The Absolute Sound
"The Absolute Sound" magazine reviewer's opinion on his Esoteric DV50S upgrade
A MUSICAL TRIP THROUGH THE LOOKING GLASS WITH
"THE UPGRADE COMPANY"
By Max Shepherd
Having a CD player modified is not cheap, so the question is, is it worth it? How much of an improvement can I expect to hear for my money? Once I began considering having my Esoteric DV-50s modified, I tried to find the answer to that question. I read numerous testimonials on modifiers’ websites, some threads on Audiogon, lots of results of “shoot outs”, and a few reviews of modified CD players. They were interesting, but inconclusive. What I was looking for was an article that tried to directly answer my question by comparing a modified player with a stock player. I never found such an article, but decided to have David Schulte at the Upgrade Co, modify my DV-50s anyway. And I decided to run my own A/B tests. Toward those ends, I sent David my DV-50s, and I arranged to get a virtually new DV-50s on an extended loan.
When I got my player back in about 10 days, I set about burning it in. To avoid any accommodation effect during this burn-in period, David recommends a 300-hour burn-in, I did not listen to the player for 2 week, which was not as hard as it sounds, since I was out of town for most of that time. I just disconnected the interconnects, put in a CD, hit play and repeat, and walked out the door. Finally, though I was ready for some critical listening. With the modified DV-50s on the left and the stock DV-50s on the right, I put a CD in the stock player, sat back and began to listen. I have always liked the sound of the DV-50s. It has a good soundstage, relatively wide and deep; much better resolution of low-level detail, including timbre and decay, than any other player I have had; realistic dynamics, and it is musical.
I listened for a while, and then switched the power cord and interconnects over to the modified player, and listened to the same tracks. Did the modified player sound different? Yes. Was the difference significant? Yes. And of course, the real question: Did the modified player sound better? Absolutely. The difference was in fact stunning. The modified player sounded like a completely different component. Think sonic CinemaScope for those of you who remember that cinematic projection system - wide, deep, detailed, color saturated, and engaging.
David is, understandably, reluctant to discuss in any detail what his modifications entail. However, he apparently replaces parts in several of the subsystems of the player, including, most importantly, the output stage. Consequently, David’s modifications change virtually all aspects of the musical presentation. But the most immediate difference that I heard between the stock player and the modified player was in the sound staging. Here the differences were just short of breath taking. David’s modifications took the already impressive soundstage of the stock DV-50s and not only increased its overall size, which one might expect, but more remarkably, they gave the soundstage a palpable sense of volume and depth, and a sense of “you are there-ness” that was more than just an increased sense of size. More about this later.
The improvements in sound staging were particularly apparent when I listened to Handel’s "Messiah", originally performed by the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra and transferred to CD by Chesky Records, and pieces from the "Essential Tallis Scholars", a choral group. In both recordings, the modified player created or more accurately, reproduced a compelling sense of the enormous halls in which the music had been recorded, halls that were clearly much wider and deeper than my listening room, by projecting those halls beyond my listening room walls.
And with the changes in the sound staging also came a remarkable improvement in both resolution and clarity, changes that undoubtedly contributed to the sense of the deeper soundstage. Strings, whether on piano, violin, guitar, or standup bass, sounded fuller, rounder, thicker, and more natural, as the modified player more accurately revealed what I came to call “the belly of the string”, but what was actually the timbre of the string being played. Piano strings lost any sense of glare and simply sang. Violin strings were taut and true in tone and timbre. The strings of Ry Cooder’s bottleneck guitar jangled and rattled as he played with U.M. Bhatt on his Mohan Vina. This increased resolution and realism was not limited to just string instruments. Oboes in Handel’s "Water Music" were hauntingly reproduced, and again were true in both tone and timbre. The trumpet that introduces Mahler’s 5th Symphony thrust forward as a three-dimensional, brass instrument floating against a black background. Lyrics were also clearer and more easily understood. And vocalists generally emerged as more three-dimensional figures than simply flat voices against a background.
In addition, the modified player eliminated virtually any vestige of congestion that had existed in the center of the soundstage. This had the effect of sharpening the sense of both the individuality and the placement of the performers within the sound stage. And when the performers were presented as individuals, clearly distinct one from another, their individual performances blended together harmonically as music rather than smearing together as coalesced sound. I found this to be a particularly wonderful difference because it brought a sense of realism to the music that I had never experienced with my system before.
Yet another difference that I heard with the modified player was the change in the tempo of the music. I cannot explain this difference. However, I suspect it is related to the greater resolution of the modified player, including the fact that musical transients were so much crisper and cleaner. Regardless of the source, the effect was as if the music was being played slightly faster or with a more upbeat tempo, but without any distortion to the time signature of the music. The modified player just made the stock player sound sluggish. The other result of this difference was that the modified player made the music sound much more realistic, engaging and exciting. The music just grabbed my attention and wouldn’t let go. I had never had that experience with my system to that extent before. I noticed this effect initially when I was listening to Keith Jarrett’s “The Out-of-Towners”. I found that I was consistently being drawn into the grooves that Keith Jarrett was laying down in song after song because of both the difference in the tempo of the music, and the elimination of a slight sonic haze that stood between the performers and me.
This last difference is well worth noting. David's modifications so greatly improved the resolution of the player that they essentially eliminated a very slight haze or lack of clarity that had previously overlaid the music. While the presence of this almost gossamer like veil was slight, its elimination was quite significant. Eliminating this veil was like lifting a curtain that hung between the performers and me. And when this unobstructed access to the performers was combined with the startling musical realism that the modifications created, and the cavernous soundstage presented, it was like stepping through the looking glass and into the emotional reality of the music. Piece after piece became more exciting and engaging than I had ever experienced before with my system. I listened enthralled for hours, and still do.
Finally, one more observation and a caveat. First the observation. The differences that I heard between the modified DV-50s and the stock player when playing Redbook CD's were equally as apparent with SACD playback. And the caveat. While I had the stock player on an extended loan, it was not an indefinite loan. I ultimately had to return the stock player before I could conduct any A/B comparisons of the video performances of the two players.
Circa 2006: My system consist of the following: the modified DV-50s, Aesthetix Calypso line stage with Mullard NOS long plate 12 AX7 and Amperex white 6922 tubes, McIntosh MC 402 amp, Dali MS-5 speakers, a modified Salamander Synergy Triple 20 stand, and Shunyata power cords, cables and interconnects.
NOTE: The Editor at The Absolute Sound Magazine in the end decided not to publish this review for fear of losing his advertising dollars from Esoteric Corp since the review would be seen as:
- An endorsement and admission that aftermarket mods and upgrades are valuable and effective.
- An admission that Esoteric uses cheap parts and can be much improved upon for far less money than the manufacturer charges for "Upgrades" and "New models".
The reality is sadly that high end audio magazine Editors care more about money then giving consumers the truth. If the Editor had been honest, perhaps The Upgrade Company would have been advertising each and every month in The Absolute Sound magazine from 2006 to date. We do not reward shady, bad behavior.
Page information last updated: 20/04/2017
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