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vacuum state electronics
Sony DVP-S9000ES SACD/CD player - Level 5 mod
as reviewed by Karl Lozier
Modified or upgraded audio equipment (done by other than the original manufacturer) has long been a controversial and personal decision. The goal, of course, is to improve a component's audio quality, and the past few years have seen a great deal of interest in modifying CD and even universal players.
However, there are several pratfalls in going the modified player route. In nearly all instances, manufacturers design a product to meet a price point. They purchase huge quantities of parts at a time and anyone hoping to make a substantial audible improvement will pay rather dearly to purchase a handful of hopefully better sounding replacements. Additionally, with a good dealer, trading in the old component on a new, and hopefully better one, (after a home trial) may be a better deal with the result being known in advance and having the benefit of a manufacturer's warranty.
Even so, many an audiophile chooses to go the modded route, Why? Perhaps the reason is a combination of realizing the fundamental importance of beginning the audio chain with the best possible signal source, along with the increasing knowledge and experience with the unique properties of CD players by the modifiers in obtaining that goal. As a reviewer, I have stayed away from modifying my components for at least the past few years. The thinking has been that readers should be able to duplicate my system directly from a dealer's shelf. In this case, however, the review component—a modified player—has been purchased and so is not an upgrade of a previous component of mine. All my stock players are still in my system at this time. However, this is almost certain to change in the very near future. Read on.
Allen Wright, well-known and respected electronics designer is responsible for this upgraded product. It is different from the "get-go" from anything in my recent memory. This upgrade is designed specifically for a few Sony stereo (two channel only) CD/SACD models, and one with DVD video playback included. The more commonly known applicable models are the original heavy weight Sony SCD-1 player, and its physically, though subtly less impressive and essentially same electronically and mechanically next-generation, the SCD-777ES. We can add to these the DVP-S9000ES with its attractive slim line, lighter weight construction, and a very good DVD video section. In the U.S., there had been the SCD-33ES changer in a heavy chassis with the same upgrade potential. For our international readers, the following models offer equal potential: (the European) SCD-555ES—not to be confused with the identically numbered US model—and the XB-940 QS.
Despite the name Vacuum State Electronics, Inc. (VSEI), there are no vacuum tubes in the upgrade module; however, some listeners may say that certain aspects of the resultant sound quality are tube-like. Wright's upgrades uniquely consist of a packaged unit containing, in non-technical language, the heart, or perhaps the guts for a newly designed SACD/CD player—a completely new analog module board and clock with its own power supply. This takes the digital signal and completely bypasses the original DAC and audio output sections of the original player. The VSEI upgrade takes over completely after the relatively unique (for only these models) Sony VC24 digital filter input chip. This self-contained upgrade eliminates all the integrated amplifying chips (nine in one model), while replacing the inferior but necessary parts such as the timing clock, with significantly superior parts, and new transformers and power supply for the crucial analog areas. After the upgrade, the unit will look exactly as it did before—except for an added pair of new output connections on the rear panel. It is easy to compare the upgraded player to a stock player simply by using the stock output jacks! This unique comparison ability for an upgraded component is a rarity.
As would be expected, the Sony's transport is left unchanged. The transport used in both the SCD-1 and SCD-777ES models is particularly well designed and built, fittingly so for a flagship model displaying the new SACD technology, and has been rated as excellent, if not outstanding by the community. It is an engineering project that perhaps only a firm such as Sony could execute and mass-produce. The transports in the other listed models (including this review's DVP–S9000ES) are very good, but not on the exalted level of the SACD-1 and SCD-777ES models. It has been suggested and confirmed by designer Allen Wright that the combination of the superior transport plus the unusually sturdy and massive construction of the SCD-1 and SCD-777ES models, results in a noticeably tonally superior deep and middle bass range. It is not more bass, (as all the players after upgrading have identical measured responses from 0.3Hz to 91kHz), just that the two heavier machines offer better definition and a feeling of stability than that of the physically lighter DVP-S 9000ES.
