SOTA Vanguard II CD player Page 2

Compared with my analog sources, the Vanguard's soundstage was a bit forward. Rather than starting behind the speakers, the front of the soundstage began right at the speakers. Nothing wrong with that—just different from most analog sources in my systems. Soundstage width was as good as any CD player I've ever heard—that is, some analog sources seem wider, but whether that's a coloration or "the way it is" is debatable. Soundstage depth was quite decent, but not mind-boggling—slightly better than most CD players I've heard in my own systems. Unfortunately, all CD players I've heard seem somewhat flat compared to analog phono sources. I can't in good conscience report that the SOTA's depth was fully three-dimensional, but it was rather like deep bas-relief. While there was definitely a convincing hierarchy of depth to the SOTA's soundstage, there wasn't the separation and space between instruments that I've come to expect from the best analog sources.

This player was the best digital source I've had in my listening rooms. But just because it's the best digital source I've had doesn't mean it's the best digital source there is (footnote 5). Compare And Contrast is the name of the audio reviewer's game. It was time for...

A trip to Gordon's house
After living with the SOTA for nearly six months, I figured I'd better trundle off to Gordon's listening room, where I could compare the SOTA mano a mano to the Sony CDP-X779ES CD player that JGH reviewed in Vol.16 No.6). It was, as are most of my evenings with Gordon, very educational.

First we listened to a brand-new CD I had just received from BBC Music Magazine: Berlioz's Symphonie Fantastique, performed by the BBC Symphony directed by Andrew Davis, and recorded live in Tokyo's Hitomi Kinen Kodo Hall. We auditioned it first on the SOTA. Both JGH and I noticed that the sound hardened and lost focus as the music went from f to fff. Gordon said the bass drums lacked weight. We also noticed the almost excessive "hall sound" portrayed by this recording. Since this was our first listen to this disc, we assumed that the recording engineer had chosen a slightly distant mike position, and that perhaps the hall was overloading during dynamic peaks. Then we listened to the same piece through the Sony.

What a transformation! Suddenly there was low bass. Suddenly the hall stopped overloading at dynamic peaks. What we had assumed was "hall sound" on the recording actually appeared to be the SOTA adding a bit of "ambience," as well as hardening slightly on dynamic peaks. Curiouser and curiouser. The $1900 high-end consumer Sony machine was bettering the $2500 audiophile SOTA.

Next we listened to Emma Kirkby and Anthony Rooley on Olympia's Lament (Nonesuch 79125-2). First we used the Sony. Very nice. It was easy to separate Kirkby's voice from the hall reverberation. It was also easy to tell that the recording engineer had used an accent mike on Rooley's chitarrone. When we listened to the same cut on the SOTA, Kirkby's voice lost a bit of midrange warmth. The SOTA seemed to smear and reduce the spaces between her voice and the hall's reverberations. Rooley's chitarrone lost some of its melodiousness, gaining a slightly more percussive signature. In short, the Sony sounded more natural, more like a real musical event.

Finally, we listened to one of Gordon's favorite CDs, a Koss recording of Vaughan Williams's Symphony 7, "Sinfonia Antartica," narrated by Roger Allam and conducted by Raymond Leppard (Koss KC-2214). This is one hell of a recording, with awe-inspiring, dynamic crescendos, silky strings, blustery horns, and tumultuous cymbal crashes. Once more, the Sony ruled, with superior dynamic range, better low bass, and far less congestion and "smokiness" during crescendos. The SOTA sounded as if it ran out of steam during dynamic peaks, and also added a bit of gratuitous space.

Round Three was another clear win for the Sony—point, game, match to the Sony, send the SOTA to the showers—the Sony just sounded better.

I'm not going to recommend a player that is thoroughly bettered by another machine that's $600 cheaper and a year out of date. The SOTA may have been superior to any digital player I've had in my system, but that doesn't mean it's a good value. It only means that I've been digitally underprivileged (footnote 6). There's no reason you should suffer my fate. Listen to the SOTA Vanguard if you wish, but please listen to other machines as well—especially the Sony. You, too, might choose to pass the Vanguard by.

