The Upgrade Company was awarded the 2013 Positive Feedback Magazine Brutus Award!
The Upgrade Company was awarded the 2011 Positive Feedback Magazine Writers Choice Award!
For our "Signature Edition upgrades" to a client's Marantz PM15S1 and SA15S2. Client turned out to be a PFO Staff reviewer.
Greetings from the underground, fellow music lovers and seekers after audio nirvana.
As I may have conveyed in my last ruminations many, many moons ago, I am luxuriating in the aural glow of an extended series of incremental tweaks, which coming as they have, in drips and drabs, have brought me to the point where I like my system very much—though not quite so much as a granddaughter I love even more.
So basically, while my fellow scribes continue to seek out variations on the latest and the greatest—and why the hell not—my own audiophile journey has more or less settled into a serene sameness. I am playing my drums and guitars a lot more, which eats into audio time. And after 20 years of lurching and searching, I'm enjoying what I have, while lightly tweaking things around the edges—though, truth be told, I arrived at my state of contented inertia due to some fairly significant upgrades and enhancements over the past few years to both my digital and analog source components…as well as to my preamplifier.
For instance, when the opportunity presented itself to step up from the Signature Edition of the Upgrade Company's modified Oppo BDP-95 (which so impressed me all the way back in Issue 64, from November/December 2012), to the Signature Edition of the Oppo BDP-105, I was able to significantly supercharge the quality of my digital front end, which, as per the basic classroom syllabus for High End Audio 101, may indeed be the most critical component in the signal chain: the system only being as good as…class? That's right, it's weakest link. And for far too many years, the digital front end was indeed the weakest link in my system.
Oh, there were those intermittent perks which came with being an audio scribe, wherein I enjoyed the opportunity to earball, evaluate and review some really top-notch digital source components. And so, at regular intervals, I was able to ascertain how good my system could truly sound with pricey, and—for their time—ultra-sophisticated digital designs such as the Linn 1.1 and Luxman DU-80 Universal Players.
Still, such is the degree to which digital technology has galloped along—particularly over the past decade—that an Upgrade Company-modified Oppo Universal Player selling for $2500 (and with the added gusto dunk of Blu-Ray playback), easily trumps the performance of no-compromise universal players from not so long ago, which while they surely excelled in my system, at a retail price of over $10,000 each, were well beyond my reach.
And while, predictably enough, the Signature Edition of the BDP-105 has since been superseded by the BDP-105D, featuring Darbee Visual Presence Video Enhancement (for enhanced purity and resolution), I exhaled once, and stood pat with the previous edition of the BDP-105. And that represents a pretty good hand of cards to hold, considering that The Upgrade Company's David Schulte is positively obsessive about the refinements and proprietary advances in his RFI/EMI shielding technology that he applies to dozens and dozens of high end audio products, and he is always looking to make a cumulative set of mods even better; as a result, while keeping things pretty close to the vest as to precisely what his proprietary enhancements comprise, he cites his ongoing research into various aspects of shielding as having a more profound cumulative impact on resolution than swapping out capacitors and resistors and circuit boards and the like. More than that, I could not drag out of him.
And so, having completed my initial burn-in process, Schulte urged me pony up for one additional return visit to his shop for a further set of advanced new shielding tweaks he promised would prove dramatic.
I was, as per usual, if not stubbornly skeptical, a little wary about whether or not I would be readily able to perceive the promised sonic enhancements in my newly re-tweaked Signature Edition of the BDP-105, but given my experience of high resolution cables, AC cords, voltage regulation and balanced power, I have long believed, through trial and error, in the efficacy of increased resolution through cleaner system power—and how with each successive reduction in any and all sources of internally and externally generated noise, one achieves greater dynamic realism and enhanced levels of inner detail—allowing one to delve that much deeper into the immersive experience of music reproduction.
Along those lines, in addition to what Schulte cautiously characterized as his latest breakthroughs in shielding-dissipation-attenuation-dampening technology, he did allow as to how he had further tweaked the OPPO by installing a trio of Bybee Slipstream Purifiers (one each on the incoming AC power lines for hot, neutral and ground), in the interests of further lowering the noise floor.
Well, even before I had time to log another 50-100-150 hours of burn-in, I was conscious of deeper, quieter backgrounds, a more palpable sense of acoustic space, greater image detail and specificity, and a more vivid leading edge to bass transients—all the music I played seemed to have added snap, crackle, and pop. Okay, so far, so good…additionally, with the passage of time, the Signature Edition of the OPPO BDP-105's portrayal of music evinced an enhanced sense of ease and relaxation, with more compelling levels of sound-staging depth and liquidity, dynamics and resolution. Additionally, since the balanced output of the OPPO "…features a true differential signal path all the way from the DAC to the 3-pin XLR connector," I am now able to run my digital front end fully balanced into the input on my Rogue Hera II Pre-Amp, and thenceforth, fully balanced all the way through the output stage of the Hera and on down the signal path into either my fully tubed Rogue M-180 Monoblocks [KT-120 output tubes] or Rogue's innovative hybrid stereo amplifier, the Rogue Medusa with its tubed front end and Class D-MosFet output stage. (Depending on seasonal conditions, what sonic signature I want lingering on my pallet, and whether or not I'm looking to put some burn on new speaker cables or system transducers).
Additionally, in the spirit of tweaking, I recently had the opportunity to upgrade the AC cord on my BDP-105 to a new Acoustic Zen Twister, which for $799, has to be one of the most profoundly impactful upgrades one can make to your front end components.
Time and time again I have been captivated by the sweet sense of ease and natural musicality of Robert Lee's audio designs. I was one of the first scribes to review Lee's Adagio Loudspeakers, pound for pound and dollar for dollar one of the enduring bargains in the audiophile universe: a modestly proportioned, amplifier friendly, cost-effective, floor-standing loudspeaker; and every time I've had the opportunity to audition Robert's top-of-the-line, no-compromise, frequency extended Crescendos, I'm hard-pressed to think of a better sounding, more dimensionally captivating, dynamically impactful, timbrally balanced, non-fatiguing, low distortion, full-range loudspeaker at its price point—or double it for that matter (though I have a special affection for Positive Feedback editor Dave Clark's Vandersteen Quatro Wood CT).
Acoustic Zen interconnects, speaker cables and AC cords have long enjoyed a place of honor in my signal chain, and Lee's youthful experiences as a violinist continue to inform the aural signature of his sonic accoutrements—a smoothly textured, sweetly extended, extravagantly detailed means of enhancing system synergy in terms of transient immediacy and the rendering of low-level details where the system doesn't merely disappear, but the room itself seems to drop away—supplanted by an utterly believable depiction of an acoustic space.
To this end, Robert Lee designed his new Acoustic Zen Twister AC Cord to maximize the performance of those critical analog and digital front end components, low current devices which would benefit the most not only from dramatically reducing the noise floor, but providing an instantaneous sense of signal veracity, where there are no perceptible lags in timing that can lead to a sense of…smeared frequencies.
Teaming the Twister with the Signature Edition of the Oppo BDP-105, made the performance of a great front end component seem positively surreal in terms of the enhancements I experienced damn near immediately…even more so over the next 25-50 or so hours as the Twister burned in. I was conscious of blacker backgrounds and more stable imaging; furthermore, I soon became conscious of how the Twister helped optimize the dynamics and harmonic details that translate into more believable soundstaging cues and timbral accuracy, not to mention a greater sense of ease and relaxation in terms of the overall presentation. Later on in the audition process, I had the opportunity to lend the Twister to a friend to try out with his preamplifier, a vintage triode jobber, and he was so taken by the sense, not only of enhanced lateral imaging but of front to back depth of field, that in short order, he purchased a Twister of his own, unwilling as he was to abide on Planet Earth without recourse to its sonic benefits.
Which might help explain why, all things being equal—my boundless passion for high end audio refinements and hip new gear notwithstanding—upgrades and enhancements are mainly now a matter of tweaks and fine-tuning.
Be that as it may, I won't front as if I'm confident this state of satisfaction will endure until the next column, let alone 2018. I mean, I'm only human—and rust never sleeps.
Mandalas by Mary Morgan Stern
INDUSTRIAL VS. DEVOTIONAL LISTENING….
Still, having pursued the Holy Grail of Absolute Resolution & Total Immersion Into Music, as chronicled here and in other high end audio outlets over the past 20 years, while I am most definitely curious about new refinements, and take great joy in the gusto dunks my fellow audiophiles pursue in their own rigs, it has been a while since I felt motivated to go swapping out one component after another, after another, after another…
I'd just as soon leave well enough alone. But, hey, to those still feeling that urge, mazel tov. I get it—been there, done that.
Now, in the interests of full disclosure, it's worth noting that that for the past few years, I've been dealing with financial, health, quality of life and family issues, so my priorities have evolved along more practical lines—which is not to say that on a personal level, if presented with a cost-effective means of making a significant upgrade, that I would demure.
Still, while my passion for immersion in music has only deepened with the passage of time, over the past two-three years the degree to which I engage in INDUSTRIAL listening has by and large trumped the amount of time I engage in purely DEVOTIONAL listening at Ground Zero—a most ironic confession, given how assiduously I have upgraded every aspect of my reference system over the past decade.
So, how then does one explain, let alone justify, these greater proportions of INDUSTRIAL vs. DEVOTIONAL listening?
And does this tendency in so dedicated a high end audio conscript, betoken a more gradual movement away from audiophile values?
If so, it would appear that I am not alone.
Some time back on FACEBOOK, during the late Bronze Age as I recollect, my worthy constituent Michael Trei—an audiophile black belt if ever there was one, with a special mastery of all things relevant to the performance and set-up of cartridges, tonearms and turntable systems—posted an item which in short order led me to some heart-rending audiophile laments in which, behind door number three, some scribe bemoaned what he saw as an unfortunate trend: away from component-based SYSTEMS, and towards computer based music reproduction and ancillary portable devices.
Exhale. Typically, along with the omnipresent bugaboo about the original sin regarding low-resolution formats, such pronouncements are presumably meant to shepherd us into the New Year with cachinnations of doom and gloom about the state of high end audio.
All of which puts me in mind of those JAZZ IS DEAD articles which have been appearing and reappearing with dreary inevitability for most of my adult life. And while I have not been out and about like I used to be—certainly not to the point where I can make any conclusive pronouncements about the ultimate state of high end audio—it does seem (SEEM) that while sales of major system components amongst those pursuing dream systems may have peaked out, that there exists a renewed interest in higher resolution DACs, while the newest generation of high resolution headphones have experienced a dramatic upswing—and surprise-surprise, our dear spinster aunt, VINYL, has not only endured and expanded its outreach amongst audiophiles, but has garnered significant converts among millennials. And all this time we'd been led to believe that their pronounced attachment to all things streaming and downloadable shan't allow for off-road adventures in the Analog Jungles of Frontier Land.
Still, if the fevered bereavement of the Trojan women of The Audiophile Sepulcher is to be believed, this represents an irreversible trend—a lost generation of listeners inured to the wonders of high resolution audio.
I'm not quite sure I see it that way. Based on my own personal experiences, I'd suggest that it's simply a matter of access and convenience. Many people in the course of their daily lives put in serious face time at their computers; while others inevitably find themselves out and about, on the go, accessing music primarily through their cellular devices. There are only so many hours in a day…luxuriating in our sacred sweet spot is something of an indulgence, righteous, transformative, intelligent indulgence though it might be.
Because as inviting, as involving, as awe-inspiring as my own no-compromise home audio rig is (and two righteous secondary systems, I hasten to add), these days I rarely have an immersive experience quite as involving as when I'm plugged in to my cellular device while taking a long walk, or on those occasions when I find myself behind the wheel of my car, on a long solitary drive, with my cellular device plugged into my all too average car audio rig (yes, I said plugged in. as my Kenwood deck dates from that historical epoch which preceded Bluetooth).
