FEEDBACK ONLINE - ISSUE 39
VSEI Sony SACD Saga - Sony DVP-S9000ES, SCD-777ES, and SCD-1 with
level 5, 5+, 6 and 6+ upgrades
Approximately ten years ago in Chicago I was present at the birth and showing of Sony's new baby, a truly impressive form follows function product combined with a subtly industrial appearance. Sony's flagship SACD player, model SCD-1 literally sparkled with floodlight illumination. The physical solidarity and weight were almost staggering at close to sixty pounds. At that time, residing in my home's listening room was a reasonably typical CD player that seemed to float in the air. Actually it was literally being held up by a to-be-reviewed pair of stiff interconnect cables and partly balanced by dressing the AC power cord accordingly. My reputation as a slow or methodically moving investigator due to my scientific background must partly explain the almost ten years for a Sony SCD-1 player (SACD plus CD) to finally reside in my system. The final irony may be that after a decade, with VESI's continuing help and improvement, many listeners may now give serious consideration of its very possible placement at the pinnacle of single chassis SACD and so called Redbook CD performance. Is it an example of "the more things change, the more they stay the same"?
Allen Wright (not to be confused with Dan Wright, known for tubed output modification of various players), is the president of Vacuum State Electronics, Inc. He is well known as an audio designer, author of audio "cook books" and serious lover of classical music. Though his famous audio components do feature vacuum state, referred to as "valves" in the U.K., this review article revolves round Allen's now quite famous upgrade packages with nary a sign of any vacuum tubes. We could say that this series of upgrade products is from the solid state or digital division of VSEI. Personally for VSEI efforts I would always use the word "upgrade" to describe them. The term "mod" or modification simply does not go nearly far enough. Over the years I have seen many modified components that were actually no more than parts swapping out all the poor quality capacitors and whatever for better ones to make for a noticeable improvement in audio quality. If Sony had released what Allen Wright had done they would have called it a redesign and a new model and with a new model number.
Early on, Allen had eliminated one DAC and four op-amps from each of the stereo channels! Yes, a part of the well known "Less is More" philosophy and with the Sony SACD's signal path complexity, listening proves that old axiom and them some. Actually he simply (hah!) had created a new circuit board with new output connectors. The end result is that the sound of the original stock player can be compared with the VSEI upgrade at any time. I know of no other upgraded or modified units ever that have that feature. Incidentally the output connectors were chosen by listening evaluations, not by name or reputation. Of course that is true of the other parts such as the all-important clock and its separate power supply. You probably have noticed that many modification companies mention certain brands of capacitors, resistors or whatever with no mention of proven comparison tests. VSEI's upgrade module that Allen designed including any recent upgrade levels fit into all of the first series of Sony stereo SACD players. That includes the flagship SCD-1, its twin under the cover (both top loaders) the SCD-777ES, the (US-only) C333ES changer, the (Europe/Asia only) SCD-555ES and XB-940 models and the DVP-S9000ES that also has video playback capabilities.
The model designations listed above are correct and very important! All these players use the SACD chipsets (VC24). For some reason Sony uses some of the same numbers (though not the letters) over and over again. Seems as though the 777 and 9000 number sets are particularly common—make certain that any seller gives you the complete and accurate combination of numbers plus letters such as SCD-777 ES; no other 777 combination has the same upgrade potential! There are a number of other background facts that may be of importance or interest to many owners or potential owners of these basic units and what they can become thanks to Allen and his licensed agents around the world. Three of them are in the US, two on the west coast and Music Techonology's Bill Thalmann and Doug Weisbrod's excellent group cover the eastern United States though Bill is the only one that actually does VSEI's upgrades. I guess that is even more proof that audiophiles gravitate to the West Coast. Yes, Bill is the Bill Thalmann that many of you audiophiles know from his long tenure from Conrad-Johnson Designs beginnings long ago as technical director. He contributed to almost all of their product designs until piano playing Bill left in 2000 to manage Music Technology's status to full time gaining a world wide reputation for any or everything to do with high end audio equipment. The guitarist partner, Doug Weisbrod is well known for his design of the acclaimed Talos Basic guitar amplifiers.
