Audiomod Upgrades to the Sony DVP-NS500V and other SACD Players
|Audiomod Upgrades to the Sony DVP-NS500V and other SACD Players|
14 October 2002
Includes the modification of all 6 audio channels and the power supply including the installation of Black Gate capacitors, Harris High Speed diodes and the Audiocom Super Clock
Price: $640 ($440 parts/$200 labor) plus round trip shipping
4390 SE Mark Kelly Ct.
Oak Grove, Oregon 97267
Telephone: 503 659-6599 or 503 490-8602
In the spring of 2002, while I was researching forthcoming SACD releases for a news item for issue 138 of The Absolute Sound, Mark Levinson emailed me that he would rather listen to DSD-recorded SACDs on an entry-level Sony DVP-NS500V single-disc SACD/DVD-V/CD player than standard CDs on a $15,000 digital set-up. Given that I possessed an Audio Alchemy DDS-Pro /Perpetual Technologies P-1A with Monolithic Power Supply/ Theta Gen. Va digital combo whose price, figuring in the cost of two sets of Nordost Valhalla interconnects, two Nordost Valhalla AES/EBU digital cables, and three top-level power cords, approached Mark's figure, I decided to take the bait and try out a Sony unit.
The question might be asked, why begin with the cheapest SACD player, rather than opting for one higher up the food chain? The answer is simple: in the Bush economy, the notion of a Serinus budget is in itself an oxymoron.
I had already read an extremely positive Secrets of Home Theater and High Fidelity review of Sony's $229 SCD-CE775 (since discontinued?), whose multi-disc carousel playback of CD and SACD was claimed to blow standard CD reproduction out of the water. To determine sonic differences between the NS500V and CE775, I asked Valerie Thorson, former publicist for Telarc, to talk with Telarc engineers who have been recording DSD and SACD for several years. Their response was that the SCD-CE775 and DVP-NS500V use the same SACD chip. Suspecting a single-disc unit would prove ultimately more immune to mechanical failure than a carousel, I followed Mark Levinson's recommendation and purchased the DVP-NS500V.
Even as my Sony DVP-NS500V was breaking in, I encountered reviews of both entry-level SACD units in issue 136 of The Absolute Sound. These reviews confirmed everything positive I had previously heard or read about these players. I thus became even more eager to hear what everyone else claimed to hear. Although my system was equipped solely for two-channel reproduction, the comparison with standard digital still seemed apt.
A host of two-channel SACD/CD listening comparisons, including one of Sony's single-layer SACD of Hilary Hahn performing the Brahms and Stravinsky Violin Concertos (SS 89649) with its DSD-recorded counterpart, left me with mixed feelings. On the one hand, I definitely experienced greater air and depth, a wider soundstage, and a greater sense of "reality" listening to SACDs on the SACD DVP-NS500V than to their standard CD layer with my reference digital front end. On the other hand, I missed a significant portion of the detail, harmonics and timbral nuances I was accustomed to hearing. The music seemed a bit fuzzy and unfocused, with significant harmonic content absent. Increases in air, depth and soundstage without corresponding increases in sonic quality did not satisfy this listener and critic who sometimes attends three live, unamplified classical concerts per week.
The Modifications Begin
I've spent enough time comparing aftermarket power cables to know that any unit wired to a stock power cable cannot deliver its full potential. My first modification, therefore, was to purchase an IEC socket and pay my local audio guru friend David Tonelli a whole $15 to remove Sony's wired on stock power cable and replace it with an IEC socket. The socket I purchased was nothing special, but then again, this was a $200 player.
Trying a host of aftermarket power cables, going up the economic scale from Shunyata's discontinued Sidewinder and Custom Power Company's just-discontinued Model F-11 to Nordost's sole power cable, Custom Power's just-discontinued Top Gun High Current, and David Elrod's EPS-1, I heard progressively more detail, depth, and harmonic complexity. The glaring edge to the Sony's highs disappeared, replaced by a pleasing top and lots more midrange warmth.
I next contacted Richard Kern of Audiomod. A fellow member of the Bay Area Audiophile Society had his Sony SCD-1 fully modified by Audiomod, and waxed ecstatic about the improvements he heard. When I discovered that Richard's website has a standing offer to modify at cost any unit he had not previously worked on, I contacted him and learned that he had never before modified a DVP-NS500V. A week later, the unit was on its way to Oregon.
When Richard checked out the DVP-500NV, he warned me that:
In order to meet its price point, it had been very cheaply constructed, and
The internal board was so fragile that he feared removing the clock might damage the board.
