Sony CDP-X222ES CD-player
If it's features, flexibility and fine build quality you're after then look no further than the CDP-X222ES. Sony doesn't miss a trick when it comes to inventing new and ever more obscure widgets. But the company shows a similarly firm grasp over its bitstream DAC technology. The 222 is the cheapest of its second-generation bitstream players to use a pair of Sony 'PLM' DACs in complementary mode, a technique that reduces distortion, lowers noise and improves sound quality.
Still, it's worth knowing that this player can sound far too bright and hard during the first few hours out of its box. Leaving a disc on 'all repeat' for a day or two should, however, give you with a far tamer beast: still open and ebullient but not nearly so relentless in its presentation.
Yet the success of this machine is rather more dependent on the type and balance of CDs than the Pioneer or Marantz players, for example. I found that the no-holds-barred pop of Madonna's Immaculate Collection became harsh and tiring through the Sony, though the same machine breathed a welcome freshness and vitality into Joni Mitchell's dusty-sounding Night Ride Home. Whereas players like the Kenwood DP-7030 did little to pull this latest CD from the doldrums, I was able to relish the extra clarity, transparency and pithy detail revealed by the 222ES. The skirmish of cymbals seemed to bounce from a bed of air, integrating quite seamlessly with the equally delicate timbre of guitar and familiar nasal colouration of Mitchell's voice.
I was left with a similarly positive impression when listening to Judie Tzuke's new Left Hand Talking CD. Here was the lively and transparent balance heard before, the delicacy of the guitars and keyboard maintained alongside the powerful tenor of her voice - and not a hint of sibilance.
The CDP-X222ES provides every feature you've ever dreamt of in a CD player plus a few extras thrown in for good measure. Multi-mode repeat, programming, direct track access, index search, tape edit, auto fader and peak search facilities are all passe to the 222. But add to this extras like an auto-cue, motorised volume, dim and douse display options, plus Continuous, Shuffle, Program and Custom Index play modes and you've some idea of the 222's armoury. Even within the Custom Index memory you've the choice of programming in favourite selections from up to 185 CDs while also assigning 10-letter titles, storing personalised index points or even pre-setting the player's volume. Next year's model is expected to include a coffee grinder and/or teasmaid!
But not everything in Sony's camp is so obviously under control. At its best the 222 is light of foot, not lean exactly, but blessed with a free and bubbly sound that can really swing. Yet there's often a certain superficiality about its presentation, a habit of ignoring the music's natural richness and tonal depth even if the end result could rarely be described as bland.
I've mentioned already that the 222 is not consistent in its handling of CDs. I was certainly shaken from my reverie by the rude sound of sax and trombone on Marty Paich's Too Close for Comfort, subtlety deserting the player, if only for an instant. The raw sound of brass ripped harshly through the soundstage.
This is a great pity because the player's sound is otherwise so open, light and fresh that it is near impossible not to fall under its spell. Only during the loudest and busiest of tracks is the magic shattered. Brief though these moments are they still left me vexed - I was always anticipating a possible breakdown in the music's composure.
There's no doubt that this player improves dramatically the longer it's left ticking-over. So who's to say that even these last niggling inconsistencies wouldn't be ironed-out after months of use? But are you prepared to wait that long when other, albeit less well-specified, players are simply more dependable?