Review: Sony SCD-CE775 CD Player

Category: Digital

SACD has arrived at a store near you. Even if it hasn’t, mail order retailers have SACD players and software ready to ship. Until recently, the price of admission for SACD was awfully steep—about $5000 back when Sony and Marantz were the only two players in the game.

Things changed slightly when Phillips introduced a well-reviewed player for under $2000, and Sony followed with a number of ES-brand players at about the same price point. The mass market initially stayed away in droves, as did many audiophiles. That’s understandable, considering software is limited and SACD is locked in battle with DVD-A for mass acceptance.

Recently, however, Sony introduced a number of models at well under $500, and both received rave reviews in that last bastion of high-end, two channel audio, The Absolute Sound. While regular readers know that The Absolute Sound is now trying to court a more down-market hi-fi enthusiast (and I don’t think that’s a bad thing), I’ve yet to see any real evidence that their integrity is slipping due to this new direction. So based on the magazine’s recommendation, I called up the good folks at Music Direct in Chicago and promptly ordered a Sony SCD-CE775 at the giveaway price of $240.

The SCD-CE775 first came to my attention in Music Direct’s winter 2001 catalog, at around $350 then. It’s a five-disc changer that looks pretty sharp, considering its price point. It has more knobs and dials than a Rotel guy like me is comfortable with, but it doesn’t look too out of place on my rack. Those buttons are necessary to access the unit’s setup menu, which allows you to select two-channel or multichannel playback, and bass management for those so inclined. Other than that, you’ll find basic controls and a neat rotary dial for fast track selection.

Around back, you’ll find standard RCA outputs for two-channel and multichannel, along with digital outs which I assume only work with regular CD playback (since, as far as I know, there are no outboard SACD DACs yet available, and I believe all SACDs are copy-protected from digital to digital recording anyway.) The output jacks are not gold plated, which is to be expected at this price point, and the power cord is not detachable, though I’d question the wisdom of adding at $300 power cord to a $250 component.

My two-channel system made setup easy. I accessed the setup menu using the front panel controls, selected two-channel direct output, defeated bass management, and off I went. With the gimmicky blue “multichannel” indicator light on the front panel thankfully extinguished, I loaded the carousel with my only five SACDs and sat down to listen.

I wasn’t expecting to be bowled over, and I wasn’t. Despite all of Sony’s talk of how the Direct Stream Digital “pulse train” (whatever that is) mimics that of the analog audio waveform, and how it’s far superior to the PCM DVD-A format, it’s still digital-sounding. Which is to say a little thin, a little clinical and somewhat cold. This impression varied from disc to disc, but was always in my mind, even after about 20 hours of break-in time.

The best disc of the bunch by far is Telarc’s “The Film Music of Jerry Goldsmith” performed by the London Symphony Orchestra under the direction of Goldsmith himself. Played through the Sony, it’s stunning, with an enveloping and involving sound that puts you right in the audience. The bass is amazingly deep and powerful, the highs clean and extended, and the whole presentation very pleasing. I was so impressed, I had to compare it to the standard CD layer on the same disc. This is accomplished by stopping playback, selecting “CD” on the excellent remote, and starting playback again. To my ears, there was very little difference. In fact, about all that was sacrificed was a little extra ambience.

On Bucky Pizzarelli’s “Swing Live,” another excellent disc, my SACD-CD comparison was about the same. This beautifully-recorded live performance really does put you in a Manhattan jazz club, just as the liner notes claim. The SACD layer was wonderful in its depth and dimension. It was quite rich in texture as well, letting you experience what it might have been like to be there. Though the CD layer was obviously not as “alive,” it was pretty darn good, too. Which goes to prove that a well-recorded CD can sound impressive, despite the limitations of Red Book technology.

On the Cowboy Junkies’ “Open,” the guitars and vocals were quite smooth in a very un-CD-like way. Spinning Jimmie Lee Robinson’s “All My Life,” I noticed the same thing, though the vocals on this disc sounded a bit distant and cloudy. John Williams’ “The Magic Box,” a recording of the guitar virtuoso’s interpretations of songs and traditional music composed by African artists, is equally pleasing. I could listen to Williams’ lifelike guitar for hours on this disc, something I’ve only done with his LPs before. This, by the way, was the only single-layer disc of the bunch, so I was unable to compare the CD layer with SACD.

