Sony SCD-XA777ES
SACD Player

Sony. Sony. No Baloney.

I bought into that for a series of Sony clock radios, TVs, and VCRs, but I've never bought a Sony audio product. (Well, years ago I did buy a Sony receiver for my daughter...) Sony always seemed too mass-market and non-specialist to stir my audiophile passions.

Lately, however, Sony has staunchly promoted Super Audio CD as the perfectionist's medium for uncompromised music reproduction, and has supported that perfectionism with the impressive SCD-1 and SCD-777ES SACD players. At the Home Entertainment 2001 Show last May, Sony presented what I'm told was an awesome multichannel demonstration. But I missed it, and so was excited to get their new flagship multichannel SACD player as soon as possible.

All the multichannel SACD and DVD-Audio hardware I've had so far has included video capability but, ultimately, the video circuits represent a compromise-they can't help but have some corrupting influence on the audio performance. But Sony and I are on the same page with the SCD-XA777ES, a dedicated audio-only multichannel SACD/CD player.

The XA777ES looks conservative, but impresses even when still in the shipping carton: it weighs more than 35 lbs, more like a small high-end amp than a disc player. The chassis' frame-and-beam construction might be expected of zero-tolerance military gear. Two fore-to-aft beams of different lengths, isolated from the rear panels, sit within the surrounding frame and divide the inner space into three compartments. The player mechanism, with its separate laser heads for CD and SACD, is isolated in the central enclosure along with the main digital board, while the power transformer is isolated in the left compartment and the audio circuit boards are on the right.

Although there may be no video circuits, digital audio circuits can both generate and be disturbed by RF. The absolute dead silence of all the operations of the XA777ES attested to the success of this configuration. Moreover, the mechanism itself, while not the fancy top-loading design used in earlier Sony flagship players, was so smooth and quiet that I could not reliably hear it open or close. I'd been conditioned by every other front-loading player to confirm operations with audible clicks and clacks; the XA777ES did its work in silence.

The front panel of the XA777ES is deceptively simple. The extreme left side bears a power switch, IR receiver, headphone jack, and level control for that jack. Next is a row of four tiny, illuminated buttons: Time/Text display, Menu, Multi/Two-channel, and SACD/CD. The central area of the front panel has the transport above and a bright display below. This is less than optimal placement; some control and programming functions require that the disc be removed, and the extended tray blocks the view of the display-unless, of course, you stand on your head.

On the right, in addition to the expected Open/Close, Play, Pause, and Stop buttons, is a combination rotary-and-pushbutton control that does most of the work of controlling and programming the player. Rotating this knob selects a track for playback and highlights the track number on the display. Pushing the little Menu button first, however, gives the user access, via this multifunctional control, to the setting of defaults (CD vs SACD, two-channel vs multichannel, digital output on/off, digital filter choice for CD) and for bass/channel management for two- and multichannel use.

I was a bit annoyed that switching among CD-layer, two-channel SACD, and multichannel SACD tracks could not be accomplished on the fly, as it can with the Philips SACD 1000. The SCD-XA777ES requires that disc play be stopped completely and that a new Table of Contents be read before a new format can be heard. But this annoyance affects only those of us who have the need to A/B/C these tracks and should be of no concern to the sane.

In addition to the IEC power connector, the Sony's rear panel has coax and TosLink digital jacks, a pair of two-channel RCA-type analog audio output jacks, and another tier of six RCA jacks for multichannel analog output. The XA777ES has six discrete dual Super Audio DACs, each of which is allocated to one of the six channels for multichannel SACDs. Because they use the same set of DACs differently, the two-channel and six-channel jacks are not active simultaneously, and therefore must be connected to a preamp or receiver by eight interconnects. Gimme a break. Simply using the digital output for two channels is precluded by the absence of any digital output from SACDs, regardless of the number of channels. Oh well, more interconnects. (See "Cable Hell" Sidebar for further adventures.)

