Sony SCD-777ES Super Audio Compact Disc Player
Frequency Range 2-100,000 Hz, 2-50,000Hz (-3dB)
These are exciting times, what with the dawn of the Super Audio CD format coinciding with the emergence of enhancement technologies such as 24/96 upsampling from Perpetual Technologies, and 64-times oversampling from Wadia Digital.
In the months of April through June of 2000, I was deeply involved in evaluating the Perpetual Technologies P1A Digital Correction Engine, and the P3A 24/96 Digital Converter. That review was recently posted in Stereo Times. In my opinion, the PT gears brought about a truly revolutionary level of Redbook CD performance. Naturally, the question became unavoidable: how good will Super Audio CD sound in my system? Can it represent a drastic improvement over the upsampling PT gear?
At that time, with my digital front end – CEC TL1 belt-drive CD transport and Wadia 27 Decoding Computer – the SCD-1 still seemed an unjustified investment. And then there was the SCD-777ES. At 69% of the SCD-1’s price, the SCD-777ES looked basically identical to its big brother. I took the time to work on my wife into letting me get the lesser model, the SCD-777ES.
Note that the Sony SCD-777ES’s MSRP of $3,450 has recently given way to substantial discounts circulating in auction sites and mail order retailers. The player can be bought new for as low as $1,500. The decision to buy the SCD-777ES will likely depend on an assessment of SCD-777ES’s performance in both Redbook and Super Audio CD formats.
Long lauded as the answer to true high fidelity in home audio reproduction, SACD is inevitably compared with DVD Audio, the other emerging high-resolution audio format. The best SACD players are far more expensive than their DVD-A counterparts. In a Technics DVD-A player review from its November 2000 issue, Stereophile hinted at an audio quality below that of the top SACD players. Another aspect of the DVD-A format worth considering: the target market of the DVD format is much larger than the demanding audiophile market aimed at by the SACD format. Affordability would govern the DVD format’s marketing strategies. At the current stage of product offering, anyone who gets the DVD-A player should not have high end audio reproduction at the top of his/her priorities – although he may still get above-average sound quality.
In this review, I shall report first on the SACD player’s intended application with a follow-up dedicated to its Redbook CD performance. Reference will also be made to the CD quality produced by my CEC/Wadia combo and the PT gear.
At 55 lbs., the SCD-777ES is only three pounds lighter than the SCD-1. Both SCD-1 and SCD-777ES essentially share the same chassis with identical parts throughout, with the following exceptions:
Engineering ingenuity is evident throughout the SCD-777ES. I have never seen audio equipment at $3500 incorporating such high degree of engineering and aesthetic fusion. Externally a sizeable piece of machined metal, internally the player is decoupled from external vibrations and interference. Substantial inertia is achieved within the sealed chassis in addition to the incorporation of layers of metallic and non-metallic damping materials. The Wadia 27 is another product that incorporates a similar design philosophy. Unlike the Wadia, the 777ES does not generate substantial heat, therefore its chassis is nor required to double as a heatsink.
Although the 777ES is supposed to run cool, both the disc chamber and the metal exterior of the unit become slightly warm after being left on for over 12 hours. Unable to find a reference to continuous power-on in the owner’s manual, I stayed on the cautious side and turned the unit off after each listening session.
The centerpiece on both SCD-1 and SCD-777ES is the same floating suspension chamber-transport mechanism. The top loading, chamber-isolation system has been designed specifically for the SCD-1 and SCD-777ES. A brass weight is secures the disc in place. In no way comparable to the huge disc clamp from my CEC TL1, the Sony’s brass disc is intended for primary disc-securing only. A center layer of the three-layer hatch mechanism slides over the disc and secures it during spinning. As the top layer reveals the chamber to the outside, the bottom layer immediately slides into position, concealing the laser assembly. Optimally situated, the dedicated laser heads remain stationary as the rotating mechanism brings the disc over the heads for reading.
