REVIEW: PIONEER PD-70AE SUPER AUDIO CD PLAYER
Don’t know about you, but I see Pioneer’s new PD-70AE SACD/CD player as a signal that this legacy brand is hurtling back into stereo.
SUPER AUDIO CD PLAYER
Don’t know about you, but I see Pioneer’s new PD-70AE SACD/CD player as a signal that this legacy brand is hurtling back into stereo.
Think back a couple of decades when Pioneer leapt into Plasma TV production to add video to its audio credentials.
A foray into display monitors when home cinema was starting to boom. Pioneer’s Kuro Plasma TVs were and still are the finest plasma TVs ever made on planet earth.
Sadly in the race to the bottom of TV pricing that every manufacturer engaged in, Pioneer decided to hive off its unprofitable plasma TV plants.
You can’t make a Pioneer Kuro plasma for a handful of dollars. Pioneer refused to drop its plasma quality standards and sold off its TV manufacturing plants with Panasonic being the beneficiary.
Pana got the Kuro technology and the skilled workforce. But we all know how plasma eventually fared as it faced off against the LCD TV.
But more carnage was ahead for Pioneer.
In 2015 Pioneer offloaded its home audio division. It was bought by a newly formed company called Pioneer/Onkyo.
Pioneer has a 14.5 percent share in the new venture making it a minority partner. The major shareholder is Gibson Brands (Gibson Guitars) with a 20 percent share.
The same year, Pioneer sold its DJ division to private equity company KKR. The sales leave Pioneer poised as a car audio manufacturer.
The once great audio company now a pale imitation of its former self is a victim of history.
The historical fire that burned Pioneer has a happy ending for audiophiles: the Pioneer/Onkyo pairing that rose Phoenix-like from the industrial ashes, has produced the P70-AE to match one of its stereo amps such as the A-70DA.
The new models are a harbinger of the good stuff to come, and a testament to the skilled engineers culled from the old workforces of both Pioneer and Onkyo, and who now populate the new merger.
The result is the Pioneer PD-70AE, an SACD/CD player with a high-end build and sound quality but with a mid-fi price tag of just $3499 RRP.
After unpacking this heavyweight of a player and drawing several deep breaths because of its Porsche-like build quality and overall presentation, I knew that what I had in my listening room was potentially an audio bargain.
Without any exaggeration, the new Pioneer delivered sonically in spades.
So much so, it confirmed two things: Pioneer was unarguably back into stereo, and secondly, it was back with a sound quality that was different to any Pioneer stereo model I’d heard before. This includes the UK tuned best seller of an integrated amplifier called simply, the A400.
Coincidently and more a matter of luck than good planning, the review sample of the PD70-AE arrived at the same time as did Marantz’s uber SA-14S1 SE SACD/CD player.
The Marantz was reviewed here recently. But its arrival gave me ample opportunity to compare both.
I alluded to the differences between the two new players. The Marantz had an ultra-smooth character that bordered ever so slightly on the lush side of neutral.
In comparison, the Pioneer was, its solar opposite having a character that ever so slightly veered to the cool side of neutral.
Both as it turned out were capable of presenting immense layers of musical detail. Both had commendable pinpoint imaging ability and a soundstage that stretches from side wall to wall and whose height was palpably life size.
The difference between the Marantz and the Pioneer came down to emphasis, and that has a lot to do with the “voicing” of both these models.
If I was using the Wilson Audio Sasha, Yamaha NS100 or B&W 805 Matrix, all speakers that I consider are on the dry side of tonal neutrality, I preferred the Marantz.
But when I swapped to my mid 90’s Rogers LS35/A or Dynaudio Focus 220, speakers with a warmer mid-range, I preferred the Pioneer.
The differences, however, are so marginal as not to be an issue for most music lovers. To prove the point, I used the Sashas for the bulk of the Pioneer review with outstanding results and generous levels of musical enjoyment.
Also worth noting, is the Pioneer arrived spanking new. After 40 hours, enough of a change was heard to suggest that this player needs about 200-500 hours of use before all the level of refinement it has to offer, can be savoured.
But here’s the thing: the silver disc whether SACD or CD doesn’t win many friends for its soundstage. Similarly, imaging isn’t digital’s strong suit with performers typically lacking realistic body, depth and presence compared to vinyl.
Both the Pioneer and Marantz do the depth thing pretty well. Not nearly as good as decent analogue, but plenty good enough to make digital music replaying enjoyable.
As for imaging, the pair fleshes out instruments and performers with more authenticity than they ought.
Not as well as the good analogue systems do, but good enough to put both players in an elite league of silver disc spinners.
Given the relative price points, the Marantz is $4995 and the Pioneer $3499; both are value-laden, mid-priced players vying with top-tier models for line honours.
Vital Statistics, Specs And Features
Let’s preface the specs and features part of this audio yarn by pointing out we agree, that dallying around measurement and specs can be a mind-numbing experience for readers.
