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musical concepts

Pioneer DVD 414 player

as reviewed by Francisco Duran

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ProAc Response 2s.

Reference Line Preeminence IA passive. Monarchy Sm70 amplifier.

Pioneer DP 54 as a transport.

Kimber Hero interconnects, Acrotec 1050 speaker cables, and LAT digital cable.

Panamax PLC.


one.jpg (6551 bytes)   About a year ago I bought a Panasonic DVD A110 DVD player, a second-generation unit equipped with 24/96 D-to-A conversion. With all the hype surrounding 24/96 in the audio press at the time, I was hoping to hear some state-of-the-art sound. I admit that my expectations were high, but reality hit hard when I had the brilliant idea of bringing my new machine to a friend’s house to compare to his high end DAC. It didn’t take long for me to sink into my chair, pretty disappointed. The Panasonic wasn’t bad for a cheap CD player, but it wasn’t great. Let’s just say it didn’t live up to the hype. The many-times-the-price DAC had deeper bass and a sweeter, more extended top end. The biggest differences, though, were in the midrange and soundstage. The Panasonic sounded rather flat and thin, the macho DAC much more full and three-dimensional. However, that old question came to me, the one that hits all audiophiles—oops, I mean music lovers—when we are auditioning and comparing gear: price-performance ratio. Although the DAC was clearly the better-sounding unit, it wasn’t $3500 better, at least not to me.

What made the DAC better than the little Panasonic? Of course, its better electrical design, better parts, better power supply, and don’t forget the better chassis. But what if I could change the parts in my DVD player for better ones? How about throwing in some high quality RCAs and acoustic damping in strategic places? That is exactly what I did (actually, what Musical Concepts did) to my DVD player. Not to the Panasonic—I took that back—but to the Pioneer DV414 DVD player that I bought soon after. I took some notes on its sound while it was still a stock unit, then sent it packing to St. Charles, Missouri. I couldn’t resist. Musical Concepts had done a fine job modifying my EAD DAC. My thinking was that after the work on the Pioneer was done, I would have a pretty good-sounding CD player and could watch quality movies to boot. I was also thinking that I could escape the SACD vs. 24/96 debate in the process, for a while anyway.

If you look at Musical Concept’s literature or log on to their cool new web site, you will see that they offer several levels of modification for CD and DVD players. I got their Epoch VII Signature mod. This includes "extensive enhancements in the digital and analog circuitry. The Decoder/Demod, Servo, Digital Filter and DAC sections have oversized power supplies and considerable tweaking. Optimized parts are used in the Analog Filter and Analog Power Supplies." Take that, expensive DAC! If I read Musical Concept’s literature correctly, you can also buy a Pioneer DV414, DV525, or PD65 CD player ready to go, which will save you the trip to the local Super Electronics store for the stock unit.

It seemed like forever until my DV414 was returned to me, but actually it was only a few weeks. I was warned that everything would take a while to break in, especially the Blackgate caps, so I listened to a lot of music and got familiar with a few movies til the unit had at least 300 solid hours of playing time. I am happy to report that my newly-modded DVD player did not disappoint me. It sounded an order of magnitude better than the stock unit. The modded unit has a sweet sound. The top end is extended and clean, but with roundness and a very slight warmth. I hear instruments such as piano or chimes ring through the air when they are struck. The midrange is pretty darn neutral, with a natural openness. I hear no colorations to speak of, other than a slight warmth and sweetness. I’ll take that over a flat, sterile midrange any day. My new player is very revealing of the source, yet smooth. Slight musical inflections and vocal textures are heard clearly, yet they never sound irritating. At the same time, they never sound totally slicked over, just musical. Having the Soliloquy speakers, which have bass that is full down to 30hz, gave me a good chance to check out the bass performance of the player, which came through again, reproducing deep, articulate bass that even surpassed the performance of my modified EAD DAC. I was surprised. The modified DV414 has a more dimensional musical presentation than the EAD. It also has better extension at both frequency extremes, and has a clearer and cleaner sound, with better pacing.

