Sugg. Retail: $4499.00 (CAN)
Distributor: Sony of Canada Ltd.
115 Gordon Baker Road, Toronto,
Ontario, M2H 3R6
(416) 499-1414 FAX 497-7147
(Reprinted from the Spring 02 Audio Ideas Guide)
In our last issue we profiled one of the less expensive Sony SACD players, and here we offer a look and listen to the big kahuna, the Sony with no baloney, the ES statement in SACD multichannel. The single-disc SCD-XA777ES, like our reference Pioneer Elite DV-AX10, has 6 independent DACs rather than the single or double chips found in many DVD or SACD players. According to a press release, “This is double the number of SADACs found in Sony’s acclaimed multichannel SACD player, the SCD-555ES, providing superior multichannel SACD performance, stereo SACD as well as standard CD sound quality.”
A substantial component, the XA777ES weighs in at 16Kg (35 lbs), with a solid, well-damped chassis, and overbuilt power supplies: “Two separate power transformers mounted on rigid copper plates are included: one for handling the audio system, the other dedicated to the digital system, which deliver clear sound without interference from the digital system.”
“A robust chassis design with frame and beam construction greatly reduces unwanted resonance. To offset vibration, the SCD-XA777ES utilizes off-centre insulator feet and a sturdy aluminum front panel.” This is a flagship player from the thick front panel back.
It’s intended to provide both no-compromise stereo performance and the best multichannel sound Sony knows how to make. This means that it has both stereo-only and separate front RCA outputs for multichannel use. Herein lies one of its quirks. If you hook its multichannel outputs to your system, when you play a 2-channel SACD or CD, you won’t hear any sound. That’s because any stereo disc has its output routed only to the dedicated stereo outputs. Now this also means versatility, in that you can feed the player to both high end stereo and home theatre audio systems (provided they’re in the same room; mine aren’t), and choose at will between them. But I found myself having to switch the RCAs back and forth when listening to stereo discs.
The XA777ES also has optical and coaxial digital outputs, but these only output signal when CDs are being played. No SACD player will output an SACD digital bitstream. Why this is done I really don’t understand: even if you can’t make digital copies, it’s quite simple to take the superb analog output and record in whatever digital format one wishes. This proves once again that anti-copy paranoia is stupid (”You cannot resist the Dark Force!”). Maybe Sony is actually being clever and ironic by providing an extra analog output.
But maybe I’m being too clever by half myself, so I’ll quote the owner’s manual on the analog output configuration: “When you play a conventional CD or a 2CH Super Audio CD, the stereo signal of the DSD format is sent to the FRONT, SURROUND, and CENTER/SUBWOOFER D/A converters, and each signal is combined after D/A conversion, then combined signal is output from the 2CH OUT jacks.”
“Since each digital signal is converted to analog signal by three converters, this system offers a three-fold improvement in a signal quality and a root three-fold [improvement] in noise ratio. Therefore, the high quality signal is output from from the ANALOG 2CH OUT jacks. However, because of the system, no signal is output from the ANALOG 2CH OUT jacks during playback of a multi-channel Super Audio CD. Similarly, no signal is output from the PHONES jack during playback of a Multi-channel Super Audio CD.” (grammar and syntax theirs)
Now, is that perfectly clear? Well, I think it’s also a little perverse. However, the easy solution is to use 2 different front-channel inputs on your preamp or processor. By the way, you can also play any multichannel SACD in stereo with a press of a button on the remote control, also then possibly getting the benefit of the triple summed-signal D/A conversion process out of the stereo jacks. Even 2-channel diehards are served here. You can also listen to the CD version of the music on hybrid discs, though I don’t know why anyone would want to do that.
And I guess the next question is, do stereo SACDs and CDs sound that much better because of all these ganged or paralleled DACs? We will get to that, but first I want to talk about this ES component as a multichannel player, because I’ve been using it to evaluate a host of new discs in this format from such companies as Sony Music, Telarc, and Sweden’s Opus 3.
But before discussing the sound on CDs or SACDs, a little more on setting up this player for its multichannel functions. Like a DVD player, it offers Large/Small speaker settings and Centre or Subwoofer selection or deselection, including Large+SW, but I preferred to use the purer bypass mode labelled MCH Direct. Output levels and between-channel balances can also be set using the front panel Menu button and the rotary AMS knob at right front panel; this even allows balancing the subwoofer relative to the front speakers, as well as left/right, left/right rear, and front/back balances.
