A Glimpse of Heaven
The Sony SCD-1 SACD Player
The audio/video enthusiast of the millennium is faced with an interesting future. New formats developed for the customer's pleasure (and, hopefully, the advancement of the science) are coming to the market place thick and fast, so much so, that the average audiophile may be daunted rather than enthused. The Sony and Philips Corporations are the main players in these format initiatives. Sony lost an early format war with their Beta video system to JVC's inferior VHS system, but gained huge support through the introduction (with Philips) of the Compact Disc. This CD revolution was marketed with such words as the infamous "Perfect Sound Forever". Many audiophiles, excited by this new medium, fell prey to the marketing department, dove in with both feet (me included), and dumped their Duals and Regas as fast as they could say "warped vinyl"! As such, the most discerning audiophiles have now become more wary of new formats and much more wary of parting with the dollars that support them.
Sony and Philips had a small parting of the ways with a mini-format war when they went to battle over Sony's Mini Disc system (this evolving into a mass market system of some credibility) and the Philips DCC (Digital Compact Cassette). We all know the story of the demise of DCC and the evolution of Mini Disc. Now, another format change is here, developed jointly by Sony and Philips, and ready to take on the hardened audiophile, the mid-fi enthusiast, and all the boys who like their toys. The Super Audio Compact Disc (SACD) machine is here, and Sony and Philips are betting this new format will be as revolutionary as their earlier 16-bit, 44.1kHz digital CD.
I first heard the Sony SCD-1 SACD player at a local audio boutique, demonstrated ably by Sony Canada rep, Robin Phillips. Robin's quiet enthusiasm echoes the way I think Sony have marketed their new format and player. Rather than a bludgeoning like we received for earlier Holy Grails, Sony seem to be choosing the "softly, softly" approach, hoping to generate excitement by sheer enthusiasm for the excellence of the product. They want this to work in the long term, as well as the here and now. Although the setting for a in-store demo is never more than adequate, I did hear some things that really captured my interest. I inquired about a review sample and the folks at Sony could not have been more cooperative.
I got the call that the behemoth had arrived at the office. Sony made a special shipping carton for the 52lb beast, bringing the total shipping weight to 92lbs! Shifting this thing was my exercise for the day. Unpacking it was exercise for the week! After careful lifting (knees bent, please), I sat back and admired the divine build quality of the SCD-1. Many audiophiles speak of components built with "tank-like quality". Well folks, here is one that will test the sands of time.
Thankfully, the new format has taken into account the millions of CDs in our collections and is making the new SACD discs backward compatible. Using "hybrid" discs (combining a CD layer and HD - High-Density - layer, each 0.6mm thick, making the standard 1.2mm standard disc we now use), our regular ol' 16-bitters will play on the new machines. Sony wants to ensure complete compatibility, meaning, for once, we audiophiles can have our cake and eat it, too!
The sound signals for Super Audio CD are converted into data using Direct Stream Digital recording technology (DSD). DSD optimizes a simpler formula than Pulse Code Modulation (PCM), the system presently used in standard CD recording and playback, with DSD resulting in a frequency response of over 100kHz and a 120dB dynamic range over the entire audible spectrum. Sony's excellent (and beautifully produced) accompanying SACD booklet (no manual was supplied with the media unit), explains the DSD format developed for SACD this way: "Though conventional CD and DSD format for Super Audio CD both utilize a 1-bit A/D converter and Delta Sigma modulator for recording, they differ drastically regarding signal processing. For conventional CDs, the decimation filter requires additional data processing in the recording stage, while with Super Audio CD, the 1-bit data is recorded directly in 1-bit format to the disc. This direct recording process is one of the leading advantages of Super Audio CD. The sampling frequency for the DSD format is 2.8224MHz, 64 times higher than the 44.1kHz frequency of conventional CD. This frequency means that quantization is conducted at a rate of 2.8224 million times per second, and is recorded as 1-bit data on the disc. Although the bit number is just 1/16 of that used for the CD format, the sampling frequency is 64 times higher, resulting in a data capacity for DSD which is 4 times greater than that of the CD. In principle, it is possible to expand the frequency range to approximately 1.4MHz."
