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Positive Feedback ISSUE 6
Sony DVP-NS 999ES CD/SACD/DVD-A player
as reviewed by Bob Neill
How would you like a near-universal (CD, SACD, DVD-A in 2-channel at 24/96 resolution and multi-channel as Dolby Digital or DTS on some discs) one box digital source for $5200 (price of stock player plus modifications) that sounds as good as any CD player I've heard? It does not sound much like my reference Naim CDS2 and probably won't sound like the CDS3 either; but if you find its even-handed and balanced point of view yours, you could easily prefer it to both.
To begin with, don't be fooled by the "Sony" name on this player because very little that matters beyond the transport mechanism and basic digital engine is still Sony by the time Audience gets through with what they call their High Resolution modification. The first step of the modification includes reworking the power supplies with new wiring, added noise filtration, IEC or Neutrik PowerCon power inlet connector with an optional power cord upgrade (their own PowerChord), and better power supply capacitors. The surround and center channel op amps are replaced and the output coupling capacitors are eliminated.
According to Audience, the High Resolution modification is actually a complete re-manufacturing of the player or DAC. They replace the entire stock analog section with their own cableDriver analog output stage, which includes refinements to the original digital section as well. This is an absolute state of the art discrete class A circuit which is direct coupled to the output, eliminating output capacitors. It has no overall feedback and an output impedance of 3 Ohms or less! This includes separate power supply and transformer. The original power supplies will then power the motor and digital sections only. Audience
In this second step Audience reports that they also upgrade the digital filters and add more power supply decoupling and internal shielding along with additional cabinet damping. I urge you to go to their web site and look at the itemized checklist of modifications (where you will also discover how much of their prose I have stolen without attribution). (http://www.audience-av.com/777es.htm)
Note: I did not have any full-length SACD recordings on hand at the time of this audition, so I was unable to evaluate the player as an SACD player. I have several on the way to me now from Harmonia Mundi (Jordi Savall on Alia Vox and Rachel Podger playing Vivaldi on Channel Classics), so stay tuned. I'll do a follow-up report soon. The capacity to play SACD is surely part of this player's appeal and I'm eager to see what it can do.
As a longtime Naim digital front-end fan, this player took me by surprise. As most of you have heard, though I doubt many at firsthand, Naim organizes music around the principle of rhythm and musical drive: that is its priority, point of view, interpretation. It is a focus that results in a degree of emotional coherence that once in your skull (and viscera) is extremely hard to get out. In direct contrast, other players can initially sound a bit soft, light, airy, disembodied eveneven if these others offer more openness, detail, sense of spaceall of which the Audience/Sony does. I spent many, many weeks with this player, continually comparing and contrasting it with my Naim, learning an enormous amount about both players and about myself.
That a $5000 player could compete on even terms with one that sells for $11,700 says a great deal. To begin with, it reminds us that past a certain point these days, for many reasons, price doesn't really tell you too much. The technology is still young enough that design (and in this case re-design) still seems to be the principal factor in determining quality. And what would this player cost if Audience were making it from scratch? Letting a huge multi-national corporation provide the casing, transport, and basic digital engine enables Audience to bring a truly great player to market at what is probably at least half of its "real" value.
But what is this player really? It is a DVD video player, the top of Sony's current line. Why modify a DVD player for audio when Sony makes several respectable SACD/CD players? Actually, Audience performs High Resolution modifications to the SCD-XA 777ES and DVP-NS 900V as well as the DVP-NS999ESor any disc player or D to A converter. They have been doing this modification to all of the Sony players since the first "ES" DVD player.
Is there a downside to using a DVD player? A little one. You need a video monitor to set the player up when it first arrives. And you have to work with a combination video/audio remote that has a lot of controls on it you'll never use. I found the remote initially off-putting but mainly got over it, especially after Richard Smith patiently instructed me to slide the bottom section of the down, revealing a keypunch pad that enables the user to access individual tracks! Frankly, Audience decided that the cost of designing and providing an extra audio-only remote that might have been more intuitive to use would have driven the price of the player up farther than the advantages such a remote offered. Any other disadvantages? None that I've discovered. And if you ever decide to put the player into a home theatre outfit, you're ahead of the crowd.
