CAL's Aria mk III vs SONY's XA777ES

This is not a question, but the actual comparison of the above components because I feel I owe it to a lot of people on Audiogon who provided me with illuminating insights.
It all started last summer when my Berning EA230 lost a channel and I made a fateful and imbecilic decision to fix it locally in Chicago to which David Berning, being extremely busy, didn't particularly object. I was afraid that it may take David a month or so until he gets around to it. Well, it took five or six month and three times as many trips to local experts, not mentioning replacing a lot of parts that probably didn't have to be replaced, until I heard my EA230 sounding its usual self (if not better I must admit).
During this time of suffering and self-cursing, I got into Audiogon, read on SACD's and DVD-A's and started thinking that audio progress was passing me by. Until then I was fairly content with my system -
CAL Aria mk III into
passive PS Audio volume control into
EA230 into
Celections SL 600.
I normally listen to classical 'AAD' or 'ADD' CD's only, almost no 'DDD' recorded and think that some of them are as good as LP's, no fatigue there, which, possibly, points to modern recording technique as a reason for general discontent rather than a genetically flawed CD format.
Anyway, after all that reading, I became convinced that, while my 20 year old speakers and amp could still hold their own, my more than 10 year old Aria was becoming the weakest link. Once the Berning is healthy, I told myself, I'll have to check out SACD's.
When the moment came, I had a SONY XA777ES SACD player loaned to me by the local Audio Consultants and a couple of SACD recordings highly praised by reviewers which performances I already had in Red Book version: Glen Gould's Goldberg variations and Bruno Walter conducting Mozart. The loaned player was a demo and, presumably, sufficiently burned in.
At first, I decided to check out the CD playback. A lot of wonderfully insightful people from Audiogon had a favorable view of the Sony and its CD playback. Whatever the merits of SACD technology, I told myself, it was time to upgrade to a better CD player. So, I've plugged in two identical disks of V. Sofronitsky from 'Great Pianists' series in both machines and pressed both remotes. Just switching between the machines showed that Sony's was noticeably cleaner sound, but the Aria was not put away. About 15 minutes into this I decided that was a silly exercise. I started playing a whole track of Scriabin's sonata movement over and over again, alternating between the two machines. After a couple of switches, it became shockingly unmistakable that only one of the machines was playing music and that was not the XA777ES. What the Sony's latest produced was very clinical and extremely pure as if the sound was repeatedly filtered and pasteurized to get the last bubble of air and emotion out of it. I suddenly remembered why I got the Aria 10 years ago in the first place. It was already 4 or 5 years old but it played music with feeling and emotion while the other CDP's, even from CAL, played frequencies.
I've unwrapped the Gould's SACD and played that after I played my CD version on the Sony. Gould on SACD was clearly better than Gould on CD but still bland in nature. I placed the Red Book version into the Aria, but I already knew the result. My Aria was still playing music, while the other machine went on with an academic exercise in sound emasculation using millions of extra bits. The sound difference between the two formats on both machines was almost as pronounced as in the previous comparison.
Should I unwrap the other SACD with Bruno and Mozart or plain return it, I've asked myself. Meanwhile, I had the Red Book version of it in my CDP, with Prague symphony's 1st movement sounding wonderful and effervescent under Walter's baton. It's a lovely recording, I mean the sound and the conducting despite (or, maybe, because of) its age. Then, by movement's end, my poor Aria, obviously resenting the contest, started mistracking rather violently (which it did before on occasion) until, like an old wife fearing a replacement, it broke down completely and irrevocably.
Totally demoralized by the prospect of another multi-month altercation with a repair shop, I started the CD on same movement on the Sony. Bruno, bubbly and ebullient just seconds ago, was gone and replaced by a Karajan-like martinet ready (can't help it) to join the Nazis for the third or forth time.
I mailed the Mozart's SACD back unwrapped, which is not an indictment of the new format, it's just somebody, like CAL, has to built a proper player for it.
The moral:
a) maybe you do not need all those bits,
b) maybe it's the tubes,
c) better stick with your old wives.

P.S. My Aria was cleaned and fixed in 3 to 4 days (which is badly needed after 7 - 10 years of usage) and, I think, sounds better (factor that into the comparisons). Glen Gould on SACD, anyone?
I've found similar results with my CAL Alpha. We put it head-to-head against a Music Hall CD-25 and to me, the CAL clearly won the contest.

