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During the three months the SA60 was here, I challenged it with a lot of different discs ranging from Verdi's Rigoletto to Skinny Puppies to name a few extremes. On very well recorded material, the SA60 almost always outperformed the A5, offering more space and flow but even more importantly, as stress-free a sound as I have ever heard from CDs while giving up little dynamics and jump factor (remember, I am writing about unbalanced operation now). If I listened to more electronica and less Classical, I might ask for more tightness and physical bass impact but in all fairness, my only true contention with the SA60's CD playback is the reduced presence in the midrange and a not quite complete tonal development.

On poorly recorded material, the SA60 did not quite as systematically sound better than the A5. What truly surprised me over the last month of auditions was the ability of the SA60, on most discs, to reduce listener's fatigue and digital music's harshness without calling upon excessive warmth or soaking everything in high levels of tube distortion to achieve this goal. At first this trick can be disconcerting. Our brains have learnt to associate CD playback with a certain level of stress. When the tension is gone without the reassuring artifices of warmth stepping in, it may easily seem that something is lacking when in fact all that is missing shouldn't have been there in the first place. On the other hand, some discs, especially the first digital recordings of the 80s, are so harmonically deprived that they can't be rescued without the use of a generous dose of "pleasant harmonic distortion". For those, the SA60 is of no help at all.

On a very positive note, the SA60 did manage to make a disc that I consider one of the most challenged mastering jobs ever sound good. Yo-yo Ma's and Ton Koopman's recording of Vivaldi's Cello for Sony [SK90916] is actually a solid performance, not quite of the exalted standard set by Roel Dieltiens for Harmonia Mundi [HML5908235.36] but honorable nonetheless and certainly original by the number of new transcriptions Koopman arranged for Ma's cello. Unfortunately that was not counting on Sony's recording engineers and sound processors. All the instruments are extremely closely miked but set in a highly reverberating (and I
suspect partly computer-generated) environment. The result is an implausible combination of hyper detail and heavily reverberant ambiance that sounds like nothing real. With lesser CD players, the instruments and their echoes end up piled on top of each other, adding further confusion to finally sound compressed and absolutely dreadful.

Don't ask me how the SA60 actually pulled off this little miracle but it managed to make sense of the main instrumental lines and their echoes to organize a sonic crime scene that was coherent and legible. The music still sounded somewhat artificial because no concert hall would ever sound that analytical and echo-y at the same time but at least the SA60 kept each instrument in its relative place and sized the reverb trails proportionate to the original source, a feat neither the A5 nor Accuphase DP55 ever proved fully capable of. The exceptional aptitude of the SA60 at organizing sonic landscapes, placing and sizing the instruments and filling the void between with realistic transitions probably explains why it fared better than my other two references on this disc.

Some players keep each sound source in its own bubble as if it never interacts with the other instruments around it. Others blend instruments to the point where they lose their individuality. The SA60 strikes me as hitting the perfect balance between those two extremes to serve the most realistic sonic landscape possible from CDs, a trait at which it truly excels.

Until you listen to your first well-recorded SACD and realize that no matter how good the SA-60 is with CDs, hi-resolution playback is what it was designed for. I think it is important to dismantle one myth upfront: it's not because the music is recorded on SACD that it will necessarily sound better. As with everything in audio, the technology is just an enabler. Most of the results depend on how well it is implemented. From the admittedly small collection of hybrid SACDs I have gathered over the past few years, I would say that no more than 20% sound truly outstanding to reveal the full extent of the technology's capacity. Another 10% show absolutely no difference between SACD and CD tracks and the remaining 70% fall somewhere in-between, with a whole range of audible improvements.

I will not go over all the theoretical improvements brought by SACD. Let it suffice to say that when exploited to its limits, SACD delivers on all accounts - macro dynamics become explosive, micro dynamics bristle with life; details and resolution increase without sounding artificial and out of place; transients take a more complex and life-like nature; timbral accuracy becomes strikingly realistic to the point that more than once I thought I could hear a real Stradivarius in my room. But the two most striking traits for me (as if all the previous ones were not enough) was the almost complete removal of CD-expected harshness in the midrange and treble as well as the spaciousness and physical believability of the musical stage. Those are the two elements I mentioned the SA60 did particularly well when playing back CDs using PCM-to-DSD upsampling. Using native DSD data allowed the SA60 to truly show the extent of its talent. Now marry the player with revealing speakers like the Ronin RPDs, dipoles that can soundstage better than the best and the strengths of the SA60 will be put into light admirably. To add even more to the experience, the tonal bleaching noticeable with CD playback was even further reduced with SACD playback and the deviations usually became so small as to be mostly non-objectionable.