Since I sold my Rotel RCD-980 to finance some other equipment purchases, the Sony was now my only dedicated digital audio source (besides an RCA DVD player and a Realistic laserdisc player, both of which I use only for video playback only since their audio capabilities are quite limited). So I figured it was time to spin some plain old CDs, too.

On Ben Folds Five’s magnificent “The Unauthorized Biography of Reinhold Messner,” Folds’ piano was a tad chilly, and the vocals a bit grainy, but all the music was definitely there. A new reissue of Miles Davis classic “Kind of Blue” reveals nuances never before heard by people with the older (and in the wrong key) CDs of this performance. The Sony did a very nice job with both of these.

I won’t bore you with every CD I played. I can’t remember all of them, anyway. But by then, I’d put in about 50 hours of listening and was ready to try some SACDs again. Mark Levinson’s “Live Recordings at Red Rose Music” is a great audiophile disc. Though the spoken word readings are a bit to hippy-dippy for my tastes, this is a superb record that has a handful of really fun impromptu performances recorded in Levinson’s Red Rose Music hi-fi store in Manhattan. Close your eyes, and you’ll think you’re there.

Still, SACD—at least, at this price point—is probably not quite all it’s cracked up to be for people like me who are on the lower end of high end audio. Is it smoother? Generally, yes. Is it less fatiguing? I’d say so. Is it more involving? Definitely, though you won’t find this out until much later when you keep unconsciously reaching for your few SACDs time and again, ignoring your regular CD collection.

At over $20 a pop on average, SACDs aren’t cheap—especially since most regular CDs sell for around $13 in my area, and about $7 on the used market. In my system, a good, clean, used $2 LP gives much higher fidelity than an SACD played through the SCD-CE775. So I know that my system is capable of revealing the benefits of SACD, though not as much as more expensive setups.

But there’s one thing that needs to be said here: for $250, this really is one heck of a bargain. It’s an audiophile-quality five-disc changer that also plays SACDs and has the capability for multichannel playback. Until a few years ago, the mere mention of the words “five-disc changer” and “audiophile” in the same sentence would elicit laughter from high-end aficionados. Now, it’s not as big a joke.

To me, that means two things: (a) We’ve reached the limit of how much information we can extract from Red Book CDs, and (b) Unless you’ve got a Krell amp and a pair of priced-like-a-BMW Dynaudios, this player will do fine in your system—particularly if, like me, your LP collection outnumbers your CD collection.

So by all means, grab one of these. You might find, like me, that the CD player you spent $1000 or more for just a couple of years ago is now outclassed by newer (and mass-market!) technology. Sell it to a sucker for $500, order the SCD-CE775, and use the remaining $250 to load up on new music.

As for me, my next upgrade isn’t going to be a new CD player, but a more expensive cable from CD player to preamp. A nice Kimber Hero might make the difference between CD and SACD even more apparent. And one thing’s for sure: while the SCD-CE775 isn’t a Meridian or Levinson, it might just deserve that $300 power cord after all.

Associated gear
Rega P2 turntable
Denon DL-160 cartridge
Rotel RC-980 preamplifier with MM/MC phono stage
Rotel RA-970 amplifier
Rotel RQ-970BX phono stage
Sony SCD-CE775 SACD player
Phillips AM/FM tuner
Realistic laserdisc player
RCA DVD player
Apex Digital 27” TV
Polk RT25i bookshelf loudspeakers
Polk PSW350 subwoofer
Paradigm speaker stands
Kimber Kable 4PR speaker cables
Straightwyre Harmony II subwoofer cable
Audioquest Jade/Monster 250 interconnects
Monster Power HTS 2500 Power Center
Record Doctor II record cleaning machine/Disc Doctor record brushes
StudioTech HF series racks
Audioquest MC cartridge demagnetizer

Similar products
At home, new and previously-owned CD players and transport/DACs from Rotel, NAD, Phillips, Denon and more ranging in price from $400 to about $1000.
In stores, eveything you can imagine from NAD to Levinson.
The more I listen to this player, the more astonished I am that more people didn't buy it. RIGHT NOW, I'VE SEEN THIS ON CLEARANCE at Best Buy for $179--a steal! This thing is obviously a loss leader for Sony, and months after buying it, I still can't believe what a great deal it was. There is nothing in its price range--even at the original $350 price from Music Direct--that can touch it. Regular CDs sound very good and the SACD performance is remarkable. A few months after I bought it, The Absolute Sound's Wayne Garcia gave it a big thumbs up and said something like he would've paid much more for it. I stand by my review and encourage people to seek this unit out; I'm even thinking of buying one as a backup.