Most high-end brands, including Wadia, purchase transport assemblies from other manufacturers, such as the industry-reference CDM models from Phillips, or the superb VRDS from Teac, and then add their own modifications to enhance the performance of the end product. So far, those have been the ubiquitous front-loading tray variety. In my opinion, convenience became the tradeoff for the more optimal implementation in disc loading. My experience in using top-loading mechanism, such as the one in my CEC TL1, has turned out to be an important and integral part of the entire fun process.
Not being a vinyl aficionado, I am not qualified to comment on cherished turntable rituals, nor am I sure my experience can be legitimately compared, but I certainly enjoy watching the workings of the high-tech mechanism when I change discs. Words can only go so far in a depiction of human-machine interaction. Remember the CD transport from Sonic Frontiers with the "iris" hatch? The SCD-777ES is another of those fascinating designs engineered with elegance and assurance that generate oohs! and ahs! The SCD-1 and the SCD-777ES ought to sell easily. It is to our advantage that SCD-777ES comes with Sony’s economy of scale and is available at its current asking price.
Among the dazzling new array of technologies used in the 777ES, the DSD Decoder is the heart of SACD playback. Quoting directly from the Sony website, the DSD Decoder is designed solely for SACD playback and "authenticates the SACD invisible watermark, separate text from music and forms the left and right DSD pulse trains." On the encoding side, the owner’s manual states that the format uses a "2.8224MHz sampling frequency 64 times higher than that of a conventional CD, and the 1-bit quantization, makes possible recording of more than four times the data information of the PCM format which is used for a conventional CD." To fully exploit the format, I switched the frequency response on the player’s rear panel to the Customized setting with the upper frequency cutoff at 100,000hZ!
Today’s power amplifiers will all accommodate an upper frequency extending towards 50,000hZ. Internal thermal protection circuits would prevent excessive damage from reaching the speakers when amplifying ultra-high frequencies if, that is, a recording does contain such unlikely peak passages. With the dozen SACDs I’ve so far bought, none has prompted any component in the chain to engage its thermal protection.
Accompanying the player are complimentary SACDs from Sony and Telarc. Some of the Sony tracks are old analog transfers, while all the Telarc tracks are from its digital pool. They were very useful in according me a taste of what was to come. I repeatedly found the samplers convenient references.
The 777ES’s performance improved gradually during a burn-in period of three weeks. The initial presentation changed from relatively mechanical to one with atmosphere and naturalness. Instrumental and vocal decay became more and more discernible and authentic. The 777ES does not perform at its best upon power-on. I turn it on thirty minutes before listening.
Track one of the Telarc sampler, a big-band musical titled "Let Yourself Go," presented a spaciousness and refinement that surprised me. The trademarks of the Telarc sound, a definitive low end, polished strings and soaring brasses, were all present with a superior level of textural purity. Track nine showcased the late Robert Shaw conducting his Atlanta Symphony Orchestra and Chorus, in a performance of an excerpt from Anton Dvorak’s Stabat Mater. Coming out of my Klipschorns, the voices were airy, layered, coherent and aspiring.
In this dual-layered SACD, the sound from the Redbook CD layer was slightly compressed in dynamics and less spacious. Tonality-wise, it was less precise in shading and definition, especially when compared to the SACD. Nevertheless, the benefit accorded by the DSD process was significant.
The single-layered SACD-only Sony sampler contains more classical tracks than does the Telarc. The first Sony track I played is an analog recording from the Sixties with Leonard Bernstein conducting New York Philharmonics in Gustav Mahler’s Symphony No. 1, second movement – substantial weight, dynamics and bite in the brasses, with very pristine spatial definition; on the downside, background tape hiss with a mildly deficient top end. Conspicuously, the DSD process didn’t alleviate the typical CBS/Columbia dryness.
My favorite track in the SACD "Wagner: Orchestral Excerpts" (Sony Classical SS 89035) is track 6, "Siegfried’s Funeral Music and Conclusion of Act III." This reissue carries a weight and expressiveness that belies its date of recording. George Szell and the Cleveland Orchestra certainly rose to the challenge. There is a minute trace of coarseness and master tape hiss normally associated with recordings made in the Sixties. Still, it was a pleasant surprise to find such an earful of peak after peak of dynamic demands.
