Pioneer PD-50 CD-player
This being a Japanese-made player, it's no surprise to find it's Super Audio CD compatible. Although SACD is in the twilight of its years as a format, it retains a strong following in Japan, so it makes sense to include it, plus there is still a number of excellent, small labels releasing the discs.
The player is quintessentially Japanese in other ways, being built as if hewn from solid granite with a swish finish and plenty of features.
There's a Puie Direct mode, which cuts off the digital output driver chip and the display, for better sound through the analogue outputs and an Auto Level Control equalises the volume differences between tracks. Sound Retriever is rlaimpd to improve compressed audio files.
Inside, the unit sports a rigid base and twin power transformers separately shielded from the audio circuitry. Onboard Hi-bit32 Audio Signal Processing upsamples the digital datastream for better sound, Pioneer says. The built-in DAC sports a front-mounted USB input, which plays MP3, MPEG-4, AAC, WMA and DSD files off a memory stick or iDevice, and there's a rear-mounted coaxial digital input, too. While the casework is excellent, the plasticky disc tray lets the side down just a touch, but the supplied remote is better than many of the plastic affairs found elsewhere here.
The Pioneer sounded very Japanese' - in a good and a bad way. It proved extremely sure footed, one panelist complementing it on a "natural, competent" sound. The Annie Lennox song underlined the sure-footedness, with what the panelists called less "tilt" lo the sound. They felt the Pioneer was more matter of fact in its presentation. Instead of editorialising things it served up what was on the disc in a thorough, unmediated way.
This fine sense of control to the proceedings made it easy to hear subtle detail on the Peter Gabriel track, for example. But even though its lows were strong and firm. This made for a slightly mechanical rhythmic feel.
The Pioneer was always going through the motions; admittedly it was very thorough, but it never really let its hair down and partied.
It also sounded a tad clinical across the midband; soundstaging was wide and well articulated alright, but there was little sense of the music being natural and organic. Indeed, one listener remarked on a slightly edgy feel to Lennox's vocals, indicating a hint of brightness.
With SACD it moved up a gear, but with regular CD it didn't shine quite so well. It didn't do badly, but the panel felt it was solid rather than stunning, across a wide range of music. Overall, it did well considering its lower price, but many will feel that spending a few hundred pounds more on one of the others here rewards the listener more than they might expect.