Interview with David Schulte
David J. Schulte Interview
Positive Feedback Online Magazine / Issue 64 November 2012
by Chip Stern
So, when did you officially launch the Upgrade Company? (http://www.upgradecompany.com/)
It all started back in 1981 as an upgrade here, a refurbish job there; not a full time career supporting employees like The Upgrade Company is now—we took out our first ad on Audiogon in 2005. I've been performing mods and upgrades, designing and building custom speakers and electronic equipment for over 30 years.
What was your motivation for getting into this?
At a very young age I was fascinated with anything electronic or mechanical, and how it worked. Around the time I nine-years old, I took apart my mother's Magnavox console and my grandmother's 60's walnut stereo console to study them. I read books and bought garage sale gear—both tube and solid state—to experiment on.
Sort of how guitarist Les Paul and other tinkerer/inventors started.
I guess so. Even as a child, I was a committed hobbyist, and soon my mother and father started to buy me brand new stereo equipment. In this way I became familiar with different brands and developed friendly relationships with some of the more knowledgeable salesmen at the local shops, who advised me that I could get better sound if I assembled my own Hafler preamplifier and Hafler amplifier kits to replace my Pioneer SX-980 receiver. They also suggested replacing my Pioneer HPM-100 speakers with OHM C2 or Ohm I speakers, which they said would sound better—especially when driven by a higher output power amplifier. So I started by building and upgrading Hafler DH-101 and DH-200 kits around 1981; later on I further upgraded them with Musical Concepts modification kits. Then when I sold them off, I invested the proceeds in a Hafler DH-110, a Hafler DH-500 and the Musical Concepts kits to go with them. Over time, I bought various tuners, turntables and lots of different phono cartridges—starting with various Grado designs. I also bought and sold a lot of loudspeakers, until I finally started to build speakers based on my own designs at the age of 12. I've maintained a strong devotion to hi-fi gear ever since. At the same time I upgraded or modified all manner of new and used gear, I was borrowing the really expensive stuff to listen to and study. After college, I found it was more enjoyable to work on audio gear then to be employed by some company.
Do you recall what your initial upgrades were?
Oh, boy… first there were the Hafler/Musical Concepts upgrades, as well as old tubed Fisher, Scott and McIntosh equipment. Eventually I found that I preferred the sound of my upgraded McIntosh MC-240 stereo and MC-60 monoblock tube amps more then my Musical Concepts DH-500, but even then my modified MC-500 sounded better to my ears, than the stock Mark Levinson No 23, Krell KSA-100 and Audio Research D-70 power amplifiers that was comparing them to directly back in the day.
At that point, CD players were just starting to hit the market, and I devoted a lot of time trying to make my Philips and Denon CD players sound as good as my turntables. I proceeded to disassemble a lot of expensive CD players, preamplifiers, power amplifiers, phono preamps, and speakers to study what it was that made them sound different. In the process I did a lot of experimentation, and quickly discovered that the quality of internal shielding/RF attenuation had the most pronounced effect on both vacuum tube and solid state electronics, followed by capacitors.
When you were taking these things apart, what did you observe that seemed to militate against the optimum portrayal of realistic, high resolution sound?
Besides a complete absence of shielding and RFI attenuation, there were poor quality, small sized electrolytic capacitors and the general absence of film capacitors; cheap thin wiring; cheap connectors; cheap circuit board material—and a slapdash level of soldering. In lower priced gear, if they deployed any film capacitors at all, they were generally just ceramic discs or early SMD ceramics once the roll-out of CD players was underway. Lower end brands would throw in some silver mica's or more ceramic discs, but no sealed potentiometers or switches or relays; not even generic polypropylene or wrapped film and foil polypropylene or polystyrene, let alone audiophile grade types of Teflon. You might see some evidence of this in the better equipment, but generally manufacturers still were not installing high end, audiophile-grade parts everywhere—just here and there.
There was, to my surprise, a consistent lack of shielding and attenuation around power supply wiring, internal signal conductors, chip sets and power supply parts—even in Stereophile Class A andAbsolute Sound Editors Choice models. Sometimes you'd find a metal dividing wall inside of High-End gear—which helped keep low frequency EM energy from the power supply in its place. However, radio frequencies were never shielded from entering the power supply through holes or gaps around the dividing walls. Not to mention all the RF that's collected millions of times per second right out of the airwaves that are all around us; again, through slots and holes in the chassis and air gaps between the covers—if it's not watertight, it is not airtight. RF coming in from the airwaves at millions of times per second is saturating into anything metallic; as a result, all of the noise from sundry parts and wiring and circuit traces are being reproduced right along with the signal content—inside digital and analog gear alike. The internal power cord wiring was never shielded; the wires leaving the power supply were never shielded; nor were signal wires and internal interconnects shielded, except maybe for a ground braid, which does very little to shield RFI and EMI.