Robert Harley takes a listen
Since I had the Vanguard for bench testing, JA asked me to compare it with some comparably priced digital products previously reviewed. It happens that the combined cost of the best CD transport under $2500 (the $1695 PS Audio Lambda) and the best digital processor under $1000 (the $895 Meridian 263)—in my opinion—nearly equals the Vanguard's. How does the single-chassis $2495 Vanguard CD player compare musically to the $2590 PS Audio/Meridian separates?

I auditioned the Vanguard driving an Audio Research LS5 (through the ARC BL2 Balanced Line Driver) from the Vanguard's fixed-level outputs. The LS5 fed Audio Research's new VT-150 tubed monoblocks, which in turn drove Thiel CS3.6es via an 8' run of AudioQuest Sterling. The digital interconnect between the Lambda and the 263 was an Aural Symphonics Digital Standard. Analog interconnects were AudioQuest Diamond on both the Vanguard and 263. Two pairs of Acoustic Sciences Tower Slims and one pair of Tower Stouts treated the built-from-scratch listening room.

It didn't take long to get a handle on the SOTA's character, even before auditioning the Lambda/263 combination. The Vanguard was thin, bright, hashy, flat, and congested. Comparing the Vanguard with the Lambda/263 combination revealed the Vanguard's shortcomings. The Vanguard's biggest liability was its treble. Ride cymbals turned into featureless white noise; vocal sibilance was emphasized; instrumental timbres acquired an unnaturally harsh edge; and the upper midrange and treble sounded strangely mechanical. Switching back to the Lambda/263 returned a sense of ease, smoothness, and naturalness.

The Vanguard's soundstage had very little depth, air, or space compared to the Lambda/263 combination. The music was presented on a flat, dry, and sterile-sounding canvas. The music never opened up and breathed, instead sounding constricted and lifeless. Instrumental images sounded as if they were pasted on top of each other, with no feeling of bloom or envelopment in air. As SS and JGH found, reverberation tended to fuse with instrumental images rather than surround them. On the Dorian recording of Ulrike-Anima Mathé playing Max Reger sonatas for solo violin, for example, the Vanguard didn't present the instrument as a distinct image surrounded by the hall. Instead, it was as though the reverberation were part of the image. Through the Lambda/263, the gorgeous acoustic bloomed around the instrument, creating a much closer approximation of what one hears from a single instrument in a large room. This recording also exemplified what was wrong with the Vanguard's presentation of timbre: the violin was screechy and lacking in warmth compared to the Lambda/263.

The Vanguard's bass was similar to that from the Lambda/263: a little lightweight, lacking extreme bottom end, and somewhat soft. The Lambda/263 had a little bit better pitch definition and dynamic impact, but neither digital front-end approaches the bass performance of the $595 Theta Cobalt, for example.

In fairness, I should point out that the Lambda/263 combination with the Aural Symphonics digital cable costs $300 more than the Vanguard. The Lambda/263 pair also has fewer features. Further, the Lambda and 263 weren't chosen at random for this comparison—in my experience, they represent the best products in their respective price ranges. Nonetheless, the Vanguard's inferior sound precludes a recommendation.—Robert Harley

Footnote 5: I'm reminded of Buck Owens's introduction of his drummer on the Live from London record: "I'd like to introduce the greatest drummer I've ever heard...on the stage right now."

Footnote 6: I heard an interview recently with a guy who wrote a cookbook of Elvis's favorite recipes. Elvis actually liked cafeteria food and Army food because his mother was a horrendous cook. My digital diet has had a lot in common with Elvis's early culinary experiences.

SOTA Sales and Service Center
436 E. Locust Street
DeKalb, IL 60115
(800) 772-SOTA

volvic's picture

Years ago when I lived in Montreal, a dealer who I used to buy products from time to time showed me the SOTA player, and said it was absolutely fabulous sounding at this price. I was sceptical, how a company that made great turntables could all of a sudden come up with this player, did they build it in house? Outsourced their components? Then I read this review in the 90's and confirmed my fears that it was simply an attempt to gain a foothold in the burgeoning CD player market - I purchased something else. The dealer whom I had known for over 15 years and had a relationship with never spoke to me again, and till this day if I ever make my way to Salon H-Fi et Image still ignores me, if he sees me. I thanked Stereophile then and thank them now for confirming my fears and saving me lots of $$$ on a less than stellar player.

allhifi's picture

colviv: A telling reply -on several counts:

The first is the sheer price distinctions from then (1995) to today. In fact, commencing in/around 2005 -prices began to skyrocket.

