Sony SCD-CE775 SACD/CD Player 
Home Theater Audio Sources DVD-Audio/SACD Players
Written by Richard Elen   
Friday, 01 February 2002

Introduction
When Sony and Philips first released the Super Audio CD as the high-definition successor to the compact disc and competitor to DVD-Audio, players (notably those from Sony) were both expensive and limited to two-channel capabilities. Early Sony players were aimed at a stereo audiophile market, now virtually extinct everywhere except in Japan. Many initial disc releases, too, were stereo-only, and only Philips manufactured multi-channel players.

That has all changed with the advent of lower-cost players that offer the full multi-channel performance of which SACD is capable, now available via mass-market outlets. One of the first easily affordable SACD multi-channel players is the Sony SCD-CE775. This unit lists at $420, but is available on the street for up to $100 less. The unit offers an affordable entry-level experience of the possibilities of multi-channel SACD, but it is an audio-only player, unlike more expensive products that also play DVD-Video discs.

This machine is intended to replace an existing CD player, including a five-disc carousel configuration, with stereo and six-channel RCA outputs. The unit will play conventional CDs and all current types of SACDs, including dual layer and hybrid types. The unit is supplied with an almost-comprehensive remote – virtually the only function not provided on the remote is the ability to turn the player on and off. This can only be accomplished from the front panel.

The rear panel of the SCD-CE775 is extremely straightforward, with a block of four pairs of analog RCA outputs (stereo L & R, plus six-channel surround), a TOSLink optical digital output (for CD replay only, of course), and a pair of mini-jack sockets to interface with Sony’s Control A1 system control.

The front panel is very much like Sony’s equivalent CD-only player, and offers few surprises beyond the purely manual, non-remote nature of the power switch. You can change discs while another disc is playing, program and shuffle the order of tracks (a function I have never used on any player I have owned), and so on. A large fluorescent display provides system information, including text data on SACDs and regular CDs that include it, and you can also label discs yourself (but note that the data is stored in the player). There are some SACD-specific controls, including an illuminated button that selects between two-channel and multi-channel SACD areas, and another control that selects between CD and SACD layers. The panel is completed by a quarter-inch headphone jack and level control.

There is little to see inside the unit, but of particular note are the DSD1702 converter chips from Burr-Brown (now part of Texas Instruments). There are three of these two-channel converters, and they have quite a good reputation. They are capable of handling both DSD and regular PCM, the latter up to 24-bit/192 kHz sampling, so they would be ideal for universal DVD-A/V/SACD players (of which only one is available at present, from Apex), along with the NPC parts now available. In the Sony player, we can presume that only one chip handles any PCM, and that only 44.1 kHz, 16-bit is for CD replay.

An interesting aspect of the output configuration is that the stereo left and right outputs simply duplicate the front left and right: in the case of CD replay, both output signal, and in the case of multi-channel replay, they both deliver only the front left and right signals, with no down-mixing to the left and right outs – this would actually be very difficult to do in a consumer player, as DSD signals do not lend themselves to DSP operations like mixing very easily.

Where this player really scores, however, is that it contains a complete bass management system to ensure that whatever your speaker configuration (within reason), you can set the player up to deliver bass frequencies only to speakers that you have indicated can handle them. Not only can you configure the six-channel output, but you can also set up the two-channel mode, according to the manual. In Direct mode, signals are fed direct to left and right speakers with no messing about, just as an ordinary CD player would handle it. On the Sony SCD-CE775, there is also a mode that brings your home theater subwoofer into play, in case your front speakers are a little lacking in bass extension. Cool. Well, it would be cool, if I could find it. Pressing the MENU button and scrolling through the options showed me the multi-channel configuration, but not stereo.

The multi-channel configuration mode does not include all the speaker setups you might have, but it includes all the common ones, such as five large speakers with or without sub and with or without center front, five small speakers with sub, and large front speakers and small surrounds with or without sub. About the only setup it can’t handle is large fronts, small surrounds and no center front. There is also a multi-channel direct mode, in which each signal is fed directly to the appropriate output, with no bass management at all. You would use this if your receiver handles bass management itself and you don’t want to do it twice (which you really don’t want to do).

You might also want this mode if you are trying one of the more adventurous surround configurations that some people are using. Both DVD and SACD share the ability to send the full audio frequency range down any one of the six available channels. This means that there is no point in sending bass down its own special “Low Frequency Enhancement” channel: producers and engineers please note. The LFE was a movie sound invention designed to stop bass effects (like asteroids crashing into the Earth or dinosaur footfalls) intermodulating with the regular audio channels in the old analog days. It has no place in music, and even if it did, it has no place in a modern “5.1” – or rather “six-channel” system. In fact, SACD regards all channels equally. So why not use the former “.1” for something more sensible? Why not indeed, and this is exactly what Telarc have done with many of their new SACD and DVD-A recordings, using the LFE for height information, to drive a loudspeaker over your head. This is not as wacky as it sounds: the effect is nearly as impressive as going from stereo to surround, so don’t knock it. Chesky Records goes one step further and uses both the LFE and the center front channel to drive two speakers at the side of the listening area, mounted about 30 degrees up. The result on the “1812 Overture,” for example, is very impressive (see separate review).

If you decide to try one of these settings, you would ideally take the signals from the channel(s) of the player direct to its own amplifier and speaker(s). Do not go through your receiver unless you have big speakers all round and thus have your receiver’s bass management turned off, with no sub. Otherwise, if you have smaller speakers in some places, your system’s bass management will ensure that any low bass in the four or five main channels will come from your sub, so you need to bypass that system to drive your overhead speakers without their signals becoming entangled with the bass management system in your receiver.

