SonySCD-C555esusedSony SCD-C555esThe Sony SCD-C555ES is a five-disc carousel changer that plays stereo and 5.1 multi-channel SACDs and standard CDs with audiophile precision. Its multi-level Super Audio D/A converter contains a su...450.00

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Sony SCD-C555es [Expired]


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The Sony SCD-C555ES is a five-disc carousel changer that plays stereo and 5.1 multi-channel SACDs and standard CDs with audiophile precision. Its multi-level Super Audio D/A converter contains a super-high frequency DSD filter for SACD's 1-bit Direct Stream Digital signal, and a separate filter optimized for standard CDs, ensuring fantastic sound for all of your discs. You can load this changer with any combination of SACDs and CDs. The Stereophile Recommended Components listed the Sony SCD-555ES, which the C555ES is based on, in the coveted Class A ranking. This amidst several super expensive multi-kilo buck CD players such as the Oracle CD2500 at $9,845 and the Linn CD12 at $20,000. This is a very reliable, solid CD /SACD 5.1-channel optical disc player. The original MSRP was $1,700. Was briefly used (10 hours) in a Widescreen Review reference system for a review in the magazine. See review below.

Sony SCD-C555ES Multichannel SACD Player Surround Sound Music Without Sonic Compromise

Surround Sound Music And Audio Fidelity

Until recently, playing music on our home theatre systems required that we accept some sonic compromises if we wanted to listen in any mode other than stereo. To hear music in surround sound we could play stereo recordings and add artificial ambience effects or synthesized surround effects with matrix-derived processing, or we could play actual surround sound recordings made with lossy compression processes like Dolby® Digital and DTS® Digital Surround™. 

Adding artificial surround effects to stereo material requires significant signal processing which can degrade fidelity. Discrete 5.1 surround recordings encoded in Dolby Digital or DTS Digital Surround use substantial digital compression which discards much of the recorded information. The sonic degradation caused by lossy compression is clearly audible to experienced listeners with high resolution systems. 

We used to have to choose between uncompromised fidelity and surround sound for music. Not any more. 

DVD-Audio And SACD 

The arrival of the DVD-Audio format brought the promise of surround sound music recordings without sonic compromise. In fact, DVD-Audio promised surround sound with fidelity that was better than the stereo compact discs that we have relied on as a music storage medium for the past twenty years. While most of the early DVDAudio recordings that I’ve heard have been sonically disappointing, the potential for high-quality sound is clearly there. SACD, on the other hand, has been sonically impressive from the very beginning.

 

The Super Audio Compact Disc was introduced as a stereo-only format and it was clearly apparent to experienced music listeners, after only a brief exposure to this new technology, that SACD was a giant step-up in performance over regular compact disc. Now we have multichannel SACD which promises to deliver the outstanding sound of Super Audio Compact Disc and multichannel discrete surround sound, too. 

As with the DVD-Audio format, the selection of multichannel SACD recordings is limited and variable at this time. The Sony SCDC555ES is the first multichannel SACD player I’ve had the opportunity to review, and I’m going to describe its sound as best I can using the available software. 

In this article, I’m going to discuss the mixing techniques used on several of the new multichannel SACD recordings as well as the sound from the new Sony player and the six-channel preamp I used to evaluate both, so consider it a combination hardware review, technology report, and opinion piece. 

We’ll start with some additional background information. 

Analog Signal Transfer And Bass Management 

Paranoia on the part of content providers has resulted in standards for both DVDAudio and SACD which don’t allow (at this time) for the transfer of output signals in the digital domain. This is supposed to prevent unauthorized digital copies which may be a perfect replica of the original. Currently available DVD-Audio and SACD players have internal digital-to-analog conversion and six analog outputs. These analog outputs are the only means of transferring the higher quality signals provided by these new formats to an amplifier. 

Home theatre receivers and digital controllers have to do one of two things with these analog signals: either convert the analog signals to PCM digital at low resolution, which effectively eliminates any performance improvements offered by the new formats, or pass these analog signals straight through to the volume controls, bypassing all digital processing in the receiver or controller. Bypassing digital processing defeats bass management which is performed in the digital domain in the vast majority of receivers and controllers.

