Welcome to my mid-summer diatribe on things high end. It's actually late June as I write this, and the weather in New Hampshire has been perfect for listening in my media room; neither too hot or too cold. Thus the blowers on the HVAC system have been silent for most of my evening listening session. With 7 tube amps and innumerable other pieces of equipment giving off heat, not having the AC on with its low level but still annoying whooshing sound, adds significantly to my listening pleasure. In my past two columns at AA 128 and AA129, I discussed two of three improvements that have been made in my system over the past several months that had brought the level of realism up to the best sound I've ever had. The first is the Pure Power PP 2000 AC Regenerator, of which I now have three units completely isolating my audio and video system from the vagaries and distortions inherent in the line AC entering my house from that RF laden outside world. I have received a few comments from members of the Good Sound Club blog about previous problems that members there have had with the units relating to fan noise and breakdowns. All I can say is that after a problem I had with one unit's input fuse blowing, probably my fault for overdriving the unit, all three have been functioning optimally for the past three months They are still produce the cleanest sound and picture ever for this audio-videophile. So I still give these units my highest accolades.
The second are the Black Ravioli Footers, which are the best equipment supports that I've ever tested for vibration suppression. Again, these are still functioning perfectly, and I've learned a few tweaks for them. The first is that the equipment needs some mass for them to be most effective. While this is not a problem for amplifiers, lighter chassis need some mass placed on top. Ideal are sacks of lead shot usually sold at gun stores for shotgun shell reloading. I purchased mine about 15 years ago, and I understand that they may no longer be available due to eco laws, but they are indeed great for both mass and vibration absorption, especially in combination with the footers. Other options would be Walker Audio resonance control discs or possibly small, well sealed plastic kitchen plastic bags of sand. Remember not overuse them, meaning just enough is better than more. Lighter chassis require only three, while heavier may require five or six. This is where the double and triple blocks may be more effective. Again, experimentation is required.
Finally we get to the major topic of the day, the third improvement in my system in the past several months, the ModWright Oppo BDP-83SE Mods. I've previously reviewed the various iterations of the OPPO BDP 83 (seen here and here) and found the units to give superb performance for their relatively inexpensive cost, equaling in sonics units selling for several times the price. Even Lexicon has agreed with me, using the OPPO's electronics and transport in their mega-bucks universal player. About six months ago, I started looking around for ways to possibly improve, i.e. tweak or mod, the OPPO for even better performance, and found three different companies performing upgrades. I contacted all three, but one refused to send out a review unit and one never even answered my e-mails or phone calls, always a bad sign. Finally, I e-mailed Dan Wright, owner, designer and manufacturer of Modwright, and he was very willing to put out one of his units for demo purposes, always a good sign, as no modder is crazy enough to risk a bad review on a poorly designed and produced piece of equipment. Dan has been in business doing mods for many years and has a great reputation. In addition, he's been designing and manufacturing preamps and tube and solid-state amplifiers over the past couple of years which have found favor in the audiophile press. Unhappily he doesn't keep any spares around, only modding other people's unit to their specifications, so I couldn't get one to use side by side with an original, the ideal way to do an evaluation. On the other hand he was willing to fast-track my unit through for this review.
There are several levels of upgrade of the 83's, from improving only the front left and right stereo channels with his discrete FET circuits and MOSFET output using discrete circuits with no op-amps, to upgrading all of the channels, to making the front left and right channels balanced with XLR outputs pus upgrading the center, right and left side channels. In addition there is an upgrade to the stock power supply, and the possibility of replacement of the analog board power supply. Finally, for non SE units, there is an upgrade of the clock with a Burson unit. Mods vary in price from $950 to $1495 plus shipping both ways to Washington, depending on extent of the upgrade. While this sounds exorbitant for a unit that originally costs only $500 to $850 stock, it is still several thousand dollars less than what Lexicon is charging for their OPPO based unit.
Usually I'd start off with the least mod and work my way up the chain to see how each does, but having to ship the unit back and forth to Washington with that expense, and allowing UPS to handle my delicate machine several times by their less than careful transporters, scared the hell out of me. One problem with modding is that the original factory warranty will probably not be honored, so you have to rely on the modder for any repairs down the road. Happily, the OPPO units are built to high specs for quality, and any upgrading by the company will probably be done with web based software. Thus I went for the "Full Monty."
You may ask at this point why I would spend money on modding a perfectly good universal player that I've praised to the Heavens in previous articles and when I've been pushing computers for doing playback of both audio and video. For several reasons:
So have I exposed a charlatan with this unit? Far from it! The mods are done to superb standards of both workmanship and parts, as can be seen in the photo below. The modded OPPO takes about as long as the original unit to give its best. I had to leave it spinning a disc for about a week before it finally settled in to its final sound. Significant improvement over the stock OPPO was primarily in deeper but especially tighter bass and a significant decrease in background noise compared to the unmodded SE. As with any lowering in background electrical noise, and better capture of the least significant bits, this allows the normal hall noises (ambiance), to be enhanced, adding to the realism of the performance. This carries through for all types of discs including Blu-ray, filling in the space between the side and rear speakers. These are the improvements described by others in the Lexicon unit over the original OPPO, and since I don't have a Lexicon to compare it to I cannot say which is better. I can say that the improvements come for considerably less than the cost of the Lexicon. Of course, the Lexicon's chassis is considerably heavier and prettier, but at least the weight difference can be overcome by adding mass with a brick or bag of shot.
There is one little hooker in the story. About three weeks after receiving the unit, with SACD, but not any other type of disc, it started with a little hiss in the left channel on both RCA and XLR outputs but not with HDMI output. All other disc types played fine. I tried changing interconnects, reversing them, grounding the chassis, etc., to no avail. Dan Wright had no idea what may be going on so the unit went back. He tested it over several days and could find no fault. When it came back it worked fine without the noise and has functioned perfectly since. Guess UPS shook some gremlin out of the unit or my system.
In summary, while most mods cost some percentage of the original unit cost, these mods cost anywhere from twice to three times the price. On the other hand, the total cost of the best mod with balanced stereo outputs and the original cost of the 83 SE add up to about half the price of the Lexicon player. So is it a steal, or a deal or a rip-off? As far as I'm concerned, it's a steal for the sound quality one gets with the ability to play every type of digital disc out there with better than excellent sound reproduction. I'm sold. Now I'm going to have to decide over the next few months which of either this unit or the Pure Power 2000 will receive my Product of the Year. By the way, for your and Mr. Wright's information, placing three of the Black Ravioli Footers under the unit, with a seven pound bag of lead shot on top, definitely adds one more notch of aliveness to the performance of the player.
Now, a few words from Mr. Wright: