Reviewer: Phil Gold
Source: Meridian G08 CD Player, Denon DVD-5900 Level 2 Mods
Integrated Amp: Perreaux Radiance R200i
Speakers: Wilson Benesch ACT1
Cables: Soundstring Power Cables (5 ft), Soundstring Interconnects (3 ft), Soundstring Bi-wire Speaker Cable (8 ft)
Power Conditioning: Chang Lightspeed Powerline Filter
Headphones: AKG K1000, Sennheiser HD 580
Room size: 24' W x 12' D x 8' H

A/V System Source: Denon DVD-5900 Level 2 Mods
Receiver: Onkyo DX-TS595
Front speakers: JMlab Cobalt 816
Center channel: JMlab Cobalt CC 800
Surrounds: Boston Acoustic CR65
Subwoofer: Boston Acoustic PV600

Review component retail: $2,999


I've been struggling with weighty questions of late - not which way to vote, whether I feel safe in a jet once again nor even boxers or briefs. No, my personal dilemma is what kind of digital source to buy. Should I get a CD player or an SACD player or a Universal player? My review last year of the Esoteric DV-50 convinced me that you can have it all - at a price. But it's not over yet. A number of manufacturers have picked up the challenge and introduced new CD players of such outstanding quality that the superiority of 2-channel DVD-Audio or SACD over Redbook is not the slam-dunk we once thought. The Meridian G08 is a prime example of this trend and I am using it throughout this review as a reference.


Sony, Arcam and Meridian currently take the position that you can't design a high-end digital source that combines DVD with SACD without compromising either sound quality or affordability. Meridian has given us an excellent CD player in the new G08, and several high end DVD players featuring DVD-Audio and DVD-Video such as the new G98 DVD Player or the top-of-the-line 800 Reference DVD Player. Arcam has countered with the FMJ CD-33 Compact Disc Player and the FMJ 27A DVD-Audio Player, both the subject of much favorable press.


Sony has chosen the SACD path for their statement player, the SCD-XA9000ES which is the subject of today's review. Sony believes -- and it's hard to argue -- that the absence of any video processing makes for a simpler and more optimal internal layout than in a Universal Player. This unit has been in very short supply here in Canada and I waited some six months to take delivery of the review sample. Was it worth the wait? Let's see.


This new model is based on the previous generation SCD-XA777ES, with which it shares most of its internal components and architecture. But the outside is quite different. The finish is 'Silver Cascade' instead of the previous black or gold, and the front panel is beveled to match the new STRDA9000ES Digital Receiver. In a nice touch, the most commonly used controls are placed on the upward-facing bevel, which makes it easy to see and touch them from above or in front. I particularly like the way the controls are laid out on the front panel - each button is clearly marked and the more important ones are bigger than the others. The setup menu on the lower face is intuitive and responsive and I welcome the toggle switches between CD and SACD layers and between 2-channel and multi-channel. Unusually on a machine of this caliber, there is a dedicated headphone outlet on the front panel complete with volume control. This produces enough power to drive Sennheiser HD 580s to average listening volumes but it does not substitute for a good headphone amplifier, which would extract more detail, power and control from high-end headphones like these.


Some reviewers have expressed disappointment with the remote control on the Sony. It is a simple plastic wand, much like the one that comes with my 20" Trinitron TV. I find it very easy to use and well marked. It's not backlit but who needs that for an audio-only player? The only criticism I have is the lack of a button to open or close the disc drawer.


So apart from cosmetics, what else is new? First, the back panel connections. On the older XA777ES, either the 2-channel outputs were active or the 6-channel outputs, which meant that if you wanted to listen to both types of music, you needed 8 interconnects. Now both can be active at once, saving you 2 interconnects and an input on your preamp or receiver. For the first time on a Sony, we now have a high resolution Digital iLink that can output an encrypted CD or SACD digital stream to the matching STRDA9000ES Digital Receiver. This means you can throw out the six analog interconnects and use one thin digital low-jitter connection. If SACD D/A converters improve in the future, you can take full advantage by bypassing the converters in the 9000ES. Good move, Sony! I would like to see a balanced analog output on this model but Sony has not offered one on an SACD player since the original SCD-1.


When you explore the menu system, you'll find speaker distance calibration on the new model, another big plus for multi-channel listeners or even for two-channel off-center listening positions. Bass management is available as it was on the XA777ES.

