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Sony SCD-XA5400ES SACD/CD player (VSE upgrade design plus Terra Firma Lite clock)
by Karl Lozier


This new design SACD/CD player by Sony came as a complete surprise to many of us. Sony has seemingly given up, by choice or lack of pressing sources, releasing much in the way of new SACD releases as have a few other companies. At the same time I keep hearing reports of not being able to keep up with demand for the more popular or potentially more popular releases. Part of the problem seems to be resistance to paying the additional premium price for SACD releases. High resolution music lovers—which SACD represents the current prime example—have no hesitation paying a premium for favorite music, compositions, or performers. However, even they seem to draw a line about adding substantial casual purchases to replace previous CD purchases. Increasing rumors about possible other "High-Rez" sources that may become available or not, simply cloud the issue about SACD's availability and longevity. Some listeners have even complained about now having as many as four different formats for the same selection. There has to be or should be a waiting period for the public to get used to some ultimate quality release before it becomes obsolete. The general public has to get use to a standard—a high or ultimate one—and want it to be successful. Look at how relatively quickly high-definition television has become the accepted norm whether it is by plasma, LCD, or projection.

Here Sony is doing its part, though a bit overdue, by bringing out a truly good SACD/CD player at a competitive price. This player appears to offer some basic design planning and execution seemingly not offerred by most competitiors, not withstanding advertising claims. So as word got around about this player, combined with a limited number for sale, I ended up paying full list price. Listening for more than a week revealed a player with good audio performance competitive to established models in the two to four thousand dollar price range. Even Allen Wright of VSE design fame told me the basic design was worth his time and efforts for upgrades; this being the first one in many years. His now famous upgrades for the early Sony models (the SACD-1, SCD-777 ES, and DVP- 9000ES culminating in Level 7 after many years of design work and experimentation, combined recently with the high performance Terra Firma clocks) have earned Allen Wright a reputation of the highest repute in the niche of the high-end audio world. Allen's designs are the work of a serious music lover; not simply adding better capacitors or taming a hot top end with tubes replacing transistors. His work is based on fundamental design, actually redesign, and though his company's products feature tubes, these upgrades of the past and now for the new Sony XA- 5400 ES are completely solid-state designs. Has his efforts with this new Sony player been able to equal his famous previous efforts?

I received the first one installed by VSE's East Coast U.S. agent, Music Technology's Bill Thalmann. Certainly Sony learned from their earlier cost-no-object design of the SCD-1 SACD player and VSEs successful upgrade of them. That is only a part of the new model's background as it is a newer and different design and in some respects a simpler design. We all have heard that simpler is usually better and so here it is. The 5400 model is a direct coupled voltage design and with no capacitors in the signal path. We all have been told that the sound of a capacitor should be to have no sound. That has been accomplished here by the process of elimination—there are none in the pathway. In the older Sony designs that Allen upgraded, he was not able to eliminate all capacitors, so did that subtly affect his previous efforts for ultimate audio quality? No way to compare, so who knows?

I spent many weeks listening and comparing my Sony SCD-1 (completely Level 7 upgraded and including the Terra Firma Uber clock—VSE's best) with the Sony XA-5400 ES (with VSE's upgraded design, board and Terra Firma Lite clock). There were times when there simply was no audible difference between the two players… period. And then there were times of subtle differences and a few areas of slight or barely audible differences, but differences none the less. This was also true on regular (Redbook) CDs where these two players approached the audio quality of many of my SACDs. I can not definitely explain why, though I assume some SACD layers might not be as quality controlled as they possibly could be. Both players were simply and surprisingly excellent with most standard (Redbook) CDs.

For many music lovers and audiophiles the subtle differences between the latest and greatest upgraded SCD-1 (and internal twin the SCD-777 ES) player and the VSE upgraded Sony XA-5400 ES might not be only of interest but also of importance, though I truly do not want to describe any of the differences as being significant. But repeatable slight differences might be of significance to some listeners; certainly owners of the older highly upgraded Sony models want to decide if the new VSE upgrades to Sony's most recent player offer superior performance. If so, is it to an extent of being significantly better overall or just in certain aspects to consider changing. Original owners of VSE upgrades typically have a great deal invested over the years starting with $5000 for the flagship SACD player (SCD-1) plus a another $5000 or so of VSE upgrades. The same applies to the equally performing SCD-777ES with initial cost and upgrades totaling in the area of $8000 (purchasing used units dramatically lowers those totals). But getting a fairly small discount on the new SCD-XA5400ES and having the VSE agents upgrade it as reviewed here should total about $ 3000! Where does that leave the potential purchaser? Owners of upgraded older models may have trouble recouping a reasonable amount of their investment while those owners of older models that had been waiting to finally upgrade may give more consideration to the newest Sony player. Without direct back and forth listening comparisons, it was very difficult to correctly differentiate between the two players when playing many if not most of my SACD recordings. With that statement clearly in mind here is my list of subtle to slight differences between the two players.

