Philips SACD 1000 SACD/DVD-Video Player
Apples and oranges are both great, but generally you like one or the other better. Sure, they're both fruits, and they're both sort of round, but there are lots of things you'd do with one and not the other. Ever mix vodka with apple juice? I haven't either, although the mere thought brings a shudder. Ever tried orange sauce with pork chops? Not likely.
And so it has been with the Super Audio Compact Disc (SACD) and DVD-Audio. At a glance, they seem to be similar, with about the same amount of storage and such. A closer look, however, reveals that DVD-Audio is (and has always been) high-rez multichannel audio on DVD; most DVD-Audio discs have a secondary Dolby Digital track, so you can play them in virtually any DVD player. Up until now, SACD has been the domain of the high-fidelity two-channel world. Most (but not all) SACDs have a regular CD layer, so the discs can be played in almost any type of player, from a garden-variety DVD player to home and car CD players. Sure, both both DVD-Audio and SACD use much-higher-resolution recording methods than regular CD or even DVD, but each is unique in its own way. (See Chris Lewis' SACD feature in this issue and his DVD-Audio feature in the March 2001 issue.) So, the two formats seem like apples and oranges, right?
Right. That is, until Philips unveiled their SACD 1000, the first multichannel SACD player (the unit can also play DVD-Video discs, but not the high-rez track on DVD-Audio discs). Of course, at $1,999, it's not a thrifty way to find out if SACD apples and DVD-Audio oranges taste about the same. Another minor issue is the lack of multichannel SACD software. Two promotional titles were packaged with the player, and I obtained a handful from Philips, but I was hard-pressed—even on Amazon.com—to find any multichannel titles, although I did find nearly 100 two-channel options.
Rest assured that this is a piece of gear with a capital "G." It's quite heavy, and the brushed-aluminum front will look at home in any high-end rack. The unit's simple face has a handful of buttons and a large, dimmable LED display. The back panel has the basic connections one would expect: coaxial and Toslink optical audio outputs (for CD and DVD sound only), as well as composite, S-video, and component video outputs. Fans of progressive video will have to live with the disappointment of interlaced video only, a somewhat surprising choice in a big-bucks unit. While there is a pair of analog stereo outputs, I was pretty severely warned by Philips' public-relations folks to bypass them in favor of the high-resolution six-channel analog outputs for all audio. Having worked my way through my share of DVD-Audio units, I knew to only depend on the six-channel outputs.
The remote looks moderately interesting, also sporting a brushed-aluminum finish. Although it offers control of your television, for the most part, it's a bare-bones unit. There's no backlighting, so it might be tricky to use in the dark.
I paired the Philips with an Onkyo TX-DS989 receiver (which sends the six-channel analog signal directly to its amp without any further digital processing) and RBH Signature Series speakers with direct-radiating rear surrounds. I popped in the first of the two included discs: Jerry Goldsmith's Movie Medleys with the London Symphony Orchestra. As with most of the DVD-Audio players I've encountered, I found that the SACD 1000 has fairly incomplete setup controls. The menu allows the user to set large and small speakers, channel levels, and delays, but only for DVD soundtracks. With multichannel SACD, all six channels run full-range. Since most receivers' multichannel inputs bypass these controls, there's no way to keep deep bass from your small speakers.
Regardless, I was impressed with the multichannel audio's dynamic range. Of course, results varied from disc to disc, depending on the recording quality. Further use of two-channel discs confirmed this dynamic range, also revealing the open, airy audio performance I've come to expect from SACD. As much as I would have loved to compare this player with one of the handful of DVD-Audio players I have hanging around, there's no fair way to do it without having the same software titles in both formats. Besides, it would take a very good room and very good gear to ferret out whether multichannel SACD or DVD-Audio sounds better.
I was blown away by The Byrds Greatest Hits. The SACD 1000 reproduced every last jangling guitar note with no seeming end to the high frequencies. Interestingly, unlike many of the DVD-Audio players I've tested, this unit didn't get balky about playing the Dolby Digital soundtrack on a DVD-Audio disc. In fact, I was quite impressed with the digital-to-analog converters' ability to make these audio tracks sound good. Since we haven't seen a multichannel SACD/DVD-Audio player (we're told to expect one before year's end), the seamless play of the Dolby Digital track on a DVD-Audio disc opens up software options. I also took a few spins with good old-fashioned CDs. While I could hear the difference in headroom and detail compared with SACD, the SACD 1000's DACs do a good job with the nearly 20-year-old audio format. My DTS CDs wouldn't play, but DTS DVD-Video discs worked fine.