PFO's interest with Allen Wright and VSEI goes back some years with editor David Robinson's interview in PFO Issue 9. A bit later David's interesting article in PFO Issue 15, "I don't Drive Stock!" – The Vacuum State Electronics modded Sony DVP-S9000ES SACD player attracted a great deal of attention. That review can still be found by going to PFO's Archive section of the current issue. David's description of the audio changes wrought by VESI's "Level 4" upgrade was "a true quantum leap ahead" and "just clean, clear, beautiful music!" David mentioned Allen's new module board with a bypass as early as possible to be closest to the original signal with an upgraded digital clock right after the well known Sony VC24 digital filter chip. The new audio module contains no op-amps and has its own power supply, transformer, and shunt regulators. The stock digital power supply capacitors are not used. All is connected to a choice of either balanced or unbalanced (RCA type) new outputs on the rear separated from the original stock output connectors that are also still active with the stock parts.
David Robinson's conclusion was pretty much summarized by his realization that the VSEI upgraded Sony DVP 9000ES player reminded him of his reference standard EMM Labs gear. No, he did not say it was its equal but close and could stand comparison, a first. A number of additional modifications were tried. Some were retained and others discarded. Allen's ideas and theories usually worked out though he admitted to a couple that did not. He is a music lover and if an idea did not translate to greater musical enjoyment it was discarded. So as time marched on finally a Level 5 was reached and I made my entry into this, by then a fascinating storyline, reviewing the "ultimate attainment." Communicating with Allen revealed him to be proud and happy with his upgrade accomplishments, as well he should be. He could not think of any particular avenue or direction that could be improved. I agreed whole heartedly with his assessment and set out reviewing and comparing Level 5 VSEI offerings with both the DVP- S9000 ES and SCD-777 ES Sony models. My comments are still available by simply going to the table of contents and click into Positive Feedback Online Archives and scroll down to Issue 23. Both of my reviews were published in the same issue in different sections. Other background information will be found there.
Starting off where my original reviews ended I feel compelled to again emphasize exactly what the plus (+) designation signifies and what effect it has. As an ex president of the U.S. was well known for saying," Let me make it perfectly clear", the (+) can only apply to the larger, heavy, and unique Sony models upgraded by VSEI. It is a way developed by Allen Wright to get to the original audio signal earlier in those stock models' signal path than originally possible, thereby bypassing an unneeded (for SACD) processing chip in the signal path of only the stock SCD-1 and SCD-777 ES models. The DVP-S9000ES' stock input design does not have that same chip in that position therefore it could and actually did at times sound a bit cleaner or clearer in the top half of the audio range when carefully comparing with the Level 5 SCD-1 and SCD-777 ES models! That changed when the (+) was added to the Level 5 and of course to the new Level 6. That may be significant as both those models have notably heavier and more structural rigidity and potentially less chassis resonance.
The DVP-S9000ES is no slouch in those respects, being heavier and more solid than most if not almost all other CD/SACD players. In my current setup, I have mass loaded one of my DVP-S9000 ES players by stacking another player and the pre-amplifier on top of it and a Bright Star Audio isolation platform with extra Iso-nodes under the stack. The end result has ultimately turned out to be surprisingly impressive throughout the entire range with extended deep bass response, very good bass range clarity and profoundly solid and quick bass response. This evaluation is superior overall to the very good positive comments I made almost three years ago. At that time the good bass response and definition was not really the equal of the model SCD-777ES' Level 5+ bass range. After that time two significant changes have occurred. First, the introduction of the rather unique Purist Audio Anniversary AC power cords. One of the main and clearly audible, performance aspects of these unusual AC cords is the truly outstanding improvements over the entire bass range. This is particularly true when used with power amplifiers and the difference is usually very significant, approaching what might be expected from even better and more powerful power amplifiers. I started, and continue using these power cords on all four of the power amplifiers in my main system. Also, Keith Herron's latest tubed preamplifier joined my system's front end with full range upgrade including the entire bass end, and indeed it was an additional improvement. Together with aforementioned mass loading and slightly better isolation, the result is better bottom end response, detail and extension. Now, with the improvements added by the latest and probably last upgrade to Level 6, used in my system, bass response is in no aspect a weak link with the DVP-S9000ES. Allen Wright has again stated that the measured bass response is identical to that of the even heavier, solider chassis SCD-1 and SCD-777ES models. When I asked Allen what his calculated guess about any bass end sonic differences were, since none are measurable, he chose to attribute differences to the notably different transports and overall heavier (nonresonant ?) construction.