Early DVD-Audio players have no bass management and this presents a problem for consumers who don’t have systems with five full-range speakers. The new Sony multichannel SACD players have built-in bass management which allows them to be used with a variety of system configurations and speaker combinations. 

Surround Sound Without A Processor 

The audio signals that come out of a DVD-Audio or multichannel SACD player provide for six discrete channels: left, center, right, left surround, right surround, and subwoofer. Not all recordings will use all six channels and some recordings may reassign individual channels for other purposes. No additional processing is necessary for surround sound reproduction. All that is required is six channels of line-level preamplification and volume control which can be provided by an A/V receiver or digital controller with six channel analog pass-through. A six-channel preamplifier will work because no additional signal processing is necessary. I used a R. E Designs SCPA 1 sixchannel preamplifier to evaluate the Sony SCD-C555ES SACD player, and I’ll describe that preamp in this article as well. 

Audio-Only Versus Audio With Video

Compact disc players are simple devices to use. You insert the disc and push the play button and music happens. Sony and Philips envisioned the Super Audio Compact Disc as a higher quality replacement for the CD—an audio-only storage medium that was simple to use. 

DVD-Audio discs are an extension of the DVD, or Digital Versatile Disc, format which was designed to be all things to all people. DVD players can accept a variety of compatible discs types but virtually all DVD discs contain some video material. 

While DVD-Audio discs are primarily a music delivery medium, they do contain video material, and many of the players must be connected to a video display to enable disc navigation and to allow the utilization of features like stereo mixdown and channel level adjustments. 

Although Sony has recently introduced a combination DVD-Video/SACD player (see my review of the DVP S9000ES in Issue 45), most SACD players have no video outputs. They can be controlled from the front panel buttons, or from the remote control, just like a regular CD player. Push a button and music plays. No on-screen menus necessary.

Multichannel Methods 

DVD-Audio discs can support a wide variety of recording types utilizing from two to six channels which can be recorded at various sample rates or combinations of sample rates. Producers can trade quality for quantity within the maximum allowable data transfer rate and storage capacity. As recording time and the number of channels increases, the sample rate and resolution of the recordings must be reduced. (You can read all the numbers in previous articles in WSR.) 

While DVD-Audio can support high-resolution stereo recordings at up to 192 kHz sample rate and 24-bit resolution, the format has been promoted as a surround sound medium and all the commercial recordings that I’ve seen so far have been six-channel surround sound mixes which require lower sample rates. DVD-Audio provides for a stereo mixdown derived from the six-channel mix. 

SACD discs can contain up to three different unique mixes. Some SACD discs contain only a high-resolution stereo Direct Stream Digital (the recording technology used to make SACDs) mix which can be played only on an SACD player. Some discs are dual layer and contain the high-resolution SACD material on one disc layer and a standard “Red Book” CD recording on another layer. These discs are compatible with regular CD players and SACD players. 

A “fully loaded” SACD disc is a dual-layer disc which contains a high-resolution stereo DSD mix and a high-resolution multichannel DSD mix on the SACD layer, along with a regular CD mix on a separate layer. The CD recording is derived from the stereo DSD mix by “Super Bitmapping Direct” downconversion. The stereo mix on the SACD layer is never a mixdown from the multichannel production but is a separate and unique mix produced specifically for stereo reproduction. 

Sony SCD-C555ES Multichannel SACD Player 

The first commercially available SACD players were high-end, stereo-only machines with big price tags. The Sony SCD-1 cost about $5,000 and the top Marantz player sold for nearly $8,000. Prices on stereo machines have been coming down and new multichannel players, which actually cost less than their stereo counterparts, are being introduced now. The SCD-C555ES is a multi-disc carousel style CD/SACD player. It is Sony’s first multichannel-capable SACD model and the subject of this review. 

