Welcome to this month's column. I'm actually writing it early as I'm off to Europe next week for the Munich High End Audio Show, and I wanted to get some information out to you on two new products I've had the privilege to review, and didn't want to hold back the information until my return. Besides, I'm hoping I'll have all sorts of goodies for next month's column from the show.
Silverline Classics DVD-Audio Discs
The first find of the month for me is a new collection of DVD-Audio discs from Silverline Records. Their new Classics series consists of DVD-A's of multi-channel master tapes from the quad era. I came upon them through an advertisement from MusicDirect, where I have been doing most of my disc purchases, and have so far bought three of their discs, with each being a winner at $17.99 each.
My favorite of the group is Monteux Conducts Tchaikowsky (CSILDA8228). I had a third generation master tape of this years ago, and have a two CD set that cost twice as much as this disc, and believe me, this disc is far superior to the CD and maybe as good as the master tape from what I can remember. Where, for $18 can you get superb performances of the Romeo And Juliet, the First Piano Concerto and the Fifth Symphony in 4 channel surround sound with the London Symphony Orchestra, recorded live when Monteux was in his nineties but still conducting like a 40 year old.
These performances should be on anybody's "Records to Die For" list. It's very seldom when a superb conductor and orchestra give a superb live performance that is superbly recorded, and then superbly transcribed to disc for the masses. Is that enough "superbs" for you? Add a superb for Silverline for not stretching it out to two discs and charging twice as much. Finally, on the same disc are 16/44 CD and Dolby Digital transcriptions for those without DVD-A players or for portable use.
Not quite as lofty, but still excellent recordings, are:
1. Sergiu Commissiona, Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, Tchaikovsky
Sym. # 4, CSILDVA 8229. This one could have had some filler as the Tchaikovsky takes up only about half of the disc capacity, but it is a pretty good performance with very good sonics, although not up to the Monteux.
Other available recordings are the Bach Brandenburg Concertos with Carl Pini and the Academy of St. James Orchestra on one disc, and Mario Rossi and the Vienna State Opera Orchestra doing Prokofiev's Peter And The Wolf, narrated by Boris Karloff and Prokofiev's Lt. Kije Suite. That's certainly packing programming onto one disc. Can't beat that for pricing. The best news is yet to come. They have gotten hold of the Vanguard series of multi-track recordings, engineered by Seymour Solomon, of the Utah Symphony with Maurice Abravanel and will be bringing out several in the near future including:
Brahms First and Haydn Variations on one disc
Please support these recordings to prove that there are still classical music lovers out there who appreciate the work and risk these boutique companies put into these ventures.
This is the second modded player I've reviewed from Underwood Hi-Fi, the first being the Denon 2900 in Chapter 50. They also have the same upgrades for the Denon 2200 player. The upgrades are done by the techs at The Parts Connexion and the units are modded in Canada, which adds about $70 for shipping costs. Thus, you should get the best level of mod you can afford, as each round trip for updates will cost in the vicinity of $100.
Please refer to the previous article (Chapter 50) to fill you in on the pluses and minuses of mods, and the improvements they produced in the 2900. That mod was so good that I bought the review piece and still use it as my DVD-Audio, SACD player. When Denon brought out the 5900, I immediately asked them for a review sample of that one, and this was the first unit that they've had that was not sold.
The 5900 looks almost exactly the same as the 2900 from the front, and even uses the same remote, which was slightly problematic for me as each command was picked up by both units, which caused a little aggravation during the review, but wouldn't be a problem for the average user.
The back of the unit has an extra set of component BNC outputs and a HDMI-DVI output, plus an IE1394 FireWire and a Denon Link output, which can be used to transfer the video and audio signals to a Denon Receiver. They also replace the RCA audio outs of the modded boards with special Vampire plugs, and add a second set of left and right front plugs for those who want to directly output these signal to a two-channel system.
Soundcoat is added to the cabinet to damp vibrations. Like the 2900, the unit still did sound better on Walker Valid Points, so tweaking does help. Also the factory AC cord should be replaced with a high-end cord, like my Omega Micro.
The power supply and audio boards as supplied from the factory are supposedly better than the 2900's, so the mods, which are also similar, theoretically should sound close. Indeed, they are of the same family, but with some significant changes.
The biggest differences between the original units are in weight, beefier power supply, and video boards, with the 5900 being significantly heavier. The video circuits have been cleaned up and they've used a Faroudja chip to produce output of 480I, 480P, 720P and 1080I through the HDMI- DVI plug.
To get the best out of the unit, read the directions book. It is very important if you are not using the DVI output to shut it off, and equally important to set the SACD filtering at 100KHz., if your amplifiers will take it. Be careful though as filtering SACD that high up may cause some amplifiers to oscillate, but it does open the top end of SACD's a little bit. Luckily these controls can be done from front panel buttons.
What is not so lucky is that the most important controls are buried in menus. The machine comes defaulted to progressive scan and one has to go through three menus to get it back to interlaced. So if you need interlaced for your component output you'll have to use the S-Video or composite output to set it up.
Second, one has to go through three menus to get to volume control. While this may only be a one time function for most setups, there are many surround discs out there that are assisted with some rear channel or subwoofer adjustment, and this is not easy to do when listening to recordings. One has to shut down the player, go into setup, through three menu pages and adjust the controls without being able to listen at the same time.
