Philips SACD1000 First multichannel SACD player fails to deliver A combined DVD-Video, CD and six-channel SACD machine sounds too good to be true. Exactly, says Andrew Everard
given the fact that Sony has been apparently promoting Super Audio CD virtually single handed since the launch of the format, it comes as a surprise to find that the first machine able to play multichannel discs comes not from Sony but from co-developer Philips. Indeed, the SACD1000 is also the first SACD player from the Dutch-owned giant, not to mention the company's strongest audio statement for years.

Sony's first multichannel SACD players are following hot on Philips' heels, and the entry price from the Japanese company will be a fraction of the £1200 you'll have to pay for the SACD 1000, as part of a continuing drive to make SACD a mass-market medium in very short order. However, the high price of the Philips isn't just a matter of aiming for the audiophile high ground: instead Philips is aiming for wider appeal by marketing its debut machine as a combined DVD-Video/SACD/CD player. All of which either makes it a very expensive DVD-V machine with the added benefit of SACD playback, or a high-end audiophile device that just happens to play films on disc, too.

As we shall see, the truth turns out to be a little more complicated than that, but not much: despite more than a little help from former subsidiary Marantz, the Philips cuts the mustard when video is on offer as well as audio, but fails to impress as a purist player of music, be it multichannel or stereo from new-generation discs, or good old CDs.

Yes, it has its abilities, and can hold its own with the best of budget or mass-market CD and DVDVideo players, but really that isn't enough given that £1200 will buy a very good DVD-V machine, such as the Marantz DV4I000SE (which we've reviewed on page 127) and a fine CD player (although the Maranta is no slouch when it comes to CD playback), or indeed the same standard of DVD-V player and Sony's very good SCD-XB940E stereo SACD machine. Oh, and still leave useful amounts of change for the purchase of software, or discs as we used to call them!

That's a little strange, given the audio resources Philips had at its disposal at the time the SACD1000 was being developed. The output stages for the 5.1 channel analogue feeds from multichannel sources, and indeed the two-channel stereo out, use Marantz HDAIvIs, or HyperDynamic Amplifier Modules, versions of which are found in most of that company's products. The output from these is controlled by a filter switch, allowing the choice of a range up to 50kHz on all outputs, or progressive limiting on the rear channels, or all channels. This is a sensible strategy, given that manufacturers are still cautious about potential damage to amplifiers or speakers from SACD sourced signals.

As noted elsewhere, Marantz has recently bought itself out from Philips' majority ownership, and is now Japanese-owned, but when this machine was being developed it was Dutch-owned, to the extent that early demonstrations of this machine were carried out using Marantz amplification, Philips having nothing suitable in its limited audio separates range.

But back to the plot. Digital-toanalogue conversion, which - as in all SACD players - is of the single-bit persuasion (as is the format's Direct Stream Digital recording system), is operated in differential mode, this being said to give enhanced optimum linearity, while optical and coaxial digital outputs are provided for DVDVideo and CD playback (but produce no signal from SACD discs, as a copyright protection measure). Video outputs extend to two Scarts (with RBG out), S-video and composite connections, and with other features including a dual-laser pickup giving compatibility with CD-R and CD-RW discs - no surprise, as Philips is one of the major backers of CD-recorders for consumer use. Audiophile tweaks aren't really the name of the game here, but the player does use a toroidal transformer, for cleaner power and lower interference, and completely separate audio and video circuitry to avoid mutual interference between the two.

For the purposes of this test the Philips was auditioned using the 5.1-channel analogue inputs on Rotel's RSX-972 AV receiver (which we reviewed in June), and also with the digital inputs of this receiver and TAG McLaren Audio's AV32R processor, with the I0OX5R power amplifier driving the speakers. These were from Monitor Audio (front three channels) and Yamaha (rears), while equipment available for comparison included the Marantz D\TD player already mentioned, Rotel's RDV-995 DVD-V machine, and the Marantz CD-7 CD player I use as a reference, along with a Sony SCD-XB9 player (the Japanese market equivalent of the SCD-XB940E). Cabling was from Nordost and Monster, and the television set used for video assessment was a Sony.