Of course, like many of you, dear readers, I can readily apprehend higher levels of resolution, both in my own reference system, and in the no-compromise, all-singing/all-dancing systems of my more well-heeled brethren.
Which begs the question…what are we talking about? Are we talking about listening to one's music? Or are we talking about listening to one's system?
Ideally, both…but hey, when out of the house and on the go, or stuck on some long damn airplane flight, given a choice between all or nothing at all, well…I have like 250 full albums in the form of 320kbps MP3 files (and 150 big .mp4 video downloads) residing on a 64GB Micro SD Card (with room to spare) on my old Samsung Galaxy Note 3, which I generally experience in random-shuffle mode, through a pair of ridiculously good, $49.99 iGrado headphones, with their incredibly articulate, sweetly obliging midrange resolution—the totality of which brings me a whole lot of joy. Not high resolution enough for the purists amongst you? I beg to differ. Spare me.
And likewise, when I am at home, as much time as I spend festooned to my computer, I often find myself less motivated to listen to my system off axis in the adjacent room—as opposed to in my sweet spot (and my system sounds quite good off axis)—than I am to simply get on with other tasks at hand.
PREFERENCE vs. CONVENIENCE?
DEVOTIONAL LISTENING vs. INDUSTRIAL LISTENING?
Hey, I have over 3TB of .wav, .mp4, .mp3 and high definition files on a trio of hard drives on my PC (no MacBooks or dedicated servers for this Luddite). Scrolling through hundreds of folders, as if rotating some immense old time radio dial, it's often more convenient to simply keep working, listening to music on my original edition of the $200 Audioengine2 powered loudspeakers, which when teamed with their $25 stands, are sufficiently decoupled from my desktop to offer believable resolution, bass extension and stereo imaging. Are there better desktop speakers? Damn right there are. Am I interested? I'm more than cool with what I've got.
Likewise, for some years I've been deriving considerable enjoyment from another piece of older technology I've grown accustomed to, in the form of my stalwart Alpha Design Labs/Furutech GT40 USB 2.0 DAC, a 24 Bit/96 KHz Audio Interface with which, via two sets of incoming and outgoing 7-meter interconnects, I can connect the music percolating on my hard drives to my Rogue Hera II preamplifier and thenceforth via Pony Express to my reference system in the adjacent room, all the while deploying Audacity's free online program to digitize LPs and cassettes on my hard drive; simple and effective—me happy.
So what do you do with a splendid Swiss Army Knife like the GT40, offering as it also does an excellent sounding, no-nonsense hook-up to sundry headphones?
These past few years, ADL/Furutech engineers busied themselves developing a newer, completely original digital platform, quite distinct from the GT40, in the form of their all-singing/all-dancing STRATOS, which offers access to all manner of high resolution DSD and PCM files, and a choice of sophisticated headphone loading options amongst a host of new functions that fans of the GT40 wish they'd had on the older unit. I must confess to being intrigued. Be strong, Chip, be strong.
All the while, unwilling to toss out the baby with the bathwater, and conscious of sustaining a high level of performance at a far more affordable price point, ADL/Furutech engineers saw fit to go back to the well and significantly enhance a proven, still-relevant USB DAC device with its re-introduction as the ADL GT40a.
And they did themselves proud for sure…smoother and sweeter, more extended and resolved, the GT40a represents a palpable upgrade over its initial iteration, such as how they enhanced their MC/MM Phono stage from MC/47k ohms to MC/100 ohms—all the better accommodate a wider range of modern, low impedance, moving coil cartridges. I happily employ a dedicated Rogue Triton MM/MC Phono Preamplifier in my reference system, so I cannot comment on the GT40a's performance in this regard.
However, as to its level of performance as a DAC and dedicated headphone amplifier? Well, now…
By upgrading the USB, DAC and ADC ICs, ADL was able to step up the GT40a's sample rate to full 24-bit/192 kHz resolution and to support Asynchronous mode and ASIO as well. Likewise, a pair of better performing new OP AMPS have also contributed to the GT40a's enhanced sonic veracity; as a dedicated DAC—channeling streaming music to my main system—the GT40a has proven more detailed and dynamic, spacious and silvery.
Better still, in supplanting their older OP AMP for a dedicated MAX9722 Headphone AMP, the GT40a provides significantly greater levels of detail, and far better signal-to-noise performance when driving high-resolution headphones. The GT40a's headphone circuitry not only offers pinpoint definition and more believable acoustic cues, but I've really been impressed by how much quieter it is from top to bottom; how much smoother and more accurate the response of the volume potentiometer has proven to be…so much so, that I find myself more often motivated to strap on the cans, and for longer periods of listening—with far less fatigue.
To sum up, the GT40a has proven adept at delivering a greater sense of intimacy and immediacy—it is direct and to the point, an obliging and revealing acoustic portal. With each new visit I find myself less compelled to simply turn on the main reference system, as I apprehend more supple levels of acoustic detail and resolution in my headphones than I had previously perceived…but more anon of that breakthrough, with paeans to our reigning headphone champion and other adventures, in my next column. Happy New Year, pilgrims.
Mandalas by Mary Morgan Stern
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Radio Free Chip - The Upgrade Company Signature Mod of the Oppo BDP-95 Universal Blu-Ray Player
To Albert Einstein, it suggested a relationship between observers and observed.
To audio freaks, it depicts the endless search for more detail and dynamic range; greater transparency and a higher signal to noise ratio; enhanced sound staging; and a level of resolution and believability on par with the reproductive capabilities of their other components.
Relativity thus suggests something of the listener's aural perspective; the merits of each and every component in the audio signal chain; bang for buck—and the fundamental audiophile principles of diminishing returns.
Diminishing returns, say you? Indeed, the received wisdom which holds that as one spends more and more money, the proportional degrees of enhancement grow smaller and smaller.
Of course, those purportedly "diminishing" degrees of enhancement are often the most profoundly moving and musically significant.
Obviously, the degree to which prospective consumers are inspired to pay for those incremental enhancements is strongly influenced by one's financial constraints. Still, all things being equal, the relative quality of all their other components in the signal chain is an even bigger concern, as you don't want to simply toss money against the wall to see what sticks. If you have assembled an audio system that is profoundly revealing, then investing in higher resolution components should enable you to transcend the gear itself and achieve an even deeper sense of immersion in the music.
Whereas if your gear was assembled in a more parsimonious manner—the listener being ever mindful of the need to apply financial prudence—then the degree to which one makes their compromises work is measured by how pleasing a musical balance they achieve. Introducing proportionally more sophisticated components into the signal chain may ironically tell you way more about your system than you really need to know… relative to your experience of the music itself—which should be the ultimate end game.
[Cough.] Well, where then to put your money (other than where your mouth is)?
Audiophiles tend to differ on where best to invest. A compelling case can be made for any and all of the components in the signal chain; including gastrointestinal and neurological tweaks involving the connective tissue of speaker cables and interconnects; and the purity of power sources as regards after-market AC cords, not to mention sundry filtering and balanced power schemes. However, years ago J. Gordon Holt suggested to me that such enhancements should only come into play at that point where the listener has assembled a well-balanced set of quality components, and attained a coherent acoustic balance and purity of midrange resolution.
In any event, I have found that as one chips away at sources of noise and interference, the closer a listener comes to an authentic sense of how good all of the components in your signal chain may actually sound—bringing you that much closer to the music.
Okay, so where to prioritize?
For some people, while more power is not always necessary—relative to the size of the room and the speaker load being presented to the amp—in my admittedly small window of experience, it is generally welcome in terms of dynamic headroom and transient realism (we recognize that this is a hot-button issue to the SET-sect, and God bless, y'all are welcome to argue from your own perspective, but this is how I experience it).
Then there are issues involving ROOM COUPLING, perhaps the most overlooked and underappreciated aspect of system voicing; how your loudspeakers interact with the amp/pre-amp, and most critically, how they COUPLE WITH THE ROOM ITSELF, can contribute significantly to the overall voicing and impact of your audio system.
Still, all things being equal, when contemplating the ten or so basic commandments of high resolution audio, one invariably returns anew to this fundamental principle: YOUR AUDIO SYSTEM IS ONLY AS GOOD AS ITS WEAKEST LINK.
And inevitably, this brings us back to our source components, be they in the analog or digital domains. ULTIMATELY, YOUR SYSTEM IS ONLY GOING TO SOUND AS GOOD AS YOUR SOURCE COMPONENTS.
Having said all that, I must confess that given the nature of the aural journey I have undertaken, I assembled my system in a rather bass-ackwards manner—and it took me a long time to finally settle on a digital front end component worthy of the rest of my system as it has evolved over the past 5-10-15 years.
Cut to the chase…
Because while I have metaphorically danced with many beautiful women in my day, I have finally at this late date settled down to a blissful state of front end audio monogamy: because the Upgrade Company's Signature Edition of the Oppo BDP-95 Blu-Ray Universal Player ($2399) sounds that damn good, and its enhanced set of modifications offer a dramatic uptick in value and performance—commensurate with far more expensive disc players, universal and otherwise.
Which begs the question: how good is what the Upgrade Company (http://www.upgradecompany.com/) represents as its "audio/video/motherboard/power supply Signature Edition upgrade including extensive proprietary RFI & EMI shielding and dampening?"
Well, consider this: The Upgrade Company literature asserts that they are not only "one of the largest OPPO authorized dealers in terms of sales volume… [they are also] the ONLY aftermarket mod firm approved by OPPO to become a factory authorized dealer."
Additionally, the Upgrade Company affords buyers an unconditional guarantee: try out The Signature Edition of the Oppo BDP-95 in your system for two weeks, and in the event that you somehow find it lacking in any way, send it back for a stock unit and a full refund.
A bold challenge, indeed, that is of particular interest to seekers after high resolution nirvana, considering the degree of acceptance the cost-effective, lovingly engineered stock Oppo BDP-95 has found among apple-cheeked consumers and snarky audiophiles alike; it is the people's choice, an audiophile-grade Universal Player benchmark—the Model T Ford of modern 2-channel and home theater applications.
We shall return anon to this theme, but first some more parenthetical throat-clearing on the significance of front end audio verity, as I have come to understand it from personal trial and error.
On the analog front, while I am heavily invested in my old LP collection (on the order of around 7000 discs), my front end rig is relatively humble (by cost-is-no-object audiophile community standards): still, my present configuration—comprised of a Rega Planar 25 turntable with an RB600 tone-arm, a Grado Statement Master moving coil cartridge, a Ringmat 330, a Signal Guard II isolation stand, connected to a Rogue Stealth Phono Stage with a pair of JPS Labs Superconductor 3 interconnects and an Acoustic Zen Absolute AC cord—would prove plenty righteous for most carbon based life forms.
Still, in the evolution of this scribe's system, the digital front end has long been the poor sister of my audio family, despite the fact that some truly superb players have passed through my portals of penance over the years (from the Sony SCD-777ES SACD Player that I evaluated for Stereophile, through a McCormack UDP-1 Deluxe Universal Player I reviewed for 6Moons, and the Luxman DU-80 Multi-Standard Music Player I enthused upon at length for Positive Feedback back in issue #42). The Luxman was particularly pleasing to a tadpole that long ago broke his cherry on Luxman gear in the ‘80s. With its richly detailed levels of resolution, not to mention the spellbinding mojo of their midrange (thanks to a set of proprietary DACs), the DU-80 was alas, well out of my price range at the time, and so inevitably there came a day of reckoning when, pausing only to wipe a solitary tear from my eye, I put on my big belt buckle Elvis costume and sang me a few choruses of "Return To Sender." James Burton, ladies and gentlemen, thank you very much.
Well, now that I've had the opportunity to live with the Upgrade Company's Signature version of the Oppo BDP-95 for a while, I've had to cue the conductor to change my tune… I now find myself lip-synching Etta James' "At Last."
