Sony SCD1 SACD Player

Get Ready for DSD
Clement Perry
9 November 1999


Frequency Range 2-100,000 Hz
Frequency Response 2-50,000 HZ (-3 dB)
Dynamic Range more than 105 dB (20-20,000 Hz)
Total Harmonic Distortion less than 0.0012%
Wow & Flutter Beneath measurable level (+/-0.001% weighted peak)

Compact Disc:
Frequency Response 2-20,000 Hz
Dynamic Range more than 100 dB
Total Harmonic Distortion less than 0.0017%
Wow & Flutter beneath measurable level Beneath measurable level (+/-0.001% weighted peak)

Digital Output Optical, coaxial (CD only)
Analog Output Unbalanced (w/ON/OFF switch for balanced)

Output Level:
Digital (optical) -18 dBm (fixed)
Digital (coaxial) 0.5 V p-p (fixed)
Digital (unbalanced) 2 V ms (fixed)
Analog (balanced) 2 V ms (fixed)

Dimensions (whd) 430 × 149 × 436 mm (17 × 5 7 /8 × 17 1 /4)
Weight Approx. 26.5 kg (58 lbs.) Approx. 25 kg (55 lbs.)

Price $5,000

“The SCD-1 possesses qualities that are downright thought provoking. This unit makes many stratospherically priced referenced CD players out there look noticeably boring by association.”

Some Memories Never Die

Okay, upclick the Way-Back Machine to the spring of ’98. Destination: Sony Studios, New Yawk City. As a guest of Ed Meitner, I was given the opportunity to see, taste and feel what DSD was up to on the professional level, i.e., the recording process. Tom Jung of DMP was doing what he does best — mixing and mastering the new and fantastic “Just Jobim” CD (dmp cd 525), by Manfredo Fest. I was delighted to be there if only to witness a live recording with Manfredo, digital mavens Ed Meitner and Tom Jung (who’s been recording with Meitner products since the beginning), and Sony’s honcho-DSD engineer-CES MC, the ubiquitous David Kawakami.

I knew that history was being made. Consider the implications of Ed Meitner’s D-to-A in a Sony recording studio under the auspices of Tom Jung. Seeing those guys in a room together was one thing, hearing their ideas, listening to their discussions was entirely another. What I remember most via headphones was the sound of a live microphone feed from Manfredo Fest and his Brazilian band in a recording booth not twenty feet away. Listening again (I presume take 50 for the band) through headphones, this time through Ed Meitner designed DSD D-to-A, I judged the sound just about indistinguishable from the live mike feed. Ever the Curmudgeon skeptic, and not one bit familiar with the electronics in front of me, I thought it was a trick of some sort. I whispered to Ed Meitner, “No way could a recording sound so close to the live event.” He simply looked at me in his matter-of-fact sort of way and deliberately dropped some those jokes for which he’s (in)famous. I almost had to be dragged out for laughing too loud during recording sessions. Looking back on the significance of that day’s events, particularly the quality of DSD, marred only by Ed Meitner’s jokes, I knew I had witnessed something magical.

Sony SCD-1 at HomeThe Super Audio Compact Disc (SACD) has arrived by way of the Direct Stream Digital hi-way. Rarely does a product so trumpeted by the press live up to hype. This product just happens to sound that good. If you’re a cynic, do yourself a huge favor and experience the Sony SCD-1 SACD player in your HOME. Never mind the thing’s good looks and build quality, Sony’s obvious attention to detail — the SCD-1 possesses qualities that are downright thought provoking. This unit makes many stratospherically priced referenced CD players out there look noticeably boring by association.

Tour de force

An SACD disc looks like a conventional CD. Like the ordinary CD player, the Sony device plays single-side, stereo only (for now). However, SACD is capable of storing far more information with regard to the musical signal, thereby achieving a new level of fidelity.

Regular CD necessitates a laser-emitting wavelength of 780 nanometers, while SACD uses 650 nm. In addition, instead of trying to compromise these requirements, or switch lenses or lasers, Sony designed in the SCD-1 two separate optical pickups. One entirely dedicated to CD while the other’s optimized for SACD.

