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vacuum state electronics
Level 6 Sony DVP-S9000ES
as reviewed by Adam Goldfine
I first heard about Vacuum State Electronics when the company received a brief mention in Stereophile a few years back. The reviewer (Michael Fremer according to Allen Wright, Founder & CEO of Vacuum State ) was wowed by the sound delivered via a VSE modified Sony CD/SACD player calling it the best digital he had heard to date. His comments made such an impression on me that I decided that at some point I would check this out and purchased a Sony DVP-S9000ES DVD/CD/SACD player for just that purpose.
During the years since that purchase I have kept an eye on VSE, watching as several updates (levels) of the upgrade became available with Level 5 available at the time I decided to have the conversion done to my player. Level 5+ was also available for the Sony SCD-1 and SCD-777ES CD/SACD players about which much has been written in this very magazine.
VSE is based in Switzerland with a number of agents around the world, three in the US, who perform the upgrades. After talking to a couple of agents, I found that Jim Ellis of Sonic Perfectionists in Kirkland, Washington could perform some additional tweaks to the Level 5 modification, which he called the "Breath of Life."
In Jim's words, my "Breath of Life mod" (or BOL mod) is merely a refinement, and enhancement to the VSE Level 5 mods. It is not a stand-alone mod that can be implemented without the Level 5 circuitry. The design goal of my BOL mod is to keep as much common-mode RFI noise from reaching the Level 5 circuitry as is possible, as this clearly interferes with its operation."
"My filter and grounding tweaks involve a minor design-change to the Level 5 analog module's filter stage, as well as how some of the grounding is implemented inside of the Sony player, as well as some additional mains filtering. These changes help to create a high degree of electrical isolation between the board from RFI interference that is being generated inside of the Sony chassis, and that would otherwise is be transmitted right through the ground-plane of the chassis and into the level 5 modules."
These mods consist of four basic pieces:
1) New RFI filtering is added the VSE Level 5 power supplies.
2) Some of Sony's grounding arrangements inside their CD players are altered.
3) The VSE Level 5's low-pass filtering circuitry is altered slightly.
4) A carefully tuned circuit is added to isolate the Level 5 grounds from the common-mode RFI digital hash that gets generated inside of the Sony's chassis.
Jim went on to add, "The net result of all of these mods is that when all the sources of RFI are removed, the sound out of the Level 5 circuitry becomes noticeably cleaner, and ever so slightly sweeter. But the sound also undergoes a rather remarkable transformation in terms of "PRAT" (Pace, Rhythm and Timing). The music becomes significantly more involving and lively on a purely visceral, emotional level. The effect is something that you feel, that makes you want tap your foot, and sometimes even get up and dance when you hear your favorite music (hence the name). It also noticeably improves the ability of the player to resolve individual instruments. In my opinion these changes are not particularly subtle, as even untrained listeners can immediately hear these improvements in my experience." Okay, now I was more than a little curious.
I did some searching around on message boards but could find very little information on Jim or his mods. I knew the VSE reputation very well but I wanted to know that what Jim was claiming was true and most importantly that it was worth the money. But quite honestly when Jim let me know that the Breath of Life mod would only add $100 to the cost, I figured it must not be that good but even if it made only a minor difference it also wasn't very expensive.
After a few more questions I finally packed up my player and shipped it off to Jim. Over the next few weeks I received lots of questions from Jim regarding my set up and how I planned to use the player in my system (given that it now had the option of single ended out, balanced out, digital out and video out. Jim was exceptionally thorough in making sure that the player would do what I want and that it would arrive ready to play with no problems.
After about three weeks I finally received this rather auspicious message from Jim. "I believe that this is probably the very best sounding 9000 ever to come out of my workshop. I've never done this exact combination of mods before on a 9000. The results so far are amazing, and it hasn't even burned-in yet. I seriously think that may well be the best sounding Sony 9000 in the world."
"There is a creamy smoothness to the sound that is just downright seductive! My BOL mods really add some "life" to the sound, and Allen's Level 5 gives incredible transparency and detail. And going with the balanced option widens the soundstage and improves the imaging. This combination all-together is simply amazing!!! Now I can see that I'm not going to get anything done today because I am enjoying myself far too much listening to your player at the moment. If you don't like this unit, I will be shocked!" I had to hear this!
The unit arrived on a Wednesday and cold out of the box the VSE balanced outputs sounded noticeably better than the stock analog outs or the digital out through my Musical Fidelity DAC, though I wouldn't say I was amazed. Jim did warn me that it would take about an hour of warm up to sound its best (according to Allen Wright more like 24 hours) and that it would continue to break in for several weeks. So I let it cook for a while and coming back to it about an hour and a half later, the mod was worlds apart from the stock sound. I would attempt to listen to a cut or two from a familiar album and end up just sitting and listening to the whole thing. I found myself not even thinking about the equipment, just fully engaged in the music The VSE balanced outs were so much better it's not even funny. And as good as it sounded I let it continue to cook over the next several weeks before attempting to make any final evaluation.
