For the past several articles I have strayed from my roots, discussing new pieces of equipment instead of DIY, tweaks and the like. This and next month's article will be getting back to my original reason for writing this column: what can be done by ourselves (and/or others) to improve our audio systems without buying new and more expensive equipment. This month, I will start with the two M's, mods and maintenance.
First, let us define the above. The easiest is: Maintenance, i. e., scheduled upkeep of the system. This revolves primarily around mechanics. I am sure each of you has a plan of attack for your system, but here is mine.
That is all I can come up with to do with my system on a regular basis, but I'd sure like to hear if any of you out there do other regular maintenance checks, and I'll be glad to publish them in the coming months. Now on to the meat of this month's article...
All equipment is made to a price point, meaning what it costs for parts, assembly, packaging, etc. The manufacturer tacks on a profit margin, shipping costs, etc., and then sells it at that price to either a middleman (or the dealer, or directly to the customer). The middleman and dealer then tack on their expenses and profit margin and sell the piece to you at usually 100 percent to 200 percent more than the piece cost to make. The final price must also be based on what the market will bear: too expensive compared to similar products and it will not sell. It is too cheap and also there will be a perception that something must be something wrong.
Thus, with mass-market equipment, especially high-end units, the least expensive part that will do the job is generally used. As for every dollar increase in parts cost, can add several dollars in price to the final sale. The reason most high-end equipment is so expensive is not just because premium parts are used, and small production runs decrease the economy of scale, but also the added on percentage at each level of sale. For instance, the resistors and caps used even in high end Sony or Denon high bit players may cost $0.05 to 0.50 each, while better sounding wire wound resistors and poly caps may cost several dollars each. Sony and Denon would rather capture the mid priced market or even the low ends of the high priced market and leave the super-expensive market to the small companies.
The high-end companies then will either engineer their own boards at great expense, or modify the boards that came with the units. As they then must also change the looks of the unit to differentiate it from the original, and then sell it at boutique high end dealers, the markup is very high, sometime five to ten times what the mass market unit cost.
I remember back in the early 80's buying a modified Philips CD player ($600 for stock unit) while the high-end player based on the same chassis with changes in looks, power supply and analog output board cost me $4,000. Thus the nook for Modifiers: individuals who take other company's products, either self bought or sent from individuals that are of good value sound wise for cost, adding high end parts and selling the modified units back to the public. This can work out superbly for the customer cost-wise, as one has wiped out the middlemen from the sale chain. Thus, instead of having to charge several times the cost of parts and time, it is usually significantly less than you would pay for a similar one-off or super high-end product.
There are two problems with this scenario. The biggest is in knowing the talents of the individual working on your equipment. I have seen superb mods that worked as described, and have seen disasters that completely destroyed the unit. This brings up the second problem: once the unit is modified, the warranty is null and void and you better pray that the modifier will be around to repair it.
While word of mouth is usually good, these days with the Internet anybody can give an opinion. I have even seen opinions given by people who have never seen the product or had any contact with the modifier. Most high-end audio magazines are of little help as they are too busy reviewing products from large companies. Thus, how does one know whether a modification is worth it's cost, and risks. First, would be by word of mouth from individuals you are comfortable with. Second, would be to see and hear the modified piece in someone's system. Third would be to obtain modification only from an individual who is well known in the high-end community. Finally, would be to have a well-known, established middleman who will guarantee the modification will meet expectations.
Enter Walter Liedermann, of Underwood Hi-Fi in Georgia who has been in the high-end hi-fi business for years and has impeccable credentials. His retail store carries products such as Cain and Cain, Jolida, Musical Fidelity, Quad, Shanling, etc., so you know he probably has great ears. He also understands value and believes in modification of equipment when it is cost efficient.
He has gotten together with two modification companies, Parts Connexion of Canada and ModWright of Oregon to have revision done on some of the equipment he sells. Both have been around for years and their respective owners, Chris Johnson, Glenn Dolick, and Wright have excellent reputations. Thus the setup for today's review...
Denon 2900 Universal Disc Player Modification
I originally reviewed the Denon 2900 three months ago (AA Chapter 46), and found it to be the best of the three universal players I have had in for review, and very near to the Sony 999 for SACD playback. I am still of that opinion, but after a further month of listening finally realized where the differences were compared to the Sony: a slight lack of ambience recovery, almost as if the least significant bits were being truncated, or the analog stage was not quite as translucent. As with all high-end perfectionists, this started grating at me and I started trying all sorts of tweaks to see if I could improve the sound. Then I was up on the Audiogon auction site where I found a notice the Mr. Liederman was offering a modification of the Denon that he guaranteed would improve its sound.
