FEEDBACK ONLINE - ISSUE 13
Modified Sony 7700 DVD/CD player and modified Perpetual Technologies P-3A, Empirical Audio Bitmeister™ digital cable, and Holophonic-PC™ analog interconnects
as reviewed by David W. Robinson
Impressions: On the Fly!
The role of modifications in fine audio
I'm sitting in a Starbuck's in Vancouver, Washington, sipping a venti-sized Gold Coast, and trying to catch up on some recent review notes. This set is short and to the point, which matches the subject just fine: the Empirical Audio modified Sony 7700 DVD/CD player, together with Empirical Audio interconnects and the Empirical Audio-modified Perpetual Technologies P-3A D/A.
It's no surprise to readers of PFO to find a review of modified equipment in its pages... we probably do more listening and writing on the subject than many other ‘phile publications out there. I know that some editors are not comfortable with the pitfalls of evaluating modified/tweaked gear, but I've always found it to be a very rewarding experience, and one that our readers have appreciated. There's a bloody lot of "bang for the buck" in modded gear... and an awful lot of the real art in fine audio is to be found in the craftsmanship of some very gifted audio modders and hot-rodders—people like Jennifer Crock, Scott Frankland, Tim de Paravicini, Lloyd Walker, Richard Kern, Allen Wright, Dan Wright, Alex Peychev, Stan Warren... it's a long list. (See the conclusion of the review for a new name that I've added to this list.)
And I suppose that corporate culture-think may find this world to be too tricky for a number of reasons: voided warranties, variability of results, lack of "dealer networks," support issues, etc. While these are points that the potential buyer needs to keep in mind when considering modded gear, the fact is that there's a lot of audio joy in them thar hills! Do your homework... realize the risks... deal with well-regarded and reputable audio artisans... but don't avoid modified gear just because some ‘zines are cautious on the subject.
Fact is, much of the truly great gear is customized/tube-rolled/tweaked/modified in one way or another. Truly great, truly "stock" gear is rare; cords, cables, dots, tiptoes, cones, platforms, matched tubes/NOS, isolation treatments, and so on, generally follow pretty quickly in the world of the experienced ‘phile.
And if doesn't in your world, then you're really missing out. What's true in the world of fine cars, great motorcycles, exceptional firearms, real art, and fine furniture is also true in audio: the best stuff is custom, hand-done, and grooved by a master. Mass production is a point of departure, not the finish line.
Well anyway…several months ago, Steve Nugent of Empirical Audio contacted me with a project idea. Knowing my longstanding interest in hot-rodded gear, he asked if I'd like to have a brief listen to the custom modification work he's been doing with the Sony 7700 DVD/CD player, together with some associated kit and cables. I'd only be able to listen for 3-4 weeks, and then it would either have to go back, or it might need to be shipped to a customer (he had a waiting list); was that OK?
Well…yeah, as a matter of fact. Audio education is a good thing, and I had heard some of Steve's earlier modded gear just before he left Portland for the hinterlands of Bend, Oregon. (To see my earlier Positive Feedback Online interview/photo essay with Steve, point your browser at www.positive-feedback.com/Issue7/empiricalint.htm. You'll see a photo of the customized 7700, together with a custom-tweaked Mark Levinson preamp... there are also some photos of Steve at work in his Portland modification lab. Patent junkies will particularly enjoy Steve's hallway filled with the patents that he's secured over the years.)
Shortly thereafter a package arrived from Empirical Audio. In it were several packages: a Sony DVP 7700 with remote control, a hot-rodded Perpetual Technologies P-3A DAC, a custom power supply for the PT P-3A DAC, some Empirical Audio digital and analog cables, and an ordinary-looking IEC power cable for the PT. (The power cable for the 7700 is integrated... standard Sony stuff.) I tossed the Sony 7700 player into place to warm up for a few days, wired together the signal processing path, and left it alone.
The following week, I was able to do some listening to Steve's work. Given the brief time available for this project, the results are nothing more than a first glance, of course. But even a quick listen in a well-known listening room is enough to tell whether or not a designer is on the mark or not. And Steve is clearly on target here.
I know the sound of the older Sony 7000 DVD player very well; I've been using one for years in my home theater system. Despite all the hooplah about using DVD players as CD playback devices (remember that fad back in the later ‘90s?), in my opinion the quality of the CD playback of the unmodified Sony 7000 is nothing more than mediocre, sounding pretty mid-fi, at best. This is why I gave up using it for CDs a long time ago... and within minutes of trying it. (Ech. Whose idea was that, anyway?)
I also know the sound of the original PT P-1A (the upsampler)/P-3A (the DAC) pretty well. Mark Schifter was good enough to send samples years ago. Its great strength was in offering a good improvement in CD playback at an entry-level price, similar to what the folks at Audio Alchemy (remember them?) were doing before they went defunct. You'd never mistake the PT for a Theta, a Vimak, a Z-systems, an AudioNote, or a dCS—much less a Linn CD-12 or EMM Labs DAC6, but it was a decent step up for those on a limited budget.
Despite my earlier experience with the components, I had never paired a Sony DVD player and the PT DAC, and I had certainly never listened to any such system after it had been modified by someone like Steve Nugent.