Outside 

The SCD-C555ES is part of Sony’s “ES” line of products, and it’s an attractive, nicely finished component that honors the brand name. The lower half of the front panel is covered by a flip-down section that conceals the five-disc carousel tray. There is a centrally located display above the tray cover that shows information about the disc in play including time and track data and, in the case of an SACD, the disc title and track title. The display can be easily read from across the room. At the far left of the front panel there is a push button power switch above the remote sensor. To the left of the display you’ll find five buttons that select disc one through five. Just below the row of disc select buttons are five buttons: Time/Text, Menu, Program, Shuffle, and Continue, each with obvious functions. There is a button that switches between CD and SACD layers on a dual-layer disc, and a button that switches between two-channel and multichannel on a dual mix SACD disc. 

To the right of the display are large Play, Pause, and Stop buttons, an Exchange button that allows the user to place a new disc in the carousel while another disc is playing, buttons labeled Check, Clear, and Disc Skip which are used for programming, and an AMS (Automatic Music Sensor) dial that is used to skip forward or backward from track to track. 

To the right of the disc tray is the Open/ Close button and a headphone jack with volume control. 

All these controls, and then some, are duplicated on the handsome remote. 

The back panel includes stereo left and right audio outputs on single-ended RCA connectors, multichannel audio outputs for left and right front, left and right surround, center channel and subwoofer, all on singleended RCA connectors. There is a Toslink optical digital output (CD only), a coaxial digital output (CD only), and there are two Sony A1 control connectors. The power cord is fixed. 

Inside 

This is a brand new product, and I was unable to obtain any meaningful technical details about its inner workings in time for this review. Here are some simple observations: 

The SCD-C555ES costs about $800 less than the stereo model of an ES Series, audio-only SACD player which was originally priced at $3,500 but now sells for around $2,500. You might suspect that some big quality sacrifices were made to achieve the $1,700 price of the SCD-C555ES. While the SCD-C555ES is not quite up to the mechanical quality standards of its brethren, few other corners appear to have been cut. 

The mechanical parts for the carousel changer mechanism probably add little to the manufacturing cost of the player. Six channels of digital-to-analog conversion along with the digital signal processing required for bass management probably does cost substantially more than the two channel circuitry required in previous players. 

The SCD-C555ES is obviously made to high quality standards and clearly represents excellent value for the price. So how does it sound?

Performance And Sound 

The SCD-C555ES SACD player is a Sony ES Series component and, as we have come to expect from these products, it performed flawlessly in every respect. The unit was simple to use. All operations worked in a smooth and refined manner and everything worked every time. The excellent remote control was easy to use without referring to the instruction manual. If you can use a CD player, you already know how to use this SACD player. I couldn’t find a single aspect of mechanical performance or operation to criticize. 

The built-in bass management system is not as complete as those found in the best receivers and digital controllers but it is sufficient to allow users of satellite speaker systems to redirect the lower frequencies from small speakers to full range front speakers or to the subwoofer. Bass management can be bypassed by selecting MCH Direct (multichannel direct) which is how I auditioned the player. 

Using the remote control, it was easy to switch between the three different recording types contained on a “fully loaded” SACD disc. I could listen to the regular CD layer, stop the disc momentarily and switch to the stereo SACD layer, stop the disc momentarily and switch to the multichannel SACD mix. This allowed for some interesting comparisons. 

The sound from SACDs was consistently better than the sound from regular CDs. SACDs sound more open and more detailed yet more relaxed and musically natural. When playing SACD discs in stereo, the sound from the SCD-C555ES was comparable to the sound from the Sony DVP-9000ES DVD/ SACD player that I reviewed in Issue 45— not the best sound I’ve heard from a SACD player but better than the sound from any CD player I’ve heard regardless of price. 

Comparing multichannel SACD mixes to stereo mixes of the same selections provided some fascinating insight into the ongoing debate about how the additional channels of a multichannel recording should be used. I’ll elaborate. 

