Sony CDP-XA7ES CD player Page 2

It did. My first reaction, coming from living with a more expensive player—the Theta Data III transport driving the Mark Levinson No.36 processor—was no letdown. Initially, listening first to Rickie Lee Jones's version of "Under the Boardwalk," from Girl At Her Volcano (Warner Bros. WPCP-3710, Japan), I thought the overall sound excellent, though with a hint of graininess (more powder than grain) at the extreme top end. But that virtually disappeared on further listening. Whether the improvement was due to acclimatization on my part or breaking-in on the part of the Sony I won't speculate, but the more I listened, the better the top end sounded. In fact, contrary to that initial observation, on a lot of program material the Sony had less grain than I'm accustomed to hearing with lesser players.

There was nothing obvious or overt about the Sony's treble: It had an inherent sweetness that was impossible to miss. It could be so smooth, in fact, that I thought it soft-sounding—until material came along with strong, complex, high-frequency transients. On All Star Percussion Ensemble II (Golden String GSCD 013), I could almost count the individual instrumental strands; details both subtle and pronounced were given full exposure without ever jumping out at me. There was no sense of "Wow, listen to me!," but nothing was missing. The same was true of Mokave's Afriq;aue (AudioQuest AQ-CD1024). And when the program got complex, the Sony's detailing held up without congestion or smearing.

Nor did the midrange disappoint. When I last reviewed a Sony CD player—the CDP-X77ES, way back in January 1991 (Vol.14 No.1)—I remarked on its rich, full-bodied, palpable midrange. I can certainly say the same for the CDP-XA7ES. Vocals were spot-on in their balancing of detail and warmth. Neither forward nor laid-back, sonic perspectives were nearly ideal. Imaging, while perhaps less pinpoint than I've heard from other players, was superbly natural. And while I've heard depth just as good from a number of other top-quality CD players and combinations, I haven't heard better on my system.

And the Sony's bass? Not, perhaps, above criticism—at times it seemed a little looser and less crisply defined than the best I've heard. But these minor nits paled in comparison with its depth and power. The bass whacks that punctuate "The Long Ships," on Enya's Watermark (Geffen 24233-2), were as strong and potent as I've ever heard them on the Energy loudspeakers. The organ on Saint-Saëns's Oratorio de Noel (Proprius PRCD 9057) shook the room.

So far, it sounded as if the Sony would be hard to beat in any respect. And it was hard to beat—but not impossible. It could sometimes sound just a little too smooth. This, which I remarked on above in discussing the Sony's high-frequency response, actually affected the entire frequency spectrum. A degree of musical excitement was sometimes sacrificed for an easy-on-the-ears sound. James Horner's Patriot Games soundtrack (RCA 66051-2), for example, had a little less tension than it should. There was also less intertransient silence—the proverbial "black background"—than I hear with some of the best separate players and transports. But I hesitate to make too much of this. Furthermore, "excitement" can be a euphemism for an overly bright, unnaturally detailed sound—a word not in this Sony's vocabulary. I was also able to tighten up the sound noticeably by careful selection of the system's absolute polarity. The Sony was revealing enough to let me clearly hear the effect of switching the Rowland Consummate's polarity-reversal switch—which is something that doesn't happen that often.

Balanced or un-
All of the above observations were made with an unbalanced connection from the Sony to the Rowland preamp (using the fixed outputs) and from the Rowland to the Aragon power amp. But the Sony also has balanced outputs. How did these affect the sound? I compared the Sony's balanced and unbalanced outputs using identical lengths of the same TARA Labs interconnect (one set balanced, one unbalanced). I did keep the unbalanced connection from the Rowland to the Aragon: The latter lacked balanced inputs, and while a balanced-input power amp was available to me, I continued with the Aragon rather than interrupt the flow of the listening and change another variable (the power amplifier).

At matched levels, I found the differences between balanced and unbalanced operation of the Sony either totally elusive or favoring the unbalanced configuration. The balanced connection sounded a little softer, with marginally reduced transient detail. But the result depended on the absolute polarity of the system. In fact, I found that the absolute polarity made noticeably more difference to the sound than switching between balanced and unbalanced connections. I returned to the unbalanced mode for the remainder of my listening.

Audio Research comparisons
By a lucky coincidence, we had a new sample of the Audio Research CD1 CD player on hand, awaiting a Follow-Up by Wes Phillips. Since the ARC is directly competitive with the Sony in price, a comparison of the two machines was a no-brainer.

The most obvious difference between the two players was the Sony's richer, fuller sound. On Dead Can Dance's Into the Labyrinth (4AD 45384-2)—beautifully recorded in a natural church acoustic—the CD1 was a little brighter and more obviously detailed on top, the Sony more subtle. The ARC's bass also sounded tighter, though the Sony's bass was clearly deeper and more powerful.

Sony Electronics Inc.
(201) 930-1000