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Positive Feedback ISSUE 56
Sony XA-5400ES Signature Truth Modified CD Player
as reviewed by Ryan Coleman
Some general lessons I've found in auditioning audio equipment for more years than I care to remember:
As this is an article on a digital source, let me expand on that last point a bit. Digital sources that rely on a shiny disc as the medium all have the same flaw: the aforementioned shiny disc. Sure, hi-res downloads have the potential to be a game-changer, and I look forward to seeing it evolve and take root (unlike SACD: RIP), but it doesn't help those of us who own thousands of CDs and will continue to use them indefinitely. With CDs, the sampling rate is too low, engineers use too much compression, jitter is impossible to fully ameliorate, and little attention is paid to the entire A to D process in the studio. Every player is subject to these limitations, as they're part of the software medium, and if it's broken upstream, no equipment further can fix it. But, ubiquity counts for something, and the availability of artist selections is the saving grace of the CD. Flawed though it may be, lots of folks are committed to optimizing the shiny disc.
I've thought long and hard about what makes a good player for the shiny discs, and it's tough to nail down. Is it decoding algorithms, or the DAC chip, or build quality, or the power supply, or the output stage? Ultimately, the answer is YES to all of them. But the degree of separation between the state of the art products and the ambitious low priced overachievers is much narrower than in amplifiers and speakers. Technology marches on faster in the digital world than anywhere else in high-end audio, and it promotes the convergence of products such that you have to pay a lot more for another 5% of performance. The Benchmark DAC, the product that redefined value in the high-end audio world, was a watershed first wave of a coming tidal movement. And, it's arrived. A year or so ago, I heard an Oppo modified by EVS that came within spitting distance of the Esoteric 03 series stack that defined the digital state of the art a few years back. This experience defined my aforementioned philosophy and led me to swear off the notion of uber-expensive players for CDs. It just makes no sense to me, given budgetary realities and the maxims I outlined at the start of this article; instead of the state of the art players with accompanying MSRP, I feel money is better spent getting the overachieving digital player and spending any remaining budget on where the weakest link is (which includes everything: room, AC, electronics, you name it).
To expand on another maxim, I'm an avowed proponent of modifications, as I've seen first hand the impact of well-designed modifications. I've personally modified about 2 dozen pieces of electronics, and in some cases the only resemblance to the original unit is the external chassis—sonic excellence is frequently chained down by haphazard parts selections or a manufacturer's interest in providing features over performance. That said, I'd sooner leave a component virginal than to let some untrusted hand work on it; resale values are compromised, factory support is gone, and if the modifier is unwilling to service his work (or simply unresponsive), you're up the proverbial shit creek without a paddle. So why do it? Well, it's just as I wrote: just about any piece of active electronics can be made better via modifications from a competent hand. Most electronics / loudspeakers are built to a price point, and those price points influence design choices and parts selection. The overly ambitious Audio Horizons preamp I reviewed some time back has a meager chassis and some parts selections at critical locations that are clear compromises, but that doesn't mean the internal circuit is not capable of great things; change a few coupling caps, some signal wire and a few other things, and it's a different unit. Now, sometimes the underlying platform is simply not worth upgrading—you cannot turn every sow's ear into a silk purse. But if you've been following digital for some time, you'll know there are two players that have universal praise as bang-for-the-buck performance (with aforementioned cost-based compromises built in):
* Oppo 83 series
* Sony XA 5400ES
The Oppo series is a bargain for the performance it delivers as a universal player (but it suffers from inferior build quality and a weaker power supply vs the Sony, for those keeping score). The Sony 5400, in contrast, only plays CDs and SACDs, but it does use a proprietary upsampling algorithm that reclocks CDs at SACD level. Given my very favorable experiences with EMM Labs CDSA-SE (which upsamples to 2x SACD level), it struck me the Sony may have already had world class decoding embedded in the circuitry, but it was prevented from achieving its potential due to compromises in the following areas:
I don't mean to pick on the Sony, as most players suffer from one (or more than one) of the above sins. To elaborate on the above, vibration is a cause of distortion, and high speed revolutions of the disc with the most minute of vibrational errors will be heard in the listening chair. In my experience, only Esoteric and its VRDS clamping system offer a transport assembly largely immune to vibrational distortions; every player that does not use the VRDS system is compromised from the moment the tray is loaded—it's simply a question of how badly compromised. Secondly, the DAC chip is in constant communication with a master clock to coordinate digital to analog conversion at the proper time; any mistakes in conversion vs. timing are known as time-domain jitter and will be heard at the listening chair (frequently as a flattening of the soundstage and a coarsening of the upper midrange and treble). Moving on, any shared power supply in a digital player is subject to high frequency related noise between the digital circuitry and the analog. Anyone who has spent time researching power supply noise will recognize that loads on an electrical circuit frequently inject noise back into the circuit they're tied to—think about how an air conditioner, a dimmer switch, or a refrigerator will be heard at the listening seat as a hardening of the upper treble; well, the same thing happens with a DAC chip, but now the noise is localized inside the CD player with a short and clear path to corrupt the analog signal (which is one reason why state of the art digital playback commonly separates the transport assembly from the DAC; the use of dual transformers, one in each box, provide noise suppression services which are not possible if all functions rely on a shared transformer for power). Finally, some digital players (such as the Sony) rely on op-amps to amplify the voltage off the DAC chip in order for the signal to be properly fed to the downstream amplifying devices. Op-amps are cheap, reliable, small and ubiquitous. And generally, they sound like crap. While no part is the best part, most DACs do not have sufficient voltage off the DAC chip to drive the cabling to the preamp; an alternative amplifying device, the vacuum tube, is generally too impractical for mass manufacturers to consider (though tube aficionado audiophiles will tell you straight away that the heat, size and increased maintenance requirements are well worth the trouble).
