Sony came out in favour of SACD as its preferred digital audio format, leaving DVD-A for the likes of Pioneer and Matsushita. The company’s first machine was 1999’s SCD-1, followed by the second generation, multi channel SCD-XA777ES of 2002. Then, the company’s flagship player reached its third incarnation with the i.Link-equipped SCD-XA9000ES. Its predecessor, which added multichannel playback and channel level adjustment and bass management, was regarded as something of a major advance – but surely this, with time-delay adjustment for its 5.1 channel analogue outputs and direct digital i.Link output, was the most significant since the original SCD-1? After all, this machine was the first to make SACD signal processing and digital-to-audio conversion possible in the preamplifier – making for theoretically better sound and greater flexibility.
Going on sale in 2003, the 9000ES retailed for £2,000 and outwardly shared much of the entry-level £600 SCD-XA3000ES architecture. That brushed aluminium front panel looked as swish as ever, and the jog dial knob, minor control buttons, display and headphone jack were a delight. Measuring 430x127x387mm it had the same dimensions as the cheaper machine, but at 16.2kg was a good deal heavier. Importantly though, there was a new button on the left marked ‘i.Link’ – pressing this bypasses the machine’s internal digital-to-analogue convertors and audio output stage, and instead routed six channels of DSD data out the back of the IEEE1394 (FireWire) jack.
Inside, the changes ran deeper. Sony tradition has it that all its ES machines are outwardly similar, but the more you spend, the sexier things look under the hood. To wit, there’s a sturdy frame-and-beam chassis, with some copper plating to reduce the ground impedance and reduce Eddy currents. The dual laser transport has the DSD decoder sitting immediately on top, while behind lies the beefy power supply complete with two of Sony’s R-core transformers. As per usual high end ES practice, the analogue output circuitry gets its own screened sub-enclosure at the back of the casing.
As far as passive componentry goes, it’s a veritable designer label fest, with lots of Nichicon capacitors. The DACs are those of its SCD-XA777ES predecessor, getting digitally filtered DSD data direct from SACD, or upsampling to 2.8824MHz and downconverting to 1-bit from an 24-bit, 8x oversampling filter for CD. In multichannel mode, two DACs are used per each of the six channels, whereas in stereo mode six DACs are used per channel, summed to reduce noise – a nice touch.
As with every high end Sony, this has a very precise sound. It’s not gushingly musical, and prefers instead to plough a slightly cerebral furrow. That means an ultra tidy, super clean, amazingly detailed performance which doesn’t emote like analogue. So it won’t induce a sense of heightened euphoria when you slide a CD in. Rather, it succeeds by being open and even right across the audio band. YMO’s Technopolis on CD was rendered delicate, considered, smooth and clear. Bass was strong but dry, midband expansive and three dimensional, treble wonderfully delicate. You get a great sense of all the multi-tracked, multi-layered sounds, all playing together engagingly. There’s not a trace of hardness or ‘shout’. It’s all very architectural, yet deliciously subtle.
Although the Sony gives a good feel for the texture of a female voice, for example, it does so all too matter-of-factly. There’s no basking in the sumptuous sound of Randy Crawford’s voice on The Crusaders’ Street Life, for example, nor are you blown away with the deep, resonant piano tones on Kate Bush’s Moving. It’s all nicely even and incisive, but it doesn’t major on timbre or texturality. It’s pure, straight down-the-line high end Sony silver disc fare. If memory serves, Marantz’s SA-12 rival was warmer and more beguiling playing standard CD, while Musical Fidelity Tri-Vista SACD blew it out of the water.
With SACD, it’s more of the same. Roxy Music’s Avalon showed a welcome improvement over the CD version, with real smoothness, detail and dimensionality which culminated in a deliciously luxurious sound. It’s decently musically engaging, but again lacks the Rotweiller bite I’d secretly been hoping for. Bryan Ferry’s voice was obviously creamier than anything I’d heard from CD, but there was still a slight stand-offishness that had me yearning for the aforementioned Marantz or Musical Fidelity. In short, it sounds like an extremely accomplished bit of hi-fi, but not a great music maker.
Although its bass is grippy, taut and propulsive, the midband is its real forte – wide open and beautifully proportioned, with images hanging well back behind the speakers with both SACD and CD. It really does have that proverbial ‘walk around soundstage’. Treble is clean, crisp, delicate and dry, and integrates so naturally with the midband that the effect is of a player that almost dissolves into the music. It’s only when you come back to more ‘characterful’ performers that you realise that music should be more multi-coloured and rousing. It’s quintessential high end Sony fare then, offering ‘superfi’ refinement at mid-fi prices, but that doesn’t make it the greatest music maker around.