Costing a cool £5,000 in 2002, this was one of Denon’s most expensive universal disc players ever – to call it a ‘Japanese battleship’ rather understates its staggering build quality. Measuring 434x150x410mm and weighing in at 21.8kg, it is massively constructed with huge shock-absorbing cast-iron feet. These are affixed to a four-layer sandwich baseplate, with a copper top plate and internal chassis walls. On the outside, finely crafted thick aluminium panels affix across the front and sides. The DCD-SA1 has two gigantic power transformers for digital and analogue respectively, each of which is encased in a specially damped enclosure and isolated from the baseplate.
The centrally mounted disc transport is Denon’s SVH mech (an acronym for Suppress Vibration Hybrid); again it makes extensive use of copper plating to isolate the control electronics from interference. The drawer loading mechanism is a work of art, with a substantial metal cover and silky operation. The digital electronics comprise two 24-bit/192kHz Burr Brown PCM1792 DACs and a Sharc 32-bit floating point DSP. Like all Denon machines of that time, the company’s proprietary Advanced Alpha AL24 processing is used for CD; for SACD there is a separate DSD decoder that bypasses this. High-quality selected electronic components are used, such as Silmic II capacitors in the analogue and digital output stages.
Visually, the gently radiused fascia lessens the brutal size and weight of the Denon, and its Premium Silver finish is sublimely surfaced yet not showy. The main control buttons have a superbly tactile yet delicate feel and slightly recessed in countersunk openings. The functions aren’t difficult to figure out – Super Audio Setup, digital output on/off and a choice of Normal and Pure Direct operation. The disc tray is beautifully slick in operation and has a lovely slowing action when reaching the end of its travel, as the disc is almost fully inside the player. As you would have expected at this price in 2002, the machine is supplied with an exquisite aluminium-faced, highly ergonomic RC997 remote control.
There’s something special about the sound of this behemoth. It is big, strong and assertive in a way that virtually nothing around today is – that classic Japanese high end character is very much in evidence. It’s extremely ‘hi-fi’ sounding, in both a good and a bad way. Bass is superb; massive and unrelenting in its torque, it feels like the audio equivalent of a large block American V8 sportscar. Any music you feed it, regardless of genre, just seems to have a bigger and deeper bass than most modern silver disc spinners. That’s not to say it’s particularly tuneful though; although it details the movement of a bass guitarist’s fingers up and down the fretboard very deftly, it doesn’t quite get into the groove. It’s powerful but a tad mechanical – this is less of a problem on classic and electronic music, where you get a lovely analytical quality, but it’s not the most soulful of machines to listen to.
Indeed, this character is reflected further up the registers; its midband is glass-clear and highly forensic. Again, you find yourself marvelling that the wonderful texture to vocals, and also the timbre of instruments; it makes lesser CD players sound positively opaque. There’s also a huge amount of space in the soundstage, and everything is held in its rightful position without any shadow of a doubt about what it’s doing or where it is. Rhythmically, it’s very good – in a way. The attack transients of instruments are excellent; everything sounds super-fast and insightful, making it an edge-of-the-seat listen. However, the Denon lacks that sense of relaxed, easy musicality you get from the very best silver disc spinners. It’s almost like it’s trying too hard to impress the listener. Again, music type plays a part here; it’s great with powerful rock and classical but soft soul music doesn’t fare so well. Treble is a joy; like all Japanese high end machines it has amazing focus and is sugary-sweet. There’s a great atmosphere to the proceedings and this blesses classical music and jazz especially with a lovely texture and depth.
They just don’t make machines like the Denon DCD-SA1 anymore. Fifteen years ago, we were at the high watermark of SACD players and there was still a role for esoteric devices such as this. But now it’s a complete anachronism; Super Audio Compact Disc is dead in most markets but lives on as the DSD computer file format; now at twice the sampling rate. CD is on the wane and the market just doesn’t support amazing ‘statement’ machines such as this. So it’s a fascinating museum piece, and a great used buy if you’re still into silver disc – expect to pay a mere fraction of its new price.