Before jumping into evaluation review of the upgrade to Level 6 from Level 5 or to Level 6+ from Level 5+ with the SCD-1 and SCD-777 ES models I want to let anyone who is truly interested in some surprising background facts, where they can be found. It is easy; simply go to PFO issue #9. It goes into some detail where a diverse number of audio engineers got together with top flight equipment to see in which direction the future of high end audio might lie. Read the whole interview and become informed. Overly condensing the conclusions of the listening group, the quality of the master tapes was the ultimate in sound quality. Copies were simply not their equal. The penultimate source was with the digital SACD and that can be accurately copied. The very best vinyl was easily equaled by the best digital, SACD! As a relatively late convert from vinyl to digital, particularly SACD has convinced me, personal opinion, that no way can vinyl really be a reference standard. Before you scream and protest too loudly, listen to my very logical reasoning.
Do remember, I did not say that you do not prefer your vinyl playing setup to a top SACD player system such as with VESI's offerings. You think you have assembled a nearly perfect vinyl record playing system, right? Well, starting with the best possible vinyl, those rather rare direct to disk releases, did you ever see any measured and published results? You may have noticed the almost complete absence of any measured response curves in U.S. reviews in many years. Do you ever wonder why, really why? Would you be really surprised to find out that in the past ten years your hearing capabilities have reached a point that your latest pickup cartridge choice has a really large response peak between 10kHz and 15kHz whereas ten years ago your choice's response peak was way up between 15 kHz and 20kHz. Willing to bet you can prove what you think? Any tonearm change or table suspension change greatly affects the audible and measured response—can you honestly call that a reference standard? There is no agreement on a reference standard for a step-up phono amplifier without mentioning the extra noise and distortions it and the extra connections introduced. You may love it. The real question is it really a measurably accurate reproducer? If not, it can not be a "reference standard", just simply what you prefer. That is the end of my lecture on the subject, and please do not even think of bringing up the subject of measured digital jitter until turntables are measured for wow, flutter, rumble and radiated RFI. I will have to get some heavy duty ear plugs to keep out the screams after the audiophile types read this in our enlightened times..
This paragraph is mainly a quote from Bill Thalmann regarding the Level 6 upgrades and pricing information. First I'll present a few facts and ideas about VSEI's balanced outputs. Sony's balanced output circuitry is often referred to as not a true balanced circuitry or not classic balanced circuitry. As a result it requires a great deal of work and circuitry to make it a true balanced output and greater expense. Over the years I have been told by most audio engineers that balanced circuitry in a player is not needed unless every other component also has balanced circuitry. The other comment is that balanced circuitry might be needed for the best audio quality with very long wiring runs; though again with all the components being in a true balanced mode.
Below is Music Technology's Bill Thalmann's reply to my questions.
You asked me to write up a brief set of bullet points on the VSE Level 6 (6+) upgrade, so here's what I know about it:
TECHNICAL DESCRIPTION: The upgrade from Level 5 to Level 6 (or Level 5+ to 6+ in the SCD-1 and SCD-777ES) is aimed at keeping high frequency noise generated by the high-speed digital circuits in any CD/SACD/DVD player from contaminating the much lower frequency audio signals present in the analog circuitry. To this end, the analog grounds have been isolated and filtered wherever they need to come in contact with the digital grounds. The analog and clock module grounds have received additional AC power line filtration.
SONIC RESULTS: A noticeable reduction in digital "hashiness" with its attendant listener fatigue. The distinct impression that the program material is appearing against a "blacker" background
COST: To bring a player with Level 5 (DVP-S9000ES and SCD-C333ES or Level 5+ (SCD-1 and SCD-777ES) up to level 6 is $250 for unbalanced installation; $275 balanced. Starting from a stock player, the Level 6 (DVP-S9000ES and SCD-C333ES) installation is $1745 unbalanced and $3140 Balanced. The Level 6+ installation in a stock SCD-1 or SCD-777ES is $1995 for the Unbalanced and $3340 for Balanced. Customers can contact Music Technology for pricing on players at other levels of the upgrade. (email@example.com).