"DSD signal processing", suggests Sony, allows " a more detailed sound image, and therefore the potential to record instrumental harmonic components, the calls of animals, and all of the sounds that exist in the natural world. Also, it is able to express the ambience of a live performance, often expressed as being able to feel the air. The DSD system used in Super Audio CD is able to express the artistic quality of a performance like never before, communicating the liveliness of the performer and the vividness of the hall". After reading the colorful description, my ears were piqued. Could it be that my benchmark (and beloved) vinyl had finally met its match, or possibly trumped?
As well as the new format, Sony took the standard CD player of this unit very seriously. With so few titles on the market, they had to get the workaday section just right. Living hand in hand quite beautifully, the CD sports its own optical pickup housed in a twin pickup mechanism block (the other pickup reads at a different depth for the SACD). The CD player also uses the most advanced technology to date in its digital filtering. The filter, known as "VC24", is a 24-bit variable coefficient digital filter. After the filter, comes Sony's "S-TACT". "This system", says Sony, "improves the precision level of the pulse on the time axis in order to maintain the signal accuracy of DSD for SACD and PCM for CD." Sony continues their use of high-quality devices down the decoding chain with the DAC. A "Current Pulse D/A Converter" converts the DSD for SACD and PCM for CD and via a separate "Low-Pass Filter" (determining playback bandwidth), the SACD's pure analog signal is amplified by the "Buffer Amplifier" and sent to your preamp. What a ride!
Helping to power all these electronic marvels is a power supply that is truly beefcake. With the two transformers (one for the audio system and the other for the servo and digital system) housed in a resin-sealed case, leakage and vibration will always be unwelcome guests. And with high quality caps and discrete circuitry, we reside happily in the world of high end.
The chassis is a thing of beauty. On a 10mm-thick base, seven cast-iron pillars are adhered on which the 5mm top plate is mounted. Simple but stable seems to be Sony's construct. Outside, things still stay interesting. The back of the chassis boasts balanced, unbalanced, optical, and coaxial outputs along with the housing for a detachable power cord. The front is quite lovely, with the large display relaying Table of Content information (SACD only) and all the standard information needed, covered by a bevelled, acrylic fascia and reflected by a mirrored backing.
The remote control (plastic, with brushed metal face plate) made switching from the SACD player to CD player easy. The deep well in which the disc resides is accessed after the smooth, motorized opening of the top cover plate. Place the disc title up, place the beautifully milled, gold plated puck in the center of the disc and you're in business.
Bypassing the onboard standard CD player, I decided to get straight to the heart of the matter. First SACD up was a Sony sampler that featured Astor Piazolla's Concierto para Quinteto. Wow! Presence, timbral fidelity, vivid dynamics, and all the other audiophile tenets that are required for a "Wow!" were there in spades. Realism with a capital R. I must admit to listening straight through the three sampler CDs. I was both entranced and in awe. Truly, the sounds were glorious, and made me hunger for the ready-to-purchase list at the Sony site. Sadly, only fifty titles are available, but more are promised in the near future. The premium for this premium is US$24.95, about a ten-er over the standard Sony CD. A telephone call to Sony requesting anything and everything they had fell on deaf ears. The three samplers were the only software titles available for reviewers, and I was under threat of death if any of those went missing! Sony is committed to producing titles for the foreseeable future; the fifty releases and those upcoming may be viewed at http://www.sony.com/sacd.
Other delights on the provided samplers included Let Yourself Go with Erich Kunzel and the Cincinnati Pops and Bob Marley's So Ja Sah played by jazz piano great Monty Alexander (both on Telarc). For me, piano is the decisive test for most pieces of equipment in the audio chain, only bowing to the soprano voice in its undemocratic demands. Alexander's piano was given a workout that would test the best in modern reproduction; the SCD-1 allowed for the hammer attack transients to be heard clearly with lightning fast decay, eschewing the smearing that so often happens with weak digital and amplification. Even the standard onboard CD player, helped in the clarification of this decay on the particularly problematic DGG recording of Mikhail Pletnev's magnificent Homage a Rachmaninov.