Folks, though it's a darn good player from a mass market manufacturer, these are the problems with the Sony 5400 which keep it from being a serious contender in high-end audio. If they could be resolved, via modifications, a world class player for a mid-price budget could be the net result.
ModWright, while offering its own line of preamps and amps, cut its teeth on modifying digital players to bring out the best of the underlying circuit. The modifications that have been designed and utilized in a cookie-cutter way (regardless of player) are as follows:
Just as I said in my maxims at the start, the best thing to spend money on to upgrade is the weakest link; well, ModWright fixes the weak links in digital players such as the Sony (or the Oppo). It's not complicated folks. It just comes down to identifying the problem, and fixing it with proper execution of the solution. (Caveat emptor: always ask for photos of prior work a modifier has done. Its worth mentioning that the quality of execution, the logic of the circuit layout, the neatness of modifications, and the attention to detail is world class in every ModWright player I've seen modified. Modifications from ModWright are amongst the only ones to fetch premiums in the used market.).
But proof, as always, is in the listening.
After the obligatory 2 weeks break in, I sat down with one of my favorite demo discs, The Pizza Tapes by Jerry Garcia, John Grisman, and Tony Rice. There is some amazing picking and blazing fretwork going on in this disc, but lesser systems and lesser digital players will not properly resolve the million-note-a-second playing of Tony Rice. With this disc, the ModWright Sony was world class in defining each note, not with a false etch, but simply with proper definition of each note that was separate, distinct and clear from the other notes; in other words, it was much easier to hear what each picker was doing individually—I could focus in on Tony Rice, or Grisman, or Garcia and know exactly what they were doing with both hands. Lesser digital players will not have the ability to define and separate each note as its own living thing, and the listener will be awash in all the notes but unclear of when one distinctly ends and another starts. The ModWright Sony was excellent in resolving this information. Nothing was left hidden or shortchanged; there was the proper definition of each note, from start to finish. Or, to put another way, the ModWright Sony had world class detail retrieval, and I felt I was hearing new information on this well worn disc. Bravo.
Tonally, I found the ModWright Sony to be wonderfully textured and organic. Digital can be musical folks! Think squeaky clean for a moment (which is how I'd characterize Esoteric's many fine digital players); well, that's not how the ModWright Sony sounds. My listening notes were peppered with words like "smooth yet highly resolving," "analog-like," and "free from digititis." Resolving, but not squeaky clean, is a recipe for a very musical and satisfying player, which is exactly what the ModWright Sony is. The ModWright Sony very much reminded me of the EMM Labs CDSA-SE in its evenhandedness throughout this range. However, I did notice some upper midrange glare, manifest as a homogenization of tone in the horn section while listening to James Brown. This was not an annoying or objectionable emphasis per se, but a less than fully developed portrayal of all colors in the area; if there's homogenization of tone, then there's missing information regarding all the tones in the playback. I sensed and subsequently confirmed I was missing some of the harmonic envelope of every horn in the horn battery, and how they complement each other through their own unique voices that integrate into the whole. In this frequency area, some of the uniqueness of each individual horn was washed away, and I was simply left with more of the whole and less of the individual. While not world class in tonal expression (yet, but keep reading), the ModWright Sony was very, very good.