Back in the mid-late 80's, Krell and Mark Levinson and ARC represented the pinnacle of high end stuff. The internal build quality of McIntosh was severely compromised and this instilled a sense of mid-fi among many audiophiles that has been hard to shake. That is no longer true today: McIntosh can offer excellent, exceptionally musical performance—once upgraded and shielded. McIntosh's use of overly vented-slotted top and bottom covers, with no internal RFI /EMI shielding, attenuation or dissipation continues to restrict the sonic potential of all their latest models. Upgrading a McIntosh today is a home run for the client.
Could you define what electrolytic capacitors do, and how a qualitative difference could impact overall performance?
An electrolytic capacitor is a type of capacitor that typically uses an electrolyte conducting liquid to achieve a larger capacitance per unit volume than other types, but with certain performance disadvantages. All capacitors conduct alternating current and block direct current. Your typical aluminum electrolytic capacitors release over and over again, repeatedly causing what listeners characterize as a ringing and smearing of the sound, because the aluminum metal cans that house electrolytic capacitors create extraneous resonances out of band to the signal or power supply charge. However, electrolytics are the only way to get enough storage capacitance to operate a decent power supply with enough storage capacity for peak playback demands and to help smooth out the ripples and irregularities the power company provides.
The "electrolyte" is a "dielectric". There are many different kinds of dielectrics: electrolytic, polypropylene, polystyrene, Teflon, silver mica, polyester, Mylar, air, insulation on all wiring, etcetera. A dielectric ideally should absorb the charge of the input energy completely and instantaneously, and dissipate that energy into its attached load when called for, completely and instantaneously—but that does not happen with electrolytics. The insulation around wiring is also referred to as a dielectric, since it has capacitance and absorbs the signal as it resonates along the wire, re-releasing it again at a later point in time, very shortly after the original signal—this contributes significantly to a smearing of the sound.
Film type capacitors generally exhibit greatly reduced smearing and ringing, but they are many times larger than an electrolytic cap in terms of physical size for the same capacitance value, and therefore are too large in the values needed to fit within the circuit, or too expensive in most instances. To gain the benefits that a film capacitor provides, a smaller value high-quality film capacitor may be used as a "bypass" in addition across electrolytic capacitors. Electrolytic capacitors exhibit a much slower charge and release response time; whereas film capacitors offer a faster response time with a more complete release of the signal or power delivery within the short periods of time that music requires. Film capacitors generally do not ring or re-radiate the charge or signal. Electrolytics are prone to ringing and smearing due to extraneous induced resonances—their thin walled miniature aluminum cans are generally covered with a flimsy, resonant plastic film. Audiophile grade electrolytic capacitors use various materials which are "tuned" or chosen for their unique resonance and/or dampening characteristics to provide a unique sonic quality; for instance, Elna SILMIC employ a silk fiber as a dampening compound—however SILMICS are very dull sounding and should only be used sparingly. In our proprietary upgrades, we reduce smearing, ringing and distortion by applying our hundred dollars-an ounce dampening/shielding paint over all electrolytic capacitors to dampen vibrations which induce distortions directly into the signal path through the process of stored power delivery in power supply applications. If the unit has been upgraded with the Upgrade Company's extensive set of proprietary shielding-attenuation-dissipation-dampening applications from RF and EM energies, then listeners will start to experience the speed, warmth, clarity, finesse and sense of space and musicality which no stock unshielded/undampened model can approximate.
Okay, so you are talking about optimizing the efficiency of the process by which energy is stored and discharged in real time?
Yes, that is exactly what capacitors do. In scientific measurements, it's been found that it can take up to seven days for a power supply electrolytic capacitor to fully charge up to its absolute saturation point and for all of the resonances in the aluminum housing and dielectric to stabilize from the initial shock and surge of the unit being turned on. It can take up to a week for capacitors to become fully temperature stabilized and fully charged; performance also varies with temperature a little bit.
Is this why some people advocate, as far as audio gear and computer electronics are concerned, simply leaving the units on?
