Review of the Sony SCD-1 SACD Player (Jan 2000)

Nor bear with equanamity
The radio in students' cars,
Muzak at breakfast, or - dear God! -
Girl-organists in bars.

Auden, "On the Circuit"


Blurb

In truth, this review is more about the SCD-1ís prowess in playing CDs as the 3 SACD samplers I had were well, boring. If you want to read up more about SACD, there are reviews everywhere in the audio press...

 

Introduction

Someone was kind enough to lend me a SCD-1 to listen at home and fortunately, I had a presence of mind to bring a trolley when I collected it as it is a 58lb monster :). I had the opportunity to listen to the SCD-1 for about a week on my usual system (with a Sony XA7ES/SF Line-1/DNA0.5 deluxe/Triangle Zephyrs/REL StrataII) and on the living room system (with a Pioneer DVL-919/Nad S100/CJMF2500/JA Rm50si). Oh yeah, I used Black Diamond Mk.3 cones which did improve the sound (those who ask will be glad to know that High End Research is now selling BDR; the bad news is the price)


Technicalities

The 58lb weight is perhaps the most noticeable 'feature' of the SCD-1, however, there are other things that caught my attention as I have experience with other Sony players (444ES - just retired, the remainder, 338ESD, 229ES, XA7ES  all alive and kicking (errr, I mean spinning)). Forgive me if I sound a bit frivolous :

  • Display can turn off completely, leaving 2 green lights on the top panel (play and CD/SACD selector LEDs)
  • There is a switch on the rear panel that allows you to use your old Sony CD remote control; otherwise you'll have to use the new one.
  • There is an IEC connector allowing you to use your own power cord. The person who lent me the SCD-1 also lent me a Synergistic power cord.
  • There is shuffle play (woohoo! :))
  • The balanced connectors are reversed in polarity! My Sony XA7ES has the 'correct' polarity. Reading Stereophile, they say that Japan wires its balanced connections differently. I had an easy solution as my Line-1 came with a phase reversal switch, though I would keep on forgetting to change polarity until halfway into my listening session :) I have to admit though, I can't tell the difference 90% of the time (I can't differentiate them in a blind A/B test except for certain bass heavy tracks where the different phases react with my room differently; though I kind of get vague impressions)

  • There is no volume fader or volume control. I've really come to appreciate this feature. If you're in a tweak/evaluation mode, you will always change tracks/swap discs before the track is over. However, going for 85dB to total silence is very unsettling.

  • There is a switch to cut off high frequencies above 50Khz. (I used the filter)
  • It really takes its time to read the discs and change tracks.
  • It has 4 digital filter settings in addition to the standard mode.
  • There is 'CD text'. For supported CDs, the CD will have the names of the track on it so when you play that track on the SCD-1, the name of the track will appear. This occurred when playing Charlotte Church's extremely saccharine Voice of an Angel (its wasn't my CD anyway....), which incidentally, is a Sony Music CD.

 

Sound quality (standard setting)

I spent quite a bit of time listening to the SCD-1 on the standard filter setting because in this mode, there was a very definite resemblance to the XA7ES (which is a good thing, by the way :)). However, the SCD-1 was audibly better than the XA7ES in every department. The soundstaging was better in that off centre instruments were better defined and there was a greater fullness and solidity in the sound. Note that 'greater fullness' does not equate to 'thick and congested' as there was great spaciousness and air.

Treble

That leads us to the treble and higher frequencies - incredible! Starting off with a concrete example, listening to Rebecca Pidgeon's New York Girls Club, I heard the most incredibly realistic cymbals ever. One easy easy way to tell the difference between CD players is to listen to things like cymbals - do they 'shimmer' or is the sound 'choppy' or 'chopped-off'? The XA7ES 'shimmered' but the SCD-1 had greater air to the 'shimmer' and more important, the attack (sounds can be divided into 4 portions - attack, decay, sustain ,release) had increased detail and realism that I never knew was possible from 16/44. Mind you, I'm listening on my budget Zephyrs with a cheap (but good) tweeter. Anyway, all across the board, no matter what disc I played, there was greater air and detail at the high frequencies but the sound was never harsh. In fact, despite the greater detail, I found that I could play the SCD-1 louder than normal which indicates that it is more refined in the top-end as well (normally, I listen to female vocals at just above 80dB C weighted with rare 85dB peaks. Higher than that, it hurts my ears a bit :) This is still below 'realistic' levels, so you could say that with the SCD-1, I can move closer to realistic levels) but for review purposes, I listened to tracks level matched to the XA7ES.

