Sony SCD-C333ES SACD/CD player

John Atkinson flapped his bushy eyebrows at me and smiled slyly. "Hey, J-10, why don't you do the Sony SCD-C333ES SACD carousel player for April?" Usually, when JA gets that look on his face, I seek shelter. The phone bripped suddenly in my office, but I knew it was too late. "Oooo-kay..." I smiled back, thinking of Stereophile's recent covers and the hubbub, bub, thick as it comes, that they'd produced. (See "Letters" in the February and March issues.)

As it happens, the Sony SCD-C333ES isn't this month's cover story—that honor goes to Chip Stern's take on Philips' multichannel SACD1000 SACD player. Still, I can see the headlines already: "Scull reviews carousel player; world ends!"

A short time after our conversation, the Sony SCD-C333ES was rather unceremoniously dumped at the door by our local Representative in Brown, the Incredible Hulk. Or the missing link, as K-10 calls him: UPS Man, Pithecanthropus erectus. (For you three-bumper-eight-ball-in-the-side-pocket types, that's the title of Thelonious Monk's first album for Atlantic, in 1956!)

So I loaded up five discs for the evening—a process quite different from choosing and playing one disc at a time—and imagined the angle on the bumper shot I'd have to line up for this review!

The Sony is built fairly solidly, if not in the Levinson/Accuphase/Boulder league of superbly constructed—and way more expensive—mechanical majesty. Nonetheless, it doesn't feel cheesy for a carousel player. It's just a relatively large, rectangular black box with a display of not enormous size, big Play and track-select buttons, and a row of smaller buttons and even smaller ones underneath on the left for other functions, all set over a full-width, five-disc tray, a flip-up cover running along the bottom front plate. Nothing remarkable about it at all; it wouldn't stand out on a rack if you threw a spotlight on it. Even without the instruction booklet, which arrived a day later, I had the Sony up and running before you could say "It's not rocket science."

On the back are only a pair of RCA single-ended line-level outputs (so no cause to worry about absolute polarity), a typical consumer-electronics "captured" power cord, plus TosLink optical and RCA coax digital outputs for CD playback only. As in all other SACD players, except for those from Accuphase, the SACD signal is not available as an output datastream on any type of standard connector. A pair of "Control A1 II" jacks are also provided to "Connect to the Sony audio component using the monaural (2P) plug cord." I have no idea...

The rest is dead easy. The soft-touch Open/Close and Play buttons are about all you need to know how to find. On the left of the front panel is a series of five small buttons, cleverly mirrored on the display, with which to choose the disc to be played. Below these are a few programming buttons, including Continue, which resumes normal play from Shuffle or Program mode, and selects Track or Disc for the Repeat function. It's funny—you can choose to repeat one disc or up to all five, but the player always defaults to repeat mode. The only way to hit the brakes on the music is by pressing Stop. Warhol was right: It's all about repetition.

Next to the Shuffle and Program actuators is the Menu button, used to custom-name your discs. The Time/Text toggle is next over. Give this a ping or thumb the remote button, and usually the track title marches rather quickly across the screen before the display reverts to timing and track info. The Accuphase DC-101's front-end displays CD text and track information...but then, it costs $28,000. At that price, it oughta take you out on a date, too.

The '333 reads the discs' Tables of Contents, be they CD or SACD, more quickly than the Sony's premiere SCD-1, but it's still no speed demon, especially as one has to be in full Stop mode to change between CD and SACD layers on hybrid discs. You'll find the SACD/CD button to the right of the Disc Select buttons; a surrounding ring lights up green when SACD is chosen.

To the right of the display sit the larger buttons—Play, Pause, and Stop—then a curious quartet of more little buttons arrayed around a larger AMS (Automatic Music Sensor) control, which is used to select tracks. Sony loves to name things. The AMS is a...knob. But it's nicely weighted, clicks left and right with the greatest of ease, and feels good in the fingers. What more could you ask? Okay—there's a headphone jack and level control below the Open/Close button and to the right of the wide tray cover.

I couldn't care less what they call it—AMS, track select, whatever. But I think it's interesting, in a marketing-driven way, that they also refer to it as a "Music Calendar." Want track 4? Click the AMS to the right four times and check the display. Or you can click backwards for previous tracks. Of course, you can fire away directly from the remote, but as a "hands-on" interface, AMS ain't half bad. I suspect nothing about this player has been left to chance.

The small buttons and actuators arranged around the AMS knob are logically placed, but Check (the program order) and Clear (delete a programmed track) are more easily accessed from the remote. The other outer two buttons surrounding the AMS knob must be actuated on the machine itself. Those would be the Ex-Change and Disc Skip buttons. When you press Ex-Change, the music keeps playing, the tray glides open, and two disc compartments present themselves to you. Change 'em or fill 'em up—they play left to right. Then press Disc Skip, and two more trays rotate your way for changing or filling. Press Ex-Change again, the tray slides closed, and it's back to your previous activities.

The '333 is something of a brainiac. If the tray is opened during play, Shuffle works only the disc that's playing; the same disc will repeat even if Repeat All Discs was selected. If the playing disc comes to an end while you're fooling around with the tray open, the '333 will just play it again, Sam, while you're shuffling discs and getting lascivious about what's to come.

When you press Open, Little Einstein also presents you with the single disc you're playing. When you're not playing anything with the tray open and you want to advance the tray to the next empty compartment, a press of the Next Disc or Disc Skip buttons will rotate the tray. The actual disc number is marked on the compartment by a raised, injection-molded numeral; for crabby old farts like myself, a contrasting color would have stood out more and require less squinting.

Being very friendly to all comers, the '333 will play SACDs, hybrid SACD/CD discs, conventional CDs, and CD-Rs, but not DVD-Video or DVD-Audio discs. And it has the same four Variable Coefficient Filters as provided on the SCD-1 to alter the behavior of the digital reconstruction filters (for CD playback only, however).

Tweaks and Setup
The SCD-C333ES's case is deep as well as tall, so there's a relatively large expanse of top plate. When I knuckle-rapped the center of the top, it sounded fairly nonresonant—nothing rattled or clanged. Still, I dropped a Shakti Stone square in the middle, more for its case-damping effect than any electrical-field remedies, although I still consider the Shaktis mandatory atop large power-supply transformers, and even output transformers on tube amps—if you have the Stones for it, that is. This is admittedly hard to effect on some buttoned-up, tightly packaged solid-state amps. So for this review, one Shakti was simply placed on the Sony's case.

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