Yes. It's best to leave sensitive electronics like high end audio and video and computers on all the time if you want the absolute highest performance. Most of the wear and tear occurs when you first turn the unit on with the shock and surge to the electronics. Once the temperature stabilizes throughout the parts and circuit boards inside the entire unit, the insulation on all types of wiring becomes fully saturated and is thus able to perform at its best. After a week or so it reaches a sort of "equilibrium" where it sounds dramatically better than simply turning it on and off every time you want to use it. Seasoned audiophiles are well aware of this. Some high end manufacturers do not include an on/off switch for this reason, and most of the new A/V and digital gear today just goes into standby mode for this reason.
So the most destabilizing aspects occur when turning electronics on and off?
Yes. The simple act of turning electronics off and back on surges and shocks the entire unit inside, especially the electrolytic and film capacitors, which take quite a while to attain peak performance again. Because the unit is still warm to the touch means nothing. By turning the unit off and on you've just negated the entire "settling in period" and you need to start all over again by allowing the dielectrics to re-form and fully charge back up—to stop resonating from the turn-on surge and shock. It takes at least a week to reach peak performance levels if all of the associated gear and cabling has been fully burned in by being played with music signals for at least 500-600 hours since new.
And you'd assert that such resonances are audible in some significant way?
They certainly are. All resonances are energy. That energy has to go someplace. Any resonance within the human audio bandwidth is audible since it can be measured and seen on an oscilloscope. Resonance is how speakers and microphones work. The diaphragm in a microphone resonates to sounds which are air pressure modulations. Loudspeaker drivers resonate to the electrical resonances emitted by the amplifiers, which setup instantaneous magnetic fluxes in the driver voice coil which opposes the permanent magnet attached to the drivers frame, causing an attraction-repulsion cycle exactly like the input signal which modulates and resonates the airwaves—in turn, your eardrums modulate as well, and you heard "sound".
Your ear drums modulate sympathetically with your loudspeakers; microphones modulate in sync with the sound striking its diaphragm, generating a tiny electrical charge which must be amplified. An LP stylus modulates to the record grooves, creating resonances within the generator (be they moving coils, moving magnets, moving iron) inside the cartridge, which generate electricity, or more correctly,standing wave resonances. Tap on a vacuum tube in an active circuit with the volume turned up and you will hear sound. Audiophiles refer to this as "micro-phonic distortion". Vibration is a resonance—it is what makes "sound". Guitar strings vibrate, drum skins vibrate, reeds vibrate, vocal cords vibrate; to the degree that we reproduce those vibrations accurately and with an absolute minimum of noise, well, the purity of the musical experience is the end game. And that's our ultimate goal at the Upgrade Company.
Where did you attend college?
The University of Michigan.
Relevant to your own personal studies and aspirations, what was your degree in?
I considered pursuing an MBA or JD law degree so I could follow in my father's footsteps and become an attorney. However, the reality is that both of those degrees are a dime a dozen. On the whole those grads earn far less than I do. I took physics, science and math classes. I had a lot more fun doing upgrades, researching, experimenting and working on inventions outside of the classroom. Today I hold a number of patents; many more have been accepted by the patent office and a number are currently pending—pertaining to defense technologies, electricity production, shielding, and more.
I recall Frank Zappa, on the first Mothers of Invention album—Freak Out—urging his readers and listeners to drop out of school, and "…go to the library if you have any guts."
College today can be a colossal waste of money. With the Internet, anyone can look up anything and learn just about everything you ever wanted to know, without paying a fortune in school tuition only to waste years of your life to find out no one is hiring and you're now $100,000 or more in debt, with no discernible job prospects on the horizon. Some of the greatest inventors and businessmen were college dropouts.
Okay, so your contention is that the Upgrade Company is constantly refining the process by which you maximize audio and minimize noise. At the time I was fashioning my review of the Signature version of the Oppo 95, I was reading and checking out documentaries about Albert Einstein's Theory of Relativity, and in time the notion of relativity became the opening theme of my review—as in the relative perspective of observer and observed, and how that influences the review process. I've found over the years, that when you are engaging in comparisons, be it between gear or people, there is a tendency to diminish something else. That is where my notion of relativity came in, and clearly, my intention in commenting on the upgrades you've continued to evolve for this unit and a whole host of sophisticated gear, was not to run down the original product, which I own, and which represents a fantastic piece of engineering, and an excellent foundation for further refinements which certainly lends itself to an upgrading process.