The 777ES also offers switchable digital filtering between Standard or Option, with the former the default. This feature, operating only with CDs, is described thusly in the manual: “Standard provides a wide frequency range and spatial feeling”, while “Option provides smooth and powerful sound with clear image position.” Once you figure out what this means, you can read the disclaimer below: “According to the disc or connected equipment, there may be no noticeable effect after switching the filter.” What does it all mean?
Looking for answers, I accessed the Sony.com site, and found a white paper on the original stereo-only 777ES player that was predecessor to this one. It appears the earlier model had 4 different filter settings, with varying steepness of cutoff slope in the very high frequencies. I suspect that Option is the successor to the second of these filters, which has a gentle rolloff of supersonic energy that should provide better phase accuracy in the audible band, resulting in improved imaging and high frequency sweetness. In listening (before I read the white paper) I felt that Option did, in fact, give a better spatial feeling to the sound and a sweeter top end, with a little tighter bass, so I left it set that way.
In general, the sound of the SCD-XA777ES is more refined and detailed with all types of discs and channels it reproduces than that of the SCD-CE775 because of its better parts and DACs, and this was first noted with SACDs like dmp’s Multichannel Reference CD. This was heard right off the top in the completely enveloping Ubi Caritas featuring the Gaudeamus choir, which bathes the listener in a stone cathedral acoustic during this beautiful piece of medieval music. Other tracks showing how good this player is include Shiny Stockings by the Bob Mintzer Big Band, and a Kodo-ensemble-like drum piece called Tsunami from the Hohner Percussion Ensemble. I have to say that it’s more like being there than I’ve heard from a recording in a long time.
I listened to many surround SACDs through the 777ES, including an engaging collection of Jerry Goldsmith film score arrangements with the composer conducting the London Symphony, which has an acoustic that may be a little too big for some listeners; it was recorded in Abbey Road’s Studio 2, and reminds me of some of the EMI recordings of what the Brits call “light music” made in the 60s under the Studio 2 emblem.
In an entirely different genre, James Taylor’s Hourglass opener, Line ‘Em Up subtly lined up background singers around us, and bongos at left rear, and provided a very pleasant surround experience, while Eric Bibb and his band, offered a very clear up front perspective with fairly subtle ambience at rear in his Opus 3 album, Good Stuff.
With stereo SACDs the player didn’t necessarily sound 3 times better, as suggested by Sony, but we are into an area of diminishing retuns here with sound this good. Listening to some Telarc rereleases of their 50 kHz SoundStream recordings from the LP days, which were upsampled to DSD, revealed again how good that system was in capturing an orchestral performance (elsewhere I’ll do comparisons between original LPs and the new SACD versions). Their Stravinsky Rite Of Spring (Maazel/Cleveland) and Firebird Suite (Shaw/Atlanta) sounded truly spectacular, especially the finale of the latter. These were originally recorded with 3 spaced omni mikes, though not recorded in 3 channels, but in stereo on the original digital recording.
Speaking of 3-channel recording, Kind Of Blue bloomed even more beautifully, with a wider, more detailed soundstage through the 777ES, again showing the superiority of the 3 front channels compared to 2. I’ll say it again: I can hardly wait to hear those great classical and pop recordings miked and recorded this way issued in multichannel SACD or DVD-A. Just listening to So What in either configuration showed how much ambience, detail, and soundstage width and depth were lost in the mixdown. And interestingly enough, even with all 6 DACs devoted to improving the stereo reproduction, it was still the multichannel Kind Of Blue that triumphed in the listening tests.
And that brings me to the conclusion that this Sony is pretty much the state of the art in SACD, however many channels it is reproducing. But how does it sound with CDs?
Well, it’s certainly quite a bit better than the CE775, and very much in the 77 tradition of ES players, with a smooth, liquid quality that serves the flow of the music, but with great macro- and micro-dynamics, and a particularly clean and detailed bass. I would say that CDs generally sounded as if they were being upsampled. You may realize that no mention is made in the quotes above from the Sony literature of separate 44.1 DACs, so I must assume that the signal is converted to DSD in the digital domain, which would have to involve algorithms to add data, hence upsampling of some sort. Whatever happens, it sounded very, very good on all the 44.1 discs we threw at it, from AI recordings to favourite pop, jazz, and classical CDs. The aforementioned white paper noted that the CD bitstream was being oversampled at 64X, and with the gentler Option filter slope, starts to look a little more like upsampling.
Even with its front channel output quirks, the Sony SCD-XA777ES is still the best SACD player we’ve encountered, and a very fine CD player, too. If you’ve made the decision to embrace this high resolution format, there could be no better way to do it than this, though companies like Marantz might want to argue otherwise.