Sony CDP-XA20ES CD Player
by Todd Warnke
Back to the Future
They say a prophet has no honor in his own town. Perhaps that explains why Sony gets little respect in the high-end digital hamlet. Or perhaps, having co-developed the standards for the CD medium, Sony is perceived as the natural enemy of the high end. For whatever reason, many of Sonys best products go untested by those of us who should know better -- including, ahem, myself.
Back in the days when my face was lined with only audiodude peach fuzz (I still have trouble with the full beard thing, but Im talking in the metaphorical here), the innocence of youth paired me with a Sony ES player for about three years. Built like a tank, with way-cool wood side panels and the worlds best display and remote control, my first Sony made hundreds of happy musical hours pass. Sonics? While very good, they just didnt matter to me, not when I had Springsteen, Miles and Joni to fill my ears. However, the corrupting influence of "newer," "more expensive" and "audiophile name brand" eventually took control, and I sold the Sony. I couldnt use it as a transport since it had only a TosLink out, and everyone told me that TosLink was obviously inferior to coax. So out it went and in came a Phillips player with coax out. That player sounded worse, but it had the magic upgrade path. Bad choice. Ever since, that old Sony has held a fond place in my audio heart. So when Donald Winslow at W Enterprises Northwest, a Sony dealer, offered to lend SoundStage! a Sony ES model for review, I jumped up and down, called in favors, and made a general nuisance of myself until Doug said, "Yes, but then shut up!" The smug victor, I waited eagerly for the CDP-XA20ES to show up.
Old Becomes New
First thing I noticed on unpacking the 20 (after spending time with any component you get to call it by its first name -- OK, the truth is, writing CDP-XA20ES is a pain) was that the line no longer uses wood side panels. Shoot. That retro-chic look has always gone down good with me. Still, this is a nice-looking player. At 5" x 17" x 13.5", and finished in black, it is a very solid chunk of metal. Yes, metal. In place of the usual plastic, the 20 has an all-aluminum case.
Besides the non-standard finish for this price class, the CD drawer is also non-standard. Center-mounted and 5.5" wide, just as youd expect, it is also 3" tall, which makes it look like the cover for a cassette drawer rather than that for a CD drawer. The reason for the height is that the entire transport assembly slides out when you change discs. Thats when the second thing I noticed while unpacking comes into play, the machined aluminum puck. Thats right. The 20 requires that you place the CD on a spindle in its non-resonant ceramic disc tray, and then place the puck on the CD. If you fail to, the player refuses to play. I kinda like this level of user interaction; it makes the CD experience reminiscent of analog. After placing the puck on the CD, the drawer quietly slides shut, and the rubber seal around the door keeps out the rest of the world. Slick.
As for the rest of the 20s ergonomics, I think being the home of silk must endow the Japanese with an innate understanding of, ahem, silky-smooth controls. Everything has a precise and smooth feel. The buttons on the player are well laid out, although Ive got to admit a bias against the ubiquitous Sony "jog" control. Every Sony product seems to have one now, regardless of how much a particular application warrants it. The 20 uses its jog control to dial up particular tracks. While it works well here, it sucks on the face of a car deck, like the one in our Toyota. And the remote! At 8", its one of the longest Ive used, but its well balanced and each button is easy to figure out, even in the dark -- not at all like the remote I struggle with when using the Theta Miles.
Around back, not much has changed since my last experience with an ES player. There are a pair of output jacks, one fixed and one variable. The variable output is controlled by either the remote or the headphone volume control. Well, actually, the remote controls the headphone output, which controls the variable outs. When you plug a pair of phones in, the output is muted so the 20 works great for late-night listening. There is also a TosLink digital out on the rear. While any digital out is nice, the manual that comes with the 20 indicates that in Europe a coax out takes the place of the TosLink. And this makes me wonder: If Sony can offer a coax out, why would they bother with the optical out for the US market?
On the inside, the $700 20 uses a current-pulse D/A converter (thats single-bit to you and me) that utilizes 45-bit internal processing and outputs a 20-bit word. Signal-to-noise ratio is speced at -118dB (the top-of-the-line CDP-XA7ES specs at -119), with a 100dB dynamic range and 110dB of channel separation, the same specs as those for the $3000 CDP-XA7ES. In fact, as you would expect, the 20 is in most ways an affordable CDP-XA7ES. The 7 has a full copper shield, additional chassis damping (the 20 weighs 15 pounds, while the 7 tilts a full 33 pounds), a sapphire bearing in the transport mechanism, XLR outs and a coax out, all of which the 20 lacks. Still, the most important part, the bulk of the circuitry, is nearly identical. Not a bad deal, assuming that the player sounds good. Speaking of which...
New is Old
Putting the 20 in the main system brought back a rush of memories -- not the expected ones, of my old Sony, but rather of a DAC I had around awhile a year or so ago, the Meridian 563. See-through, nimble, precise, and clean is how I would describe both, and I found the similarities rewarding. At $1395, the 563 is a highly regarded DAC, so the comparison is flattering for a $700 all-in-one player.