Are you referring to the stock Oppo 95? I agree it's a good unit to upgrade given its low MSRP of $999. I don't enjoy exposing the dirty truth about manufacturers, but someone had to step up and shed some light at some point. Every brand of stock hi-fi and video gear is compromised in some manner due to the length of time required to manufacture gear and production cost constraints. It takes a ton of time to apply full RF and EM shielding-attenuation-dissipation-dampening—it is simply not practical for mass production at most price points.
The stock Oppo certainly employs an excellent sounding pair of ESS Sabre32 Reference DACs, a more sophisticated Toroidal power supply. For most carbon based life forms, who have more relatively humble systems, the stock Oppo BDP-95 represents a spectacular performance upgrade. Again, it's all relative to the quality of your system. Like how adding an expensive after market AC cord to your system may tell you more about your components up and down the signal chain than you really want to know. Whereas if you are using better gear; have cleaner power and a better web of connective cables, a more sophisticated, high-resolution digital front end could really put your system over the top and truly reveal just how good your other gear really is. So on balance, for some people the stock Oppo BDP-95 is the bee's knees, while for others, the Signature Oppo would be the hook-up.
I have nothing but respect for the quality Oppo engineered into the BDP-95 at a $999 price point; I'm especially proud that their use of RF attenuation, metallic shielding and WIMA film capacitors can be traced back to upgrades we performed on hundreds of the previous generation of Oppo 83/83SE units. I also commend Oppo for including a shielded Toroidal transformer based on a linear, non-radio frequency generating power supply for the delicate audio circuitry and DACS, and for designing a shielding cover over their switching power supply to block it's strong radiation. These advancements have contributed to the enhanced sonic quality of the stock BDP-95 over previous generations of Oppo's and over competitive brands which lack these advancements.
During the final stages of my Signature Edition evaluations, I purchased a Blu-Ray performance of Valery Gergiev with the Ballet Ruse doing a recreation of Nijinsky's original choreography of The Rite of Spring before a concert audience in Saint Petersburg. When I auditioned it with the drummers Jeff Williams and Billy Drummond, they both characterized it as a life-changing experience. In going back and forth in A/B comparisons, my perception of the enhanced video offered by The Upgrade Company's BDP-95's Signature Edition were palpable and dramatic. Mind you, the stock Oppo was damn good, but visually, by removing a scrim of graininess and noise, the Signature helped convey a film-quality depth of field; the clarity and stability was so much more… vivid and dramatic with the Signature Edition. And aurally, I particularly remember a moment where Billy and I did a mutual double-take, having perceived this one particular reverb trail with the Signature that was not so readily apparent and fleshed out with the stock Oppo.
The video enhancements are partly due to the ferrite shielding plates which no manufacturer nor aftermarket modifier in the consumer electronics industry had ever used until The Upgrade Company started employing them in our upgrades many years ago. This is a very important part of our DSP, video, digital motherboard, and power supply upgrades. You see, all "digital clocks" controlling the audio and video are "radio frequency signal generators" radiating their beat frequency outward into the air spherically, collected by all metal containing parts and all the wiring and circuit-boards. Typically the video scaling chip itself is located next to its clock. The metal in the video and DAC chips collects radio frequencies from each of the clocks, which are constantly causing circuitry nearby to work overtime and heat up due to ramming its RF energy into the chips and circuitry and parts which are supposed to only contain the actual video signals. This has the effect of washing out the picture, reducing saturation and introducing noise into the video image. Depth of field is thus reduced; while images lack the immediacy, vibrancy and life of high definition cameras and film.
You might want to expand on the overall modification process itself, least ways, as much as you feel comfortable with; obviously you're dealing with a lot of proprietary information.
[Laughter] Well, the whole process is proprietary and trade secret, but I'm giving away a little bit here today. Our approach goes back to 1981 when I started doing mods and upgrades, and we've learned a whole lot more about applying shielding-attenuation-dissipation-dampening since then. Those who say we simply put tape over DAC chips do not know what they are talking about. That is the wrong approach. The improvements we facilitate today are not so much due to the parts. Otherwise any manufacturer or modifier could do as good a job as we do, offer a 100% money-back guarantee on mods and still be in business. It's the shielding, attenuation and dampening that makes all the difference in Upgrade Company modifications. That's why we are continuing to implement patent protection in addition to our established Trade Secret protection. The Upgrade Company was the first to utilize shielding plates and shielding tapes in consumer hi-fi and video, and we're still the only company employing these and other products throughout the entire unit—not just a piece here and there like some manufacturers have cribbed from us. Manufacturers cannot legally duplicate nor approximate our shielding-attenuation-dissipation approach largely due to Trade Secret Laws. It's pretty well established as our approach after roughly three decades. Some manufacturers such as McIntosh, Marantz, Oppo and others have copied a little bit in a few units lately at the higher price points, but it's very time consuming to install properly to achieve the desired results.
I was taught by an Air Force Research lab scientist who made the White House impervious to external electronic eavesdropping. He explained to me that radio frequencies will go full strength through an aperture the size of a pencil tip and that the paint coatings on our advanced Stealth aircraft absorb some of the radar/radio-waves and convert them to heat, which is therefore dissipated and not allowed to reflect back to the source. In any event, there is a whole lot more to the Stealth technology.
Back to audio; even in an all-analog unit without any internal radio frequency generators, the unit is still collecting RF out of the airwaves all around us. Again, if it is not watertight it is not airtight. There is no "Faraday cage" blocking RFI. The metal reduces it, but it's still being collected and causing massive signal degradation. There are typically small holes in the bottom of such units, often slots in the top or sides, which are all allowing radio frequencies to be collected out of the airwaves by the metal leads on all the parts, all the solder joints, all the metal wiring, all the circuit board traces, all the chip-sets and DACs. This RFI bombards the unit millions of times a second, and RFI/EMI ends up getting reproduced by analog units right along with the music.
Digital units such as modern AV Controllers, all disc transports, computers, servers and DACS, generate their own radio frequencies in addition to what comes in along the wires and outside over the airwaves. Some units have upwards of six clocks spewing RF radiation inside. By the way we do not use tin foil as shielding. Reflecting a portion of the RF and EM energies away from the shielded area doesn't solve the problem because it just reflects those energies back inside into unshielded parts, unshielded circuit boards and unshielded wiring inside the unit. Our approach to deal with RF and EM radiation involves heavy dissipation to convert RF and EM energies to miniscule traces of heat. Our approach is the result of years of work, evolving ideas, and lengthy and on-going experimentation.
The initial documentation I received from The Upgrade Company regarding the Signature Edition of the BDP-95 spoke of these very costly, sophisticated Black Gate capacitors.
Black Gate capacitors are no longer made. Wikipedia used to have several pages dedicated to Black Gate capacitors. Wikipedia stated that Black Gates were the very finest and highest performing electrolytic capacitors made, but that they typically took a full 600-800 hours to burn in. The Black Gate patent holder and the Black Gate manufacturer were unable to reconcile their patent royalty dispute. Production stopped years ago.
Certain brands and types of capacitors work better in certain applications. There are no hard and fast rules regarding capacitors. They all sound different, and therefore need to be carefully matched in each model to keep the overall sound neutral. If too many of one type are used, it can color the sound and can skew the aural quality in a negative way.
Upgrading is a painstaking process that takes a large amount of time to develop the best approach. Manufacturers cannot spend the time it takes to perfect the parts selection or install shielding-dissipation-attenuation, and it's been our good fortune here at The Upgrade Company that they cannot. Now our upgrades are protected by law.
We're currently finishing up a LINN Uni-Disc 1.1 for a repeat client who asked if he should sell it and use his Oppo 95SE for music as well as the video duties it was purchased for. We advised him that the LINN 1.1 surpasses the Oppo 95SE on music reproduction once upgraded.
This brings me back to the idea of making your compromises work for you. The Linn 1.1 is not a good example, being a very high end, expensive, relatively no-compromise design, but something like the stock Oppo BDP-95 strikes me as a good example of bringing in a product with a significant degree of quality and sophistication, while consciously trying to keep the price point as marketable as possible. What I'm picking up on here is that it is not always so much a case of the manufacturer compromising, as it is that in some cases you've developed a number of proprietary processes over the past thirty years which enable you to up the ante audibly and visually.
That is true to an extent. There is always room for massive improvement in the most expensive gear. With their BDP-93/95 Models, Oppo started adopting some of our approaches to shielding and attenuation and the selection of film capacitors which we had installed into a lot of the previous series of Oppo players. It's flattering and really a large part of the reason why the stock Oppo 93/95 has made such a profound impact above its price point.
As nice as our SE upgraded Oppo's sounds, they still sound inferior in every way to the more expensive SE upgraded players and separates, or even a 6 month old player updated today with our latest series of techniques.
The Upgrade Company may eventually license our upgrades to manufacturers who are willing to charge a higher MSRP for the SE upgraded version, and willing to spend the time it takes to apply all the shielding-attenuation-dampening-dissipation products—most of which must be applied by hand. Circuit designs really haven't changed much over the years; although video formats certainly have. Regrettably, what remains wanting throughout hi-fi and video is a complete lack of proper shielding, attenuation, dissipation and dampening, which compromises signal fidelity in a cumulative way. To combat it completely, we urge all our customers to upgrade all the gear in their signal chain in order to achieve the desired state of the art result.