Dynamically, the unit was quite good, though not as explosive as an Esoteric or Wadia. While highly dynamic, well-engineered recordings (The Decemberists' catalog, highly recommended) do 'pop' into the room, it is not as expressive or propulsive as I've heard with other world-class players. Given the size (and weight) of the outboard power supply, I frankly found this a bit surprising; I've repeatedly stated that one is listening to one's power supply with amplifying devices, and the output stage of the ModWright Sony is simply amplifying the analog signal that comes off the DAC chip. Nevertheless, as the owner of a reference rig whose raison-de-etrée is dynamical expression, the minor restraint on dynamic expression was noticeable, but not to the point of rendering all recordings as 2-dimensional cutouts. It just seemed as though some highly dynamic recordings had a little less juice behind them.
At this time, it's worth mentioning that the soundstage of the ModWright Sony was very stereotypical of a tube design. Think big and billowy vs. razor etched. In my experience, tubes are far better at developing a wall-to-wall soundstage (for those who crave that sort of thing, as I do), though at the expense of finely defined imaging of the performers on the stage. While the ModWright Sony is still very good at placing performers laterally and front-to-back, the definition of where one stops and another starts (which solid state devices have all over tubes) is obscured per the enveloping width of the overall soundstage; you make your choices and live with the results. While I did not notice an elevated noise floor, I will say the ModWright Sony did not have the sort of holographic depth of imaging that the state of the art players of the world may have.
If one were to stereotype the sonics of tubes (as opposed to solid state devices), an apt description might be "fat in the bass, rolled in the highs, and magical in the midrange." And you know what? That's pretty much what I heard with the ModWright Sony, but it is a bit too harsh. "Fat in the bass" implies an indistinct attack and a smearing of detail, which is not how I'd characterize the ModWright Sony's bass. The way I'd characterize it would be 'rounded and full.' Deep? Check. Textured? Check. But it wasn't up there with the best players out there. The attack and the harmonic envelope were still there, but this is not the sort of bass that one would characterize as terra-firma. It's deep (very deep!) and tonally rich, but not as controlled or detailed as say an Esoteric or Wadia. It simply rolls and fades off, without the sort of sharply defined attack or ending that one would hear with an amp that has huge current capabilities. Similarly, the treble exhibits some tube-like characteristics, specifically in a sweetness that serves shiny discs sooooo well, coupled with lack of dog-hearing extension. My Wilson Watt Puppies are cursed with a tweeter with way too much etch, but the flaw in the tweeter was markedly tamer with the ModWright Sony in place (making clear the importance of system-matching). If you're cursed with lots of poorly recorded discs and a hot tweeter (Lord knows I am on both counts), a bit more sweetness and a bit less extension on the top is frankly a welcome development.
Here's a conundrum the ModWright Sony led me to: would I rather have the most accurate player, or a musically-satisfying one? This is a key question: if you lose something at the source, nothing downstream can get it back. I don't mean to imply that every player falls into one camp or the other; that's hardly the case. What I am saying is that design choices (i.e. the choice of using tubes in the signal path) can result in a more musically-satisfying performance that might forego some accuracy which could be gained with a solid-state device. And you know what? I'm fine with that. It's like the old adage: if it measures good but sounds bad, it is bad, and if it measures bad but sounds good, it is good. Ask the owner of any single-ended triode amplifier if they'd like a class AB solid state amp (which will measure much better than a SET) and they'll laugh at you. SETs may measure poorly, but what they do right (i.e. make music) is enough to make up for all their flaws and then some. The ModWright Sony reminds me of this debate, but without the blatant flaws of a SET. The flaws of the ModWright Sony are very, very minor in comparison, but I point them out to be intellectually honest. And I can state that the flaws are readily overcome in the context of a more musically-satisfying performance, which is the whole point, isn't it?
Or, let me put it another way: tubes with digital is like chicken wings with beer. They just go better together. The ModWright Sony, though not perfect, plays digital the way it should be played.
Modifying the Modified
First Up: Adding the ModWright Truth Power Supply Umbilical
For $300 (or $250 at time the Sony is modified), ModWright will provide a 4 foot custom umbilical cord which links the outboard analog power supply to the Sony. Whereas the originally provided cable is about the thickness of a crayon, the upgraded cable has a diameter much closer to that of a quarter.
It didn't take long in an A/B comparison to hear the improvement. Gone were my gripes of 'dynamic-restraint.' The new umbilical had the effect of turbo-charging the performance, restoring the 'pop' to well-engineered pieces such that they could explode forward from the plane of the speaker, allowing staging to develop more front-to-back depth (primarily by moving the lead performers forward). Similarly, the new umbilical also addressed the gripes I had about bass roundness; the entire presentation was more solid and had a firmer foundation, with bass that was slightly deeper, but with far better PRAT (pace, rhythm and timing). Lower frequencies were more sharply defined, harmonically nuanced, and tightly controlled. Additionally, as good as I found the overall resolving capabilities of the stock ModWright Sony; the new umbilical turned a slightly sharper focus onto micro-detail retrieval, allowing the ModWright Sony to approach reference class. I could hardly imagine more resolution being possible.