Pianist Vladimir Horowitz’s 1962 performance of Chopin’s Piano Sonata No.2, Op.35 (Sony Classical SS-6371) is every bit as magical as a live recital. The DSD remastered SACD offers an abundance of ambience, realistic in both volume and dynamics. Unlike complex orchestral passages, where distortions and impurities are sometimes masked, piano recordings provide no such refuge. This old Horowitz recording faithfully delivers.
Verdi’s Requiem (Sony Classical SS 707) was another surprise. It never struck me how good it could sound when given a fair chance. The CD I bought years ago has given me plenty of enjoyment but cannot compare with this DSD-processed SACD. In terms of low frequency definition and dynamic expressiveness, the sound of Eugene Ormandy and Philadelphia Orchestra rivals that of Telarc’s Erich Kunzel and the Cincinnati Pops thirty years after. The soundstage is filled with the clarity and transients that befit a live event. Aside from the expected dryness, this Sony Classical is close to the famous Telarc sound, particularly timbre naturalness and microdynamics.
Redbook CD Playback: Variable Coefficient 24
My ears had grown accustomed to the DSD-enhanced SACD’s ultra-resolution. On the SCD-777ES, accessing music on the DSD Redbook CD layer on a hybrid SACD brought about the same sonic quality as proprietary processes from other companies, such as Deutsche Grammophon’s Original Image-Bit Processing and JVC’s K2. These archiving techniques represent an audible improvement. It took time for me to accept regular CDs again. Interestingly, this intolerance subsided to the point of nonexistence. I do have a large and interesting CD collection which I enjoy playing.
On the hardware side, amidst the affordable upsampling technology from Perpetual Technologies and the expensive oversampling technique from Wadia, there is VC24, a "24-bit precision variable coefficient digital filter," Sony’s proud brainchild and answer to Redbook CD performance enhancement. Although the SCD-777ES owner’s manual stops short of a declaration of 64-times oversampling:
In addition to dramatically increased accuracy in the reading of digital bits, the VC24’s digital filter also represents a departure from the traditional fixed filtering coefficient setting. There are five settings an owner can select, "representing different filter coefficients, different filtering methods and different objectives in reproduced sound." A footnote informs us that
All settings perform slow roll-off characteristics -- except the Standard, which has sharp roll-off. Again, from the manual:
The process of changing filter preference mutes the output for approximately one to two seconds before the filter activates the selected new setting. In my system, the differences in settings were mostly insignificant. Other times, I did hear changes on a few recordings. During those times, I found the differences to be most apparent between the standard " 0" setting and the "4" setting, with the "4" setting having a softer rendition.
Last quote from the owner’s manual: the Standard setting "provides a wide frequency range and spatial feeling, as it holds the most information among the five filters. Suitable for playback of classical music." I stayed on the standard.
On Richard Strauss’ Also Sprach Zarathustra (Original Image-Bit Processing, DG D 134748), Sony’s VC24 proved its worth with this remastered 1984 recording: expansive soundstage, good localization, fine instrumental textures and dynamic contrasts. Faithful delineation of onstage activities has always been a challenge to audio components downstream from the source. The incredibly fine textures of the instruments were impressively reproduced. What the CD lacks the OIBP CD has in abundance. Soundstage depth, ease of dynamics and transients, and beauty of tonalities, all are there.
The regular CD version of Kathleen Battle singing "Voices of Spring"(Deutsche Grammophon 419 616-2) through the SCD-777ES offers an expansive soundstage, with a mild deficiency in ambience and dimensionality. Still, the vocal is well integrated into the picture without becoming homogenous. Intricate tonalities of both the voice and the orchestra are in good order. It was in sheer tonal beauty that DG’s OIBP process proved its absolute worth. The tonal shadings and instrument textures were dormant without the OIBP enhancement. It takes a top-notch system to ultimately retrieve all the sonic qualities from regular CDs; DG’s OIBP would permit any audiophile’s system to more easily realize better sonics.
