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Modwright Sony 9100ES Signature Truth Modified SACD Player Review

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Modwright Sony 9100ES Signature Truth modified SACD Playe

Intro

While I like all the audio equipment I own, I must say that the item that’d be the toughest to part with is a Kenwood KT-8300 tuner that I have modified extensively. When fully stock, the tuner sounded a little dry & thin, but still was superior in performance to my McIntosh MR-67 tuner (which I sold as a result).

In perusing the online websites dedicated to FM performance (www.fmtunerinfo.com is a terrific resource), I found countless examples of how audiophiles modified stock tuners to achieve a level of performance that otherwise would not be possible. Oh, and mods are pretty cheap to perform too, provided you can read a schematic and know your way around a soldering iron. Now, I am adventurous (and I am cheap), so this seemed like a logical extension for me.

Well, proof is in the pudding, and I must say that my KT-8300 sounds nothing like when I started; the modifications I made to the power supply, such as replacing bridge rectifier with Harris diodes, upgrading all power supply caps, adding a Bybee on the AC, plus the work on the analog circuit and the output stage, such as bypassing variable output, upgrading op-amps to BB2604s with class A bias, upgrading caps and resistors to Nichicon and Roederstein, Cardas RCAs and silver wiring, yielded a dramatic effect on the sonic performance of the unit.

I require no convincing: modifications properly designed and implemented (with good parts) will take a unit to a much higher level. A great analogy will be one based on a 6-cylinder stock version of a car that you’re familiar with, versus the 8-cylinder version. A good mod is like the 8-cylinder motor; there is a common sonic signature, but performance is enhanced in every way imaginable, and in some ways that are not.

For years, I used a heavily modified CD player, and found it clearly superior to most mega-buck entries of the day. No, I didn’t get the beveled faceplate, or the resale value, or the prestige and envy of my audiophile friends, but I did get great sound. However, digital, more than any other element in the home stereo system, benefits from technological advances, and it was high time for me to see how the latest crop of modified players stacked up against the ne-plus-ultra in the market.

All of this leads me to the subject of this review: the Modwright Sony 9100ES Signature Truth Modified CD Player.

Background

Modwright (www.modwright.com) is a company that was founded over 8 years ago on the premise of modifying mid-fi equipment to get world-class performance.

Modwright focuses most of their efforts on modifying digital equipment (as listed on their website), though they do have their own custom built preamp, which has gotten some great buzz over the past year. Insofar as the modifications go, the founder & principal, Dan Wright, is not interested in taking just anything off the street; rather, he dedicates his efforts in specific models for modification, based on the platform’s inherent performance, reliability and layout.

In his most recent pursuit, the Sony 9100ES is the platform of choice for Modwright. The Sony itself is nothing remarkable: a one-box multi-format player (everything except DVD-A) in a typical looking Sony box. While the unit plays DVD-Video and outputs 5.1 audio, S-video and component video, this will be an insignificant factor for audiophiles looking to achieve world-class audio playback (and I had no interest in testing it, as Modwright’s modifications only concern the analog output, which is the subject of this review). However, I was a bit saddened to see that, while the unit offers digital outputs, it does not accept digital inputs. In the coming days of PC-based audio, this will only increase in importance.

As part of my audiophile experiences gained from my Kenwood tuner, I’m always one to open a component up (if possible) and take a look inside, to evaluate what I’m listening to. After opening up over 40 components, I can say unequivocally that, from a build quality perspective, nothing, NOTHING compares to the Esoteric XO1-D2 that I reviewed in Dagogo’s March 2007 Issue. Not amps, not preamps, digital players, power conditioners, nothing. And neither can the Modwright player. At ¼ the price and given the niche this player is targeting, it’s not surprising.

So, with expectations adjusted accordingly, it then becomes a question of “is this logical, efficient, and reliable?” (The sonic performance is another set of questions.) The Modwright is indeed that. I think it appropriate to think of this player as two units: one that Dan Wright created (the outboard power supply), and one that he worked within the constraints of (the Sony).

The power supply is overbuilt, compact, tidy, and logically organized, complete with two transformers, a choke (for power supply filtering), and a Sovtek 5AR4 for tube rectification. It accepts a standard IEC, and is tethered to the Sony via a custom umbilical cord, where it powers the output stage of the main unit. All in all, I’ve not seen a power supply for a CD player that compares to the outboard supply from Modwright—it weighs more than most CD players do! The Sony is standard Sony build quality for the most part (which means “cheap, but logical, efficient and reliable”), as there’s only 2 areas where Dan looks to have modified the unit: the transport and the analog output stage.

The transport is typical Sony mid-fi quality, and has a very deliberate but rickety feel to it. That said, the Sony 9100 is not a $200 throwaway player in its stock form, so despite the ergonomics of it, one should expect the transport to hold up over the long haul, if based on nothing more than Sony’s reputation. To augment the transport, Dan has taken great care to add mass and damp vibrations in critical areas; still, it’s not awe-inspiring by any means. Moving on, the custom tube analog output stage is carefully wedged into the unit, save for the two protruding tubes in the rear of the top panel. The analog stage uses custom Modwright capacitors and two 5687 tubes, and is tethered to custom RCA output jacks (no XLR outputs).