I set up the Sony to feed my Perreaux R200i integrated amplifier and Wilson Benesch ACT 1 speakers, but I also used AKG K1000 earspeakers. The Meridian G08 and the Denon DVD-5900 with Level 2 Mods from Parts Connexion provided points of comparison. Let the listening begin.


Out of the box, the Sony sounded lively but thin so I let it settle in for over 200 hours of repeat play before proceeding. It would cost the manufacturers a bit more money to do this burn-in for us, but surely they would attract more customers on in-store audition or home trial if they did this for us.


Once fully cooked, the Sony presents a crystal clear sound with abundant detail but little warmth to speak of. Sony steers a neutral path through all other aspects of performance – not overly dynamic or reticent, images precisely located, good transient response without edginess and a strong but not overwhelming bass drive. These general comments apply to all the listening modes, CD or SACD, 2-channel or multi-channel. An auspicious start and impressive at this price of $2,999.


The Sony offers a 2-position digital filter for CD listening. The Optional setting is a time-aligned filter, while the Standard filter is optimized for a flat frequency response. I prefer the Optional filter. It gives a marginally more dynamic and believable 3-dimensional soundstage.


Pulling out a stack of Redbook CDs, first up was Yellow Submarine Songtrack [Capitol 7243-5-21481-27] which offers some of the best sound on any Beatles CD. "All You Need Is Love" throws everything at the listener including the kitchen sink. The big Denon excels here with its strong tuneful bass propelling the music along. There is no sense of strain and I can hear all the individual voices in the choir laid out in perspective. The Meridian, although quite similar in sound, has less presence. The bass is not quite so powerful but is well defined and tuneful, while the voices are more natural and extended. The Sony gives us less body and depth to the image but we hear a lot of detail and top end air. "When I'm 64" is a different story. The smaller scale suits the Sony well with a punchy sound, good depth and realistic vocals and a strong bass line. The Meridian sounds even better, with more space between the instruments and a more realistic portrayal of the voice but the Denon sounds less open and light on its feet
.


The satirical Canadian TV show Air Farce has produced some hilarious fake K-Tel ads for Leonard Cohen that stress just how low our favorite son's voice can growl. No real need for parody. Just play the title track from The Future [Columbia CK 53226] and you may be falling off your chair in hysterics. Never mind - I love this track with its delicate lyrics: "Give me crack and anal sex / Take the only tree that's left / stuff it up the hole in your culture / Give me back the Berlin wall / give me Stalin and St Paul / I've seen the future, brother: It is murder." It's an excellent
workout for deep bass and the Denon is overwhelming here. You can hear every strain on his vocal chords and there is a visceral strength driving the beat. The Meridian is more open, clearer and quite punchy but the deep bass impact is just hinted at. The Sony again comes close to the Meridian's sound but does not locate the instruments quite so precisely or give as much body to the vocals. However, it offers just a bit more bass.


The Meridian offers more color and a more realistic sound to the acoustic instruments in the mix of "Diamonds and Rust" on Joan Baez's Rare Live and Classic Volume 3 [Vanguard VCD3-125/26]. The percussion is light, delicate and precisely located while the bass is well defined and tuneful. The Denon offers extra detail and power in the bass but less top end extension, most noticeable in the tizzy nature of the percussion sounds so well handled by the Meridian. The Sony does well with Joan's voice and fills in all the details but lacks the drive and urgency that can bring this track to life.


The Borodin Quartet perform Haydn's Die Sieben Letzte Worte [Teldec 4509-92373-2] in a stunning and aggressive recording to scare all the cats within a mile. The last movement "Il Teremoto" lasts less than two minutes but contains more drama than most entire symphonies. How would the Sony cope with this? The recording is clear but the body of the stringed instruments is missing in action and the sense of danger is strangely lacking. The Meridian is phenomenal here, with a warm clear string tone, realistic spacing between the instruments and a fine sense of air on top. The Denon shows a greater attack and even more body to the strings. While not exactly harsh sounding, it is a little strident but this is not out of place in this music. Both the Denon and the Meridian offer overwhelming experiences while the Sony lags far behind.