I've heard several well-respected players lately and I'm willing to put my 9-year-old CAL equipment up against any of them. And for the price in the used market, it's unbeatable. It's just too bad that California Audio Labs isn't still around.

It's good to hear confirmation that other people are enjoying their CAL equipment as much as I am.

Hi, I have the same speaker as yours and like it for years with tube amps. I recommend you to add one REL subwoofer to it, you will like it. Recently, play around new DAC's and SACD and want to share my experience.

1) I did not like most of remastered classical SACD from old days. Not only SACD, it includes 24/96 remastered CD also. For example, Issac Stern's Mendelsson(?) violin concerto, SACD lost most of music and I enjoy much more on old CD (bought >10 years ago). The same reason I hate BMG's remastered CD of Horowitz's Chopin, again old 16bit CD sounds more musical. I guess that some mother tapes had been used too many times and age really kills it no matter it is SACD or CD. Newly recorded SACD sounds better than new CD most of time, but not necessary so for old recordings. Or today's engineers just don't have that golden ears like those senior used to be in 20 years ago. If they don't have good ears, they can't set the microphone right and can't mix the music right. So far, I only like EMI's remastered CD for classical music, they do sound better than the original CD's, good engineering job there.
2) I like Glen Gould's Bach Golden Variation so much, I have both 198? CD and new 196?/198? 2 disk CD's. Plus I have LP's. Remastered 196? CD is no where close to the same version in LP(I don't have SACD). So re-cooked CD is just like re-cooked SACD.
3) Use SONY S9000ES as SACD player and CD transport to a outboard DAC(I have a mod P1A/P3A and ARC DAC5 now). Is upsampling in P1A/P3A help much? 20% of CD's, significant. 60% better but not day and night, 20% I can't tell the difference. DAC5 is a 16/48 DAC, but did not lose any in terms of music, it has a darker background than stock P3A. Mod P3A is better than stock P3A. I would be pretty happy with mod P3A alone or DAC5. For orchestra, I listen mostly to LP anyway. Will buy newly recorded SACD for orchestra as well.
4) My old SONY X7ESD has served me for many many years and never breakdown a single time, of course I never abuse it. Although many people here want to trash SONY, my real experience is that my previous top SONY never failed so far (close to 15 years already). Therefore, I believe the S9000ES can serve me for a few more years with SACD and CD transport.

In conclusion, I would recommend a SACD player and a CD DAC if you can't stand its CD sound. I did hear some shocking good sound from well recorded SACD. If you only fishing around remastered ones from 20 year ago, you probably will miss the new technology and today's young talent's performance.
I am not familiar with your player, so I have no comment as to its performance . However, I would like to make sure that you performed a valid comparison . First, has the Sony unit been fully broken in ? This generally takes about 300-400 hours of playing time . Second, was the Sony unit broken in and listened to in its 2 channel direct mode, whereby you get the benefits of the summed 6 DAC's ? These two points cannot be taken lightly, as they will reveal a totally different player . If your SCD-XA777ES meets these two conditions I respect your opinion, if not, then you owe it to yourself to listen again after the adjustments have been made . Regards, Brock
i have had a cal audio icon mk2 for many years and it too has played beautifully and flawlessly. it has to my ears been better than many higher priced players. cal plays the way there is an aria being sold on ebay right now for 300 bucks! not the mk 3 though.
Good point, Brock: As I've mentioned the XA777ES was a demo unit given to me for 3 days (72 hours). I think it's more than likely that it is broken in since it's been in the shop for several months and looked like it had some miles on. I believe I'll never know a full answer to that one, and I'll never be able to borrow it again for 400+ hours. But it was listened to in the two channel mode.
I also suspect that no amount of braking in would change the character of playback. It may open up the highs or lows or whatever but it would not breath a feeling into it.
As far as I could tell it was a beautiful sound, a perfect anatomic reconstruction of it, if you will, but sterile.
And when I brought it back, they let me in into a special room (for people close to imperor) to listen to an all DCS (or DSC? EDGAR?) system with an SACD player 6 or 8 times the cost of the SONY, and you know what - it was even more clinical sounding, though out of gratitude I didn't say anything. You can't say which DCS component (or all of them) is responsible for this sort of sounding after a brief frivolous listening, but it shows that some people probably like and enjoy it, and somebody builds it. Regards, Vdeakin
So I'm not the only one-- I've been looking to replace a CAL Tercet Mk III from 1991, and have gone through Arcam and Meridian, and listened to Linn's Genki and Ikemi-- and only the Cary series of players is in the same musical ballpark as the CAL. The others are more detailed, but clinical to one degree or another, sometimes startlingly and unlistenably so. I was shocked at the experience-- after all, we keep hearing about how CD playback has improved radically, right? Now admittedly, the CAL might be a little on the rich side... but please, please, please, keep me on that side! I'm planning to get a Cary 303/200, which sounded lovely when I tried it (with an all-Cary line-up, admittedly)-- it's the only contender that I've been able to find (and listne to) that matchs the CAL's inate musicality.
I loved my CAL Alpha but was amazed when a simple little Audio Alchemy 3.0 came along. The CAL is very nice but pricey and can be tempermental. The AA was abusable and simple. My vote for AA. Sony shouldn't even be in the same ballpark.

