Sony CDP-XA7ES CD player Page 3

On material heavily dependent on ambience, fullness, and overall musical perspective, I have to give the nod to the Sony. On Saint-Sa;dens's Oratorio de Noel, the Sony remained the richer and more full-bodied, with distinctly deeper bass. The ARC's bass was perfectly adequate (particularly if you don't have big speakers), but the Sony suggested the word "awesome" on some of the deeper pedal notes (and this on the quieter, more subtle passages), while the ARC did not. The CD1 had a little more air and inner detailing, but the Sony was better at allowing me to forget that what I was hearing was essentially an electronic simulation of reality. It wasn't that the ARC sounded etched—it certainly wasn't. But the sound from the Sony was just simply there: The vocals were sublimely natural, sibilants were sweet. There was a palpable realism, including a stunning yet subtle rendition of depth that the ARC's crisper presentation didn't quite match.

On material dependent on transient speed and inner detailing, however, the ARC sounded noticeably tighter than the Sony—and more open and detailed. But the call here was by no means easy. In fact, every time I thought, "Yeah, the ARC is thumbs-up here," I'd then go back to the Sony and be surprised. I listened to All Star Percussion Ensemble II first on the ARC, and wondered how you could beat its excellent, quick detailing and tight, clear presentation. Well, you can't, exactly (not without spending a lot more money, methinks), but the Sony, while softer-sounding overall, was pristine and liquid—so unforced yet natural that I found myself falling for its charms all over again every time I switched back to it.

In truth, I could live happily with the Sony or the ARC. But there are enough differences between these two exceptional players that they won't necessarily appeal to the same listeners or work best in the same systems. Both are clearly solid Class B.

As a transport
I was able to make two other comparisons. In the first, the Sony was run from its coaxial digital outputs as a transport only, against the Denon DP-S1 dedicated transport. (The Denon costs $8000, more than twice the price of the CDP-XA7ES.) For an external D/A converter, I used the Mark Levinson No.36. The Sony-as-transport had a richer sound than the Denon, with more bass warmth but less high-frequency delicacy and openness. Leo Kottke, for example, seemed a little more heavy-handed with his guitar on the Sony (That's What, Private Music 2068-2-P). But the added body with the Sony did provide a welcome punch on some material. In the final analysis, I preferred the Denon--a long-time favorite—but it was definitely a close call. For those of us on real-world budgets, using the Sony as a transport requires no apology.

Against the '36
But will you ever really want to add an outboard D/A converter to the Sony? Only if your need for perfection is matched by your bank balance. I next set up the Sony so I could use it as designed—as a one-piece CD player—or to drive the Levinson No.36 from its coaxial digital outputs (using a Kimber Cable AGDL cable for the digital link). With the review deadline approaching, I decided to conduct a direct A/B comparison.

With two identical sets of leads, one pair from the No.36, the other from the Sony, feeding separate inputs on the Rowland preamp, plus the latter's ability to memorize different level settings for each input and switch levels as the inputs are switched via remote, such a comparison was a piece of cake.

The result: With the external D/A converter, the bass was tighter and the overall sound "faster" and higher in resolution. Yes, even on a direct A/B (though not a blind one), the differences were audible. Having said that, however, I suspect most listeners would be surprised to hear just how subtle the differences were. There was definitely nothing being blown away here. Was the difference worth the added $4000? For the fussiest of us, perhaps. But by itself the Sony is so good that most of us could easily live with it alone, pocket the change, or use the savings elsewhere in the system, and not look back for a minute.

The Sony CDP-XA7ES is one of those products that continued to sound better the more I listened to it. It's not perfect, but its strengths—a smooth, sweet, detailed sound with natural warmth and a fine, palpable presence—make such a strong statement that searching for flaws is a lot of work with little return. And its aura is not diminished by a feel and apparent construction quality that are the equal of any player—separates or one-piece units—at any price. I could live happily for a very long time with the Sony CDP-XA7ES.

Sony Electronics Inc.
(201) 930-1000