POSITIVE FEEDBACK ONLINE - ISSUE 14
Sony DVP-NS 999ES CD/SACD/DVD player
as reviewed by Robert H. Levi
The Sony DVP-NS 999ES CD/DVD/SACD player with Signature Truth modifications by ModWright is state of the art. There is no better-performing or more musical digital playback unit available today. More expensive and more flexible digital front ends are available, but the Modwright/Sony 999ES defines its category, and thrills the listener. Highest accuracy plus ultimate musicality equals state of the art in my book. The ModWright/Sony 999ES is that and more, with excellent DVD playback as a bonus. If you already own a 999ES, you are only $1300 away from digital perfection as it currently exists. If you don't own one, used 9000ES' are available on the web for as low as $800. I have reason to believe that this older model, the Sony 9000ES, would be equally spectacular if modified by ModWright, and I would not hesitate to have one modified, though it will void the warranty.
The ModWright/Sony 999ES transcends any digital component built by a single manufacturer because no manufacturer has the cumulative knowledge—or the innate desire—to build a device like this. Modwright piggybacks on Sony's efforts to create an accurate unit with high build quality, then replaces all things analog with extraordinary devices. In this way, ModWright avoids high construction costs and keeps the mods extremely affordable. The resulting player preserves the accuracy of the Sony DACs and transport, but transforms them so that they produce ultimate musical realism. The Signature Truth mod includes Bybee AC filters, an outboard power supply, dual AC power inputs, the best Auricaps, the finest power transformer, the best and most quiet triode tube output stage I've yet heard, and more. Not since Sol Marantz created his historic masterpieces has such a sonic triumph existed.
As a reviewer, identifying a state-of-the-art component, particularly a moderately priced one, is a real thrill. I am privileged to own four state-of-the-art components, and cost is not the major determinant. The Magnum Dynalab MD-108 is the best, and also the most expensive tuner, but the E.A.R. 890 amplifier is a sonic wonder, and hardly the most expensive amplifier around. The E.A.R. 324 phono stage is another jewel, and is half the cost of other top designs. The ModWright/Sony 999ES gives top-of-the-heap performance at a third of the cost of other pretenders to the throne.
The ModWright/Sony was designed by Dan Wright, an audio artist who listens as he works. He voiced the 999ES to be left alone. I found that it needed none (!) of the tweaks I usually use. Tube dampers thinned the sound unacceptably. A magic brick made the sound dull. Soft shoes, Vibrapods, and cones, in any combination, only added coloration. The unit should sit on its own four feet, without any support other than your rack. Ditto the large, separate power supply for the output stage.
Cables are another matter altogether. The unit requires two power cords, and your choice is key. This must be done by ear, but when it's right (the most natural and transparent), you'll know. I tried every AC cable I own—many—and settled on two Tara Decade cords. Choice of interconnects is also extremely important. The ModWright/Sony is the most revealing digital component I have yet owned, and a single pair of interconnects links it all! I spent hours auditioning cables. The best—by which I mean the most neutral—single-ended interconnects I had on hand were the Eichmann Express 6 Series 2s. They even outperformed the Kimber KCTG pure silver cables that I thought would be the ticket. At only $250 per meter, the super-neutral Eichmanns, distributed by TheMusic.com, were a revelation. They feature the newest "bullet" RCA plugs, with low metal content, OFC low-crystal copper, air dielectric, and extremely high-purity metal.
With the Eichmann interconnects plugged into the Pass X-1 preamplifier and the two Tara AC cords plugged into the PowerWing, I proceeded to listen and enjoy. I had a wealth of digital players for comparison, having just heard the Muse 11, the Gryphon Mikado, the McCormack UDP, the Denon 2200, the Marantz DV8400, and more. My Theta Gen. 5a/Jade combo is terrific on CD, and my Sony SCD-1 is fine on SACD. I have even had experience with a ModWright/Sony 777 in another system, which sounds excellent, but NOT extraordinary or envelope-pushing like this player. NONE of these fine components prepared me for the ModWright/Sony 999ES in my system.
