|Sony SCD-C555ES SACD/CD Changer|
|Home Theater Audio Sources DVD-Audio/SACD Players|
|Written by Jerry Del Colliano|
|Friday, 01 November 2002|
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Starting with CDs on the SCD-C555ES, "The Grunge" from Led Zeppelin’s Houses of the Holy (Atlantic - CD) immediately sounded hollow on Robert Plant’s vocals. The sound was engagingly sharp on the SCD-C555ES and noticeably lacked the presence of my reference CD transport, the $5,995 Proceed PMDT, which was connected digitally to the Mark Levinson No. 40 and up-converted to 24-bit 384 kHz by the internal converters on the Mark Levinson preamp. The SACD input is also upconverted to the same level by the No. 40 for either two or six channels, depending on the source material, which makes for a better comparison between CD and SACD.
The snare drum on "Supernova Goes Pop" from Powerman 5000’s debut, Tonight The Stars Revolt (Dreamworks), sounded deep and dynamic on the pricey PMDT. On the SCD-C555ES, the Supernova unfortunately didn’t go pop with quite as much enthusiasm. The sound lacked impact and power when compared with the PMDT. In comparing an SACD directly to the same title on 16-bit CD, I looked to Michael Jackson’s Thriller (Sony Epic CD and SACD) for a most compelling comparison. Thriller is an excellent recording that literally defined the sound of pop music for an entire generation of listeners, me included. Upon playing the SACD version of "P.Y.T." and then quickly switching inputs to the CD version, I was shocked to hear the bass sound better on the CD version. The very pronounced highs that I noticed for an upcoming Krell FPB Mcx350 power amp review were still noticeable, yet you could clearly hear the better, more layered mids on the SACD. The depth of soundstage was much better than on the CD, sounding wider and tastier on the SACD.
On the SACD version of "Beat It," it sounded as if the mixing engineer had turned down the bass guitar to unusually low levels. It wasn’t that you couldn’t hear it, it just didn’t rock to the same levels that the CD did. Jacko’s vocals did however sound better on SACD again. They were more airy and open, offering a much more engaging presence than on the CD.
I had much better luck with the Bob Ludwig-mastered Journey's Greatest Hits (Columbia Records SACD) SACD, especially on tracks like "Who’s Crying Now," where you can hear a piano reproduced with a complexity that I have never - I say NEVER - heard on a 16-bit CD. You can impress all of your mulleted, Camaro-driving friends to the point where they may start actually swinging a lit Zippo lighter in rhythm to the songs. Steve Perry’s raspy voice has an amazing air around it, much as I heard with Michael Jackson on the Thriller SACD, that was impressive, especially considering how many times all of us have heard Journey tunes on FM classic rock radio. Conversely, during quiet sections, I could hear a slight hiss located near or right below the frequency range of Perry’s voice. I checked with Bob Ludwig and it is not on the master, so it could be an artifact or byproduct of design or inexpensive DACs used in the player. I am not sure what the cause is, but I am sure you can hear it.
The best the SACD format sounded in my room was on the jazz masterpiece Time Out from Dave Brubeck (Columbia – SACD). The openness described earlier with Thriller and Journey sounded even better on a more stripped-down jazz arrangement. Piano tones were delicate and complex, with a three-dimensionality to them that was of special note to even casual listeners who heard this SACD. On the title track "Take Five," the space between the snare and the cymbal is awesome. The decay time feels less like a recording and more like the sound of a live instrument. The imaging on this multi-channel disc was also tastefully done, with responsible use of the center channel to increase my system’s ability to project an ultra-wide soundstage.
The SCD-C555ES functions wonderfully as a player when you compare it to other brands of five-CD changers (they don’t have SACD changers yet). Sonically, I feel that the player lacks the resolution that a true high-performance audio enthusiast is going to demand before he or she heads off to by an all-new record collection on SACD. The noise I made mention of on the Journey SACD could be heard on nearly all other titles and is really disconcerting. I tried changing the set-up and speaker configuration with no success. I also tried switching to my other 5.1 analog input on my Mark Levinson No. 40 preamp, which was no more successful. If I did something wrong in the set-up process, then I will accept responsibility for my wrongdoing, but I called into Sony to get set-up tips and even checked with SACD mastering engineers like Bob Ludwig to try to discover what the issue was. I was unfortunately never able to overcome it.
While this isn’t a knock on the player as much as on the format, the backwards compatibility of SACD software isn’t as good as that of DVD-Audio. Nearly every DVD-Audio disc can play back both stereo and surround albeit the sterio version of a DVD-Audio often folds down from the surround mix. This playback can be on one of 50 million DVD-Video players with Dolby Digital or DTS or on a much smaller number of dedicated DVD-Audio players at its highest performance with MLP lossless surround sound. On SACD, you need a hybrid disc for playback on a CD player -- most of my SACD collection is not hybrid. Also, the added values on SACD discs are not as good as those on DVD-Audio, meaning the format has less ammunition to compete with DVD-Video and video games for our disposable income. The advantages of the software should be a major factor in considering an equipment and software investment on the magnitude of SACD.
For value, the fact the SCD-C555ES doesn’t play DVD-Video discs, let alone both SACD and DVD-Audio discs, makes it a less compelling investment. For about $1500, companies like Pioneer have SACD/DVD-Audio players that play both formats and have a Firewire digital output. The matter of who might have a Firewire input on their A/V preamp is an entirely different question right now, but with SACD, DVD-Audio and DVD-Video all in one component, you get far more entertainment opportunities than with this SACD-only player, even if you have to connect it via analog outputs.
As the first SACD player I have had the chance to review and potentially own, I am disappointed with the SCD-C555ES. I know that the SACD format has more to offer than what I heard. Overall, the SCD-C555ES can pull off all of the tricks you would expect from a full-feature CD changer, but it doesn’t hold up when you compare its value with that of the currently available SACD/DVD-Audio combination players that are priced even lower than the SCD-C555ES.
I have bought SACD titles that I really like and I can hear big-time potential in the format, even through this player. My plan is to send the SCD-C555ES back to Sony and order their flagship SCD-XA-777ES, which I will evaluate as a better example of what can be done with the format in a reference-level system. I am hopeful that the SCD-XA-777ES will perform better in my system.