One final note - I listened to the SCD-1 with the 50Khz filter engaged. At least one audio reviewer has reported even more treble detail with the filter disengaged but I had enough treble thank you :) Also, if you recall my Joseph Audio rm22si review, I lamented the lack of absolute top end air though I didn't know which component was 'responsible'. Anyway, the loads of high frequency in the SCD-1 is clearly an ideal match

Bass

That brings us to the next question - does it rock? The bass was also better than the XA7ES. There was a touch more extension and there was again better attack in the bass notes. Spinning through Texas' Hush, I would say that the SCD-1 has the same impeccable timing that the XA7ES has. Good timing and pace makes music more coherent and continuous and the SCD-1 equals the XA7ES. Mind you, it is very easy to change the sound of the bass (just pump it up), but that doesn't make it better. What I heard from the SCD-1 is better.

 

Midrange

I left the midrange for last because I would like to mention the digital filters here. First off, the digital filters are subtle but you can tell the difference in an A/B test if you use the right CDs.

On standard mode, the midrange was as beautiful as that on the XA7ES and female vocals were naturally complemented by the increased 'air'. In addition, there was a slightly more solid soundstage. However, being a more revealing player, the SCD-1 does expose the flaws in the recording of female vocals. Some tracks : for example Building a Mystery in Sarah McLachlan's Surfacing, the voice is rather diffuse and the increase in air doesn't add much. In such circumstances, filter 2 helps out by increasing the focus of female vocals. Of course, by 'focusing', you're also reducing the amount of air and space around the vocals. In addition, there seems to be a bit of an additional to the lower midrange which may give additional 'body' to the vocals in some cases. However, filter 2 doesn't help all female vocals and in some cases, filter 2 felt funny compared to the standard filter.

For good recordings in general, I preferred Standard to filter 2. We're not only talking about Chesky discs but the better pop recordings like Sara Hickman's Shortstop. However, a lot depends on the recording and interestingly enough, the voice.

 

Filter testing

When I was spinning through my Mary Black CD collection, I discovered that filter 2 was ideal and I preferred it to Standard in all circumstance. I then decided to listen to one of Mary Black's faster songs to see which filter I preferred.

I have to say that I couldn't try figure out filter 3 and 4 when playing this track on my upstairs system; it did sound different but I found Standard better (or perhaps, more reassuringly familiar). However, filter 1 and 2 provided very interesting results and I preferred either 1 or 2 to Standard. Filter 2 is the 'vocals' filter and does make her voice more focus and gives it more 'presence', moving the sound towards the 'in the same room' paradigm.

Filter 1 on the other hand, also changes her voice and somehow I found the change oddly compelling. It was basically Mary Black like I never heard before. The voice became leaner and cleaner (but not clinical or harsh, thanks to the refinement of the SCD-1) and faster. The pace and rhythm of the music seemed to pick up as well and it all seemed 'faster'. Filter 1 is my choice for the situations where the vocals are bloated (i.e. where the singers' head seems 3 feet wide :)) and anytime I want more 'speed' :)

On the living room system

The living room system has a problem as its not an enclosed room; it leads to the dining which leads to the kitchen etc. Consequently, there is a midbass and lower midrange suckout that makes the normally wonderful plucked double bass in Rebecca Pidgeon's rendition of Spanish Harlem (de rigeur at most hi-fi showrooms so you should know what I'm talking about :)) Sounds anaemic and a bit hard to follow (the Pioneer sounds a little bit better [gasp!] because it has a much 'fatter' but slow midbass). Filter 3 did help quite a lot by subtly increasing the reverb which fleshed out the plucked bass a bit more (to be fair to Sony, I'm sure it does more than adding reverb, its just that the filters are rather subtle... maybe if I spent a really long time with the SCD-1) Personally, I'm fine with this as the filter is, in my view, 'restoring' what went missing rather than adding something new. Anyway, with filter 3 engaged, the SCD-1 does blow away the Pioneer. (thats cos' in my view, the SCD-1 with the midbass suckout sounded 'flawed' and the flaw is the thing you notice over all the good things it does [hey that sounds vaguely familiar...] whereas the Pioneer, though not as good sounding, did not have this 'obvious' flaw]

Listening with filter 3 upstairs, I don't hear any 'obvious' reverb so the filter is quite transparent and subtle.

