Sony SCD-XA777ES multichannel SACD/CD player Page 4

After listening to the Berlioz disc, which I found sonically impressive but musically unfulfilling, I was much more fascinated by Benjamin Zander and the Philharmonia Orchestra's new recording of Mahler's Symphony 5 (Telarc 2SACD-60569). This ain't your father's Mahler 5; it's nervous and unsettled, and even the Adagietto never seems to find ease enough to take a full breath. So, while I might not return to it for pure satisfaction as frequently as to other Mahler 5s, it communicates with an intensity made possible by a superb multichannel presentation that absorbs me in the experience more fully than with stereo—all of Zander's and Mahler's points are made perfectly clear.

Here, too, the switchover to the SACD 1000 confirmed that the XA777ES provided a broader, less restraining acoustic. I also heard how the conflation of room resonances, both of the recording site and of the listening room, can muddy the tone of midbass instruments in stereo, and how this was improved in multichannel. Because multichannel provides more cues about the instruments relative to the performance space, the ear-brain system can better distinguish instrument from space and yet have no doubts about the instrument's residency in that space. In addition, the semblance of that space overrides awareness of the listening room's pernicious influence to a substantial degree.

The double bass of Thorvald Fredin on track 12 of the Opus3 SACD was transformed from a large but somewhat over-resonant voice in stereo to a bowed instrument with a distinctive timbre in multichannel. Plucked bass, as on the Pilhofer Jazz Quartet's rendition of "Yesterdays" (Full Circle, DMP SACD-14), became a full melodic voice in multichannel, the warm, obscuring aura heard in stereo removed. Similarly, Peter Wispelwey's cello tone on Saint-Saëns' Cello Concerto 1 (Channel Classics CCS SA 16501) was clear and full in stereo; when I switched over to multichannel on the SCD-XA777ES, I found the cello sound equally rich but audibly originating from a set of vibrating strings attached to a single wooden cabinet with a specific location. Distinguishing soloist from orchestra when they were playing together was a piece of cake in multichannel, just as in the concert hall.

And while the Telarc Berlioz made for some nearly breathless moments, the immediacy of voices and instruments in smaller and much closer ensembles, such as the Pilhofer Jazz Quartet on DMP, could be even more striking. Chesky Records' David Johansen and the Harry Smiths was one of my "Records To Die For" last year, but I hereby withdraw that nomination in deference to the new SACD version (Chesky SACD225). Johansen's voice has even more warmth and humanity, the percussion and guitar strings have truer transients—even the thigh-slaps are more real. The music breathes so much more naturally.

While the step from CD to two-channel SACD on the SCD-XA777ES was rewarding, the step up to multichannel was addictive and polarizing. The Johansen disc through the Sony SCD-XA777ES provided me with a rare audio epiphany: How could I have been so happy with less?

The XA777ES is a top-class CD player whose price might be justified without regard to its SACD capabilities. Whether that's due to its multiple paralleled DACs, the use of a separate laser head for CDs, its tank-like construction, or any other attribute, is moot. This is the first SACD or DVD-Audio player in my experience to offer no performance concession to any dedicated CD player. You've got to accept the Sony's cool, clear view of the music without any coddling of harsh transients or glare, but when you do, you can also expect it to deliver great musical satisfaction when the source material is up to snuff.

As an SACD player, regardless of the number of channels in use, the SCD-XA777ES is a perceptible advance on the Philips SACD 1000. The Sony's transparency transformed my multichannel experience from one of hopeful investigation into one of thorough musical enjoyment. I wish I'd had the opportunity to compare it with the illustrious SCD-1 or its predecessor, the SCD-777ES, but so strong is my enthusiasm for this moderately priced but more capable model that I can't imagine that such comparisons could dampen my recommendation: The Sony SCD-XA777ES establishes a new standard for SACD reproduction in my experience. No baloney.

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