If you have only two speakers/channels, then you default to two-channel and use the two-channel analog outputs and/or, for CDs, the digital output. You can set the XA777ES to use the six-channel jacks for two-channel SACD if you have a subwoofer, but this won't work for CD-speaker/bass management is accomplished by a newly developed DSD-DSP LSI chip, through which passes only DSD (not PCM) signals. Moreover, in this mode, the XA777ES can't divert its multiple DACs to the stereo analog outputs, and you can't enjoy the advantages of the paralleled DACs through your main speakers.

Sony docs say that the DACs employ a new "multilevel" design with multiple equal-value current sources that are summed to form the output. What makes for a lower error conversion is that the specific sources used for a particular summed output value are randomly selected at each iteration so that errors are not accumulated or repeated. These DACs are the same balanced-output, current-output DACs used in the SCD-C555ES (reviewed by Larry Greenhill in the October 2001 Stereophile), where three of these dual-channel chips serve the six channel outputs. The XA777ES uses six, with one entire dual DAC used per channel for the multichannel outputs and three dual DACs paralleled for each channel in stereo, to improve dynamic range. We did say that Sony was taking a perfectionist approach, didn't we?

The XA777ES's speaker/bass management appears operationally identical to that of the SCD-C555ES changer, so I won't spend much ink on it here. Both machines permit you to define your speaker array and adjust interchannel balance using only the multifunction knob/button and the front-panel display. It worked smoothly, but I had to eat my words from past reviews: I might have preferred to use the video display I now have available!

The options for two-channel SACD are only "2channel Direct" and "2channel+SW," while the six-channel options include the variables of speaker size (Large or Small) and the presence or absence of a center-channel speaker or subwoofer. I tried "2channel+SW" without a SW, but the noticeably rolled-off bass from the main speakers precluded using this as a ploy for using the XA777ES's multichannel jacks in stereo. While I was pleased that bass-management and level adjustments were included, the XA777ES has no facility for adjusting interchannel delay. Sony recommends that you sit equidistant from all the main speakers (L/C/R/LS/RS), but this is not always possible; delay compensation would be nice. Moreover, no balance adjustments are available with the multichannel "direct" configuration, which Sony recommends and I preferred.

Since the XA777ES was originally announced, there have been rumors that it will up-sample and convert CD PCM data to DSD before D/A conversion (footnote 1). Sony's technical docs describe a process whereby 16-bit/1Fs PCM data are up-sampled to 24-bit/8Fs, then converted to 1-bit/64Fs, highly suggestive of such a conversion, but no explicit statement of DSD is made in this context. So, while some may wish to ascribe subjective results to an internal conversion of PCM to DSD, the situation isn't clear and performance at the analog output remains the only important issue.

The XA777ES menu also includes two digital filter settings for CD only. These are described in vague terms as "Standard" ("provides a wide frequency range and spatial feeling") and "Option" ("provides smooth and powerful sound with clear image position"). There is, of course, a myriad of other features including track programming and display options accessible from the front panel or the remote, but I leave these to the user since none of them should significantly influence a purchase decision.

Stereo in the City

I began and finished auditioning the Sony SCD-XA777ES in New York City with my two-channel setup, with Bel Canto eVo 200.2 monoblocks and Revel Ultima Studio loudspeakers, and it sounded better to me at the end. On the other hand, it sounded better and better the more I listened, which I chalk up to my growing enjoyment and expectations rather than to break-in. The basic character of the sound remained consistent, the XA777ES always presenting itself as transparent, uncolored, and even ruthless in exposing detail in every disc I tried. Compared to every other player on hand, even to its own digital output converted by the Mark Levinson No.360, the XA777ES was cooler and cleaner-a refreshing quality that did not pall.

I've commented before on my pleasure in Será Una Noche (M•A Recordings M052A), a CD of tangos conceived by Argentine percussionist Santiago Vasquez and M•A producer Todd Garfinkle, but the XA777ES increased the clarity and openness to an almost startling degree. The soundstage grew in width and depth and individual instruments became more discrete, but there was no loss of coherence. Bass was taut and very well extended. It first seemed that the tonal balance favored the higher midrange, but that was due to a striking lack of any muddiness or other camouflage in that range. All this, mind you, was direct from the Sony's two-channel analog outputs with their six paralleled dual DACs and, therefore, without any assistance from the TacT RCS. Still, the audible difference between the XA777ES direct and the digital output via the Levinson No.360 was similar in nature to that wrought by the RCS.