The SCD-1 Fixed Pickup Mechanism is an entirely new design. To isolate servo voltages from the laser pickups, the pickups themselves are fixed onto the sub-chassis. While the pickups remain stationary, the disc and turntable move horizontally to accomplish tracking. The plan here was to reduce servo current noise. The SCD-1 spindle motor is made of die-cast aluminum for high rigidity, its stationary side includes a sapphire bearing. The rotating side features a ruby ball that fits into the sapphire bearing. Sony says that this combination makes for an incredibly smooth spin. The disc connects to the spindle by way of a massive brass stabilizer which the listener places over the center hub. This dampens extraneous motion and helps create a high-precision rotating system. The drive mechanism is mounted to a 6 mm (almost 1/4 inch thick!) solid aluminum plate. The spindle cutout is reinforced with an extra plate for added rigidity. Special openings are used to suppress vibration and to reduce servo currents.

The mechanical block floats on four rubber dampers, mounted on four chassis pillars, thus combining high rigidity with superb isolation from chassis-borne vibration.

The Big Playback

“Should a format war begin on the near horizon I’m parking my jeep here. ‘Ahh, I love Napalm in the morning!’”

Talk about delayed gratification! The SCD-1 recognizes CD’s and SACD’s and begins playing either about one minute. This makes my big, old, notoriously slow Theta drive look, by comparison, downright zippy. By selecting the disc type in advance, you can bypass the recognition step and go directly to playback. I chose the manual selection since it allowed me the up, close and personal bond I wanted since first laying eyes on this beautiful hunk at Chicago’s Hifi ’99.

The rear of the SCD-1 is equipped for both balanced (3-pin XLR) and single ended (RCA) inputs. Two switches located side by side serve to disarm the balanced outputs and a Standard/Custom switch allows one to change the factory setting set for standard. Removing the plate and switching to custom mode is said to “open” up the SCD-1’s SACD performance. In the custom mode, SACD extends its frequency beyond 100kHz. This can be potentially hazardous and could ruin a well planned evening of listening. (Rumor has it that Sony smoked some expensive electronics in this mode.) So please use extreme caution before — in other words, have a little chat with your amp’s manufacturer — before going into this mode.

Coaxial and optical digital output are available, but for 16-bit CD playback only. (There is no digital output during SACD.) A 15-character dot-matrix display shows text information, player settings and user-warning indications. The SCD-1 shows information such as disc title, performers’ names and track title for Sony text-suited CDs and SACDs. The SCD-1 has segmented displays for track number and time. Since Super Audio Compact Disc titles can have as many as 255 tracks, the players each have a three-digit track number display. The display window is made of thick acrylic with nicely beveled edges and a half-mirror coating on the inside.

This gives the SCD-1 a very impressive appearance.

The SCD-1 comes with the Sony Remote Commander,® a relatively cheesy, 1-mm aluminum top plate and buttons that operate with a definitive click. The remote duplicates the front panel features and adds track programming, shuffle and repeat (1, all, A-B), as well as 10-key Direct Access™ track selection. Added controls include cue/review, index search, disc type selection and filter switching. The remote unit’s infrared codes correspond to Sony CD player codes. To prevent mistaken operation in systems that already include a Sony CD player, the SACD player and remote can be switched to “CD2” mode, engaging a separate set of remote control codes.

The SCD-1 power supply is designed to minimize interference and exploit the stability and purity of voltage. Separate power transformers for analog and digital sections limit mutual interference through the supply. Sony uses two large R-Core transformers to minimize magnetic flux leakage, mechanical vibration and acoustic noise. Unwanted vibrations are further suppressed (by resin-sealed cases) for both transformers.

Unwanted voltages caused by the physical vibration of wires and component parts are further suppressed by methodical anti-resonant construction. For this purpose, Sony has developed a new anti-vibration design: the Base Pillar (BP) chassis. The base consists of two 5-mm (0.2-inch) thick metal plates that combine to form a massive 10-mm (0.4-inch) thick platform. On top of things, Sony has mounted seven high-carbon cast iron pillars, two 4.5-mm (0.2-inch) sidewalls and a 5-mm top plate. To prevent shelf-borne vibration from entering the chassis, Sony’s eccentric insulator feet locate the screw hole off center. Varying the radius from screw to perimeter leans to vary the resonant frequency within the foot diffusing one probable path for vibration.