Nearly the entire bass range of the SCD-1 is slightly fuller, bigger, richer, or expansive than heard with the SCD-XA5400ES. Which is the more accurate is not easily determined. A number of live concerts attended over three weeks went from the slightly fuller sound of the SCD-1 being "just about right" to "not full enough" depending on what I heard when listening from a different seat location. You may easily reach your own conclusion as to what that proved. At the same time, for those few rare owners of expensive ultra performing subwoofers, the 5400ES went a bit deeper with greater detail down into the half octave or so below approximately 32 to 36 Hertz. Could it be that this range is audibly affected by the presence of a necessary capacitor in the SCD-1and the SCD-777ES? Much of the important midrange is a tossup and probably slightly influenced by the higher treble range. The top end is simply a tad smoother and sweeter with the SCD-1 while the 5400 often reveals a touch more detail and "snap" to instruments ranging far into the highest frequencies. Which is the better SACD or CD player? I am not certain and if I had to choose which to keep in my main 2-channel reference stereo only, I'd be able to do so.

Intangibles might alter my decision. I am still seriously impressed by the superb build quality and tank-like construction of the SCD-1. While it is probable that the $15,000 Musical Designs player may outperform these two players in some respect(s), there does not seem to be competition at a lower price range and certainly not near the price of the Sony SCD-XA5400 with the VSE's upgrade package that includes the Terra Firma Lite clock. Even those listeners adverse to any changes to stock disc players will be forced to reconsider after hearing what Allen Wright's design upgrade has audibly created. A side issue has been a number of listeners claiming that the XA5400-ES player needed a few hundred hours of playing time to sound its best. Using Purist Audio's Enhancer CD, created by Jim Aud, for 48 hours evidently put that charge to rest. No significant changes occurred after that. Conclusion must be that here are a pair of highly upgraded players that if not "state of the art" are top challengers for that distinction that offer a choice in tonal preferences, while sharing remarkably similar audio performance with CDs and SACDs.

Addendum: I should also mention a bit of multitasking that was ongoing and very interesting during the entire reviewing and comparison periods. Having received a number of products from World Audio Distribution, but beaten to reviewing them by Dave Clark, I simply bided my time until an opportunity appeared to put some of them to the test. After inserting their unique string suspension design SSC base under the Sony XA5400, it was audibly obvious that the SSC base brought out the best from the player and I kept them together; no changing what was obviously working so very well! After the long review period I wanted to try the Sony XA5400 in the control cabinet of my home theater where the top loading SCD-1 would not work. The 5400 on the SSC base was just a tad too tall to fit under the shelf above, so the much shorter SSC pucks came to the rescue. When used with a thinner base, this combination is almost comparable to the more expensive SSC base. That probably qualifies this as a symbiotic review benefiting two products at the same time; player and suspension/isolation working together. The SCD-1 player was being used on a highly regarded base from a different company while each player used the same interconnect cables plugged into the Herron amplification (review to be forthcoming) feeding the well known Genesis G6.1 towers (guaranteed 16Hz to 36kHz +/- 3 db response).

Sony SCD-XA5400ES
Retail: $1499.99

VacuumState GmbH

Current U.S. Prices: With Lite clock: $1650, with Uber clock: $2700

U.S. East agent: Bill Thalmann, Music Technology, Inc
5418 Port Royal Road, Springfield, VA 22151

U.S. West agent: Warren Gregoire & Associates LLC
1933 Davis Street, Suite 276
San Leandro, CA 94577

World Audio Distribution
355 8th Street, Unit B San Francisco, CA 94103

Model: SSC base: $620, SSC Netpoint pucks set of 4: $135