Going on to jazz recordings, like Tiger Okoshi’s K2-processed "All the Saints Go Marching In" ("Echoes of a Note", JVC 2022-2), the Sony demonstrated excellent instrument separations. Soundstage width was impressively stretched slightly beyond the left and right. In addition to outstanding soundstaging and imaging, musicality was also depicted in abundance on every instrument at play. The excellent dynamics capability of the Sony preserved the jump factor in these recordings nicely.
A special note: the JVC K2-processed CD rendered parameters like soundstage definition and instrument tonality with impressive precision. The trumpet carried an elasticity and sheen that beckoned to be heard. The soundstaging was precise and airy. All the fundamentals of an audiophile recording were easily introduced.
Some audiophile labels exhibited exceptional sonics even without the benefit of fundamental remastering process. For example, in Proprius’ CD Cantate Domino (Proprius PRCD 7762), track 9 "Christmas Song" was the renowned organ and chorus demonstration. In this track, the SCD-777ES put out deep and thunderous bottom octaves from the pipe organ, without disturbing the solemnity of its whispery high notes – all this while accompanying the delicate yet soaring notes of the soprano. The feeling was one of humbling effect. Hall reverberation was abundant and contributed greatly to the atmosphere. In fact, all the tracks in this CD possessed outstanding ambience details and voice and instrument tonality. Played through my Klipschorns, the authenticity of the trumpet was beyond reproach.
Sony SCD-777ES vs. CEC TL1/Wadia 27 in CD Playback
The virtues of 64-times oversampling are unquestioned. Companies that possess the expertise to implement such process are scarce. Krell pursued that route once with its Reference 64 digital converter over a decade ago. To my knowledge, Wadia is the only other pioneering company in existence today that is able to continue the development of sophisticated algorithms in support of the 64-times oversampling.
From CEC/Wadia, the sheer musicality of the organ and the human voice was heightened. It was every bit as humbling and involving; but it carried a less glamorous effect of the Sony – and with extra details to spare. The seemingly easiness of the Wadia was prominent throughout the recording. Ambience retrieval was superior from the CEC/Wadia, as consistently shown from jazz to classical music.
Moreover, compared to the CEC/Wadia, the Sony’s soundstaging was shallower and more forward. In my opinion, although some music lovers might associate jazz music with this character in soundstaging, it was nicely balanced with the overall presentation that classical music wouldn’t be embarrassed by it. I listened primarily to classical music and I found the Sony ES characteristics quite pleasant.
Many ears may describe the Wadia sound as dark. I beg to disagree. The sound of Wadia is high in transparency factor. It carries extremely fine instrumental textures and is extended in frequency extremes. For many audiophiles who are accustomed to pristine and accentuated high frequencies, the Wadia’s authentication would mean a less sparkling sound – although I suspect it is highly accurate.
Wadia’s patented DigiMaster algorithm must be the factor for its forte. For in Sony’s 64-times oversampling system, it could not match the resolving power of the Wadia when it comes to the dual aspects of immensity and finesse of soundstage portrayal.
Sony SCD-777ES vs. Perpetual Technologies P1A/P3A
Recognition must be given to the PT combo in its abilities to offer refinement in the voice region. There was a certain ineffable "roundness" to it.
The PTs also easily delivered earful of micro- and macrodynamcis. Its handling of tonality was seemingly accurate and effortless. It was primarily in expansiveness and coherence of soundstaging that the Sony consistently showed an upper hand. While the PT combo was excellent in soundstaging, its portrayal of instruments on stage didn’t have the communal effect as more easily evident in the Sony’s. However, in the exception of side-by-side comparison and long-term listening, hardly did this difference call attention to itself.
Although both Sony and PTs were able to resolve details, revealing a certain smoothness and ease, in terms of the ultimate shading complexities and detail resolution, they weren’t on the same par with CEC/Wadia in ultimate easiness and musicality.