I was fortunate enough to have some other great-sounding CD players to compare to my new unit. Let’s start with the nice-looking Audio Aero Prima CD player from Lauerman Audio Imports. This slick-looking French unit, with its tube output stage, has a clear and distinct sound. Air and space abound. Instruments and vocals have a dimension and body that’s hard for a solid state player to match. But the harmonic smoothness and extension of the MC/DV414 really show well against the Prima. Music was somewhat rounded at the trailing end of transients with the Prima. The MC/ DV414 was ever so slightly leaner through the upper mid and treble, with slightly less body and air in the midrange. Although the Prima had very good bass, which contributed more texture and bloom to bass instruments, again my solid state unit pulled through, with a deeper, more authoritative bottom end. The Prima also had a lighter overall sound than the MC/DV14. This was especially true when I ran the Prima straight into my amp, which has an analog as well as a digital volume control. Aside from its midrange performance, I didn’t feel the Prima sounded better than my CD player. In fact I feel it was a close call. Considering that the Prima retails for about $400 more and has a tube output, the Musical Concepts DV/414 held its own.

I also had the 47 Labs Flatfish CD player and DAC combo in house at the time. The Flatfish is one of the cleanest, most grain-free CD players I have ever heard. Its warm sound is very reminiscent of tubes, but there are none inside this three-piece unit. I listened to Jazz and classical music for hours with the Flatfish and enjoyed it very much. Where I felt this gorgeous CD player fell a bit short was when I switched to rock ‘n’ roll. The Flatffish just didn’t seem to have the energy or bite needed to reproduce The Stones or Metallica! Don’t get me wrong, the Flatfish is one fine sounding unit. Although the MC/DV414 wasn’t as gorgeously slick-sounding as the Flatfish, it rocked! Did I mention that the Flatfish retails for around $8,000?

How did the modified unit sound compared to a stock Pioneer DV414? I borrowed Larry Cox’s Pioneer DV525 (an identical unit to the DV414 with the exception of a few feature changes) to find out. With the mod you get big gains in openness, clarity, and transparency, and improved extension at top and bottom. The soundstage opens up, not just in width and depth, but with the amount of light shed upon it. Transients are much cleaner, and the timbre of instruments is much truer. Bass sounds a lot deeper and more defined compared to the stock unit. The bass can now be felt as well as heard. The modified unit also sounds less congealed. It is easier to pick out individual instruments, sections of orchestras or choruses, and other details. The modified Pioneer also has a degree of warmth and sweetness which spells musicality to this listener. Compared to the modified DV414, the 525 was just not musically involving. The music sounds a little "tight," and doesn’t flow or relax as much. It doesn’t sound as open, which makes it seem darker. The stock unit is also somewhat dynamically compressed. Drum strikes on most pop and symphonic music don’t have the impact or depth of my modified unit.

With everything I’ve told you, you’d think that I now have the perfect CD player. I have to admit that it isn’t. If I could change anything I would ask for a bit of the tube magic of the Audio Aero Prima, in the form of more body and air in the midrange. While I was at it I would ask for some of the gorgeous slickness of the Flatfish. It could also use a beefier chassis. The drawer is not even as slick in operation as my old Pioneer PD65 CD player. These desires don’t take anything away from the Musical Concepts mod. It has a very clean, grain-free, dimensional, and above all musical sound. I also paid a heck of a lot less money for it. I have to admit that the degree of musicality that came back to me from St. Charles, Mo. was way more than I expected. My new player can hold its own with CD players costing much more. It would be fun to bring my modified Pioneer back for comparison with my friend’s fancy DAC, just to see how close you can come to the state of the art for a heck of a lot less money. I paid $279 for the stock Pioneer. The Epoch VII Signature modification retails for $799. They also have an Epoch VII mod for $499 and an Enigma mod for $299 if you don’t feel like going whole hog for the Signature. John Hillig and company have done it again. Oh yeah, one more thing. I can watch movies on it too!
Francisco Duran

Musical Concepts