1. This is the first CD/SACD player to image correctly. It improves upon my Benz Ruby phono cartridge, nailing instruments in space with extraordinary tight images. It allows you to zero in on anything and everything. Good-sounding CDs will image like never before, and your best will rise like Frankenstein's monster! Great CDs sound as precise as SACDs, just less textured and airy, and the best SACDs sound like the real McCoy.
2. This is the first CD/SACD player to get spatial cues right. It separates and darkens the spaces between instruments. It also reduces, even eliminates, the phase distortion that distorts perspective. It focuses the sound into sharp relief. It is a revelation.
3. This is one of the first CD/SACD players that recreates depth correctly, with no black hole in the center. You hear the venue in which the recording took place.
4. This is the most accurate player I've ever heard. There is a complete lack of the coloration and blending of highs that I hear elsewhere. The unit has NO perceptible sound of its own, and it has a tube output!
5. This is one of the most musical players in the world. Play a Mercury/Phillips golden oldie CD and you will hear classic Telefunken microphone sound. Try your favorite piano disc and get ready to be shocked. It is reality, assuming your disc is good. It won't make anything up, so feed it only the best. This is not your father's musical sound, which was far more colored. I have never heard such truth in digital musical reproduction. Textures on first-rate discs are spot on, and musical colors are absolutely natural.
6. This CD/SACD player has the best low-level definition that I have ever heard. You can turn down your system to 50% of its normal level and still hear every subtle detail. I have never heard any digital component, at any price, in any system, that can duplicate this feat.
The ModWright/Sony 999ES very nearly closes the gap between the best CDs and SACDs. CDs just don't have the bits, but the stacked DACs in the Sony, coupled with ModWright's Tung-Sol triodes, etc., wring all there is to hear from them. SACD is still king, but if you do not own any, buy this component for CD pleasure. I'm enjoying hundreds of CDs like never before!
There are some worthwhile tweaks. DO NOT play this unit without first using a video monitor to get the best playback options. Turn off everything inside the unit, including the display. A self-hotrodding feature that cuts down on unneeded circuits is a specific selection in the menu. Turn off the video after setup, and the digital out, too. All will make a difference in dynamics and purity. The unit also plays 5.1, so turn these outputs off for best two-channel sound. The remote is great, and the menu setup is easy to use. The unit maintains Sony's slow-cutoff slope option for CD playback. It makes it sound sweet and forgiving, sort of like the stereo blend switch on a tuner. It is very nice, and makes the unit sound similar to certain ultra-expensive solid state European players I have spent time with, but it's not accurate, and it can't compete with the unit's standard, steep-slope CD setting. SACD output is not affected by either CD filter.
The ergonomics of the unit are first rate, and pure Sony. There are two extra channel outputs on the rear for recording, and flexibility befitting a machine that originally sold for $3000. There is no skimping on controls or connectors. The ModWright electronics are dead quiet—more quiet than any tube output stage, on anything, ever. I don't know how Dan does it. The thirty-plus-year-old Tung-Sol 5687 JAN tubes he provides represent American craftsmanship at its best. I'm ordering an extra pair.
Let's talk performance. The bass is tight, fast, and accurate, images powerfully, and is ultra-well-textured. It is ungodly deep. Though the bass sounds a touch less vivid than that of the Theta or the Sony SCD-1, it is much more realistic and accurate. Super Bass2 (Telarc SACD-63483) sounded unbelievable. Bass fiddles have not been better realized by any player I've heard! Listen to the 1812 Overture (Telarc SACD 60541), but only with seat belts fastened.
The midrange is mellifluous and realistic, delicate and appealing. This is you-are-there sound, and its truthful, textural perfection appeals simultaneously to the heart and the mind. I have never heard digital midrange done better! Well-recorded CDs are portrayed with a new kind of musical perfection. The ModWright/Sony 999ES lets each disc sing its own tune. Many are superb, others are not. Any Reference Recording or Telarc sounds great. Most London and Sony discs are excellent. DGs and Teldecs are only okay. Mercuries are surprisingly good, even the 35mm ones. The ModWright/Sony won't fix what's wrong, but it does play what's right. SACDs are better yet. A lot (if not all) of the midrange phasiness of some highly criticized SACDs just vanished. I'm not sure why, but I suspect that these distortions may be player-induced—by other players. The ModWright/Sony 999ES delivers state of the art performance, limited only by the rest of your system.