Okay, what does this baby sound like? Coming from the Naim, it is dramatically wide open and musically engaging from top to bottom. Also, airy, spacious, and detailed. Soft? Well I once thought that Au24 cable was soft, coming to it from Valhalla. Maybe a smidgen. Is it something you notice? Coming from a more robust player like the Naim, yes. Does it "stay" soft ? No more than Au24 does. It comes to seem (or always was) perfectly natural. And there is also a sense of ease that can be addictive if the rest of your system has enough firmness to balance it. Strings are truly lovely, sometimes seeming to float on the air, not because they are blurreddetail though the Audience/Sony is exemplarybut because they are not forced. There is no sense of urgency. Voices get the same treatment. What force we do hear seems to come from the instruments and voices themselves. Music has as much energy as it does coming through the Naim but less thrust. It is lively but not insistent. This player has some of the characteristics of analogue without the loss of energy and detail that often comes in digital sources that court the analogue muse. My overall sense of the Audience/Sony's presentation is that it brings a natural light to its presentation of music: it is as if you can see into all corners of the performance, see all that is going on. Music becomes extremely interesting to listen to. I became aware of many details, as the cliché goes, that I had not heard before. But they did not seem more prominent, in an analytical or clinical sense, just more visible. The light has been turned up a little bit, compared with the Naim, but it is a soft, not a brilliant, light. You can hear the upper ranges of instruments more clearly. Music dances more, or at least more happily. Music dances through the Naim but it is more like Le Sacre du Printemps!
When I returned to the Naim after a few days with Audience player, it seemed initially darker than I'd remembered it, but also more passionate. Not more energeticagain, the Audience/Sony is brimful of that. More passionate, almost physically so. Musicians heard through the Naim seem to lean into notes a little harder, the music feels more driven and more embodied. As my bassoonist friend described it, in referring to Monica Huggett's Bach solo violin sonatas (Virgin Classics), "with the Naim you find yourself breathing with the music." And it's true, with the Naim player I sometimes I feel as if I am in closer to the beating heart of a performance rather than having it spread out before me by the Audience/Sony where I can see it all, hear the relation of the parts to one another. Music on the Naim often feels gathered toward the middle of the soundstage, where with the Audience/Sony it seems more realistically disbursed across a wider area. And the two players also feel respectively gathered and disbursed emotionally. The Audience/Sony view can be very pleasingit often brought a smile to my face as I emerged from the more intense experience of the Naim. As the light came up a little and the musical intensity eased, I remember on several occasions enjoying in particular the Sony's ability to pick up nuances of a performance. And then, after a while, sometimes, I found myself a bit disconnected from the music, something the Naim's more intense presentation would barely permit.
Is the Naim giving us real passion, something essential to music and at the heart of it? Or is it giving us hype? Is the Audience/Sony natural or dispassionate? Ah, there's the rub. And it remained the rub throughout the many weeks I compared these players. Is the Naim artificially goosed? Or is the Sony a bit anemic? In direct contrast, the Naim can make the Audience/Sony initially seem a bit soft and bloodless. And in direct contrast, going the other way, the Audience/Sony can make the Naim seem turgid and overfull of animus, as if it has gotten an extra dose of testosterone, thickening the blood.
But all of this goes essentially by the board once you settle in with either of these players for a while: their apparent characteristic aberrations disappear and, as with any truly major piece of work, you adjust to their different views of the world. Both can come to seem entirely natural, as both did.
Haydn, Symphony No. 21, Roy Goodman (Hyperion). On the Sony the music is lighter, airier, more beautiful, more elegant, smoother, more graceful. On the Naim it is firmer, more gusty, more exciting.
Thelonious Monk, Monk's Dream (Columbia Legacy). On the Naim, all of the instruments seem more substantial, dig into the music more, get at it. The Naim seems to urge the music along. On the Audience/Sony, its lightness lets the music flow more, makes me want to hear it. What is one to do?
Kathleen Edwards, Failer, (Zoe). On the Audience/Sony the ease is very appealing. There is plenty of energy but not the drive of the Naim. As with the Monk recording, I'm not sure which version I prefer.