The SCD-1 also sports a refined 5-piece set of insulator feet. The upper foot is made of a high-carbon cast iron that bid high attenuation, while the lower foot is made of brass. These two halves convene at a pinpoint contact, cautiously designed to block the spread of vibration. Lastly, the ‘pinpoint contact’ itself is surrounded by a gel shaped damper to reduce even trace resonances. The loading door at the top of the chassis is a gem of mechanical engineering. The door moves smoothly on concealed guide rails. The panel rises slightly as it opens and then lowers to its original height when it closes. The motor cover and floating mechanism are insulated against noise and vibration. The disc housing is treated with an anti-vibration coating. A high-carbon textile with a Teflon® coating ensures sound insulation and high reliability. The main axle for the slide mechanism is made of stainless material, the bearing of brass.

There’s no part of SCD-1 that doesn’t impress when one glances at this top loader, with its curvaceous flanks, well-manicured top, and overall stylishness, that even the staunchiest of critics should adore, if nothing else the sheer attempt at such a product. It’s no stretch to call this chassis “massive.” The SCD-1 weighs some 26.5 kg (over 58 lbs.)! Should a format war begin on the near horizon I’m parking my jeep here. “Ahh, I love Napalm in the morning!”

Taking the Red Pill

“Once I got the SCD-1 warmed up, I wanted an idea of its CD (16/44.1kHz) performance. It does not disappoint. The unit’s first and most obvious distinctions is its speed and energy. Man, talk about fast!”

The Sony spent a good deal of time in a setup consisting of the since-departed Von Schweikert VR6 loudspeakers driven by Sim Audio’s reference W10 Monoblock amplifiers. I also used the Cliffhanger Audio Loudspeakers for this evaluation. Preamplifiers: the Tact 2.2 Room Corrector and the Balanced Audio Technology VK 20. Cabling: Harmonic Technology’s Pro Nine Speaker cables and the Pro Silway Mk II’s Interconnects. Further, a set of Symposium Roller Blocks came to rest (finally) on a set of Black Diamond Those Things.

See Me, Touch Me, Feel Me!

One word of caution: The Sony SCD-1 is a mutha to break in. It won’t sound good fresh out of the box. Get out your Purist Burnin CD, and be prepared for a good three week’s break in, as something I should have known, but the anticipation was just too great. About the third day things began to warm up some. The sound was much more three dimensional with less hardness at the edges of instruments, allowing me to play a little louder each passing, post-burn-in hour. Each day yielded greater results, culminating in what is now a huge disparity between the SCD-1 and my reference Bidat D-to-A with transport.

Once the SCD-1 burned in and settled down, it created so beautiful a sound, so huge, so much better than what I’ve become accustomed to, that it’s really difficult for me to characterize the experience with words. Note: I didn’t listen to any of the filters long enough to report on their significance, and so I won’t. I left the unit in the standard filter position and, based on what hasty comparisons I made, preferred this setting.

Once I got the SCD-1 warmed up, I wanted an idea of its CD (16/44.1kHz) performance. It does not disappoint. The unit’s first and most obvious distinctions is its speed and energy. Man, talk about fast! It picks up instruments with such ease and speed that it can almost seem as if the CD’s, at least the ones I’m most familiar were, have been somehow sped up. The Meitner is no slouch in this area, but I must admit that by comparison it appears slower — perhaps more sure footed, but slower. The Meitner produces a warmer sound, particularly in the upper bass. I’ve concluded that this is perhaps due to its lack of control in that region. This doesn’t mean it lacks control absolutely, just that against the SCD-1, it comes up slower going through the paces. The SCD-1 is that fast.

The Meitner still holds its own in the musicality department, edging out the SCD-1 overall. But that’s not everything. The quickness, coupled with extreme transparency (more than the Meitner), and bass tautness, would make many say the Sony’s the superior of the two. I would tend to agree. But I still think that you can enjoy the music longer through the Meitner. It’s a musical machine. The SCD-1 will make you want to get up and dance. Especially once you engage the SACD’s! The biggest surprise about the SCD-1, is its normal playback performance. It was as good if not better than my absolute reference Meitner Bidat! Need I say more?

Neo, Welcome to the Real World

“…so natural in tone, so smooth in transients, so rich in the treble and detailed all at once. It’s really hard to articulate. In a word, analog!”

