Sony SCD-1 Super Audio CD/CD player Page 6

How about 16/44.1 PCM?
This will be an important question for many of you. I mean, put the magazine down for a moment (but only for a moment) and contemplate your music. If you're like many readers, you've just looked at a roomful of CDs spilling over everywhere. (We won't even talk about the thousands of LPs crammed into every nook and cranny!) For most of us, saying "Welcome to my listening room. Have a seat!" is something of a non sequitur. The point is, how does this chunk of $5000 two-channel player do 16/44.1 PCM?

Just wonderfully, thank you very much. It's those filters. One way or another, you can make your entire collection sound not only "good" but quite fabulous, assuming it was well recorded in the first place. As good as upsampled 24/192? I knew you'd ask. Nope. But that's comparing $5k to almost $20k of digital front-end. Money still buys you something.

Using the hybrid discs plus a plethora of 44.1kHz CDs I regularly play through the dCS 972/Elgar, here's what I found. In direct comparison to their SACD counterparts, PCM-layer recordings with STD ("Standard") filter engaged evinced a slight flattening of soundstage depth even as the focus remained quite good. There was slightly more interstitial noise and thickness in the air between and around various performers. The tonal balance was pretty good, with no immediate "cheapening" of the sound; massed vocals sounded perhaps a touch less powerful, a tad less individually distinct and separated. But taken altogether, quite good.

When refinishing a wood floor, it's important to seal it immediately after sanding. If an unsealed floor becomes wet, you get an effect called "feathering"—water soaks into the grain and the surface of the wood swells and lifts slightly. That's the sense I had when listening to the PCM version of recordings in comparison to the SACD version. Under max SPLs with the chorus flailing on the Stabat Mater, there was a touch of roughening evident. In Nature's Realm, the subway rumble was more distinct and less rubble-strewn, as I seem to have written late one night. The strings also sounded a tad sweeter in SACD while still retaining their lovely sheen in PCM. And the air and spaciousness in PCM just isn't what can be heard in the SACD versions.

Ah, but with the filters you can fix a lot of that. Plump up the midrange if you will, or loosen the bass with a touch more bloom. Whatever. It's easy to find the optimal filter for any CD in your collection. You can make the recording sound more lush and ambient, or dial in tighter bass with greater transparency, or enhance vocals until they become so utterly palpable your spouse will think you're cheating!

As I got to know the SCD-1 better, choosing a pleasing filter quickly became second nature. Lou Reed took Filter 3, Hooverphonic and Massive Attack liked Filter 1, Filter 2 for Patti Smith. So it went. Note that I said a "pleasing" filter. Given how some CDs are mastered, why beat yourself up over accuracy? Yeesh. If you want Sony's best stab at "accurate," leave the filter on STD.

Choosing the right filter is very hands-on and entirely dependent on the recording and your system. I found it a bit like dialing in feedback on a tube amp. With the trigger-happy, lightning-fast Linn Klimax amps I could "open up" the filters more than with the other amplifiers on hand. Milt Jackson's vibes on The Modern Jazz Quartet (Japanese eastwest AMCY-1165, 20-bit) were more "visual," his mallet strokes more pinpoint and immediate with the STD Filter engaged. Filter 1 bloomed the acoustic more, the imaging of the vibe strokes were less sharply focused, and the bass loosened up slightly.

The filters don't always do it, however. Listening to my favorite Carmen Suite No.2, with Bernstein and the NYP (Sony SMK 63081, SBM), I noted: "Only STD gets the proper spatial setup; any other filter compromises the imaging. But man oh man, does it sound sexy anyway. Who's going to explain 'shagedelic' to Sony Japan?"

The highs could be lovely, especially when tuned to a T with the filters. But on one or two occasions I found the SCD-1 less satisfying than upsampled 24/192. (I'm talking CD here, not SACD, which has an altogether more refined presentation.) Massed strings or heavy-handed upper frequencies could get the merest bit piercing in comparison to the upsampled PCM sound. I'm not calling the Sony piercing, understand; it's just that certain 16/44.1 CDs could sound more that way with it than when those same CDs were played back on the dCS combo.

For example, Miles Davis is recorded a bit "hot" on Ascenseur pour l'échafaud (Fontana 836 305-2, CD). It was a little hair-raising on the SCD-1 with the STD filter. Filter 2 to the rescue. Notes: "A touch more voluptuous and round now, more tubelike. Filter 3 on 'Dîner au Motel' has me melting completely into the black-and-white ambience of this film noir soundtrack. The magic of that moment in time! Louis Malle recording Miles and crew improvising as they watch major scenes from the film, Jeanne Moreau tending an informal bar. Can you smell it?" The odor was more distinct with the dCS, but I could still smell the sense of that moment as conveyed by music on the SCD-1.