Ditto for professional HiFi journalists who admit to having a wee bit of soul. Mind you, there are those in the reviewing fraternity who get off on specs.
To this bunch of geezers allow me to say, I’ve got no time for the “exact people“ approach to living. Frankly, I’ve got better things to do with my time than counting the number of pixels on a TV screen.
But that’s what one credentialed hi-fi writer did on a manufacturer’s junket to Japan some years ago. While his colleagues lounged around enjoying the images on the screen, our lad put his nose against it.
Asked what the bejesus he thought he was doing, our man in Japan said “counting the number of pixels to see if my tally lives up to the brand’s hype.” And it was all said without a hint of irony.
So why mention it here? Because I loathe specs. But am so taken by the breathtaking build of the new Pioneer, and its unexpectedly high-end sound quality, conveying these specs and features while hardly enjoyable, isn’t as much as a pain the backside as it usually would be.
Even a numbers averse neophyte like me sits up when I read that the Pioneer weighs 18KG. Which explains why my back hurts each time it’s lifted out and then reinserted into my rack.
I also admit to being tickled to read it has a massive aluminium disc drawer and the chassis has a housing with a double floor, three interior assemblies and an encapsulated drive block serving as the ideal, vibration-free mechanical foundation.
The CD drive case is shielded and finished with anti-vibration paint. How’s that for attention to detail?
As for the power supplies, these are a lavish affair. There are separate supplies for the analogue and switching range to derive snow-white clean, supply voltages.
Moreover, the PD-70AE has its data for its hefty output amplifiers read by Pioneer’s own drive software. The fine-tuning of the PD-70AE involved teams of Japanese and Europeans listening and coordinating with each other for months.
As for the DAC chips, this player has two units of the premium ESS ES9026PRO SABRE DAC chips, and these are considered as one of the most accurate on the market. These chips are used in the double-mono configuration.
The analogue section uses a fully symmetrical layout and delivers the music signal via symmetrical XLR connections or switchable RCA jacks that are built to withstand the heaviest and stiffest of interconnecting cables.
But the design feature that is a standout for me has to do with the PD70-AE’s capacitors. These are no ordinary off-the-shelf caps. Instead, they were custom made for Pioneer and one huge reason why this player sounds so good and so different, from any of Pioneer’s previous flagship machines.
Connections are laid on and include one pair of gold-plated RCA outputs, one pair of gold-plated XLR outputs, one coaxial output, one optical output, one coaxial input and one optical input.
As for fit and finish, the PD70-AE’s is exemplary externally. Peer inside, and it’s luxury build quality all the way as typified by a honeycomb mechanism cover, aluminium side panels and rigid bottom plate.
The PD70-AE reads SACD, CD, CD-R/RW, DVD-RW, DVD+R/RW and supports WAV, FLAC, AIFF, ALAC, MP3, WMA, AAC and DSD files.
The player’s dimensions are 435mm wide, 142mm high and 413mm deep. Yes. Numbers that tell you the PD70-AE is a heavyweight player and not a dinky disc spinner.
Scaling Sonic Peaks
From the get-go, the PD70-AE was trialled as a standalone DAC. With a MacBook Pro as a signal source and Chord Company optical and digital cables, my selection of Tidal tracks sounded as good as they were going to get played through a premium grade DAC built into an SACD player.
But a “light-bulb’’ moment about the quality of this DAC arrived after using the PD-70AE as an integrated player for some hours.
It dawned that the tonal quality and overall sonic qualities heard playing the MacBook through the DAC, were front and centre when the PD-70AE was used in integrated mode.
What this tells me is the Pioneer’s DAC is no sonic slouch, but mostly that its laser mechanism and drive is sonically so transparent as to be invisible. My inference is that this whisper quiet disc drive mechanism is top grade all the way.
So top grade, it plays well-recorded SACD’s marvellously and well-recorded CDs sound convincing as well.
Musically the new Pioneer sets new standards for a top-line Pioneer player. Slip a copy of Sting’s Sacred Love album recorded on SACD, and you’re greeted with a tsunami of musical energy.
Don’t let the title fool you into thinking Sacred Love is yet another of Sting’s sugar-coated, inoffensive recordings. This album is very different to the Stinger’s usual snooze-inducing musical syrup.
If I had to describe the overall flavour of the album, I’d use placenames such as “South American”, “Cuban” and “Spanish”. It's kind of like Sting revisited Paul Simon's later albums and said to himself, “Gosh, Batman I can do that’’.
The Pioneer delivered pacey tracks such as Inside, 'Whenever I say Your Name', or 'Sacred Love', with a vibrancy and vitality that invites you to sit up and take notice.
'Sacred Love' spread across my room with an abundance of space between, behind and in front of the performers and instruments in the band. The new Pioneer is a spatial king. And the space it conjures has height as well as depth and spread.
