Although the CEDIA (Custom Electronics Design and Installation Association) Expo has emerged as one of the world’s leading home theater shows, some of the coolest products I saw at CEDIA 2007 were actually targeted specifically toward music lovers. When I visited Pioneer’s booth, for example, I was surprised to find that alongside the expected plasma televisions, A/V receivers, and the like, the firm was introducing an affordable yet purist-oriented set of Elite-series stereo components; namely, the SX-A6- J and SX-A9-J stereo receivers, and the matching PD-D6-J SACD/CD player. When I asked a company spokesperson about the thinking behind the new components, the reply was simple and direct (just like the components, themselves): “We felt it was time to rediscover our 2-channel ‘roots’—time to get back to the pure pleasure of listening to music in stereo. And besides, clean, simple stereo systems are a better fit for some applications than surround- sound systems would be.” Amen to that, brother. This review takes an opportunity to sample Pioneer’s Elite SX-A6-J receiver and PD-PD-J SACD player to see what they can do.
The SX-A6-J is a handsome, beautifully built receiver that proved a joy to use. Pioneer obviously puts a lot of thought into the industrial design of its Eliteseries components, and that extra attention to detail pays off in the form of a component that is not only pleasing to the eyes and ears, but that is intuitive and “feels right” in day-to-day use. The core sound of the SX-A6-J conveys a good measure of midrange and treble subtlety and detail, plus bass that is pleasingly rich, full, and very nicely weighted. The receiver is perhaps not the last word in clarity or definition at either the highest or lowest frequency extremes, but there is a smooth, warm, relaxed quality to the SX-A6-J’s sound that makes it easy to listen to for hours on end.
Frankly I didn’t realize quite how good this little Pioneer really was until I ran my admittedly very high-end reference Musical Fidelity kW SACD player through it. What surprised me was that the SX-A6-J captured many of the deep, inner subtleties of the Musical Fidelity player’s sound, much as a more expensive component might have done.
Naturally, the 60 Wpc Pioneer does not have quite the same dynamic clout or authority that a more powerful unit might have, but within its performance envelope, which is certainly adequate for driving speakers of moderate-to-high sensitivity, it does just fine.
The receiver’s moving magnet phono section proved a pleasant surprise in that it offered smooth though slightly reticent highs, a heaping helping of midrange clarity, and remarkably authoritative bass. In fact, I’d say the built-in phono section was as good if not better than some standalone units I’ve heard that sell for a significant fraction of the SX-A6-J’s price.
The built-in AM/FM tuner was a bit of a disappointment in that it did not seem particularly sensitive or selective, and when tuned in to some of the reference quality FM stations in my area, it tended to sound somewhat veiled or muffled with a touch of excess bass emphasis. What was missing, I felt, was the sense that better receivers often give of being perfectly “locked on” to the broadcast signal, so that you can even evaluate the quality of the musical material the station is playing. But the good news, however, is that unlike many traditional stereo receivers, the SX-A6-J supports XM connectivity, so that—if you buy an XM subscription and Connect & Play antenna—you can tap in to the big “music server” in the sky. I have only one practical nit to pick, and it’s this: the SX-A6-J deserves much higher quality speaker binding posts than it presently has, and it should really have two sets of posts per channel. Here’s the deal: A receiver this good should be used with high-quality speaker cables, but the current speaker posts make it hard to use beefy cables, which are typically terminated either with spade lugs or banana jacks.
SACD/CD Receiver Performance
While the PD-D6-J is a good SACD player, I think the real reason to consider owning one would be its performance on conventional CDs. What sets the player apart is the distinctive Legato Link Pro processing feature mentioned above.
When you listen to CDs through this player with Legato Link processing turned off, they sound quite good, but—as with many players in this price range—there’s a sense that upper midrange and higher frequencies sound somewhat “flat,” two-dimensional, or lacking in low-level textural detail. But press the LEGATO LINK button on the remote and everything changes for the better. Highs suddenly become subtler, more detailed, and more fully formed while small, delicate treble spatial cues combine to give the overall sound a noticeably more three-dimensional “feel.” In short, Legato Link processing really works, taking an already good player to the next level, giving it a touch of sonic sophistication normally associated with more costly CD players.
As an SACD1 player, the PD-D6-J emphasizes the warmth, tonal richness, and treble smoothness of which good SACD recordings are capable, which is a good thing. The only tradeoff, however, is that on SACDs the Pioneer tends to slightly round off highs and to smooth over very low-level upper midrange and treble details. This characteristic gives the player unfailingly smooth and easygoing SACD sound, but at the expense of leaving behind a layer or two of low-level information that could otherwise add a lot to the music. Still, I think most listeners would prefer an SACD player whose fundamental sound is right and whose sonic drawbacks are mostly “sins of omission,” rather than the thin, brittle, “edgy” sound some affordable SACD players tend to exhibit.
“Time Rebel” from Jacob Young’s Sideways [ECM] proved a perfect vehicle for showing off the SX-A6-J’s strengths as a receiver as well as the PD-D6-J’s prowess as a CD player. The track highlights first a sumptuous trumpet solo and then a rich, round jazz guitar solo set against soaring cymbal accent notes that seem to hover for a split second, then float upwards toward the ceiling. Through the Pioneer pair, the track sounded pleasingly rich and clear to begin with, but really took off once the player’s Legato Link processing switch was engaged. Suddenly, the higher harmonics of the trumpet, and especially of the cymbals, took on a life of their own, making the sonic images of the instruments pop into sharp 3D relief, while shimmering reverberations from the cymbals rose up to fill a greatly expanded soundstage. The beauty of Legato Link processing is that it appears to be a “do no harm” system that improves sound quality without imposing garish artifacts of any kind. And the strength of the Pioneer receiver, in turn, is that it offers enough subtlety and refinement to let you hear the difference.
The track “Speak” from Nickelcreek’s This Side [Sugar Hill, SACD] reveals both the PD-D6-J’s strengths and weaknesses as an SACD player. On one hand, it captures both the sweetness and agility of Chris Thile’s mandolin as well as the evocative purity of Sara Watkins’s voice (whereas many SACD players tend to put a hard, “glassy” edge on the singer’s voice). But on the other hand, the player lost some of the textural details that should have been apparent when, about three-quarters of the way through the song, an ephemeral swirl of whispering voices appears in the mix behind Watkins’s vocals. However, when I played the same track through my reference SACD player, which was connected to the SX-A6-J, the receiver proved more than capable of resolving the echoes and edges of those whispered voices. The fact is that the receiver is the more revealing of the two Pioneer components.
1For newcomers to the hobby, the acronym SACD stands for Super Audio CD—a digital disk format that offers significantly better than CD-quality sound. While you typically won’t find SACDs at most bigbox retail outlets, the format has been widely embraced by audiophiles so that you can find a wide selection of SACDs from reputable, online music-minded retailers such as Music Direct (www.musicdirect.com).