Secondly, it's also very telling (of the times I suppose) that 'after-market' accessories were used in the evaluation of a product, that by all rights should have been positioned/evaluated on a solid hi-fi rack -sans "pucks", sorbothane feet and similar. It should be obvious today that these "changes/tweaks" influence SQ considerably.
Other than cable choice, this is a laundry list of equipment used in the evaluation:

" .. Other accessories included RoomTunes CornerTunes, EchoTunes, and Ceiling Clouds; ASC Tube Traps; RoomTunes Just-a-Rack; Arcici Superstructure IIs; Audiostream equipment rack; CWD equipment cabinet; Bright Star Big Foot and Little Rock (for CD player); Sorbothane pucks (for amplifiers); Target speaker stands (for amplifiers); Fluxbuster; Shun Mook wooden pucks; The Original Cable Jacket wraps; Music and Sound ferrite beads; AudioQuest ferrite clamps; Chang Audio Lightspeed model CLS 6400 ISO power-line filter ..."

all of these 'accessories' are almost laughable by today's standards, and in any case should never have been used with/when a product was under evaluation -or used in addition to straight wall-power and component's factory footers along with detailed listening distinctions between the two.

So many "reviews" in the past, fatally flawed -on so many counts. Ouch.

And finally: " ...The dealer whom I had known for over 15 years and had a relationship with never spoke to me again, ..."

Not sure if that was not a good thing ! lol


volvic's picture

And finally: " ...The dealer whom I had known for over 15 years and had a relationship with never spoke to me again, ..."

Not sure if that was not a good thing ! lol

To be honest, he lost out on my potential purchases as I grew older and was able to afford more $$ gear. But I also lost out as well because that was another avenue for me make purchases. I no longer live in the city so it is no longer an issue. But it was an eye opener for me and the type of personality he was.

allhifi's picture

volvic: You say it 'right' !

By your remarks, it appears you were a younger guy at the time (regardless of age -it should not matter) and the chap appears to be management/owner ?

Again, regardless, we should all have time (not inordinate amounts, but) to discuss equipment/sound with ALL listener's and interests.

What strikes me is why you felt you couldn't return (to the store)? Perhaps chat with someone else ?
Yet, for some, it feels uncomfortable if unwelcome.

The "error" here falls square on the store staff -there's always ways to discuss what (if any) the issues are. It's called communication, and for merchants with poor communication skill, it's a surprise the store remained in business over those years.

As you say, it certainly does reflect one's personality.


volvic's picture

Yes, I was younger but not that much younger, in my very early 30's. I found another store that gave me fantastic service and they were Linn dealers which in the 90's was a great love. Still is to a degree but less. I could have gone back to the store he has other employees, but I don't believe you should reward bad behaviour with hard earned cash. Still, he had great gear, and now sells even more amazing gear, but I believe you take a stand and move on.

hollowman's picture

Query for JA:

We used to see linearity plots (as shown in Fig.5) above. But these seem to have been discontinued.
I do note that JA still MENTIONS linearity in Measurements section ... but no plot.
Why was this done?

P.S. I always find linearity plots useful. I realize that most Delta-Sigma DACs today have excellent linearity (compared to old-school multi-bit DACs).
But multi-bits seem to be coming back (TotalDAC, Schiit, various NOS and discrete DACs, etc).

jimx1169's picture

What, exactly, is a "CD Transcription System"? Googling the phrase yields no results. Is this a new entry in the Audiophile Dictionary/Thesaurus?

It is phrases like this that make me cringe when reading reviews. I hate to admit to my friends that I'm an audiophile because of this misuse of language.


Edit... Sorry I didn't notice the 1995 publication date. I guess "CD Transcription System" didn't stick?

Allen Fant's picture

I can remember reading this original 1995 article and wanting to hear this cd player.

allhifi's picture

Magazine editor: Attempt to make clear a reprint -and at the very least afford the original review date in bold font.

For indeed, if one missed the 'secondary' date (original review), one could continue not entirely certain whether it is current -or a reprint.