Remember the CD player numbers game? The first Philips-based machines had 14-bit, 4 times oversampling, the original Japanese used 16-bits. Then in 1986 the 16×4 Philips players arrived and by 1988 a raft of 18×8 machines appeared from the Orient. The Great Bit War seemed to be on in earnest, but then Philips launched Bitstream in 1989 and put a swift end to it. Well Sony’s CDP-557ESD is as eighties as red braces, shoulder pads and Sierra Cosworths. It was the biggest, boldest, brashest and best endowed CD player of its time. Eighteen kilos of alloy castings, copper plating and over-the-top power transformers, it had the most bits on the block and just in case you didn’t know, the ’18 BIT LINEAR/ 8 TIMES OVERSAMPLING’ legend reminded you every time you looked at it.
Under the hood was a textbook example of Japanese digital esoterica – digital and analogue sections both got their own chunky power transformers, plus a shed-load of internal copper plating to reduce electronic noise. All discrete components were Akihabara specials – the pick of the crop from Tokyo’s electronics Mecca. The Sony CXD1144 mech-based transport assembly was a work of art in itself with its all-alloy construction, rubber damping and high speed linear motor that reputedly also appeared in Sony’s flagship £5,000 CDP-R1 transport. Dual Burr Brown PCM64P DAC chips paired up gave ‘18-bit resolution’, and together with an eightfold oversampling digital filter you got a sound as bouncy as a kids’ inflatable castle.
This Sony sledgehammers its way through whatever music you feed it. Give it bluff eighties power pop and it puts you at the very front of the crowd with your head stuffed against the PA stacks. Put in a mellow slice of jazz fusion and it puts you at the very front of the crowd with your head stuffed against the PA stacks. This is not a subtle player. Rather, it injects everything with a caffeine and ginseng cocktail – chemically enhanced to sound bigger, faster, brighter, louder.
Listening to the Sony is an eerie reminder of hi-fi two decades ago. By modern standards it’s crude – even compared to a £350 Cambridge Audio it is lacking in subtlety and even-handedness. Treble is splashy and ragged with a touch of digital hash, and the upper mid is undoubtedly brightly lit, if not quite harsh. And yet it has an infectious enthusiasm for music which makes modern exotica sound over-polite and disinterested. And as for the bass, don’t let anyone ever tell you all transports sound the same. All high end Sony players have mechanisms that seem to excavate an octave’s worth of extra low frequencies from any Compact Disc. Allied to multi-bit’s passion for playing tunes at subterranean frequencies, it’s one big grin from start to end of the song.
Back in 1989 the ‘557ES got largely lukewarm reviews in the UK press – no surprise really, considering most reviewers back then still used forward sounding Naim amps which were hardly the perfect match. But slot it into a better balanced system with neutral interconnects, a decent isolation platform and the right speakers, and you’ll have a ball. There are still plenty around for £350 and with that Lexus build quality they’ll last forever. They even respond very well to tweaking too – Trichord’s Clock 3 made our sample even tighter and more dynamic. By 1990, Bitstream had reached the world’s high end players and the fun just wasn’t there any more. In one important respect, old eighties bruisers like Sony’s CDP-557ESD have never been bettered.