Thursday, October 03, 2013

Review: Sony D-E441 (1999)

Sony D-E441, view from above
This review is part of a larger comparison containing seven eight vintage portable CD players and the penultimate of these reviews. You can find the final conclusion here.


I bought the Sony D-E441 one and a half year ago and initially I never intended it to be reviewed here. I purchased it only to have a spare drive for my Sony D-465. They both share a similar drive mechanism (including the DAX-11 laser) and since the D-465 is fairly unreliable I thought it to be wise to have a back-up of sorts. But surprise: the D-465 still runs decently (with few exceptions) so I´ve started to use the D-E441 for listening. It sounds quite pleasant so it might be a nice thing for some people.

Sony D-E441: side view
On the photograph above you can see that it´s quite clunky, it doesn´t feature the compact elegance of the D-E705 and the D-E555. Manufacturing quality isn´t on par either. Take the lid: it is thin, flabby and seems quite fragile. The volume button is unmarked, numbers indicating how one adjusted the gain, are missing. Not convenient. An optical output is missing as well, a line-out is present though. Inside it still shares many parts of the aforementionend models. The D/A-converter is still the Toshiba TC9438FNL, the headphone amp the TA2120FN (used in the D-E555). The ESP2 feature is again controlled by the NPC SM5902, it also employs ADPCM compression. But one thing about the ESP feature is very different: the D-E441 always stores roughly two seconds of uncompressed audio in its RAM. If you start playback, the disc winds up to double-speed and pre-reads audio material into the RAM-buffer. After this buffer is filled, it winds down to normal speed. So even when the ESP isn´t activated you always have a working, non-compressing buffer at hand - and that IS convenient. There is a disadvantage to this method: depending on the drive speed it creates some small sines which are wandering erratically through the frequency band (see the measurements below).

Sony D-E441: detail
Listening test

Headphone out

I feel like a broken record... but don´t use the headphone output, please don´t. You won´t have the bass drop-off so prevalent on the D-E705/D-E555 - it seems to have a low output impedance. Yet it distorts so much that I at first though I had done something wrong during measurement. But no, the headphone-out-produced distortions are clearly audible... and naturally, I repeated the measurements to confirm my findings.

Line out

The line out sounds calm. Very calm. On the brink of being boring. The D-E441 is a warm sounding player, reducing highest treble and deepest bass. Timing and snap however are very, very good, it is neither too fast nor too slow. The perceived diminishment of the extreme frequency response ends however reduces punch considerably. When it comes to imaging, articulation is very good and superior to the reference. On the other hand, instruments that are supposed to be placed beside the artist who´s singing/playing in the center, move quite a bit behind her/him, hiding there. A stage as compact as this one usually helps depth and holographic impression. But not here, it´s not only compact, it´s also flat. BUT: it has immaculate stability, instruments never change their size or place, they are riveted to their spot. Reverb feels like an integral part of the virtual stage (unlike the D-E705/D-E555). The 'warm' impression the D-E441 makes, is augmented by dropping musical details audible on the reference files. Differentiation suffers as well, it isn´t able to resolve parts of the music that need to be resolved. All of this creates a warm, friendly, tasteful character with immaculate imaging stability. Critics could now argue that it doesn´t sound warm but boring; they´d be right too. With some material this warmth and friendliness is indeed unbearable and sleep inducing. So if you want to own it, please consider carefully what you´re in for, if you like its characteristic sound signature.

Sonic Balance:
Stage / Ambiance:

Listen for yourself!

In this section you can compare my reference files to the recorded output of the Sony D-E441. I´ve uploaded several 30-seconds excerpts (fully legal) to Soundcloud for you to compare. This an example of transparency you won´t find anywhere else; what magazine offers audio examples of the device it reviews? These examples also serve to show how close to the source itself any device sounds when level differences are eliminated. I fully expect that some of my assessments might sound arbitrary to you, that is because differences with sources are tiny in reality. But please remember that EVERY other reviewer in the world faces the same problem. When you hit 'play' the files will be streamed to you in 128 kBit/s mp3, badly encoded. Therefore, I strongly advise you to download the files, they´re in 24/96 FLAC. With these files you not only have the highest quality possible, you´re also able to have a look at the aliasing performance of the Sony D-E441 if you want.
I wanted to upload two files to Soundcloud so that you, dear reader, would be able to compare them to their respective reference files. But as it appeared I wasn´t allowed to. Soundcloud accused me of breaking the copyright of the respective owners of the material I have been using so far. It´s funny, I didn´t even receive any warning beforehand... something like "Excuse me, Lable XYZ has alerted us that you use our platform to illegally distribute material... blablabla." I don´t distribute illegal material of course, but for labels/streaming providers, just about anyone is obviously a potential thief, redirecting the precious loot that in their mind is allotted to them by divine right. I´ve written Soundcloud an email, asking for more information. Let´s see how they answer. Depending on their answer I will decide if I´m keeping my 'Listen for yourself'-feature or not. I´m under the impression that I´ve done nothing wrong. I followed the 30-seconds-rule (it isn´t a rule really) and my blog is clearly NOT commercial (and won´t ever be) so I don´t know what their problem is.

Sony D-E441
Fancy graphs (measurements)


Sony D-E441, RMAA's own quality assessments
Sony D-E441, frequency response
Sony D-E441, noise floor
Sony D-E441, total harmonic distortions + noise
Sony D-E441, intermodulation distortions
The line out of the D-E441 distorts less than the line outs of the D-E705/D-E555. But there are some odd peaks visible just above the noisefloor, these are caused by the CD drive winding up and down. I don´t exactly know how the workings of the drive mechanism are able to sneak into the audio signal, I also don´t know if they have an effect on the sound. They shouldn´t since they are so small... but I can´t be sure. On the whole, measurements are not bad yet they aren´t stellar either.

Sony D-E441, CCIF intermodulation distortions
Sony D-E441, jitter
Sony D-E441, impulse response
Ultrasonic aliasing (imaging) distortions are strong, the two models I´ve reviewed before utilize the same D/A-converter, so it isn´t surprising that the D-E441 behaves similarly. The jitter measurement is a bit misleading: the sines right to the 11.025 Hz sine were moving over the duration of the jitter testfile; in the beginning of the 60-second file they started below the 11.025 Hz sine at roughly 8.000 Hz (CD drive winds up), at the end of the test file they were just above it, stabilizing there (CD drive now is at normal speed). An example of the CD drive leaking into the audio signal. At last, the impulse response of the D-E441 gives the impression that Sony indeed was experimenting with non-standard aliasing filtering around that time, the D-E705/D-E555 exhibit the same response. Perhaps a reason for the slightly warm signature all three players are sharing.

Headphone out

Sony D-E441, frequency response with headphones, several impedances
Sony D-E441, total harmonic distortions + noise with headphones, several impedances
Sony D-E441, intermodulation distortions with headphones, several impedances
I don´t know how often I´ve repeated these measurements... but I always came up with the same result. In short: the headphone output of the D-E441 sucks big time. While frequency response indicates a low enough output impedance, distortions are so severe that a balanced sound cannot ever be approached with this model when the headphone output is employed. I have to tell you though that distortions can be lowered considerably when the volume is lowered to half of what´s possible (which isn´t easy with the missing indication numbers). Only then you´ll lose lots of gain which defeats the purpose of using the Sony in loud environment. Just use a portable headphone amplifier and connect it to the much better line out.

Last update: 03.10.2013
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