Otherwise, the Sony unit looks largely unchanged, relying on its own design strengths, mass production efficiency, and internal engineering acumen, such as two R-type transformers, giving a total of four transformers for the Modwright CD player. (Ever hear the phrase “you are listening to your power supply?” It’s absolutely true. So let me repeat: a total of four transformers.)

Listening Impressions

I set the Modwright player’s power supply on my floor (using Black Diamond Racing cones beneath) and the main Sony chassis on my Ultrasonic maple rack with Symposium Rollerblocks coupling it to the rack; as the unit requires 2 power cords, I used my ever-handy-and-dandy TG Audio SLVR on the power supply and the Acrolink DIY cord I mentioned in my Acrolink review on the main chassis, connecting the RCA outputs to my Einstein the Tube preamp using the new TG Audio interconnects (still in beta form, but watch out for this product when released).

After the recommended 2 weeks of burn-in, I finally sat down to listen to the Modwright player, and must say that I was absolutely floored by what I heard. Listening to Belle & Sebastian’s “Step into my Office, Baby,” there was a foundation, a density to the recorded event that I had heard previously only with the awe-inspiring Esoteric XO1-D2. This sensation is largely a function of bass depth & heft, and I was most pleased to find that this sensation wasn’t only present where the incomparable NEO-VRDS transport was used; rather, I suspect this foundation is provided by the awesome power supply this player has.

Now, to pull back the onion a bit, I found that this solidity was also blurred and tonal shadings slightly obscured, resulting in a wooliness and “one-note-itis” in the deep bass, which I’ve found to be a typical artifact of tube-based equipment. That said, I’ve lived with components that had more accurate bass but were missing this “foundation” that I’ve found only in the Esoteric and now the Modwright, and I’ll say that I am all too happy to have the slightly blurred foundation which gives the music such verve and fun in lieu of a more accurate and sterile rendering of the performance.

As I noted in my review of the McIntosh 501s, the tonal balance of the midrange is critical to long term listening enjoyment, and I’m happy to say the Modwright does better here than any CD player I’ve had in for audition. Vocals have an SET-like presence to them, a “flesh on the bones” sensation that is indeed seductive. Now, this is not as pronounced an effect as with an SET amp, but the similarities are there (and are useful for comparative purposes for you, dear reader).

The record Illinoise by Sufjan Stevens tries to develop emotional intimacy by way of simplistic arrangements and a spotlighting of Sufjan when he sings (his catalog is incredible and highly recommended). The Modwright serves the music by fully developing the harmonic envelop of the piano and Sufjan’s voice, while allowing both to decay with all the overtones that gives his music an intimate, sensitive and beautiful quality.

If you regularly read my reviews, you’ll know that I routinely use select recorded instruments for evaluation purposes; the piano is at the top of the list. I must have listened to the piano solo at the conclusion of “Marx and Engels” by Belle and Sebastian at least 100 times, as I find it to be a brief but exceedingly beautiful piece of music. I must say that I’ve never heard a piano more properly rendered and more tonally complete than when the Modwright player was the source. There is something about this player’s ability to communicate the holistic tonal event, particularly in the midrange, that is absolutely beguiling. Perhaps it’s a bit of added warmth (just a smidgen) in the lower mids, but in the world of sterile polycarbonate digital discs, this warmth is the difference between accurate but clinical playback and music. If you have a system that is particularly thick in this region, you might find the effect too much, manifested as a bit of slowness. However, I doubt you’ll find this to be a problem, for reasons I articulate in the next paragraph.

In past reviews I’ve gone on at length about the importance of getting dynamics right in a home stereo in order to recreate the recorded event in the home; any component that doesn’t get these dynamics right won’t find a home in my system.

The Modwright player, to its considerable credit, overcomes the typical failures of tube gear in this regard and gets the leading edge of a struck instrument so close to ideal that I never felt any sort of dissatisfaction that comes with a “smoothed-over” performance that’s bereft of its attack. When listening to the Ditty Bops recent release Moon over the Freeway, mandolin and acoustic guitars (among the fastest instruments from a transient perspective) had almost all the transient snap and pop that I could have hoped for in a CD player, but if someone held a gun to my head, I’d have to say it was a smidgen slow.

I also noted this effect when listening to Jack Johnson’s “Mudfootball” off his debut record; this very slight slowing of PRAT is just that: very slight, no doubt partly because of the warmth in the lower mids that I noted earlier. However, with a listener who’s as sensitive to dynamics as I am, I think it speaks volumes that I found it as satisfying as I did. At no point did I find my enjoyment of the music compromised because of this, which I think is indicative of how slight this effect is.