In a way, I was lucky not to be able to afford the Luxman, much as I had grown attached to its aural charms, because time doesn't merely march on in the digital domain, it veritably gallops. Never you mind the burgeoning world of computer audio, which at the moment would appear to offer the most potential for substantive growth in a saturated high end audio market—both among audio dealers and audio fans.
That is to say, after half a lifetime of side-stepping the visual aspects of my musical compulsion, audiophile systems such as my own now have the potential to integrate even more effectively with video (even if only in the 2-channel, proscenium arch domain). However, with such progress comes collateral damage, and given the growth of HD TV, 1080p and the Blu-Ray format, some of the finest universal players on the market suddenly became, if not obsolete, surely compromised in terms of the great leaps forward the Blu-Ray format offers—not for high definition video resolution, but audiophile sonics.
The problem is that manufacturers and consumers alike are rather gun-shy about committing to any new formats, the memories of the DVD-A experience (which arrived more or less dead on arrival) still fresh in their minds. Then you have to account for the ascendancy of iPods and the entire downloading culture, let alone the burgeoning reality of DACs and computer audio as it rapidly overtakes the old world culture of discs and disc players.
Still in all likelihood, even were designers and old school sonic pilgrims to conclude with Biblical certitude that Blu-Ray doesn't simply represent the latest flavor of the month, audiophiles will likely disdain the supposed enhancements of the Blu-Ray format as yet another fly-by-night, here-today-gone-tomorrow gimmick to divest us of our money in the quest for some of those aforementioned ever-diminishing returns; a chorus of We Won't Be Fooled Again by the Who suddenly appears on my internal jukebox. And with the exception of a few high end companies such as Denon and McIntosh, neither audiophiles nor manufacturers have been in any great hurry to adopt the Blu-Ray standard until they see how the market shakes out.
Speaking only for myself—having had the opportunity to check out both Blu-Ray video, as well as dedicated Blu-Ray audio—I am quite impressed with the present reality and excited about further possibilities. Blu-Ray is not simply a gimmick, but represents a great leap forward as a high resolution audio format.
Furthermore, I am quite pleased to have found a Universal player which allows me not only to enjoy my CDs as never before, but to optimize performance from my SACDs, dedicated DVD-V audio and video discs as well as the odd DVD-A and sundry Blu-Rays (such as master engineer Jim Anderson's dedicated Blu-Ray Audio re-mastering of Patricia Barber's iconic audiophile standard, Modern Cool).
Likewise, for this particular Pilgrim, the Swiss Army Knife qualities of a Blu-Ray Universal Player are highly appealing. You see, having swapped out all manner of components in my signal chain over the past 15-20 years, in my dotage I have increasingly grown to appreciate the virtues of…simplicity.
In my 14 x 20 x 10 reference studio, as my system has evolved, my Dynaudio Confidence C1 loudspeakers are about four feet in front of the long wall; roughly two-three feet from acoustic panels on the side walls; six feet apart from tweeter to tweeter; and seven feet from my sweet spot in the near field on a straight back chair I inherited from my mother—which is both a good height relative to the woofers and tweeters, and far kinder to my back then the crappy couch which it replaced (that was positioned much further back in the room nearer to the radiator and our northern exposure).
My two-shelve amp stand is in the middle just behind the speakers, with a large wooden table behind that, upon which my voltage regulator and a pair of balanced power isolation transformers sit. And surprise-surprise, my 42-inch Panasonic TC-P42G25 Plasma TV (purchased at the very end of 2010) is parked in between the speakers on a wheeled but very stable old Salamander TV stand, minus any sort of cable-TV or surround sound extras—two-channel proscenium arch all the way, baby, dedicated to audio and high-resolution video discs exclusively (I do my industrial TV viewing on a simple device tethered to my cable box next to my computer desk in the adjoining room). My dual-equipment racks are within arm's reach on the immediate right of my listening chair on the short wall, hooked up to my Rogue power amps via a balanced 15-foot run of JPS Labs Superconductor 3 Balanced Cables.
As such I have neither the room nor the inclination to trouble myself with things that undermine the relative simplicity of my set-up, such as separate transports and DACs or dedicated CD-only playback solutions, minus the high resolution video options. Ergo my attraction to the Swiss Army Knife attributes of a good Universal Player, which are largely disdained by those audiophiles who hold that combining video functions with audio functions in one chassis, let alone including such marginal high-resolution formats such as DVD-A and SACD, precludes one's ability to do a single thing really, really well—play compact discs. And so, they disdain the universal player, let alone the Blu-Ray Universal Player.
Before the tail end of 2011, I was making do with a discontinued Lexicon RT-20 Universal Player I happily snapped up on Audiogon for 750-smackers, still highly prized by cost-conscious audiophiles (especially when contrasted with its original MSRP of $5000). And for those who steadfastly refuse to become ensnared in the Blu-Ray upgrade game, it remains a solid investment.
Looking back upon the past year or so, it occurs to me that—beginning with the final inclusion of a 42-inch plasma some dozen years after I first lusted after that nascent technology at a Los Angeles High End Audio Show (the price then, $11,000… by the end of 2010, $775)—I basically swapped out most of my system in an attempt to initiate a final set of upgrades before more or less throwing up my hands and going ENOUGH'S ENOUGH. At some point one simply has to say…enough.
Cumulatively speaking I tweaked my Rogue M-180 mono-blocks with a significant KT-120 tube upgrade; I discovered the aural attributes and sheer dynamic power of the hybrid Rogue Medusa stereo amp; and after saving up for what seemed like an eternity, I was finally able to purchase my dream pre-amp, the two chassis, 6H30-equipped Rogue Hera II, which counts amongst its many aural attributes, separate tape monitor and processor loops (with which to connect both my Alessis ML-9600 Digital Recorder and tubed Manley Massive Passive Parametric EQ). Additionally, the Hera II also offers a fully balanced input, and when outfitted with a sweetly resolved, remarkably detailed and dynamic new Absolute Copper Balanced Cable from Acoustic Zen, I was able to achieve another 3dB of S/N and enhanced low level detail, with believable dynamics and a spooky sense of venue—allowing the speakers to simply disappear as I floated a soundstage of breathtaking depth and musical realism.
And all things being equal, after several months of burn in and critical listening, I have come to the conclusion that as superb as every element in my system has come to be, the missing link, the critical, make-or-break component that put my system over the top and allowed me to finally ascended the lofty peak of Mount No-Compromise, not only turned out to be the most cost-effective component in the mix, but surprise-surprise, was THE SOURCE COMPONENT. Like, duh.
And that slam dunk of a source component was the Upgrade Company's cost-effective Signature Edition of the Oppo BDP-95.
It all began well after I'd gotten adjusted to the presence of the plasma TV in the middle of my soundstage. After checking out the DVD/Blu-Ray demos at some retail stores, I began to re-think my next step in terms of a high-resolution digital front end.
All it took was some encouragement from Positive Feedback On-Line mandarins David Robinson and Dave Clark, who were so enthusiastic about the audio and video qualities of the Oppo line, that sight and sound unseen, I plunked down coin on a stock BDP-95—and was I ever smiling.
Right out of the box, while their midrange attributes initially struck me as comparable, the Oppo had far better dynamics and more tautly articulated bass than the Lexicon with a smoother, more fleshed out high end; a more capacious soundstage with better image specificity; greater transparency and transient realism. And over time the BDP-95 got nothing but better, as the midrange flexed up and fleshed out. In discussing the Oppo's attributes with PFO Editor David Robinson, he assured me that I would be hard-pressed to match the thousand dollar BDP-95's musicality short of a universal player the likes of the $6000 Esoteric DV-60.
Cut to a close-up of the author… happy-happy… fade to black, cue end credits. How could it get any better?
Well, funny you should ask. Because somewhere down the line, given my enthusiasm for the BDP-95, my PFO editors wondered if I would have any interest in checking out the Signature Edition of the Oppo BDP-95 from the Upgrade Company.
I was a little hesitant at first, because…well, because I had grown very fond of the stock Oppo, and I was rather conflicted about checking out something I might like better, let alone a lot better, money not growing on trees, and knowing that in my heart of hearts, I was aurally lustful, and liable to reach for my credit card at the slightest provocation—given to a wandering ear metaphorically speaking when the next pretty girl rounded the corner and shook her booty in my general direction, only 3dB down at 22HZ….talk about low end. Somebody stop me.
Also, before I got to know David Schulte, head honcho and high priest of The Upgrade Company, I found myself a little wary of the evangelical fervor with which he articulated his pride of authorship, seeing as how I am empowered by Aural Pilgrims I have never met to be an honest broker; to be wary of large-sounding claims; to fairly assess the absolute performance attributes and bang for buck value of gear my readers do not have the luxury of living with for an extended period of time.
And so, when I first plugged in the Signature Edition of the Oppo BDP-95, I had yet to take the full measure of the Right Reverend Schulte as a cat, nor did I particularly care to—though in time, as our extended interview makes plain, I came to understand that while David tends to speak in the highfalutin absolutes of a true believer before the cross, he comes by it honestly, having been a full-blown audio geek since he was nine years old; an inveterate tinkerer and inventor who fell in love with cool gear and was determined to find out what made the best good, and how to make the good even better.
Wary as I was out of the gate, I retreated to my cone of solitude, plugged in the Signature Edition, took some cursory mental notes as to what subtleties I noticed straight away—refusing to draw any hasty conclusions—and proceeded to simply play music, play more music and burn, Burn, BURN that motherfucker in for hundreds and hundreds of hours more than a consumer might enjoy on a two week qualifying audition. Not to mention how the initial Upgrade Company info sheets I received spoke of Black Gate capacitors in the signal path, which have been held in very high esteem by audiophiles and which purportedly required an extensive burn-in on the order of 600-800 hours to reach their full audio potential.
Well, clearly you're not going to achieve that level of burn-in over the course of two weeks; and subsequently (as you may glean from our interview), Schulte has come to distance himself from the cachet of hip parts in general, and Black Gates in particular, pointing to a series of proprietary techniques he evolved over time as having a far greater impact on the overall performance enhancements.
In any event, I took my sweet damn time burning the Signature Edition in to make sure I was experiencing the Full Monty before undertaking any conclusive A/B comparisons. And before I undertook any such comparisons, I unplugged the Signature, let it cool off, and gave the stock Oppo a good week of playing time before inviting over any friends, Romans, countrymen to lend me their ears; seeking to render on to the stock Oppo that which is stock and unto the Signature that which a consumer has a right to expect for another $1399—basically the price of a good after-market AC cord and a set of hip interconnects.
At this point, you may rest assured that I listened extensively to all of my favorite reference discs, and some new ones as well; after a while, I must confess, I arrived at my final conclusions with great gusto, and thenceforth spent a considerable amount of time simply relishing the glory of my audio system as I fleshed out and burned in all its new components, and came to realize that while the Signature Edition of the Oppo-BDP-95 was the most humble component in terms of its price point, in many ways it was contributing the most profound impact of any gear in the signal chain.
What's more, while the Upgrade Company's Signature Edition mod of the Oppo BDP-95 comes in at $1399 over the suggested list price, the actual cost pales relative to the enhanced performance attributes it conveys to your digital front end—and the system as a whole.
Because for starters, while there was a palpable midrange lushness to the Luxman DU-80 that remains engrained in my aural bone marrow, the midrange attributes of the Signature Edition are nothing to sniff at, and in every other way shape and form, in my reference system—both before and after I swapped out key components—the Signature Edition of the BDP-95 performed at a significantly higher level than a component that back in the day retailed new for over eight thousand dollars more than the Signature Edition of the Oppo.
How so? Well, its stunning midrange resolution notwithstanding, I wish I could convey to you how profoundly the holographic qualities of the Signature Edition impacted the overall presentation of my sound system.
Firstly, it was positively mind-blowing how completely the speakers seemed to disappear from the equation, and how convincingly the Signature Edition floated a realistic, hauntingly dimensional soundstage—bereft of point source cues.