Once everything inside is properly shielded-attenuated-dissipated-dampened, a very high degree of signal integrity can be maintained throughout the unit, even on low cost models. One can achieve performance levels from what audiophiles would consider mid-fi gear that clearly exceeds the performance of very expensive stock high end units. Through a thorough-going process of shielding-attenuation-and-dissipation of RF and EMI energies, digital electronics can now equal or surpass the finest analog vinyl LP setups in many instances.
I've found over the past twenty years, that noise in the system and how we experience it is one of the great overlooked elements in how fulfilling the experience of high resolution audio may ultimately be. Once you start removing all the different sources of both internally generated and line noise, wonderful things happen. It's like hearing what your system is capable of for the first time.
Exactly. Even though radio frequencies and electromagnetic radiation are not directly audible to the human ear, we do experience RF and EM radiation tremendously as noise artifacts which are often characterized by listeners as flat, dull, hazy, gritty, glaring, forward or hard. Likewise, listeners often liken it to a whitish background, while commenting upon an absence of bass and a contracted soundstage—these are all subjective qualities that describe what we hear in stock unshielded equipment. Again, radio frequencies are constantly being collected and reproduced by the op-amps, DAC chips, video chips, the power supplies… there's metal in all of those. So just by virtue of them having metal, they're acting as antennas and picking up radio frequencies out of the airwaves as well as the beat frequencies from each of the internal clocks inside the unit. While these energies are outside of the analog audio bandwidth, they drain power supply capacitors and induce strain in the performance of DACs, Op-Amps and tubes. RF is likewise perceptible in the digital video and digital audio domain where signal content is transmitted and reproduced. The RFI and EMI that is collected has the effect of fuzzing up and washing out both the video and audio, making the unit sound a little dull and flat in comparison to our upgrades of the same unit. The stock version doesn't have the bass or the top end sparkle or the lush liquid midrange, because it's being constantly tasked with reproducing out of bandwidth kilohertz and megahertz frequencies, right along with the music itself.
When Billy Drummond came over to offer me a second set of ears to adjudge the stock Oppo versus the Signature Edition, he observed how I always had a very spacious sounding system, and between quality cabling, voltage regulation and balanced power isolation transformers, I have over time significantly reduced the noise floor of my system. In switching from a Lexicon RD-20 Universal to my Oppo BDP-95, I experienced dramatically better bass, greater transparency and high frequency detail, as well as enhanced resolution, soundstaging and dynamics. In going from the stock to the Signature Oppo, all of that was intensified by a significant magnitude: the soundstage was much bigger; there was greater image specificity and detail; more front to back depth and height; and a very sensual sense of what I would characterize as luminosity. But the biggest difference Billy and I noticed, was how all of the point source aspects of the presentation seemed to drop away…the three-dimensionality and palpability of the sound seemed less to come out the speakers than to emerge from the air itself.
Our clients report these findings frequently these days with our latest upgrades. Their speakers sonically disappear and the soundstage grows much larger, deeper, taller, wider, with images at times extending to the sides of the listener when sitting in the sweet spot. And these positive sonic attributes are even more pronounced when the rest of their system has been upgraded with our extensive shielding-attenuation-dissipation technologies.
Well, I don't know how realistic that is for the average bear, though I can certainly attest to the enhanced levels of music reproduction I am enjoying system-wide through enhancing my digital front end with your Signature Edition. Having duly noted that, let me ask you this. You have said, and I am paraphrasing slightly, how a thousand dollars worth of mods will yield ten thousand dollars worth of enhancements, minimum. On the face of things, that might strike some as a tad bombastic and hyperbolic. Do you care to comment?
This is not voodoo or snake oil. We feel that buying-or-trading up to a better stock model today remains an incremental move, largely a sideways move versus the exponential move our upgrades guarantee.