The highs are more delicate and extended than any player of recent audition. CDs have fewer high-frequency limitations than I thought. SACDs are even better. Supreme accuracy and intense musicality catapult the highs to a new level of perfection, with real beauty of tone and fantastic delicacy. You can have no idea how phenomenal this unit is unless you hear it for yourself. It trounced the Gryphon Mikado ($12,000) in the highs. My Sony SCD-1, my Theta combo, and my Marantz 8400 couldn't come close. Nothing that I've heard betters the ModWright/Sony 999ES in high end reproduction—only in cost.
I mentioned imaging. What I heard from this unit is new for digital, and the super-sized real deal. Listen to Diana Krall (Impulse IMPD 233), or Carl Saunders Sextet (Blueport BPJ-011), and get ready to be shocked. If you have a phono cartridge with better imaging, hide it from me. I've heard the Krall album a zillion times, but NEVER better. The imaging and vocal textures were superb, and superior to all other players. There was nothing subtle about it. This is a true breakthrough for digital playback! Ambience cues are precisely portrayed, never smeared. The ambience is delicate and beautiful, and more accurate than that of most LPs. Vocals are thrilling and realistic. Listen to opera or jazz, and hear what the engineers heard at the recording venue.
The ModWright/Sony 999ES's signal-to-noise ratio is way out of sight! Goose the gain and you hear NOTHING! The backgrounds are supremely black, like those available from the ultimate all-solid-state digital components. If I were a competing manufacturer, I'd hustle one of these units off to my skunk works and see how it ticks. It is no wonder that the imaging is perfection with an S/N this great. I hear that ModWright is making a tube preamplifier. I gotta try it!
I've listened to mountains of CDs, many of which I had given up on. I came across a Naxos recording that I had tried six months ago and hated. It had a dry, cavernous sound, ambience that made no sense, oodles of not-quit-focused detail, and an overall tinny sound. I have no idea why I even tossed it in the 999ES, but it was probably because it was engineered by Peter McGrath. The CD is Bernstein's Symphony #2, Candide Overture, and West Side Story Dances (Naxos 8.559099). It is a 24-bit recording, and was edited in 24-bit before being crammed into 16. On the ModWright/Sony, the CD really cooked. It sounded incredible, with detailed, airy definition and classic close-up recording technique. I'm not sure how much definition is possible with the 16-bit medium, but this CD goes to the edge, and the Sony/ModWright made it make sense. Orchestral lines were realistic and alive. There was still a bit of weird hall coloration, but it could be easily overlooked. The microphones, maybe three, were close to the orchestra, hung high. This was row-C sound, from a rooftop perch. No spot mics were noticeable. This disc will sound either glossed-over or confusing in almost every player I know. It was amazing on the 999ES. I got dizzy following all of the minute musical nuances. The bass whacks were thrilling and explosive, the piano delicate and beautifully imaged center stage. This disc, produced by an audiophile, required "future world" CD players, until now!
I ordered some Kimber Select Cu interconnects after the KCTGs succumbed to the Eichmanns. When the new Kimbers arrived, I compared them to the Eichmanns, and they sounded quite different. The 999ES, which displayed extremely impressive dynamics and incredible neutrality with the Eichmanns, warmed up a good deal with the Kimbers. It took on added swagger and richer textures, and sounded fleshier, but it also lost some of its razor-sharp imaging and slam, and its ultra-black background. The Kimbers were perceptibly noisier and softer in focus than the Eichmanns, but they had useful benefits nonetheless. We all know that cables act as equalizers, and the Kimbers are subtle, winning equalizers. They soften and warm over-the-top discs. Irritating brightness is sweetened elegantly by the Kimbers, yet they don't obscure important detail. They are harmonically on target, and have less coloration than many of my other cables. They have become my alternatives to the Eichmanns for those discs that need a bit of equalization. It is interesting that my entire system is wired with Kimber Balanced Select, yet it's the first meter out of the source that seems most important. I have always advised folks to be consistent with cable brands throughout a system for consistent sound. Throw that concept right out the window!