Basically that's it right from the U. S. representative's mouth. I should mention that when upgrading from earlier Levels, now the upgrade to Level 5 is really not a choice as the Level 6 is easy to do at the same time at very modest added cost. When I asked about other requested changes, he said that neither he nor Allen recommend anything else. When prodded a bit, he said that the use of "famous name" output connectors are requested at times as are the copper Bybee filters. The Bybees are quite well known and controversial, probably because only a very few audio or engineer types can figure out exactly what Jack Bybee's inventions do or how the patented gadgets work. Anyway, if requested and paid for they will install them also. These lower priced Bybee filters might be regarded as tweaks though the more expensive models in the three to four figure ranges are serious audio products indeed. These perhaps ultimate noise reducing filters are the result of scientific study by Jack Bybee, a physicist involved in the technologies to reduce "noise levels" in nuclear submarines to improve sonar performance.
Over the past several months I have purchased three Sony players, all second hand of course as none have been made in the past few years (more about possible ramifications of that in the wrapup near the end of this review narrative). I had owned and used a VSEI Level 5 Sony DVP- S9000ES and a Level 5+ SCD-777 ES. Remember that the plus in 5+ for the 777 simply puts it on an equal footing with the plain 5 version of the 9000 that neither needs nor can accept a ‘+" variation. I purchased another DVP-S9000ES and SCD-777 ES through Audiogon. I had both units shipped directly from the sellers to Music Technology. The 9000 arrived with a literally chewed up remote as warned by the seller (though he said it was usable and working). That turned out to be a partial truth, it will turn the machine on/off and play but it is the wrong Sony remote for that machine and will not operate all the features! In addition, Bill Thalmann told me that the case was scratched rather badly and either it had to be replaced or refinished if the unit was to be sitting out exposed, not in a rack. Bill took care of that for me. I seldom use Audiogon and never had a problem previously. With the 777 model the owner (second owner actually) told me that the machine had been upgraded before he got it—turned out to have been done by Music Technology! The owner said there was a question about its SACD section though he did not care, as he only owned one SACD recording and the player would not play it.
The SACD laser (SCD-777 ES and SCD-1 models have a superior 2 laser setup so each can be perfectly focused on the correct layer depth) was dead and needed to be replaced. I believe that is one of the two possible problems that require Sony's services to replace and calibrate. So, off to Sony, after removing the upgrade module and eventually returned to Music Technology. In the meantime I was able to work out a trade toward the original SCD-1. Used it still sells for more than its under the case twin, the SCD-777 ES. I wound up with Bybees from the previously upgraded machine I purchased that had two pairs of Bybees (for balanced circuitry)—I shall stop here or is it there. I wound up with two DVP-S9000 ES players, one at Level 6 with the Bybees installed and one still at Level 5. I wound up with a level 6+ SCD-777ES and its twin "under the skin", a Level 6+ SCD-1 with Bybees installed. Oh, the confusion of it all, toped off with the fact that literally as I am writing this sentence I am awaiting the return of "the other" DVP-S9000 ES upgraded to Level 6 without Bybees. Listening to Level 6 on the other DVP-S9000ES, and on both the SCD-1 and SCD-777ES both Level 6+ players compelled me do get to the same Level 6 with the other DVP-S9000ES after comparisons with it as a Level 5 were finally completed!
If you follow all of the above, you can appreciate the time, effort and expense involved to be able to compare the various models and Level options.
The above narrative summarizes the efforts needed to obtain the audible results. Spelled out clearly and carefully, the difference between Levels 4 or 5 and the more recent and probably the last Level upgrade, Level 6 (and 6+) is very significant and almost instantly noticeable. A short listening session reveals that the entire audible spectrum is more clearly revealed and detailed than ever before. Those of you who hopped on to the VSEI bandwagon around three years ago at the fine sounding Level 4, as mentioned in PFO Issue 15 by David Robinson, and later went on to Level 5 were pleasantly surprised again. Listeners will probably be even more surprised at Level 6's improvement! That is compared to any other player in my recent memory, not just the pre-Level 6 upgrades of the Sony models.
