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Positive Feedback ISSUE 12
march/april 2004


To SACD or not to SACD: Is That the Question?
by Bob Neill

Ever since comparing SACDs and CDs based on the same DSD tapes on the Audience modified Sony NV999ES and Audio Note CDT Two/DAC 4.1 Balanced a while back and finding myself generally more pleased with the CDs on the (admittedly) far more expensive strictly Redbook Audio Note rig—the presentation was less impressive but more engaging, less like a technical triumph, more like a musical experience—I have wanted to revisit the SACD/CD issue on a flatter playing field. Because of the considerable price difference, I was reluctant to draw any conclusions about SACD as a technology from my earlier comparison. I resolved to repeat the comparison with less expensive Audio Note gear in the future to find out whether it was a difference in parts quality or in the basic technologies that was the issue I was encountering. I was at last able to do that, this winter, when I had the considerably upgraded Audience/Sony and an Audio Note DAC One.1x Signature here at the same time.

The Hardware

The Audience modified Sony NV999ES in its current upgraded form remains an excellent example of its kind: that is, a $5000 CD/SACD player (which also happens to be able to play video DVDs). I have not heard many other SACD players, so I cannot say whether or not it is one of the best of its kind. I can say it is better (more musically convincing, more trouble-free) than, for example the Chris Johnson modified Shanling T-200, which sells for around the same price. Audio Asylum inmate Pete Watt, who heard the Audience/Sony player about 80% of the way toward its current state of modification, reports that compared with both the Dan Wright and the Alex Peychev modified Philips SACD 1000, the Audience/Sony is more resolving but a bit less engaging. My guess, after reading Pete's thorough review of the Wright on the Asylum and exchanging emails with him, is that the principal difference between the modded Philips players and the Audience/Sony is a matter of where one places one's musical priorities. For what it's worth, both the Wright and Peychev modded players use tubes, while the Audience/Sony is all solid state. I don't know how these players compare with the Audience/Sony "inside," that is, the extent of their modifications; but they are considerably less expensive.

No cosmetic changes have been made to the upgraded Audience/Sony, but internally, the changes are said to be (and sound) considerable. While the overall character and voice of the player has not changed, to my ears it is clearly better at all the things it was good at before. I complained a little in the earlier review about the ergonomics of the remote. (It is by original design a DVD player.) I like my CD players simple and intuitively designed. But now that I have adjusted to it, it is not really a problem. And if the sound is good enough, we should be willing to forgive a little awkwardness. The price of the Audience/Sony player is still $5200, latest upgrades and all. (Sound of applause.)

My chief aim in this report is to describe what SACD's sound like on this player compared with CD versions of the same recordings on a comparably priced CD transport and DAC from Audio Note. That is where my interest lies. I came to this audition looking for more firsthand information about whether SACD is a genuine improvement on Redbook CD, properly implemented. While I do not think that what I learned from this audition is definitive, I do think it is suggestive.

(It is my hope eventually to find a Meitner owner somewhere in the New England area who would be willing to pay me a visit—with his DAC 6!—so I can take another, more conclusive step, toward judgment. Perhaps we could assemble a panel of serious listeners to sit in on such a session. And yes, this is an invitation to you, whoever and wherever you may be!)

The Audio Note financial equivalent of the Audience/Sony player is a CDT TWO transport and DAC ONE.1x Signature. This pair sells for $4899—$3300 for the transport, $1599 for the DAC. (The ONE.1x Signature is about to be replaced by a 1.1x Signature II.) An Audio Note AN-v interconnect adds $190, though it should be noted that I used Sogon interconnects with both the Audience/Sony and Audio Note gear, since that is what I had on hand. The CDT TWO is an audibly better transport than the CDT ONE that I used in the recent system report, (which was no slouch itself), thanks mainly to the top loading Philips drive in the TWO. It is the same transport I used in the earlier comparison of the Audience/Sony and the Audio Note DAC 4.1 Balanced.