I became acutely aware of what PT’s upsampling could do as opposed to oversampling. In a way, upsampling produced sonics that were very unlike the CD sound I’d grown accustomed to – it actually reminded me of my few vinyl experiences. I am also aware that many audiophiles revere to the vinyl sound in absolute terms. Still, having never been a vinyl aficionado, I have no authority in crediting or discrediting the PT sound as that of the vinyl. The PT upsampling might or might not represent a striking resemblance of the vinyl sound. Nevertheless, the high end is not about the vinyl sound – it is about high fidelity regardless of format. Maybe that’s what an "Absolute Sound" is all about. Furthermore, I am of the CD age and have experienced some of the best sounds in my pursuit. With the likes of CEC/Wadia, Sony and Perpetual Technologies, I have come to known CD sound as breathtaking, realistic and marvelous.
Recently, after reading my PT review, a reader questioned in an email to me whether he should replace his Audio Alchemy DTI Pro32 with the P1A. In my opinion, the P1A by itself would perform much of the same task in terms of jitter reduction. Appreciable improvement seemed unlikely. However, the P1A is also an upsampler, a room acoustics correction device, and a speaker-tuning device. In the exception of those music lovers who already have a 24/96 capable DAC, the P1A should always be considered in the context of its use in a greater picture – with its sibling, P3A.
Furthermore, to maximize the advantages of the PT gears, one needs to first possess a fine CD transport. In my PT review, I noted the P1A/P3A’s effect on ordinary recordings. Upsampling on the part of the P1A/P3A did not remove inherit limitations in early digital recordings. Likewise, I believe inferior transport will impede the results greatly. In fact, the diminishing margin of improvement when interacting with an average transport may turn out to be disappointing.
Between my reference CEC TL1 and Sony SCD-777ES, my Wadia was able to produce better dynamics with the Sony as a coaxial CD transport. Considerations must be given as to the preference of the user. A special note for horn lovers: the match of the SCD-777ES with the Wadia 27 may be preferred for the sheer dynamics capabilities of the system as a whole. In a system consisting of a pure-sounding single-ended class A solid state amplifier, like the Monarchy Audio SM-70, mind-blowing dynamics can easily be achieved.
On the other hand, the CEC TL1 is incomparable in the singular area of musicality. While the Sony didn’t represent an inferior contender in that regard, it was the CEC that consistently sounded smoother and more relaxed. The Sony was capable in highlighting dynamics more so than the CEC.
On a more reconciliatory note, both transports exhibited near-identical tonality on quite a few CDs – especially the remastered ones. Noticeable differences being a more rhythmic pace on the Sony, and a slower feel on the CEC.
Equipped with newer technologies, the SCD-777ES approaches the level of finesse in Redbook CD performance as supremely demonstrated by the four-year-old CEC/Wadia combo. To some, buying the SCD-777ES will be hitting two birds with one stone.
The SCD-777ES’s SACD performance justifies its existence. Although its Redbook CD performance will not replace an extremely high-end CD front-end system, the SCD-777ES will be a beautiful sonic and visual addition to most high-end systems. If you are a wealthy audiophile, better check it out – because it costs almost nothing for so much excitement. If you are on a budget crunch, consider and audition the SCD-777ES before going elsewhere – it will be a shame to miss out on the SACD magnificence while letting its Redbook CD prowess go unnoticed.
For me to garner possible improvement from my system over the Sony in the SACD arena, I have to wait until Wadia comes out with a SACD/CD/DVD-A transport, and upgrade my Wadia 27 Decoding Computer to the "ix".
The Sony SCD-777ES is also for you if you are upgrading to a better transport to link to a nice DAC via coaxial. One look at the unit will convince you it is extremely well built and worth every penny of your investment.
Whether we are ready or not, the superior performance of the DSD SACD is a sound to behold. Advancement in digital audio truly progresses in leaps and bounds.
The core technology in the SACD revolution is Sony’s DSD process. When archiving music, its ultra-high sampling frequency and 1-bit quantization simplify the digital encoding process and preserve resolution.
Implemented in the SACD format, DSD faithfully restores the dynamics, frequency extremes and resolutions from the original master tape in an order of magnitude versus regular mastering. Bits and pieces of nuances and subtleties from original events are preserved and ushered out with distinction. Consequently, tonality of sounds, localization of music players and 3-dimensionality of the event are all reproduced with breathtaking precision.