The ModWright/Sony 999ES presents new challenges to the audiophile. Its utterly uncolored neutrality, and its out-of-this-world signal-to-noise ratio, will challenge any high end interconnect that works well with components that have euphonic colorations. I'm speaking of subtle colorations here, the kind many designers think is musically correct. (Why do you think designers like to use EL34s? It's not because they are neutral.) If you are interested in reproducing the original performance as faithfully as possible, selecting components for their accuracy and innate musical truthfulness is imperative.
Tuning ModWright/Sony with the right interconnects and power cords took time, but it was not difficult. With a component that reveals its glory so easily, the correct combination was pretty obvious. I asked Dan Meinwald, distributor of E.A.R. and other goodies, and a person whose ears I trust, to visit and heard my handy work. He had me repeat all of the cable combinations I had tried during the previous week, and he settled on the same combination I had chosen. When a great component enters the picture, it is easily maximized. Components that are compromised in some way usually prove the most resistant.
The Sony 999ES with ModWright Signature Truth Mod achieves super stardom in CD and SACD playback. It deserves state of the art status. It sets new standards for low noise with use of tubes, for imaging equal to the best in LP playback, and (in the standard setting) for depth of field and ambience cues. Its low-level definition is the best yet achieved in digital playback, and in all other parameters it is unfailingly fantastic. I bought the review sample. I then posted a "For Sale" sign on all of my other digital gear (except my DVDA player). I have become a very happy audiophile. I recommend that you move fast to buy this player. Breakthroughs, when acknowledged, tend to go up in cost quickly! Now, where's that ModWright preamplifier? Robert H. Levi
The ModWright/Sony 999ES player as I first heard it was a state-of-the-art CD/SACD/DVD player. It was only a handshake away from analog reproduction at its best, lacking just a bit of analog air and mellifluousness and retaining just a touch of etch, though it was as good as any digital playback device I'd heard. After replacing the standard copper umbilical cable to the outboard power supply with the new ModWright Revelation Audio Cryo-Silver umbilical cable, I shook hands with THE new champion of audio reproduction. As now configured, the ModWright/Sony not only tops all other digital reproduction I've heard to date, but all analog reproduction as well. No phono cartridge I am familiar with reaches the sublime levels of this player. Nothing does.
In addition to perfect accuracy, I am hearing an intimacy, delicacy, and musical swagger that—until now—I thought was the domain of analog and only the dream of digital. I am getting incredible textures coupled with a complete lack of smearing. The analog dream is here now in a digital player, and it is affordable! The addition of the silver umbilical cord was the crowning touch. I am in awe.
Listen to the new Naxos SACD of Holst's The Planets (6.110004) on the 999ES with silver umbillical, and prepare to be shocked. This SACD is so ultra defined and powerful that many players will have difficulty with it. On the ModWright 999ES with the copper umbilical, it was very good, but somewhat thin and artificial. Now it sounds like 100 instruments magnificently arrayed in the room, with depth and texture galore. There is no etch or phasiness to be heard, just the unbelievably majestic sound of the real performance. How can this be? For $250, who cares? Just get it.
Try Duke Ellington's Blues in Orbit SACD (Mobile Fidelity MFSL757). You are there. The LP is warmer, but it sounds colorized. The SACD is perfection. Its sense of reality, its imaging and depth, not to mention the quietest, blackest background imaginable, is awesome. Toss on SuperBass2 from Telarc (SACD 63483), and you have front row seats at the best club in town, with fantastic realism and bass, texture and bloom off the chart, plus a wonderful performance. The talking in the background is scary in its perspective and realism. What sound!
My recommendation is as follows: Get a Sony 999ES or 9000 and send it to ModWright. Get the Signature Truth Mod with Bybee filters and Tung-Sol 5687 tubes. Get the Revelation Cryo Silver Umbilical (at a savings when ordered with the modification). I assure you that the results will be state of the art. Don't throw away your LPs or analog playback gear, but they're going to get mighty dusty. Sell off all your other digital stuff—you'll not be listening to it. The ModWright/Sony 999ES with Cryo Silver Umbilical eclipses ALL digital playback at any price that I've heard in my system. It meets or exceeds the many sonic qualities of LP playback while maintaining a signal-to-noise ratio untouchable by any analog gear, ever. It's a joy to hear and own. Buy it, or just go to live performances from now on.