I think I'd start by looking at the cd drive/transport. I had been using a Cambridge cd4se player as a transport for an Sonic Frontiers/Assemblage 2.7 Platinum dac. When, on the advice of a dealer, I tried the new Cambridge Azur 640c as a transport, I was floored by the difference. Far more improvement than I would have expected. I tried using a glass toslink interface and found it was lacking a little musicality. Very clear and great treble extension, but not as fully fleshed out in the midrange as the Aural Symphonics cable I use. I am getting a Sterevox digital cable today to try as well.
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Try the Stereovox HDXV like Photon46 suggested. It's a great digital cable. It's only $100.00 and may be purchased (or just auditioned first) from The Cable Company. Ask for John Pharo, he's a nice and knowledgeable guy who can really help. The Cable Company's phone number is 1-800-fat-wyre. The website is www.fatwyre.com.
The transport is the primary problem. It can definitely benefit from mods, but you will probably need to put a Superclock2 in it at considerable expense. A digital cable is also recommended, and a good one. You can come really close to the digital cable performance with a glass toslink such as this one:
You can also get the MSB modded. I recently modded a Gold version and it turned-out really spectacular.
Select your modifier carefully. A digital engineer will have more knowledge about transports and S/PDIF interface.
Heresy here....but, could it be that there isn't as much difference between DACs/Players as is touted? I've had similar experiences over the years in a roughly equivalent system switching between Rotel/Theta Theta/Sony Rotel/MSB and Pioneer/MSB. I still keep upgrading and I think my system sounds better each time, but on that A/B test, I don't know and it makes me wonder....
I would recommend you try a Monarchy audio 24/96 upsampler. Really improved my MSB. Plus, since I think your cd player is toslink only the monarchy upsampler will jitter reduce and allow you to use coax into the MSB. If you buy through them I think you get a decent cable as well. You may also want to try some cheaper Harmonic Technology cables from dac into the amp.
My most important advice though is that if after trying some things you still don't hear a difference don't feel bad about downsizing and buying more music.
Thanks for all responses so far. It sounds as if I should start with the transport and/or interconnect between the transport and DAC.
This raises an interesting question: is it really worth getting the an inexpensive player like the Sony XE-500 modded?
This was Sony's least expensive single-disc CDP when new in 98/99 (retailing for $180). It was reckoned by one reviewer to make "a respectable entry-level transport" when mated with an outboard DAC. But, even so, it is five years old, supports only Toslink and coaxial line-out, and cost me $35 used!
Surely I'd be better off investing the cost of mods in a better transport? Or selling the MSB DAC and investing the proceeds (plus a bit more, maybe $500 in total) in a nicer stand-alone CDP?
Please feel free to chip into this thread if you've not already done so. I've never had a component modded - so I need all the advice I can get.
My 2 cents. Ez2Hear is correct in his suggestion of introducing a better cable into the system. I tried cheap RS audio cables between my DAC and transport and the sound was absolutely dreadful. I assembled a good quality 75 ohm cable from Belden 1505a video coax along with proper 75 ohm connectors from Canare and the sound improved dramatically. The parts cost on this type of cable system is very low if you want to build one yourself, or you can try one of the inexpensive cable makers such as Blue Jeans Cable to purchase something pre-assembled. I think that you'll find the difference in sound when using a reasonable cable will be striking.
The Link is good but sorely needs an upgraded power supply, which makes a tremendous improvement. Either MSB's own P1000 or Monolithic Sounds's HC2. I have an MSB link and was unsatisfied until I got the HC2, which transformed the dac in every area-- transparency etc. and especially the bass. You should be able to pick one up for well under $200. I would do this first, even before upgrading any cables. An upgraded power supply is a universally recommended upgrade for the MSB. IMHO, it is a necessity, not an upgrade.
I agree with Dne - the cabling between the PS and DAC must be upgraded.
As far as modding the XE500, the issue is: no one knows whether it will turn out good as a transport or not. Perhaps with a $450 Superclock2 upgrade. You might be better off to buy a cheap Sony DVP-S7700 and get it modded. This player has extremely low jitter, even without a Superclock2. It makes a superb transport (modded) and there are lots of used ones for sale.