This all started when Steve Woolsey, my long time audio-bud, jumped early on the SACD band wagon and purchased a Sony SCD 777ES. Then David Robinson of Positive Feedback began writing about the SCD1. A few months later (Aug. 2000), I discovered the Audio Asylum website, a much friendlier and smaller community then. There, several regular contributors began to whet my appetite for SACD. Then in early fall 2000, Sony dropped the price on the 777ES from $3500 to $2500, and for a few months you could find even greater discounts. That’s was it, I had to try it. So, I purchased my brand new 777ES for $1550 including shipping from New York to California.
Well, after 400 hours or so, the SACD section blew me away. It would be another month or two before the redbook section would break in enough for me to part with my Bel Canto dac. I wasn’t playing it enough before to break it in.
Two years had then passed and I was struggling on what to do about my digital source. I had listened to both the Audio Note and the Metronome dacs in my system. Now the question was whether to buy a dac for redbook to use with the 777ES or to upgrade. It seemed to me I would get more bang for the buck with the mod. So off my machine to Richard Kern for about $1,500 worth of mods. It turned out to be a great decision. That was 2002.
I was happy for another two years, until I heard the latest dacs from Audio Note and I was back to the same question. It was in September of 2004 after reading David’s latest “I Don’t Drive Stock” that I had decided for the mod again. I was making the arrangements to ship it back to Richard for another $1500 to $2000 worth of mods when I heard about the VSEI level 4 mods.
I discovered that Warren (a great person to do business with by the way) the west coast tech for VSEI, lived just 5 miles from me. I called him but he didn’t have anything I could listen to right then. A few days later he called, and said he had a 777ES that he had just finished modifying. He had called the customer and asked if he could bring it over to my place to compare to my Kern modded 777ES.
We simply pulled mine off the Sistrum stand, plugged in the VSEI, and listened for about two hours. The differences were pretty obvious. The VSEI’s bass was quicker and tighter, though not deeper. The unit was more transparent and clearer. Gone was the little bit of thickness in the mid-bass that my system had. So he left with my Kern unit to work on.
I had been living with the VSEI 4/Kern 777ES until this July. Both Warren Gregoire and Allen Wright had been telling me for over six months how wonderful the Level 5+ mod would be for my 777ES, but I kept putting it off. I was really satisfied with the Sony, after all it was six years old, and I didn’t know if I wanted to put another $700 into it. Then Constantine sent me the $7k Audia Flight CD One to review. It was during the comparing of these two units that I kept wishing I could have the best of both of these units in one player. So I broke down and took the Sony over to Warren to install the Level 5+ upgrade.
Wow! Long pause, then another Wow! I guess the reason I’ve given you so much history in this review is trying to give myself time to figure out how to describe the new sound. The improvements on the Sony SACD player’s Redbook performance from Level 4 to 5 are easy to hear, but it is the 5+ on SACDs that brings out the big Wows. Both the Kern mod and the VSEI Level 4 mods had collaboratively improved the SACD section, but with each mod it seemed to me the RBCD section gained so much that it was beginning to approach SACD performance. Then the 5+ takes the SACD section and leaps miles beyond the Redbook. Well, I’m getting ahead of myself, let’s start the review with:
From the VSEI website we read the following description.
Buffer amplifier/filter, with analog power supply (SCD-1, SCD-777ES)
“We replace all the Kynar insulated copper digital and analog signal wiring with braided Vacuum Statelaquer insulated pure silver solid core wire. We take the existing Level 4 Upgrade module, and remove or disable its (quite good) clock section. Then we fit and wire in the new Level 5 Reference Clock module that comprises: 1/ a TENT clock 2/ our VLN (very low noise) regulator 3/ an independent AC power supply. We fit and wire in: a/ either one (for unbalanced) or two (for balanced) Level 4 analog modules—no changes planned for this highly developed piece of signal path simplicity, and: b/ one Level 5 Reference Clock module with the absolutely shortest connections for the clock signal possible! All the digital and analog signal path wiring is done only with this silver wire braided into a low capacitance, low inductance format.
Remote Clock AC power supply with Ultra Low Noise voltage regulator (SCD-1, SCD-777ES)The new Level 5 Reference Clock provides a rock stable clock signal that ensures the rest of the player is as jitter free as possible—and the sonic improvements it brings are beyond anything we expected! Our previous low(ish) noise clock was vastly better than the stock clocks with their noisy supplies—but this is of a different order! The TENT clock we use has exceedingly low jitter (it’s spec is 3 picoseconds RMS!) but to achieve this figure it needs an absolutely noise free & voltage stable power supply—which is provided by our VLN (Very Low Noise) voltage regulator backed up by it’s own completely independent raw power supply, using it’s own toroidal transformer, Schottky diodes and optimum filtering.”