And while my initial, cursory take, was that the Signature seemed more vibrant and possessed of greater dynamic headroom (allowing me to push it harder in the context of my system); several months down the line, when I finally settled into formal A/B mode, the thing that hit me like a punch in the nose, again, was how dramatically the point-source attributes of my loudspeakers seemed to drop away—the manner in which the Signature Edition floated an immense soundstage was stunning to me.
Or as my good friend, master jazz drummer and incorrigible audiophile Billy Drummond noted admiringly during our extended critical listening session, "Your system always sounds very spacious." But he was particularly taken by how much deeper, wider AND higher the soundstage now was, which I too experienced as one of the most endearing attributes of the Signature Oppo.
Likewise, by comparison with the stock BDP-95, the Signature Oppo didn't just throw a sound-stage, it depicted an entire room, where one's sense of the acoustic space—the aural experience of natural acoustic attack and decay, enveloped in the reverberant aura of natural reflections—was devoutly real, and possessed of neither untoward nor flattering colorations.
Mated to my Confidence C1 loudspeakers, driven authoritatively by Rogue M-180 Monoblocks, translated with sweetly layered command by my Acoustic Zen Absolute Copper Balanced Interconnects, the manner in which the Signature Oppo complemented the Dynaudios and enhanced one's sense of signal chain synchronicity and good room coupling were sublime.
Nor did the Signature Oppo shrink from a forced march through the daunting timpani transients of Elliot Carter's "Canto" (on percussionist Jonathan Faralli's 24/96 DVD-V audio disc, XX Percussion), which have more often than not evinced a tendency to break up at the edges like a dry cracker when pushed too hard—as with practically every digital front end I've ever deployed… save for this modified Oppo BDP-95.
It gave me pause. It's as if by isolating the innards of the stock Oppo from external noise sources, and the electrical residue of its own clocks and smocks, the Signature Edition is thus able to exert a level of real-time and space control over fundamentals, while portraying a micro-psychic level of detail that is breathtaking in its transparency and dimensionality; images are exquisitely depicted and detailed in and of themselves, and in relation to the greater acoustic space; inner nuances and overtones I was heretofore unaware of seemed to sneak out from behind the crisply articulated fundamentals and wink at me. Most amusingly so when my brother came over for a listen and gently chided me for some noise he believed he detected in the system. "Those are the rivets in Brian Blade's sizzle cymbal," I countered.
Which came from a CD of elegant chamber music entitled Quiver—the product of a trio chaired by master trumpeter/composer Ron Miles, with percussionist Brian Blade and his long-time soul mate, guitar innovator Bill Frisell (for which I was privileged to script the liner notes, as they subsequently appeared in Issue #61 of PFO).
The images on the stock Oppo, while warmly depicted and very spacious, seemed somehow more firmly tethered to a set of left-right transducers; the scale, breadth and location in time and space of drummer Brian Blade's beautifully tuned drum and cymbal array, were particularly weighted to the right channel from the perspective of my sweet spot. Yet with the Signature Edition, suddenly you were sitting upon his drum stool, as though someone had obligingly moved Blade out of the right corner and more towards the center of the room, where one enjoyed a greater sense of perspective and of the actual location for the bass drum, toms, hats, snare and cymbal in his multi-percussion array; not merely as a set of drums, but as a choir of voices at palpably different distances from the listener—not only from front-to-back, but laterally beyond the borders of the loudspeakers themselves.
I likewise experienced Miles' punctilious trumpet phrasing and lower register punctuations as warmly rounded and clearly articulated, bobbing about on the creamy currents of Frisell's rich, amber chording, organically blended yet utterly distinct as a singular entity in time and space. This elegant sense of image specificity and illumination represents yet another plateau of performance where the Signature Oppo draws a line in the sand for the stock Oppo and chortles, "Now that's what I'm talking about."
And yes, yes, the Signature Oppo was surely authoritative on my SACDs, such as my old standby, drummer Steve Davis' singular all-DSD recording, A Quality Of Silence.
But over time, as I grew to appreciate the greatly enhanced quality of audio AND video I was now enjoying with the Oppo Signature Edition functioning as my reference digital front end, I found myself time and again turning for aural succor to my new best friends, in the form of Blu-Ray video and audio source materials—further confirming what a significant upgrade the Blu-Ray format represents for the enjoyment of music and movies, both in the realm of storytelling, and as a concert medium.
I would characterize the differences in video resolution between what the Signature Oppo conveyed and that of the stock disc player as… something offering a more fully fleshed out pallet of those film-like attributes inherent in regular DVDs, but especially in Blu-Rays.
Never was this more apparent then when I auditioned a dynamic Blu-Ray performance of "Le Sacre du printemps" (Stravinsky and the Ballets Russes on Bel Air Classiques) as conducted by the estimable Stravinsky interpreter Valery Gergiev with the Mariinsky Orchestra and Ballet. Master jazz drummers, Billy Drummond and Jeff Williams, both characterized this blast of dance and music as life-changing. And so it was, as I was able to experience an emotionally compelling approximation of Vaslav Nijinsky's cathartic choreography as it originally scandalized Parisian audiences back in 1913.
In breaking it down with Billy Drummond, we agreed that in terms of front to back depth, it was as if a subtle scrim had been removed from the stage; that the quality of the stock Oppo's presentation looked a little bit more like a video, while that of the Signature more readily suggested film. When we subsequently traversed through key scenes in the Blu-Ray of Kubrick's apotheosis of film technology, 2001: A Space Odyssey, it confirmed that as finely rendered as the stock Oppo's depiction was, it seemed comparatively flatter than the Signature's presentation, which was more sharply focused both in terms of images and motion within the frame.
Returning to the Blu-Ray of Stravinsky, we were taken aback by the manner in which the Signature better conveyed the performance's front-to-back depth of field, while handling the resounding percussive transients with effortless power and grace, even as it depicted the subtle blend of orchestral accents, with the sonorous resonance of massed feet upon a lively wooden stage—every detail nicely balanced in terms of its actual scale and natural sonics.
There were several points in the performance, where having never seen this piece of music presented in tandem with the dance as an organic entity, I found myself screaming out loud as the ritual celebration of nature culminated in the sacrifice of the chosen one. "Man, it's worth it to have spent all these years assembling a high end system," I enthused to Billy, "just to experience this music and choreography with such an emotional impact from the best seat in the house—damn."
Then, as if that wasn't enough, there was a small moment in the music where the dynamic went from fffff to ppp, and both Billy and I did a comic 180o left/right double-take as we simultaneously apprehended a subtle reverb trail slowly decaying into the deep, spacious mists of an immense soundstage. We both agreed that this infinitesimal detail was far more readily apparent with the Signature Oppo.
Else wise, I took immense delight in the enhanced visual and sonic dimensionality, the sheer visual depth and clarity, the resounding sonic impact the Signature Edition conveyed on the Blu-Ray releases of Cream—Royal Albert Hall and Jeff Beck Performing This Week Live at Ronnie Scott's. As much as I had previously enjoyed these HD performances on DVD, the Blu-Ray editions simply stomped on them, with a degree of you-are-there immediacy from the very best seat in the house. Sonically, the quality and impact of the bass as depicted by the Signature was simply enormous, in both its scale and accuracy—bass not as boom, but as an immense, totally believable dynamic foundation for the entire performance. And visually, the vibrancy and clarity, the dramatic reduction in noise artifacts—the sheer live-ness of the experience—simply floored me.
As far as the sonic side of the ledger was concerned, I had a beaucoup selection of Hybrid SACD/Blu-Ray Audio releases to draw upon by the estimable Morten Lindberg of the Scandinavian 2L label, such as his devoutly spacious, reverberant recording of Nordic Voices—Himmelkvad, in which solo and purely vocal chamber groups seem to float suggestively in a pool of amniotic fluid— sonically, a veritable womb with a view. Simplistically speaking, the Hybrid SACD of these performances might have had a bit more going for it dynamically, but the Blu-Ray depiction seemed comparatively more spacious and relaxed. If you are not hip to the 2L imprint, you have been remiss, Pilgrims. Lindberg has pushed the envelope dramatically in terms of recording quality and repertoire—among the most profoundly dedicated auteurs to come on the scene since the emergence of Manfred Eicher and ECM Records back in the early 1970s. My only caveat is a small one—I wish Morton had a taste for elements of modern jazz to complement his post-modern classical cavalcade of splendid sonics.
As if my 2L experiences were not sufficient to the task, the Blu-Ray Audio re-mastering of Patricia Barber's audiophile holy grail, Modern Cool, have gotten me even more excited over the musical potential of Blu-Ray Audio, let alone the Signature Edition's ability to convey its every nuance. In fact, if I may, allow me to defer to colleague Kal Rubinson of Stereophile, a knowledgeable and articulate sound-scribe who has long divided his time between traditional 2-channel audio, and the joys of 5.1 surround sound in the audio-video domain; he recently reviewed said same Blu-Ray edition of Modern Cool and in the 2-channel domain found "…the Blu-Ray is superior to the SACD: more open and detailed, with stabler imaging and a more believable soundstage. The BD-A's low end is equally weighty but better defined—and, remarkably, Barber's voice sounds even more realistic in timbre and presence."
Well, not much more I can add to my tsunami of verbiage…for an investment of $1399 in an Upgrade Company mod, you can transform an already excellent bang-for-buck performer into a commanding front end component. The Signature Edition of the Oppo BDP-95 is capable of standing toe to toe with un-modified front end components costing two-three-four times as much in my humble estimation.
As for David Schulte's oft-stated assertion that one can truly appreciate his upgrades in one component only by having similar mods done to every other component in the signal chain, well, I have repeatedly upbraided him for what I feel is a truly over-the-top assertion. Mind you, based on the evidence of how he has so thoroughly transformed the Oppo BDP-95, I would not hesitate to have him take a pass at sundry pre-amps, power amps, even loudspeakers, save that in my case, it would prove wildly inconvenient for this Pilgrim to undertake such a path to nirvana, particularly when day after day, I revel in the sheer musicality and synergy an Upgrade Company mod has conferred on a humble front end component I was already wildly enamored of…and yet the realization dawns anew that I am likely to unsheathe my credit card, yet again, perhaps following the 2013 CES Show in Las Vegas, when Oppo promises to roll out both of their much-anticipated successors to the BDP-93 and BDP-95—the BDP-103 and BDP-105.
In the meantime, I invite anyone who already has a stock BDP-95—let alone one of the more expensive Denon or McIntosh Blu-Ray Universals—to contemplate having David Schulte wave his magic wand over your digital front end (or some other system component), and prepare to be amazed. The Upgrade Company has certainly made a believer out of me.
Radio Free Chip - The Upgrade Company Signature Mod of the Oppo BDP-105 Universal Blu-Ray Player
The Conflicted Audiophile - Diminished Expectations in the Digital Music Epoch
Early on, when I made my initial forays into high end audio, I found myself harkening back to my earliest experiences with my father's AR3 loudspeakers and Sony reel-to-reel tapes and the KLH/Dual turntable compact stereo that made my early college experiences endurable. The joy I experienced from total immersion in good music marked me as a natural for good audio gear, and over the years I did my best as budget permitted to upgrade my rig.
But as I discovered on those six hour drives between SUNY Oswego and my Long Island home (in the pre-FM Car Radio/Walkman Epoch), the experience of good music often transcends the delivery system.
I used to schedule those long drives upstate so that I'd find myself an hour north of New York City after midnight because there was a Canadian AM station out of Toronto that would broadcast six hours of uncompromising jazz until dawn. Believe you me, those long miles of lonely highway simply melted away when John Coltrane intoned "A Love Supreme," even through the associated noise and interference of flawed AM radio transmissions (Edwin Howard Armstrong, hallowed be thy regenerative frequency modulated name).
Still, as I discovered. if the experience of music is profound enough, carbon based life forms are endowed with a spiritual Dolby circuit, wherein if we cannot cancel out all that auralschmutz, we can psychically compensate by zeroing in on the music itself in such a manner as to render the interference all but invisible. Ah, bliss.