For anyone desiring a true upgraded balanced output circuitry things are internally more complicated and expensive, and are only available for players that originally only came with unbalanced (RCA) outputs! Balanced outputs are important if your system has a balanced preamp using XLR connectors, and of the currently upgradeable, models only the original heavyweight SCD-1 has them originally fitted. The original balanced circuitry on the SCD-1 is not a pure classic balanced circuit, so VSEI can upgrade this player as well. The Level 5 Balanced Upgrade option accesses the pure, naturally balanced digital signal and keeps it in balanced form right through to its new XLR output sockets, and is the optimum choice if your system is balanced. If your system is unbalanced (uses RCA sockets) then there is little if any sonic advantage in choosing the considerably higher cost balanced option—unless you intend to move up to a fully balanced system in the near future.
Though the two U.S. and other official installation companies are highly recommended by VSEI, they do offer installation kits and state that …very experienced technicians should be able to handle it for themselves. Accurate company instructions are available. Note that due to elimination (by-passing) of poor sounding amplification parts of the stock unit, the output level is noticeably decreased—by about 10dB. As a result, the gain or volume control on your preamplifier or receiver will need to be turned-up higher than usual. That will cause no audible problems, but can be a real annoyance when changing inputs and forgetting to turn the gain/volume control down.
You must supply the unit for upgrade. None of the units are still in production although www.soundseller.com may have some new players still in stock. You might also consider Audiogon and E-bay as other possibilities.
Previous reviews of the VSEI upgrades—to the specific Sony two channel SACD players—have been limited to Level 2 or Level 4 upgrades. Editor David Robinson's review approximately one year ago was of the then top of the line, Level 4 upgrade. Designed and released a bit later, was the Level 4.5. Just before I received my upgraded unit—the Sony DVP-S9000ES (not to be confused with Sony's later model XA 9000ES)—the latest Level 5 upgrade was released. My understanding is that both Level 4.5 and Level 5 are concerned with a new low jitter clock and a dedicated special transformer. Also included are new associated parts; such as pure silver wire for internal digital and analog signal stock wiring, while replacing and adding to specific Level 4.5 parts. Anyone desiring to improve the sound quality offered by Level 4 should go directly to Level 5, and skip Level 4.5. According to designer, Level 5 audibly improves upon Level 4.5, making 4.5 not a wise choice.
It would have been particularly interesting if I had the Level 4 upgrade for a while and then the Level 5 for comparison. All I have is designer Allen Wright's and installer Bill Thalmann of Music Technology's comments, which are remarkably similar: Each level reveals improvement in detail, smoothness, and sweetness with no loss of the basic (earlier) units' naturally sounding reproduction. This directly implies even less grunge, grit, and edginess than the noticeably low levels of the Level 4 upgrade as reviewed by David Robinson in PFO Issue 15. Particularly with SACD reproduction, (here I am taking a possibly dangerous assumption a step or two further).
Based on David's review and others listed on VSEI's web site, there is a distinct possibility that this Level 5 upgrade may be at, or extremely close to, state of the art sound reproduction—particularly in the all important midrange and high end! If you refer to my introductory comments, you will understand why designer Allen Wright, Music Technology's Bill Thalmann and I are not mentioning state of the art (just very good and detailed) bass performance. That is true when each of us is using the Sony DVPS 9000ES player, not the two models with superior transports and even more solid (heavier) construction.
There is another side to this "coin of decision". The not quite identical circuitry (compared to other models such as this review model) of the two-heavyweight model Sonys, contains an integrated chip that cannot be eliminated even with this Level 5 upgrade unit. (Note; see the brief added first U.S. review of Level 5+ applicable to only Sony heavyweight models SCD-1 and SCD-777ES, at the end of this review). The model DVPS 9000ES does not contain this "extra chip" and therefore this unit can sound subtly cleaner and smoother. This is another example of the old "KISS" principal at work. Simplifying complex things or ideas can be misleading or even dangerous. So, be aware of thinking that one choice might appeal more to music lovers and the other to audiophiles. Listeners with excellent, separately controlled woofers or subwoofers may be disappointed to find that they cannot really compensate for that mid to deep bass range difference available only with the two heavier models. That is because it is more a matter of tonality, not a measurable signal level difference. I did find that Bright Star Audio's inexpensive products are helpful and that their IsoRock Reference 3 Isolation Platform is a significant improvement. Wright reported impressive low cost results using a forty-pound granite slab atop a partially inflated bicycle inner tube with his model DVP S9000ES. Even so, I am planning to audition some moderately priced isolation devices to see if they could compensate for the differences in bass performance. I will consider any suggestions of manufacturer's products. If I come across an answer, I shall report on it —promise. Do not let my observations regarding the mid to lower bass range reproduction of the VSEI upgraded (any Level) deter you. It is at least the equal of any under $4000 player I have heard. Purchase of a good condition lightly used Sony DVP S9000ES and the Level 5 upgrade should total close to $2000.