The very first few minutes of listening to the Level 6 and also to the Level 6+ upgrades almost fooled me, as I tended to focus on the instruments in the higher frequency ranges. Passages at times were almost highlighted by being brighter, more detailed and simply more apparent. I had to listen long and carefully to appreciate more accurately that the clarity extended over the entire spectrum though more easily or readily apparent in the treble range. Everything became cleaner, clearer, and very definitely more detailed over the entire spectrum. Somehow, for whatever reason, with recordings that are very familiar to me, even after a few weeks, the detail and surprising clarity from the upper midrange on up continues to surprise and impress me! I believe it most accurate to say that the increased detail and clarity in the bottom half of the audio range and particularly the entire bass range by comparison was often more subtle. Relatively subtle or not, it was always present. My conclusion was that the apparent signal to noise ratio was significantly improved allowing small details to emerge and be heard. This is the third component to do that in the past two years, making me wonder if there is any end to improving signal to noise ratio.
To clarify, three years of listening to my personal model DVP-S9000 ES, Level 5 and my SCD-777 ES Level 5+ logically led to the further and probably ultimate Level 6 upgrade. Additionally I purchased and added a second DVP-S9000ES and instead of another SCD-777ES, I obtained a beautiful specimen of the original SCD-1 that is essentially an identical "under the top and side panels" parent of the black SCD-777ES. Originally the SCD-1 sold for more than a thousand dollars more than the slightly later introduced "twin under the skin". In the current used component market, such as Audiogon, the SCD-1 asking prices are still usually substantially more than for the SCD-777ES. I can think of no logical reasons other than the SCD-1 was the "Statement Model" by Sony for SACD and the visual aspect of the thick brushed aluminum chassis (sometimes referred to as silver color). Audio insiders who should know, do know, or think they know, say that Sony lost money on every one sold at the $5,000 list price. If introduced today the estimated price would be in the $10,000 to $15,000 dollar range. You might ask why. The unique heavy duty construction and platter, sled-laser assembly with two separate lasers for CD and SACD with apparently no expense spared, are given as the reasons for this almost sixty pound showpiece player. This heavy duty nonresonant construction, internally and externally, is usually mainly credited with the better sound quality offered by both the SCD-1 and SCD-777ES models compared to all other Sony's and a significant part of being Allen Wright's personal choice of players for upgrade and listening.
When the Level 6 upgraded DVP-S9000ES arrived, the level of improvement was quickly apparent, not requiring a long "burn in" to show off. Yes, it did get even better with fifty to a hundred hours additional. That improvement was relatively slight and not of great significance. I would describe the tonal balance of the Level 6 DVP-S 9000 ES as basically neutral. It does not have all the fullness, rich or rounded low-end qualities offered (sometimes to excess) by some players. It does not have an irritating bright high end or an aggressive up front presence range. With the smooth low distortion high-end response offered by VSEI's inherent upgraded quality, it would take a less than well recorded disc to have an edgy or abrasive high end response. The level 6 upgrade will certainly clearly reveal any top end flaws in a recording. At the same time that it is cleanly revealing the top end, it is in no way whatsoever adding to or exaggerating any distortions or flaws of the recording. Tight and clean from next to extreme bottom end to beyond audibility, traditionally many classical music listeners might choose tubed preamplifier and power amplifiers with the VSEI Level 6 version of the Sony DVP-S 9000 ES. More progressive or contemporary enthusiasts might just as easily choose a subwoofer or woofer system that has a very full bottom end with adjustable gain/volume and or a complementary pairing of interconnect and loudspeaker cables.
Readers often complain that we reviewers do not directly compare components with one another. I understand that concern and here is what amounts to at least two reviews rolled into one, so to speak. Yes, we all expect the relatively, and only relatively, lightweight DVP-S9000ES to not sound exactly the same as either of the two true heavyweights (SCD-1 and SCD-777 ES) even though the heart and possibly the soul are essentially the same, the unique upgrade Level 6 by VSEI. I have and enjoy great flexibility in my reference stereo system. Particularly the adjustable mid-range and tweeter level controls can tame a too bright recording or component. The built in servo controlled subwoofer system can easily control bass or deep bass fullness, quantity and even the extension into the mid or upper bass range. During my reviews I do not alter the many things that I could change. I may play around after the review listening sessions are over. During the sessions I make certain I have a nonchanging reference. My problem by reviewing two components almost at the same time is to let our readers know the difference or absolutes while trying to not make an aspect of one not appear to be correct or an absolute standard. Common audio terminology can too easily be construed as negative comments. Examples can include; lean, fat, bright, revealing, rich, projecting and so on. Using the above terminology the relatively neutral model DVP-S9000ES as upgraded by VSEI can easily be described as slightly to the lean side, definitely neither fat nor bright, revealing it is, though not excessively or negatively so, and not rich or projecting. Negative connotations have little to do describing its audio qualities. I wonder if somehow Level 6 upgrades make greater improvement with the heavier models.