By the way, I want to emphasise: this is very subtle, I just don't want to lengthen my review by adding too many unnecessary words like 'very slightly' 'relatively more' etc etc :)

Conclusions on filters

Using the standard filter, the SCD-1 still sounds better than the XA7ES (unless perhaps you have an extremely bright system and recording - then the treble will send you running for cover), but for every recording, it is likely that 1 of the 4 will improve the sound on your system (and equally likely, 1 will make it sound worse)


Balanced outputs

I had earlier thought that the balanced outputs sounded far better than the single-ended (bigger difference than between balanced and unbalanced on my XA7ES). On more detailed listening, I now admit that I may have exaggerated the difference. Not least because I had earlier listened to the balanced ouputs at a louder volume. I could tell that the balanced outputs were louder so I backed down the volume by 2dB. However, using a reference tone from a test disc and my trusty Radioshack SPL meter, I realised that the balanced outputs were 4dB louder - this means that even though I had reduced the volume by 2dB, it was still 2dB louder.

My conclusion with the balanced is the same as my conclusion on the XA7ES; it is still better with better detail, but I can't really tell what else because the Belden 89207 I'm using for the balanced connectors aren't as good as the unbalanced XLO type 1s. The 89207 are a bit rough and grainy whereas the type 1s are in comparison grain free.

I will get confirmation on this, but I think the SCD-1 is not a fully balanced player and requires op-amps (I'm no engineer, maybe there are other devices besides op-amps that can do this conversion?) to convert the single-ended signal to balanced. If this is so, then the improvements in quality may be attributable in part to the difference in quality between the op-amps on the SCD-1 and on the Line-1 (which is fully balanced and thus has to convert single-ended signals to balanced ones) However, that wouldn't fully explain why the XA7ES seems to be more detailed balanced since given the XA7ES' price level, I would expect the quality of the op-amps to be the same.

SACD

Regrettable, the 3 SACDs I got, samplers from Sony, Telarc and DMP, did not contain my kind of music. Also, the recordings seem rather reserved and 'cautious'. Anyway, most of the magazines spend their time writing about the SACD performance of the SCD-1, so this review occupies a niche by talking about its CD replay performance. :)

Anyway, SACD does have a huge soundstage and instruments sound extremely realistic. As for piano, well, even a piano through a live microphone feed doesn't sound that realistic so I won't blame the recording process. It does sound better than CD, if thatís any consolation.


Conclusions

I'm imagining how my system would sound if I still had the Joseph Audios Rm22si... I'm now listening to the old system after the SCD-1 was removed. Amazingly, I feel that the improvement in swapping between the XA7ES and the SCD-1 was as much as swapping between my Zephyrs and the Joseph Audios. I'm not kidding. A lot of people don't appreciate how much the source matters. In fact, I confess that if you asked me before I ever listened to either whether changing the source of changing the speakers would have made more difference, I wouldn't have hesitated in saying speakers. I'm not saying that this is the case for all systems. Definitely in my living room, going from the BNS SoundColumn 3s to the Joseph Audio 50s made more of a difference than swapping the SCD-1. (again the room/speaker matching plays a big part)

The price of the SCD-1 is admittedly stiff so for most people, the 777 is a more viable alternative. The 777 replaces the XA7ES. I suppose that eventually, SACD will be introduced in other ES players as well. My XA7ES has a few years left in it (then it goes into my office system :)) but given the way Sony continues to make improvments in their players, my next music player will still be a Sony... (as for DVD, I hope to get one this year and yes, I would like DVD-audio...)

The Adelphi agent is Kingsley; call Sony if you want to find a dealer nearer to you.