We thus decided to first upgrade the power supply with Harris High Speed Diodes and replace all existing caps with high quality Black Gate caps ($180 parts, $100 labor plus shipping). Richard felt this work by itself would make as significant an improvement as the clock replacement, and prove far less chancy. The mods were accomplished rapidly; break-in, however, took a good week or two. Richard is very specific about how much break-in is necessary for these units to sound their best.
The First Round Of Audiomod Upgrades
Richard's work made a huge difference. The air and soundstage width that had so impressed me from the start remained in spades, this time complemented by a dramatically lowered noise floor, concomitant clarity of line, a newfound richness of color and timbre, and a sense that I had moved closer to the magic of a live performance. There was no way that sitting in a 14.5 × 17 room auditioning Michael Tilson Thomas' recording of Mahler's Symphony No. 6 in two-channel mode could approach what I heard sitting eighth row center orchestra during the actual Davies Symphony Hall performance, but smaller scale music was mighty impressive. I was especially swayed by my two-channel audition of The Locke Consort's disc of John Jenkins' Fantasias & Airs [CCS SA 17602]. I frequently attend (and occasionally review) early music performances by Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra, American Bach Soloists and the San Francisco Early Music Society; when the instruments I hear in my living room approach the clarity of period instruments heard in live performance, my satisfaction is boundless.
Although I did not test the unit's DVD reproduction, I did audition it in standard CD mode. From the very start, even with its stock wired-on power cord, I found this unit superior to the NAD 541i. Now, the differences between the units seemed much greater. I n fact, the NS500V sounded so convincing in two-channel stereo that it seemed fair to compare it to my $14,000 AA/PT/Theta set-up. The latter won out, as might be expected, for its refinement of sound, superior bass control, and sheer musicality, but the upgraded Sony unit, for a fraction of the cost, seemed a sure winner for listeners with entry level audiophile systems.
I was so excited by the improvements I heard in two channel SACD reproduction that I decided to shoot my load, as it were, and go for the additional Audiocom Super Clock replacement ($260 parts, $100 labor plus shipping). Richard was reluctant at first, but curiosity got the better of us both.
Assessing The Clock
My reaction to this further modification remains mixed. On the one hand, I absolutely hear more information coming from the unit than ever before. The drawback, however, is that the parts of the unit that have not been upgraded seem incapable of fully resolving this additional information. What before seemed filled with air now seemed a bit congested. In some ways, with a unit of this quality, less is more.
My feelings about the DVP NS500V, with and without its mods, jived with subsequently received assessments from Richard Kern and the folks at EVS.
In private correspondence, Richard Kern states:
"If you want my advice, buy the Philips 1000 or, if you have the funds, the Sony SCD-777ES. In stock form they will smoke even a modified 500."
"Here is my own rating of the sonic quality of all the SACD players I have modified. This applies to stock sound as well as modified sound. Overall tonality and dynamics as well as clarity and detail are the factors I use to rate these sets."
Lowest to highest:
Philips 1000 (great value)
Sony SCD-777ES (great value)
"The modified 500 is better then a stock 333ES in respect to midrange and treble clarity and detail, but the 333ES is warmer and more dynamic in the bass due to its better power supply. Modified, the 333ES is even better in the bass than the 500."
The folks at EVS seem to concur, stating on their DVP-NS500V modification page:
"The NS500V is an incredible machine for the money (about $180 delivered/mail order). With mods it is truly a machine you can use in a high-end system. However, no matter how much you modify it, it will not equal some more expensive machines, especially some modified players. Specifically, the NS500V has limitations due to its transport, clock system and DAC chip. The bass in particularly is not as good as some more expensive players."
Frankly, I think this understates the differences between these players.
Within the limits of its overall design, modifications to the Sony DVP-NS500V make a substantial improvement in sound quality. As tempting as it may be to go whole hog and perform every modification possible, the law of diminishing returns most certainly applies. From my personal experience, I would definitely opt for the best after market power cord you can afford, plus the cap and diode upgrades. If your initial budget allows a greater financial investment, you would do best to buy a better quality SACD player to begin with, upgrading as finances allow. If I can hear so much of a difference after upgrades to the entry level DVP-NS500V, I am certain that upgrades to superior equipment will reap even greater benefits.
For a complete list of modifications available for SACD players, follow the links located on the lower right side of http://www.referenceaudiomods.com/. These link to five companies currently offering SACD mods (Audiomod, EVS, Great Northern Sound, ModWright, and SACDmods.com). At the top of the page, you'll also find a "Modification Packages" link to all available mods for a host of SACD players and other units, and a further link to Audiomod's price for each possible upgrade.
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