In fact, the standard CD player was very fine, lending a lovely, grain-free sound on recording after recording. American Beauty tested the low frequency detail and power, with its subterranean synth sound powerful and detailed. Beautiful strings were heard in abundance on Mark Elder's great (and cheap) Wagner recording. Violins whispered "no glare", violas and cellos maintained the "presence" which audiophiles crave. And the new jazz darling Diana Krall (recently seen clutching her Grammy and Juno), sounded very unlike the "she's just a lounge-singer" insult that one forgettable rocker was quoted after Krall bumped her for a Grammy performance. Krall's newWhen I look in your eyes sounded so good, it highlighted the three tenets we require for inclusion on @udiophilia.com's The "A" List - great performance, sound, and music. Her huskiness was heard in its throaty glory through the SCD-1's CD section. These and many other wonderful performances made listening (if comparing to my SACD listening sessions) a pleasant experience. As such, one will be able to coexist happily among the fruits of your past collection and the software from an SACD future.
The large and small scale jazz performances on the SACD samplers were recorded to perfection, with accurate instrumental timbre, layered soundstage, and the "presence" of the hall heard clearly - these are so often missing via the standard CD. In fact, it is these audiophile needs that set SACD apart from 16-bit, 44.1kHz, and if truth be told, the 96Hz and HDCD recordings I have heard. I will be interested to hear a comparative listening session between the best of DVD players (the Ayre D-1, for example) and this new format. The SACD will take some beating in the relaying-of-musical-expression department.
Continuing with the Telarc SACD, the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra and Chorus performing Dvorák's underrated religious choral work, Stabat Mater, tested large-scale orchestral and vocal forces. This recording (and performance) was also very fine, but did not erase my fondest memories of vinyl in similarly large-scale works. The soundstage was a little diffuse, melding rather than demarcating the vocal and instrumental forces. A solo oboe near the beginning told its sorrowful tale beautifully, but remained near the back of the hall rather than center/front. This was the only real disappointment, a disappointment rendered in a very bright light by the sheer brilliance of all the other tracks.
Later, however, my flabber was gasted yet again by some smaller scale works featuring the cello. Faure's elegiac Sicilliene (originally for flute and orchestra) sounded magnificent in the unnamed artist's hands. The cello's tone was rich and burnished, with the buzz of the hair on resined strings sounding very natural. And I will not forget the double bass tone, as played in the Piazolla excerpt, in a hurry. Spectacular!
So it went over the short time I spent with the unit, a piece so obviously brilliant, that @udiophilia.com's requisite three-month audition period rule was ignored. The excitement of everyone that heard it in my listening room was tangible. Their "O My God", "Geez", and other not-quite-so-polite phrases were very exciting to hear after my fortnight of audio bliss. I just wish I had more SACD discs on which to report. I think prospective buyers are in for some fireworks when Sony get up to speed on the software releases.
With each passing month, many new technological ideas are passed around, discussed, then accepted or ignored. My prediction (hope) is that the SACD format will be accepted by audiophiles in the very near future, followed by the masses shortly thereafter. For with SACD, Sony and Philips offer a viable alternative to the highest fidelity in vinyl playback, not so much usurping its preeminence (a hierarchy accepted by others, but not all, to be sure), but finally offering the high-end enthusiast great digital fidelity, accessibility, and ease of use. The SCD-1 SACD player is a singularly potent force and should be lauded by all those who love our avocation.
SCD-1 SACD player
Manufactured by Sony Corporation
115 Gordon Baker Road, Toronto, Ontario, Canada
phone: (416) 499-1414
Source of review sample: Manufacturer Loan
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