Immediately switching over to the SCD-1 (or SCD-777 ES) reveals a noticeably richer, fuller or more rounded overall tonal balance. That balance is probably preferred by more people most of the time. Who would not prefer that tonal balance? For starters it would probably not matter to lovers of music played solo or in duets featuring the violin, viola, acoustic guitar, oboe, flute, soprano vocalists and a few others. Surprisingly to me was the observation that with fuller, richer tonal balance the SCD-1 at least equaled and usually surpassed the amount of detail, or at least fine details, presented by the DVP-S9000ES. My reasoning, behind the surprise is simply the fact that a "greater amount of bass range output" usually has a covering effect, audibly hiding low level or subtle details. That did not happen; actually the opposite happened! My calculated guess is that the fuller, richer tonal balance is not coming from chassis or any other component parts vibrating or flexing that would create and/or store and release energy. Just the opposite might logically be true, that the lighter construction of the DVP- S9000ES does allow that to happen and in conjunction with its typical appearing tray mechanism compared seemingly rock solid top loading plus weight loading brass disc used in both the SCD-1 and the SCD-777ES. That sort of scenario could also affect timing and I have done some studying regarding timing and have concluded that timing is all important! I repeat, timing is critical and all-important. I will also shoot down a created acronym.
Someone, unknown to me, not too long ago coined PRAT. A couple of writers have used the term recently. PRAT stands for Pace, Rhythm and Timing. My personal variation or PRAT ll is more logically, Pace, Rhythm, Attack, Timing. Do some relaxed non-prejudicial thinking. In the audio world, exactly what does "pace" mean or the seemingly logical "rhythm"? Here we are not referring to a musician or music maker. We are referring to a component affecting recorded music. One jazz player has more rhythm than another one – okay. One CD player or amplifier has more or better rhythm than another—I do not believe that unless it is a karaoke machine or the result of timing differences. It all translates or reduces to timing, singularly and simply, whether it comes from a poor capacitor or an inferior clock. To a great extent, timing and jitter can be used interchangeably. I do not think the PRAT acronym can compete with scientific evidence and measured facts. The Absolute Sound's Robert Harley has done a fine job in articles and reviews in many recent 2008 issues. Allen Wright has worked on reducing jitter and timing error for quite some time now and I remember discussing that with him last year. I have assumed, until he says otherwise, his clock and power supply combination is a main factor in current production performance. In the mean time, let's work on timing/jitter and forget about PRAT.
TIMING IS EVERYTHING is the title of a very important article written by Robert Harley. I finally found the article on page 124 of the March 2008 issue of The Absolute Sound magazine.
It is The Article that every audio reviewer and all audiophiles need to read for its great clarity in explaining nearly everything all should know about timing, that is simply another name for jitter. Even the history of jitter is included leading up to the point where the researchers, academics, and critical listeners finally came together. A number of specific effects caused by timing (jitter) errors are clearly spelled out and should be of supreme interest to both audiophiles and music lovers. This is must reading and includes a comment regarding how timing affects the perception of rhythmic drive. I have to predict a proliferation of clock-timing devices that approach perfection and are able to be plugged into CD, SACD, DVD and even Blue Ray players. The subheading of the outstanding article is a review of the Esoteric Rubiduim Master Clock Generator. Oh, did I say that article is extremely important? The article contains a first, to my knowledge, specific example of how small an error is audible. Many people do not realize that timing errors affect amplitude; it is not commonly mentioned. The well known audio designer of the probably best A/D and D/A converters available, Keith Johnson can hear the difference between eight and fifteen picoseconds of timing/clock jitter errors. Hundreds of picoseconds are a common measurement in many expensive players. Obviously the lower the number the greater the potential for better sound. Stereophile magazine is routinely measuring players for that and many other performance parameters. Do you remember any performance parameter being measured for turntables? How about for tonearms or pickup cartridges or are there no references that are measured? Is that an oversight or deliberate? In the digital world, it seems as if listening and scientific measurements are starting to agree and correlate. That is good for scientists and audio designers to have standards and references, even though for a few parameters we do not know what or how to measure them.