To further elaborate on dynamics, the Modwright player performs exceptionally well in the macro-dynamic area, never getting hard, confused or compressed no matter how complex the music becomes. Listening to the Gladiator soundtrack, the “Battle” cut is a real test for a system’s ability to remain composed in the face of massive dynamic swings. Unlike numerous other players and equipment I’ve tested with this track, the Modwright player was thunderous in its rendition of this track, never letting the soundstage compress upon itself or exhibiting any tonal hardening. In my experience, exceptionally complex music can render the same sort of audible anomalies that one would find when listening to an underpowered amplifier that has been asked to deliver more SPLs than it can handle. I would guess that the reason the Modwright does so well here is because of its exceptionally overbuilt power supply, much as a Krell amp never loses its composure no matter how loud you turn the volume.

With tubes in the system, I typically expect wooliness in the bass and a harmonically complete midrange, along with a splashy (but never bright) treble. On these accounts, the Modwright met my expectations. When listening to the Decemberists new release Crane Wife, the track “Sons and Daughters” had a less extended treble than the best I’ve heard, but it shimmered and shined without ever exhibiting glare or a whitish tone. As most CDs are poorly mastered and too bright (and most home stereos are too bright, too), this was a welcome characteristic of the Modwright.

The Modwright player throws a terrific soundstage, with big billowy images of performers on a deep stage that extends well beyond the plane of the speakers. When listening to Low’s track “In the Drugs” off of Trust, the banjo emerged much deeper in the soundstage than I’ve heard before in my system. As the Modwright delivers big and somewhat rounded images (typical of tubes in my experience), image density isn’t its priority. Whether an image is dense & compact or billowy and less-defined is immaterial: neither is right; it is simply an observation and a subject choice an audiophile makes in determining which is better suited to his or her listening preferences.

In a similar sense, microdetail (=low-level detail. –Ed.) from the Modwright, while objectively terrific, is ever so slightly obscured relative to the best available. It delivers a tremendous amount of detail, but perhaps not the “n’th” detail of state-of-the-art players. Microdetail is usually a function of two things: build quality and noise floor; tubes typically have a much higher noise floor than transistors, and it is rare indeed that a tube component has a noise floor that approaches that of transistors. While I’ve touched on build quality already, I must say the Modwright has an exceedingly low noise floor, almost non-existent, but background noise is ever so slightly present in silent passages, as I found when listening to Low’s release Trust.

Now, I’ve been very critical of the Modwright in my analysis, and I must say a few things on this matter. The Modwright had the dubious distinction of following the incomparable Esoteric XO1-D2 in my system, and putting a $4k player in immediately after a $16k one leaves what seems like a recipe for a poor showing of the Modwright; these players are at two very different price points, but the Modwright player deserves kudos of the highest order in its ability to compete head-to-head with the Esoteric and, in a few ways, better it. Make no mistake, the Esoteric is objectively a more complete player, and its exemplary performance helped me identify the faults of the Modwright (build quality, noise floor, and articulation of frequency extremes). However, the gripes I’ve made of the Modwright player are such that they have minimal impact on the message of the music, a message the player seems designed to serve above all else.

Conclusion

I’ve been critical, yes, but let’s return to the fact that this is not a $15k player or a $10k player, but a $4k player, and allow me to state very clearly: the Modwright 9100 ES offers audiophiles what is, quite possibly, the best value in digital playback today. My biggest criticism of the unit is centered on what Dan Wright had to work around: the Sony build quality. Yes, build quality of the main chassis does not approach that of the megabuck offerings, but neither does the price tag. However, the sonic performance, while not without fault, was at all times eminently enjoyable and musical, and one where the sonic results are way beyond what one should expect at this price point.

This is the central paradox when it comes to the Modwright player: what is more important, accuracy or musicality? Now, this is hyperbolic language (which most audio reviews are guilty of, sadly), as the Modwright player is very accurate, but in the areas where accuracy is lost or unavailable, there is a sense of musicality and enjoyment that the Modwright delivered in its stead. Is this a good thing? To me, the answer is a big YES!

Audiophiles are, if nothing else, subjective; that’s why there’s an endless array of choices for an audiophile: horns, planars or monkey-coffins? A solid-state beast or a flea-powered SET? The system you create serves your idea of what music should sound like. Now, some folks like for their music to sound like a literal interpretation of what happened, but some like a little coloring that romanticizes the recording to the extent that it serves the music. And music, if nothing else, is meant to make an impression on the listener; to love music is to love its ability to communicate with your inner self. To articulate my bias (we all have ‘em), I am always fond of components that increase the emotional connection I have with the music I love. If you find yourself in this group, then the Modwright is a player that will tug at your heart (if not your head).

Music lovers rejoice! The Modwright player is an unmitigated success where the “yin” of digital meets the “yang” of tubes, and the two fall madly in love and make beautiful music together. Oh, do they ever!

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