Sony SCD-C333ES SACD/CD player Page 2

I balanced the player as carefully as I do the Accuphase DP-100 transport—so that it was perfectly level atop the Bright Star Air Mass and sand-filled Big Rock combo. Why bother? Well, there's little doubt in my mind that, when contemplating the tuning/decoupling game, paying the most attention to the front-end, be it vinyl or a CD/SACD transport/player, yields the most immediate results. As sonic improvements are generally more easily discernible on the front-end, it may shock even the most jaded objectivist to keep on experimenting.

And for a mechanically spinning device, leveling just makes sense, despite the tight servo-loop that keeps the laser tracking what can be some shockingly warped discs! I well remember the huge pumping gyrations and excursions of the laser mechanism of a YBA CD 3 I had running on the top shelf with its cover removed. The inside view gave me an instant understanding of the frantic mechanical happenings that are quite transparent to the user in typical disc play. That laser really jumped around trying to maintain "optical contact" with the pits.

I carefully placed a trio of jumbo DH Labs ceramic cones, pointy-side down, between the bottom chassis of the '333 and the top MDF plinth of the Big Rock. The second-best sound was achieved using Black Diamond Racing cones and squares.

Now don't get your bowels in an uproar, as my dad used to say, but I also tried the '333 on a "hard mount": the top shelf of a PolyCrystal rack and plugged straight into the wall rather than the PS Power Plant, with no footers or Shakti Stones. In fact, that's how I began auditioning the player. I treated it like any other high-end component here for review: I listened to it for a while, then maximized its placement, cables, associated equipment, and power requirements. In the end, I implemented each tweak separately and listened for its effect; the final optimized setup was a clear improvement in the sound.

For instance, although I found the Cardas Neutral Reference to be the best-sounding interconnects between the Sony and the Mark Levinson No.32 Reference (a preamp I still greatly admire), I could get a slightly faster, more open overall presentation, especially in the highs, using the Linn Silver interconnect. However, I lost something important in the midrange that way. The best interconnect between the No.32 and the Krell FPB 350Mcs (capable, killer monoblocks) was Synergistic Research Designer's Reference, Active Module on (after trying off), and using the full-power connectors on the long runs to the amps. (In general, the half-power carrying connectors have proved best when used with front-end components, or even "passive"—Active Modules disconnected—for "merely" Discrete Shielding with no active current in the shields, which work best with the dCS gear.) And during the review, while swapping speaker cables, I discovered the utterly sophisticated charm of the AudioQuest Everest speaker cables.

Surprisingly, the best PS Audio Power Plant setting for the '333 turned out to be SF8, not the SS5 setting I typically use in conjunction with the Accuphase/dCS/Linn front-end digital gear when it's playing.

No matter how humble your system, you can always improve the sound by concerning yourself with setup and resonance control, especially with a carousel unit that's sure to vibrate internally more than a single-disc machine.

The Full Monty for 1200 bucks?
Not quite...but SACDs sounded damn good! What I noticed almost right away was a sort of "furring up" of the Sony's sound in comparison to the other, more expensive SACD players I've auditioned. It wasn't unpleasant; on the contrary, it had a tendency, especially compared with regular CDs, to sound a touch more velvety and rich. Let's call it a slightly less sophisticated way with music, a touch more rough in texture, but still possessed of that special ease that SACD gets so right. But that's looking for a downside in a very upside picture; overall, SACDs played through the SCD-C333ES sounded terrific—cause enough to celebrate.

Take the second movement of Chausson's Andante & Allegro, from the French SACD/CD Musique Français pour clarinette et piano, with Florent Héau and Patrick Zygmanowski (Lyrinx LYR 2195). Both layers of the disc are wonders, but just play the Allegro for anyone who wants to know what the big deal is about SACD. The clarinet sounded full, life-bearing, round, and nicely set out in space, with a good sense of air and the original recording environment. The piano, slightly recessed in the soundstage, sounded full and expressive, if somewhat muted. But the overall presentation should have SACD Doubting Thomases plotzing in their listening chairs. Gorgeous sound.

Then I flipped to the CD layer. As I found throughout the auditioning, the CD section of the '333 was very kind to 16-bit/44.1kHz recordings. I always began with the Standard filter, then flipped through the other four if I didn't find satisfaction, which was rarely the case. Filter 1 sounded fine on this disc, with the expected reduction in performance from SACD to CD. Filter 2 immediately gave me an extreme LP feeling, according to my notes; very nice. It made me feel closer to my father for a moment, even as my analytical brain was telling me the Standard filter was "better." But Filter 2 sounded charmingly ambient and much more French, you might say! This is a wonderful recording that belongs in every SACD collection; patronize Lyrinx (available through Acoustic Sounds).

