Sony DVP-S9000ES DVD/SACD player

Sony's first Super Audio CD players were audio-only machines that did not play back DVD-Video discs. Fair enough—those machines were aimed at the top of the high-end audiophile market, and were priced accordingly. But with the DVP-S9000ES—the first DVD player to carry Sony's upscale "ES" badge—we have not only a first-class SACD player, but one priced within the reach of many home-theater enthusiasts.

But the DVP-S9000ES is more than just an SACD player; it's a flagship DVD-Video player as well. While we gave its SACD performance a listen, we evaluated it primarily as a DVD player with SACD capability, not the other way around.

Description and Features
Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, but the DVP-S9000ES is the most elegant-looking DVD player I've yet seen. Nothing about it suggests cut corners. Its graceful front panel is interrupted only by a thin disc drawer, motionless operating buttons that respond to finger pressure, six small lights, and the main power switch. The front-panel display, which can be dimmed or turned off completely, is discreetly positioned below the drawer.

Around back, the inputs are generously spaced. In addition to the normal video and audio outputs are an S-Link connector (used for enhanced operational flexibility when the DVP-S9000ES is used with other similarly configured Sony products) and a 3-position switch for choosing the format of the component outputs. One position provides an interlaced signal, another a progressive one, and a third, "Selectable," allows you to select the format desired from one of the onscreen setup menus. Because there are no onboard 5.1-channel decoders for Dolby Digital or DTS, there are no 5.1-channel connections. But the player is, of course, fully compatible with both formats through its digital outputs.

The chassis is constructed using what Sony calls Frame and Beam construction. Built of thick, copper-clad aluminum, the chassis contributes significantly to the player's weight of nearly 28 lbs. Off-center isolating feet add to the vibration-resistant design. In fact, the entire player, from the hermetic seal of its loading drawer to its heavy-duty drive mechanism, is probably unsurpassed in build quality even by far more expensive players. That goes for its circuitry as well, which is designed around glass-epoxy circuit boards, double-thick copper-foil traces, and high-performance parts.

If you've used a DVD player, you'll be familiar with most of the DVP-S9000ES's features: programmed and repeat play, parental control, multi-language setup, various forms of search, yadda yadda yadda—they're all there. But other features are not so common. The player has a number of onboard video controls, some of which are genuinely useful. These include three forms of noise reduction (Block, Luminance, Chrominance), chroma delay, Picture (contrast), Brightness, Color, Hue, Sharpness, and Gamma. There are also five different memories in which the user can lock various combinations of these video settings for future recall.

The Gamma adjustment is truly unique in providing user-accessible compensation for a nonlinear video record/playback curve. In other words, it gives you control over the brightness of the image at nine different points on the brightness curve, from 0 to 100%. The brightness can therefore, for example, be adjusted to enhance black-level detail (assuming it is present) without washing out the image. While this might be useful for improving a poorly transferred DVD, or to tweak the gamma to correct for nonlinearities in a display, it is best used with discretion, as the average user has no way of determining the "correct" settings. For this review, I left Gamma in its factory default position.

Virtually all of the DVP-S9000ES's features are best accessed through the player's onscreen menus. One of the most useful is the Play Information menu, which not only provides the video bit rate, but the audio bit rate as well, for Dolby Digital. Some DD 5.1 DVDs use an audio bit rate of 384kbps, others 448kbps. The Sony lets you see the choice made for any given transfer.

Setup and Operation
Setup of the Sony DVP-S9000ES is DVD 101: Call up the onscreen setup menu (the icon for this is a toolbox) and follow the steps in order. There is adjustable black-level setup (0 IRE or 7.5 IRE; the latter is the On setting), and a selectable chroma filter, though neither is operational when the player is used in progressive-output mode. Setup of the player—and any monitor used with it—is further helped by the fact that the DVP-S9000ES responds to below black on a PLUGE pattern. There is also a useful playback memory that can store audio, subtitle, angle, and video control settings for up to 300 DVDs.

In normal use, the Sony is similar to any other full-featured DVD player, though its mechanical operation was notably silkier than most. But watch out for the four small nubs that help center the disc on the very shallow loading tray—they look as if they could scratch a disc if you're not careful.

The remote is partially illuminated, and several key buttons are also luminescent. The joystick-style navigation/entry button is more positive in feel and action than those of earlier Sony DVD players we've reviewed. While I'm not a fan of jog-shuttle wheels (I don't jog, and find it easier to simply sit on the Scan button until I get where I'm going), the Sony's is as functional as any. My only complaints are about the too-small chapter-skip buttons and the traditional Sony procedure that requires you to push Enter after you make a numeric entry before anything happens. But I'm just voicing my personal preferences here; the DVP-S9000ES's remote is very good.

Performance: Music
While our primary interest here is the DVD-Video performance of the DVP-S9000ES, many buyers will also be interested in its performance as an SACD player. One limitation must be emphasized here: As of this writing, no SACD player will play multichannel SACDs, and the DVP-S9000ES is no exception: it plays 2-channel SACDs only. Multichannel SACDs (and, possibly, players; look for the first one from Philips/ Marantz) should begin to appear about the time you read this, and should play back on the Sony in 2-channel form, thanks to separate 2-channel SACD tracks recorded on the discs. But they won't play in multichannel, and upgrades for this player are unlikely. (Such upgrades from major Japanese manufacturers are virtually unheard-of.)

I also need to emphasize that, like most reviewers, my experience with SACD to date is very limited. I have no experience of Sony's earlier, more expensive players, and I listened to the DVP-S9000ES through an unfamiliar but very-high-quality system. (I'm still getting organized in the wake of the Guide's recent move from Santa Fe to Los Angeles.)

With those caveats out of the way, however, I can say that the DVP-S9000ES, auditioned from its analog outputs, performed beautifully on both SACDs and conventional CDs.

Sony sent along a small collection of current SACD releases, and while most were jazz and blues—neither is my favorite genre—the best of them sounded spectacularly good. McCoy Tyner (Telarc CD-83488-SA) was smooth and relaxed. There was no edginess or hardness of any kind, but no lack of detail either. Imaging was superb, and the subtle ambience of the recording space added significantly to the realism. I could hear well into the mix, including what sounded like one of the musicians scatting along with the music. The overall balance was beautifully weighted. Even though the music is not what I would have chosen, it was impossible not to be drawn into it. Jay McShann's What a Wonderful World (Groove Note GRV1005-3) and Joe Beard's For Real (AudioQuest Music AQ-SACD1049) were similarly relaxed yet involving, and equally free of edge and grain. The more I listened, in fact, the more I appreciated what I was hearing.