Sony SCD-XA777ES multichannel SACD/CD player

"Sony. Sony. No Baloney."

I bought into that for a series of Sony clock radios, TVs, and VCRs, but I've never bought a Sony audio product. (Well, years ago I did buy a Sony receiver for my daughter...) Sony always seemed too mass-market and non-specialist to stir my audiophile passions.

Lately, however, Sony has staunchly promoted Super Audio CD as the perfectionist's medium for uncompromised music reproduction, and has supported that perfectionism with the impressive SCD-1 and SCD-777ES SACD players. At the Home Entertainment 2001 Show last May, Sony presented what I'm told was an awesome multichannel demonstration. But I missed it, and so was excited to get their new flagship multichannel SACD player as soon as possible.

All the multichannel SACD and DVD-Audio hardware I've had so far has included video capability but, ultimately, the video circuits represent a compromise—they can't help but have some corrupting influence on the audio performance. But Sony and I are on the same page with the SCD-XA777ES, a dedicated audio-only multichannel SACD/CD player.

The XA777ES looks conservative, but impresses even when still in the shipping carton: it weighs more than 35 lbs, more like a small high-end amp than a disc player. The chassis' frame-and-beam construction might be expected of zero-tolerance military gear. Two fore-to-aft beams of different lengths, isolated from the rear panels, sit within the surrounding frame and divide the inner space into three compartments. The player mechanism, with its separate laser heads for CD and SACD, is isolated in the central enclosure along with the main digital board, while the power transformer is isolated in the left compartment and the audio circuit boards are on the right.

Although there may be no video circuits, digital audio circuits can both generate and be disturbed by RF. The absolute dead silence of all the operations of the XA777ES attested to the success of this configuration. Moreover, the mechanism itself, while not the fancy top-loading design used in earlier Sony flagship players, was so smooth and quiet that I could not reliably hear it open or close. I'd been conditioned by every other front-loading player to confirm operations with audible clicks and clacks; the XA777ES did its work in silence.

The front panel of the XA777ES is deceptively simple. The extreme left side bears a power switch, IR receiver, headphone jack, and level control for that jack. Next is a row of four tiny, illuminated buttons: Time/Text display, Menu, Multi/Two-channel, and SACD/CD. The central area of the front panel has the transport above and a bright display below. This is less than optimal placement; some control and programming functions require that the disc be removed, and the extended tray blocks the view of the display—unless, of course, you stand on your head.

On the right, in addition to the expected Open/Close, Play, Pause, and Stop buttons, is a combination rotary-and-pushbutton control that does most of the work of controlling and programming the player. Rotating this knob selects a track for playback and highlights the track number on the display. Pushing the little Menu button first, however, gives the user access, via this multifunctional control, to the setting of defaults (CD vs SACD, two-channel vs multichannel, digital output on/off, digital filter choice for CD) and for bass/channel management for two- and multichannel use.

I was a bit annoyed that switching among CD-layer, two-channel SACD, and multichannel SACD tracks could not be accomplished on the fly, as it can with the Philips SACD 1000. The SCD-XA777ES requires that disc play be stopped completely and that a new Table of Contents be read before a new format can be heard. But this annoyance affects only those of us who have the need to A/B/C these tracks and should be of no concern to the sane.

In addition to the IEC power connector, the Sony's rear panel has coax and TosLink digital jacks, a pair of two-channel RCA-type analog audio output jacks, and another tier of six RCA jacks for multichannel analog output. The XA777ES has six discrete dual Super Audio DACs, each of which is allocated to one of the six channels for multichannel SACDs. Because they use the same set of DACs differently, the two-channel and six-channel jacks are not active simultaneously, and therefore must be connected to a preamp or receiver by eight interconnects. Gimme a break. Simply using the digital output for two channels is precluded by the absence of any digital output from SACDs, regardless of the number of channels. Oh well, more interconnects. (See "Cable Hell" Sidebar for further adventures.)

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