ONLINE - ISSUE 14
Modifying my Sony SCD-1 SACD player
Modifying CD players has become a major cottage industry in the last couple of years. Quite a few individuals and companies modify and upgrade the performance of the more popular players. The buzz on the street is that these mods, while they can be somewhat pricey, are worth it. I like to get champagne sound on a beer budget, so I was intrigued by reading Ye Olde Editor's articles in Positive Feedback Online (Issues 1, 2, 3, 4, and 6) on modifying his Sony SCD-1. According to him, you can take a used mass market CD player, have it modified, and presto—world class sound for an affordable price.
In the spring of 2003, I had owned a ShanLing CDT-100 for about a year. Yes, substituting NOS Western Electric tubes for the Chinese 6P3s made a noticeable improvement in the bass, but even with the WE tubes, the ShanLing was not the best CD player on the block. I knew I had to upgrade, but to what? There was no consensus in the audiophile press as to the best CD player, and adding to the uncertainty were the format wars. Was SACD, DVD-A, or something else the wave of the future? In uncertain times, sometimes the best thing to do is to temporize.
While temporizing, I was not idle. I visited the websites of all the major CD player modifiers. I talked to audiophiles that had had mods done. I spoke directly to some of the modifiers. I learned that modifications usually improved the sound of Redbook CDs more than they improved the sound of SACDs. Since I had hundreds of CDs and no SACDs, and since CDs are cheaper and more readily available, upgrading a CD/SACD player sounded like the proper approach. At that time, the Sony SCD-1 or SCD-777ES was the player that most modifiers liked to work on. The SCD-1 was more expensive at $5000 versus $3500 (list price) for the 777ES, but several modifiers told me that the transport on the SCD-1 was much better, and that given the choice they would rather own a modified SCD-1. With that advice in mind, I logged onto Audiogon.com and bought a used SCD-1 for $2500.
When it arrived, I immediately placed it into my system. Even stock, the SCD-1 sounded better than my ShanLing. The music came out of a blacker background. There was more authority in the bass. The music was smoother, and it seemed to flow more naturally than it did with the Shanling. Listening to the SCD-1 was simply more enjoyable. This was reassuring, of course, since the ShanLing lists for $2000 versus the SCD-1's $5000. After listening to the SCD-1 for a few days, and making sure that everything was working as it should, I packed up the SCD-1 and shipped it to Dan Wright at Modwright in Portland, Oregon.
I had talked to Dan a couple of times on the phone. Based on our discussions, I decided to have him do his Absolute Truth Mod—his top-of-the-line modification. This involves putting in multiple DACs in parallel, adding Bybee filters, upgrading various parts, and replacing the output op-amps with vacuum tubes and an outboard power supply. I also asked Dan to make some additional mods that he only does on request. I had him replace the existing clock with a SuperClock II, replace the clock power supply with the SuperClock II power supply, and do the Richard Kern Transport Mod as discussed by Ye Olde Editor (in PFO Issue 6). The transport mod involves replacing all of the capacitors in the transport section with Black Gates.
It took a while to get my unit back, as the arrival of Dan's first child put a few extra demands on his time. He was also trying to get his new preamp ready for VSAC 2003. I had been warned by numerous people not to expect too much of the modded unit right out of the box, as the Black Gate capacitors take at least 300 hours to break in. I did not keep a logbook, but my guess is that it took at least 400 hours before the unit really started to sound its best.
What miracles had the modifications wrought? I had been expecting an improvement in sound quality similar to the one I heard when going from the ShanLing to the stock SCD-1. What I heard from the modded SCD-1, right out of the box, was startling. I started playing my test CDs, the ones I take to the CES, the ones I knew (or thought I knew) backwards and forwards. What I heard from each of these Red Book CDs was much more low-level detail coming out of a much blacker background. The soundstage was much deeper and wider. Instruments were more clearly fixed in space. Singers were more three-dimensional, and there was more of a feeling of them being present in the room. This was music. This was FUN!
I have now been listening to the modded unit for a little over six months. I have not noticed any change in its sound for over two months, so it appears to be burned in, finally. The improvements that I heard that first night are still there, only better, but the most important thing for me is that the modded unit plays music. While I confess to being an audiophile, I am a music lover first. If a piece of equipment does not let the heart and soul of the music come through, it is not something that I want to own. With the ShanLing, I would play a couple of CDs and then go back to playing vinyl. With the Modwright-modded SCD-1, I play CDs for eight or ten hours and don't even think about switching to vinyl. My toes tap to the music, I play my air guitar, and tears run down my cheeks when I hear an exquisite passage. I did not do this with either the ShanLing or the stock SCD-1. The mods turned the SCD-1 from a mechanical sound reproducer into a musical instrument.
How does the modded SCD-1 stack up against the competition? Unfortunately, I don't have a lineup of modded CD players to which I can compare my unit, nor do I have access to the Meitner. However, I do remember what I heard at CES 2004. Making judgments based on what you hear at audiophile shows is dangerous, but with that caveat, I can recall only one room in which I thought the CD player might be better than my modded SCD-1. The transport/DAC in this room appeared to be extracting more information from my test CDs, but the combo, which was just coming out of prototype, was going to cost between $24,000 and $30,000. For that kind of money, I hope it sounds better than my player! There was only one other room in which I thought the CD player was comparable to my modded SCD-1, but a close look revealed it to be an SCD-1 with the Modwright Absolute Truth Mod!
Is the Sony SCD-1 with the Absolute Truth Mod digital nirvana? Hardly. The best two-channel stereo reproduction that I have ever heard was also at CES 2004, in the deHavilland room, which was using a modified Ampex tape recorder to play prerecorded four-track 1/4-inch tapes. That room, which had spectacular sound, showed how much improvement digital reproduction still requires to equal the best analog sound.
Okay, the modded SCD-1 is not as good as reel-to-reel tape. Is it better than vinyl? It's an interesting question. I am a vinyl guy. I own over 6000 LPs and only 1000 CDs. On the other hand, I do not have a world-class vinyl playback system. My VPI HW-19 MkIV is only a C-class turntable. My heavily modified ET 2.5 tonearm is only B class. My Benz Micro Reference cartridge was B class when I bought it years ago, and it has probably slipped to C class with the advent of new, improved cartridges. Only my Herron Audio VTPH-1MC phono stage is A class. How does this decent, but not exceptional vinyl playback system compare to the modded SCD-1? The answer is—it depends. If all you are interested in is sound, the modded SCD-1 is better, but to my ears, my modest analog setup does a far better job of conveying the emotion of music. If I want to experience a live performance in my living room, I play vinyl. The modded SCD-1 is a distant second. Sorry, digi-guys.
Am I sorry that I bought the modded SCD-1? Not at all. I feel that the $6100 was money well spent. Based on what I have heard at various hi-fi shows, I now have a CD player that performs with the best, regardless of price. More importantly, the modded SCD-1 makes listening to CDs very enjoyable. It conveys the emotion of the music, which the ShanLing and the stock SCD-1 did not do. It does not matter to me that vinyl sounds better, as there are thousands of CDs that will never be released on vinyl, and I now have a way to hear and truly enjoy them. If you enjoy listening to music, but don't enjoy listening to CDs, you really should consider modding your CD player. Roger Gordon