Spurred by a number of articles that have been released in recent years, the audiophile community has long been divided by the original PlayStation. According to reviewers at audiophile publications and websites such as 6moons and Stereophile, the original PlayStation, model number SCPH-1001, can go toe-to-toe with the likes of the $6000 CD players that many self-proclaimed audiophiles swear by. A pretty lofty claim for a console that can be easily found online for around $30 to be sure. If you’re wondering why this particular model family is praised over the others, it’s because PS1s under this model number feature separate white and red RCA jacks, which audiophiles can use to output sound using their “audiophile quality” (read: expensive) cables to their expensive amps and listen to them with their expensive headphones or even more expensive speaker setups.
Color me curious.
I, unfortunately, do not have a PS1 that hails from the fabled SCPH-1001 model family. Mine instead is one of the later models, specifically of the SCPH-5501 variety which apparently uses the same high-quality DAC so, theoretically, I should be able to achieve similar results from it. The only problem is that I can only use the A/V multi out port on my PS1 and the AV cables that came with it. No matter, since I don’t have any of these expensive cables or tube amps to plug it into and I figure, for my purposes of merely evaluating its sound quality from the perspective of an audiophile on a budget, the AV cables, with an adapter, will do fine. Besides, I’ve heard some reports saying that excellent sound quality can be achieved through the multi out as well as the RCA jacks so I’m not too worried.
So, I set everything up, turned it on and inserted the first of many CDs I would be using to test this baby out and sat down with my RE0s, which are still among the most neutral sounding IEMs and thus are very well suited to this task, and gave it a listen.
The sound output by the PS1 was actually quite good. Bass seems to be slightly accented but it doesn’t sound bloated or flabby in any way. The low end is surprisingly well controlled and has a smooth but detailed sort of texture which comes across as decently defined and surprisingly energetic. The only aspect of the low end I think needs improvement is extension, which isn’t particularly amazing.
The midrange is best described as vibrant and forward. Vocals come through loud and clear and have an “in your face” quality that might turn off some listeners but was rather pleasant sounding in my experience. Instruments are well placed throughout the stage but there is a tiny sense of muddiness throughout the range that makes things sound a bit less clear and resolved. fortunately, this muddiness is only barely detectable in most cases and doesn’t detract from the sound signature too much. I was immediately surprised by the aggressiveness of the midrange but also surprised at its ability to stay in its proper place. Yes, it does come off as “shouty” and occasionally somewhat gritty or edgy but it’s not too offensive or jarring. It adds a sort of vibrancy and vivacity to the otherwise smooth and relaxed sound that is really quite enjoyable.
The high end is also rather good, boasting decent refinement, extension and clarity. I did notice that treble can be a tad bright and sounds a bit recessed in comparison to the mids and bass but on the whole, it is nicely integrated into the rest of the sound signature. Highs sparkle and shine, resonating with detail and brightness without becoming strident.
Soundstaging and imaging are both great on my PS1 and even through my RE0s, which are somewhat limited in terms of soundstage width and depth, seem to have opened up considerably due to the PS1’s ability to present a somewhat expansive and three dimensional soundstage. As I said before, it’s also surprisingly easy to pick out where instruments are placed on the stage. The PS1 is great at portraying intimacy while still managing to preserve the expansiveness of certain recordings.
To analogize this, the sound signature is sort of like an order of spicy buffalo wings dipped in a cool ranch sauce. The smooth, creamy texture of the ranch hits your taste buds first and paves the way for the spicy kick.
Okay, that’s a dumb analogy, but bear with me.
This blend of calm and aggressive keeps things interesting. It’s smooth enough to be relaxing when listening to slower selections and exciting enough to be engaging for faster, livelier tracks. There are flaws here and there, to be sure, but what it does right is blended together to create an amazingly good sound in terms of a price-to-performance ratio and one that is just plain good, period.
Maybe the analogy makes a bit more sense now. Or maybe not. I’ve never been great with analogies.
There are also a number of publicized modifications that can be performed to the 5501 console to further improve its sonic performance and just knowing that, coupled with the fact that I’ll soon be upgrading the standard AV cables to cables of a much higher quality, I’m excited to see just how much more I can eke out of the PS1’s hardware.
So, is the PS1 “audiophile quality” and can it compete with $6000 CD players? I honestly have no idea. I haven’t heard super high end CD players the likes of which whose prices stretch into the thousands of dollars so I have no basis of comparison in that regard. What I do know is that my PS1 sounds very, very good in comparison to what I have heard. Considering the regular going rate for PS1 consoles on eBay and their extremely high availability, I think the PS1 would be a great investment for audiophiles on a budget, especially if you’re looking to get into the DIY scene, which is surprisingly active for the PS1.
I imagine the PS1’s performance as a CD player will continue to polarize the audiophile community as it has in the years past. Regardless of whether or not the PS1 is audiophile grade, one thing is for certain; the PS1 is a very good CD player, for the price, and is one that I am very pleased with. If you’re looking to buy a PS1 from eBay, make sure that the system you buy is from either the 1001 or 5501 model families because I’ve heard that, in subsequent hardware revisions, the high-quality AKM DAC which creates the wonderful audio experience was removed, likely to cut costs. If you’re not looking to modify the PlayStation, the 1001 is likely your best bet, as it supposedly sounds a bit better than the 5501 due to its dedicated RCA jacks which offer inherent advantages when it comes to the choice of cables.
Regardless of whether or not this is an audiophile grade piece of equipment, I’m very pleased with the PS1’s performance as a CD player and dedicated source. I hadn’t so much as touched the thing beyond opening it up a couple of times to satisfy some latent curiosities I had seeing as my 60 GB PS3 plays PS1 games just as well as (if not better than) my PS1 so it took residence in a drawer, buried underneath a mess of Ethernet and A/V cables. Now, my PS1 is sitting out on a small table behind me, serenading me with the sweet sounds of one of my many CDs and glowing with a renewed sense of purpose. Perhaps this wasn’t what the PS1 was built for but it certainly excels in its current capacity.