ONLINE - ISSUE 15
"I Don't Drive Stock!" - The
Vacuum State Electronics modded Sony 9000ES SACD player
(Sidebar commentary after this review by Allen Wright of VSEI)
Stop the presses! SACD hot-rodding excellence alert!
You just have to love life's little ironies. Immediately after completing the work with Richard Kern's Audiomod modifications to the Sony SCD-777ES and returning that unit to Richard (reviewed favorably elsewhere in this very issue, at http://www.positive-feedback.com/Issue15/kern777.htm), I put into its place the Vacuum State Electronics, Inc. (VSEI) modified Sony DVP 9000ES. It had been kindly sent along by Allen Wright of VSEI via his American West Coast agent, Warren Gregoire of Warren Gregoire and Associates, and would in turn be sent along to Bill Thalman of Music Technology, Inc., his East Coast agent. All of this was in response to the online challenge at Audio Asylum's Hi-Rez Highway (http://www.audioasylum.com/forums/hirez/bbs.html) to have some well-known SACD modders submit their work for PFO's response.
Richard Kern's work as a modder was well-known to me, but while I've known Allen Wright for a number of years (another one of my audio friends met via Harvey "Gizmo" Rosenberg), and had interviewed him at VSAC 2003 (see PFO Issue 9, http://www.positive-feedback.com/Issue9/wrightinterview.htm), I had not gotten a chance to hear his audio hot-rodding. (The one opportunity that I would have had was at VSAC 2003, when various modded SACD players were compared during an afternoon session, but that was to standing-room-only crowds. I couldn't tell much of anything at that venue, unfortunately. Interested readers will get a sense of what I mean at http://www.positive-feedback.com/Issue9/vsacdr5.htm). I know that some 'philes said that they found the VSEI-modified SACD player to be quite impressive at that show, but show hearsay doesn't necessarily mean much—I'd have to hear VSEI gear in my listening room to be sure.
Which was why I was interested in hearing this particular Sony 9000ES... .
The unit that we received from VSEI was at first glance simply a DVP 9000ES finished in black. Like the Audiomod units, it didn't seem unusual in any way—until I turned it around and noticed that there were a pair of XLR outputs added to the rear of the unit. There were also the standard RCA unbalanced outs, but I knew that the balanced outputs from Allen's balanced boards where were the magic would be.
Otherwise, like most modded SACD players, the VSEI 9000ES looks like a typical 9000ES, with nothing to distinguish itself from an unmodified unit. I did not pop the lid on this unit, but VSEI has a photo or two of the interior online in its online SACD upgrade catalog at http://www.vacuumstate.com/VARIOUS/SACD_2003.pdf. An even better set of images will be found in VSEI's reprint of the recent Audio Perfectionist review by Richard Hardesty at http://www.vacuumstate.com/VARIOUS/APJ11_Reprint_Sony.pdf.
The nature of the hardware changes involved in the XLR upgrade are described by Allen Wright in his sidebar commentary below. In brief, Allen's approach is fundamentally different than that of Richard Kern or Dan Wright. Rather than upgrade selected categories of components as Richard does, or provide a bypass to a tubed output section like Dan Wright provides, Allen has elected to provide a new module board. This does a bypass as early in the digital circuit as possible, to stay as close as possible to the original signal. His module board upgrades the digital clock, taking the feed right after the Sony VC24 digital filter chip. This replacement audio board has no op-amps, has its own power supply, transformer and shunt regulators, and is attached in turn to new unbalanced/balanced outputs at the rear of the machine.
What VSEI calls the "Level 2" upgrade addresses shortcomings to the circuit path on the digital side of the ledger. The stock digital power supply capacitors are headed off at the pass in favor of surface mount components that VSEI believes to be a superior implementation.
Allen says that this gets far closer to the possibilities of DSD on the input side, and stays out of the way on the path to output. Is he right? Ultimately, there's only one way to tell, of course.
Cutting to the Chase: the Sound
Since this review was on a relatively tight timeline, I concentrated on the SACD playback performance of the VSEI 9000ES, and no comments will be made about Red Book CD playback. Nor, for that matter, did I bother with DVD video playback.
One thing about the VSEI modded 9000ES that made before/after listening comparisons possible is that Allen leaves the stock RCA outputs (not the VSEI RCAs) in their unmodified condition. To hear what the stock player sounds like, all I had to do was plug into those jacks. For the hot-rodded sound, I plugged into the XLR outputs, and level-matched by ear with the EMM Labs SWM3 preamp.