Let me give you a good example. At the 2006 Rocky Mountain Audio Fest, we had hundreds of audiophiles sit down in The Upgrade Company demo room over the course of the show to witness a shoot-out between our 2006 Signature Edition of the eight hundred dollar stock Denon DVD-2910 versus the stock $10,500 EMM LABS CDSD-SE and the stock $14,000 Esoteric X-01 Limited players; all employing the same brand of cables and power cords—all burned in the same amount of time. We kept it fair; swapped out the discs, swapped out the cabling, while employing identical audio racks with identical power-line conditioners as well. There was not one listener who preferred either of the expensive players over our upgraded $800 Denon. We asked for a show of hands and interviewed as many listeners as we could before they left the room. Not one of them felt the $14,000 Esoteric or the $10,500 EMM LABS in any way approached the sound quality of a clients' upgraded Denon. Over three hundred people accepted our Upgrade Company's pen handouts as they left the room, and many more visited the Upgrade Company's room after all the pens were gone. We also demo'd our upgraded version of the $10,500 EMM LABS CDSA-SE for direct comparisons with the stock EMM LABS CDSA-SE. No one liked the stock CDSA-SE better. EMM Labs actually chose to abandon their demo room next to ours.
Esoteric's demo room at RMF 2006 was on the other side of Upgrades room, so they asked us on Thursday the day before the show opened to demo the MG-10's for them. The Esoteric folks were stunned by how good their little stand mounted MG-10 speakers sounded and how much bass they had on our setup versus over in their room with their expensive stock Esoteric preamplifier and power amplifiers. We ended up using our own upgraded speakers which were much more capable of revealing the differences between stock and upgraded units in comparison. Loudspeaker crossover upgrades are the final link in the signal chain, not to be missed. And our upgrades, six years hence, are a profound improvement over our upgrades circa 2006. We suggest to all of our older customers that their original upgrades need to be updated, and we endeavor to make the cost of doing so as attractive as possible.
What are your ultimate goals for the consumers? What are you looking to give them that they can apprehend? Are they going to get religion by investing an Upgrade Company mod?
I guess it is something like religion, in an audiophile way [laughter]. It's not blind faith, though. We're continuously striving to develop innovations that elevate consumer electronics to ever higher performance levels.
And because we'd like more audiophiles to try out one of our SE upgraded units in their system, The Upgrade Company will let you play with it for two weeks; and if you don't like it, just send it back and we're still friends. In addition, because were always applying for new patents and pushing the performance envelope of consumer audio and video electronics, we don't want any of our present or future customers to feel left behind: anything we have or might subsequently upgrade doesn't have to become dated or obsolete. And because we feel we've made such huge strides forward with our latest generation of technical enhancements—even compared with what we were doing just a year ago—we'd like our older clients to know that in most cases for just $299 , we will bring it up to date, including our most advanced new layers of shielding-attenuation-dissipation, wiring, parts, all for a truly night and day transformation, whether we're talking about a six-year old upgrade or a six-month old upgrade—it's part of our ongoing commitment to our customers. In the end, it's all about enjoying a more profound experience of music.
I'm glad to hear you sum things up in that manner. I've always believed that music had transformative, even healing properties. Let me try and sum up my feelings without getting too damn sappy…well, here goes nothing: To the degree that your varied upgrades seemed to part the clouds and allow the light to shine through; to make the silences themselves progressively clearer and more palpable; to reveal the true dynamic and spatial characteristics of the music without any goofy enhancements or parlor tricks—to hear how much better my entire system sounds with a more highly resolved front end— that's been quite an emotional experience for me. Resonant, if you like.
Thank you, Chip. You know, ancient Sanskrit texts claim that resonance is the secret of the universe.
So music is actually the fundamental language of the universe? Now there's a comforting thought.
Could be—the Bible indicates it's one of God's favorite things. One of the newest theories beyond String Theory is the Microwave Music Theory. It's my belief that music is God's language and that's how everything works: standing wave resonances. And ultimately that's what music is—the tones are standing wave resonances.
In truth, everything has a note. The Earth itself has a note; you can think of the planet's core as this giant transformer. And then there's the tune and tempo of our own individual heartbeats. And beyond that… I remember when I first met my wife, and we lived in a cabin a few miles down a logging road; it was so deep in the woods, that on a cold February night, miles from the nearest traffic, everything covered in a thick layer of snow, the quietude was utterly palpable—you could actually hear the silence.
I've been there myself, way up in the remotest parts of Northern Canada and Alaska. I hear you—that's a powerful experience.
Various Signature Edition Upgrades
I debated even replying to you, because there is no particular incentive for me to get into the line of fire, and the fact that you are basing decisions on the nonsense posted on internet forums, which are primarily populated by embittered shut-ins and trolls, is troubling. As is the relentlessly insulting tone of your baseless accusations.
Ultimately I did relent and call you on the number you provided, and twice it automatically transferred me to a 1-888-number with a connection but nothing on the other end. I don't even know what to think about that. Stranger and stranger.