But, as I am wont to say, you can't polish a turd.
One of the enduring ironies of high end audio is that as your system grows more and more sophisticated; the level of dynamics and resolution more impactful and realistic, a sense of diminished expectations rears its ugly head—because each musical experience represents a fresh opportunity to hear just how flawed individual recordings actually are. As in, "Holy Shit… what have I been listening to?"
As the image of physical media grows more obscure in our rear view mirror—and for many young people, the compact disc now seems as quaint an artifact as the vinyl LP—the temptation for recording, mixing and mastering engineers to dig deep into their trick bag often proves irresistible, as they seek to accommodate the tastes of modern listeners by acknowledging the nature of downloadable and digital media—such as the ubiquitous iPod and a rogue's gallery of portable tablets and phablets which now represent the primary delivery system for music.
This represents the spiritual obverse of polishing a turd, wherein engineers seek to dumb down the recorded sound—to maximize its impact for a lower order of stereo system, or more properly, to sound great on the newest generation of digital media and computer delivery systems.
It's debatable as to whether or not this is necessarily a bad thing, but it is surely a double edged sword.
Recently I had a very unsettling experience while perusing new recordings by a pair of progressive jazz artists with impeccable credentials—two of my all time favorites—yet I found myself so put off by the mass market style of mastering, that I simply stopped listening.
I don't want to call their names, as this would not be fair to them and would not really advance my argument in a way I could demonstrate outside of my living room.
Still, the experience of their music, juiced up and hot-rodded as it was, proved downright fatiguing on my all-singing all dancing audio rig. I had barely to turn up the volume on my Rogue Hera II Pre-Amp/Manley Massive Passive EQ/Medusa Hybrid Power Amp/Upgrade Company Signature Edition Oppo BDP-105 Blu-Ray-Universal Disc Player/Dynaudio Confidence C1 Loudspeaker combo… and it was already too damn loud.
The music was mastered so motherfucking hot, it had like zero dynamic range; was so gain heavy and compressed, that it proved too draining to listen to from my sweet spot in the near field. I had to get up from my listening chair, seven feet from ground zero, and repair to the adjacent room, wherein I could experience the majesty of the music indirectly, off-axis, where physically it proved less enervating.
This is not a function of my system, outputting as it does a he-man sized 400-plus watts per channel into the Dynaudio C1's 4 ohm load. What I was seeking by deploying such reserves of power was not a matter of sheer volume, but of dynamic headroom and image stability, frequency linearity and sonic realism, where the system literally recedes from view, to reveal a palpable acoustic space with a believable depiction of both the softest and loudest sounds, from ppppp to fffff, and all points in between.
For me, as a guitarist, it is not unlike the experience of plugging into a vintage 1965 blackface Fender Twin Reverb Amp. And though the volume knob is initially only on one, it is already too damn loud. This is not a put-down of a Twin Reverb, a truly classic guitar amp, but putting out as it does roughly 85 watts RMS into a pair of 12" speakers, it is to these ears ideally suited to attain a big, clean, dynamic sound. If your preference is to make the amp bleed, to achieve a sweet, bloomy blues sound, wherein the signal kind of breaks up in a throaty, vocalized manner, my personal preference would be to plug into a 22-watt Fender Deluxe from the same era, as you can push it harder and get a more expressive sound as you roll up the volume on the amp to say 5-6-7, and control the output from your guitar. If you tried turning the Twin up past five, sweet merciful Django, you'd be hard pressed to stand next to it without blood surging out of associated orifices.
I'd liken it to the act of making love as opposed to simply engaging in spirited sex, if I might draw that distinction, because sometimes it's all about the tenderness while at other times it's about passion bordering on…well, let's put it this way. Imagine yourself engaged with someone for whom you harbored deep feelings; taking it slow, like the sixty minute man you are, maybe you blow in her ear, gently stroke the nape of her neck, let your fingers move oh so imperceptivity up her thigh until, masterfully, conclusively, opening her up like a desert flower, you touch her inner muse, and pluck on her harp strings until she sings like a tuning fork.
Conversely, maybe you've opted for a night out at a fine bistro, yet are too impatient to even allow her to even remove her wrap; you rip off her dress in the hat check room, bend her over the back of a straight back chair, and grabbing hard at her hair, pull back on her neck and hammer away from astern until the sounds of copulation resonate resoundingly like a gas powered weed-whacker in the Carlsbad Caverns.
But I do go on.
Don't get me wrong. In my experience so-called "Audiophile Recordings" often suck even worse, moving as they do in precisely the opposite direction, in the general direction of some bloodless, antiseptic, no-gain approximation of purity—as if the music were recorded in the triage room at Mount Sinai Medical.
In such cases, perhaps the perceived aural signature of the music is of greater importance than the music itself. I recently ran across an on-line advertisement for a new iteration of Jazz at the Panwshop, which deeply offended me, suggesting in a giddy blurb that this was "The Best Jazz Recording of the Century."
I mean, give me a break. More like the most boring, overrated recordings of the century, never mind the second-hand, third-rate nature of these weak-assed Benny Goodman borrowings. The experience for this naysayer is commensurate with some of those awful Sheffield Lab "audiophile recordings" that purportedly represented a pinnacle of the engineer's art. Gag me with a spoon.
For this listener, be the music overtly jacked up, or drained of all life in the name of some jive paradigm of aural purity, count me out.
Don't get me wrong. I am not King Canute standing on the beach ordering the tide to roll back; believe you me, as far as digital media and computer audio is concerned, I am all in—more or less.
In fact, these past 3-4 years, while fine tuning my main reference system (and trying without much success to refrain from the temptation to pursue further upgrades), my audio journey has largely centered around enhancing my capacity for computer archiving and playback, let alone music on the go. Color me boring.
Some time back, having tired of generally crappy sound, reams of wires and jive sub-woofer contrivances, I queried my friends about a simple, effective audio companion for my computer. The consensus led me to invest in a pair of tiny (6" H x 4" W x 5.25" D), self-powered, Audioengine 2 loudspeakers, which for $200 (and another thirty bucks for a pair of hard-rubberized stands which effectively decouple them from the desktop and place them at an ideal listening angle) are simply the bomb.
I purchased the older iterations. You connect them to each other with a single speaker cable (in my case, a four foot spade terminated run of Monster Cable's pricey Sigma Retro Gold, a bit of overkill to be sure, but old audio geek habits die hard, so sue me); you run an outboard power supply from one speaker; plug into the back of your computer, and bingo—two-channel nirvana.
With a tiny vented 2.75-inch Kevlar woofers and 20mm silk dome tweeters, they are—in the near field—damn near flawless: richly voiced, full-sounding and dynamic with surprisingly clear, convincing bass, a smooth natural frequency response and a wonderful sound stage. Nor am I alone in my enthusiasm. I recently came across a web posting by my worthy constituent Steve Guttenberg, who felt compelled to confess how often he found himself listening to his Audioengine speakers in lieu of his supercalifragalistic audiophile rig (Steve has at one time or another, written glowingly of the active Audioengine 2, its larger brethren the Audioengine 5, and the passive Audioengine P4).
I too find myself doing a great deal of industrial listening on my Audioengine 2 in the very near field. I deploy my own PC as a kind of Cro-Magnon cross between an old time radio and an outsized iPod (I have well over 1.5 terabytes of music, mostly red-book WAV files, on one of three, three terabyte hard drives), so it is often easier and more convenient to simply call up specific music on my hard drive and listen to it on the Audioengine 2's when I have a hankering to hear something immediately and not go digging around through the morass of CDs in the next room (God knows how many, maybe on the order of 5000-7000, with an equal number of vinyl LPs in the hallway). I know, I know; there are much more sophisticated ways of organizing your digital holdings, but I haven't graduated to them.
And when I want to access music from my hard drive on experience it on my main rig in the adjacent room?
About two years back I purchased a GT40 USB 2.0 DAC by Furutech, a high quality, blissfully simple, 24-Bit/96KHz Digital Interface, which I use to override the sound card in my computer and connect to my main audio rig in the next room through its RCA audio outputs with a seven meter run of JPS Labs Superconductor 3 interconnects. It is neither the most expensive nor the most sophisticated DAC you can deploy for computer audio (I have been hankering after some of the hipper new Wytek DACs which offer even higher PCM resolution and are capable of handling DSD files, but I have thus far resisted). Still, the audio quality is exemplary; it doubles as a phono line stage; has a high quality headphone amp, and allows me control the volume in the next room from my desktop.
Recently, being kind of simple-minded, with help from a young techie buddy, I finally figured out how to access music from LP-cassette-digital sources in my main system, input it back into my computer through the Furutech, and deploy my Audacity program to digitize and edit music on my hard drive. Hardly something to puff my chest out about, but a significant achievement for his technically challenged old klutz as I undertake the task of archiving 30-35 years worth of live music recordings, interviews and LPs that never made it from the analog realm to compact disc.
Finally, at my daughter's behest, I completed my immersion into the digital age by graduating to an adult cell phone, after using a pathetic little Consumer Cellular flip phone lo these many years. It made phone calls. It worked.
In my own bass-ackwards way, I was motivated to upgrade by the necessity for recording phone interviews. I was reading about a USB recording device that function as a flash drive, a Forus FSV-US Cellphone Recorder, which plugs directly into the 1/8" headphone jack, and allows one to make high quality stereo recordings—which can then be stored on your hard drive as .mp3 files. I finally accepted that it was unlikely to mate properly with my shitty flip phone, which inspired me to finally step up to a full featured modern device and surrender to the forces of Verizon wireless by bellying up to the bar and committing to your standard two year phone/data contract.
In the meantime, I await a return visit from my technically astute young friend, who promises to download one of them new fangled "apps" with which I can bypass the physical medium of the external cellphone-recorder and do it all in the digital domain.
So, yeah, I'm just as late to the cellular party as I was to the celebration of High Definition Video Displays. Hell, only 12 years had passed between the time I saw my first 42" Plasma TV at the 1998Stereophile show in Los Angles, to my purchase of a Panasonic Viera TC-P42G25 1080p Plasma HDTV at the end of 2010 (by which time the price had come down from $11,000 to, chuckle, $750). Having seamlessly integrated it into my 2-channel, proscenium arch audio system, I must say I am quite the happy camper.
Likewise, when it comes to my new cellular device, color me enthusiastic—I have come to simply love my Samsung Galaxy Note II, which I would liken to a Swiss Army Knife with a nipple.
A phablet about half the size of the mini iPad, for some people the Galaxy Note II seems an ungodly large smart phone, but for me it is the perfect size, fitting snugly into my hand and shirt pocket, making me look for all the world like one of those 1950s engineering major geeks, with a pencil case and slide rule jutting out of his white button down shirt (or in my case, a fresh supply of cotton-pocketed Hanes Beefy T-Shirts).
And as good a cellular device as it is, and much as I have come to depend on its computer functions for both work and pleasure, it also has a wonderful video display, with which I can extend upon my YouTube addiction while on the go, and for my audio fix I find myself listening to an inordinate amount of streaming music from Pandora, Wolfgang's Vault and Sugar Megs, as well as a buffet table full of.mp3 files I have downloaded onto a high speed Class 10 ADATA Premier Pro microSDHC card.
Yes, sports fans, I have made my peace with the .mp3 file format; I can even begin to appreciate how appropriate some of those hot-rodded, modern mastering jobs—which sound so fatiguing on my reference audio rig—can be quite compelling on a set of modest headphones competing with the roar of a jet engine on a trans-continental flight.
And let me hip you to the remarkable iGrado headphones, which for a lousy fifty bucks, have brought me an enormous amount of pleasure, whether listening to music on the Galaxy Note II or tethered to a Mac Book Pro. And recently, I was pleased to discover that I could engage in hands-free phone conversations with the Galaxy Note II in my shirt pocket, and the iGrados connected to the 1/8" jack just as I did for music; the sound quality is excellent for speaker and listener alike, and not Blue Ball devices are necessary. Much more relaxed for extended conversations then holding the damn thing up to your ear until your arm goes numb. And no one is aware of any speaker phone anomalies.