Audience/Sony: SACD vs. CD

To get my bearings, I started out by comparing separate CD and SACD versions of two excellent DSD recordings from Channel Classics on the Audience/Sony: Rachel Podger's Vivaldi Opus 4 and Mieneke van de Velden's recording of Couperin viol suites. Flipping back and forth over a period of an hour or so, I was surprised to find that on the upgraded Audience/Sony, the differences between CD and SACD were far subtler than I remember on the earlier version of the player—and not always to the SACD's advantage. On the Couperin discs, for example, the viol sounded a bit less substantial and more surreal on the SACD, I think. I could not settle on any real difference between the CD and SACD of the Podger recording. A double blind test on either would likely have left me helpless. I don't really know what to make of this. Has the Audience/Sony CD performance improved to the point where it now virtually matches its SACD performance? I doubt its SACD performance has fallen back, since both sounded extremely good, audibly better than last time out. More on that as we proceed. On the basis of this first piece of the audition, which high-res fans may well meet with skepticism, I have to tentatively conclude that the superiority of the new medium remains in question.

Audience/Sony SACD vs. Audio Note CD

Okay, on to the main event. I am going to report here what I heard as clearly as I can and try to keep judgments and conclusions on the back burner for a while. I think you will very likely find what I have to say about differences more useful than any preferences I end up expressing. At least that is what I am hoping for. I am a dealer for both of these products, as some of you know, and so in that sense I can be seen to have a stake in the success of both. In my critical view, both deserve success, which is why I have chosen to represent them. But I do hope to be able to keep my critical faculties fully operational in what follows and let the chips fall.

For this audition I used Audio Note Sogon interconnects—between the Audience/Sony and an Audio Note M6 tubed preamplifier; and between the Audio Note transport and DAC and between the DAC and preamplifier. I ran Audio Note AN-Vx between the M6 and Audio Note Neiro SET monoblocks. I used Audio Note AN-SPx speaker cable, bi-wired, between the Neiros and JM Reynaud Concordes sitting on Symposium Sveltes. EPS Signature power cords were on all of the digital gear and the preamp, EPS Statements on the Neiros. The digital gear was plugged into a Blue Circle MR800 line conditioner. The discs for the audition included both those for which I have separate CD and SACD versions and some hybrids as well.

John Harbison, Cello Concerto, David Finckel, Albany Symphony Orchestra, Albany Records. (Hybrid)

This piece is buried on a disc which features Morton Gould's considerably less interesting Symphony Number 2. I heard Yo Yo Ma do his follow-up premier of this concerto at Tanglewood a couple of summers ago and was quite taken with it. Finckel makes it more interesting still. On the Audience/Sony, SACD layer, the cello and a clarinet immediately exhibit a tightness and firmness, which the rest of the orchestra also demonstrates as it enters in full force. There is a nice sense of space. Definition is excellent—warm and clear. The characteristic sense of control and even-handedness I remembered from the earlier version of the player is still present. I cannot tell how much of what I am hearing is Audience/Sony and how much SACD—but I have the sense that I am hearing everything. It is a conservative presentation, meaning there is no hint of overdoing anything, of going for too much. There is an early morning light spread evenly over the entire orchestra, resulting in a texture that sounds very real. I do miss the fullness and richness I am accustomed to in the lower mids from my reference Audio Note DAC 4.1; but the Audience/Sony presentation makes a strong case for itself. It is good enough to make me look forward to the upcoming comparison with curiosity.

On the Audio Note rig, with the CD layer, the cello is fuller and deeper sounding, rich rather than tight and firm. I am more aware of the body of the instrument. The orchestra is fuller and individual instruments have more body. There is less sense of control. Things feel a little looser and easy-going. More natural? Perhaps. It's mainly that with the Audience/Sony I was more aware of things being managed, kept in balance. With the Audio Note front end, I do not sense that. The issue doesn't come up. I am less aware of presentation. There is plenty of sense of space, though again, this aspect of the presentation is not conspicuous. Audiophiles often speak of being drawn into a musical presentation, much as they are at a live performance, or of being held off a little. If being held off means induced to listen a little more with your critical faculties, being asked to notice and appreciate details, then yes, that distinction applies here. Presumably this is what Pete Watt noticed. The Audio Note CD presentation of the Harbison concerto does not induce attention to matters of detail. It tends more toward synthesis, it feels more whole. It you don't like that, you would call it more romantic than the Audience/Sony's presentation.