Beethoven, Sonatas for Cello and Piano, David Finckel & Wu Han (Artistled) On the Audience/Sony, there is lyricism, contrast, clarity, flow, and esprit. This player seems to trade off a little of the Naim's power, thrust, and firmness for a flowing lyricism and beauty that is beyond the British player. It makes the Naim sound a bit uncouth. People have always said this about Naim CD players, of course. But until I heard the Audience/Sony I had never heard the CDS2 this way. I've heard its forcefulness and directness as freshness and truthfulness. It may well beand I have momentary doubts about whether the piano is percussive enough on the Audience/Sony. But I am finding that I can't take my ears off the Audience/Sony on this piece. It is as clear as I've heard it and the clarity has no cutting edge. It just has a lighter touch than I'm accustomed to. The music neither cuts nor forces its way into the room, it just seems to arrive, as it once did with my single-ended, Class A Blue Circle BC 2.1 amps a couple of years ago.
Vivaldi, L'Olimpiade, Allessandrini, (Opus 111). On the Naim, it is warmer, punchier, more robust. On the Audience/Sony, it is more open on top, more detailed though the middle, sweeter, spread out more, maybe more exciting overall, if less visceral. The energy level on both is comparable, it's just coming from different places! Comparing the two players on this music really does force you to choose your priorities. The Audience/Sony is better balanced overall, but the Naim really does grab you and make you feel the power of the argument that Pace, Rhythm, And Timing are the essential elements of music. Is this what audio education feels like?
Bach, Solo Violin Sonatas and Partitas, Kuijken (DHM). The firmness the Naim either elicits from or brings to the baroque violin makes this performance as compelling as I've ever heard it. It is possible that the Naim emphasizes the upper bass a bit to obtain this power to compel. Going back to the Audience/Sony always gives a sense of release, as if the focus or emphasis on the upper bass is being releasedand spread more evenly across the musical range. Well??
Kodaly, Solo Cello Sonata, Wispelway (Globe) The Naim and Audience/Sony grab you at almost literally different levels of your body, the Naim in the viscera, the Audience/Sony in the solar plexus.
McEwen, String Quartets (Chandos). Does the Naim get more snarl and kick out of the cello? Sure. The cello is richer too, more compelling. And the violin more sonorously piercing. All four strings come after you, bursting with life. But with less grace, less delicacy than the Audience/Sony. Not none, just less. Everything is more passionate on the Naim. Do you have to give up a bit of exciting surface tension and brushwork to get the passion? A little, yes. And with the Audience/Sony the music is laid out before you more rather than thrust as you. This player feels less controlling. Power or grace, grace or power. This is never an absolute choice in good high-end audio, but it is a choice of priorities. It is difficult for components to excel at both. In a sense, you make the same choice when you choose Au24 cable over a cable like Nordost Valhalla, no surprise there. Au 24 has enough power to get you where the music is going, but it clearly favors grace. Mini-moral: romanticism achieves its goal by simplifying the world, by getting us to concentrate our attention intensively over a restricted range. Classicism strives rather for breadth of vision and balance, aiming to bring a larger number of details into coherence. As I listened to this recording on the two players, this is the comparison that came to mind.
Greg Brown, Slant 6 Mind (Red House). Brown snarls and barks on the Audience/Sony, grumbles and thunders on the Naim. Which is the real Greg Brown? Guitar and percussion slash more on the Audience/Sony.
Iris Dement, My life (Rounder). Iris's voice is a little unnaturally creamy on the Naim, clearer and truer on the Audience/Sony.
Miles Davis, Kilamanjaro (Columbia Legacy). Very clear and spacious on the Audience/Sony; warmer, richer and more appealing on the Naim, which gives us a more attractive version of the digital re-mastering.
Mahler, Symphony No. 5. Vienna Philharmonic, Boulez (DGG) The Naim in a way has an old-fashioned sound, descended from early warm speakers, compared with the Audience/Sony. It is a simpler, more coherent seeming sound. It is closed in a bit on top, both sonically and spatially. This gives it greater emotional thrust and drive. It can be extremely effective on a piece like this one, always gets to me for a while, trick or not. It gathers me. Shifting to the Audience/Sony opens up the frame, again both sonically and spatially, and disburses some of the emotional power. You feel released from the grip that the Naim held you in. There is still lots of energy but less grip. Interestingly, it feels more realistic. Someone on the Naim forum suggested that the Sony is "confident" sounding, not "challenged" by the music. And the longer you listen to the Mahler on the Audience/Sony, the truer this observation seems. It is a very convincing presentation, spreading the musicians out, giving the whole performance room to breathe. It is clearly doing important musical things that the Naim does not do. At the beginning of a long, quiet passage, it is emotionally calm. There is almost sublime restraint in the Audience/Sony's view of it. You can hear through to the textures of the instruments' voices there is clarity in the calm. On the Naim this passage in particular is less effective, losing the ghostly quality: there is less subtlety and so less poignancy.