Switching over to two-channel SACDs-or, indeed, switching from the CD to the SACD layer of hybrid discs-was similarly edifying. There's no question in my mind that the resolving power and ease of reproduction presented by the SACD layer is easily detected with the SCD-XA777ES. I found that Opus3's Test CD-4 SACD (CD19420) and DMP's Multichannel Reference CD (SACD-16) offered demonstrations of this on every track. My favorite example is Duke Ellington's "Black Beauty" on the Opus3 disc, from Tomas Ornberg's Blue Five featuring Kenny Davern. The CD version is very nice and, probably, familiar to some readers. The SACD layer, however, is so much more airy and lively that switching back to CD is deflating. Using the same samplers in two channels, it was also clear that the Sony's two-channel output was a huge advance over its six-channel output (using L/R/SW)-much like switching from CD to SACD. This is probably ascribable to the multiple paralleled DACs, and likely means that the XA777ES has a real leg up on the C555ES, which LG so favorably reviewed.

With some older material, whether still on CD or newly remastered for SACD, the XA777ES's uncompromising nature could be disadvantageous-brightness in the source was not curable with either CD filter setting (it ain't a tone control). However, my continued delight in Sony Classical's reissue of Walton's Partita for Orchestra (SS 89415) was only minimally diminished by my observing that all the original's high-frequency hardness and indistinct microdynamics were faithfully passed on by the XA777ES. That said, this SACD reissue is the most effective and communicative version of this superb performance, and the XA777ES allowed me to recall the thrill I had on first hearing it from an old Epic LP sampler. Through the softer, more distant Philips SACD 1000, the Partita was easier to listen to but, ultimately, less involving.

Compared to other CD players, the SCD-XA777ES was definitely in the "accurate" rather than the "euphonic" camp. But by my lights, accuracy is euphonic-to the degree that any link in the chain deviates from accuracy, it obscures the music. Consequently, all the players that I've liked are in the "accurate" camp, even though the XA777ES sits toward the end of the spectrum, with the Burmester 969/970 and the Meridian Reference 800. The California Audio Labs CL-20 and the Philips SACD 1000 sacrifice little in terms of clarity, but both seem to soften the high frequencies and the microdynamics just a bit.

Multichannel in the Country

The Sony SCD-XA777ES was equally at home in the sticks, where it was hooked up (via its six-channel analog outputs) to Sony's TA-P9000ES preamp, along with the Philips SACD 1000. As luck or, perhaps, poor communications would have it, I had two copies each of several SACDs and was able to rapidly switch between the two players on the same selection. After I'd corrected for the Philips' slightly lower output level and defeated the bass management because I had five full-range speakers and a subwoofer, the two players sounded much more similar in tone than they had in stereo. One might think this was due to a leveling of the playing field-the Sony now had only one dual DAC per channel instead of the three it employs at the two-channel jacks-but I suspect it had as much to do with the vastly different spatial presentation of multichannel, which floods the listener's attention with many more stimuli than does stereo.

Nonetheless, there was a consistent difference between the two players that was independent of type of music, record label, or how the producer used the channels for ambience or effect. The ambient space reproduced by the Philips was always just a bit narrower than that from the Sony, and the instruments within it were just slightly more distant.

One consequence of the outstanding clarity and soundstaging of the XA777ES was its ability to communicate a staggering dynamic range without apparent distortion of the musical illusion. On those few discs with extremely wide dynamics-eg, Berlioz' Symphonie Fantastique (Neeme Järvi/Cincinnati Symphony, Telarc SACD-60578)-the XA777ES was spine-tingling while the Philips was just good and loud. With the Sony, inner detail was thrilling, the woodwinds in the middle of the orchestra as discernible in the loud passages as in the quiet. It was as if, in a concert, I had focused my view and concentration on a particular instrument: if I listened for it, I could hear it. Independently, I could enjoy each player without reservation; but having heard the A/B comparison, it was the Sony that I-and other listeners-preferred.