I am trying to speak for both kinds of listener here, because there are plenty of both; and the Audience/Sony is very good at resisting synthesis. It leaves that to the listener. We get the sense that the Audio Note designer knows how it should all go together into a whole and is taking it there; and that the Audience/Sony designer is more concerned with getting the details right, resisting the temptation to speculate about wholes. That is not how Peter Qvortrup would put it, of course! He would presumably say that his equipment simply gets more of the information, thereby letting the whole come through.

This comparison reminds me that there are some players which seem to take the Audio Note approach, but which clearly do not. A fairly popular example would be the Accuphase players. Unlike the Accuphase, the Audio Note does not roll everything up into a rich, euphonic ball and bowl it at us. Everything is there, where it should be, for all to see. In contrast to the Audience/Sony, where the music sometimes seems disbursed, with the Audio Note, it comes together, it coheres.

Vivaldi, La Stravaganza/Opus 4. Rachel Podger and Arte Dei Suonatori, Channel Classics.  (CD and SACD)

On the Audience/Sony, with the SACD, the unique character of the early instruments, especially playing as an ensemble, is terrific. A great sense of reverberant ambience too. As I noted when I reviewed it a while back, this is a superb recording. Podger's solo violin is rich and poignantly clear in texture. The Audience/Sony is more engaging in this new upgraded version than it was before. The sound of this recording on the Audience/Sony makes it clear that designer Roger Sheker has done some truly significant work. The Audience/Sony is more engaging in this recording than it was on the Harbison, without giving away any of its characteristic grip or detail and without losing its poise.

On the Audio Note transport and DAC, in CD, the presentation is a shade darker, the original instruments less tangy, the presentation warmer, sweeter, airier, less aggressive. Podger's violin seems to have a bit less texture but is more intoxicating. The whole orchestra sounds more ebullient, less passionate. More lyrical, less robust. The contrast between these two presentations of this recording will definitely tell you who are, as I frequently say. We can't know for sure which player is more accurate here. The one gets the impact of the ensemble and glories in instrumental textures. The other seems to look beyond these aspects to the lyrical glory of the music: what's all about. If you resist this kind of interpretive move, if that is what it is, you will prefer the more straightforward seeming approach of the Audience/Sony.

A Digression

This question of whether the Audience/Sony on SACD is sticking to the facts and the Audio Note on CD interpreting them; or on the other hand the Audience/Sony on SACD is missing something that the Audio Note on CD is getting, is clearly the issue that is emerging here. A former bassoonist and friend of mine, who has appeared in some of my earlier reviews as John Bassoon and whom I often bring in to help me clarify audio issues, feels the Audio Note's presentation gets "between" him and the facts. He finds it indisputably more beautiful but prefers the greater sense of contrast and relief (as in texture) he hears from the Audience/Sony. (I should note that John's perspective is mainly from the midst of an orchestra, where he used to sit!)  Representing the other side of the question is a long-time fan of Audio Note and new friend of mine (for whom I have yet to find a pseudonym), with whom I communicate regularly. He writes well, so I'll quote him directly:

While, strictly speaking, all electronics lack the capacity to interpret and move beyond the recorded facts/data, what they can (but mostly don't) do is provide all of the lowest level detail, allowing you to hear the musician's interpretation and nuances of performance, and be moved by the integrated view of their totality. If that detail has been somehow obscured or obliterated, which strikes me as the case with Audience/Sony, the fine interpretive points are gone, and we are left with only the basic building blocks to shape our listening impression and experience. "Just (most of) the facts, ma'am" may seem more explicit because it is easier for us to register and process fewer elements. In the end, though, the listener loses out emotionally.

Haydn, London Symphonies arranged for chamber group, Florilegium, Channel Classics. (Hybrid)

On the Audience/Sony in SACD, textures are especially clear, maybe a tad diffuse sounding—not in the sense of indistinct sound-staging, it's more that I don't sense a center to the performance. I hear separate instruments playing separate notes. Everything is where it seems to belong, but…? This is more like the Harbison recording, perhaps because the passion of the Podger/Vivaldi recording and its robust sounding orchestra overpower the tendency of the Audience/Sony to hold back a little. It will be interesting to hear this recording on the Audio Note gear again, to see if it's the performance or equipment and medium that are the issue here.

