Sony SCD-XA777ES multichannel SACD/CD player Page 2

If you have only two speakers/channels, then you default to two-channel and use the two-channel analog outputs and/or, for CDs, the digital output. You can set the XA777ES to use the six-channel jacks for two-channel SACD if you have a subwoofer, but this won't work for CD—speaker/bass management is accomplished by a newly developed DSD-DSP LSI chip, through which passes only DSD (not PCM) signals. Moreover, in this mode, the XA777ES can't divert its multiple DACs to the stereo analog outputs, and you can't enjoy the advantages of the paralleled DACs through your main speakers.

Sony docs say that the DACs employ a new "multilevel" design with multiple equal-value current sources that are summed to form the output. What makes for a lower error conversion is that the specific sources used for a particular summed output value are randomly selected at each iteration so that errors are not accumulated or repeated. These DACs are the same balanced-output, current-output DACs used in the SCD-C555ES (reviewed by Larry Greenhill in the October 2001 Stereophile), where three of these dual-channel chips serve the six channel outputs. The XA777ES uses six, with one entire dual DAC used per channel for the multichannel outputs and three dual DACs paralleled for each channel in stereo, to improve dynamic range. We did say that Sony was taking a perfectionist approach, didn't we?

The XA777ES's speaker/bass management appears operationally identical to that of the SCD-C555ES changer, so I won't spend much ink on it here. Both machines permit you to define your speaker array and adjust interchannel balance using only the multifunction knob/button and the front-panel display. It worked smoothly, but I had to eat my words from past reviews: I might have preferred to use the video display I now have available!

The options for two-channel SACD are only "2channel Direct" and "2channel+SW," while the six-channel options include the variables of speaker size (Large or Small) and the presence or absence of a center-channel speaker or subwoofer. I tried "2channel+SW" without a SW, but the noticeably rolled-off bass from the main speakers precluded using this as a ploy for using the XA777ES's multichannel jacks in stereo. While I was pleased that bass-management and level adjustments were included, the XA777ES has no facility for adjusting interchannel delay. Sony recommends that you sit equidistant from all the main speakers (L/C/R/LS/RS), but this is not always possible; delay compensation would be nice. Moreover, no balance adjustments are available with the multichannel "direct" configuration, which Sony recommends and I preferred.

Since the XA777ES was originally announced, there have been rumors that it will up-sample and convert CD PCM data to DSD before D/A conversion (footnote 1). Sony's technical docs describe a process whereby 16-bit/1Fs PCM data are up-sampled to 24-bit/8Fs, then converted to 1-bit/64Fs, highly suggestive of such a conversion, but no explicit statement of DSD is made in this context. So, while some may wish to ascribe subjective results to an internal conversion of PCM to DSD, the situation isn't clear and performance at the analog output remains the only important issue.

The XA777ES menu also includes two digital filter settings for CD only. These are described in vague terms as "Standard" ("provides a wide frequency range and spatial feeling") and "Option" ("provides smooth and powerful sound with clear image position"). There is, of course, a myriad of other features including track programming and display options accessible from the front panel or the remote, but I leave these to the user since none of them should significantly influence a purchase decision.

Stereo in the City
I began and finished auditioning the Sony SCD-XA777ES in New York City with my two-channel setup, with Bel Canto eVo 200.2 monoblocks and Revel Ultima Studio loudspeakers, and it sounded better to me at the end. On the other hand, it sounded better and better the more I listened, which I chalk up to my growing enjoyment and expectations rather than to break-in. The basic character of the sound remained consistent, the XA777ES always presenting itself as transparent, uncolored, and even ruthless in exposing detail in every disc I tried. Compared to every other player on hand, even to its own digital output converted by the Mark Levinson No.360, the XA777ES was cooler and cleaner—a refreshing quality that did not pall.

I've commented before on my pleasure in Será Una Noche (M•A Recordings M052A), a CD of tangos conceived by Argentine percussionist Santiago Vasquez and M•A producer Todd Garfinkle, but the XA777ES increased the clarity and openness to an almost startling degree. The soundstage grew in width and depth and individual instruments became more discrete, but there was no loss of coherence. Bass was taut and very well extended. It first seemed that the tonal balance favored the higher midrange, but that was due to a striking lack of any muddiness or other camouflage in that range. All this, mind you, was direct from the Sony's two-channel analog outputs with their six paralleled dual DACs and, therefore, without any assistance from the TacT RCS. Still, the audible difference between the XA777ES direct and the digital output via the Levinson No.360 was similar in nature to that wrought by the RCS.

Footnote 1: I have also heard that the DAC in the XA777ES is the B-B PCM 1738. However, the chips are painted over and difficult to see on their vertical and stacked PC boards, so I cannot confirm this. If they are PCM 1738s, no conversion to DSD would be required since that chip can accept DSD and many forms of PCM directly.—Kalman Rubinson
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