When I played the SACD layer of another Lyrinx hybrid offering—Jean-Claude Pennetier and the Orchestre Philharmonique de Monte-Carlo under Serge Baudo playing Beethoven's Piano Concertos 1 and 3 (LYR 2186)—it was evident that I was listening to a relatively small hall and that everyone involved was having a jolly good time. As a sweet red rose to Ludwig, a kiss and promise never to forget, the music's sublime. The greatest living orchestra? Well, not quite.

Musically, the Largo from Concerto 1 is great, perfectly suited for a codependent jazz fanatic like me. The recording soundstages rather flat, even for SACD, but the lovely tonal colors make it live, along with a good level of ambient detail. I found it a little hot on top, but that could be the hall or microphone placement. Nevertheless, I can recommend both Lyrinx recordings for their pure musical enjoyment, that wonderful level of ease and detail that shines through more clearly on the SACD layer.

I've been listening to the SACD of Duke Ellington's Blues in Orbit (Mobile Fidelity Sound Labs UDCD 757), which you can still find despite MoFi's untimely demise. It's absolutely fabulous, of course, and while I love the Duke at his most suave self, at the piano, singing and playing some of his smaller works, I have to admit that "Smada" put me right back in the black'n'white ambience of Ken Burns' recent documentary, Jazz. "Pie Eye's Blues" is as classic and approachable as it gets—like taking a warm, relaxed sonic bath. It's got a BIG ambience with nicely burnished horns, but it's here that the attentive listener can nitpick that the Sony's sound was a bit less refined than that of the Accuphase duo on hand, and slightly less wonderful, perhaps, than the Sony SCD-1 itself managed, if memory serves. Nevertheless, it was lovely, and clearly superior to 16/44.1.

Listen to the way the piano fades out at the end of "Pie Eye's Blues," before you grab your honey and dance to the divine "Sweet and Pungent," which follows. Man, does "Pie Eye's Blues" swing, but in a low-key Ellington way that still sounded a bit splashy on the cymbals. Another example of Why Quality Costs More, Part Deux.

Pardon me for stickin' with the Duke, but he's irresistible. "C Jam Blues" is another well-known favorite that swings a nice piano sound center rear, making it easy to picture the Duke pickin' it out for the crowd. It's completely joyous to hear, and this is one of the big things about SACD. In my view, non-audiophiles won't be able to help themselves when they hear this kind of sound, and they'll want more. Some of them, anyway. Pick up on the violin sound in this piece, a sound unheard of with 16/44.1—wonderful, natural detail, even if still not the sweetest thing in the world.

By now our younger audience is wondering if I've had a blowout on the info highway; where's the "new" music I've been listening to of late? I went back over to CD and cued up track 1 of St. Germain's Tourist (Blue Note 5 25114 2). "Rose Rouge" is a good song, but keep it away from a hi-rez system if you wanna save your ears! Start with track 2, "Montego Bay Spleen," which is much better recorded, pick up the trance/dance vibe, and nod your head along with me. And a-one and a-two...St. Germain is very Parisian in its gestalt; "Land of..." has a great organ opening, very full and enjoyable on the '333, engaging, attractive, nicely transparent for a modern recording, and sounds kickass great when the trumpets come in about 1:00 into the track. You'll kvell. I did.

My final test was to listen to Kiri Te Kanawa sing Mozart's gorgeous-beyond-words Laudate Dominum (CD, Philips 412 873-2). Yes, it was lovely and inspiring, but didn't sound as fine as on the way upscale Accuphase, or, for that matter, on the dCS 972 outputting a DSD signal to the dCS Elgar Plus. The more expensive machines sounded better. As they should.

The SCD-C333ES's CD playback wasn't the best these snobby ears have heard, but it was plenty enjoyable. In general, I found the '333 fairly open and rhythmic on 16/44.1, slightly tipped-up in the upper mids, and a little soft on the very top, with a really engaging midrange that forgave all other sins. SACD was another ballgame entirely. In either mode, the SCD-C333ES had really good bass and a fine midrange; SACD just upped the ante.

So can you have it all for $1200?
It was anything but a chore to sit down and enjoy music on the Sony '333. That's really important, and, I believe, the subliminal message of SACD—its sense of continuousness and naturalness comes through "even" with the '333.

You get a taste of the best with the '333 but you don't get it all. It's like the "Light" version of a program you get bundled with a scanner; for "full functionality," you have to buy the fully enabled software. But for an ostensibly mass-market machine, the SCD-C333ES gets close. It's good enough that Mom, Sis, Bud, and Biker Billy might hear an SACD on a '333 and stop in their tracks. "Hey, that sounds pretty good—what is it?"

So bravo, Sony. You're still pointing to the stars with the '333, even though the more expensive units—the Sony SCD-1, the Marantz SA-1, and the Accuphase DP-100/DC-101 duo—are like the Hubble telescope, floating above our biosphere, imaging with pristine clarity, unmolested by the "windshield" of our atmosphere. CD playback? Still on Earth. And that's it in a nutshell.

Quality will out. There is hope.

1 Sony Drive
Park Ridge, NJ 07656
(800) 222-7669