August 2, 2009

Sony's SACD Swan Song? Sony XA5400ES SACD/CD Player.

This is an old post of ours in the blog we previously contributed to.

The Sony XA5400ES SACD/CD Player.

This Sony SACD/CD player caused a stir in the Internet forums and amongst SACD based audio community as a giant killer, when launched sometime late last year, 2008. It was rumoured to be Sony's last SACD player made ever. My friend PS, whom is so entrenched in to SACD just had to get hold of this player, no matter what! He spent the last few months knocking on Sony Malaysia and Singapore's door, begging them to sell him one. No one in the organisation gave him two hoots! Finally, poor PS had no choice but to get a 230V spec unit imported from Germany, with the help of the Internet. The irony of it all? The Sony XA5400ES is indeed proudly made in Malaysia! It would seem to me Sony Manufacturing Malaysia Boleh!, but Sony Marketing Malaysia Tak Boleh???

The Sony stting proudly on my hifi rack.

It seems that whilst Sony engineers are still highly competent, their marketing team have somewhat been too busy marketing mobile phones, Vaio lap tops and LCD Bravia screens amongst other things. Audio products seems to be all but forgotten when compared to the more glitzy tech products in the Sony catalogue. My personal call to Sony Malaysia, WAKE UP!!! The XA5400 SACD/CD player trully deserves your attention, and by refusing to sell it, you are doing disservice to all the SACD and CD music lovers in the country, not to mention, your bottom line. I don't think I need to remind you of your dismal overall financial results for the last operating business year? I also don't think Sony founder, Akio Morita would be a very happy man if he was still alive today.

The Sony's ultra smooth tray mechanism. Almost as smooth as the Esoteric X-03

O.K. enough of my ranting of Sony and the dysfunctional Marketing Dept. Let's see if the XA5400ES is truly all hype? First up, it seems to be built on the existing platform of the former top model XA9000ES, to save cost, which is no bad thing. Despite that, the fit and finishing quality from the Sony Malaysian plant is first rate, based on the sample PS bought. The design is typically Japanese business like and very ergonomically friendly. There's a lack of audio jewellery that makes past Sony ES series components so desirable, like full copper plated chassis, full aluminium face plate, gold plated RCA and XLR(which I used all the time during the review) output jacks. Weighing 11kgs, the player can be describe as solid medium built rather than battleship quality. The CD tray mechanism operation smoothness is second to only the much, very much more expensive Esoteric X-03, and makes almost all other high end expensive CD player seemingly shameful by comparison.

The back panel of RCA & XLR analogue ouput jacks. The Sony XA5400ES does multi chanel too, but only via it's HDMI output.

The sound of the Sony XA5400ES is truly impressive. It always portrays a musical sound stage and imaging in such a convincing manner, with the much prized high end "air" or space between instruments, making stage depth layering very easy to perceive. The tonal balance is very close to my resident Marantz CD7 in flavour too. Invitingly lush, warm, smooth and full bodied best describes it's tonal balance. This was confirmed as I was switching between Pass Labs and Bryston amplifications. When partnered with the Pass Labs combo, the sound was as described above. With the Bryston gear the lush, warm, smoothness was still apparent, but the sound also gained a certain level of dynamics and transient excitement. But should the Sony XA5400ES be compared to the Marantz CD7 or the Bryston BCD-1, both are very much more expensive by the way, two areas of deficiency did start to show. First is the area of very low level details in the music, like as in when I play my favorite Tube Hifi Violin CD, I found that many of the subtle breathing and bowing techniques recorded, were simply glossed over by the Sony, comparing to the Marantz. When compared to the Bryston, the Sony's handling of macro dynamic and transient swings is not as great at the contrasting ends of band width extremes. However, the Sony did excelled at portraying micro dynamics instead.

There are no sonic nasties presented by the Sony XA5400ES either, the highs are never grainy or harsh, mids never shouty, and bass is articulate, detailed and always tuneful. The best part about the Sony is that it possesses a level of musicality and cohererence in musical presentation, never before attain able at this price point. It may be the PRAT factor, but music always flowed freely and somehow manages to communicated that emotional massage of the musical performance very effectively. I had no trouble connecting "emotionally" with this player at all, and when buying source components, this is especially important!

The complete back panel view.

Unlike previous generation SACD players, which always tend to short change CD play musically to show case SACD's format superiority. Those days are over, as people now days tend to buy a CD player performance first, and if it plays SACD too, then considered a bonus. That's the market trend, and the XA5400ES does not short change the CD play back at all, I am happy to report. The Sony just plays both formats with the best ability it can. Other than being a little more analogue like sounding and slightly better low level resolution retrieval when playing SACD software, I enjoyed the CD format's musical performance just as much. Also gone are the days when a player takes ages to recognise if you've put in a CD or SACD in to the tray. The Sony mostly took no more than 20 seconds at worst to sort if self out automatically, although the user is allowed to override with manual format selection.

The standard Sony remote supplied. No fancy remote this time for the XA5400ES.

Depending on how Sony Malaysia work it's costing, should it be available in the local market, the player would likely to retail for between RM$5 - 7k(my guestimate, based on it's UK retail price), which is really cheap for an ES series component. The Sony XA5400ES would certainly be THE ultimate CD/SACD player to get for those in the midst of setting a hifi system costing between RM$15-20k budget range, or those seeking to up grade from that good ol' Marantz CD63. Trust me, it's that good, and I here by confirm that all the Internet and overseas buzz about this player is not hype. Not at all.

Dear readers, please do yourself and all other music lovers a favour at this coming KLIAV show, go to the Sony exhibition room(which is big I am told, so you can't miss it!), and ask for the Sony XA5400ES SACD/CD player. Hopefully, that will jolt the local marketing guys out of their comfy slumber and make this wonderfully musical player available in the local market. For not, us Malaysian audiophiles and music lovers on a budget would be musically poorer.

And finally, PS, you've made the right decision, and I am glad you've decided to stay your course of purchase, The Sony XA5400ES is a mighty fine buy indeed.

Sony Malaysia enquiry contact, tel: 1-300-88-1233

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