The video is markedly improved over the 2900. On component, compared to the 2900, the picture at 480P is crisper and more movie-like, with no sign of the red problem seen in most DVD players. There are also more controls to peak up the picture. It still doesn't come close to my home theater computer with a Geforce 5700 ultra card running at 1280x720 for picture quality but it beats the 2900, a high-end Samsung HD-931 1080I player, and a Sony unit I have here.
The DVI output at 1080I on my wife's Toshiba 50" 1080I RPTV is superior to the Samsung's 1080I output, and comes very close to HDTV from DirecTV. I cannot do a direct comparison with the computer's video, as that unit is connected to my Electrohome 9500LC projector that doesn't have a DVI input, but the picture is excellent for DVD upsampling.
Unlike with the 2900 review, there isn't a stock 5900 available here for comparison, but I've heard through the grapevine that the stock machine's audio is comparable to the 2900. The audio digital circuitry is excellent, and as this is a universal player meant to tout high bit audio, one cannot understand why a company such as Denon, unlike Sony, would put superb video circuitry into their statement universal disc product, and skimp on the analog audio circuitry, but they do. But this is where Parts Connexion comes in.
Like the 2900, Parts Connexion has beefed up the power supply and rebuilt the analog output boards for the front three channels on this particular unit. The cost for a 2,3,and 5-channel mod are $1100, $1600, and $2400, and a Superclock can be added for $480, an upgrade I highly recommend from my 2900 experience. Please go to this link to get an idea of what the extensive mods include.
They also have an additional audio mod for $350, which this unit has, which adds 2 more op amps, resistors, caps and electrolytics, and can also add Bybee filters for an additional $200. Finally, they will also supply a 5900 with the mods for $3790. This is significantly more expensive than the 2900, but most of that is related to the expense of the 5900 itself and not the mods. The price difference with the original machines is directly related to the video circuitry, and for anybody interested in DVD playback using an HDMI video monitor, is well worth the difference. The slight additional cost for the mods compared to the 2900 is related to more parts, and the use of OPA 627 single channel op amps that require a special smt adaptor.
I wish I could say that the video side is the only difference between the units, but alas, it's not so. The 5900 also improves on the 2900 sonically, which surprised me. I was hoping the difference wouldn't be significant so I could be happy with my 2900 and save some bucks.
Denon did do a major improvement to their stock unit audio-wise, related to a bass problem in the 2900. On that unit, because of some requirement from Sony with SACD, the bass output of the .1 channel was down by 10dB. Thus one had to put a preamp into this channel's signal path to allow 0.1 channel volume adjustment, or play around with a switch buried in the unit's programming. Now there is a control on the 5900 which will do this automatically.
Combining that with the mods gives the best bass I've heard from a universal player to date. With the above Saint Saens Organ Symphony, there is enough energy to drive my wife out of the house, and it is the tightest true 32 Hz. organ note I've yet produced in my room, plus it's a cleaner bass than the 2900's. I don't know if this is also due to some circuit changes that Parts Connexion made between my 2900 and the present machine, but it is significant. With the Telarc recording, EPICS by Erich Kunzel and the Cincinnati Pops doing movie music, the drums give the best bass chest thrill and slam I've ever felt from a recording, and as an ex-French horn player who used to sit in front of the bass drum, I know what chest compression is all about.
The midrange and highs compare with the 2900, but there is more information. Thus the space between the instruments is better filled out, the soundstage is somewhat deeper and the surround hall sound is also solider than the 2900. I'm not sure if this improvement is due to the additional audio mod, which my 2900 doesn't have, or the better original boards or a combination, but it is significant. You may want to call Walter Liedermann at Underwood to get his feel on this.
Whether these improvements are worth the price increase over the 2900 is up to the buyer, but remember, even the best of the available SACD players, the Sony SCD XA9000 is $2300 at discount, and it won't do excellent DVD-Audio playback, and doesn't have the HDMI output with the Faroudja chip for 720P or 1080I video output. There are also CD players out there that cost many multiples of this unit's price, and while they do an excellent job with CD, probably better than what this unit will do, they can't do DVD-Audio and SACD, which sound far superior to the best CD.
The above comments are purely for DVD-Audio and SACD playback, which sound equally fine with this unit. Most universal players sound very good with one and not so good with the other, but the 5900 does both extremely well. As with the 2900, CD playback is very good, about equivalent to the average $2,000 CD unit, but sounds equivalent to the 2900. Switching back and forth, I maybe could fool myself into thinking there was a difference between the two machines, but practically there's no difference I can discern. On the other hand, you wouldn't be buying this unit for CD playback anyway, would you?
Summing It Up
In summary, Underwood HI FI now has mods for the Denon 2200, 2900, and 5900 universal players, and at least the 2900 and 5900 mods are well worth the cost for the sound quality. The difference between the original units is related to the video circuitry and power supplies, and the audio differences, while significant to me may not be to you, so which unit you go for will be more related to your television's and sound system's abilities. If you already have a high definition TV or are planning on getting one in the near future, and have a super high end surround sound system, go with the 5900. Otherwise, if the unit is only being used for audio on a mid high end system, I'd recommend the 2900 with all the mods available that you can afford for each. Either way, you can't go wrong. I'm keeping the 5900 as my unit of choice.