After four years in the wilderness, Sony is back with an incredible new flagship CD/SACD player, the SCDXA5400ES.

It bristles with technology, much of which is new, or new at least, to Sony. At first glance, it's a dead ringer for Sony's previous SACD player, the SCD-XA9000ES. From the front they look practically identical, although the control functions have been shuffled around.

The display is broadly similar, however, and the loading drawer and physical construction are closely related. The new model shares the 9000's superbly engineered smooth-running drawer mechanism, a headphone volume control and Sony's usual ratcheted track change rotary control that makes day to day operation so quick and so responsive. Viewed from the back the difference is more obvious.

The biggest obvious difference from the 9000 is that the new model is stereo-only in its baseline standard trim. The ability to run a multichannel set-up has been retained, but is only accessible via HDMI.

This typically means using an HDMI-equipped multichannel amplifier such as the new Sony STR-DA2400ES, which has four HDMI inputs (a sample of which was supplied by Sony for this test).

This is also a moderately affordable AV receiver and, for that reason, a less than optimal choice than the more high-end SCDXA5400 in this application. More on this a bit later, which will also include something on what Sony's HDMI has to do with HATS (High-quality digital Audio Transfer System) . In the meantime, optical and coaxial outputs have been retained, but only for CD.

Improved sonic purity

This is not the first Sony SACD player to boast a digital output, but the optical and coaxial output on previous models, including the 9000, were limited to 16-bit CD resolution and Sony's iLink did not deal directly with DSD, but a PCM (and inevitably degraded) representation of it. DSD is the native file format of SACD, though some SACD's take their DSD from PCM files.

This is also the first Sony player with an uncompressed digital output from DSD and the first Sony player to include HATS technology on its HDMI output.

One of the claimed benefits in this application is that the HDMI interface doesn't mutilate the signal in pass-through mode, so the number of D/A and A/D conversions is reduced, the simpler circuit path translating into upgraded sound quality.

Sony talk of enhancements to sonic purity and staging, better focus and atmosphere and improved bass and power.

HATS technology

HATS addresses the problems of simultaneously communicating six channels of digital data at 2.8224MHz, which would otherwise result in timing (jitter) errors.

HATS uses an algorithm that rejoices under the title of 'command-based rate control of isochronous data flow' and includes variable speed transmission from the player and a buffer memory in the receiver, an arrangement mediated by a command signal which controls transmission speed, so that jitter performance defaults to the inherent accuracy of the receiver and player master clocks.

No separate clock connection is required and HATS is unresponsive to the marginally different clock rates you can expect to find in the player and the receiver, which are typically a few tens of ppm (parts per million). An earlier version of HATS was available on the 9000, but using iLink rather than HDMI.

Even with HATS, the HDMI output is still compatible with the HDMI inputs on other equipment. But full-on DSD with HATS requires a compatible receiver/decoder, such as is fitted to the Sony STR-DA5400ES. The lower-end Sony STR-DA2400 decimates DSD to linear PCM which, if Sony's word is to be taken as read, must be at the cost of ultimate fidelity.

Preserving dynamic range

When used in standard two-channel systems, the Sony will apply internal D/A conversion to the DSD, or Red Book data off SACD and CDs respectively, using an appropriate digital filter.

This is chosen according to data type, a noise shaper for CD and a multi-level D/A converter, which is designed to marry the benefits (preserving dynamic range) and minimise the disadvantages (reducing granularity, edginess and loss of resolving ability) of 1-bit and multi-bit converters.

A 1-bit decoder LSI handles the table of contents, track number status, timing data and text. CDs are played using the same hardware chain.

Output is available from single-ended or XLR balanced outputs, which, in turn, are driven by a balanced symmetrical source. This is achieved without introducing rounding-off errors – commonplace with normal SACD digital filters.

This stage includes an eight-times oversampling digital filter, noise shaping and a multi-level 64fs DAC for SACD and CD alike, as well as a low pass filter for SACD to reduce the burden on the analogue filters. Overall this is a sophisticated and promising package.

SACD performance

In many ways, the prospect of a completely new Sony SACD player, especially at the ambitious end of the market, carries particular weight. If for no other reason, than the fact that there's a perception in the industry that SACD is not being promoted proactively and with full vigour by its principal protagonist.

Generally well-supported by the high-end community, confidence in SACD is also being undermined by other producers and consumers alike.

In fairness to Sony, the company actually has a good track record in bringing budget SACD models and players to market, but high-quality models have been few and far between and Sony's track record with its SACD release schedule (which has tended to concentrate on PCM transfers) has done little to help. Hopefully this model will do something to redress the balance.

On merit, it should, as this is a very good player providing the qualities that are required by its target audience. It also does its job with considerable subtlety and grace and, crucially, without costing
a king's ransom.

It could be described as a true high-end player without a high-end price and from this point of view it is probably comparable to the Yamaha CD-S2000 CD/SACD player. But without a sample of the Yamaha to hand, we fancy that the Sony is the better CD player of the two.

Flat imagery

We still have the Sony XA9000ES, however, so it was interesting to compare a recent SACD of Ravel piano works (on the Linn label).

On the XA5400ES, the recording has a scintillating quality, a tactile, almost tangible feel as the fingers caress the notes and a palpable increase in tonal variety and colour compared to the 9000, which tended to sound warmer and slightly looser (and mildly defocused in direct comparisons, with flatter stereo imagery).

We had similar experiences with a range of discs, including Bruckner and Beethoven symphonies from Gunter Wand on SACD, but then it's sometimes worth noting that SACD doesn't necessarily perform better than CD.

The critical factor appears to be how the raw data is handled at the production stage. When SACD is done right, there is no questioning the final ranking order, with the higher-resolution format sounding more expressive and three dimensional than CD, which opens up the colours and textures of the music.

Vivid sound

But this favourable impression was from being limited exclusively to SACD. Take, as an example, the recording on CD of Leif Ove Andnes playing the late Schubert piano sonatas D960 and D850, where the subtle inflections in the first movement of the former have a greater substance, a more physical quality and a slightly greater range on the middle sections where the music is neither loud nor quiet. But where the replay definitely benefits from the XA5400ES's more expressive and better differentiated quality, the 9000 still has the edge.

One of the best surprises during our time with this player was hearing the way that old, familiar recordings scrubbed up clean under the XA5400ES's electronic gaze.

A particularly good example was the excellent Keb' Mo' recording of his Just Like You album, where we could hear the improvement even on its first play using the new player, despite not having played it for months – though this was quickly confirmed with the 9000. Via the new player, the sound was simply fresher, more vivid and alive.

The 9000 by contrast, sounded slightly detached and more distant. Singer Luka Bloom also retained that more tactile, closer quality, with no hint of aggression or the kind of digital evils that often attend a closer musical presentation.

The future of SACD

The Sony SCD-XA5400ES is a very impressive player with SACD, yet in some respects an even more impressive one with CD.

It somehow manages to better the more elderly, but more expensively-engineered SCD-XA9000ES, from which it appears to have been derived. In its time the 9000 set new standards, that others have sometimes equalled, but that have only occasionally bettered.

It's worth remembering at this point, though, that the old 9000 was no slouch in the same areas where the new model excels. All of which bodes well for the future of SACD and for anyone who cares about sound quality on 12cm optical disc. Excellent news indeed.