Pioneer PD-S802 CD-player
Complete consensus is rare among hi-fi reviewers, as it is among hi-fi aficionados in general. But some products do more than engender disagreement: they inspire polarization. Pioneer's PD-S801 CD player-predecessor to the machine on review here and the first to incorporate Legato Link digital filtering-was one such. While some held it in high regard, others thought it a curate's egg.
Even to those of us in the former camp - I gave the PD-S801 an enthusiastic review - this diversity of opinion did not come as a complete surprise. At least in part as a result of Legato Link, the PD-S801 lacked its competitors' overt liveliness of sound and demanded a fundamental value judgment of the listener. Was its weightier, less 'hi-fi' presentation more natural than that of its peers, or rather a slightly dull facsimile of the real thing? You had to make up your mind one way or the other, and many opted for the security of the status quo.
Well, never let it be said that their voice went unheard in Tokyo. The PD-S802 is, if you like, Pioneer's 'Fifth Symphony' the Japanese technician's response to just criticism. It retains all the essential features of its predecessor-Legato Link filter, Pulseflow D/A converters, Stable Platter Mechanism transport-but now offers a sound quality with more sparkle. Quite how Pioneer has engineered this is unclear, but no matter: it is the outcome which counts.
For those readers who missed or have forgotten the review of the PD-S801, let me briefly reprise what Legato Link is all about. Although Pioneer calls it Legato Link Conversion, that is somewhat confusing since it has nothing to do with the D/A converter itself. Legato Link refers rather to the player's oversampling filter, which Pioneer has configured in a significantly different way from that of its competitors.
As classically conceived, digital oversampling filters have a virtually flat pass-band up to 20kHz, with a rapid roll-off thereafter to suppress the ultrasonic spuriae which result from the D/A conversion process. Legato Link substitutes for this 'brick wall' filtering a gentler, monotonic roll-off which appears less good in both respects than the conventional approach (the pass-band response has a significant high-treble roil-off, and stop-band attenuation is lessened) but which, Pioneer contends, sounds more natural.
Why should that be the case? Pioneer's rationalisation revolves around maintenance of output to ultrasonic frequencies-an explanation which conveniently ignores the fact that the additional ultrasonic output is in reality a distortion. Alternative explanations credit instead the reduction in ultrasonic oscillation ('ringing') which results from the use of a gentler filter, or changes to the phase response at high frequencies. All are necessarily guesswork. Pioneer's engineers chose the Legato Link filter characteristics by listening test, not by anything they saw on an oscilloscope or spectrum analyser. Its justification lies in its sound quality or nowhere at all.
Performance Listen to the PD-S802 and, sure enough, that justification is forthcoming. Although it now has the extra sparkle necessary to win over 801 detractors, the 802 has Specification nonetheless retained those qualities of order and image scale which so distinguished its predecessor.
Not that this is a product which deserves to have its sound quality coldly dissected, because it is the sum of its performance which so impresses rather than any component part. Of course the PD-S802 does not deliver either the gravitas or the resolution of the very best CD players, but what it does have is the happy knack-rare in inexpensive hi-fi equipment-of disguising its shortfalls within such a rounded, self-consistent performance that none of them is unduly apparent. To use an old but apposite analogy, the PD-S802 is adept at covering its tracks. Its strengths are what you notice most, not its limitations.
Pit the PD-S802 against its sternest competitors, what's more, and it becomes clear just how impressive those strengths are. I have twice heard it set against the highly-regarded (albeit ?50 less expensive) Marantz CD-52IISE, for example, and on both occasions it made a significantly better job of separating and controlling the various elements of a musical performance, and then presenting them to the listener in a coherent and involving way. Considering that a year ago the CD-52IISE was regarded as the sans pareil of budget CD players, that is a significant scalp indeed.
With all-round capability of this order, the provisos I appended to my recommendation of the 801 are no longer necessary. If you are contemplating the purchase of a £350 CD player-or even a machine of somewhat higher price-the PD-S802 is one you simply must hear. Partner it with, say, an Aura VA-100 amplifier and Mission 760iSE loudspeakers, and I promise you an £800 hi-fi system that is very hard to better.