Have you ever suspect your passive volume control? A passive one needs careful impedance matching for source and power amp. I did not like it because it will restrict your choices of CD source and power amps. It is tuff to find good matched combo, compared to much more friendly active pre. It could be the output resistance of XA777ES or voltage level does not match very well with your passive stuff. A machine well praised by many reviews, if not great it should be good at least. Do not own XA777ES, so I am not praising my machine.
For a well recorded SACD, I did not find details kill any music. On the other hand, I find it very dynamic with details and music, and it can be sweet and life-like. Therefore, I tend to believe that the harsh sound comes from some where else. Do agree the particular over-cooked remastered SACD is not as good redbook, but it does not mean SACD is no good or XA777ES is not as good as an old CAL.
I am curious at your situation because I have the same speaker parted with ARC VT-100-II. Never sound harsh, it is musical and gets better when upgraded to better eletronics in source. Did borrow expensive DAC like DCS or ML from my friends, the outcome is very musical presentation, opposite of what you mentioned. The difference is maybe preamp or room treatment. Don't under estimate the importance of your room.
Bluefin, I do not believe I ever implied that the XA777ES produced harshness, to the contrary it was very clean, pure and, maybe, beautiful sound; if anything, the Aria sounded harsher. My point is that the Sony was devoid of any emotion. The playback was sort of mechanical. It is as if I was listening to two different pianist: one involved with music and the other following the notes. As to my passive volume control, I wish I had the means to get something decent (it's probably my weakest link), but I do not think it can impart feeling and emotion to one source and deny to another.
I agree with Vdeakin. I had the same problem with a Proceed CD. Too mechanical. Very clean though.
I had some experience of mechanical sound from passive preamp too, (to me at least). Although my friend think passive is more transparent and make all strings clean in some manner, but it also lose some emotion to my ears. I do agree some of remastered CD or SACD sound mechanical than original print even though new ones have more resolution and better sound stage. It is like a rib bone without meat.

When I switched celestion from SL6 to SL600, I had the same feeling in the biginning. SL6 is warm and musical and I was disappointed at SL600 in the first one or two years. It sounds thinner because SL6 has more bottom than hi, it will make all CD's more musical even though SL600 has better image and resolution. I also blamed on my SONY CD player at those time. But I did not stop improving it, two major steps changed my mind:
1) room treatment, 2) got ARC VT-100, and minor improvement are: lots of PC/IC/SC swaps, rotating tubes in preamp, and CD source upgrades. It took me 2 years at least to be 80% satified.

The result is a musical yet clean sounding setup. I believe both can exist in the same setup. The reason is that my old oracle/ARC PH3 playing LP gives all-you-can-eat meat music yet the resolution is not less than a CD source (if there is a few % less than SACD). That's why I never stop trying. Thinking I am in the right track now because the sound improves everytime I throw in a better electronics. The setup reflects the advantages other audiophile's sincere recommendation most of time. Very often, I can't justify the price difference of new technology for 3% of improvement. But seldom I got reverse results, like a $300 component beats $3K to the hell.

I did hear XA777ES with sonus faber speakers (EA-II, GP, GH) in dealer's place. It was very musical! I guess it is a match-up issue. I would stay with my good old xxx too. Will resolve the bottlenect issue as first priority. Looks like CD source is not the limiting factor for you.