Sony SCD-XA9000ES SACD player Page 2

These discs revealed something I have been musing about for a while: that the DSD encoding used on SACD gets instrumental tonal colors right in a way that, while not unknown with CD, seems fragile, with more of a chance of becoming diluted. The odd thing is that this benefit was apparent even with an SACD mastered from a recording that was originally PCM: Andrew Litton's 1999 SACD of Mahler's Symphony 2, with the Dallas Symphony Orchestra (Delos DE 3237). Though scored for vast orchestral forces, Mahler's music depends much of the time on the tonal contrast and interplay between smaller-scale instrumental groupings. The Sony player managed to preserve the maximum differences between instrumental voices, and when it came to human voices...soprano Heidi Grant Murphy's emergence from the choir in the Langsam, misterioso section of the work's final movement raised goosebumps (footnote 1). The tonal contrast between Ms. Murphy's liquid treble and the darker quality of mezzo-soprano Petra Lang was delightfully apparent with the Sony.

As a CD player, the XA9000 was no slouch. After some experimentation, I ended up sticking with the Optional filter, which I found more palpable, to use an overworked adjective. (The filter setting is not available from the remote, unfortunately, which makes comparisons difficult.) With the Optional filter, the natural, unforced quality of the Sony's vocal reproduction was evident on CD, though not to quite the same extent as with SACD. Even so, the delightful Pie Jesu from John Rutter's Requiem, from a 2002 CD produced by the composer (Naxos 8.557130), lacked for nothing.

Fortuitously, the Sony arrived while I had both the Krell Standard and Musical Fidelity Tri-Vista SACD players and Linn's Unidisk 1.1 universal player in-house. I compared the players using both SACDs and CDs, matching the levels to within 0.1dB at 1kHz using the Mark Levinson No.380S preamp's input offset function. (This was rendered more complex than it should have been, due to the fact that none of the players offered the same maximum level of SACD playback as they did for CD.) It is important to note that, much of the time, the differences between these players were very hard to hear. (Peculiarly, they were easier to detect with CD than SACD.)

Against the $14,000 Linn Unidisk (reviewed elsewhere in this issue by Kal Rubinson), the Sony had slightly greater low-frequency extension, the left-hand register on Robert Silverman's Beethoven piano sonata CDs (OrpheumMasters KSP830) sounding slightly more robust. The players were virtually indistinguishable in the midrange and treble, but if I had to swear, I'd say the Linn was very slightly drier overall. The singers on Cantus' new Deep River CD (CTS 1203), for example, sounded a little farther away from the mikes, the mix a little lusher, via the Sony.

The $6000 Musical Fidelity SACD player uses miniature tubes in its output stage and is a favorite of both Sam Tellig and Michael Fremer. Against the Sony, it sounded distinctly richer in the lower mids, with more palpable imaging. Although the Tri-Vista sounded a little more reverberant on the choral arrangement of "Danny Boy" from my Editor's Choice CD (Stereophile STPH016-2), it was, paradoxically, the Sony that gave the impression of the window on the soundstage being that little bit cleaner. The Sony oh so carefully drew the leading edges of transients compared with the Tri-Vista, but this was at the expense of its high treble occasionally being a little emphasized, particularly on CD. The chiff that begins the sound of each note of the flute in the Mozart Flute Quartet movement on Editor's Choice, for example, sounded a little detached on the XA9000, better integrated with the body of the instrument's tone on the British player.

The objects within the soundstage were thus more clearly delineated by the XA9000, but presented as being more of a whole by the Tri-Vista. Which is right? I engineered, mixed, and mastered all of the selections on Editor's Choice, so I should know, right? Actually, compared with the master computer file of the Flute Quartet, played back on the Mark Levinson No.30.6, the two players fall to either side of strict accuracy: the Sony a little too clean, the Musical Fidelity a little too muddy.

Where the more expensive player drew ahead of the XA9000 was in the bass. Yes, the Sony had better extension compared with the Linn, but the Tri-Vista had more upper-bass bloom. The ending of Mahler's Symphony 2, where organ pedals and timpani thunder out the falling-fifth/returning-E-flat-scale phrase that acts as the symphony's keystone, may have been awesome via the Sony, but it was cataclysmic via the Musical Fidelity.

The $4000 Krell Standard is closer still to the Sony's price. I auditioned CDs and SACDs using its Filter 2, which is closest in audioband response to the Sony's Optional filter. The two players sounded extraordinarily close to one another; it took a lot of critical listening to determine that the American player had a slightly more robust presentation, that it sounded very slightly louder, despite having its level at 1kHz matched to that of the Sony within 2mV at 1V. Brian Areola's solo tenor on the Debussy Invocation on my Editor's Choice CD, for example, was presented more forward in the mix than it was by the Sony. Perhaps—and only perhaps—the Krell sounded softer in the top octaves, with a slightly less clear delineation of transient leading edges. Despite that, however, the flute on my Mozart recording had a little more sibilance through the Krell.

Summing Up
While it may not offer quite the sense of palpability of the twice-the-price Musical Fidelity Tri-Vista SACD player, or the overall knock-you-off-your-feet sound of the $26,000 dCS Verdi-Elgar Plus combo, Sony's $3000 SCD-XA9000ES is still among the better SACD players I have heard. And this is considering it only as a two-channel player, remember—unlike the two other machines, the Sony is a full-featured multichannel player, complete with bass management and other channel adjustments. I shall be passing the XA9000 on to Stereophile's "Music in the Round" columnist, Kalman Rubinson, for a Follow-Up report both on its capabilities in that area and for a direct comparison with its distinguished predecessor, the SCD-XA777ES. However, this will not be before I have enjoyed another couple of weeks of the XA9000's excellent music-making.

As I write these final words, I have loaded the Sony's drawer with what I believe is the first SACD to come from Linn Products: a new completion, by Robert Levin, of Mozart's Requiem in a spirited performance from Sir Charles MacKerras and the Scottish Chamber Orchestra (CKD 211). I select track 8, and the lurching string figure brings in the choir for the Lacrimosa—sonic heaven that brings a tear to my eye!

Footnote 1: I was fortunate enough to be able to record Ms. Murphy for a Stereophile recording the month before this Dallas SACD was recorded, singing Marc Neikrug's settings of Pueblo Children's Songs. Bravo (Stereophile STPH014-2) is available from this website's secure "Recordings" page.
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