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the Turbo Modded Perpetual Technologies P3/A DAC
as reviewed by Fown-Ming Tien
Most of us would love to have the latest and greatest in audio, but with the exception of those who are obscenely wealthy—or are willing to either take out a second mortgage or max out their credit cards—few of us can dream of buying the best that high-end audio manufacturers have to offer. The rest must decide where in the audio chain that spending money can have the most impact. The greatest advancements in the last twenty years have occurred in digital sources. Other than the new Class-D offerings in amplification (on which I have not been completely sold), amplifier technology has not changed much in the past thirty years. Capacitor materials have improved, but not much else. The same applies to preamplifiers.
Trying to keep up with the Joneses in the digital world can be a checkbook-depleting affair, but if you expect to get the best from digital, you had better be ready to jump on the boat or get left behind. The past five years has been an eternity for digital. Not only has Redbook playback improved dramatically, but hi-resolution formats like XRCD, SACD, and DVD-A have pushed the quality of digital playback to another level. On the other hand, the future of these formats is still up in the air, and SACD may become extinct. The cost of upgrading to a world-class digital source like the $14K Reimyo CDP-777 (Redbook only), the $11K Linn Unidisk (all formats), or the $8K Dodson DA-218 DAC (Redbook and DVD-A) is high, and the uncertainty of the format wars makes the decision much more difficult. Fortunately, while we wait for the needle of the hi-rez compass to stop spinning, there are more affordable options.
Steve Nugent of Empirical Audio is one of the most accomplished modifiers in the industry, and he can give your digital source a new lease on life for a fraction of the cost of replacing it with a new reference piece. Unlike modifiers who simply replace parts with ones of higher quality, or take a solid-state output stage and convert it to a tube stage, Steve approaches modifications from a holistic perspective. He evaluates the compromises and limitations in the original design and completely redesigns the component to eliminate them. With almost thirty years of experience as an electrical engineer, he is qualified to reverse-engineer circuit designs.
Since I owned the Modwright Level II Perpetual Technologies P-3/A DAC, it made sense for me to compare it to Steve's turbo-modded P-3/A with all of the available options. The turbomod consists of improving the power supply and op amps as well as a complete redesign of the analog output circuitry. Details can be found at http://www.empiricalaudio.com/frmods.html#Perpetual%20Technologies%20P-3A%20Mods. A full-blown mod of an existing unit will cost between $1650 and $1980. Those who purchase a new, fully modded unit can expect to fork out $2600. The custom high-performance power supply like the one supplied with my review unit will set you back another $500.
How far up the performance ladder does a fully EA-modded P-3/A DAC take you? After spending over a month with one, I can report that it will take you very, very far. It took me so far that I almost forgot about hi-rez! The EA DAC, paired with my Audio Alchemy transport and Aural Thrills Gold digital coax interconnect, annihilated my Modwright P-3/A in every way. You had better be sitting down when you turn it on, because the music may just sweep you off your feet! I was astounded.
The bass was thunderous, and much more authoritative. The midrange was fuller, more textured, and more detailed, with less grain. On Live in Paris, Diana Krall's voice had more dimensionality, and gained a realistic vibrancy that had been missing before. In the treble, there was an air, transparency, and sweetness that was very satisfying. Soundstage width and depth expanded in all directions, by at least a foot. There was no congestion when the source material got complex, as in orchestral pieces like Dvorak's New World Symphony (RCA SACD hybrid disc), and there was a stunning clarity that the Modwright DAC had never delivered. In similar passages, the Modwright DAC would break up, causing smearing, harshness, and a collapsing of the soundstage. With the Empirical Audio DAC, the distinct identity of each instrument was never threatened. If this was not enough, the blacker backgrounds enabled startling dynamic contrasts to spring from the musical tapestry. The result was a sound that was abundant in detail, but not at the expense of musicality. The sound was never etched or analytical.