So for Redbook, my money is on the Meridian and if memory serves, the Sony does not get up and boogie like the Gamut CD1 or Esoteric DV-50 I had in my system before. Everything is there but doesn't quite gel for me. When you switch to 2-channel SACD, a different picture emerges. The sound seems to snap into focus and the boogie factor picks up considerably. I'm not saying there is suddenly more bass or greater detail. The difference is hard to put your finger on but the music is more alive, more palpable and the image more coherent. You may put this down to the superiority of the medium but what I find interesting is how this moves the performance of the Sony so close to the RedBook-only Meridian. You can forget you are listening to a machine and just sit back and enjoy the music. This happens when the ambiance of the recording venue is well captured and reproduced and has little to do with how strong the bass or how extended the treble. Somehow the Meridian captures this ambiance from the limited number of bits on a RedBook CD while the Sony needs the higher bit rate of SACD to cross this threshold in my setup.


To illustrate this in real time, I could sit back in my armchair and toggle between the RedBook and SACD layers on some hybrid discs in my collection. "Don't Know Why" on Norah Jones' Come Away With Me [Blue Note 7243 5 41747 2 8] gains in atmospherics and warmth, becoming simply more enjoyable. The great Sonny Rollins on Saxophone Colossus [Analog Productions CAPJ 7079 SA] is more intimate and expressive while at the same time solidly located in space. Pick the recording, the story is the same, even on large-scale orchestral music like Prokofiev's Ivan the Terrible [Mobile Fidelity UDSACD 4003]. The very best sounds come on the Mark
Levinson's live recording Red Rose Music Volume 1 [RRM 01]. On this record that so well captures the full frequency response, I prefer the Sony to all comers - the performers are right there in the room with zero distortion, every detail presented with power and ease. The perfect track to judge audio quality is "Little Dog's Day", a poem read by Mark's ex wife, Kim Cattrall. The Sony gives the greatest realism to her voice while the Denon sounds just a little chesty and reticent in the high frequencies. I would characterize the sound as lighter and more agile than the big Denon on stereo SACD, but with just as much detail and a pinpoint location of instruments and voices. How would these two compare on multi-channel recordings?


In my colleague Andrew's A/V system, the differences between the two players come through clearly. This A/V system does not have the resolving power of my home reference system of course, but Andrew and I could quickly switch between 2-channel and multi-channel versions of the same music and hear the differences plainly. The Denon sounds much as it does on 2-channel but with the extra spaciousness you would expect. The resolution and dynamics are consistent as is the overall frequency response since the front speakers do not lack for bass. But I cannot say the same for the Sony. Although the 3-dimensionality of the music improves, bass definition and palpability of voices take a step back. The wonderful coherence of the 2-channel SACD sound has gone, the magic disappeared and the Sony takes a clear back seat to the effortless and majestic Denon.


What's up? Have I set up the Sony incorrectly? I double-checked all the settings. No, they're okay but there is a simple explanation. When playing 2-channel music whether on SACD or CD, the Sony uses 3 DACs for each channel in its Tri-Powered Super Audio Converter System (not 6 as reported elsewhere). When you switch into multi-channel mode, the DACs now work one per channel. In particular, the two front channels which carry the bulk of the musical information now lack the benefit of the Tri-Powered DACs and performance suffers accordingly.


In these comparisons, the Sony is up against elite competition. The Meridian is $1000 more expensive and offers RedBook only while the Denon which starts off as a $1999 machine but runs to $4,495 with the Level 2 modifications. Meanwhile the Sony lists for $2,999, which represents good value for money in this company.


I would recommend the Sony to anyone with a warm-sounding stereo system who plans to listen to a lot of SACD material. For those with large CD collections, it would not be my first choice but you should audition this model in your own home because it may well be a better match than it was in my system. If you are a surround-sound fanatic, I think you will do better with the Denon or the Esoteric DV-50, both more expensive but they add DVD-Audio and DVD-Video. Thanks to the provision of an iLink Digital outlet, you can take today's Sony player to even higher levels in the future, bypassing the internal DACs while still taking full advantage of the excellent drive mechanism and the user-friendly interface.


Tempting stuff, this. I applaud Sony for their commitment to SACD.

Sony replies:

Hi Phil,
Sorry for the delay in response. You wrote: "This new model is based on the previous generation SCD-XA777ES, with which it shares most of its internal components and architecture."

That's only partly correct. We used similar design characteristic of the SCD-XA777ES as a starting point. We improved a variety of components both in hardware and software. The design objective was to design a Super Audio CD player that would be matched acoustically to the STRDA9000ES and used iLink.

Thanks,

Michele L. Simpson
Sony website
Sonystyle website