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Positive Feedback ISSUE44
Allen Wright's Uber
Clock: Vacuum State Electronics' Ultimate Upgrade
Readers, the first thing you should do is go to the PFO Archives, click on Issue 39, and go all the way to the lead article about Vacuum State upgrades to certain early Sony SACD players. (You'll find it here at http://www.positive-feedback.com/Issue39/Vacuum State.htm.) It took me three months, and ultimately four Sony players, to complete that in-depth review.
"So what?" you might ask.
So this: simply that though Allen Wright's unique Uber-bit Clock should make any "really good" SACD or CD player significantly better, it was designed primarily as the last or "ultimate" upgrade to the best earlier Sony SACD players. Let me be as clear as possible about this. The Sony players that are Wright's top and personal choices for upgrades (and not more simple mods) may not be the best sounding models in stock form. The top choices for upgrades are the models that have the greatest potential for success, and often have a very good underlying reason for potential upgrades results. Among these are excellent/unique chip sets, excellent transport, and solid, non-resonant construction.
At the moment, word is that player transports are generally regarded as a major variable limiting performance with all types of players. There is tacit agreement that Esoteric is the best in this regard. Esoteric, who places a premium on the crucial nature of the transport in digital playback, have designed and executed accordingly for many years now, and place a corresponding very high value on the results of their engineering. So far as I know, only one company, Playback Designs, with their MPS-5 SACD/CD player, has been willing to pay the ransom required by Esoteric to use their transport in Playback Design's new fifteen thousand dollar player.
Shifting back to Vacuum State: as can be easily imagined with Wright's upgraded Sony models, all other factors have been well taken care of. Adding his newly developed Uber-bit-Clock (hereafter referred to simply as the "Uber Clock") to other players might require suitability knowledge. I would not be surprised if some—maybe even many—players might need a bit of modification or upgrading to be able to take full advantage of Vacuum State's newly developed Uber Clock. "Full advantage" would simply mean to make the player as good sounding as reasonably possible.
If you question whether simply adding Vacuum State's Uber Clock to just any CD or SACD player will make a huge difference, your question is very logical. At the moment the answer (substantiated via buzz on the Internet) seems to be that the Uber Clock addition will make a significant audible improvement to almost any player, and probably more so with SACD or hybrid players. Logically speaking, the better the player (stock or upgraded), the better the underlying platform, the better the end result. Allen Wright's justly famous upgraded early model Sony SACD players are probably the best possible place to start or build upon. That is simply because Allen has literally spent years upgrading these unique early Sony model players, and there seems to be little more that can be done, other than to go after that seemingly mysterious jitter problem.
The jitter problem is not just a timing problem, however! Do not pay any attention to that made-up acronym "PRAT"; words such as "pace," "rhythm," or even "attack" are, in my opinion, just descriptive names for timing errors/problems when you're talking about the digital domain. Communication with Allen Wright or his U.S. representatives is definitely the right place to begin. It will help prevent potential surprises.
As an example, Bill Thalmann told me about receiving a Marantz player and finding out, after inspection, that it had three clocks! Only Marantz knew about it. Three clocks are not all simply replaced by one clock during an upgrade. There might be times when someone wants to have the best possible upgrade for the CD section of a dual player, as opposed to the very best possible playback for SACD. I had no idea if such a choice is available, and found out that it is not.
In my listening sessions, I found both CD and SACD were equally improved. As it turns out, that was Allen's goal. If forced to decide between the comparative improvements in these two sections, I would say that SACD was a bit more noticeably improved than regular CD. That is probably because the qualities attributed to good SACD sound reproduction, such as ambience, spaciousness, air, three-dimensionality, a more natural soundscape, and so on, become even more apparent with the jitter reduction presented by the Uber Clock.
I should note that the official name of the Vacuum State upgrade clock is the "Terra Firma Uber Clock," and that it is housed in a very small neat appearing aluminum box, with a tiny LED that turns blue when the small, but potent, power supply is fully charged. Allen Wright also developed a smaller, very inexpensive model, one that can usually be mounted inside almost any player. He feels that it offers close to 80 percent of the Uber Clocks' performance at less than half the price. The name for that model is the Terra Firma Lite.
I have been a music lover for more years than I can remember for certain. I have been a component and music reviewer for almost as long, starting with a couple of so-called "guest reviews" for Harry Pearson and his Absolute Sound magazine way back in issue 2 or 3. I have reviewed for every current U.S. audio magazine still available in print, except for one, plus a long stint with enjoythemusic.com . I have been privy to much over the years: from evaluating preproduction components, to planned changes and the free exchange of ideas and thoughts with a number of truly dedicated audio engineers and designers that are trying, ever trying, to make even better sounding audio components year after year. They are a "breed apart" compared to those interested only in the money-making potential available to a select few working for large commercial profit-oriented companies or government agencies such as NASA. (Yes, I own two audio products designed and manufactured by two different former NASA-hired designers.) Both are excellent and are used in my reference stereo system. My recently upgraded multichannel (home theater) system is more modest.