I started out by spending time with the stock output of the 9000ES. I stayed with it for a number of hours, listening to a handful of SACDs: The Allman Brothers, Eat A Peach; David Elias' terrific The Window; APO's exceptional Chet by Chet Baker, and an assortment of Sugar Hill, Telarc, Sony and Fantasy titles. The overall result was easy to assess: the unmodified sound of SACD playback was nothing more than OK. I found it to be grainy, a bit veiled, and not particularly spacious. There was little sense of extension at the upper frequencies, and no more than average soundstage depth or width. Imaging was nothing special, either, and as to the "jump factor"... well, forget it.
In other words, if the stock 9000ES had come in for review, it would have gone back with a quick "forget it."
Of course, I freely confess to being spoiled: my normal diet, the EMM Labs DAC6/Meitnerized Philips SACD 1000, is world-class special. Once you get used to the playback of both SACDs and Red Book CDs on that platform, it's hard to be satisfied with lesser players.
When I got to the point of "enough's enough" with the stock output on the VSEI 9000ES, I shifted to the XLR outputs. I earballed the level, and then sat back to listen.
And then I sat right back up.
Zzzzzaaaappp! The bloody VSEI 9000ES was astonishingly good!
The difference between the stock outputs and the VSEI XLRs was so obvious to my ears that I was taken aback. The stock SACD playback was... well, stock Sony; the VSEI playback of SACDs was a true quantum leap ahead!
In the first place, the sense of ease and extension was immediately present. Rather than being murky, the sample set of SACDs opened up dramatically. Air, atmosphere, "real presence"... pick your favorite term... was suddenly back in my listening room, and out of the same box that had sucked it out just a little while earlier. No sense of truncated higher frequencies; no sense of being "outside the venue." Just clean, clear, beautiful music!
Middle of the road soundstaging and imaging? Fixed!
As a matter of fact, as I listened to the VSEI 9000ES, I realized that this was the first time that I had listened to a modded SACD player and found a quality to the playback that reminded me of my reference standard EMM Labs gear.
Transparent. Clear. Detailed, without being fatiguing. Natural, and full of ease. Dynamic, without being forward or edgy. Excellent soundstage depth, and very fine imaging.
And all at a truly remarkable package price... less than $3,000 for both the transport AND the mods, installed.
My, oh my.
Color me bemused... .
So, David, is this the "Meitner Killer"?
No, it isn't... but it's a heckuva lot closer to the sonic superlatives of the EMM Labs gear than some other designs I've heard. I did some extended listening comparisons between the VSEI 9000ES and the DAC6/Meitnerized SACD 1000, and found that the EMM Labs gear continues to hold the edge, with the final word in fullness, roundness of sound, depth of soundstage, precision of detail, and transparency. What's more, EMM Labs' new CDSD transport is rumored to extend these virtues by a further margin, though I cannot yet vouch for that. In sum: if you're looking for true state of the art in SACD playback, without compromise, then EMM Labs continues to remain king of the hill in my experience, without question. Those with the budget for the best I've ever heard, need to go to EMM Labs.
But... for the first time... I heard a modded player that was truly reminiscent of the sound quality and feel of the EMM Labs SACD playback system.
Sports fans, this is a truly significant result. And it is terrific news for countless 'philes who simply cannot afford a Meitner-based solution, but who long for quality that is definitely of that character. Allen Wright and VSEI are digging deeply into the possibilities of DSD and SACD with these reasonably-priced modifications. The VSEI will definitely deliver audio delight.
Will everyone who can't afford a Meitner solution find the VSEI 9000ES to be the best choice? Tough question! I think that those listeners who tend to favor the silkier, more refined sound of the Marantz line may still prefer to go either with the Audiomod or ModWright solutions, and this may include audiophiles who have a taste for the lush, or for "classic tube sound" (whatever that is). But audiophiles and music lovers on a budget who prefer a more detailed, extended, transparent sound are definitely going to want to check into the VSEI mods. Remember that these are available for the Sony SCD-1 and SCD-777, with other models under development. Check with VSEI or its agents for more details.
I should mention one final note: a very close audio friend of mine, a person with exceptional sensibilities, got to hear the VSEI 9000ES just before it left. He listened for a while, then offered to purchase it on the spot! If Bill Thalman did not already have a home for it, it would never have left Portland.
