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The "mostly" Audiocom modification of the SCD-777ES
I dont envy professional reviewers, or anyone who reviews more than one product of the same type. If the first product reviewed is hailed as the entrance to sonic Nirvana and the second is deemed even betterespecially when the writer uses some of the same adjectives to characterize that second productsome readers may question the reviewers credibility, perhaps even his or her sanity. Im not a reviewer, much less a technical wizard, but having played one on the Audio Asylum stage for what is now my second entry into the realm of SCD-777ES mods, I can offer only this defense: its a matter of context. If you start out your driving career in a Yugo, then move on to a Corolla, youve achieved something akin to paradiseuntil you get behind the wheel of an Accord. Then if someone gives you a lucky lottery ticket for your birthday, and out of curiosity you head for a BMW showroom....
The Audiocom Mod
The Audiocom "mod" (www.audiocom-uk.com) is a comprehensive parts upgrade to the Sony SCD-777ES that involves no circuit modifications. Developed to reduce noise and enhance "quickness," the upgrade replaces audio board and power supply capacitors with Black Gates, voltage regulators for the digital and analog supplies, the stock OPA2064 op-amps with OPA 627s, and stock carbon film resistors with Vishay VSRJ bulk metal foil resistors.
Since the basic ($480) mod performed last spring by Richard Kern on my 777 incorporated Vishay bulk metal foil resistors (albeit not the premium-grade VSRJs) and I had other system priorities contending for disposable income, I opted to have Richard do the full Audiocom mod less the premium-grade Vishays. I have also, at Richards suggestion, retained the Rel capacitors he installed as part of his original mod. The cost of the Audiocom mod was $1256 for parts and $330 for Richards labor, for a total of $1586. Opting for the premium-grade Vishays would have increased the cost approximately $900. As Id come to expect from my earlier experience with his basic 777/SCD-1 upgrade, Richards workmanship and attention to detail were flawless.
Delivery and Installation Time
The mod kit arrived from the United Kingdom six weeks after I placed my online order to Audiocom. I delivered my 777 and the parts to Richard on a Wednesday morning and picked up the modded and checked-out unit two mornings later, sans one of the Audiocom regulators. Audiocom should have shipped a plus-7-volt regulator, but sent a minus-7-volt part instead. I decided to pick up the 777 and begin burning it in with one of the original Sony regulators reinstalled pending arrival of the correct part. Richard e-mailed Audiocom and received the appropriate regulator a week and a half later.
Richard Kerns Basic SCD-777ES Parts Upgrade
Since the baseline for this review is the Audiocom mods performance relative to the basic Kern upgrade performed on my 777 in March 2001, its appropriate to summarize here both the composition of that upgrade and the substance of a detailed review I posted online in April 2001. The basic Kern upgrade replaces stock components on the 777s audio and power supply boards with higher-grade Vishay resistors and Black Gate and Rel capacitors. Like the Audiocom mod, it involves no circuit modifications.
With the Kern mod installed, the 777s soundstage breadth and width expanded from previous best-case wall-to-wall to through-the-side-walls in some instances, and images remained rock solid all the way to the rear corners, which had sounded somewhat diffuse pre-upgrade. More air was evident between instruments, voices, and vocal choirs. This, in combination with a more timbrally accurate vocal and instrumental presentation, effected a more realistic illusion of three-dimensionality all across the soundstage. Bass was heftier, quicker, and more corporeal, with better attack and decay than pre-upgrade, providing an authoritative foundation for everything from symphonic music to jazz and massed choral to solo vocal performances. Midrange became more detailed and precise, but neither euphonically warm nor ice cold. The top end was likewise more detailed, but not zingy or tizzy. These effects were discernible whether playing SACDs or Red Book CDs, and represented a significant improvement in performance over that rendered by the stock SCD-777ES.