Listening impressions depend on your approach—what are you listening for? If you are listening to enjoy a favorite musical selection, you are in for a treat with the upgraded VSEI Level 5 version of the Sony DVPS-9000ES or other models. With good or better CDs, the clarity and unforced detail will be spread before you in a natural or musical manner. Details will not jump out at you nor seem to be hidden or covered over. Relaxation will usually be an apparent characteristic, just as it is with the real McCoy —live un-amplified music. A sense of continuousness or continuity will be apparent and perhaps better described as "speaking with one voice". In other words, there is no sensation of a transition from the all-important mid-range to the treble or top end. The treble is not a separate entity, but simply an extension of the middle range. It is not exciting or impressive on its own—that is unless duplication of live music impresses you. The better the recording, the more nearly real it will sound.
Almost uniquely, flaws are revealed simply for what they are—with no exaggeration and therefore at times appear to be at least slightly subdued. There is a natural roundness and fullness to most recordings and with good SACDs, an unlimited airy extension is evident. Grit, grain and other artifacts are usually noticeable by their absence.
I have been using two different players, each priced around $6000. One is in my two-channel music system and a universal player resides in my rather modest surround-sound home theater system. Each of these two players deservedly enjoy similarly good overall performance ratings, and with excellent and powerful bass response. The Vacuum State Electronics Level 5 upgraded Sony DVP-S9000ES player is a noticeably and significantly superior musical sounding player. That combination costs approximately one third as much as either of my top players. The two "heavyweight" Sony players with their potentially superior bass response, command significantly higher prices on the used component marketplace. Even so, there is nothing with comparable performance available currently anywhere near the price of that combination of a used Sony plus the VSEI upgrade. Other than possibly a couple of new players in the six to seven thousand dollar range (one a U.S. product, the other an Italian tubed CD only model), the only probably superior musical choices are the ten to twenty thousand dollar models mentioned in previous comparative reviews of the earlier Level 4 upgrade. Those reviews are still available on both VSEI and Music Technology web sites. Here is a VSEI Level 5 player that is quite possibly competing head on in most respects, with the best-known and most expensive players currently available. Karl Lozier
I thank Karl for an insightful review and am happy he gained the musically increased performance we aim for in all our work – be it Upgrades to commercial players, or our own designed and manufactured tube electronics.
For SACD enthusiasts, these original two channel stereo SONY SACD players are ideal machines for upgrading as their digital signal path was optimized for SACD, and they do not in any way convert the pure bitstream DSD/SACD signal to any form or variation of PCM—as do most current machines from SONY or other brands. They also are seriously under priced with respect to their build quality, as SONY wanted them to be showpieces for the new SACD format—the Flagship SCD-1 and its near identical twin brother (the SCD-777ES) must have lost SONY serious money on each one they produced. If they had been made by one of the hi-end's heavy hitters such as Mark Levinson or Krell, I expect they could have been 5 times the price!
With the latest Level 5 Upgrade, I feel we may have come to the end of cost effective improvements to these machines, and while minor sonic improvements are still possible, they would involve large amounts of technician time, and hence costs well beyond what I consider good value for money.
Consequently, my present design focus is on Upgrading a number of currently available players from SONY, Denon, Pioneer TEAC and Marantz—with the aim of getting them to the same sort of sonic performance that we can achieve with a SCD-1, SCD-777ES or DVP-S9000ES.
Our purpose of these Upgrades is to have our client's system make real music, and at a price well below the cost of any new player with similar (or often inferior) performance.
Thanks again for the space to make these points,
Allen Wright, Founder & CEO