So yes, in case you haven't noticed it yet—this is a rave!
The VSEI modification to the Sony DVP 9000ES therefore rates a Ye Olde Editor's "Very Highest Recommendation."
Cost of the unit under review: approximately US $2750 (cost fluctuates due to the exchange rate between the dollar and the euro). This price includes about $900 for the 9000ES, plus the Level 2 Balanced package; call for a quote.
Varies: user will have to procure a Sony DVP 9000ES, then choose either the unbalanced or balanced output option. Check with your nearest VSEI agent for current costs.
For a list of worldwide agents, see www.vacuumstate.com/ww_sacd_disributors.htm
USA West Coast Agent
East Coast Agent
Designer's notes on the VSEI modification to the Sony 9000ES SACD player
Allen Wright is the President of Vacuum State Electronics, Inc. (VSEI) (http://www.vacuumstate.com), and a long-time designer of fine audio products. He is also the author of an excellent series of audio 'cookbooks'... see http://www.vacuumstate.com/cookbooks.htm for more information. PFO's very informative interview with Allen Wright during VSAC 2003 can be found in Issue 9 at http://www.positive-feedback.com/Issue9/wrightinterview.htm.
David has asked me to write a sidebar to his VSEI Upgraded 9000ES review to attempt to explain why we perform surgical intervention on perfectly serviceable products, and even charge money for doing so. At this time I don't know what he's written and I hope it's favourable, so here goes...
I'm an analog person from way back, and have been designing & manufacturing specialised hi-end equipment (tube & solid state) for over 30 years. I own over 2500 LPs and have never considered RBCD (Red Book CD = 44kHz/16-bit) to be anything other than a convenient music source to record compilation cassettes for the car. Hence I've never invested in a serious RBCD player, even though I've auditioned many.
Circa 1999, DR and other writers in Positive Feedback started getting excited about the performance of SACD via the newly released SONY SCD-1 player. I had no access to this monster, but in May 2000 was able to directly compare a commercially released SACD disc played via an SCD-1 to its DSD hard disc master — the SCD-1 having been converted to allow it to play through the same Meitner professional 'DSD' DAC used for the HD playback. They sounded virtually identical and equally stunning, which gave me the real hope of SACD becoming the first domestic medium to match, and perhaps even go beyond, the very best vinyl, echoing DR's headline in PF Vol 8, #1: 'Mic Feeds and Master Tapes for the Masses!'
In 2001, an $800 SONY player became available in Europe, the SCD-XB940. I borrowed one to hear what an affordable machine could do, and the answer was: Not Much! OK, its SACD was better than RBCD, but miles away what I'd heard at the studio. However, an inspection of the schematic showed that some upgrade potential existed, as it used pretty much the same digital chips and signal path topology of its SCD-1 big brother.
Anytime a hot new product line hits the market in a field where performance counts, the upgraders /modifiers/tweakers are right in there—be it HiFi, automobiles, or extremo espresso machines! They're all looking for exploitable potential that's been minimised by the corporate ruled design team, and/or compromises enforced by their ever present cost accountants. And they'll find this potential if it's there—and while some things are already on the ragged edge of their capabilities, others beg to be taken far beyond their apparent limits.
Always considering that Less is More relates to signal path complexity, and hating what corporate dictated op-amp usage does to the sonics—lots of digging with my treasured HP182C 100MHz oscilloscope found the earliest possible audio take-off points, actual well before what SONY considered audio. Interconnects were quickly attached there, and the lash-up subjected to a listen by myself and several critical (and pretty doubtful) friends. There were a few problems for sure, but it was obvious that the elimination of one DAC and four (yes, four) opamps per channel made the unit very much more detailed, transparent and musical!
The borrowed unit was tidied up and returned, and I went out and bought Vacuum State a brand new XB940 for extended investigation, surgery, and (hopefully) enjoyment. After three months and innumerable listening sessions, changes & more listenings, I had proved to myself and my listening team that domestic SACD had huge potential—having forced the innocent little XB940 to a level that matched the best vinyl LP playback I could provide!
Out of interest, that was using the Classic Records 180gm re-issue of Miles Davis's Kind of Blue against the SONY/Columbia SACD release. My vinyl system was then the Clearaudio Reference cartridge, Sumiko Premier arm & Townshend Rock T/T. Electronics were the Vacuum State RTP3C preamp, Vacuum State PP-1CS poweramps, and the speakers used Jordan JX150/JX53 drivers in 71 liters sealed boxes with 10cm walls. All connected up with Vacuum State silver foil I/Cs and speaker cables.