For many weeks I only had a pair of the DVP-S9000ES models available for all of my listening. During that time I received more than twenty discs, SACD and CD for possible review. I was never able to consistently distinguish between the player with and the one without the Bybee filters. I will attempt to find out why. None of those new recordings sounded lean or thin to me. Think about that statement. It takes familiar recordings heard on a number of players over a period of time to help reach and possibly to accurately evaluate things such as tonal balance and detail retrieval. Consider the preceding as an honest background to my statement that for a long time I felt that I could be satisfied with the VSEI upgraded Level 6 Sony DVP-S9000ES player.
Saying and meaning exactly that, I also state that all-around the same Level 6 upgrades to both the SCD-1 and SCD-777ES models result in even better audio quality and musical enjoyment. Evidently the upgrades are not directly responsible for the differences. Allen Wright and VSEI have not been able to measure the difference. Basically the tonal balance changes to sounding as if the entire range from the bottom of the deepest bass call that 30Hz, if you like numbers, up probably about three octaves, 240Hz or even a bit higher. That range is seemingly elevated by approximately two decibels and almost intrudes into the bottom of a baritone's range. If you have or get the DVP-S9000ES and feel a need for something more in that area, try a classic tube power amplifier and at least a couple of different isolation platforms. Remember to not isolate the player from the platform! Spikes would not seem to be the way to go, though cables, either interconnects or loudspeaker types, know for a rich bottom end response might do the trick. Throughout the remainder of the audio range, the DVP-S9000ES should hold its own or more against almost all competitors. Unlike many players it does not emphasize or exaggerate distortions or higher frequency edginess.
As to be expected top reputation single chassis player's manufacturers in the price range around $10,000 have no interest in having their players compared to older upgraded or modified players. I do not blame them and would probably do the same if I were in their position. What can I say about a player, either the VSEI Level 6+ model SCD-1 or SCD-777ES that seemingly has unsurpassed audio performance? We all know that the better or best components, no matter how good they are, do keep getting better and better seemingly year after year. I have been reviewing and evaluating audio components for more years than I care to remember and they keep getting better all the time with no end in sight. I would not bet on which specific area of improvement will be next. Of extreme interest to me is what is happening in the digital area with more things being able to be measured and correlated with audible results. Look at video-seemingly most things are being measured and being able to predict viewing quality. Audio should continue to follow video's lead. In my own home and listening environment I have heard no player exceed these two players in any area of audio listening performances—period. While listening to at least forty-five SACD or CD recordings with these four players the past three plus months with all types of music on eleven different brand labels it makes no difference if listening to voice, solo instruments, full orchestra, or opera. They are simply better.
There is no need for me to list the large number of discs I have listened to the past few months. Some of them are listed in PFO's music review section this month, some last issues and some will be in the next issue. I will list a few of the discs that are, in my opinion, appropriate for consideration of references for seemingly natural of "real sounding" vocals or instruments at least in my listening room. Almost all of the comparative listening was done in stereo, two channel mode. Some CD listening was also done with the separate CD releases in addition to the two channel stereo layer of hybrid SACD releases. One possible exception just turned up with the soon to be released opera La Boheme by Puccini on a SACD release by Telarc. It is the best sounding opera release I have ever heard; beautiful voices, great performances all-around including orchestra, conductor, and chorus in surround sound. With my rather modest "home theater" set up with a Denon AV receiver and a couple of surround loudspeakers plus subwoofers from Nola with a total price for everything approximately the same as the for just the wires and cables in my reference stereo system, I was mightily impressed right down to my toenails. A well done, moderately priced surround sound system with a really good player, can offer outstanding musical enjoyment. Just do not "pick it apart" and analyze each component's performance-just enjoy it. Using either of the two top rated players upgraded by VSEI to Level 6+ should reveal its outstanding audio reproduction on any of the very natural/realistic sounding discs listed here:
La Boheme; Telarc SACD 25 ACD-60697
The Rare Delight of You; Telarc SACD-63546 (Pizzarelli, +Shearing Quintet)
Prokofiev, Telarc, SACD-60683 (Lieutenant Kije Suite for great audio quality of individual and groups of musical instruments)
Rachmaninoff Symphonic Dances, Reference Recordings RR-96 CD, (not the latest from RR but perhaps their best ever)
Copland, Fanfare for the Common Man, Reference Recordings RR-93 CD (for those who have to show off, with possibly the best reproduction of bass drum, 3 trumpets and cymbals).