Based on the same transducers as the acclaimed Grado SR60 headphones, these ultra-light, over the ear/behind-the-head style of open air-cans are incredibly musical and bring the signature Grado sound—smooth highs, rich, open midrange and tightly articulated bass—down to the level of the kind of simple, portable, knock-about device I was looking when out on the road. Hell, I was so impressed by their musicality and bare bones price point that I purchased a set of Grado SR80s for my wife to deploy on her iPad or when practicing Bach on her digital Yamaha keyboard. She too was blown away by their enormous sound and no-nonsense simplicity—pretty damn impressive for a lousy hundred bucks. And I recently sent my high end Grado RS-1 headphone back to Brooklyn for service, and the new cable they attached enhanced the clarity and transparency of the sound enormously; much sweeter and more revealing, with a smoother more extended high end, and tighter, more defined bass. Plugged into the headphone jack of the Furutech GT-40, I am indeed living large in a Grado state of mind.
So no, I am not at all turned off by products of the digital age, and in point of fact have taken them like a duck to confit.
Nevertheless, I remain committed to hard disc media and to the traditional audio signal chain, which to my ears, still confers a level of audio verity, and, for want of a better term…a greater degree of humanity to the experience of music. Likewise, I surely understand the appeal of downloadable technologies, be they for portable music devices or the latest audiophile passion play—high definition downloads. Recently my Positive Feedback editors Dave Clark and David Robinson sang such impassioned arias on the joys of double DSD, that my eyes began to glaze over.
Be that as it may, having finally achieved an absolute level of audio verity on my reference audio system a lifetime in the making, I find myself more drawn of late to the joys of Blu-Ray discs, allowing me as they do to finally experience the pure splendor of high definition audio AND video resolution in one combined system. (Like I said, I came kind of late to the party, maybe twenty years late…I mean audio AND video, Chip, what a breakthrough. Alert the media.)
So while in tune with those aural attributes which motivate audiophiles to bypass physical disc devices and thus all of that jitter and sundry aural schmutz…I just can't be bothered.
First, because my life it complex enough. Secondly, I remain drawn to the sound of the hard-wired audio signal chain. I experience it as warmer-sounding, more human, more intimate and involving. I am still drawn to that style of musical immersion, and thus, to tube electronics, dynamic loudspeakers, and physical disc devices, even as one sub-set of audiophiles leave such effluvia in the past, while the more fundamentalist of my colleagues continue to eschew digital entirely and retreat deeper and deeper into their pure analog womb, and the enduring sonic glory of vinyl LPs, and a world of very expensive turntables, tone-arms and cartridges. Hey, wouldn't be much of a hobby if we all experienced things the same way.
Having said all that, at this point dear reader, you might be inspired to address the [c]HIPSTER[n] with this pertinent query: "Aren't you the same blowhard who began this meandering screed by railing against jacked up, dehumanizing, fatiguing techniques for mastering music?"
Guilty as charged.
And much as I love my newly minted DAC, my computer audio and portable music devices, first and foremost among my most cherished new acquisitions is the Oppo BDP-105, a Universal disc player, that not only handles all of your garden variety pulse code modulation (PCM) based compact discs with aplomb, but also.mp3 discs, SACD (DSD-based super audio compact discs); DVD Data Discs and what few DVD-V and DVD-A audio discs remain on the market—not to mention the new generation of Blu-Ray video and audio discs which have been captivating me of late.
For those of you who wish to go on referencing your vast libraries of discs, to enjoy the most recent iterations of high definition audio and video formats, to experience the film-like clarity, low-noise resolution and extraordinary sonics of the Blu-Ray format—and who do not view their audio and video functions as mutually exclusive—the BDP-105 is one of the greatest bargains in contemporary audio and video, easily bridging the gap between audiophile aspirations and consumer audio budgets.
At only $1199, the Oppo BDP-105 is such a no-brainer I don't even know where to begin.
Perhaps by going back to my most recent Positive Feedback piece on its predecessor, the BDP-95, which I'd only just completed reviewing in both its stock and Upgrade Company Signature Edition iterations, when lo and behold, here comes the roll-out of this new and wildly improved rendition, and more tellingly, the lovingly customized new Signature Edition version of the BDP-105 from David Schulte and The Upgrade Company, which for $2500, easily takes on and stomps all over disc players costing three, four, five times as much.
I kid you not. Again, some years back in these pages, I had the pleasure of a long conjugal visit with a wonderful Luxman multi-format disc player with a set of very hip DACs, the discontinued DU-80. Still, with a list price above $10,000, I couldn't afford to keep it, which ironically turned out to be a piece of good luck, because as fast as things advance in the high end audio/video paradigm, its roll-out preceded the introduction of HDMI/HD functions, let alone of the Blu-Ray format as a high end audio option, and as good as it sounded in its day, its performance pales besides that of the Upgrade Company's Signature Edition of the BDP-105—for one quarter the price!
By installing their own motherboard and sundry outboard tweaks, and by deploying Schulte's proprietary shielding techniques to banish as much extraneous noise as humanly possible, The Upgrade Company have taken an excellent performer in the Oppo BDP-105, and with their Signature Edition, put it way over the top in terms of no-compromise audio and video resolution.
In my review of the BDP-95 Signature Edition, and my extended interview with Schulte, I went on at enormous length to describe the technical process and the sonic pay-off, which in terms of every dollar invested, is really, really significant. For $2500, the Upgrade Company's Signature Edition of the BDP-105, has really put my entire reference system over the top. Not to mention the incredible levels of resolution I've experienced since upgrading my pre-amp to the Rogue Audio Hera II, which having as it does a set of balanced inputs, allows me to run the Signature Edition of the Oppo BDP-105 fully balanced, through the auspices of a wonderful new set of balanced Acoustic Zen Absolute Copper interconnects. (And if you follow this link to an Audiogon Forum, you can read a very detailed analysis on a buyer's very personal experience of the Acoustic Zen Absolute Copper's remarkable resolution and musicality.)
So thrilled was I with how these final enhancements put my digital front end over the top, and on par with the rest of my system, that as an experiment, having sent my Massive Passive Parametric Tube EQ back to Manley's master techie Paul Fargo for a 100,000 mile check-up, I had them ship the unit to Schulte at the Upgrade Company to afford him an opportunity to consider possible upgrades. Well, when he opened the Massive Passive up, he was mightily impressed by the build quality and how Manley had basically optimized every square inch of the unit to max out its performance. So while there was no room within the chassis to consider any fancy new capacitors and what-have-you, and while Schulte was limited to the application of his proprietary RFI/EMI shielding/attenuation/dissipation and dampening techniques, the sonic impact was really remarkable.
As good as the Massive Passive sounded before, with its dramatically reduced noise floor, my experience of the EQ through the processor loop of the Rogue Hera II has been a revelation. The overall sound is smoother, more dynamic and extended; the bass response is tighter; while the midrange and treble frequencies are more relaxed and detailed in ways which allow for a more subtle application of tonal contours. Don't get me wrong; the fundamental sound of the Manley remains as it was; the Massive Passive is a wonderful piece of gear which has long afforded me an enormous degree of flexibility in zeroing in on the sound I hear in my mind's ear.
However, by reducing the noise floor of the Massive Passive, in fine-tuning the soundstage of my rig, I am now conscious of having a greater degree of control; of enhanced musicality. The Upgrade Company's enhancements are for real, and dollar for dollar, a terrific value. They've made a believer out of me.
So where does all of this leave an old audiophile facing the future?
Oddly enough, I find myself right back where I started when I began my audiophile journey, more enamored of the music itself than of the delivery system. Given how much I have invested in my system, I am keenly aware of just how absurd that statement sounds on the face of it. I suppose that while my head says enough is enough, my heart is a lonely punter. MORE! I am one conflicted old audiophile, God help me.
Yes, I can hear around corners and discern subtle differences with the best of them. And I still enjoy getting together with my audiophile friends for hard core exercises in critical and comparative listening. Nor am I immune to the appeal of newer, even more enhanced technologies, promising greater and greater levels of resolution, as I have surely made clear in my ramblings. But as my friends brag to me about the appeal of super high-resolution downloads, and of transcending the physical medium entirely, I find myself hunkering down to enjoy what I already have, seemingly more interested in enjoying the music than in discerning smaller and smaller degrees of detail.
I'm not saying that I cannot hear the differences. Nor am I denying the appeal of the audiophile's eternal journey, nor putting anyone down for following up on these latest technologies.
It's not so much that I don't care, but at this point in time, I really cannot be bothered. My life is complex enough, already.
Who knows how my attitude will change moving forward, but as I have a newly minted grand-daughter, Mia Caroline Stanley, I find myself far more interested in her evolution than in discerning the differences between .mp3, 16-44, 24-96, 24-192, 32-386, DSD, Double-DSD and what have you. At a certain point, you have to say, it's good enough.
Those words ring a tad hollow, don't they? I know that many of y'all are hip to the syndrome. Could I see myself undertaking further upgrades to my system?
Okay, take the gun away from my ear. I confess. I still covet further upgrades and enhancements. I could easily see myself giving in, even though I'd much rather invest money in helping my daughter to raise my grand-daughter. Does passing along my Signature Edition of the Oppo BDP-95 to my daughter and son-in-law enhance my little Mia's life? Is music that important or am I that full of shit?
Both, apparently… I recently visited the noted audiophile David Caplan in Brooklyn, to take the measure of his rig, surely one of the best sounding systems I've ever heard. It was breathtaking. Some of the impact was based on his gear, some on his tweaks; in any event, it was an overwhelming experience.
Without getting into specifics, let's just say he showed me a number of very interesting components and tweaks, and we are most certainly on the same page when it comes to reducing noise—the more noise you remove from your system, the deeper one's experience of the music can be. That is undeniable, and from my use of good cabling to the positive impact of voltage regulation and balanced power, the reduction of noise has been an ongoing pursuit, and has elevated my system to levels of resolution which belie the more or less humble nature of my associated gear (humble that is only by the most highfalutin of audiophile standards).
David took great pleasure in demonstrating any number of curious light-emitting devices, custom fuses and what-have you, not to mention how he deploys the totemic and totally amazing Hallograph Soundfield Optimizers (which he himself developed through a long process of trial and error in collaboration with Ben Piazza of Shakti Stone renown). Having already experienced the Hallograph Soundfield Optimizers in a select number of applications at high end shows, and conclusively in David's own system, I find them to be completely remarkable.
Help! Somebody stop me!
So yes, I could easily imagine a pair of Hallographs behind my speakers, and one behind my listening chair; it would be fun to gauge the impact they might confer on the spatial dimensions of my soundstage, let alone to assess their other musical attributes…but for the moment, we solider on…
Finally, much as I love my Dynaudio Confidence C1 mini-monitors, there are times, more often than not, when I find myself pushing my system so damn hard that the thought occurs to me: "Son, you just need MORE SPEAKER."
And when I allow my mind to wander, what do we covet? More than we can afford at the moment, I'm afraid.
AA while back, shortly before loudspeaker innovator Jim Thiel passed away, at around the same time my mother became quite ill, I had the opportunity to audition a set of Thiel 2.4 Signatures at the behest of my buddy John Potis, who owned a pair of the standard edition, and was quite curious as to how I would enjoy them in my system.
I only had them for a little while, and at the point where my mother's health took a turn for the worse, auditioning speakers was not much of a priority. The line of audio writers waiting to audition my review samples was substantial, and I thought it only proper to cut the process short as I wasn't sure when I would have the time or focus to do them justice. So I invited the estimable Micah Sheveloff of WIRC Media Tactics to come by for one final listening session before packing them up. Micah is a very fine keyboard player, and we enjoyed a nice drum-on-piano encounter before the 2.4 Signatures finally went bye-bye (and it is worth noting that Micah's 2012 solo album, Exhibitionist, is not only an excellent example of the singer/songwriter's art, but one of the more robust-sounding, realistic renderings of acoustic piano and acoustic drums you are likely to encounter in your musical journey—an authentic audiophile-quality production, not some prissy bullshit).