Given the magnitude of improvement, it's a no brainer. The upgraded umbilical is mandatory for those seeking the best from this unit. And at $250, it's a bargain.
Second Up: Tube Rolling
Moving into unchartered terrain, I started playing with tubes. Tube rolling is a great way to modify the tonality and in some instances the dynamics of a component; while it won't turn a sow's ear into a silk purse, it can make the difference between very good and exceptional. In my experience, lower quality tubes are not as harmonically developed as their NOS, pricier cousins. While the Sovtek 5AR4 rectifier tube ModWright includes do an admirably good job, substituting in a NOS Mullard GZ34 made a clear improvement in areas of the presentation I had attached demerits to previously. Bass detail and control were again tighter and more properly defined with the new rectifier tube. While not at the standards of Wadia or Esoteric down there, the ModWright Sony no longer exhibited the stereotypical tube-type bass response. It was textured, deep and controlled, though still on the bloomy side of the fence (as opposed to the overdamped side). Additionally, the upper midrange glare was reduced in magnitude, allowing a concrete identification of what each horn was doing in this frequency area. Heck, I was now able to pinpoint out the act of horn players fingering the valves up and down. Net net: tube rolling the 5AR4 is, like the ModWright umbilical, another no brainer improvement.
Next, I swapped in a pair of RCA 6SN7 GTBs (short bottle, grey glass) for the stock Tungsols. The NOS RCA's were a clear improvement over the Tungsols (which they should be: the former were $180, the latter are $40) in the most musically-important areas, and but not so in others. Again, I saw improvement in the areas I had knocked before. By this time, the upper midrange glare was resolved into a fully developed harmonic envelope, with each horn standing unique amongst its brethren on the recording. Midrange tonality was as good as one could hope, and certainly in world class status. Despite those clear improvements in tone, the bass with the RCAs lost a little definition while also sounding a bit fuller than the Tungsols. Nevertheless, I still greatly preferred the RCAs over the Tungsols, as music lives in the midrange and it's always, always, always best to get the midrange as good as possible for long-term musical satisfaction. But with tube rolling, unless you can bring your player to where the tubes are and A/B until you find the one perfect match, you're left to simply read the internet message boards for recommendations and roll the dice.
For $1995 and your existing Sony 5400, ModWright will turn it into the sort of digital player that keeps vinyl on the shelf. The ModWright Sony is a great player and will be at home in most any system, making music with the most forgivable of sins. But as much as I enjoy the ModWright Sony, I don't think this is a unit for the 'buy-install-and-forget' crowd. While one could do just that and get a perfectly satisfying performance, there's simply too many areas that require modest attention before you get to hear exactly what the ModWright Sony is capable of (and what its capable of is simply too good to ignore). The unit responds well to a good footer / shelving system (as does the outboard power supply), two very good power cords are required, the outboard power supply takes up additional rack space that some rigs may not have available, and the tube rolling may intimidate those folks who simply want to ignore such variables. Folks who balk at such effort and still want a nice simple musical CD player would be happy with a solid state player from Cary, EMM, or the like. For those folks who are not intimidated or put off by such requirements, and are willing to step up and provide basically another $1k + worth of ancillaries (umbilical: $250, 5AR4 rectifier: $100, 6SN7: $150, two power cords from TG Audio, DCCA or TelWire: $500 and up), you're going to have a total of around $4k invested in a digital player that competes head to head with players that retail at $10k plus. And in many cases, it wins.
In its straight-out-of-the-box condition, the ModWright Sony is a fantastic player, and well worth the price of admission. But with the tweaks I spoke of, oh man, forget it. This thing just kicks ass and takes names at a price that beats the competition by thousands of dollars. Unless you just have to have a pretty chassis and a one-box unit with no effort required on your part, it simply doesn't make sense to spend your whole audio budget on a mega-buck digital player when so many other areas of your rig will require attention. Per my introductory maxims, always fix the weak link.
The ModWright Sony is never going to be the weak link. It's going to be the digital source of this reviewer for some time to come.
(By virtue of Sony's abandonment of the SACD format, the Sony 5400 is discontinued, and I imagine new-in-box 5400s will be exhausted before long. However, Sony's reputation for providing spare parts and support is very good in the event anything goes bad, and Dan Wright's reputation for customer service is an industry standard; ModWright stands behind their work.) Ryan Coleman
Sold Only Direct: $3500 including Sony player…$1995 with owner's player.