Pioneer used to be a major player in the budget and mid-market with some scorching amplifiers, like the A400, and some equally impressive disc spinners with distinctive stable platter transports.
Somewhere in the late nineties, however, the company was diverted by home cinema (not surprising given its early start in the plasma market) and it appeared to lose interest in two-channel audio. Last year it changed all that with an SACD player and two nicely built amplifiers. One of which, the A-A9, turned out to be quite a sonic star as well.
And now Pioneer introduce the similarly priced PD-D9, by far the industry giant's best ever audio player with high attention to detail and quality of build. Rather than placing an attractive-looking facia in front of a pressed steel case, Pioneer has created a triple layer chassis for the D9 with top and side panels in aluminium and 'rigid underbase construction'.
The front panel has the same two-piece styling (as the A-A9) and a badge to indicate that its sound has been tuned at the famous AIR studios. Pioneer UK product managers used to lend their ears for this purpose, but following a tie up with George Martin's converted church, the job is now handled by people who really know what they are listening for.
Inside the PD-D9 you will find twin Wolfson DACs: the same digital-to-analogue converter that EAR/Yoshino uses in its £2,700 Acute CD player. As the Pioneer is both a CD and SACD player, it has a version of this chip that avoids turning the DSD bit-stream into CD-style PCM before conversion.
The majority of affordable SACD players (and even some luxury models) compromise results with the high resolution format by converting it digitally prior to DA conversion. Essentially, what Pioneer has done is kept the signal path for SACD as straightforward as it is for CD.
The Wolfson converter upsamples CD's 16/44.1 data rate to 24/192 and you have the option of applying Pioneer's Legato Link processing to the signal. For maximum sonic bliss, one is encouraged to press the 'pure audio' mode button, this actually shuts down the digital output and defeats the backlit LCD, while illuminating a red LED on the front panel.
The quality of build is also apparent on the rear panel, where machined RCA phono sockets deliver digital and analogue signals. This is another distinctly high-end touch that you won't find with the competition.
Whether it can actually improve sound quality is another question, but it certainly suggests that the machine should last. An area in which Pioneer already has a good track record. As well playing audiophile and regular formats, the PD-D9 can also deal with WMA and MP3 audio.
Even in the context of a pretty revealing system the Pioneer is a very refined operator for its price. It has fine dynamics and good detail resolution, but its presentation is remarkably effortless. One of our current favourite and similarly priced players is the Cambridge Azur 740C. It produces a dynamic and resolute sound that grips you from the off.
However, when pitted against the Pioneer it sounds relatively crude because of its forward balance and the relative sophistication of the PD-D9. With some quieter material, the extra leading edge definition of the Cambridge helps to enliven things, but if the music has an energy of its own then the calming hand of the Pioneer wins the day. And that's not to say that it smoothes things out, it just doesn't add any extra zing of its own, but reproduces much of the life in the music itself.
Playing Robert Glasper's In My Element CD, the Pioneer delivers good scale, vitality and drive from the reasonably dense mix of piano, drums and bass. The image being placed a little in front of the speakers seems, perhaps, a shade foreshortened, but the sound has sufficient body and vitality to keep the listener engaged. Switching to 'Pure Audio' mode removes a thin veil from the sound, revealing a little more sparkle in the higher notes and a shade more subtlety across the board.
The Legato switch has a similar effect but in reverse - the sound seeming to improve with it off. This may not be true for all music types. However, Pioneer tells us that it can be particularly beneficial with poor recordings, so it will be well worth experimenting with it.
The purity of Rickie Lee Jones' vocals on the album Spring Can Really Hang You Up The Most, is quite startling. She may not have the greatest range, but more than makes up for this with sheer charm, all qualities that are clearly evident from the Pioneer. Again it reaches down into the mix and relays the fine details that give the voice and accompanying instruments their shape and full character.
Moving over to SACD with Helge Sunde's Denada, reveals a fulsome bottom end that has real weight to it. Something that the older Sony XA333ES completely failed to match and which made us wonder whether the Pioneer has a little bit of extra emphasis added to the bass to complement the type of system that it's likely to be partnered with. It could, of course, be that the far newer player, with its state-of-the-art DAC, is just able to extract more low end power, but there is something to be said for a little boost in the bass even if it's not the last word in accuracy.
Now for a more up-to-date and comparatively priced SACD player, namely the Denon DCD-1500AE (£500). Both have similar balances, great dynamics, remarkable tone quality and great timing in the context of limited image depth. If anything, the Denon has a slightly less rich sound, there isn't quite as much shape to notes, but without an A/B comparison it would be very difficult to separate them. Which means that you are paying £100 for more solid build and slightly nicer styling on the Pioneer.
Another interesting result was heard when we hooked the Pioneer to a Townshend VSS. The sound really opens up, delivering more energy and low frequency welly. Denada was now sounding much closer to the result we'd get with significantly dearer players, which suggests that it takes more than a honeycomb based chassis to keep the ill effects of resonance at bay.
The PD-D9 is clearly a worthy partner for the excellent A-A9 and a contender for the crown in the sub-£1,000 disc player stakes, but this is a highly competitive sector.