The Thiel's sonic signature was surprisingly close to that of my Confidence C1 mini-monitors; not surprising, as they share a first-order crossover pedigree, not to mention a low distortion short coil/long gap motor system in the woofer coupled to a passive radiator, and a coincident array, in which a 1-inch aluminum dome tweeter is mated to a 3.5" aluminum midrange in a single driver. They overall response was again, remarkably similar to my own mini-monitor, albeit with a greater sense of presence (brightness if you like, given the metal signature of its midrange/tweeter array) than the Confidence C1, and dramatically extended bass.
I guess that mini-monitor quality, with extended bass, represents what I am hearing in my mind's ear if I was presently n the market for a new set of speakers. The two other sets of loudspeakers that I've experienced in the past few years that fit that profile and conferred a significant woody—though never in my own listening suite—were the Vandersteen Quatros and the Acoustic Zen Crescendos.
I heard the original Quatros when they were first introduced at a trade show, and then at a dealer's showroom where I was quite taken by how natural and dynamic they sounded. But then over the years, Richard Vandersteen's designs (particularly his Model 5 and 5A, which I heard to excellent effect at countless shows) have made a believer out of me.
Likewise, the Acoustic Zen Crescendos, which I first heard paired with Ayon Audio electronics at Neil Solina's Clear Sound Audio in Patchogue, Long Island (http://www.clearsoundaudio1.com/); then on two occasions at the Acoustic Zen showroom in San Diego (when visiting my daughter who lives a short distance away); and finally atPositive Feedback editor Dave Clark's home during a recent visit to San Diego (when I was first introduced to my grand-daughter).
Dave had just gotten in a pair for review, and I must say that much as I enjoyed previous auditions, when I heard the Crescendos in the Clark living room, I was so taken by how well the coupled with the superb room acoustics that I thought I was going to lose my mind. For my tastes, I regard the Acoustic Zen Crescendos as the best sounding dynamic loudspeaker I had ever heard at that price point. In Dave's room, they disappeared to such a degree that I was simply flabbergasted.
I own a pair of the original Acoustic Zen Adagios, and did an extended review of them some years back; John Potis heard me enthuse about them at length, and he went on to review a pair of the Adagio Juniors at my behest The Adagios and Adagio Juniors both employ short-coil/long gap drivers and a ribbon tweeter of Robert Lee's design, for an exceptionally low distortion, high resolution sound in a modestly-priced, easy to drive design.
To my ears, the Crescendos represent the ultimate, no-compromise expression of Robert Lee's vision of a loudspeaker as first expressed in the Adagios; but that was a price-point driven design, whereas the multi-driver Crescendos spare nothing in their presentation of the music.
They are smooth, realistic and extended in a manner that I have found to be exceptionally musical during each and every audition in a variety of acoustic spaces—save for my own living room. Again, the quality which makes them so appealing to me is that they offer exceptionally natural, uncolored sound, with minimal levels of distortion—for a spacious, exceptionally revealing, fatigue-free experience of music that belies one's expectations of a floor-standing, full range speaker.
That is to say, the scale of the speaker never betrays the scale of the music.
Therefore, if you are listening to chamber music; intimate music with profound spatial characteristics, the Acoustic Zen Crescendos do nothing to exaggerate the scale of the instruments nor to jack up the low frequencies in such a way that would draw your attention to the speaker itself and away from the music—again, very much like a mini-monitor.
However, if you are listening to bigger sounding music such as I did in earlier auditions, such as the heavy funk of James Brown or Parliament-Funkadelic, or orchestral music with a wide dynamic range, the Crescendos shrug off the big transient swings without breaking a sweat or obscuring the midrange in the name of bass, Bass and Even More BASS. Oh, there's ample low frequency extension and visceral impact, though not on the order of some full range speakers, where one is literally steam-rolled by the sound.
As such, profoundly extended and impactful as they are, the Acoustic Zen Crescendos manage to convey the intimacy and spatial dimension of music as I like to experience it. Admittedly, I listen to a disproportionate amount of acoustic jazz and classical music, but now and again I crave a lap dance and a facial (two bits) when tossing on something like Prince or Hendrix, or the Blu-Ray of Cream at the Royal Albert Hall, or a muscular orchestral piece, such as a Mahler symphony or a Wagner opera. Because again, the Crescendos are not voiced to max out the bottom end, but to be very linear while providing an authentic foundation in bass—to be only as impactful as the music requires. They might not be the first choice for someone who listens to a lot of rock-oriented music and who wants to pop their eyeballs out with each playback. They are very refined and very high resolution and very much suited to a musician's experience of music, thus representing my own musical priorities. For other listeners, they might be too refined, too high-resolution—perhaps altogether too revealing, while wanting in visceral qualities.
But for me, they conferred a heretofore unimagined wealth of inner details, to particular effect on some home-made DSD recordings of a guitar-bass-drum trio I made in my home studio on a Korg MR-1000 1-Bit Digital Recorder. I was conscious of dimensional and dynamic nuances in Dave Clark's crib that had otherwise eluded me, save for David Caplan's system (and my own perspective from the drum throne during our initial improvisations). I was overwhelmed by their spacious, transparent, luminous presentation, and at some point, my waning interest (cough) in new gear notwithstanding, I should very much like to audition the Crescendos in my own reference system, and hear how effectively (or not) they might couple with my own acoustic space.
In the meantime, Pilgrims, we soldier on, and trust me, I am not suffering, With the recent addition of the Rogue Medusa and Hera II, the Signature Edition of the Oppo BDP-105, and the Acoustic Zen Absolute Copper Balanced Interconnects my audio system is now way over the top—the best it has ever sounded.
Still, one can always dream.
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.
The 8th Annual Positive Feedback Online's Writers' Choice Awards for 2011 - The Best of the Best!
Upgrade Company's Signature Edition Marantz Modifications
I realize that my writer's choice award for 2010 was for products that I hadn't officially reviewed till the January/February 2011 issue. Give me a break. I am slow to turn in my handy work. And besides being that the Dave's are both teachers, I would never use the standard issue excuses of blaming the dog for eating my homework or I left it in my friend's locker. That would be worse than just being late. But seriously, I strongly feel that one of the best things I have done in regards to an audio purchase in as many years that I have been in this beautiful hobby of ours is to send my gear to The Upgrade Company to have Mr. David Schulte perform his Signature Edition modifications to my gear. Or I should say, work his magic on it. With the permission of our esteemed editors, I would like to vote The Upgrade Company for a second year in a row as one of my top choices for the Writers Choice Award. The reason is, for the upgrade they performed earlier this year to the original modifications. When Mr. Schulte emailed me earlier this year to let me know he had some further improvements to make on my gear I was skeptical. I didn't think there could be improvements on the improvements they already made to my stock Marantz amp and CDP. But believe me they did the seemingly impossible and improved an already great modification further. Way further in my opinion. Please stay tuned. I am working on getting the details in as soon as possible.
The Upgrade Company - Taking my Marantz PM15S1 Integrated Amplifier and SA15S2 SACD to a Whole Another Level
by Francisco Duran
As far back as I go in this great hobby of ours, I can remember reading reviews of products that were just short of reference quality in one or all areas of performance. Comments like "bass performance approaching but not quite up to the very best" or "the treble is just shy of the top echelon" were bestowed upon less than stellar gear. I've often wondered, what makes that product just shy of the very best? Is it the circuit design, parts upgrade, or both? Or to put it another way, what would one have to do to make that product compete with the very best?
Fast forward a few years to a fledgling Greater South Bay Audiophile Society, getting to know many audio manufacturers in those early years, and listening to many of their audio products. Dave and Carol Clark and a few more of us turning a lowly GSBAS newsletter into a full-fledged magazine, audioMusings, and the gear kept coming. Later audioMusings partnering with David Robinson, Positive Feedback Online was formed to bring a Forum for the Audio Arts to the Internet. To say that I have listened to my share of top quality hi-fi gear would be an understatement, through these ventures and audio shows and friends' systems. I have also had systems made up of some fine gear through the years.
But the itch to improve things didn't stop with just swapping gear out in my system. Early on I felt that a very good way to improve one's gear, without selling it and replacing it with something more expensive, was to have it modified. Down through the years I have had modifications done to select pieces of gear in my system, some of them done by very competent people in this industry. Each time the modifications improved the sound, but not always to the degree that was expected. One good argument I ran across in favor of modifying one's gear one night on the Internet was titled, "Go Forth and Modify" by Brad Mitchell in the Internet magazine Affordable Audio. It was in their issue 35 from November 2008. In it Mr. Mitchell gives a rational explanation of how your audio dollars are divided up by manufacturers. He also mentions the fact that "There are many high priced products out there that use mediocre internal parts." This was not only shocking to learn but a bit of a let down. One would think that when you spend your hard earned cash on very expensive gear, you are actually getting the very best.
Fast forward again a few years later and I found myself in a similar situation. It was time again to upgrade my system, but based on past experience, the urge to upgrade my gear through modifications was strong. Enter David Schulte, owner of The Upgrade Company of Harbor Springs Michigan. The Upgrade Company is one of those companies whose name pops up when you are doing an Internet search late at night for the best company to modify your gear. In fact, I can't remember how I initially came across them. I can tell you that from the very first time I contacted them, January 25, 2008; it took me almost three years to make up my mind and have my gear "upgraded" by them. But I am getting ahead of myself. The reasons for my procrastination were many, and typical of the incredulous audiophile. This doubt was partially brought on by the claims made on The Upgrade Company's website. In it they state that the modifications they do actually bring gear to state-of-the-art status. They also mention the fact that there are many cheap parts in expensive high end gear that are also found in cheap and cheerful entry level gear. I have read that last statement before. Okay, but would the bass be improved? Would the treble sound better? Will it sound more musical? Will it be worth my money? These and many other questions swirled in my mind as I did my research.
The Upgrade Company goes a long way in easing your concerns when you shop through their website. Several comments caught my attention firmly concerning their policy. They have over 28 years experience in upgrading and modifying high end stereo and video equipment. Customers are offered a 14 day in home trial of their work. There is a 100 % buy back guarantee, five year parts and labor warranty on customer owned gear that they modify. The clincher for me, and one that answered one of my many questions, was that once your gear is upgraded, it will compete with (stock) "cost is no object" models. And as if that is not all, some of the comments directed to David Schulte would make any audio dealer green with envy; "Dave makes a total commitment to you when you are one of his customers," "his service is second to none," "Dave is a true gentleman," "as stand-up guy as I've come across," and "may god bless you always!" Oh yes and he answers his phone calls and emails promptly, my quote. When was the last time you said anything like that to your audio dealer? And still I hesitated. After all, how could anybody take my treasured stock from the factory audiophile gear and make it better. Please read the website for more details on their policy. Okay, stay with me guys, just one more thing. Just a few of the many customer comments about their work; "the entire presentation of my digital playback is state of the art," "best move I ever made," "worked his magic on …," "outstanding work," are just a few of the many positive comments about their work. It was sounding better and better in favor of a mod.
First here is a little history about the gear that I finally sent to have modified. The Marantz PM15S1 integrated amplifier and SA15S2 SACD player were purchased late in 2009. Partially due to a synergy with my speakers, and the features appealed to me. After many years living with a couple of bare bones passive line stages, the list of creature comforts on the PM15S1 was inviting. The Marantz gear is definitely in the smooth sounding camp as opposed to the razor sharp and clinically neutral. Coming from the Marantz Reference Series, that pedigree is undeniable with their solid build and handsome looks. I was told by very reliable sources that the smallest amp and SACD player in the Marantz Reference Series line sounded every bit as good as their bigger brothers, except for sheer power in the amp and a few missing creature comforts from the CD player. Seems it had something to do with a smaller parts count. Besides they are less expensive and my speakers really don't need massive amounts of power to get them to open up. The 80 WPC of the PM15S1 fit the bill. This forty pound integrated amplifier came equipped with an MM/MC phono section, headphone amp, record out facility, speaker switch, (for headphone listening), tone controls and WBT speaker binding posts among other niceties. The CD player can be used as a stand alone DAC or transport. The amplifier is about as far away from my previous hair shirt audiophile approved system as you can get yet far short of an all in one massive HT amplifier. I love it!