Rather than trusting my Denon, I asked him to send me a review sample and he agreed. The modification consisted of a rebuild of the front three channels. I will not go into all that is done as you can read that at their website, but it includes replacing op amplifiers, resistors, caps, power supply diodes, wiring, and adding Soundcoat to reduce chassis' resonances. Each channel costs $450 to mod your own machine, and $1,790 for a new machine with a two channel mod. A word of advice: If you do not have a Denon 2900 yet and will want the mod, let them buy the machine as the modifications are being done in Canada and it cost $100 each way from New Hampshire to mod yours. Also, if you listen to multi-channel recordings, have them do all three channels, as I have found the center channel to be just as important if not more so.
Also, have them do the Audiocom Superclock II update, which adds $480 to the cost. Will cut to the chase and let you know that after I had listened to the unit from them with the three channel update, I sent them mine for this and the clock update. My comments on the unit will be based on the complete mod that was done on mine, as you would be crazy not to do the whole thing at once, especially due to the postal costs to Canada.
I have seen mods that look like the unit has been through WWII, but not this one. The workmanship is superb. As you can see above, each board is clean and each solder joint looks like it was done with a machine. Fine craftsmanship. Parts Connexion has been around for many years, and I'm sure many more. I bought parts from them 15 years ago, many of them the same resistors and caps used on the Denon. They have been doing mods for at least that time so have tremendous experience on knowing which part is best in a particular circuit.
The unit takes about two to three days of continuous play to open up. During that time it first sounds very bright and vivid, then very dull, so do not listen to it for that period of time. Just put it on continuous play and listen to something else. The major improvement of the three-channel mod over the stock Denon is an opening up of the soundstage due to improved retrieval of background information. If it is there, the modified Denon will give it to you. Recordings I had thought were devoid of hall sound with the Denon, Pioneer and Apex machines now at least give some feeling of space. The best SACD and DVD-A software place me in the hall with the performers. I have had the Sony 999, which is the silver standard for SACD here for quite a while, but I would say this unit does at least as well with ambience retrieval, perhaps better. This is the first digital playback unit I have heard in my room that actually gives a feeling that there is an overhead channel, with height information being retrieved. This is very similar to listening to the Telarc SACDs, which have a height channel recorded in with the subwoofer. I had only heard that previously with analog.
So why should I pay for the Denon with its mods versus getting the top of the line Sony? Well for three reasons. First, this unit also does a superb job with DVD-A playback, which the Sony can't. This is the first machine I have had here which does both superbly well, to the point where now I feel well recorded DVD-A competes with SACD quality wise.
Second, where I believe it definitely beats the Sony, is with the bass reproduction with the Superclock mod. This mod helps the unit to produce the deepest and tightest bass of any unit I have heard, including possibly the Meitner (the gold standard for SACD playback). You must try pipe organ or major orchestral works to hear the difference. With my seven horn system and subs, one needs to rearrange one's internal organs after the sympathetic vibrations they go through. It is not just deep thumping, but true life-like bass.
Third, the modded unit isn't much more expensive than the top of the line Sony, yet sounds superior with SACD and does DVD-A just as well. There is also an improvement with CD playback that puts the unit on par with CD players costing about the same price, plus one also gets the Denon's great DVD-Video playback.
I could go on giving impressions of the sound using various recordings, but I will not do that for two reasons. First, most people do not have the same discs, so how would you tell what I am hearing. Second, my system is completely different from yours, so even if you have the same disc it is going to sound different. All I can say is this is the best SACD and DVD-A reproduction I have heard in my room. It is so good that I have brought my Walker Proscenium turntable ($30,000) with Kondo IO-J cartridge and wire ($15,000) for updating, asking Lloyd Walker to take his time as I am happy with pure digital for the first time. That, my friends, is how good this unit is. So far this unit is lining up as my product of the year. It is well worth the extra cost compared to the stock Denon, and proves that mods are cost effective compared to paying big bucks for the best.
Unhappily, the Denon 2900 is probably near the end of its production run. Happily its replacement, the 5900, will probably be modifiable by them in the same way. If so, I have already asked them for a review model. Below are some comments I received from Mr. Liederman that he asked be added that I thought appropriate.
Next month I will be discussing updates and tweaks, with a discussion of a couple of each
I have on hand.
Company InformationWalter Liederman
Voice: (770) 667-5633
Fax: (802) 609-1893