drops slightly on release from the upper clamp prior to the drawer opening. It appears to be the sort of problem a warrantee service facility (not specifically Sony's, but almost anyone's) would balk at fixing—like trying to get a squeak fixed in a new car.

Sound Quality
The first CD player I owned was Sony's original CDP-101. That machine took a lot of heat in audiophile circles for its sound quality—much of it justified, if my experience was at all typical. But there were a lot of things that player manufacturers still had to learn in 1983. They haven't been standing still, least of all Sony. Their latest single-box flagship—the CDP-X77ES—is a convincing demonstration of their progress.

The X77 was the most vibrant, luscious-sounding player of the five models I reviewed this month. (The others were the CAL Aria Mk.III, NAD 5000, Mod Squad Prism, and Philips LHH500.) Vocal and instrumental timbres were rich, full, and fluid. Perspectives were just a bit on the forward side, enough to give the sound an appealing "thereness" without jumping into your lap. Textures were smooth and grainless. Detail was there in abundance, yet never jumped out and demanded that the listener pay attention. Bass was full and deep, shading toward softness rather than driving tautness—just about in the middle ranks of the present group as regards definition and detail, but at the top in extension and solidity.

There were, however, a few more twists and turns in my route to full appreciation of the Sony's virtues than had been the case with, especially, the CAL Aria Mk.III. With the Sony, I was immediately impressed by its smooth, relaxed detail and complete absence of the usual (and thankfully becoming less usual) digital artifacts. String detail on guitar was fully formed yet did not dominate the body sound of the instrument. Small groups of naturally miked acoustical instruments were sweet and open-sounding—without fatness or unnatural warmth. Soundstaging was consistently good (given its presence on the recording, of course), though never really striking. Vocal reproduction was consistently in the top rank. And digital glare was minimal.

But I was troubled a bit by the X77's tendency to soften transient leading edges. The "jump factor" that gives much music its excitement and drive was subdued. In view of digital's tendency to become excessively analytic and cool, I have to say that I found this omission to be inoffensive. But I did miss some of the drive in the instrumental backing to "Bird on a Wire" (Famous Blue Raincoat, A&M YD 0100/DX 3182), though Jennifer Warnes's voice was arrestingly reproduced. I would have preferred a bit more air and transparency in the audience sing-along on "Waltzing Matilda" from Two Gentlemen Folk (Telarc CD-84401), and longed for more fire, snap, and inner detailing in Willow's complex, visceral orchestration.

It was when I got down to serious comparison with the Esoteric transport/processor, however, that the Sony's overall competence finally won me over. On A Shout Toward Noon, the Sony was decidedly sweeter and warmer in sound—actually making the Esoteric appear a bit cool and dry in comparison. Though the Esoteric seemed to grab more detailing from the disc (without going to excess), the Sony was definitely the more musically engaging. With My Blue Heaven the reduction in transient impact from the Sony seemed less significant than it had when listening to the X77 in isolation, though the Esoteric remained the more appealingly incisive and transparent. But the Sony's way with vocal reproduction more than made up for its marginally softer overall sound.

Still, that slight loss of transient impact was a limitation. At the start of "Joan Of Arc" from Famous Blue Raincoat, bells are heard at a very low level. On the X77, their leading-edge sounds practically disappeared. With the Esoteric, they were clearly defined, though still appropriately subtle. On the soundtrack from Aliens (Varese Sarabande VCD47263), the transient impact and enhanced three-dimensionality of the Esoteric made the music "work" in a way that the Sony could not. But the sound of the Sony was still entrancing, its vocal reproduction, in particular, luscious and lucidly sweet. And despite its slight tendency to softness, it was never obviously lacking in detail.

The Sony/Esoteric combination had none of the dryness and HF grain of the Philips LHH500. Bass was tighter, transients regained their delicacy. The soundstage became deeper, the overall presentation captivating.

And so it went. It was clear to me the ways in which the Sony fell short of the performance of the reference. It was equally clear that I sometimes found myself actually enjoying the Sony more. While I ultimately preferred the Esoteric overall, that preference was not clearcut across the board. Considering the difference in price, that's saying quite a lot.

The sign of a topnotch component, for a reviewer, is the difficulty of tearing yourself away from it when it's time to go on to the next evaluation. The Sony continually begged to be listened to just a little longer—a siren song hard to resist.

My top recommendations in this shoot-out have to go to the CAL Aria Mk.III and the Sony CDP-X77ES. Both excel in reproduction of the midband—the vocal range in particular. Neither is quite as striking at the frequency extremes, but their overall balance of virtues ultimately won me over. I marginally preferred the Aria overall on the basis of its lively, affecting clarity. But tomorrow I may get up and vote for the Sony for its smooth, sweet, yet deceptively detailed and three-dimensional sound.

The Sony will be a powerful attraction to those who want to have their subjective cake and the objective icing to go with it—its performance on the test bench was nothing short of stunning, the Aria's merely competent. The more I listened to both players, the better I liked them; both drew this listener into the music in a way that the other players did not. And there's not much more besides that that needs to be said.

Footnote 1: Sony's name for Pulse Width Modulation (see Sidebar, "Is a Bit Bits?").
Sony Electronics Inc.
16530 Via Esprillo
San Diego, CA 92127
(858) 942-2400

Allen Fant's picture

Thanks! for the memories. My 1st cd player back in the 80's was a Sony ES (for better or worse). In 2016, I am still an "ES" fan.
It is like never forgetting your 1st taste, I mean, 1st cd player.

volvic's picture

I still have 2 cdp-111'S and have owned several 101's and quite few ES players over the years. Some were more reliable than others but the construction was solid and I thoroughly enjoyed the machines. To me it represents Sony's glory years. Good times, thank you as well for the memories.

latinaudio's picture

I still own a Sony XA7ES, also reviewed in the magazine.
A later model than this one, with the fixed laser beam mechanism, is still in use with flying colors: smooth, clear, pleasant sound.
The shortcomings of a unit in a review not always correlates with the pleasure of its use on the long term. In this case, it seems to me that the reviewer hit the nail when he said that "both drew this listener into the music in a way that the other players did not".
18 years after my Sony still made that, although surpassed by new designs.
Call that value !