Perhaps Jim's biggest claim for his mod was the improvement in PRAT. This has always been a concept that is at best subtle and at worst, imprecise and ambiguous, especially for digital audio. After all, every properly functioning player will play music back at, for all intents and purposes, the exact same speed, so how could there be any real difference in PRAT. And yet, there it was. In fact, in this regard the improvement in PRAT through the modified Sony was so clear and obvious that it actually helped me distinguish what PRAT is.
There is a sense of aliveness and drive to the music that engages the listener in the same way live music does. It has a sense of ease and effortlessness, really a sense of the equipment getting out of the way of the music that affords the music a level of emotional impact I have only heard from a handful of very expensive players. I felt immediately connected to the intention of the musicians and moved at an emotional level, even with material I'd heard hundreds of times before and thought I'd grown bored of.
In fact, with this player, this aspect of performance has become so clearly distinguished in my listening experience that I can now hear it missing in most other players in a way that was impossible before. In other words, in the past, the fact that it was missing, was missing. (One of the few, and least expensive players that has exemplary PRAT, but is still close to twice the price of the VSE mod, is the Musical Fidelity A1008).
For years, I was, and occasionally still am, a professional director of photography in the motion picture industry. During that time I learned the importance of good quality lenses, especially when photographing something meant to be projected on a large screen. Lesser quality lenses tend to scatter light internally, filling in darker areas of the image, reducing contrast and lacking in overall sharpness. A top quality lens, on the other hand, will provide excellent contrast, edge to edge sharpness and deep, rich blacks, uncontaminated by scattered light. And that sharpness doesn't come with any added or artificial detail, only better resolution of the detail that is inherent in the image being photographed.
The VSE modification is the exact sonic equivalent of going from a lesser quality to a top quality lens. The sonic images are distinctly more focused with sharper edges and clear boundaries around each instrument. The space between instruments is empty of any sonic contamination with greater dynamic contrast. The timbral resolution is such that each instrument sounds distinct and like itself, the character of different horns, woodwinds, strings, etc readily apparent and deliciously life like. (Reading back over this I'm laughing at the fact that what I'm reporting is exactly what Jim claimed for his tweaks.)
The only criticism I could find was that the player leaned a touch to the analytical side, slightly emphasizing attack over harmonic bloom, but it was subtle enough that a change of cables would potentially dial it in. Then Jim let me know that having both the modified and stock outputs connected to my preamp could potentially short out part of the grounding mod. I thought to myself, WTF!!?? There is no way it could get better. So I disconnected the stock outputs and sat down for a listen. And with the stock outputs disconnected the sound became smoother, richer and rounder. A very slight mechanical edge and hardness disappeared and the player became less analytical. The bass became more resolved along with better retrieval of the ambient space.
So what's wrong with it you may ask? Not much, really. It doesn't produce the exact equivalent of live music playing in my room. It doesn't have that last degree of palpability produced by live instruments playing in front of you, but then neither does anything else. Except sometimes, with the right recording, it does.
I'm just completing the audition phase of my review of the exquisite and very expensive ($70,000/pair) Chalice Audio Grail SET monoblock amplifiers. These 150 pound (each!) beasts rival any amp I've ever heard in terms of transparency, immediacy and ambience retrieval. They also let me hear how good the modded player truly is. With the Sony deck, the Grails and the Wilson Benesch A.C.T. loudspeakers there were times when the illusion was so real that I would be frightened that something or someone had gotten into my listening room. I seriously jumped out of my chair on several occasions. And this is with Redbook CD. SACD is even better. The VSE modded Sony was right at home and up to the task of being the digital front end of a system costing nearly $100,000.
After the mod, everything works perfectly on the Sony. Jim showed extreme care when doing the mod and went to great lengths to make sure I would have no problems with the machine. (He had no idea I was a reviewer until after it was complete so this is what every customer can expect.) And what started as Jim Ellis' enhancement to Vacuum State's Level 5 modification has now become an official offering. After hearing the "Breath of Life", Allen Wright sanctioned Jim's work and made it available to all world wide agents as Vacuum State's Level 6 modification.
I have now lived with this player for close to 10 months and it never fails to delight. It is my new reference and a reference quality digital player. In the near future I hope to follow this review up with a comparison to the EMMlabs CDSA CD/SACD player, but for now I will leave you with an excerpt from an email I sent to Jim several weeks after getting the modded Sony player back.
All I can say is Holy Crap Jim!
This thing is good, really good, it's great! It's so good I almost feel guilty having it after you put so much work into it. With some more burn in time it's now sounding fully analog, and that's on RBCD. I haven't had a chance to spend much time with SACD yet, but I will. I can say confidently that it is the most emotionally involving player I have ever heard. As my wife (who is by no means an audiophile) said, "I don't know what it is, when you switch it (referring to the VSE outs) I can feel the music, it just touches me." I looked over at her after we had just listened to "Why Worry" from Dire Straits' Brothers in Arms (CD, Warner Brothers 49377-2) and she had tears streaming down her face. I guess Jim was right, even untrained listeners can hear the difference. Adam Goldfine
Vacuum State GmbH
Unbalanced Level 6 Upgrade
Balanced Level 6 Upgrade