Two SACD’s come with your new SCD-1, the excellently recorded “Telarc Sampler” and Sony’s own. Both are good, but if you ask me, the Telarc is my choice hands down, especially when you discover it’s a hybrid, dual-layered disc. This was for me great news because it allows for very easy comparisons against regular 16/44.1 kHz encoded playback. Track six, for instance, “The Perfect Blues (Telarc SACDP-99-1), from the yet-to-be released CD “Some of my Best Friends are Singers, features The Ray Brown Trio, with Nancy King and Antonio Hart. From the opening note, you can just tell something very different is going on. Attempting to find what these differences are is, again, difficult to describe.

Ol’ Reliable Uncle Denial Paid An Unwelcomed Visit

Immediately, as soon as I sat down to jot a couple of thoughts on what I was hearing, uncle spoke up. Attempting to convince me on what was a clearly superior sounding format as merely “cleaning up the sound,” I dismissed as a joke. Then, suddenly, a breathtaking crash of the cymbals sounding so unlike anything I’ve experienced, so powerful, so thrilling, blew Uncle Denial straight off the couch. His departing words, “Damn this IS better!” Oh, the sound of that cymbal crash! — so much better in accuracy, scope, space, air, timbre! Name it, it’s there! Sony claims to have properly removed decimation and interpolation filters, including requantization noise, passband ripple and ringing. I don’t know what that is, or how it affects the sound, but, damn, there’s something fantastic going on!

Track eight, from Telarc’s Sampler entitled “Caravan,” features such jazz notables as Oscar Peterson, Ray Brown and the recently deceased Milt Jackson. SACD seems to get the fundamentals of each note much more accurately. One stroke from Milt Jackson’s vibraphone is all it took to convince me how especially well SACD reproduces this instrument — so natural in tone, so smooth in transients, so rich in the treble and detailed all at once. It’s really hard to articulate. In a word, analog!

Never before heard in my audiophile experience is the absolute energy level created in the lower treble and midrange, without even a hint of harshness, forwardness, or masking. Once again, the Telarc Sampler, Dvorak’s Stabat Mater, Quando Corpus Morietur. Simply put, this is the most beautifully rendered recording of a mass symphony choir, with voices, I’ve heard. In terms of the recording’s venue, the hall, the voices come across natural as one could possibly ask. Nothing in my experience comes close.

Next, Audio Quest’s Sampler entitled “Blues Quest,” featuring the Bruce Katz Bands “The Prowler.” Woof! This gets my vote as the most dramatic blues/slash/jazz recording yet recorded in SACD. Talk about bass extension, speed, transparency, inner detail, micro and macro dynamics, and kick-ass bass! Not to neglect getting down to the absolute soul of a recording! This disc has it all and then some! Perhaps the best recorded disc I’ve heard, regardless of format, period.

For an overall impression, let’s take dynamics with ultra smoothness amid an imminently more realistic and lifelike soundstage, three dimensionality that quite simply startles, bass thundering through unlike anything I’ve heard. The sheer weight, texture and control is simply mouthwatering. After a couple of weeks of comparisons with my beloved reference Bidat and its sidekick transport (which, by the way, I still consider one of the most amazing digital products out) — well, what does one say? It just isn’t a fair match-up. There might as well be a “Closed for Repairs” sign over the Meitner Bidat. For me to state that about the Meitner says an awful lot about the sound of SACD!

To summarize: The sound of the SCD-1, is less mechanical, more rounded on the edges, while paradoxically enhancing the leading edge transients. The Sony surrenders nothing while providing so much more detail. The result is a believability quotient much improved upon. Take for example old jazz recordings that are panned hard right and left, as with Miles Davis’s “So What.” The very moment ‘Trane begins his riffs on the left side of the speaker, I immediately got the sense that the sound is more harmonically removed, more “off” the speaker, evincing a more lifelike performance of this classic, thus making it sound newer and more vibrant. The decrease in the “electric sound” associated with most discs (regardless of pressing) never really produced the “live” effect to this degree.

In this regard, SACD sounds simply much closer to the live event.

Take the Green Pill and Forget Everything You’ve Read!

Consider the contradictions under one chassis: immediate, forceful, yet inviting. Detailed to the nth degree, yet creamy and smooth. Unparalleled transparency, yet never intrusive. Resolution like a electron microscope, yet a natural, analog stance. It must be around holiday time because I offer only good tidings and blessings. You will too when you hear the SCD-1. An absolute, reference-caliber product. Wow.

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