It's worth noting at this point that players such as this do impose some limitations on the choice of amplification - basically, unless you have the 5.1 channel input, there's no way of getting the full surround effect from multichannel discs. At the moment this more or less limits users to AVtype amplifiers, with suitable 5.1 inputs becoming less common at the lower end of the market given that just about all such amps and receivers now have onboard Dolby Digital/DTS decoding, and simply take a single digital feed from a DVD player when films are being played.

There are plans for some audiophile-style multichannel amplifiers in the not too distant future, with at least one Japanese company planning an amp with 5channel inputs and outputs, and onboard two-channel amplification, the idea being that extra power amps are added as required to give the full surround shebang. A similar facility is already available on one or two high-end amps, but for the moment multi channel of this kind is really aimed squarely at the home cinema enthusiast, not the purist audiophile, or indeed those who prefer their music without pictures.

In use, the Philips seems to bear out this kind of impression -I came to it expecting an audiophile machine with video abilities, but in fact got quite the reverse. For while the SACD1000 does a fine job with DVD-Video source material, and indeed delivers high quality sound and vision at least by the standards of the format, it leaves something to be desired as a player of music.

It's not that there's anything substantially wrong 'with this machine: rather, it simply fails to amaze as one might hope given the price, the impressively simple and substantial styling, and of course Philips' pedigree as one of the original co-developers of CD. Film material is presented in fine style, be it the stunning visuals and soaring soundtrack of Gladiator or a well-recorded opera disc such as André Previn's A Streetcar Named Desire (on Arte Musik): picture quality is crisp and sharp, with well-defined yet naturally graded colours and good contrast giving fine visual punch, while the quality of the digital feed is evident in the smooth yet well-defined channel steering available from the Rotel's decoder. It should he recorded, however, that the Philips' internal decoder is less good, giving a softer, slightly hazier impression of events, which will be readily apparent through amplifiers of the kind likely to be used with a player of this price.

Even more striking is the lack of conviction with which the Philips plays CDs, the sonic balance here being warm to the point of lushness, and as a result a little soft and lazy when it comes to vital aspects such as rhythm, ambience and instrumental or vocal character. Brass lacks its characteristic metallic 'edge', even in a dramatic work such as the Strauss Alpine Symphony, while strings suffer from an almost Mantovani-like sheen or gloss that can make them infuriatingly anonymous. Voices, too, are more 'back of the mouth' than is ideal - interestingly this also being noticeable when opera discs are played through the Philips' analogue outputs, but not when a feed is taken to the decoders in the Rotel or TAG McLaren. In short, the CD playback of the SACD 1000 is no match for that of the Marantz DV4I000SE, and its video performance offers little qualitative justification for paying three times as much.

And how does it sound with SACD, both in two-channel and multichannel guises? Well, it may seem unusual to have left the player's apparent raison d'être until this late stage in the review, but I do so as much to reflect the paucity of recordings available (still, and especially of the multichannel variety), as well as to spare Philips' blushes for as long as possible. For while it's possible to appreciate the improvement in that's more of a reflection of the player's abilities with standard discs than praise for its SACD playback. Similarly, if you're expecting the multichannel bonus to save the day you're in for some disappointment: while the enveloping effect of discs such as DMP's first classical release is initially striking, wrapping the listener in a church acoustic, the overall softness of the sound means there's not the convincing ambience I've heard through some other (prototype) multichannel SACD machines, such as those from Marantz and Sony.

Failing between two stools is unfortunate, but this Philips manages the even more impressive trick of falling betw een three: it's an expensive D\TD_V player, unimpressive with CD given its price, and fails to make a solid case for SACD multichannel. Perhaps retu rning to the audiophile arena with such a machine was just a little too ambitious...