Relay switch module for Level 5+
Now the “+” update only effects the SACD section of the player and is only available for the SCD-1, SCD-777ES and SCD-555ES. Again, the “+” option benefits SACD and does not improve Redbook Play-back. To quote from Warren’s website (http://www.warrengregoire.com/hifi-stereo-sony-sacd-mod.htm) Level 5+ is now generally available and in stock. It applies only to the Sony SCD-1 and SCD-777ES, and it enhances only SACD and not Redbook CD (But, WOW, what an enhancement!). Allen Wright has discovered that a much more pristine DSD signal is available in these big players, at an earlier point in the signal path than that which is used by all previous Vacuum State mods. No decoded Redbook signal appears at this point, so to preserve Redbook reproduction, the pickup point must be switched back and forth, depending upon whether an SACD or RBCD disk is being played. Allen’s team has developed an ingenious switching circuit that takes information from the digital display board to switch back and forth, automatically.
Well How Does It Sound?
Let me start with the SACD playback. You already know I think it sounds great, but sharing with you how it sounds is very difficult. To be honest, it’s sort of unsettling at first. It’s so much more dynamic, that you have to keep getting up and turning down the volume. You hear so much more of the acoustical space of the recording that it will take you a little while to get used to. On live recordings, the sensation is very exhilarating.
The bass is very quick and tight without robbing music of the natural warmth of the instruments. Speaking of warmth, after hearing the level 5+, I realized the prevailing warmth of the level 4+ Sony 777ES was a precursor to the level 5+ sound with the lowest in coloration, making my system sound more like music without artificial warmth. Whether it’s the bass drums, an upright bass, a piano, or even an electric bass, the instrument just sounds so much more there in the room with you than before. It also sounds much less a part of the speakers than it did.
As I reread the last paragraph I realize that I’m not conveying the power of the bass that the 5+ brings to my system. Its ability to convey the power of a bass section in a symphony is the most realistic I have ever heard in any system. In the audiophile community, “slam” is the word most often used to talk about powerful, fast bass. While my system with the 5+ mod has slam when it is on the disc, that’s not what I’m trying to describe here. While the bass is fast and powerful, it is also warm. You can hear the resonance of the bass or the drums. It allows my system to have a beguiling way of conveying the ambience of acoustical instruments. With the 5+ an instrument, such as a piano, sounds more resonant just like they do live, in contrast to just hearing the notes floating out into space as if the strings being struck weren’t in a wooden body.
If I had to use just two words to describe the sound of the level 5+, they would be transparency and involving. I guess it’s the quieter clock, but the one thing you notice immediately is that the sound is right there in the room with you. My Audio Note AN/E SE speakers, which I have always thought capable of disappearing, now just do not seem to be in the room. The transparency reaches new levels from what I have heard from an audio system.
This increased transparency and dynamics bring with them a whole new level of emotional involvement. Listening to a good performance is just captivating. When a horn cuts through the band or a big drum is struck, it is both startling and oh-so-natural-sounding all at the same time. The soft sounds of cymbals, bells, or a harp just draw you into the music. Vocals are startlingly real sounding. Spoken voices can fool people in other rooms into thinking someone is talking in the music room. To me, it is this kind of emotional involvement that really takes the home music listening experience to a new level.
When talking to Warren about how good SACDs sounded he shared that he had not gotten around to installing the switch in his unit. This means he can only listen to SACDs, but since he also has a turntable with the new Decca Reference Cartridge, he has plenty of other choices to listen to. That’s when it hit me. I spent many of my early years as an audiophile chasing after the perfect Decca. I owned three of them so I always had a backup while one of them was going back to be retipped. I don’t know if it’s because it doesn’t have a cantilever or whatever, but none other was as transparent, quick, or clear. And, absolutely nothing had the bass attack of a Decca. That’s what hit me; this was the Decca of digital players. I have not heard and cannot afford the new EMM Labs, the new Esoterics, or their mods. Maybe they do some things better, but I doubt transparency is one of them.
To reiterate: voices are just beautiful. I am sitting here listening to Ladysmith Black Mambazo’s Long Walk to Freedom. It is really wonderful to hear voices with so much warmth and natural reverb and still with such a degree of transparency. You can hear such details from each singer, yet with such warmth and harmony that in traditional audiophile language, one would never thing of this as being detailed. As I mentioned earlier, just play a SACD that has vocal or talking on it, and you will be amazed at how much it sounds like someone is in the room with you.
Level 5+ also has an expansive soundstage that is very natural and does not draw attention to the machine itself or distract you from the music. The scale of the instruments and singers are nearly life size. The overall presentation is very believable and as I keep saying, very emotionally involving. It allows you to listen deep into the performance. It’s not the kind of soundstage that distracts you from the performance by making you think, “hey the oboe sounds like it’s back in the kitchen”, or “the percussions sound like they’re a foot to the left of the speaker”. No. The 5+ produces a holistic soundstage that fills the speaker end of the room with music.