In any event, I called Dave and forwarded your communication to him. He was glad that I did so because he didn't have a phone number for you…I am not sure he even has one now. What is your story, sir? Anyway…
A few points:
A) Internet forums make you nervous? Doc, it hurts when I go like this…well, DON'T GO LIKE THAT. Someone hiding behind a pseudonym can talk any manner of nonsense without having to back it up.
B) If Dave Schulte wasn't 100% legit, and if his products and services were not absolutely, jaw-droppingly good, I would not have put my good name on a published piece enthusing about the extraordinary level of enhanced resolution, enormous upticks in signal to noise performance, audio/video depth of field and musicality…nor on a long interview in which we discussed his techniques and audio pedigree. The Signature Edition of the Oppo put my system way over the top, and I already have a very fine system.
C) Did I mention that your belief in the bleatings of internet trolls is troubling? Oh, I already did…my bad.
D) Your characterizations of Dave's "approach" as childish and cowardly, and his "business practices" as shady and dishonest, did not sit well with me nor incline me to communicate with you, as they are inflammatory, unfair and unfounded.
E) The whole point of a fully-guaranteed 30-day in home-trial is to allow you to form your conclusions, not on anonymous internet trolls, but through LISTENING FOR YOURSELF. That is not simply a company policy nor the basis for a mutually agreed-upon business contract, it represents an opportunity to hear for yourself in your home environment in your reference system[s], not in a store showroom under staged conditions (which is not to suggest something shady by audio dealers, but simply to point out the obvious, which is HOW DOES IT SOUND IN MY ROOM?).
F) This home audition is part of the purchase price, as is the option of packing it all up and shipping it back for a full refund--and there isn't even a re-packing fee, which is standard practice for most businesses, and usually accounts for a loss on your part of 15-25%. And why would any seller put that onus on themselves if they were not prepared to back it up, and confident that the product performance would not invite returns. As a rule, The Upgrade Company customers don't return their gear, because they find from actual listening that it is as good as it claims to be. In fact, they send in more gear to modify. PLEASE TAKE NOTE.
Again, I was deeply offended by your totally unfounded characterizations of Dave's business practices, and the suggestions that he is a charlatan and a fraud and a shyster. You don't owe me an apology, but might I suggest, kind sir, that this is not a really effective way of conducting communications with a seller. And knowing Dave as I do, and considering what his products have done to perfect the sound of my system, it certainly doesn't enhance your own credibility in my mind. You need to CHILL, sir.
Don, if you do not give any credence to my reassuring voice, and my many years of experience as a musician, an audio enthusiast, a listener and a journalist, then you should at the very least LISTEN TO THE GEAR.
After all of your insults and innuendo, should I even have to point out that the company policy on auditions and refunds is clearly stated and unambiguous on the web site. No one broke your arm to place an order, which leads me to wonder, given your shaky confidence in the process, how exactly you came to place an order in the first place.
Likewise, since we are on the subject of honesty, how disingenuous is it for a consumer to place an order, make a payment, and thus commit the seller to invest both their time, money and physical resources, including parts and man-hours, in a very labor-intensive process to customize a brand new piece of gear.
I would be shocked if you didn't come around; in fact, as a professional writer and professional listener, it would seriously undermine any credibility you might have with me if you didn't come around--blown away by the level of sound and video enhancement.
However, if you are not truly blown away, or if it is a matter of honor on your part to believe what some moronic internet troll posted, as opposed to what this professional audio journalist spent the better part of a Sunday afternoon committing to paper in an attempt to remove a thorn from your paw and re-assure you that in fact you have not fucked up but in fact made a significant upgrade to your system, well then, Sparky--simply re-pack the units, ship them back, and you will receive a full refund.
And for future reference, you might want to modulate the tonality of your communications towards a more conciliatory tone. You didn't score any points with me by pissing all over a professional colleague in such a petulant, put-upon, derisive manner. I recognize that you are simply swooning from a bad case of paranoia, and having second thoughts about what you just purchased…so in the end I decided to take mercy on an audio pilgrim in the spirit of "Forgive him, Lord, for he knows not what he does."
Because my friend, you are going to be one happy camper once you plug these units in, and the glint of recognition glows in your eyes, like a splendid morning sunrise, and you come to realize that, "Holy high resolution, Batman, I didn't fuck up--these two upgraded Oppo units are simply splendid. "
Chip Stern, NYC
Page information last updated: 06/05/2020
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