CD Player Shootout: Rotel RCD-855 vs. Sony DVP-S9000ESOctober 08, 2013
Putting the copper-clad, 28-pound beast of a SACD player that is the Sony DVP-S9000ES up against my vintage Rotel RCD-855 seems a bit unfair, but it’s exactly what The Spirited Uncle M had me do.
Let’s be clear here, the vaults of The Sound Lab run deep, and there’s always some sort of experimenting going on in there. Which means, as The Sound Apprentice, my audiophile training is pretty much guaranteed to include quite a bit of gear testing and tweaking by order of The Spirited Uncle M, and it starts now.
As I mentioned in “The Sound Apprentice Goes Hi-Fi (Finally),” my first hi-fi CD player was the classic Rotel RCD-855 that debuted in 1989 for $399 with its prized Philips dual 16-bit TDA-1541A DAC chip. I described it as an excellent CD player for the beginner audiophile to consider because of its solid build, excellent internals, warm sound and imaging, and it can be found for cheap ($100 or less). That said, I was more than content with it. But The Spirited Uncle M is a tweaker, a real gear junkie, and he seemingly has an audio curriculum for me to follow—there was no way the Rotel would stay in my Apprentice Lab for long:
“Yo D-Man, I picked up a Sony DVP-S9000ES, which is an excellent stereo red book CD player/transport. This player will be added to your audio lab. I happen to own 3 of these players, that's how great they are. The Rotel is over 20 years old and the Sony is around 10 years old. The technologies are different but the end result is GOOD MUSIC. When Sony made this machine it was the first DVD player out of the ES division (Elevated Standard); that's Sony's Real Good Shit Division. I don't know if you should HEAR this... it is wicked (the sound is KILLER). BEWARE OF EARGASMS TO THE MAX.”
Enter the Sony DVP-S9000ES
Being Sony’s first DVD player to don the coveted “ES” insignia, they certainly didn’t slack on the audiophile details. Debuting in 2001 for a whopping $1,500, the DVP-S9000ES boasts gorgeous design, a solid aluminum faceplate, a fully copper-plated chassis, separate audio and video circuit boards that minimize noise, the ability to disable the video circuitry entirely for critical SACD and red book CD playback, a 24-bit/96KHz DAC, two audio master clocks, enhanced digital filtration, digital optical (toslink) and coaxial outputs, and other technologies that the much older Rotel could only dream. Let the “clash of the audio titans begin” in TSUM-speak.
I connected the Rotel RCD-855 and the Sony DVP-S9000ES to the NAD C 326BEE “CD” and “DISC” inputs so I would be able to switch between them quickly when necessary and dialed in the volume to a comfortable listening position. For those that think cables make a difference, I used the WireWorld Equinox 3+ RCA interconnects on both units and their stock power cords.
The Sony has two digital audio filtering modes: “Slow” and “Sharp.” The manual states that this filters noises above 22.05 kHz (Fs is 44.1 kHz), 24 kHz (Fs is 48 kHz) or 48 kHz (Fs is above 96 kHz). Sharp is supposed to provide a wide frequency range and spatial feeling, while Slow is intended to provide a smooth and warm sound.
I chose “Slow” in an effort to keep the comparison to the warm sound of the Rotel RCD-855 as fair as possible (this has no effect on SACDs). I also had it running in “Audio Direct” mode, which disables all video circuitry to ensure the lowest noise floor possible.
With three test tracks from three different genres lined up, it was time to sit back and hear how these players matched up.
Let the Best Player WinTest Track 1: Explosions in the Sky – “Last Known Surroundings”
This is a favorite track. I love the dynamics, the continual buildups and layers of percussion, guitars, pedal effects and ghostly voices that transcend the sensitive lows and crashing highs. Plus it has some peaks throughout the song that will challenge the separation abilities of most gear.
I found the Rotel’s overall sound to have a full low-end, nice cymbal clarity and moderate separation and imaging. But when the track gets busy with blaring distortion, screaming highs and bars of cymbal crashing, I thought the mids were rolling off and losing some of their dynamics, and the cymbals and lead guitar tend to melt together into a flurry of high notes. What would the Sony do differently?
To my surprise, there was an immediate increase in the definition throughout the dynamic range, it also seems like the Sony has a slightly higher line level output, but I don’t have a SPL meter to confirm that. Light accenting brush strokes on the snare drum in the beginning of the track gained clarity and moved forward in presentation. The parts of the song with hand-clapping to the rhythm sounded surprisingly more natural. To my ears, the Sony seemed “brighter,” leaning towards the highs and projecting greater detail; but it never got to be fatiguing or harsh. I think the increase in clarity influenced the perception that the lows lost a bit of fullness, however. Or maybe it can be described as a reduction in the boominess; the bass was definitely tighter and more defined.
Test Track 2: Bonobo – “Stay the Same”
Another favorite track that I’ve been hooked on. I’ve previously noted that the sound stage had nice depth and a low noise floor on the Rotel. Andreya Triana’s voice was somewhat forward with nice touch of warmth, while the little details, like the sound of fingers sliding across guitar strings, are clear and pronounced, and Jack Wyllie’s sax was especially moody, although somewhat recessed when competing with the vocals. Of course, the bass lines are punchy and the presentation simply sounds clean.
Switching over to the Sony, a distinct crispness came into the vocals without sacrificing any of their warmth. The bass lines also seemed to have an added smoothness and tighter presentation. Repeating what was heard on the first test track, the Sony added separation in the upper mids and highs. The hesitation notes on the sax gained a new edge that only added to the moodiness and the whole track shimmered a bit more. I'd say the Sony is definitely more analytical.
Test Track 3: Iron and Wine – “Boy With a Coin”
There’s just something about Sam Beam’s unique sound and lyrics that keep me coming back for more. Listening to his albums on my hi-fi setup have only increased my appreciation for his talents and those of the musicians he collaborates with. Through the Rotel his vocals are rich and full, forward in their presentation and simply pleasing to my ears. The acoustics just sound accurate and melt together to form a nice sound stage. Of course, the percussion and bass lines had the same warm characteristics as heard in the other test tracks; it’s what the Rotel seems to do best and the sonic signature is consistent across all genres of music.
Flipping back to the Sony, Beam’s vocals once again gained an edge in clarity that the Rotel just can’t rival. It is a striking improvement to my ears. I also noted the bass had more integrity and separation from the kick drum that follows it. The Sony just produces a very clean sound with lots of detail that seems to strike a fine balance across every test track.
Despite being dated, both players continue to offer good sound and good value for a stereo setup (although neither unit particularly likes burned discs; some played, some didn't). The Rotel RCD-855 can be found for around $100 or less, and the Sony DVP-S9000ES can be found for around $175 or less, depending on condition. If you’re curious why TSUM owns three of them, it’s because it’s very difficult to find spare parts for the Sony DVP-S9000ES anymore, but if you can find a used unit in good working condition for $175 or less, he says it’s a steal.
If you like a warmer sound, the Rotel is the clear choice in this shootout. It’s simply a very musical player. For those looking for a more analytical sound and enhanced clarity in the fine details, the Sony excels. There’s simply a crispness in its sound that the Rotel doesn’t deliver; the Sony DVP-S9000ES is a very exciting player to listen to. Even my girlfriend, who thinks every piece of audio equipment is just “another black box,” commented that the Sony “sounded prettier.” I’ll take that as a win, and I think I’ll try to convince The Spirited Uncle M to let me keep this one in my listening room for a while.