The above listed releases were seldom used during the three month evaluation review period until almost finished. If the above listed recordings do not sound outstandingly good/real on your system, you definitely have a problem or problems.
Potential or possible situations and problems with VESEI upgraded SACD/CD players should be mentioned and contemplated. From experiences of the past few years most of us would not be willing to bet on much of anything! Who would have guessed that Sony would forget about their great sounding SACD introduction? Of course their reply is "We almost never hear from our customers about SACD players or components like our Blue-ray machines with added SACD, so we must conclude that our customers are no longer interested in SACD. Now everyone reading this review, at least once a month for the next year, will write to the main Sony offices asking about new SACD machines, releases, and telling them that you now want to buy a Sony Blue-ray machine if they release one that also plays SACD! Just think what hundreds of letters such as that would do to their thinking! If you do not want to do that, then do not bitch about the situation.
Now to continue with the subject to be discussed here. First of all, do remember that the now much less expensive DVP-S9000 ES players are typical front loaders and the SCD-1 and SCD-777 ES are top loaders and a genuine pain to use in most shelf situations, not only for the vertical dimension clearance needed for use but the extremely heavy weight and front to back dimension often are a very real problem. For use on a shelf, figure on almost nineteen inches to allow room for relatively stiff AC power cords in the rear.
What about longevity, parts and their replacement? First of all, do remember that VSEI has some representation around the world doing anything needed, with at least three in the United States. The upgrade modules are probably as trouble free as anything ever can be though I did have a minor glitch with one of the used models with used modules that I purchased on Audiogon. If you decide on the DVP-S9000 ES you have a lot going for you in this decision making. Number one, is the very reasonable cost, typically $200-$350, used of course. And why do you think I bought two of them? Careful shopping eventually will give you a complete set of replacement parts for $200 or so. Unfortunately the SCD-777ES models are going for around a thousand dollars, give or take a couple of hundred though picking up one with a scratched case will save you hundreds as you would be going for a second one for parts only. The uniqueness in the SCD-777ES and SCD-1 models is the moving "sled" assembly for the top loading transport and the dual laser assemblies. Unlike the still available factory parts for the later DVP-S9000ES model, one or two parts may not still be available. The perceived need and demand by knowing audiophiles and music lovers has supposedly created unique custom suppliers for those unavailable parts at very reasonable prices. Information has popped up from time to time in the SACD section of audioasylum.com and is also possibly available soon from VSEI agents such as Music Technology. All are hoping that the new parts may actually have even longer life than the originals.
Do remember that all of these three models were released in the beginning years of SACD and that the common hybrid SACD/CD discs do have at least two layers of information and that the different model players have very different means of the laser or lasers reading the disc. The early single (dual use) laser setup in the DVP-S9000ES eliminating the need for an expensive second laser, is known to be a bit touchy and to not always "read" the SACD layer. So far I have had zero problems in that department. Newer models might have eliminated that potential annoyance. Of course the newest model Sony players eliminate the problem by eliminating SACD! A Sony technical representative told me that all of the players I have mentioned here were kept in the parts availability chain for two years more than the usual length of time. When asked why, he basically said it was because they knew that there would be a large demand for these unique players and many customers would want to keep them. The inference was that newer feature laden models with expensive corners cut, would be cutting down on repair and parts demand in the future perhaps being replaced by Blu-ray players instead of being repaired. I should interject that the unique VSEI modules have few parts that would be expected to need replacement and they do have replacements. So, in the financial practicality arena the question may simply be a choice. To spend from two to perhaps four thousand dollars, total including a used player, and do the VSEI upgrade or to obtain that SACD and CD performance offerred by possibly two or three new players in the eight to twelve thousand dollar range even though possibly those new players may have repair and parts problems in a few years. Who knows, possibly Blu-ray or some other new format may eliminate SACD and do away with it and any possible problems at the same time. Do not hold your breath.
Allen Wright, Founder & CEO
East – Bill Thalmann, Music Technology, Inc,
West – Warren Gregoire