Stereo Amplifier

Review: Pioneer PD-S703 CD-player

In a world where hi-fi—or audio, at least—is in mortal danger of being reduced to commodity status, a little individuality can go a long way in raising a company’s products above the herd. For a specialist AV electronics manufacturer like Pioneer, whose company prospectus does not also list motorcycle manufacture or power generation or shipbuilding as some of its competitors’ do, it looks increasingly like the life-blood of continued survival.

Pioneer’s streak of corporate individuality manifests itself in various ways: in its continued, dogged support of LaserDisc, when now even its inventor appears to have lost interest in the medium; in its impassioned and so far rather lonely campaign for higher sampling rates in digital audio; and in the design of its CD players, which in at least two respects are slightly off-the-wall. Idiosyncrasy number one: the generalization that CDs are played from below trips up where most Pioneer players are concerned, thanks to their Stable Platter Mechanism. When you open the disc drawer what greets you is a miniature, CD-sized turntable, complete with rubber mat, which looks for all the world like a pygmy record player. The CD has to be placed label side down on this turntable, and is read from above, Pioneer’s justification or the inversion being fuller control of spurious disc vibrations, via the full-width platter, than can be achieved using a conventional centre-clamping mechanism

Idiosyncrasy number two: Pioneer CD players—all but the most lowly models—incorporate Legato Link Conversion. Although the name suggests some elaboration of the digital-to-analogue converter circuitry, Legato Link actually refers to Pioneer’s proprietary digital filter—a filter which, contrary to its job title, is actually designed to let escape some of the ultrasonic spuriae created by digital-to-analogue conversion. Spuriae which most other CD player manufacturers are at pains to suppress.

Legato Link is not unrelated to Pioneer’s advocacy of higher sampling rates, which would allow the natural ultrasonic components present in music to be recorded. According to Pioneer, these inaudible components somehow contribute to the naturalness of sound reproduction—a controversial contention but one admirably substantiated by the performance of its D-07 double-speed DAT player, which can record at 96kHz sampling rate. Current Red Book CD cannot accommodate ultrasonic frequencies, so as a compromise measure Legato Link lets through some ultrasonic spuriae—despite the fact that everything above 22.05k Hz (for a sampling rate of 44.1 kHz) is necessarily distortion.

The first mid-priced Pioneer player to use Legato Link was the PD-S801, a product which polarized critical opinion because or its marginally dull but curiously alluring sound quality. That was first-generation Legato Link. Later came the second-generation variant, as fitted to the PD-S802, which put some sparkle back into the sound without in any way compromising the 801’s dark-hued allure. With the 802 now discontinued we have what sounds to be Legato Link in its third iteration, as evinced by the cheaper PD-S703 on review here.

To judge by the plaudits it has received elsewhere, this is the player which has finally won over Legato Link’s many sceptics. But by pandering to a wider audience has it perhaps disenfranchised its original protagonists?

Before I tackle that thorny issue, a short hiatus is called for to complete the obligatory description of the PD-S703’s features and functions. Visually it resembles the 802 so completely that only by reading the product number on the fascia can you tell them apart; switch for switch, feature for feature, the two are visually identical.

To the far left is the mains power switch which toggles between On and Standby modes, the latter extinguishing the display but keeping other parts of the circuit energized so as to eliminate or at least reduce the ‘warmup’ period before sound quality stabilizes. To its right are the Display Off switch, which kills the fluorescent display in Play mode, the Time switch which toggles between the different time display modes, and lastly (before the central disc drawer) the track Repeat button.

On the opposite side of the fascia are the major transport controls and, at the extreme right, an output selector which allows either the analogue or digital outputs to be disabled if not in use. Only via the remote control is the full array of facilities available, including index search, an unusual 1-16, >16 keypad and more complex functions such as Random Play and Peak Search (which scans a disc for the highest peak level, allowing you to set a tape recorder's input level accordingly).

On the rear panel things are about as simple as they can be. A pair of phono sockets provides the fixed-level analogue output— there is no variable-level output or headphone socket—while a single phono and Toslink socket provide electrical and optical digital feeds for an outboard D-to-A converter or digital recorder.


Although the 802 is out of the frame now — Pioneer GB’s warehouse is empty of it — I succeeded in borrowing one for comparison purposes, the intention being to establish whether the 703 is a cheaper chip off the old block, or else a different animal altogether.

Given that stark choice of summaries, I’d have to say—having swapped countless times back and forth between the two players— that the 703 is more the latter. The process of sharpening and lightening the sound of Legato Link has been progressed another step, but this time the singular quality of the original 801 has not been fully retained. For all its qualities—and make no mistake it is a first-rate performer at the price—the 703 does not make so distinctive a sound as its forebears.

The positive aspect of this readjustment is that the 703 sounds a little sprightlier, giving the instant impression of being more detailed and dynamic than the 802. Clearly this is what has commended it to previously sceptical ears, and must also be a boon in many dealers' showrooms where a retiring nature is rarely an asset.

But the longer and more carefully you listen to the 703 with the 802 as benchmark, the more you come to mourn the loss of the 802’s mellifluousness. To quote my listening notes: “The 802 has a weightier, darker-hued quality which lends it a more substantial sound on large-scale orchestral works and conveys an intimacy on small-scale music that the brighter 703 tends to gloss over. Infectious quality to the 802 that the 703 lacks. Also 703 tends to become a little ‘wiry’ on period instrument strings”.

All of which observation might justifiably be described as academic now the 802 is no longer with us—except to those who heard it, liked it but didn’t buy it, and who now wonder whether the 703 might be a second helping of the same.

Take my word for it, it isn’t. But the 703's new-found critical and sales success speaks volumes for its wider appeal. It is a fine CD player at a very reasonable price, able to meet and mostly beat its principal competitors at their own game. Admirers of the 802 may feel disenfranchised, but I doubt that Pioneer is anything but delighted at the 703’s reception. For Legato Link it really is a case of third time lucky.