When I had the 563, I enjoyed very much the clean and efficient way it went about its work. The bass was, by a small amount, under-defined for my tastes, and the top was just a teensy bit sharp, but with those exceptions, the sound had jewel-like precision. Layers were obvious, the stage was wide and deep, players were sharply delineated, and rhythm was distinct, taut, and tuneful. What I didnt like was the lab-like quality the 563 brought to certain discs. Over time I learned that much of that sterility was due to a slight harmonic leanness that extended across the entire spectrum. In a rich system, or one not pushed very hard, this leanness could be an asset, since it exposed much of the musics body. But in an already lean system, rather than body, the 563 exposed skeleton. Now, this is laying it on a bit thick. This is not a review of the 563, so this discussion is not fully drawn out. However, I am trying to present a very quick picture of that DACs weaknesses and strengths since the Sony embodies many of the same characteristics. As a side note, in the $3k range, there has been much discussion of both the Sony CDP-XA7ES and the Meridian 508.24 single-box players. After spending time with the 20, I can see why these two more-expensive siblings of the 563 and the 20 are often talked about together. My limited auditioning of each does show differences, just as there are differences between the 563 and the 20, but they both (all 4?) offer similar views of the polycarb world.
As I played more with the 20, some notable differences between it and the 563 became obvious. First, the enviable precision of the 563 was slightly lacking in the 20. The 563 had better control of each and every note and image than the 20 did. Still, this slight lack on the part of the 20, in some important ways, was a plus. While the 563 layered the soundstage superbly, it could also portray those layers so distinctly that, at times, they appeared unconnected. The 20s lag here played off in layers that were slightly less distinct, but more connected to each other.
Next, the Sony players bass was not quite as deep as that of the 563, clearly an advantage for the Meridian DAC. The treble of the 20 was also slightly less extended than that of the 563. Once again, this was a sword that cut both ways. The 563 has a livelier presentation because of its treble extension, but it also has a brighter view of things, a view that can be a bit overdrawn at times. The 20s treble matched its bass extension very well. While not quite reaching the same extremes as the 563, it seemed to walk a smoother line, and with a better balance. Still, I am going after both players here with an extremely critical ear. The 563 deserves all the praise it has received. And the Sony should gather a crowd of its own well-wishers as, uh, well. The 563/20 comparison, while interesting, ultimately is not fair. The 563 needs a transport and retails for two times the price of the 20 without that transport. Still, the 20 more than held its own. Very good show.
All By Myself
Taken on its own, the 20 speaks with a very coherent voice, nothing in extreme. Detail is abundant, enough to create the illusion of real musicians, but not in the ruthless class. Extension, top and bottom, is very good, while control is equally nice. Still, my Theta Miles bests it in both directions as well as in control of the bass (and at $2595, it had better!). Dynamics are excellent, regardless of price. What this balance bestows on the 20 is an effortless musicality. Dial in a bit more detail and it would dominate the musical conversation. Push the top or bottom and the ease of presentation would suffer. En toto, this player has a balance that players and DACs ten times its price often lack.
With that praise as background, there is a single area of presentation that the 20 needs help with. As I mentioned, the full harmonic monty is, well, a bit short. In the office system (Platinum Audio Studio 1 speakers and a mix of Audio Magic and JPS Labs wire), while using the Densen Beat B-100 integrated, a relatively full-sounding solid-state integrated, this slight leanness resulted in a swift, incisive sound that was exciting, but also slightly wearing. When the Densen was replaced by the Assemblage ST-40 kit amp (review next month) and was driven by the variable outs on the 20, absolutely everything snapped into balance. The natural richness of the ST-40 complemented the Platinums and the 20 perfectly.
In the main room this trait continued. Driving the Dunlavy SC-IIIs with a Symfonia Opus-10 amp (killer Aussie amp, review in the works), Nordost and Cardas wiring and the Audible Illusions L-1 linestage, the sound was lithe and animated, perhaps a bit too much so. No, Karajan was not changed into Gardiner, but at times it did appear as if Monet were dabbling with watercolors. When the AI linestage was swapped for a Thor Audio TA-2000 and the speakers were changed to Kharma Ceramique 2.0s, the full harmonic monty was fully...uh...fleshed out. Bizarre to use a $700 player with an $8200 preamp and $9800 speakers? No. This was an extremely satisfying setup.
That last line is really important. In an over $20k setup, the $700 Sony held its own. Yes, I would still take my Theta Miles over the 20, but, in a $3-4k setup, such as that in my office, Id far rather keep the Sony and use the $1900 difference between it and the Miles on other componentry. Even systems at up to $6-8k would be suitable places for this player, so well is it balanced. With DVD, DAD and other digital formats just around the corner, this is one smart buy, well-priced and with fantastic sound. Just make sure you give a (harmonically) warm welcome, and it will settle down and call your place home for a long time.
I want to give a special thanks to Donald Winslow for use of the CDP-XA20ES. Its rare to see a dealer pull something from his own stock and ship it half way across the country just to accommodate that audio sub-species called reviewer. I encourage you to stop by his site. Hes one of the good guys.
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