15 July, 2012

Review: Sony PlayStation 1

Review: Sony PlayStation 1 (SCPH-5003)
Home Visit: Tannoy Gold Reborn - Maggies, ESL Step Aside!

I think it was almost a decade ago, long after the PlayStation1 had become obsolete, that certain audiophiles started to re-appraise it. It took quite another while before the underground reputation reached the internet audio press (6moons), not to mention the mainstream (namely Art Dudley's informative and well written 2008 Stereophile article).

Various Versions There have been many revisions of the PS1. Read the wikipedia entry and here is also a chronological list of hardware modification. As stated in the links in the first paragraph, most agree that the version to have is the one with RCA analogue outputs that allows you to use your own interconnects. This means SCPH-1001 and -1002 in the US and Europe, respectively. My unit though, is SCPH-5003, which, according to the latter link is an Asian revision.

Click to enlarge.

Structure/Built The PS1 uses the KSM-440 CD-ROM for transport, and the DAC is the AKM AK4309AVM 16-bit sigma-delta DAC chip. I opened up my unit to confirm that these indeed are used.

Aside from the light plastic casing, built is very good, with the laser anchored on a metal platform and isolated by three rubber grommets. That is better shock absorbance than many so-called hi-end digital players!

Ergonomics Hardly great, as operation is via a linked umbilical cord. But, so are many older professional studio gears, like Studer! The Stereophile article has a diagram for instruction. On my unit, for some reason, even though it plays all discs in full, the forward button loses functionality beyond track 10. A nuisance.

Modification Given the underground reputation, the PS1 has seen many modifications, particularly from the DIY sector. A good guide and summary can be gleamed in this excellent site named dogbreath. I plan to follow some of his easier steps myself.

Before I proceed to write about my initial impressions, let it known that I shall be brief as they are pretty much in agreement with Art Dudley's. In particular:

"...During my first round of comparisons of the two output schemes, I wondered if the absolute phase of the RCA output was the reverse of the A/V output's. But the extreme smoothness of the PS1's sound in RCA mode (see below) confounded my efforts at a detailed back-and-forth comparison, and the whole matter ultimately proved too fiddly to hold my attention for long..."

"...the end impression was of a cannily tailored frequency range—that, and an exceptionally smooth sound, with no edginess or artificial grain whatsoever...."

"...Above all, with every CD I tried, the PS1 exhibited a superior level of rhythmic acuity, or—since it's true that an amplifier or CD player can't make recorded music sound faster or more propulsive than it actually is—a superior lack of the distortions that can blunt leading-edge transients and make music sound temporally dull and listless. Even slow, broadly paced music sounded involving through the PS1: the best and truest praise I could give it..."

pic: icefox's magnificent Tannoy's

Sonic Evaluation - Round 1
Remember my well-connected friend icefox, aka "the audio pimp" 淫媒 (so named by me for his ability to arrange visits of all kinds that satisfy all tastes, no matter how perverse). Yes, the one who is my taskmaster, who occasionally visits me just to whip me into shape.

You may also remember my numerous previous visits to his large industrial space. This man has wide-ranging tastes (including Maggies, SP100, and ESL) but it has always been Tannoy that shines in his place. Previously, his Tannoy 15" Gold's in original corner York cabinets (you can still see one right next to the door) had sounded very good.

As the pimp did me the favor of picking up the PS1 for me, it was time for me to visit his newest Tannoy setup. Incidentally, you may have noticed that I do fewer home visits these days, not only because of lack of time, but also because of diminishing interest - so few setups are really worth hearing.

The 15"s are now installed in a newly acquired pair of original rectangular York's and placed in the middle of the the room. Simple setup:

Digital Source: Sony DVP-PR50P (my previous Best-Buy selection) vs PS1
Preamp: Passive
Amp: Leak TL10.1
Loudspeakers: Tannoy 15" Gold's in original rectangular York cabinets

The sound instantly struck me as very good, AND very modern, without any trace of sluggishness. Apparently, this pair had the two frequency controls removed. I am sure that adds to the transparency though many vintage aficionado's may frown upon it. Initially, a pair of Optimus "super-tweeters" were attached and driven by an ss amp. After a few cuts we removed it - I did not feel it was needed!

The bass at first did not plumb the depth it should have, so I lifted up the front with a small chunk of wood - resulting in a cleaner bass that goes down lower (this trick works every time). The sound was so transparent that it was almost too much at times, particularly with violin tone. Also, in this large space, judicious use of volume has to be exercised - the Leak runs out of steam after a certain level, and the sound becomes fuzzy and loose, rather benignly distorted that is.

PS1 We swapped in the PS1 and to my ears the sound improved. The sound field shifted back and there was more representation of the recording venue. Martzy's violin was more richly nuanced. Indeed the sound was much more composed. The interesting thing was that resolution did not appear to be less than the 24/96 newer Sony player!

The system, which is only in the initial phase of setup, already sounds more than promising. It had totally outperformed what had gone before. Once again, the visit further strengthened several of my convictions:
  • If you listen to a wide range of music, despite what many vintage fanatics maintain, later Tannoy concentrics are superior to earlier ones (Silver, Red etc). They are simply more even in frequency response, more extended in at both ends and go much louder. The Gold is as undervalued as the Silver and Red are over-rated.
  • Original Tannoy cabinets always sound decent! I have heard too many bad reproduction cabinets.
  • ESL is only suited to small spaces and simple music - there is no way to get around it, and it would never be for me. Maggies in larger spaces fare better but demand much effort - even then, the results would not be as good as a good pair of dynamic speakers. Not worth the effort.
  • Digital gears need not be expensive. The Pimp sighed and confessed that modern digital stuff appeal to him less and less.

Click to enlarge.

Sonic Evaluation - Round 2
Back home, I was able to carry out more detailed evaluation. The PS1 was connected by a pair of Audio Note silver AN-V. Setup:

Digital Source: YBA WD202 vs PS1
Preamp: Leben RS-28CX
Amp: Wavac MD-300B
Loudspeakers: Tannoy Canterbury HE

My setup is smoother sounding than The Pimp's, and that should work against the PS1, but it was not so simple. I heard the same things, composure and a more recessed sound field. A few comments:

Output Level Although lower output levels can sound more refined, with SET amps usually high output sources work better, for obvious reasons. That is one reason I still keep my Audio Note DAC-2, which has a very high output level (I think 6V). However, both the YBA (a normal 2V) and miraculously the PS1 (a paltry 1.09V) manage to keep the music always engaging. When doing comparison, you must remember the PS1's 1.09V is >5db lower in level when compared the 2V output standard ! When level matched, the PS1 performs well. Many years ago, I heard a 1V Muse DAC at the now defunct HK Opera Audio - it did not work at all. The PS1 works much better at keeping the excitement while being refined.

Mechanical Aspects The PS1 is light. I tried various devices underneath it. None works better than doing nothing. BUT, as often (if not always), playing with the lid open improves the sound. To do this, you have to find a way keep down the piston at the upper right hand corner of the tray.

Composure The PS1 exhibits one rare quality. Unlike much digital, it gets better as it gets louder! That is an analogue quality, if you ask me! As Art Dudley said, the leading edge is more correctly rendered than most digital sources (also a sterling quality of the YBA). Sigh, the CAS people would never know that.

AKM The PS1 strengthened my conviction that AKM makes excellent chips. I am not sure why they are not more often seen in audio gears. Previously I had only encountered it in a Primare CDP (more about that and AKM here). If highest end Esoteric use them, they must be good!

Great fun! You'd certainly hear more about the PS1.

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