Listening to music via SACD is like breathing purer air. Its effect on me is psychologically addictive – even though the artists and their interpretations are not of my preference. It is a pity that my favorite Choral Symphony may not be available on SACD.
DSD recordings released in down-converted Redbook CD format have distinctive fundamental coherence throughout the frequency range – whether played through the CEC/Wadia combo or the SCD-777ES. The ultimate limiting factor is the resolution-storage capacity inherent to the Redbook CD.
Other recording labels have not completely fallen behind Sony. In their own efforts, major labels have all adopted archival technologies aimed at maximizing the original and remastered recordings’ available resolution when downconverting to CDs. For example, JVC, with their "K2 Interface", Deutsche Grammophon, with their "Original Bit-Image Processing", RCA Red Seal, remastering with "UV22" – all claim to have reached a 20-bit resolution. My experience confirms their claims of better sonics.
SACD in the Marketplace
In the San Francisco Bay Area since June 1999, Sony began to enjoy a heightened presence accorded by its newly erected four-story entertainment center in downtown San Francisco -- the Sony Metreon. Located next to the Moscone Exposition Center, this flashy complex houses twenty theatres, two premium restaurants, a large food court, pool tables, video arcade, several retailers and most of all, its very own CD and electronics superstore, the Sony Style. It has become my favorite place to visit on the Friday night-out.
Among the army of exciting high tech products on display throughout the retailer Sony Style, the Super Audio CD players easily invite attention. Packed with a striking appearance and an impressive array of advanced technologies, both the SCD-1 and SCD-777ES players are probably the two pieces of high-end consumer electronics in the store that draw the most comments from shoppers of mass-market products.
In regards to the sales of their SCD-1 and SCD-777ES to this day, one of the salespersons at Sony Style admitted that approximately one Super Audio CD player is being sold every other week.
Throughout the years, we’ve been inundated with cases like VHS vs. Beta, VHS-C vs. 8mm, vinyl vs. CD, MD vs. DCC, and last not least, SACD vs. DVD-A. Beta was smaller with better resolution; but VHS won. Clearly, technical superiority is not enough to guarantee success. In the case of the home video format war, it was marketing strategies that generated tremendous public response in favor of VHS over Beta.
Although the new SACD format’s unknown future is certainly impacting the market reaction, it is up to Sony to invest advertisement resources into showcasing the ability of the players in both Redbook and Super Audio CDs playback. Emphasis should also be placed on the engineering ingenuity of the machines so that audio buffs and music lovers will be able to see the true beauty and value of the players.
Software-wise, while it is fair that the market has to show interest and demand in the format, Sony has to inject confidence into the market with an obvious availability of music on SACD.
As a new high-resolution format, the Super Audio Compact Disc may have the toughest time to flourish. Eventually, it may enjoy the same status as the Beta ED and Hi-8 in the video arena, where professional users feverishly adopted them in pursuit of quality. It may survive; but will it flourish?
While Sony possesses the ultimate medium to date, it is companies like Deutsche Grammophon, EMI, Decca, Philips and other dedicated classical labels that house the broadest, dearest, and most sought-after musical treasures. The fact that I am still purchasing considerable amount of Redbook CD new issues and reissues -- mastered with various other processes -- should be clear that, while Sony invented the superior DSD process, labels with the bigger vaults will still be able to garner buyer support.
Not too long ago in Stereophile magazine, we were presented an article rationalizing the ultimate purpose of the SACD. The opinion was that the DSD process used in archiving recordings for the SACD format was created for the sole purpose of intellectual property protection – superior audio performance was not the driving force in the design of the new format. What conclusion should we draw?
Some may become offended by a new scheme concocted again by Sony, just to maintain its stronghold on music lovers’ spending. Assuming it to be true, the simplistic principle of supply and demand will nevertheless prevail. Either the format becomes affordable in the long run to ensure survival, or Redbook CD will remain the primary music carrier.
In the foreseeable future, the Compact Disc will most likely continue its reign as the primary music media, and music lovers and audiophiles alike have no choice but to observe the SACD situation passively while increasing their investment into the CD.
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