I could go on and on. I know I haven’t talked about how beautiful the top end is or how sweet strings sound, but I need to say a word about Redbook playback. Level 5 is definitely a significant step forward in redbook playback. When you consider that with level 4 mods, I had a hard time deciding between the 777ES and the $7,000 Audia Flight CD One; but in the end, the Audia Flight was the best redbook player I had heard in my system. The level 5 mod easily betters the Audia at its own game, detail and ease. Yes, now my SCD-777 VSEI 5+ is the best Redbook player I have heard in my system, although the 5+ SACD playback steals the show.
Let me close by talking about value. I know of none like it in Audio. You can pick up a used 777ES for somewhere between $1200 and $1500. If you add $1795 for the 5+ mod, and even with shipping, you will have world class, cutting edge digital for around $3500. The other good news is if you live anywhere close to either Warren or Bill, these guys know a lot about keeping these Sony’s running. Methinks mine will run for a long, long time.
A few closing remarks I need to make. You do lose a good bit of gain, but the output remains high enough for me to use the WAVAC without a preamp if I chose to do so, though it is a boarder line call. Second, I just want to say that Warren has been really helpful and has gone the second and third mile to help me. Lastly, I want to thank Allen Wright for making such beautiful music available at such an affordable price.
Below is an email from Warren that explains the U.S. pricing and some further technical information.
Level 1, 2, 3 &4 are available only bundled together for $1195, with Level 5 as an option for $300, additional, along with the 1-4 mods. As a subsequent addition, the Level 4 to 5 upgrade is priced at $400. We also offer Level 5+ for $300 additional, along with a Level 1-5 installation. Subsequent provisioning of Level 5+ is priced at $400. An upgrade from Level 4 to Level 5+ is priced at $700 ($100 less to do both at the same time). No client has ordered only Level 1-4, since Level 5’s introduction.
Note that L5+ only applies to the SCD-1 and SCD-777ES, but the Level 1-5 can be provisioned in any of the VC24/VC24+ machines, also including DVP-S9000ES and SCD-C333ES.
The Level 1,2,3 & 4 mods provide a new separate buffer/filter output amp of state-of-the-art design, utilizing audio specialty discrete transistors, with a DIRECT COUPLED output (No capacitors in out output signal path). This wonderfully faithful sounding amp uses no negative feedback in the audio band, for the most coherent reproduction possible. Frequency response is extended to 100kHz (From Sony’s 60kHz). Also included is a separate power supply for the new output amp, plus a low jitter Tent Engineering clock oscillator module which resides on the audio amp circuit board. The DSD signal completely bypasses Sony’s DAC and multiple op-amp audio output section, and is fed directly to the new output stage, using no DAC at all. Conveniently, Sony’s digital chips also convert the redbook signal to a DSD-like signal, so it can also be reproduced without any DAC.
Level 5 focuses only on the clock oscillator and its power supply. It starts with a completely separate power transformer, rectifier bridge and filter capacitor to serve ONLY the clock oscillator. This minimizes the amount of digital noise and remnants of the audio signal which might otherwise be present on the clock supply rail. The resulting DC is then passed through an ULTRA LOW NOISE voltage regulator circuit that assures that electrical noise of any kind is suppressed to a degree not found in other equipment. Allen Wright says that any noise on the clock supply rail, no matter how low in level, will appear as jitter on the clock signal, and degrade the musicality and realism of the reproduction.
Level 5 also includes physically repositioning the clock module from the amplifier board to within a few millimeters of the Sony clock port. This reduces any apparent jitter that may be caused by signal reflections on a long connecting cable. Finally, Level 5 upgrades the internal wiring at the input and output of the Vacuum State amplifier/filter to a new, superb sounding pure silver wire.
Level 5+ only benefits SACD reproduction, but it benefits it in a BIG way! It provides a system of relays and sensing circuitry that enables the pickup point for SACD to be made at the output of the VC24 chip, before the STACT chip. The relay switching is needed because no decoded Redbook signal is present at this point (Redbook is decoded subsequently by the STACT chip, which is supposed to pass the DSD, unchanged, but it corrupts it mightily). The L5+ circuit senses from the display board whether SACD or Redbook is being played, and selects the optimum pickoff point to feed the Vacuum State output amp. Some additional minor pops and clicks can be heard, as it switches, but they are low in level, and are only momentary. I estimate that the L5+ may add 15-20 dB of dynamic range to SACD reproduction.
Level 4.5 was an interim step that includes all of Level 5 EXCEPT the separate power transformer, rectifier bridge and filter capacitors for the clock and new wiring. Instead, the ULTRA LOW NOISE regulator got its DC input from the Vacuum State output amp power supply. We no longer offer L4.5, but clients with 4.5 can upgrade to L5 for $200. Its well worth it because it makes it at least twice as good, to my ears!
Jack, any questions, please phone me 510-633-9353.
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