Vacuum State Electronics Sony SACD Player Upgrade

As with the auto performance aftermarket that sells products to make cars go faster, there is no shortage of modifications to audio electronics in pursuit of better sound.
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As with the auto performance aftermarket that sells products to make cars go faster, there is no shortage of modifications to audio electronics in pursuit of better sound.

A case in point is the Vacuum State Electronics (VSE) modification to the late 1990s - early 2000 Sony stereo SACD players that used the discrete V24 DSD DA chip set that was available a few years ago. Many SACD fans believe that chip set was, and still is, the best sounding DSD DAC available.

Though intended as high-end consumer players, a number of pro engineers bought these players for use in reference SACD playback and mastering. The players that are modifiable, included the SCD-1, SCD-777ES, SCD-555ES and SCD-C333ES carousel player and the DVP-S9000ES.

The stereo SCD-1 and the SCD-777ES were favorites of a lot of pros because of their overbuilt chassis and unique heavy-duty transport (the blasted thing weighs more than 50 pounds), but the sound was only pretty good. It did not quite sound as good as it looked.

Getting Better Sound

Vacuum State Electronics President Allen Wright developed the modification because he discovered that the machine's audio playback performance could be greatly improved to match its build quality.

I had purchased an SCD-777ES player in 2000 for evaluation and have been using it to evaluate production quality of SACDs as well as other test components in the audio chain. So I agreed to submit mine as the upgrade "Guinea Pig." I took the unit to Bill Thalmann, cofounder of Music Technology in Springfield, Va. He is the east coast modification technician for VSE. After consulting with Thalmann, we agreed to do the Level 4.5 balanced upgrade. The forthcoming Level 5 was not yet available. The difference between the two revision levels is the addition of a dedicated transformer and power supply for the RCM (Reference Clock Module) in the Level 5 while the Level 4.5's RCM got its power from the same supplies that power the analog module. All quoted prices are for the current Level 5 upgrade.

The upgrade is not cheap, about $2,400, but if you already own one of these players and you are trying to eek out pro class SACD playback, it may be worth it. There are a few less-expensive options, but if you are going to use the machine for pro work, the more expensive balanced option is a must.

Thalmann explained that the Sony analog circuit is not modified at all because it is an unnecessarily complicated signal path in which modification does not yield supreme sonic improvements at a reasonable price. The VSE upgrade, he added, takes the digital stereo signal from the very good VS24 stereo DSD chip set and runs it through a parallel, VSE-designed PC board with premium parts.

The mod includes VSE's own custom digital clock, new low-pass filters and a cadre of premium analog parts. Because the digital signal is balanced, the mod also includes the option of balanced analog output as well as unbalanced analog.

Something Borrowed...

Now I have had a lot of audio gear modded over the years with varying degrees improvement, but I was really excited bout the VSE mod. My excitement stemmed form listening to a borrowed VSE-modified Sony DVP-S9000ES from Music Technology while my machine was being altered. The playback on the demo 9000 was stunning. Much more separation around the instruments; the transient response was incredibly analog smooth and the reverb tails were heard much more clearly than the stock 777. I did not have a Meitner reference DSD DAC to compare to at the time, but from the Meitner units I have heard, the VSE mod puts the Sony player in that high-end DSD playback ballpark.

Although the VSE folks do not give away all their trade secrets in the SACD mod, the new board includes a new digital ultralow jitter Tent Labs clock and digital filters, adds an op amp-less analog buffer/filter circuit, removes the majority of op amps from the signal path, eliminates the existing feedback loop and gets a new onboard power supply, comprised of dedicated power transformers, Schottky diodes and filter capacitor, and VSE's own very low noise shunt regulators.

VSE adds its own digital filter, a gentle 18 dB -per-octave filter (-3 dB at 100 kHz), to eliminate the bitstream noise and a no-capacitor, direct-coupled output. The VSE mod also includes upgraded wire to pure silver or copper foil, whichever is preferred.

Music Technology's Bill Thalmann, former engineer for the audiophile company Conrad Johnson, took about two weeks to complete the job and did a high-class, professional job. It looked factory.

My mod included the new balanced Neutrik XLR jacks and the new unbalanced RCA jacks. New holes were drilled into the back panels to allow the new XLRs and a new set of analog unbalanced RCA jacks. What is cool about this mod is that the old circuit is still there with the original analog jacks -- and active. So you can actually compare the old and the new, sort of.

Night and Day Sound

Using my reference playback chain, (Bryston 14B SST amp, Legacy High Current Preamp, Pass X2.5 preamp, Legacy Focus Speakers and Westlake, Kimber and Alpha-Core Cables) I popped in some SACDs. As with the 9000 I had borrowed, there was such an audible improvement over the stock 777s that it is no longer the same player. SACD jazz discs playback revealed much more separated layers around instruments, such as piano, guitar and drum cymbals. Gone was the upper mid/low treble Sony edge that is a stock 777 audio trademark. The player is definitely in high-end class converter territory.

Because of the bypass of the stock, adjustable, PCM digital filter employed in the 777 and the improved analog components contained in the mod, regular CD playback was improved as well. The hard-edged nature of 16-bit, 44.1 kHz playback was reduced, as is the case with premium PCM converters, and the instrument articulation was somewhat better, though still not as good sounding as my reference Bel Canto upsampling PCM DAC.

A couple of notes regarding the VSE mod. The unbalanced analog level is about 12 dB down in level compared to the stock output. Thus, your preamp needs to have plenty of gain. I simply ran out of the +4 balanced jacks. With unbalanced, I did notice that when I cranked it up to get a loud level from the preamp, line noise increased with the gain. Balanced was definitely the way to go in my rig.

My other observation was that the unit sounded better with the copper foil wiring on the board than without it. I know engineers may scoff that the minute length of copper foil wire could make an audible difference, but when the mod was done first without the foil wire, the 777 did not have the ultrarealistic sheen on guitar strums, cymbals and piano that the loaner 9000 relayed.

Thalmann said the only difference between my mod and the demo machine mod was the copper foil wire. Otherwise, the circuit was exactly the same. When he changed the wires, the 777 had that extra treble sheen that I liked on the 9000. If it wasn't the wire, it sure was a coincidence.

In any case the Level 5 upgrade now includes the copper foil (or silver wire) as part of the package.

Is It Worth It?

In my case, I clearly heard major sound differences with the VSE mod over the stock 777 playback. The question for pro users who work with DSD is whether a mod to a player that is no longer made is worth a couple of grand. Sony's latest 9000, which does SACD surround as well as stereo SACD, costs a couple of grand on the street, but does not sound that much better than a stock stereo 777.

A clearly superior stereo DSD player is going to cost you at least $3,000 - $3,500, maybe more. My Esoteric DV-50 is more than $3,000 on the street, though it plays DVD-Audio as well, But the SACD playback on the VSE mod is slightly better sounding than even the Esoteric.

So I would say that if you already have one of the Sony machines (for pro use, the SCD-1, SCD-777ES or the first generation of the DVP-S9000ES and you want the best stereo SACD sound playback possible, the mod is probably worth it. The Sony 333s and 555s would not be worth it because the transports are not as robust for pro use.

VSE also has other mods for other audio products including lower-priced, current production SACD players that do not use the V24 chip set. Most of these mods are in the analog section, althought the RCM can be configured to work in almost any player.

Contact Music Technology at 703-764-7005 or visit the VSE upgrade portal at http://www.musictechnology.com. West Coast customers should contact Warren Gregoire at 925-673-9393.