Back to jitter for a moment: there is no doubt in my mind that Allen Wright has developed new bit-timing clocks that significantly reduce jitter and its negative effects on reproduced music and sound. Allen's efforts have resulted in improvements throughout the frequency spectrum. My listening was done using my original top-of-the-line Sony SCD-1 upgraded to the maximum by Bill Thalmann, U.S. East Coast Vacuum State representative at Music Technology Inc. The SCD-777 ES, younger brother to the SCD-1, when upgraded, offers identical performance. (I can easily testify to the above as I own one of each with the same ultimate upgraded performance levels.) The other commonly upgraded early Sony SACD model is the DVP-9000ES with its added DVD capability. That model does not have the unique top-loading transport of the SCD-1 and SCD-777 ES. The well-built chassis of that model is not quite the equal of the heavy duty chassis of the two top-loaders. I also own a pair of them, one of which I sent with payment in full weeks ago, to beat the announced price increase due exchange rates. They are a bit backed up with orders at Music Technology for the addition of the slightly less ambitious Terra Firma Lite bit clock (my order), as it can be installed internally in most, if not all, players. I expect to report on it when returned as quickly as extended listening sessions will allow.
Many listening sessions with the DVP-9000ES models have revealed overall excellent listening quality, and I have often used them with my regular CD and SACD music reviews. The resultant audio quality is not identical to that offered by the two top loaded heavyweights, though. The difference is mainly in their tonal balance, though there is a tad more detail in the bass range with well-recorded discs on the SCD-1 and the 777. The two top loaders inherently have a slightly richer and fuller sounding bass range response, perhaps up to approximately 150Hz. Allen Wright agrees with me, while stating that the models seem to measure identically. Allen attributes the audible difference to the heavyweight and more nearly non-resonant chassis of the top loaders. Yes, I do prefer the slightly different tonal balance of the two top loaders, and would add my guess that the unique transport of the top loaders also makes a difference. I am sincere when I say that I could, and have, lived happily with either. I can easily make the lighter player sound almost identical with my loudspeakers' adjustable bass range controls plus a different loudspeaker cable. Many listeners like the DVP-9000ES as well as the SCD-1 and 777; the 9000ES is certainly cheaper as a platform for Vacuum State's now rather famous upgrades. I will soon know the audible effects of adding an internal Terra Firma Lite bit-clock to my upgraded DVP-9000es player.
Listening evaluation started while I was doing reviews of new recordings, and that was a bit of a problem. I wrote a few of the reviews first, and then I discovered their sound was only "that good" with the Uber Clock combination. Did that invalidate the reviews or what? I had to mention the player plus Uber Clock combination if that was the only one used to arrive at my conclusions in my review. I still find it a bit difficult to believe that the clock can make that huge a difference! The difference on many recordings is the greatest difference ever in my memory for an upgrade or modification of any component. With the last couple of component reviews, the noticeable improvements easily stood above the previous product comparisons. In each case the manufacturers told me that the improvement was mainly due to a much better signal to noise ratio. Nothing so simple is happening in this instance.
I may have to resort to phrases that I have never used in the past if my memory is still serving me. I definitely state that I did not stay up all night long listening to my favorite recordings as if they were entirely new! Not all recordings seem to respond or improve to the same degree. I have not figured out why, nor am I able, at this time, to predict which recordings may offer the most improvement. No recording sounded worse, and only a very few seemed to offer only slight improvement. The qualities that I did hear were very obvious, and included overall richness, fullness and a very definite audible sense of roundness—to the extent of increasing the audible soundscape, sometimes referred to as the soundstage. This roundness contained an improved feeling of ambience overall. This must have much to do with instruments sounding more nearly real, three dimensional, and palpable. Phrases such as this are not ones that I usually employ, though they definitely apply here!
I think that I must give Allen Wright's newly developed Uber Clock my absolutely highest recommendation as easily the finest, most natural sounding upgrade or modification to any audio component in my audio listening experience. Used in combination with the highest level modifications that Vacuum State installs on a Sony SCD-1 or SCD-777ES SACD/CD player, I believe that they would have to be compared to current players in the ten to fifteen thousand dollar range. Remember that the Vacuum State modified SCD-1 or 777 will run you approximately half (or less) of a more expensive SACD player.
For other real-life potential problems and considerations when having your SACD player modified, refer again to my in-depth article in PFO Issue 39, cited above. In these unusual times, who can guess three to five years from now which players may be available or reparable?
1) SACD: Schubert Trout Quintet PentaTone PTC 5186 334 My #1 choice! And there is room for the whole group in your home. Superb audio.
2) SACD: Mahler Symphony #4 Tudor #7151 Relatively Subtle; outstanding.
3) SACD: Janacek Sinfonietta Tudor #7135 High level treble range passages like the one scored for eleven trumpets is a tough treble test!
4) SACD: La Boheme on Telarc: Most realistic opera audio ever.
5) CD: Jazz in the Garden Stanley Clark Trio Headsup HUCD 3155. Real piano plus Acoustic bass and drums will fit nicely in your listening room.
6) HDCD: Copland Fanfare for the Common Man; Reference Recordings #93 on CD. A bit of an oldie, but still available; it will show off Bass Drum and Cymbals.
Prices vary due to fluctuating exchange rates; installed prices are currently:
Terra Firma Lite - significantly less than $900
Call for current pricing.