It turns out to be the latter. As I listen to the CD layer on the Audio Note, I sense the issue addressed above in the digression raising its head again. Now I hear coherence. The Audio Note either intuits the performance that is not there or finds it amidst the facts. In either event, there is no sense of diffusion at all. Coherence, ebullience, and emotion. I'm not crazy about this arrangement, never have been, but on the Audio Note gear, it has a point and I "get it." With the Vivaldi, I can hear the two different points of view; on this recording, only one player seems to have one. Or perhaps the CD plays to the strengths of the Audio Note.

Three Concertos for a New Century. The Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra, NorthWest Classics. (Hybrid)

This is a fascinating hybrid recording from an even more fascinating recording label located in the Netherlands, which was new to me until a year or so when it was recommended by Stephen of Audio Asylum's High Res asylum. NorthWest prides itself justifiably on recording excellence and is committed to SACD. I intend to review more of their recordings sometime soon.

On the Audio Note, playing a Horn Concerto by contemporary Dutch composer Geert van Keulen on the CD layer, the horn tone and that of the accompanying brass are wonderfully rich and clear. This is very sparsely orchestrated work, which enables me to hear what the audio system is doing with timbre. When the full orchestra plays, I am reminded of how all Audio Note digital gets, especially, the slightly soft and appealing edge of instrumental sound, the sound of instruments and their medium, air. That is a constituent of beauty in music that those who sit in the first few rows often miss. (There are seats for all tastes!) Audio Note digital always gets us a goodly share of that. Critics might say (John the bassoonist says), we get it at the expense of some of the incisive sound of instruments before they fully inhabit the air. Since SACD is renowned for getting air and space, perhaps that's why the CD/SACD issue does not seem to be one here. At any rate, the principal characteristic I am aware of when listening to this recording on CD with the Audio Note rig, is music as it sounds in air and space. The piece itself has an elegiac character and the Audio Note gets that beautifully.

On the Audience/Sony, there is more space, but less air. The orchestra is more crisp sounding than on the Audio Note. Instruments are less rich, have less body, but are strikingly clear. Lights are up a bit, I have the sense I can see farther into corners. This tends to disburse the elegiac mood however, resulting in something a bit surreal instead. Two different pieces of music.


Okay, what have we got? I will try not to repeat myself too much. Audiophiles like to talk about wet and dry. The Audience/Sony playing SACD's is a tad drier in its presentation, a quality that is not foreign to live music when it is not overplayed—and the Audience/Sony does not overplay it. The Audio Note is more liquid, a quality of live music (when it is not overplayed) we are more aware of when we sit back a bit in the hall. Is this difference SACD vs. CD? Solid state vs. tubes? I'm sure tubes are involved here to some extent, but Peter Qvortrup and Dave Cope would say that non-oversampling and a lack of filtering also play important roles.

I have no clue how much of it is SACD vs. CD. And as I moved through this audition, though that was the issue that interested me, it seemed stubbornly not to be the issue here. The Audience/Sony and Audio Note gear seemed to exhibit versions of the same general difference I heard the last time I compared these two marques, a difference not really related to the SACD/CD question. Perhaps that is because to some extent Audio Note digital makes it a non-issue, by getting a good deal from Redbook CDs of what SACD is purportedly after. Based on what I heard from the Audience/Sony's playing both SACD and CD recordings, in its own way it may also be making this a non-issue. I'm afraid the SACD/CD issue has to be tabled for now, unless you care to infer something more from this audition than I am ready to claim.

The Audience/Sony can sound highly informative: it can strike us as doing an exemplary job of getting the information off the discs. Whether or not this is in fact the case, it often truly does feel like it; and to me that is the case for this player. The Audio Note is clearly more concerned with synthesis of information. Whether the success it clearly achieves in this effort is real or illusory, I will have to say that it interprets eloquently and very much in the spirit of what music strikes me as being.