Back to the SCD-CE775: You also have the means to balance the output levels of the different channels for best results. There is a built-in tone generator that cycles through the outputs to help you do this, and you can balance the relative channel output levels with reference to the front. It’s actually a bit fiddly, and you can’t balance the outputs individually, but the facility is there.

Listening Tests
To put the player through its paces, I chose a wide selection of music, on SACD and CD, and in every case the machine performed impressively, especially considering that you can buy one for little more than $300. The converter chips used in this machine are certainly very good, but as many people will know, the chips cost only a few dollars: the sound quality of a digital system relies less on the chips than on how they are used.

I started off with some of Telarc’s latest offerings, most of which I will be reviewing over the coming weeks. All are DSD recordings from the beginning, and issued in hybrid multi-channel SACD format, meaning that they have a Red Book stereo CD layer, a high-definition stereo area and a high-definition surround area. Tchaikovsky’s “1812 Overture” – a Telarc standard, I suppose – is actually available in DVD-A format as well, and I will cover the pair of them elsewhere, but in brief, I would note that the SCD-CE775 claims a “playing frequency range” (whatever that is) of 2 Hz to 100 kHz, but a frequency response of 2 Hz to 50 kHz (-3 dB). SACD can certainly theoretically go up to 100 kHz (about the same as DVD-A at 192 kHz sampling), but both this and the Philips player I reviewed recently seem to draw the line at 50 kHz. Thus it did not really surprise me that I did not find the top end particularly extended. If anything, the DVD-A version had a little more apparent top. Where the SCD-CE775 really did well was not in apparent frequency range but in smoothness and naturalness of the sound. Having carefully calibrated the levels between my Kenwood DVD-A player and the Sony, I played the “1812” and noted that while my cat turned her head to see where the cannons were coming from on the DVD-A version, when I played the SACD, she jumped off the couch and left the room. Hmmm….

The difference was more apparent (to me rather than to the cat), however, when playing back Telarc’s “A Mormon Tabernacle Choir Christmas” and switching between the different recordings on this hybrid multi-channel disc. Yes, there seemed to be more top on the high definition recordings, but the main difference was that the CD layer sounded somehow contained and boxed-in. The stereo high-definition layer was much more lively, but the album really sprang to life in surround, where the ambience of the Mormon Tabernacle became fully apparent. The enormous arrangements on some of the better-known up-tempo carols, notably “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing” sound as if they have been lifted from some huge-budget film score, and every little detail is audible. Interestingly, to switch modes on this machine, you have to go through Stop (otherwise you get a message on the display telling you to press Stop first), unlike the Philips SCD-1000 that can switch modes on the fly. But you won’t want to do this much.

Continuing with actual film music, “The Film Music of Jerry Goldsmith,” recorded at Abbey Road with the London Symphony Orchestra conducted by the composer, is another Telarc extravaganza, and it is sufficiently impressive to turn up as a demo disc with some (Philips) SACD players. The tunes are not all his best-known, but the impressive, dynamic arrangements and performance on this disc really popped out.

Chesky’s Bucky Pizzarelli disc Swing Live is also available in both DVD-A and SACD formats, and again I found the DVD-A had a slight edge on the amount of top end. Even so, the smoothness of the SACD was very appealing. The recording technique used on this disc does an astonishing job of recreating a New York jazz club, and the effect is almost uncanny. The SACD is essentially a “quad” disc, with no center front or LFE, yet it succeeds where almost no current surround recordings do in yielding convincing images between the loudspeakers, all around the room.

To check the behavior of the player on regular compact disc releases, I tried John Barry’s music from the movie “Playing By Heart.” It sounded very good on the player’s analog outputs. The Sony’s converters evidently outpaced those in my existing Philips CD player and even those in my receiver (when fed with the TOSLink optical feed from the Sony player). Strings were particularly fine and detailed. Finally, I played Gillian Welch’s breathtaking Time (The Revelator). The time the mixes on this album are often almost mono, but they sounded excellent and better than on my other players, with particularly clear detail on acoustic guitar and other acoustic instruments.

Pros:
Excellent value for money
Comprehensive bass management system – a major plus
Excellent digital audio conversion for both CD and SACD

Cons:
No remote power-off
Perhaps not quite as much HF end as you might expect, but smooth nonetheless
Need to press stop before changing modes (if that matters to you).

Conclusion
If you want to upgrade your CD player and would like to be able to play stereo and multi-channel SACDs too, this is the player for you. You will have to find somewhere to plug in its six-channel analog outputs, which are probably already in use for your DVD-Audio player (and if you are using the digital output for either, you are not getting anything better than CD quality – be warned!), but assuming you can surmount this obstacle, the Sony SCD-CE775 looks, feels and behaves like a five-disc carousel-style CD player. It does not, however, sound like one. It plays all kinds of SACDs including multi-channel ones and, in doing so, delivers a notably smooth and natural sound. The fact that a $300 machine can offer not only surround but also respectable bass management, setup and level control systems is quite remarkable and endeared this machine to me at once. I really want a true universal SACD/DVD-A/V player, but if the Apex isn’t any good and I have to have two players, the Sony SACD-CE775 is probably going to take care of the SACD department for the time being.

If you also need DVD-V replay, however, do check the rest of the Sony line, because for not too much more you can pick up a player that does all this and DVD-V too.
Manufacturer Sony
Model SCD-CE775 SACD/CD Player
Reviewer Richard Elen





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