System Changes Since My Review of the Basic Kern Mod
Since my review of the basic Kern mod, my system has changed in the following ways: (1) My original four-corner ASC Tube Trap array has been supplemented by Super, Studio, and Tube Traps, so that traps now occupy eighteen positions in my listening room, providing better absorption and diffusion control, (2) A PS Audio Ultimate Outlet (connected to the wall via a PS Audio Mini Lab Cable) now cleans the AC to my captive-cord hybrid amp; and (3) Kimber Select KS-1021 interconnects have replaced Kimber Silver Streak interconnects. Parenthetically, the improvements wrought in overall system performance by these changes have enhanced my respect for the efficacy of the basic Kern mod in both SACD and Red Book modes. (click here to read more about Jim's system)
Evaluating the Audiocom Mod
All "pre-Audiocom-mod" reference listening was done with the aforementioned system changes in place and, where appropriate, burned in. The SACDs and CDs used to evaluate before-and-after-mod performance are listed below, with a legend indicating the mastering provenance of each where that is determinable.
Advised to burn in the mod for 400 hours before commencing serious listening, I cheated and sneaked in several aural peeks along the way. Between 95 and 120 hours, output (not unexpectedly) turned brash, congested, and brittle, then smoothed out and seemed to improve progressively. But the real "hit" occurred at about 320 hours, when music suddenly burst out of its electronic cocoon in an explosion of color, dynamics, and spaciousness that all but mandated a diaper. The soundstage says it all. While its almost obligatory to salivate over overall width and depth (and, yes, thats impressive), what really matters is just how the area within the soundstages apparent boundaries is populated. Or isnt. Does discernible space separate instruments and/or performers? Is that space "allocatable" to the cues that convey vocal and instrumental timbre, size, composition, palpability, dynamics, attack and decay, venue acoustics, and the subtleties of inner voicing? Or is it cluttered by noise that we may not "hear" until we perceive its absence, but that muddies both the sonic and virtual visual presentation?
The Audiocom mod supplies breathing space aplenty. The result is, on the one hand, more stable and palpable imaging and, on the other, greater instrumental and vocal "presence," which is manifested in more natural timbre, lightning-quick attack, more pronounced (and detailed) decay, more perceptible ensemble layering and composition, more discernible nuance (the stuff of which art is made), and air, air, and more air. You hear everything that is plucked, struck, sung, blown, tapped, brushedeven grunted, dropped, or kicked overwith startling clarity, body, air, impact, cohesiveness, liquidity, plangency, bloom, rhythmic flow, and authority, or, as appropriate, delicacy. And not just on SACD or the better CDs (e.g., the Reference Ports of Call and Copland 100 or the Naxos Elgar/Payne Symphony #3). The marvelous acoustic of the Concertgebouw is nearly there in Ashkenazys passionate reading of Rachmaninoffs Symphonic Dances (why, he laments, couldnt this 1983 DDD have been mastered in analog?), which leaps out with rhythmic drive and dynamic impact in a valiant effort to thumb its nose at the Nyquist theorem.
The spatial illusion conveyed by the best SACDs is more than holographic, partly because of the extent and palapability of the soundstage. I noted in my review of the basic Kern mod that the front-to-rear imaging at the soundstages outer boundaries (which in some cases transcended the side walls) was precisely defined. The Audiocom mod both extends those boundaries and renders them more fluid and corporeal. With the best CDs, the illusion is indeed holographic (more so than with the basic Kern mod), if not quite as fluid as what SACDs project.
The Audiocom mod also calls into question the sometimes-voiced criticism that SACD is soft and undynamic. Spin the Latin American Symphonette or Blues in Orbit, for example, and youll find no holding back, no unduly-rounded edges (leading or trailing), no truncated dynamics, no lumpy bass, no blunted top end. Only those whose listening palette craves super-crispness may walk away undernourished.
The Audiocom mod is heartily recommended to SCD-1 and SCD-777ES owners who dont mind voiding their warranty. This mod unleashes the power and reveals the musical soul of greatand even not-so-greatrecordings.
Evaluation Program Material
SACD (Master: A=analog; D=DSD; S=Soundstream PCM)
Virgil Thomson, The River/The Plow That Broke the Plains (Vanguard VSD
CD (Master: A=Analog; A20=Analog remastered at 20-bit; A2496=Analog remastered at 24/96; P=16-bit PCM; P176=Mastered at 176.4kHz sample rate; H=HDCD; H24=24-bit-mastered HDCD)
Manuel de Falla, El Sombrero de tres picos (Decca 289 466 991-2 DM) A2496