Sony TA-E9000ES Digital Preamp/Surround Processor

Ugly Duckling Becomes a Swan

Does Hardware or Software Make the Preamp?

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The Sony SDP-EP9ES surround processor/preamp was an astounding accomplishment: musical sound from a $750 list processor, with performance to rival processors costing thousands of dollars more.

So it was with great interest and expectations that we awaited the new top of the line Sony processor, the TA-E9000ES, $1,700 list. In addition to its quality lineage from the EP9ES, the 9000 would add internal analog to digital converters so the unit could handle analog sources (which the EP9 can process only with the addition of an a/d converter such as the ACKDAC), DTS/MPEG decoding in addition to the EP9’s Dolby ProLogic and Dolby Digital, an impressive Analog Devices SHARC floating point processor for decoding, and video switching (but with no onscreen display).

What a disappointment when the unit arrived, however, in January 1999. The problems were widely reported on Internet newsgroups, and included:

    1. A remote control that completely drained 4AA batteries per week, suffered from poor visibility due to low screen contrast, and wouldn’t reliably communicate with the 9000.
    2. Sound from the 9000 that was bright and harsh, unlike the smooth EP9.
    3. Sound that did not always sync with video.
    4. Sound problems ranging from high noise levels to extraneous clicks.
Clearly the product shipped before it was ready, without adequate quality control and debugging - on both the hardware and software side - to prevent these problems from reaching customers. Computer users have gotten accustomed to this problem in the software world, where new releases so commonly contain (sometimes insidious) bugs that many users are reluctant to upgrade until well after these problems are reported and resolved. While that hasn’t been the history in the audio world, it may become more common. Perhaps the 9000 is an unwitting illustration of the developing convergence between the home theater and computer arenas. The 9000 is as much a software product as it is a hardware product – indeed, one can think of it as a dedicated audio computer with specialized software. As discussed below, the ultimate solution for the sound problems turned out not to be a hardware fix, but rather a software upgrade.

The unit sounded bright and harsh when it first arrived, so it was run through the usual one-week break-in on test tones and pink noise. This break-in has tamed many nettlesome products. Not the 9000, however. It remained just about as bright (especially in the critical midrange) as it was right out of the box. Although the unit was extremely detailed and dynamic, and imaged well, the uptilted harmonic structure made it less than a joy to hear, especially considering that many movie soundtracks start out painfully bright as it is.

To make matters worse, the remote control’s infinite appetite for AA batteries soon appeared – sort of Rosie O’Donnell at a smorgasboard. Even if the remote was not used at all, it was draining four AA batteries per week. It would go through batteries even faster if used, especially since the low-contrast, barely-visible screen required constant use of the power hungry backlight. It would cost hundreds of dollars in batteries a year – and lots of time changing them – just to keep this puppy alive.

Next, on some DVD’s the unit demonstrated a lipsync problem: characters’ mouths would move but the sound of their voice was out of sync by a significant degree. Nothing could do more to distract from and destroy the dramatic impact of a film.

Sony customer service was undoubtedly barraged with complaints from users, and Internet newsgroups and bulletin boards reflected the concerns, but for some time the response from Sony was - silence.

After a few months, Sony service called us with a fix for the remote. Off it went to Sony service, disappearing for three weeks. It came back with its Rosie O’Donnell appetite for batteries tamed to more of a Calista Flockhart level, so far. However, the other problem still remains. The remote must be pointed directly and carefully at the 9000 or it won’t properly communicate the commands being sent and won’t properly receive the status response from the 9000 (the remote is bi-directional, in standard mode). This problem appears with only a 12 foot distance between the remote and the 9000, and with the 9000 almost directly in front of the remote.

Lots of users were wondering about that RS-232 port on the back and how it might be used to improve the situation. Rumors on the Internet of a new firmware release for the decoder chip abounded, but nothing appeared on Sony’s web site. Many owners were looking to download the new software from the Internet so they could upgrade the unit themselves via that RS-232 port, instead of sending the unit to Sony and losing use of it for weeks. Then, one day version 1.04a appeared on the Internet – not on Sony’s web site, but on the web site of a 9000 owner in Europe. Exactly how the software had gotten from Sony to this 9000 owner in Europe has not been determined, and it appears more likely that the location of Jimmy Hoffa’s remains will be discovered first. Nevertheless, this Internet-posted software offered a chance to see what difference new software could make.

Here’s where that RS-232 port on the back of the 9000 became useful. Following the instructions in the download file, and using a crossover serial cable, it was a simple, five-minute exercise to upgrade the 9000 with the new firmware. Of course, there were some brave souls who tried the software upgrade first without knowing exactly what it would do, or whether it contained any destructive virus – much like the first person who ate an artichoke. Fortunately, the software turned out to be authentic and virus-free.

Like the nurture vs. nature debate in biology, 9000 owners faced the hardware vs. software debate. Were the 9000’s problems inherent in its hardware, so that nothing could effect repairs short of returning the entire unit to Sony for a factory-authorized hardware modification, or were the problems emanating from the decoding software in the unit, and hence correctable with a simple software upgrade?

The answer was: it’s the software. The upgrade (version 1.04a) solved the lipsync problem, and at the same time improved the sound quality by reducing noise levels and slightly improving bass and imaging. The unit also seemed just a bit tamer in the uptilted frequency response. Cool. The sound was still not as smooth as the EP9, but progress had been made. Shortly afterwards, however, some users complained of a clicking sound that had appeared on certain material along with the 1.04a upgrade. This sounded like the computer software world again – where a bug fix could generate new, unanticipated bugs. Convergence strikes – not necessarily in a positive way.

Weeks later, rumors circulated on the net of a newer version 1.07 firmware update, and then an even newer version 1.10c. Again, Sony did not post the updates on the web, and in fact declined to provide the software to customers. Rumors circulated that customers who had upgraded the unit themselves had voided their warranty from Sony. Indeed, one cooperative United States dealer who had posted the version 1.04a firmware update on its web site was reportedly required to remove the software by Sony. Again, newsgroups and bulletin boards buzzed with complaints from customers that Sony was refusing to provide the latest update via the web, and requiring users to part with their units for a factory update.

Once again, however, an individual customer from Europe posted the latest update, version 1.10c, to his web site, making it available for download to 9000 owners throughout the world. Again, how this happened is a mystery. Was releasing the software an official Sony action that was executed through this circuitous route? Or was it the action of some rogue employee who violated top company policy to help out customers? Or did some customer sneak into a Sony facility one evening, ski mask in tow, and walk out with a copy of the software? Nobody’s talking. We’ll have to wait for the Oliver Stone film to find out what really happened.

However it got there, we and others were happy to pull the 1.10c software off the net and again find it a simple matter to use the RS232 port and our PC’s upgrade the 9000 with the latest decoding algorithms.

And what is the result of upgrading to Version 1.10c of the software? It is a big step forward. The 9000’s brightness has been tamed. The frequency response is smooth and sweet – this is the most dramatic of several improvements. In addition, now the 9000 exhibits astounding detail, impressive dynamics, more powerful and faster bass, better imaging in both 2-channel and multi-channel modes, lower noise, and better delineation of individual instruments and voices in complex passages. With this firmware upgrade alone, the 9000 has been transformed from a flawed performer with promise, into a world-class surround sound processor. It’s now very musical, and offers a clear view of the source material (for better or worse, and with much video sound, unfortunately, for worse). The unit is now worthy of serious consideration – just make sure what you’re listening to has version 1.10c of the software installed (you can check by hitting auto format, and then turning the +- dial counterclockwise to scroll the text: the last scrolling text contains the version number).

H. Les Holt
June 20, 1999