Play 'Sacred Love' and detail retrieval isn’t a question left handing over the Pioneer’s massive chassis. Because, dear music lover, there’s so much detail populating the aforementioned soundstage that you’ll be so absorbed revelling in subtle, overt and normally hidden riffs and notes, you won’t have time to ask the question.
The Pioneer’s midrange ability is showcased by the way it handles vocals. An ability to make you believe you’re feeling Sting’s breath as he hits a crescendo is a rare talent for any SACD player.
Focus your attention on the treble, and you’ll probably come away thinking it’s sweet when the track demands it, incisive with incisive music and brittle with poorly recorded discs. Nothing is added or removed from high frequencies played through the PD-70AE. If you want your treble sugar-coated, look elsewhere.
Finally the best bit: although the Pioneer like the Marantz SA-14S1 SE, has a beautifully balanced and ruler flat frequency response, bass frequencies will leave you gobsmacked.
The Wilson Sashas are legendary for a bottom end that is informative, ultra-tight and lightning fast to respond. If the disc has ample bass and the components further up the chain are up to muster, the Sasha’s bass output seems to hit your body with real force and verve.
The Pioneer’s bass performance is about the best I’ve heard from any player including my beloved Audio Research Reference 7MKII CD player. Though it pains me to say it, the PD-70AE‘s bass I heard from the Allan Taylor track 'The Beat Hotel', was scary in its intensity and clarity.
The track is recorded on Taylor's Dreamers and Hotels album but also on a Stockfisch Records compilation called Closer To The Music.
Both albums were produced by JVC on XRCD discs. I recommend both highly to audiophiles for their crystal clear sound quality but also to music lovers who prize original artists performing their own compositions.
Closer To The Music has a David Munyon track called 'Save the Whales in Placerville and Hickston'. A track I reach for whenever I want to check out a component’s timing and pace abilities.
A third of the way through this totally musically absorbing song and husky personalised lyrics, I realised the PD-70AE’s presentation of timing and pace had me riveted to the listening chair.
To confirm this timing ability I placed the Stones' Let It Bleed SACD into the loading tray and spun the track called 'Country Honk'. Sure enough, you could just about hear and see the Stone’s feet stamping the studio floor as bass and lead guitars used as percussion instruments resounded around my living room.
But what about the classier, gentler styles of music? The Pioneer could boogie but could it do finesse and subtlety. To explore this query, I played Magdalena Kozena’s fairly recent album called Love and Longing.
Kozena selected songs from Dvorak, Ravel, and Mahler to illustrate her theme of Love and Longing. Each one is a gem even if the recording quality is not.
But I was keen to hear the Pioneer’s interpretation of the Mahler Masterpiece called Ruckert-Lieder, a collection of five incomparable songs. Kozena’s version is amongst the handful to really bring out the lyrical beauty of this masterwork.
The songs are delicate as is the orchestration. A heavy-handed approach by an insistent player is not what this quintet requires.
To present them at their best, a player has to simply get out of the way and disappear. Few SACD or dedicated players can meet this challenge. And it has to be said, neither did the Pioneer, but the Marantz SA-14S1 SE did.
Where the Marantz player simply let go of the music enabling Kozena’s voice and the instruments to flow over the listener cossetting the senses as it did, the Pioneer held the music with a firmer hand.
To be sure, this approach isn’t without its reward because what you’ll hear is ostensibly a lot more detail and with greater clarity than the Marantz seems to offer.
But it’s an illusion. The Marantz has as much detail retrieval ability as the Pioneer. The difference comes down to emphasis. A great word to describe the way both players have been voiced by their respective designers.
And that's audio in a nutshell. Two players with abundant levels of neutrality, a ruler flat frequency response, bugger all levels of noise or distortion, but the pair will sound subtlety different used in the same system.
Both players are high-end models, and both have an enviable and remarkably good build quality and level of overall finish. If you’re craving for engineering and manufacturing you can’t go past the Japanese when they get serious.
Choosing between the Pioneer and the Marantz if money isn’t a concern is going to present quite a challenge to prospective buyers. The Marantz doesn’t have XLR outputs whereas the Pioneer does. This may be a deal breaker for some buyers.
But the Pioneer has an RRP of $3499. The Marantz’s RRP is $4995. Quite a difference, and one large enough to swing buyers to the Pioneer.
Either way, the new Pioneer PD-70AE Super Audio CD Player is a towering achievement for the new Pioneer/Onkyo partnership, and it’s a player more than good enough to place on StereoNET’s 'Best of 2018' shortlist.
For more information visit Pioneer.
One of the veterans of the Australian HiFi industry, Peter was formerly the Audio-Video Editor of the Herald Sun for over two decades. One of the most-respected audio journalists in Australia, Peter brings his unparalleled experience and a unique story-telling ability to StereoNET.
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