Okay, if you can't hear this player by now, I need to take up a new avocation, let's wrap this up with a few questions I've gotten over the last few weeks.
Where does this player fit on the Sonic Spectrum? It belongs in a group of CD players that occupy the responsible middle of the spectrum. This midpoint is extremely popular among audiophiles who don't like their music messed around with much. The Audience/Sony takes this sound to the highest level I have heard it. It outstrips the best of these players that I've heard across the board but especially in achieving a better balance of contrast and resolution so as not to take on the lackluster, almost gray cast, which is the Achilles heal of players in this range. The group sound is best characterized by a negative qualitative comparison with competing sounds: these players in general and the Audience/Sony in particular, do not seek to grab you, charm you, warm the cockles of your heart, wow you with Resolution Absolute, or sweep you up and away on a wave of musical glory. At their best, they offer an honest, straightforward, extremely well balanced, graceful, spirited, and wonderfully civilized presentation. If this is where you live, not to audition the Audience/Sony would be foolish. And you get SACD too!
How does this player compare with the Sony mods that David Robinson has been talking about? I haven't heard them and David hasn't heard the Audience player. All I can say is that if the players David has been praising are better than the Audience/Sony, they must be fantastic.
What drew you to this player? I came to this player because I like Au24 cables and Auric Illuminator and had a hunch that the creators of these products might have a good idea about what a similarly natural sounding CD player might sound like. I have not been disappointed. As has become obvious, I am on an audio odyssey, not conducting a comprehensive survey, a truth that while it has drawn some fans of narrative has also drawn critics who prefer well-planned tours. I follow my nose rather than a plan, once I hear something I like, I want to hear its siblings. So it goes.
Do A/B comparisons really tell you anything but the points of difference between A and B? If B changes your perception of A, such that you find you are henceforth unable to hear A as you did before; if you continue to hear it critiqued by B's point of viewthen the A/B test has told you something you probably needed to hear. In this case, because both A and B are clear, distinct, and to my ears very nearly definitive expressions of their points of view, comparing them head to head taught me a good deal about eachand threw me into a hopeless cycle, relieved only by staying with one long enough to let the other's influence recede.
Well, where do you come out personally on the Audience/Sonydid you buy it? The eternal and essentially irrelevant question that never goes away. I haven't come out yet. This player is persuasive enough that it has made me equivocal about my reference Naim player. Nothing has come close to doing that yet, including, for the record and most recently, the Audio Aero Capitole II and the Accuphase 85. I still value and am often drawn back to the Naim's emotional weight and coherence. I have put the Naim on the market in anticipation of the CDS3 but am not disappointed it has not yet sold, which defines my limbo state pretty clearly. The Audience/Sony has made me more conscious that the Naim has a point of view, which can be unsettling in ones reference! I realize that it may end up being my point of view. I told you this has been an educational experience. Odysseus was a wiser man when he got home. I will listen to the new CDS3 and report back on it. I hope to be able to audition and review the forthcoming Meitner transport and Dac2. And I am curious about the Audiomeca players, two of which I heard in the Blue Circle room at Montreal. When some or all of these players have passed through our living room, I expect the odyssey to conclude. And it is altogether possible it will conclude with the Audience/Sony.
Other Music Used in This Audition
Bach, Cantatas Vol. 8, Koopman (Erato)
Rihm, Works for Violin and Piano (cpo)
Tchaikovsky, Quartets Nos. 1 and 3, St. Lawrence Quartet (EMI)
Aho, Symphony No. 3, Lahti Sym. Orchestra, Vanska (Bis)
Chuck Berry, The Best 28 (MCA). At the insistence of my seven-year old son, who had just watched the DVD of "Back to the Future" and wanted to hear the real thing.
Retail: "High Resolution" Modifications only: $4200. Sony DVP-NS999ES plus "High Resolution" modifications: $5200
Bob Neill is a part-time retail dealer for Blue Circle Audio.