- Written by Chris Heinonen
- Published on 09 December 2010
Setup and In Use
With a player like this, most of the interest is certainly in its' analog performance and so that's where I concentrated on my listening. I hooked up the ES to a Wyred4Sound STI-500 over XLR and RCA, and I also connected the digital output to the Wyred4Sound DAC-2 over coaxial to let me compare the DAC sections in the two components. When the ES first arrived at my office, I pulled it out and hooked it up to my NuForce HDP headphone amplifier and AKG K701 headphones for my initial impressions of the machine.
I had brought in a collection of CD's to give it a spin, and I first put on the soundtrack to The Piano by Michael Nyman. One of my favorite tracks on the album is also one of the shortest, "The Heart Asks Pleasure First". As soon as the first few notes began to play, I could tell that this player was unlike what I was used to. As his fingers struck the keys of the piano, the notes came off full of body and depth, with the weight of the impact behind them. Beyond just the notes, you could hear the sound of the recording room in there at all, with the bit of openness from the space instead of just a piano that could have been sampled from a machine. Another wonderful trait was that beyond this, I heard nothing. For lack of a better term, the background was black as the player was not introducing that little bit of noise that I hear from almost every player, but it was just a silent backdrop from which the music could spring forth. Comparisons to the track played back from my PC through the NuForce only highlighted the abilities of the Sony with it's extra weight, detail, and sheer musicality.
Moving onto an SACD of a totally different variety, the deluxe edition of Nine Inch Nails' The Downward Spiral was to pose a totally different challenge. Instead of a simple, acoustic album, this was a dense, layered, electronically produced album that has a very nice SACD remaster. Listening to the first few tracks, I noticed extra details that I had never heard before, despite having listened to the album often over the past 15 years. Distinguishing between the different layered instruments and sounds was much easier, and the extra clarity made me listen far longer than I had planned to. My coworkers think that much of the gear that I review is crazy, or wonder if they'd even tell the difference. I pulled one of them over to give a listen to this album, and he admitted that it was like hearing the album all over again.
Moving the Sony into my home system, the enjoyment of listening continued to grow. Bob Dylan is a favorite of mine, though not my wife, and listening to the SACD of Blood on the Tracks was a wonderful experience. The distinctive sound of a finger moving over a metal guitar string came right through on "Buckets of Rain", with his voice as clear as Bob Dylan's voice was ever going to be, for better or worse. Female vocals from Norah Jones and Natalie Merchant sounded as smooth and natural as they ever had to me. The Sony took the hundreds of discs that I've bought over the past decades and brought out all of the detail that was present on them, and took away all of the noise and harshness that previous players had introduced. The better a CD was, the better it sounded coming from the Sony. I now started to realize why all the audio reviews I had been reading over the years used so much jazz and classical music, as the recording quality is usually so much better than on pop and rock records, and a good system will just let them shine.
The player that I had on hand to compare to the Sony was the Oppo BDP-83SE. I also had the Wyred4Sound DAC-2 on hand which uses a similar DAC to the Oppo, but it let me use the Sony as the digital transport which made it very easy to switch back and forth between the Sony and Wyred4Sound as a source, without needing to synchronize two players. Comparing the three sources was hard as none of them were bad, or even average. The DAC-2 and Oppo were very similar in sound, a little bit brighter than the Sony, and a slight bit louder it seemed to me as I switched across inputs. The soundstage on both of these players seemed to be a bit wider than on the Sony, but without quite as much depth to it.
The best way to describe the Sony in comparison would be as a very solid, defined sound; when that note was struck on the piano, you heard that note and nothing else. On the other players, the note was a little bit lighter, without quite as much force, but a little brighter and more relaxed. In the end, I did wind up preferring the sound of the Sony in comparison, though I listened to many pieces over and over again in making my choice, as it certainly wasn't a run away. The other sources have additional benefits that the Sony lacks (digital or USB inputs, Blu-ray and DVD-Audio playback), but for straight CD and SACD playback, the Sony was the best of the bunch in my listening.
Though I focused on the stereo outputs for most of this review, I did use the HDMI output to see how it worked. The processor that I tested it with did not support DSD over HDMI so it had to convert the SACD to PCM first. The Sony sent this as 24/176.4 PCM which is very nice as many players, including the Oppo BDP-83, only send it as 24/88.2 when they need to send it as PCM. While many people would prefer to keep the signal as DSD through the entire signal chain there are virtually no processors that can do any sort of room correction, bass management, or almost any adjustments on a DSD signal without first converting it to PCM. As I like to use room correction on my multichannel audio, though not on stereo, this conversion to PCM was fine with me. Albums that I played back in surround sounded wonderful, but as the sound quality was mostly determined by the DACs inside of my processor, any comments on sound quality would not apply to a system with a different processor.
The one negative experience I had with the 5400ES was when I went to listen to the new album from The National, High Violet. This has been one of my favorite albums of the year, and really made me regret not discovering the band earlier. However, when I went and listened to the album on the Sony, I only lasted a couple of tracks before I turned it off. Here I discovered that at times the Sony could be too revealing of the recording, and the fact that the album was overproduced and a victim of the loudness wars with little dynamic range and just a really harsh sound made it not an enjoyable listen. Of course, to criticize the Sony for making a bad mastering job sound bad isn't right, but it let me know just how revealing it could be. Below you can see a waveform of Track 1 from High Violet, followed by a waveform from Track 1 from 10,000 Maniacs Blind Man's Zoo. You can see the lack of dynamic range on High Violet, and the Sony really managed to show off how poor that actually sounds.