On SACD, violins in particular regained their harmonic complexity, no longer being instruments of metal but clearly displaying the harmonic colors of their wooden bodies. Never was that more obvious than on Tchaikovski's Violin Concerto played by Jascha Heifetz [RCA Living Stereo 82876 67896-2]. On CD, his violin sounds somewhat lean and dry and its treble is sometimes plainly out of control. On SACD, the violin is full-bodied again and the treble is never uncertain. Almost as a bonus comes Fritz Reiner's masterful direction, with the Chicago Symphony spreading all its colors in a semi circle around the soloist. On the high-resolution layer, the stage broadens, the musicians have more space to spread their wings, the timbral hues of the instruments are more easily told apart. In short, you've taken a few giant steps towards being really "there and then", further helped by an impeccable sense of timing which sometimes lacks on CDs.

With the exception of a recent re-release of Karajan's 1963 recording of Beethoven's Symphonies 5 and 6 on Deutsche Grammophon [DG 474 603-2] which I found did not benefit from the new transfer to SACD, most other hi-resolution transfers from master tapes of the Golden Era brought the same increase in space, ease and flow coupled to a richer tonal palette. One of the recordings I found benefited most from renovation was Fritz Reiner's Sheherazade [RCA Living Stereo 82876 66377-2]. If you have never heard a master recording of a master conductor, that's the one to get. Pour yourself a glass of your favorite wine, port or single malt and dive into the performance. It just does not get any better.

Actually... on an excellently executed recording, things do get better still. Take for example the SACD Tous les matins du Monde and Jordi Savall's passionate love affair with his viole de gambe [Alia Vox AVSA 9821]. Here the soundstage literally explodes outside the limits set by the speakers or the room. Yet this is no show-off special effect, with nothingness filling the void between the musicians. On the contrary, it's a solid 20-foot wide stage as I suspect the real stage was for this small Baroque ensemble. The most striking element without contest was how true the higher frequencies sounded. While Savall's viola was deep and sonorous as it should have been, it was the timbre veracity of all high-pitched instruments and percussion that was the true revelation. The SA60 for the first time allowed me to hear what I considered accurate treble reproduction. This was due, in no small part I assume, also to the excellence of the recording. Still, the SA60 managed to extract and preserve this information with an exactitude I was not expecting.

The same revelation arose with Balalaika Favorites [Mercury Living Presence 475 6610]. Until now the CD layer of this hybrid had left me wondering what the big deal was about this disc. Switching to SACD, the music took on a dimension that truly expanded beyond the speakers, putting each instrument where it originally was, its very specific and differentiated timbre intact. I no longer was hearing a bunch of nose-pinched metallic instruments massed in one place but a full orchestra of vastly different tones that spread out in front of me.

All recent DSD recordings are not necessarily that impressive, mind you. Erich Kunzel's recording of Tchaikovski's 1812 Overture with the Cincinnati Pops for Telarc [SACD 60541] for example has been acclaimed for its real cannon shots and phenomenal dynamics. Dynamics are there, no question. I clipped the McIntosh amp at lively but still reasonable levels. The macrodynamics and transients involved in those explosions are huge. Only the A5 integrated (400 watts into 4 ohms) managed to express their full impact without clipping. No matter what though, I do not have a room nor speakers that will handle the full power of those cannons so the result was disappointing, compressed and artificial. It was obvious that the cannons did not come from the same location as the rest of the music. In recordings past, the blasts were played by percussion and the resultant sound was far more realistic and integrated with the
music, my point being that having the technical capability to encode bombastic dynamics does not mean record engineers should if it hurts the music. I doubt more than 1% of all systems could even reproduce those cannons realistically. If you want to hear real cannons in this piece, go to an outdoor summer concert. Otherwise, get one of the better gun-powder-free versions (Fritz Reiner and Chicago come to mind - Living Stereo 2241LP from Classic records). The SA60 once again did a better than average job trying to inject some space in this piece and scale its instruments more realistically yet on this specific track, there was little it could do to make those cannons sound like they belonged into the score. The rest of the disc is high-quality Kunzel as we know him. His direction could use some exuberance now and then but it is nonetheless highly enjoyable and so the SA60 conveyed the usual dose of joie de vivre from the Cincinnati Pops.