Questions from the Audience

I sense that you are pulling punches here. Your review reads more like a committee report than one brain and set of ears giving us your usual clear, unequivocal point of view. Cynics will conclude that you are discretely covering both bases to protect your interest in each. Also, folks are going to be wondering how deep your level of experience is with the new medium, aren't they? (Backwoods Barry)

Now you know why I like to keep Barry around!  I know what you mean but no, I'm not pulling punches so much as trying hard not to say more than I am absolutely confident to say. On the one hand, I am trying not to fall in love (Ever try that? Very awkward), at least as a reviewer, for a change. Clearly I am much enamoured of the Audio Note approach to digital. But I do understand where the Audience/Sony is coming from, do understand and respect John Bassoon's perspective. I spent a year or so on the Harbeth Forum, exchanging opinions with a great many who share his general view of audio, some of whom I came away respecting a great deal. And yes, the Audience/Sony does sometimes remind me of the best things about the best Harbeth speakers. I know exactly how I feel about these two players, but I am trying to keep my feelings back a little and my critical faculties in the foreground, for a change. I have come to learn that we can't all love a swain's beloved!

But folks are right to wonder about my level of experience with SACD. I want it clear that I don't have much. But I also want it clear that such as that experience is—a month  with the Shanling and two rounds now with two different iterations of the Audience/Sony—I am suspicious of it. My mind remains open but I am suspicious. And if you have the opportunity to set it against properly implemented Redbook CD, I suspect you will be too.

How does the Audio Note DAC ONE.1x Signature compare with the DAC 4.1 Balanced you used in your last audition of the Audience/Sony?

Very interesting. When I finished the basic audition, I put my reference system back together, put the same CD's back on, and heard more of the kind of information the Audience/Sony seems to feature—but it was accompanied by the characteristic Audio Note richness, eloquence, and coherence. As we know, the use of silver in audio tends to increase resolution (not always a benefit unless everything else is done right!), and that is a major element in the more expensive Audio Note DACs (and other electronics as well). So the answer to the question is that the 4.1 Balanced sounds more resolving than the DAC One but also more eloquent. Said backwards, the DAC One is a warmer, slightly mellower sounding dac than the 4.1. Like most lower-priced equipment from good designers (the JM Reynaud Twins and Blue Circle CS integrated amp are good examples), the One is as musical and appealing as the pricier gear—audibly a cousin—but less resolving. And there is less of the wow factor.

You mentioned an Accuphase and referred to other players as being similar in spirit but not in execution to the Audio Note player. Can you elaborate?

My sense of players that pursue what we have come to call ‘the analogue sound,' (the AudioAero Capitole II, Accuphase D-85, and, to a lesser extent, a substantially modified Shanling T-200 are those I've heard most recently) is that they are trying to achieve through software—over- and up-sampling and filtering—what the Audio Note DACs in fact do strike me as achieving by going in the opposite direction. The software approach doesn't work to my ears because what I hear instead of something closer to music is an (admittedly sometimes initially compelling) romantic idea about or argument for music. What I hear is audio rhetoric. There are waves of emotion but precious little genuine eloquence. Again, I think the use of silver in the Audio Note gear is one clue to what's going on. You are getting increased conduction rather than increased interpolation.

This is, of course, my opinion and as my critics will say, not a highly informed technological opinion at that. It is simply what I hear, with a smidgen of technology to help me persuade myself that what I'm hearing is really there. Furthermore, there are plenty of happy Accuphase and AudioAero Cap II owners out there who will disagree with this opinion. So the matter is obviously far from settled.

We know pretty much what you think of Audio Note digital by now, what do you really think of the new Audience/Sony?

It's the best CD player with its point of view that I've heard at anywhere near its price. It's CD performance has made significantly audible strides since the earlier model, which I already admired. When I quizzed Richard Smith of Audience about this, asking whether this changed his feelings about SACD, his response was, "if it wasn't for SACD, Redbook on the player would not sound as good as it does because Sony converts PCM data to DSD and then decodes the over sampled PCM data as DSD. Without the SACD, Redbook would not perform as well."

If you're committed to SACD but have lots of CDs, you owe it to yourself to hear it and to compare it with the modified Philips players. And especially if you find the whole ‘analogue' school of digital suspect, even when it's executed as well as I'm claming that Audio Note does it, you have to hear the Audience/Sony.

Is Geert van Keulen related to Isabelle van Keulen?

NorthWest Records says no.

Bob Neill is a part-time retail dealer for Blue Circle Audio, Audio Note, Elrod, Audience, JM Reynaud, and TG Audio.