After listening to the Berlioz disc, which I found sonically impressive but musically unfulfilling, I was much more fascinated by Benjamin Zander and the Philharmonia Orchestra's new recording of Mahler's Symphony 5 (Telarc 2SACD-60569). This ain't your father's Mahler 5; it's nervous and unsettled, and even the Adagietto never seems to find ease enough to take a full breath. So, while I might not return to it for pure satisfaction as frequently as to other Mahler 5s, it communicates with an intensity made possible by a superb multichannel presentation that absorbs me in the experience more fully than with stereo-all of Zander's and Mahler's points are made perfectly clear.

Here, too, the switchover to the SACD 1000 confirmed that the XA777ES provided a broader, less restraining acoustic. I also heard how the conflation of room resonances, both of the recording site and of the listening room, can muddy the tone of midbass instruments in stereo, and how this was improved in multichannel. Because multichannel provides more cues about the instruments relative to the performance space, the ear-brain system can better distinguish instrument from space and yet have no doubts about the instrument's residency in that space. In addition, the semblance of that space overrides awareness of the listening room's pernicious influence to a substantial degree.

The double bass of Thorvald Fredin on track 12 of the Opus3 SACD was transformed from a large but somewhat over-resonant voice in stereo to a bowed instrument with a distinctive timbre in multichannel. Plucked bass, as on the Pilhofer Jazz Quartet's rendition of "Yesterdays" (Full Circle, DMP SACD-14), became a full melodic voice in multichannel, the warm, obscuring aura heard in stereo removed. Similarly, Peter Wispelwey's cello tone on Saint-Saëns' Cello Concerto 1 (Channel Classics CCS SA 16501) was clear and full in stereo; when I switched over to multichannel on the SCD-XA777ES, I found the cello sound equally rich but audibly originating from a set of vibrating strings attached to a single wooden cabinet with a specific location. Distinguishing soloist from orchestra when they were playing together was a piece of cake in multichannel, just as in the concert hall.

And while the Telarc Berlioz made for some nearly breathless moments, the immediacy of voices and instruments in smaller and much closer ensembles, such as the Pilhofer Jazz Quartet on DMP, could be even more striking. Chesky Records' David Johansen and the Harry Smiths was one of my "Records To Die For" last year, but I hereby withdraw that nomination in deference to the new SACD version (Chesky SACD225). Johansen's voice has even more warmth and humanity, the percussion and guitar strings have truer transients-even the thigh-slaps are more real. The music breathes so much more naturally.

While the step from CD to two-channel SACD on the SCD-XA777ES was rewarding, the step up to multichannel was addictive and polarizing. The Johansen disc through the Sony SCD-XA777ES provided me with a rare audio epiphany: How could I have been so happy with less?

Conclusions

The XA777ES is a top-class CD player whose price might be justified without regard to its SACD capabilities. Whether that's due to its multiple paralleled DACs, the use of a separate laser head for CDs, its tank-like construction, or any other attribute, is moot. This is the first SACD or DVD-Audio player in my experience to offer no performance concession to any dedicated CD player. You've got to accept the Sony's cool, clear view of the music without any coddling of harsh transients or glare, but when you do, you can also expect it to deliver great musical satisfaction when the source material is up to snuff.

As an SACD player, regardless of the number of channels in use, the SCD-XA777ES is a perceptible advance on the Philips SACD 1000. The Sony's transparency transformed my multichannel experience from one of hopeful investigation into one of thorough musical enjoyment. I wish I'd had the opportunity to compare it with the illustrious SCD-1 or its predecessor, the SCD-777ES, but so strong is my enthusiasm for this moderately priced but more capable model that I can't imagine that such comparisons could dampen my recommendation: The Sony SCD-XA777ES establishes a new standard for SACD reproduction in my experience. No baloney.