I wrote in my review of the stock SA15S2 that it has "a smooth yet detailed demeanor," "natural sounding midrange," and "realistic tonality." But as nice and smooth as it is, it often times leaves one wanting for more musical excitement. Although very nice sounding, this combo was lacking transparency, dynamics, some inner detail, and a bit of that sonic excitement. I also said in the review that "SACD's sounded way more natural…making regular CD's sound more hi-fi and electronic in comparison." But they were smooth! What I didn't know at the time was the dramatic change to the Sonics the modifications would bring. In fact early on, I almost sold the amp. It seems it just wasn't as good a match for my Tonian Labs speakers as I thought. Turns out I didn't have enough break in time on the amp. I have a habit of switching out amplifiers in my system quite often, and I didn't realize I didn't even have fifty hours on the amp. After over 200 hours it finally broke in and opened up… to a degree. Or so I thought.
Finally after a year of debating, researching, and thinking about it, I sent in my Marantz SACD player to The Upgrade Company for an upgrade. Sending your gear to them is painless. Owner David Schulte is very communicative with his customers, his turnaround time is fast, and the prices are very right. Their work is exemplary. During the break in and since, I have literally run the juice out of both units and they work perfectly. The amp gets a lot more time in than the SACD player. My amp is on and running at least six hours a day on weekdays and at least twelve to fourteen hours a day on weekends. And it runs cool as a cucumber, which is another reason I bought it. But I am jumping ahead of myself. After getting the SACD player back and breaking it in and loving how it sounded, something wasn't quite right. I felt I still wasn't getting the full mettle of the new modification. Feeling that the rest of my system was at fault, off went the PM15S1 amplifier to Harbor Springs, Michigan. One concern I had was that the amplifier wasn't the latest model of PM15. I have the PM15S1, and as soon as I bought it, Marantz came out with a new model, the PM15S2. David Schulte assured me that the difference between the stock units wouldn't be a problem after his modifications. In between this though, David emailed me to say that he has improvements that he didn't implement in the SA15S2 mod the first time and if I could send the CD player back he would upgrade it for the cost of shipping. Getting the CD player back there was definitely an improvement in background silence and cleanness I thought couldn't be improved. Now back to the amp, when it came back and I had some hours on it, I felt my system was a lot more complete sonically with both units modified. Now for a bit of a painful confession: Since the amp has been back, I have rarely listened to my Margules tube amp. Now don't get me wrong, the Margules is a very fine tube amp. But the mod to my integrated really closed the solid state/tube gap sonically in my system. Another gap that closed to quite a degree is the SACD/ CD performance. There is not as big a difference as before the modifications in sound between the two formats. Go figure.
The first aspect of the sound quality of these units post mod that should be mentioned is their lack of noise artifacts. That is, lack of grain, glare, hardness, brightness, smearing, or veiling. After break in it was the absence of these sonic negatives that first got my attention. The absence of these artifacts alone should be well worth the admission price to anyone who lusts after good, clean, musical reproduction. Listen to just about any sanely priced audio products, and one will find one or another of these artifacts in the sound. In fact you would have to spend up to the four to five figure price-tag to get as clean sounding as these components. I would emphasize here that in this instance, clean absolutely does not equate to a bright, thin, or clinical sound. Full, solid, clean, and musical make better descriptors. This is one amp and CD player that can really track what a recording sounds like. Similarly they are very revealing of component changes in one's system without the sound becoming merciless. Can a component sound both accurate and musical at the same time? Yes, very expensive components (sometimes) and a modified unit from The Upgrade Company. Of course, matching these components at this level requires skill and patience. When doesn't it? I got very good results with my resident JPS, Soundstring, and Music Wave speaker cables and interconnects. But I got excellent results when using two Kubala-Sosna Emotion power cords and one pair of Elation interconnects. This excellent wire transformed my system to a degree I didn't think possible. With the KS wire the system exhibited a greater degree of inner detail and extension at the extremes, yet stayed grounded in musicality. The music just seemed right and snapped into place. Of course the wrong wire or mismatched ancillary in a high end system will wreak havoc on the musical reproduction. The Marantz combo has the benefit of being matched at the factory then improved upon by the modifications. But just popping them out of the box and pressing play doesn't guarantee success. The fact that top notch cabling brought out the best in my components is telling of the quality of the modifications and proof that working and tweaking them will return worthwhile rewards.
Of course this lack of artifice brought out the best in the music. My Tonian Labs TL-D1 speakers are very accurate transducers. That area of sound that we are most sensitive to, the midrange, sounds very accurate and naturally realistic. The vocals are solidly placed, and the images are holographic and stable when warranted by the recording. A favorite composition by the guitarist Pat Metheney is "The Longest Summer" on his Secret Story CD. To quote another PF writer, Bob Levi, the piano on this cut sounded "mellifluous." The piano sound jelled out into the room with ease. What deep bass my speakers can reproduce, down to their 42Hz limit, sounded very well controlled, taut, agile, and very natural with this song. This brought out musical texture and tonality, not only in acoustic instruments, but those qualities can be heard in electric instruments as well. Does the electric bass guitar have texture to its sound? I felt so in many recordings.
One night while doing a comparison of Pink Floyd's Dark Side of the Moon LP, (Gramophone Company Limited LP), and SACD (Capitol), some interesting things were noted. In track No. 4, "Bells," the accuracy of timbre of the bells and the depth of the soundstage and location of individual bells was very good on the SACD version. When we played the LP, we felt my phono set up reproduced timbres that were more realistic and relaxed sounding. Although the SACD pulled off realistic depth of stage, it just couldn't escape CD's old inherent trick of flat individual images. This was more noticeable on the piano and vocals. It was absent with my phono rig even with my cheap and cheerful Blue Point No. 2 cartridge. The phono stage reproduced a stage and images that had better natural sounding depth and space. Now don't get me wrong, CD reproduction from this player is first rate. But it seems no matter what you do, you can't escape digitals "perfect" sound. When I sent my amp in to The Upgrade Company, I asked David Schulte to go all out on the phono section. He must have taken my advice because this built in phono section in a $2000 integrated amplifier punches way above its weight class. I have been living with it quite happily.
I mentioned this amp has tone controls in my Positive Feedback Writer's Choice Awards comments. Audio purists need not fret, they can be bypassed. Before the mod, engaging the tone controls caused a slight distortion to be heard. This noise defeated the purpose in using them, and made me want to turn them to direct mode. After the mod, this distortion was simply not there. I like the inclusion of this feature on this amp. Used sparingly they come in handy on more than a few recordings. The mod really changed their performance, using the tone controls gives no sonic penalty. To me it sounds more like a cable change when using them than a circuit that is mucking things up. And lets not forget the improvement to the built in headphone amp. The modification to my amp was a complete one, and these features for me are justification of the convenience of my integrated amp.
The treble performance blends seamlessly with the rest of the frequency spectrum. It is extended and revealing, yet naturally realistic. Swapping out my Tonian TLD-1 speakers for a pair of new NSM MS-100's that are in for review brought out a stark difference in each of these speakers top end sound. The differences between these two speakers are most noticeable in the treble region. The silky smooth performance of my modified Marantz combo again easily showed the poor quality of some Pretenders' CDs as compared to Milton Nascimento's Nascimento CD or the Ana Caram Collection on Chesky Records with either of these speakers. The strength of these modifications is to reproduce highly revealing sound yet be very musical. I have to say that listening to the Pretenders' CDs was more enjoyable than just about any stock CD player that I have heard them through.
If you want a lesson of what high quality bass, midrange and treble can sound like, just listen to the CD Blues Groove by the Jimmy McGriff and Hank Crawford Quartet on Telarc. The wide open dynamics, the growl of McGriff's Hammond B-3, the fine texture of Crawford's alto sax, and all blend together, spread out wide before me. This modified Marantz combo easily displayed this high quality recording with ease. I could go on and on with musical examples.
It is sometimes easy to slightly loose sight of reality when one is enthusiastic about a product or service they feel strongly about. I have made a similar statement last year when I reviewed this very SACD player, only it was stock. The stock Marantz components are very good audio products, but the modifications to my gear were highly successful. The modifications transformed two slightly sweet, warm, and competent sounding products to ones that will compete with others costing many times their retail price. But are they the best out there? Are my amplifier and SACD player "state-of-the-art" status? Let's just say that David Schulte and company have pushed these units to their sonic limits in regards to their inherent design. And let it be said here that these upgrades are very thorough. Over 150 parts were changed in my CD player alone, plus high quality shielding and damping were also used. The Upgrade Company has many years of experience modifying the great high end stereo and video products of the world. Many fantastic statements from their customers are made on that website. But these claims are from extremely satisfied customers with many years experience in this hobby who have trusted The Upgrade Company with their mostly expensive high end gear. The proof is in the listening. Count me in with their many satisfied customers. To say that I am pleased with my decision to finally send my gear in is definitely an understatement. I am very satisfied with the outcome. If you are tired of riding that expensive audio merry-go-round or you have a treasured component you would like to have improved far beyond what you think could ever be, have a serious look at this company. What have you got to lose?
The Upgrade Company
David J Schulte
1222 Walkabout Lane
Harbor Springs, MI 49740
The 7th Annual Positive Feedback Online's Writers' Choice Awards for 2010
Beginning at the end of 2003, PFO established its first annual awards for fine audio. The Brutus Award was established for the best that Dave Clark and I had heard in our own listening rooms during that year. You can think of it as our equivalent of an "Editors' Choice" award.
An excerpt from PFO Staff Reviewer Francisco Duran:
"In August of last year I bought a Marantz PM-15S1 integrated amplifier and SA15S2 SACD player. What partly prompted this move was that I have been a hair shirt audiophile for too long and wanted some creature comforts in my musical pleasure. Another part of the motivation was that I just wanted a simpler system plain and simple. The PM-15S1 integrated has a built in MM/MC phono section, head phone amplifier and tone controls, yes tone controls which I proudly use on occasion or when the spirit moves me or when a recording is just too bloody awful to listen to un-aided! My SA-15S2 doesn't play DVD-A's, DVD's or Blue Ray's but I don't care. I didn't want an all in one player due to their notoriously slow response time in loading a disk. The reason I am adding these two units to my best of the year is not necessarily for the two Marantz units. It is because I had them both modified by The Upgrade Company. It took me literally two years to decide to finally have this company actually do modifications to my gear. When I first started researching them, I didn't even own the Marantz gear. After reading and reading their website for the umpteenth time, I could have literally sent them any piece of gear from any high end manufacturer under the sun and they could improve the sound of it. I picked the Marantz gear for several reasons. The first reason(s) I have stated above. Secondly the stock units worked well with my speakers. Thirdly I didn't want an expensive bare bones audiophile unit from a small company that would send me back to hair shirt land. Well folks as our esteemed editor, David Robinson have stated in the past, "I don't drive stock". Well, I don't either. I have had modifications done to some of my gear down through the years but never and I mean never have they sounded as fantastic as the modifications done by David Schulte of The Upgrade Company. Qualities such as deep powerful and impactful bass, images that sound as if they were carved out of stone, excellent coherence, accuracy, natural richness, lack of grain, glare, harshness or haze on a level I really haven't experienced before regardless of price. In fact this small paragraph is not enough space to do justice to the level of quality and craftsmanship that has been implemented to my gear by The Upgrade Company so a full review is in order. I have plenty to say about this subject so stay tuned!
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