It’s often said that the nineteen sixties didn’t start until half way through that decade, and didn’t fully end until the mid seventies. Perhaps you could say the same about the eighties, because the Sony CDP-911E is very much a product of this decade, even though it came out in 1993. It was the last gasp of Sony’s first epoch of silver disc spinners, even though it’s several generations along from the company’s original CDP-101.
Think of it as a late eighties high end Sony silver disc spinner that’s been shrunk in the wash. It has all the features that ever appeared even on top eighties Sonys like the CDP-557ES, but crammed into an obviously cost-cut chassis that has been cleverly constructed to look as expensive as the company’s high end products of yore. Take a quick glance at the CDP-911E and you’d mistake it for a late eighties Sony costing a thousand pounds or above. However, get close and you begin to see where the cost has been cut…
This is not to say it’s a poor quality machine however – indeed for its £300 selling price when new, it was special. Up against the likes of the Marantz CD-52SE it was super value by comparison; the former was essentially a tarted up entry-level machine, whereas this feels like a paired-down high ender. It has a sound that you would have had to pay a lot more for, just a few years earlier. It’s a Bistream machine – as was the fashion then – but is more animated sounding than Philips machines of the time. The one-bit CXD2562Q DAC chip is described by Sony as a ‘High Density Linear Convertor’; it marries up to a smooth, reliable Sony KSS-240A mechanism for which optical pick-ups are still available.
Its 430x110x355mm case is made of pressed steel, while the fascia is aluminium alloy with plastic buttons. The chassis is also steel, with none of the copper of higher end ES machines of the period. A frame-type transformer supplies the juice, and the disc mechanism is mostly plastic, albeit independently sprung to reduce vibration. The disc drawer closes into a rubber gasket that seals out outside vibrations, which is one of the Sony’s few luxury touches. Actually the disc drawer works more smoothly than many more expensive machines then and now. The casing has sound deadening material fitted, another sign of Sony taking care. Overall the machine weighs 4.8kg, which is about half of the typical ES machines of that period, yet still has a ‘Made In Japan’ quality feel to it.
Sony had a policy of fitting its budget machines with a welter of features, and the CDP-911E is no exception; just five or so years earlier, it would have seemed remarkable at the price. There’s a large, dimmable fluorescent dot-matrix alphanumeric display complete with ‘music calendar’, and a host of buttons on the fascia that offer direct access to up to twenty tracks and various different play modes. There’s also a Custom File feature that lets you program the unit with your favourite tracks for each CD you own, effectively making your own playlist for each disc. There’s also a full size gold-plated headphone socket with variable level control, the latter also being driven from the remote control – this feature was hugely impressive to most customers, back in the day. Being the ‘E’ suffix European model, it gets vibration absorbing feet and gold plated phono sockets on the back for fixed and variable outputs. A single optical digital output is fitted, as with all mid-priced Sony CD spinners of that era.
Sonically the Sony performs a bit like it measures, which is very good but not exceptionally. It has a low claimed total harmonic distortion of 0.0025% (1 kHz, 0dB), a signal-to-noise ratio of over 116dB and dynamic range of over 100dB. Channel separation is quoted at 110dB. On audition it’s very clean, crisp and punchy with an animated and engaging sound, but still seems rather too ‘hi-fi’ for some tastes – with a little too much analysis and not enough emotion. The Bitstream DAC is tonally less forward than bigger Sony machines of yore. Taken in isolation, it’s hard to imagine a player of this sounding this good – it’s only a lack of musical insight and rhythmic fluidity that holds it back in absolute terms. All the fundamentals are right, it’s just that the CDP-911E airbrushes things ever so slightly, failing to get that last one tenth of musical information off the disc.
Overall, this is a very worthy little machine – especially considering how mediocre most of its price rivals were at the time. It’s also inexpensive to buy now – with a well-preserved one going for under £100 – because it lacks the cool cachet of the classic eighties Sonys that it’s styled to look like. It gives a well ordered, tidy and pleasing sound that’s way better than you would expect. This Sony is also one of the most reliable of its era, too – so well worth watching out for secondhand. Don’t expect prices to rise much, as there are too many around and it will never become emblematic of its time in the way that some of its stablemates have.