The stereo mix of James Taylor Hourglass (Columbia ACS 67912) is an excellent, natural sounding recording. The surround mix for the first cut Line ’Em Up places—and I’m not kidding here—the bongos over your left shoulder and the backup singers over your right shoulder. A “hard” center is used along with a subwoofer track. In this movie-soundeffects-style mix, Taylor’s voice is positioned in the center channel with virtually no voice sounds directed to the front left and right channels. A stereo recording of a voice sounds better than a mono recording of a voice (as presented here), and I much preferred the stereo mix on this cut to the surround mix. I found the imaging and spatial effects on the stereo version to be superior to the surround sound version which positioned many vocal and instrument sounds right at the speaker locations. 

Unlike compressed 5.1 channel remixes of stereo recordings where some information is simply gone in the surround mix, the multichannel SACD mix of James Taylor’s very enjoyable music sounded virtually identical to the stereo mix on SACD. Nothing got lost in the process, sounds were just repositioned in a way that I found to be unnatural. You may disagree. 

Mike Oldfield recorded the classic Tubular Bells in 1972/73. A four-channel mix was created in 1975. The multichannel SACD mix is a direct reproduction of the four-channel master tapes from 1975 and the stereo mix on the SACD is a reproduction of a stereo remix created in 1998. 

The creative four-channel Tubular Bells mix (no center, no sub) sounded excellent with just slightly dated fidelity. Surround sound suits this material well, and images across the front were focused and spacious with no mono center channel. A well integrated soundfield was presented with some side-wall imaging and a sense of envelopment. 

Constantine Orbelian and the Moscow Chamber Orchestra play selections from Shostakovich and Schnittke on the Delos SACD 3259. The Shostakovich Chamber Symphony offered a near perfect example of how surround sound should be used for classical orchestra, in my opinion. A soft center channel was used to provide a spread of instruments across the front with ambient sound from the hall presented by the rear speakers. No subwoofer track was used. The resulting sound was very natural and reminiscent of the experience at a live performance. 

Schnittke’s Concerto For Piano And Strings on the same Delos disc wasn’t captured as successfully, in my opinion. The hall ambience was still convincingly presented but the piano sounded way too big and was vaguely positioned all across the front stage. I think it would have been better to omit the center channel on this cut. The stereo version presented a more natural and distant perspective with a more convincing piano sound. 

I have a number of Tom Jung’s multichannel SACD recordings on his DMP label. Jung has obviously tried a variety of recording methods for surround sound presentation. 

Gaudeamus’ Sacred Feast (DMP SACD09) presents a big choir in a big chapel in either six-channel surround or stereo. No subwoofer is used and the sixth channel is utilized for height on this recording. (I didn’t try to reproduce it.) The surround version sounded very natural using a hard center channel. The surround version presented a very up-close perspective. The stereo version offered a more distant perspective while retaining virtually all the ambient sounds from the chapel. This is strictly a matter of taste, but I found the stereo version to be a more convincing replica of my own live experiences. 

The Bob Mintzer Big Band Homage to Count Basie (DMP SACD-12) is a four-channel mix with no center and no subwoofer. Excellent sound and excellent spatial presentation. Imaging across the front is unquestionably better with no center channel. Instrument positions were precisely focused for a presentation that sounded real. I enjoyed this recording in surround. 

Vivino Brothers’ Blues Band (DMP SACD-11) uses no center channel but adds a subwoofer track. Great sound, excellent frontal image, great spatial effects, and some extra kick. 

And there you have it from my perspective. More channels, more choices. 

Conclusion 

Sony and Philips promised “perfect sound forever” when they introduced the compact disc more than two decades ago. As the last century drew to a close, they promised that SACD would be even better. It appears that they have managed to deliver on this latest pledge. Multichannel SACD can provide surround sound music without sonic compromise. I think that multichannel SACD may be a major advance in home audio reproduction capability. Some experimentation in surround music production will be necessary before this new technology can reach its ultimate potential. That potential offers the promise of a more realistic presentation of recorded music in the home. The Sony SCD-C555ES brings multichannel SACD capability home at an affordable price. It is a high-quality, high-value audio component. It offers bass management which overcomes a major drawback for many home theatre enthusiasts. I can strongly recommend this player to anyone who wants to improve the quality of their surround music listening experience. ■■

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