I have had a number of digital sources in my system lately, so in addition to the Modwright DAC, I was able to compare the EA DAC to the $975 Benchmark DAC-1, the $1500 Onix CD-1, the $2795 Dodson DAC-263, the $7995 Dodson DA-218, the $5500 Esoteric DV-50, and the $3500 McCormack UDP-1. The Benchmark DAC (see the review here) sounded remarkably similar to the Modwright DAC, so comparisons to the EA DAC were unnecessary. The Onix CD-1 sounded darker and more tube-like. The EA DAC had more air, resolution, and clarity, but less grain. As good as the Onix CD-1 is (see the review here), I felt that the EA DAC was more true to the source. The excellent Dodson DAC-263 (see the review here) came much closer to the level of performance of the EA. The highs were remarkably similar. Both offered comparable detail and resolution, but the nod in clarity and separation went to the EA. With the Dodson, bass was drier and tighter and the midrange was a bit leaner and more recessed.
Compared to the absolute best DAC I have heard in my system, the Dodson DA-218, the EA DAC could not quite deliver the goods. The top-of-the-line Dodson had more texture and detail in the bass. Nuances were much more apparent. Soundstage and dynamics were super-sized and super-deep. Considering the price difference, the EA unit got closer to the Dodson than I expected, The most obvious difference was the Dodson's ability to reproduce the most complex music with a clarity and separation that no DAC I have heard has been able to match, with the exception of the amazing Reimyo CDP-777 (though I heard the Reimyo in a different system).
In comparison to the two universal players, the EA DAC more than held its own on Redbook recordings. I connected it to the universal players (which were serving as transports) via my custom Dodson Audio digital coax cable and Steve's Holophonic-PC interconnects. It had a more engaging midrange than the Esoteric DV-50, which I connected using the high-quality RCA analog outputs. When I made repeated A/B comparisons of the EA DAC and the McCormack UDP-1, it was no simple task to conclude that the EA had smidge less detail in the midrange. The UDP-1 delivered vocal tracks with a tad more immediacy and emotion. The EA was a little harder-edged, but this was only apparent in direct comparison, and even then, the differences were not significant. The UDP-1 also had more air and transparency, which gave it a slightly more lively sound. I had to strain to hear these differences, but after spending a few hours with one and then switching to the other, the differences became apparent. I tried a variety of power cable and interconnect combinations to see if I could close the gap between the McCormack player and the EA DAC, but I ran out of time, as the EA needed to be returned.
Steve also provided me with a 1-meter length of his Bitmeister SP/DIF digital coaxial interconnect ($419.99) and a pair of 1-meter Holophonic-PC analog interconnects terminated with copper bullet plugs ($570/pair). Both cables are made with 99.99% pure crystal silver conductors. While the Bitmeister delivered extraordinarily black backgrounds, it did not have the same sense of air, transparency, and focus as my Dodson cable, which is the best digital coax cable I have heard. The Bitmeister ranks as the second best that I have heard in my system, and I have tried more digital interconnects than I can count on my fingers and toes! There was no indication that either the Bitmeister or Holophonic-PC interconnects employed silver conductors, since neither exhibited the signature sound that I have experienced with silver cables in the past. There was no overaccentuation in the upper midrange and lower treble to cause graininess or brightness. The lower midrange and upper bass were not lean or recessed. In my brief time with these cables, they never called attention to themselves. They more or less disappeared, which is what excellent cables are supposed to do.
I also had an opportunity to hear what Steve's technical wizardry can do for analog componentry. I stopped by his room at T.H.E. Show in January, where he was offering demonstrations with a modified Parasound HCA-3500 amplifier and a modified Mark Levinson No. 38 preamplifier. I have never heard a Parasound amplifier make music quite like what I heard that day. My jaw remained open for so long, I believe I left a puddle of drool that may not have dried up yet!
Steve recently told me that he has discovered a few more tweaks that improve the performance of the P-3/A DAC by another notch or two. One thing I respect so much about Steve is that, as good as his products sound, he is always willing to try new things to extract another ounce (or pound) of performance from them. As he learns more tricks, he incorporates them.
If you only change components once in a blue moon, but want more from your system, I recommend that you contact Steve Nugent to discuss what he can extract out of your existing components. It will be like the television show Extreme Makeover, but it will be your audio gear getting the makeover, and I guarantee that the results will shock the heck out of you! Fown-Ming Tien