To try and sum it all up, the SA60 is an impressive player that can be finicky and won't deliver its full potential until all stars line up just so. I spared you the detailed account of four amplifiers, three speakers and seven interconnects swaps as well as countless hours of playing with speaker tilt and toe-in to rebalance a thrown-off midrange but this review was not an easy one to pull together. At times I felt I had reached ultimate audiophile neurosis, incapable of finding a satisfactory setup. Yet over a month ago it finally all clicked and I have not felt the need to change a thing since. Actually, my system has never sounded this good before. Letting the SA60 go won't be easy now that I got my system optimized to get the very best from it. All this to reiterate that the smallest details will matter to wring the most from the SA60, far more so than any component I have ever owned or reviewed.

The reward for your efforts will be an engulfing soundstage with perfectly layered and positioned musicians and a wealth of meaningful detail that never seems forced or out of place, with a sense of timing that is just impeccable at least through the RCA connection. But the greatest reward of all for me was the simple gift that the SA60 gave by making a number of questionable CDs listenable again - by minimizing if not fully eliminating the digital harshness hiding in their treble and midrange. This comes at the price of the last level of intimacy, detail and tonal intensity in these frequency ranges. For many, it will be a reasonable sacrifice since it can be compensated for with amplification and speaker choices. The fact that the SA60 does all this with SACD material is great but should be expected from a hi-resolution player at this price. That it does most of it with CDs as well is rather remarkable, however.

If you are looking for a sub-$5000 CD player that can revive your disc collection, the SA60 should be on your short list. The fact that it will also read your occasional hi-rez discs in stereo or 5.1 is an added bonus thrown in by Esoteric. If, on the other hand, you already have built a substantial multi-format collection to look for a way to ensure continued stereo or surround enjoyment for years to come without re-mortgaging the house, the SA60 should be at the top of your extremely short list, with the satisfaction of knowing that it comes close to squeezing every last drop of performance possible from about all formats short of Blu-Ray and HD-DVD. "The best sound from any disc" as was claimed in another review then? Probably not in every system, but with the right ancillaries, it unquestionably has the potential to be that rare one-stop wonder.

PS: M&H's addendum to the upsampling options to follow shortly.

Quality of packing: Best quality triple-boxing I have ever seen; player is also double wrapped in soft material. Esoteric clearly cares about delivering a flawless player to its final destination.
Reusability of packing: The limit is the amount of abuse the outer box can take (and then you can switch to double-boxing only)
Ease of unpacking/repacking: A little more demanding than usual because of combined heavy weight of player and triple-box configuration but really worth it in light of added protection.
Condition of component received: Flawless.
Completeness of delivery: No issue.
Quality of owner's manual: Laconic and somewhat confusing especially in the light of the very generous amount of user-selectable parameters.
Website comments: No more informative than the manual.
Warranty: The limited warranty on current models is 2 years parts and labor but upon registering with the "Product Registration Form" supplied with the player, Esoteric will extend your warranty an additional year to a total of 3 years parts and labor.
Global distribution: Check Esoteric's website for distributors - readily available around the world.
Human interactions: Professional and courteous, always fast and responsive.
Other: Remote control heavy enough to serve as a weapon but well laid out and very smooth and tactile - but why aren't the buttons backlit?
Pricing: Price to performance ratio is right already if you are looking for a $4600 CD player allowing occasional SACD or DVD-A use but for a 2- and 6-channel high-definition player which also plays CDs excellently, the price of the SA60 is hard to fault.
Application conditions: I plainly preferred the unbalanced connection and picked interconnects guilty of a little midrange emphasis. The SA60 did not like my Monster power conditioner so experiment with plugging the player directly into a wall outlet.
Final comments & suggestions: Because of occasional tonal lightness and a touch of midrange shyness, pure silver cables did not mate too well with the SA60. Neither did ultra-neutral cables. Copper interconnects with a little warmth are to be preferred; amplifier/speaker combinations that are tonally dense would probably do better as well.

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