So, how did the Empirical Audio-modded gear sound?
In a nutshell, pretty impressive. The Sony 7700/PT combo was certainly better than anything I had heard from a Sony DVD player or a PT P-3A DAC before. Instead of sounding veiled and congested, the way that Sony 7xxx DVD players usually do, the Empirical Audio iteration was more clear, quite musical, and lacked the obscurity that had driven me away from this family of players and this type of solution back when. Instead of claustrophobic soundstaging, unsure imaging, and no depth, there was a decent presentation of the recording that I tried. Instead of wincing, I was actually able to sit back and enjoy a handful of my favorite CDs. No muck; no ear bleed; no nausea. All things considered, I adjudged this to be a very good improvement.
I'm not damning with faint praise here. You have to understand—I'm pretty spoiled. My idea of great is formed by the EMM Labs DAC6/Meitnerized Philips SACD 1000, or (in the world of pure CD playback), the Linn CD-12. In the world of modified SACD players, my extensive experience with the Sony SCD-1 or the SCD-777ES (currently under review) as modified by Richard Kern, my all-too-brief sessions with Dan Wright's modded ModWright SCD-777ES with tubed output, or the work of Allen Wright with the modified Sony DVP 9000 SACD/DVD players (currently under review) sets the standard for hot-rodded gear. Does the Empirical Audio platform achieve the level of CD playback that these excellent modded players do?
Not quite – but it is in the general neighborhood. While I can't be categorical, I'd say that the Empirical Audio mod of the Sony 7700 plus the modified PT P-3A DAC and the Empirical Audio cables is at the entry level of the modded players that I've heard so far, taking a place a level below the players listed above. Given the transport that Steve is starting with, this is a significant accomplishment. All of the players that are being modified by Richard, Allen, or Dan, are better platforms to start with. That Steve Nugent is able to get a Sony DVD (!) player to a level of real musicality with CD playback is pretty impressive. I was expecting to have to politely decline comment…and I didn't have to.
So the Empirical Audio-modified Sony DVP 7700/PT P-3A with Empirical Audio cables rates a "Ye Olde Editor's recommended modification." If you have either component, you'll want to consider having Steve take a look at your gear.
It also makes me wonder what Steve could do if he concentrated his talents on SACD playback, an area rife with creative challenges and much bigger musical payoffs.
Finally, I hereby add Steve Nugent to the list of gifted audio modifiers and artisans, and Empirical Audio to the list of companies that audiophiles should consult when thinking about hot-rodding their gear.
About those Empirical Audio cables: Some custom cables
Here's another news bullet for you: Empirical Audio is also producing some very fine audio cables. I've been using a pair of custom-built Empirical Audio XLR to RCA cables from the EMM Labs DAC6 to both the Linn Kontrol preamp and the EMM Labs Switchman-3 preamp; this allows me to use the unbalanced inputs of those units and save the balanced for other components, should I need to do so.
Normally, the performance of a cable like this can be problematic, not sounding as good as XLR-XLR or RCA-RCA. In this case, I have found the sound of the Empirical Audio custom cables to be faultless, without any sonic anomaly that I have been able to detect. Given the fact that the EMM Labs is my current reference for SACD/DSD, and given the fact that my other cables are the likes of reference-grade JENA Labs, Cardas, and Kimber, this is very high praise for Empirical Audio and their "Bare Wire Technology" (BWT), which suspends bare conductors inside protective tubing in a very innovative way. (See www.empiricalaudio.com for an overview of this design technology.)
The sound that the custom Empirical Audio interconnects produces is well detailed, with a touch more warmth than the JENA Labs Symphony interconnects. The soundstaging is very good for height, width and depth via the Kharma Grande Ceramique speakers via either tubed or solid-state amplification; ditto for imaging. Over time, the JENA Labs Symphony (which is actually the entry (!) level for the JENA Labs interconnect line) remains my preferred XLR-XLR cable, but Empirical Audio is in the neighborhood, close enough for reasonable comparison. The touch of warmth in the Empiricals may make the difference for some listeners, depending on system.
In short: you ought to keep Empirical Audio on your short list of superior audio cables when you're in the market for ‘phile connects.
The rest of the line
My brief exposure to the Empirical Audio Holophonic interconnects used for the modified Sony DVP 7700 project leads me to believe that Steve Nugent is producing unique cables that are of reference-grade stature, and thus merit serious consideration.
Please note that I cannot be categorical about this evaluation, however, given the relatively short period of time that I was listening to these cables. To more thoroughly evaluate the performance of the Empirical Audio cables apart from the rest of the audio chain that I was reviewing, I would have to do extended work with the cables, in the context of known reference components here at PFO Central.
One cautionary note: Empirical Audio's "Bare Wire Technology" in longer interconnect lengths (20' or so), demonstrated a tendency to be very sensitive to Radio Frequency Interference (RFI). If your listening room is in an area subject to RFI, then you'll need to be aware of this problem. Let Empirical Audio know if this is the case; Steve may be able to develop a solution for you.
For current prices, availability, and custom modifications/cables, contact Empirical Audio.
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