Way back in 1990, Pioneer created something of a sensation in the UK hi-fi market by introducing a reasonablypriced integrated amplifier – the A-400 - aimed at audiophiles on a tight budget. It was a bold move. The UK was a tough market to crash, and Pioneer had little or no pedigree in the field of budget esoterica. True, they made the fabled PL-12D turntable. But that was back in the early ‘70s. The ‘80s saw Pioneer producing solid but rather average products that slowly slipped from the enthusiast’s view in a market dominated by British manufacturers.
So it was that, in the early part of 1990, a small group of writers (of which I was one) were taken to Japan to find out about the soon-to-be-launched Pioneer A-400. It was an interesting trip, demonstrating Pioneer’s audiophile credentials and capabilities should they chose to apply them. I did the first review of the A-400 later that same year, and it was something of a rave, greatly exceeding my expectations. Later that same year it won Amplifier of the Year at the What Hi-Fi Awards, its success sealed when it was made their Product of the Year… It went on to be a massive seller, and deservedly so.
With the A-A9, Pioneer launch what could well be the A-400 for the early 21st Century. It’s a compact but heavy little integrated amplifier offering a conservatively rated 55W per channel output. Like the A-400, it’s outwardly a very simple piece of kit. But it has quite a few ‘extras’ hidden away. These include inputs for MM/MC phono cartridges, a USB input, remote control, stereo balance and bass/treble tone controls, and something called a Sound Retriever, which restores some of the lost bandwidth when playing compressed audio from MP-3. For audio purists ‘Direct’ bypasses all this for a cleaner sound. Build quality is excellent, with a honeycomb chassis and big twin torroidal mains transformers – one for each channel. The circuit layout is for the most part left/right symmetrical, creating two individual amplifiers, each with its own transformer and power supply. As a result, stereo sound-staging is particularly wide and deep.
Partnering the A9 amplifier is the matching PD-D6 SACD/CD stereo disc player. Like the A9, it’s a deceptively simple product. But there are quite a few additional facilities accessible via the remote handset. Pioneer claim that both products have been ‘fine tuned’ with input from recording engineers at AIR Studios, London. Presumably, Pioneer carried out some of the final component tweaks and adjustments based on their comments and suggestions. In recognition, both items carry an AIR Studios Monitor legend on the front panel.
First impressions, both collectively and individually, were of a bright, lean, and highly detailed sonic presentation. The A9 amplifier gave a very crisp sound that was smooth and clean, yet very immediate and articulate. I went to the A9 from Musical Fidelity’s massive kW- 550 integrated, and the comparison was interesting. The kW- 550 has served as my reference amplifier for the past few months, and has proved itself a tough act to follow. It’s an exceptionally clean and powerful-sounding amplifier with a smooth yet vivid presentation. In terms of price, it’s significantly more expensive than the A9, but I compared them anyway… The Pioneer A9 might be smaller and cheaper, but it more than held its own against the bigger amp in terms of detail and sharpness. It seemed to offer comparable cleanness and purity, and appeared to be every bit as detailed and focused. I used the A9 in its Direct mode, and this definitely gave the best sound.
Where the A9 showed its limitations in comparison to the kW-550 was at middle and lower frequencies. It hasn’t quite got the fullbodied voluminous depth of the bigger more expensive amplifier. The sound is lighter and brighter, with less sheer weight and substance.
The bass goes deep, but doesn’t have the same breadth. Given that the A9 costs about a sixth of what a kW-550 would set you back, you might say this is an unfair comparison. And I would agree. But the A9 is so good, it invites comparisons of this sort: Its one of those amplifier that punches well above its weight. With only a little more breadth and weight, the A9 would be near perfect.
In many ways, the D6 SACD player proved a worthy partner for the A9. It also has a sharp and highly detailed sound – bright, yet very smooth and clean. The result is crisp focused music. It also offers the potential benefit of being able to play SACD as well as CD. Generally speaking, SACD sounds slightly cleaner and more natural than CD. I compared the SACD and CD layers on Hybrid discs, and (in a few instances where I had the original CD and a later SACD re-issue) CD with SACD. In a couple of instances the CD sounded better than the SACD, but most of the time the latter won, sounding smoother, cleaner, and slightly more open with a ‘quieter’ less busy and less mechanical presentation. Of course, results vary with individual discs but SACD is certainly capable of superior performance.
The D6 has a Pure Audio option for best sound quality. In this mode, the display and digital output sockets are switched off, resulting in a cleaner, purer sound. The D6 also has Pioneer’s Legato Link Pro – a clever piece of signal processing that aims to restore the missing high-frequency detail barred with bandwidth-limited CDs. Pioneer introduced Legato Link many years back, and its qualities divided listeners at the time. Listening to Legato Link Pro, I liked it but can’t get over-excited about the difference either way. Nevertheless, I feel it does produce an improvement and is worthwhile having. If you’re not convinced, you can always switch it off of course…
Track access is a bit slow. The D6 likes to have a bit of a think before it responds to your commands. Likewise, fast winding through tracks is slow and ‘jerky’ – instead of winding back or forth smoothly and quickly, the D6 tends to jump in short segments. I put this down to the use of an SACD transport. This is one of those players that’s almost totally disabled without the remote. Front panel controls are limited to Mains On/Off, Disc Load/Eject, and Play/ Stop. You need the remote to select CD/ SACD, Legato Link Pro, Pure Audio, Next/Previous Track and Fast Wind.
Comparing the D6 to ASTINtrew’s more expensive At3500 CD player, I felt the latter produced a slighter bigger richer sound with superior tonality and greater dynamic presence. Even with the D6 playing an SACD and the At3500 playing CD, the latter retained its advantage. But, this depends on the sort of sound you like. Those preferring a brighter, more forward presentation may disagree and judge the D6 to be the bettersounding player. It certainly has an attractive, lively immediacy that’s fresh and energetic. The At3500’s tube output gives it a little extra richness and weight, compared to the D6. But some may prefer the latter’s extra brilliance.
Without an A400 for comparison I’ve had to rely on aural memory, but my feeling is that the new A9 sounds noticeably faster and more immediate than the old A-400, but the latter might have bettered it in terms of tonal balance and bass/treble integration. The A9 is definitely for those who like a bright, forward, squeaky-clean sound that’s crisp and focussed. If that sums up your take on good hi-fi, you’re almost certain to be impressed. When the A9 is partnered with the D6 SACD player these qualities are reinforced. Whether or not the combination is overly-forward is a difficult one to call. Much will depend on the loudspeakers used and the listening room.
Speaking personally, I’d prefer it if the treble brilliance of the D6/A9 were matched by a more solid midrange and bottom end. I’m not talking about bass depth here – more the subjective sense of lower frequency breadth and fullness that creates a sense of balance between bass and treble extremes. Indeed, a crisp fast top-end can of itself create the impression that the bass is lacking in weight and fullness. The D6/A9 are certainly very detailed and crisp, and sure to impress in that respect. But I do wonder if they’ve been tweaked for maximum detail without regard for homogeneity and bass/treble integration. Nonetheless, both the D6 and A9 are very good components that offer a real taste of high-end performance. They’re superbly sharp and immediate, and offer exceptional detail and analysis. If your taste inclines towards a sound that’s crisp, bright, and bristling with detail, these are for you. There’s probably nothing to touch them at (or near) the price.