I accept that the arm and T/T were not up to the calibre of the rest—but it made a pretty spectacular vinyl sound and the modified XB940 matched it for the musically good things of vinyl—and bettered it for pitch stability, lower noise and to my disbelief: dynamics—both macro, micro and DDR (Downward Dynamic Range)! (Since then I have a new T/T and arm—but with the ongoing improvements of the Upgrade module from Level 1 to Level 4, SACD is still a match!)
Hard to believe but it was clearly evident. What I suspect is happening is that we've gone beyond the differences in the playback chain, and are simply hearing the much wider dynamics the mastering engineers are able to transfer from the master tape onto the SACD itself—compared to what they could get onto a vinyl surface with its multiple processing steps and mechanical limitations.
As an extra bonus, the upgrade greatly improved the sound on RBCD playback, which can now sound very good indeed—even if it still has a PCM flavour...in contrast, SACD playback sounds analog with a master tape stability & feeling!
The Upgrade Module that resulted was designed to fit into all of the first series of SONY stereo SACD players; namely the SCD-1, its twin brother the SCD-777ES, the US-only C333ES changer, the Europe/Asia only SCD-555ES, and (test bunny) XB-940, and this review subject, the DVP-S9000ES. In the meantime, all these players have been discontinued and replaced by models with more bells and whistles and less mechanical structure—but none using the SACD focused 'VC24' chipsets used in these original six. More recent SONY models have been investigated for upgrade suitability, but from our point of view (to date at least) have been found wanting.
VSEI are currently exploring the sonic possibilities of universal players from Pioneer & Denon, and looking into several Chinese sourced tube output machines, but will remain strong proponents of the originals from SONY. This is because:
1. They, as the original showcase players for SACD, used circuitry optimised for SACD playback, with no compromises made to PCM playback. Many newer machines actually convert the bitstream SACD signal to PCM for easier processing, but these SONYs actually go the other way—keeping the DSD/SACD signal in its native format and converting the RBCD PCM signal to bitstream!
2. The topology of their VC 24 chipsets allows us to directly access the (de-encrypted) bitstream signal while its still in digital form, and feed it to our 'sophisticatedly simple' DAC/filter/output buffer circuit. With only three discrete transistors per channel (backed up by a serious analog power supply) in our module compared to SONY's original complex DAC & lots of opamps (nine in the SCD-1)—it has to sound better!
3. As the digital bitstream signal is natively balanced where we tap it off, it's easy to provide true balanced outputs on the five unbalanced output machines—and correct the messy over-complex balanced outputs of the SCD-1.
The upgrade comprises:
1. A full test of the player to ensure it's working correctly before we start in on it!
2. Fitting a completely new Vacuum State designed and manufactured module that contains:
3. New RCA sockets (e) are mounted on the rear panel for the upgraded signal in the unbalanced version, with new XLRs and RCAs in the balanced version. The unmodified signal is still available (but improved because of the new clock and digital area changes) at the original output sockets & headphone socket for comparison.
4. Switching/pulse noise created in the digital area is greatly reduced with the addition of some very trick bypass capacitors to the relevant power supply rails.
5. Finally, a four day burn in/listening test period to ensure it's making beautiful music with zero anomalies before it's shipped back to you.
I don't know if DR mentions that for keen, electronically competent PF Online readers (or those with keen, electronically competent & helpful friends) we can supply Upgrade Modules with full installation instructions, saving you some $$—but mostly the hassle of shipping your machine to one of our agents. And speaking of agents, we have two in the USA, three in Europe, and two in Australia/Asia.
Their contact data, lots of pictures, and specific player info is available on the 2003 SACD Upgrade Brochure at the VSEI home page, right above another review of a VSEI upgraded 9000ES at: http://www.vacuumstate.com.
An unbalanced upgrade is approximately US $1000, but as pricing varies a little with location due to local import duties & taxes, it's best to call your closest agent and get an exact quote in your own currency.
I am always available to answer questions by email; to keep out of the spammers' clutches I'll not place it here, but it can be found on our site at the bottom of the home page.
Thanks to David for his time & effort in reviewing our hotrodded 9000ES, and wish great musical enjoyment to all PF Online readers.