Component Reviews, Part 1 of 4
Published on July 1, 2004
Sony SCD-XA9000ES Super Audio and Standard CD Player
For 44. CD
|Sony Electronics Inc.
1 Sony Drive
Park Ridge, NY 07656-8003
This high end Sony SACD player has been referred to as their flagship player, but that can’t be accurate since the original $5000 SC-1 is still being produced. More likely this recent entry is intended to replace the XA777ES, which was the same price and the next down in the Sony SACD lineup. (Then further down was the terrific DVP-9000ES at $1500, which had the one disadvantage of being only two-channel and has now been replaced by the multichannel – though less substantial – DVP-NS999ES at $1200.)
The big feature of the XA9000ES is the ability to hook up with a matching Sony preamp (STR-DA9000ES/TA-DA9000ES) using an i.Link (Firewire) connector cable, which maintains a digital signal path between the components. This is said to improve the sound over outputting analog from the player, and also offers H.A.T.S. (High quality digital Audio Transmission System) function, which eliminates jitter by momentarily storing digital audio signals in a buffer before reading them with exact timing. I only had the player for review, so used the normal six channel analog out for multichannel as well as the separate 2-channel analog out, Coax digital out and TosLink digital out. In fact, including the i.Link socket, that sums up all the connections on the back panel of the unit, which you will see has no component or S-video outs. That’s because rather than having a button to defeat the video circuitry for audio-only playback, the DVD-video circuitry is completely absent from this player.
While the six-channel analog hookup is self-explanatory (I used a new Monster Cable six-channel interconnect cable), the two-channel options are many. In addition to the usual optical and coaxial digital sockets – which are for standard CD playback only – there are stereo analog jacks just below the multichannel jacks. These jacks operate with both standard CDs and stereo SACDs, and they are said to be higher quality than the two digital outputs. The reason is the Tri-Powered D/A Converter System. When playing two channels instead of six, the D/As for the center, LFE and two surround channels would normally not be used. The XA9000ES switches these four D/As – two to a channel – to the stereo function to process the stereo signals three times instead of just once. More on this in a moment.
The unit is very hefty and solidly constructed, much like the previous 9000ES was. At 35 pounds it is considerably lighter than the massive XA777ES. The display in the center is very large and easy to read, with the disc tray just under it. The headphone jack and level control for it are in the lower left hand corner of the front plate. The sound quality was quite good with my Grado phones, though nothing like a separate dedicated headphone amp. To the right of the display are four buttons with the usual functions of open/close, play, pause and stop. Below them is the Sony Automatic Music Sensor – a really handy dial which accesses tracks on a disc rapidly and without confusion, in tandem with a chart display. Over on the left side of the big display are five small buttons plus the large Power button. Going from the left, the first is the Time/Text button, which switches between displaying the particular track’s playing time, the total remaining time on the disc, or Text information. The next button simply switches on the fly between the SACD and the CD layers of a disc. The third button turns the i.Link function on if used. Next is the Menu button, which works with the AMS dial to display many other functions. The remaining button in this row switches between two-channel and multichannel playback of SACDs (those which have a multichannel layer, that is).
Among the options using the Menu button and AMS dial (which not only revolves but also pushes in to select items displayed) is switching in a digital filter which rolls off more of the extreme high frequencies than the standard 50Khz filter. I tried it both ways on several discs and have to admit to hearing no difference. Another option is turning the digital outputs on or off. There is a multichannel management function to set in the player itself the particular layout of your speakers and/or their sizes. You select the Mch Spk Mode and then either select MCH Direct which feeds each channel’s signal directly to each speaker, or the various settings for large and small speakers with and without subs. You can also set the output level of each channel. The display is very clear and readable, and shows instantly whether you are in CD, 2Ch. SACD mode or multichannel SACD mode.
I used my best Jena Labs interconnect from the 2-channel analog outs via Bybee filters to the analog ins on my Sunfire preamp, since that was similar with the hookup for my 2-channel DVP-9000ES.
After many days running in on both SACDs and standard CDs I began to do some comparisons with my other SACD players: the DVP-9000ES, which has been extensively modded by Dan Wright, sits on VSE X-rod feet on a heavy MSB metal Isoplate with a Bright Star sand-filled Footer on top; my reference multichannel Sony SACD player, the SCD-CE775 changer- also modded by Dan Wright and also on a special base with Daruma ball-bearing feet. Since both the old and new versions of the 9000 model had 2-channel analog outs I could select the Source Direct option on the Sunfire, which bypasses all processing and delivers the very best stereo sonics. The 775 unfortunately had to depend on its digital coax out to the preamp.
I was disappointed right off to find my modded two-channel 9000 surpassed the new 9000 (at double the price) playing both stereo-layer SACDs and standard CDs. Not by a great deal, but with just a tad more clarity, transparency and “air.” And it didn’t even trounce the 775 changer, which I believe was offered for around $200 just before it was discontinued. They were almost equal. I thought perhaps I should take into consideration that not only were my own players heavily modded but they are also heavily tweaked with supports etc., whereas the XA9000 was just sitting on top of my RPTV on its own big rubber feet. So I moved a TeknaSonics vibration platform under it and put three egg-shaped Mi-Roller feet under it. Finally, another Bright Star Footer was placed on top.
The tweaking brought the XA9000 up to exactly the same level as the DVP-9000 on two-channel material. I tried a variety of solo, orchestral, vocal and jazz and frankly I could tell no difference whatever between the two players. I have several duplicate discs – both SACD and CD – so instant switching could be done using the remote on the preamp. I tried both switching between players while they were in sync with one another, as well as letting one get ahead a phrase or two so I could repeat the same phrase on both players. Have to say they were identical.
Next I switched the A/B comparisons to the multichannel 775 Sony SACD changer, expecting that here at least, there would be major enhancement of multichannel SACDs on the new XA9000 compared to the inexpensive Sony changer. I was wrong. They were identical to my ears again. And the mods done to the changer were modest and not nearly as extensive as with the two-channel player. I used the Zektor remote 6-channel switcher and while playing two identical Telarc SACDs – Berlioz’ Symphonie Fantastique – I sometimes switched with my eyes shut and tried to lose track of which player I was hearing. The two discs were in perfect sync and often the switchovers were not heard at all. There was no doubt that the sound was the same.
I’m nonplussed that this review is ending up shorter than I had expected. Perhaps I should have also requested the matching i.Link preamp/processor and the all-digital multichannel connection would push this player’s sonics to new heights. But working with the just the player, in spite of all my efforts I could not get the XA9000ES to sound any better than the players I had on hand. I think this suggests that if you’re a diehard two-channel person and want to get into high-quality SACD without spending a king’s ransom, you should try to find a used DVP-9000ES and have it modded by one of the several people now offering that. The last issue of Audio Perfectionist also recommended exactly that same action, and in Shane Buettner’s review of the NS999ES in the Feb/Mar Absolute Sound he said he couldn’t figure out how Sony got the 9000’s price down to $1500, and that it may be the best bargain of all time.
– John Sunier