It’s been my pleasure to own and review several of Allen Wright’s Vacuum State GmbH products. Some of his most famous products have been his upgrades for the early Sony SACD models, the SACD-1, SCD-777 ES, and DVP- 9000ES. A Level 7 upgraded SCD-777 or SACD-1 with a Uber Clock may be the best digital player around. There is one problem with these units though. Sony no longer supports them, and trying to keep them running is more of chance than I am willing to take, which is why I no longer own my VS-modded SCD-777.
Now when it seemed Sony had given up on SACD they bring out a new SACD player the XA-5400 ES, and Allen has chosen to work his magic on this new unit. Allen is a serious music lover and designer so I was pleased to hear that he was giving us another chance to hear his version of digital music. It’s interesting that his amps and preamps are all tube designs, but all of his digital mods, including the latest mod of the Sony XA- 5400 ES, have been completely solid-state designs.
Description of the Sony XA-5400 ES and VS Mod
The SCD-XA5400ES resembles earlier Sony front loading ES players. Looking from the front to the left of the disc tray are the buttons for POWER/STANDBY, TIME/TEXT, MULT/2CH TRACK, SACD/CD LAYER, and HDMI activation. When HDMI is selected, both the analog and digital outputs are muted. To the right of the tray are the familiar buttons for tray OPEN/CLOSE, PLAY, PAUSE, and STOP. At the bottom of the front panel, from left to right, are a headphone jack, a headphone level control, the remote control sensor, and the track selection knob/button.
I have always been a big believer in the KISS (keep it simple stupid) design principle. The VS-modded 5400 model is a direct coupled design and no capacitors in the signal path. This was not possible on the older designs.
The last three digital sources I have had in my reference system were the Marantz SA-KI-Pearl that I was just listening to, the Ypsilon CDT 100 & DAC 100 digital system that I had in the spring and summer of 2009 (also see Constantine’s Review of the DAC 100. –Ed.); and the Audio Note DAC 5 Special that I had in the Winter of 2008. During that time I have had some pretty fine vinyl players like the Clearaudio Anniversary CMB, Clearaudio Innovation Wood, DaVinci Audio Labs In Unison turntable with their incredible Grand Reference Grandezza tonearm. Still, none of these satisfy me emotionally and musically like the Shindo 301 Vinyl Playback System.
I have to admit I was happy to have a chance to hear what players in this price range could do these days. I listened to this player for quite a while, but it took me less than a week to know how special it was. I wish I could have compared it head to head with my old Sony SCD 777ES with the VS Level 5+, the Ypsilon, or the Audio Note. I can tell you one thing for certain though, the Sony SCD-XA5400ED with the latest VS mods hold its own with any of them. The Marantz Pearl is a very special unit with a analogue-like sound with a surprisingly, beautiful, and delicate way of playing music. The Sony SCD-XA5400 VSEI though, sounds more like the Audio Note. It sounds more alive, more extended, less digital, and just more like music. The wonderful thing about the SCD-XA5400ES with VS mods is its value. Even the older SCD 1 and SCD 777ES with the latest mods can cost as much as $5,000 to $8,000, The Ypsilon combo I reviewed was $54,000, and the Audio Note DAC5 Special was $38,000 for just the DAC (the DAC5 Special’s 2010 price is $49,000). The SCD-XA5400ES with the VS mods is only about $3,200.
I’m not saying the SCD-XA5400ES with VS mods is the equal of the Ypsilon or Audio Note, but I’d rather own it than either of those two that happen to cost 10 times as much. The question is why.
Because of my personal preference for vinyl I’m not willing to spend what mega buck digital players cost.
The SCD-XA5400ES with VS mods gives me what seems like almost 90% of the sound of the big boys at a price that I could justify paying to play music I don’t have on vinyl.
The SCD-XA5400ES with VS mods has the detail, midrange magic, and sounds about as much like real music as any digital source I have heard. In fact, it would be in the top five digital players that sounds anything like real music.
According to Allen Wright there is one problem, “the 5400Es is in worldwide short supply, so we looked around and found the Yamaha CD-S1000 player, which is even better built, costs less than the SONY, and uses the same DAC chip, so it can accept exactly the same upgrades. Joe in Australia says he cannot tell the sonic difference between them once upgraded. The upgrading costs the same as the 5400ES, but as the basic player costs less, it’s a hot tip. And the CD-S1000 is available in two classic Yamaha stylings.” I would love to hear the silver Yamaha CD-S1000, because it looks so retro in the pictures.
All I can really tell you go back and read all I wrote about the Level 5+ 777 mod. Read what others have written about the Level 7 with the Terra Firma Lite clock. I honestly don’t remember enjoying digital this much in my system. What a bargain.
There is one thing I do wish though. I wish it had a digital input so I could plug in a good computer setup into it. Allen does still promise that there is a VS server on the way that is ever bit this good. I can’t wait, but I guess I’ll have to.
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