Sony SCD-C555ES SACD/CD Changer 
Home Theater Audio Sources DVD-Audio/SACD Players
Written by Jerry Del Colliano   
Friday, 01 November 2002

I doubt Sony could have imagined the impact the invention of the Compact Disc would have on their company and project partner Philips. For nearly 20 years, the CD has been the absolute king of prerecorded music in the marketplace, having decisively beaten the LP and the cassette tape, then fending off new format threats from DAT, DCC and even Sony’s own mini-Disc. We have loved and collected the CD for an entire generation, but the times, they are a-changing.

The advent and popular acceptance of MP3 as a music format now allows a music enthusiast to arrange and share (or potentially steal) music in ways not even remotely dreamed of a mere five years ago. This reality, coupled with a never-before-seen creative recession on the part of new artists and their record labels (try stomaching ‘N Sync, O Town, Justin Timberlake, et al as examples) hasn’t helped the historically "recession proof" record business over the past two years.

Even before MP3s came on the scene, companies like DTS and Dolby were looking for ways to change the means of listening to music, from stereo to surround sound.

All of a sudden, with very threatening formats on the low and high end of the CD, Sony and Philips knew they had to do something significant to replace their bellwether format. What they did was introduce SACD – a high-resolution audio format so robust that it makes CDs look downright wimpy. SACDs can play high-resolution stereo music, as well as high-resolution surround sound music, thanks to Sony’s DSD (direct stream digital) technology. SACD players will play a traditional CD but only "hybrid" multi-layer SACDs will also play on CD players.

The immense potential of the new format sounded great, especially to "audiophiles" who loved SACD’s initial bent towards stereo playback. In fact, some of the earliest high-end SACD players only had two channels of output. But SACD has been by no means a second home run for Sony and Philips. One of the main factors is that other record labels and electronics companies wanted a taste of the insanely lucrative royalties that come from the sale of each and every disc and player, no matter which new format would replace the CD. The promising DVD-Audio format is powered by and backwards-compatible with the most commercially successful new format in A/V history, DVD-Video.

The result has been a full-force format war that has consumers honestly confused as to which new format constitutes the best investment. Sony Music obviously supports SACD, as does Universal Music Group, which calls SACD a "preferred format," but will not publicly rule out releasing DVD-Audio titles. DVD-Audio is supported by AOL Time Warner and EMI. With less than 1,000 titles available for both formats combined, the format war is far from resolved. Consumers yearn for more value and performance when they spend $16 on a prerecorded music source, yet the sweeping majority have not committed to either new format in any significant numbers.

The question is, can you resist hearing music sound many times better than a CD and not buy a new player and music collection? I couldn’t.

The Sony SCD-C555ES SACD Changer
The Sony SCD-C555ES ($800) is a five-disc carousel player/changer that is positioned right just under the flagship SCD-XA-777ES in their current SACD player lineup. The SCD-C555ES is a sizable 17 x 16.125 x 5.5 inches in size, weighing in at almost 24.5 pounds. The retail price is $800 and the unit will play CDs, stereo SACDs and multi-channel SACDs. The unit also reads CD-R and CD-RW discs.

Hooking up the 555 is relatively easy. There are six RCA outputs that you can connect to your A/V preamp or receiver. If you are only using SACD as a stereo format you can chose the left and right outputs for your stereo preamp. If you want to connect your SACD player (or most lower end DVD-Audio players) via balanced XLR outputs you are out of luck. Both new formats seem to have almost exclusively unbalanced analog outputs and I have yet to see an A/V preamp with 5.1 analog inputs featuring XLR connectors, since they use up so much valuable real estate on the back of an A/V preamp. More importantly, there are no digital outputs from an SACD player due to fears that consumers will use these for copying the new, higher-resolution music recordings – although a specification exists for an encrypted digital link. For now, this means saying goodbye to high-end D/A converters for audiophiles. In my system, I used three pairs of Better Cables' affordable Silver Serpent wire with great success. They made a wonderfully snug connection and were finished in a well-shielded jacket.

The SCD-C555ES is loaded with the features you’d expect from a Sony ES product. The tray, while not built to amazing tolerances, can quickly and easily add and switch CDs and SACDs. Sony’s experience in five-CD changers is obvious and highly appreciated here. Most notably, on the front of the unit is a jog shuttle-style knob that can be used to neatly skip and/or fast-forward through tracks. The knob gives a extra level of dimensionality to the physical use of the unit that is far above average. The panel display on the unit is also stellar. A well-organized chart of tracks is found on the display, along with a status report of the disc (CD, stereo SACD, multi-channel SACD, etc.), while direct access buttons allow you to select the actual disc you want to play. Other direct access buttons allow you to switch SACD playback from stereo to multi-channel (most multi-channel discs also include a high-resolution stereo version). These same buttons auto-light with your default choice of stereo or multi-channel tracks.

The SCD-C555ES knowingly shows you the name of the disc and/or the track name fully spelled out. Unlike the majority of early DVD-Audio players, almost every SACD player, including the SCD-C555ES, can run without a video source. In fact, there is no video output from the unit whatsoever. It therefore cannot play video software like a DVD-Video disc or a video CD. Thoughtfully, the SCD-C555ES has a one-quarter-inch headphone jack and volume control for your late-night listening sessions.

The remote is a standard plastic Sony CD changer remote, with a few SACD-oriented, dual-function buttons on it. The 10+ button is a nice add-on for direct access of tracks from albums with more than 10 tracks. The multi-channel/stereo button also proved to be useful during my testing. The level adjust button didn’t seem to have any effect on my system whatsoever, although I did find the SCD-C555ES to have a "hot" analog output, meaning it was loud relative to other sources going into my Mark Levinson No. 40 AV preamp. This is a very common problem in recording studios and increasingly common in high-performance A/V systems. Luckily, the No. 40 (as well as most other good receivers and AV preamps) can be easily adjusted, so that no one input is dramatically louder than another. This reduction in level also has no ill effect on the quality of sound.

Bass Management on SACD
During setup, you must roughly tell the SCD-C555ES what kind of speaker system you have, in order to get the proper output for multi-channel playback. While the SCD-C555ES does not have an amazingly sophisticated bass management system (which would allow you to select a crossover point for the speakers and subwoofer), it does let consumers choose their speaker size (large/small) in a wide variety of configurations. You may also choose whether or not you have a center channel or subwoofer. Two-channel playback may be set up with or without the subwoofer. My initial listening for the first week with the SCD-C555ES was done with the subwoofer, not merely two-channel listening. Once engaged, the sub had a positive effect. All stereo listening in my tests was done with the two channels plus subwoofer setting engaged.

The Music
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 Downside
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.
Manufacturer Sony
Model SCD-C555ES SACD/CD Changer

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