Ok, I now have over 150-hours on my modded Pioneer Elite DV-58AV, so it's time for a review.
Delivered, a new, stock 58AV will set you back around $400, give or take 40-bucks or so. As modder Ric Schultz describes, this new player has a separate power supply section for the analog stages, tons of Rubycon low impedance caps, Elna Audio caps, latest generation current out Burr-Brown DAC, super short digital path, extra plate underneath the chassis, good video picture, a "Pure Audio" button that turns off all video, digital outs and displays for better sound.
One thing that impressed me is the focus on two-channel audio and ease of use as a two-channel source, which I’ve found unusual with universal players which are more oriented toward video and surround sound.
On my Oppo, when I play a multi-layer SACD, for instance, the player doesn’t assume that I want to hear the two-channel SACD layer, despite my having set it up as a two-channel player. More often than not, the Oppo tries to play the CD-layer and I have to toggle blindly (because the display assumes that it’ll be hooked up to a TV, which it’s not) trying to find the SACD layer. The Pioneer assumes that I want to hear the SACD layer in two-channel, because that’s the way I set it up. Wow, what a concept.
Oh yeah, this thing plays just about anything you can throw at it; CD, SACD, DVD-A, CD-R/RW, DVD-R/RW, MPEG, WMA, AAC, mp3, etc., etc. up to 24-bit/192kHz. That’s not bad for $400, give or take.
Ok, some are upset that I didn’t take time to take delivery of the stock Pioneer, burn it in for 150-hours, write a review, then send it to Ric Schultz so that he could swap out a bunch of parts and add parts, then get it back, burn it in again and then write a review as modded. It would have actually been easy for me to A-B the stock vs. modded unit since I have a Korg MR1000 that records in 5.6MHz DSD, enabling truly astounding and revealing recordings. Unfortunately for you, I didn’t take the trouble to do that, instead I had the retailer send it directly to Ric.
My system is built around my Vienna Acoustics Beethoven Baby Grand speakers. They’re driven by a Conrad Johnson CA200 control amplifier through Analysis Plus Solo Crystal Oval 8 cables. I’ve got both an analog front end and digital. The analog front end uses Pro-ject’s top turntable, the RM10, with a Sumiko Blackbird cartridge. I’ve got Pro-ject’s Speed Box SE and a Tube Box II to boost the Sumiko’s signal and apply the RIAA equalization curve. The total cost of this analog front end is just under $4,000.
Prior to the arrival of the Pioneer an Oppo 981HD universal player handled most of the digital duties at my house. I’d gotten an Oppo as an up-converting DVD video player to feed my Sony Bravia 46” HD/LCD. TV. When my PS Audio Lambda deck and PS Audio DAC crapped out (after 15-years of service) I stuck the Oppo into the 2-channel and left it there. It gave me access to SACD and DVD-A. Yes, on CDs it didn’t give me quite the transparency of the old Lambda, but its sins seemed small.
Still, I started realizing that my analog system was my system of choice, even when I had superior software in the Oppo I wasn’t as happy with digital. Whenever I got a new part, like new cables or new headphones, I found myself listening to analog. When I listened critically I could hear a hint of glare on high pitched content, like close-miked whistling, certain trumpet recordings and the high keys on very dynamic piano pieces. The low end wasn’t Johnny one note, but the richness of overtones didn’t match my analog system.
When I called Ric Schultz about modding my Oppo I asked, “If I didn’t already have the Oppo and wanted you to build the best possible universal player for me, what would you suggest?” Without hesitation Ric pointed to the Pioneer Elite DV-58AV. He was impressed with its stock performance and friendliness to two-channel, audiophile users. Also, the box had ample room, making it conducive to modding. So, I decided to buy a new Pioneer and have t shipped direct to Ric for full-boat mods.
Ric replaced the whole analog output stage on the two front channels with a custom discrete single-ended, class-A, all-fet current-to-voltage stage and wired it directly to the output jacks through a nude damped Blackgate cap bypassed by a Wima .1 poly cap. All the stock op amps and output stage parts are eliminated. He added the “Superclock 4” and a separate linear power supply. Finally, he added three discrete regulators and a muting circuit that eliminates turn off and turn on DC surges. I understand some of that, but not all of it, so address any specific questions to Ric.
The price for all the mods is $1050, bringing the total cost in under $1,500 for the new player plus mods. You can buy several of the mods separately. If I’d been a paid reviewer I might have had Ric do each mod, one at the time and then reported on each step, but I’m only a consumer and I bought what I thought would be the best value for me. I’m sure that Ric would love to do such a step-by-step build up if one of you wants to do it, just realize that it’ll mean about 600 to 800 hours of burn-in cumulative as you burn-in the new parts after each step.
Before critical comparisons began I equalized the outputs of the Pioneer and Oppo using the 1kHz signal from the Stereophile Test CD. To achieve an 86dB measurement at approximately one meter from the left speaker, my Conrad Johnson’s step-attenuator was set at “55” with the Pioneer and “72” with the Oppo. That’s a huge difference since each step is .7 dB according to C-J. If C-J is correct, then that’s almost 12dB of output difference. Yes, I made sure that the volume control on the Oppo was set at its max.
The first cut I listened to was “Mercy, Mercy, Mercy” on “All-star Celebration of Cannonball Adderley – Cannon Re*Loaded”. Among the all-stars is Marcus Miller on five-string or greater electric bass. In this cut he uses all the strings and varies his attack from finger-tip to side-finger to popping with the side of his thumb. The resonant character of his very full bass sound varies in response to his technique. This is way more evident with the Pioneer than the Oppo. The bass was more solid and had more “pop” not because it was louder, but because the note fundamentals were rendered more distinct from the overtones. You could hear this separation of harmonics with the Oppo, but it was more dramatic and more transparent and distinct with the 58AV.
Jennifer Warnes’ 20th Anniversary Edition of “famous blue raincoat” is full of interesting details that the Pioneer easily highlighted. I particularly enjoyed comparing “If It Be Your Will” because it had subterranean bass rendered by synthesizer contrasted by Warnes’ very clearly recorded voice. The bass synth has way fewer harmonics than Miller’s bass, but, perhaps due to there being fewer, what’s there seems more important. With the Oppo the harmonics were slightly smeared together, so that you heard the character of the notes, but not as much of the richness and detail.
“Isn’t She Lovely?” from Livingston Taylor’s “ink” SACD from Chesky offers a test of high frequency smoothness. This cut starts with someone, probably Livingston, whistling into a mic at very close range. With my Oppo I was hearing significant glare and edge in that part of the track. With the Pioneer that was all gone, replaced with delicacy and detail of the highs. With the Oppo the high harmonics were compressed together and lost their character, while the Pioneer separately displayed each layer. So the Pioneer passed my first “glare test” with flying colors.
Next up was the SACD of Dire Straits “Brothers In Arms”. I’ve always loved the title cut, but it’s very densely layered with synthesizers, Mark’s overdriven guitar, percussion and numerous effects. I felt like the Oppo rendering was no better than my old PS Audio Lambda, unfortunately unable to participate in this comparison due to worn out CD-tray gears and other foibles that put it at the back of a closet. The Pioneer showed me all I was expecting from the remastered SACD. It was open, organic and rich with harmonics. Knopfler’s plays his amps in their sweet spots producing overtones from the darkest “grind” to the most soaring, searing highs imaginable. The Pioneer was so much better that I double checked to make certain that the Oppo wasn’t playing the CD-layer instead of the two-channel SACD layer. It was playing the SACD. Everything was there with no fuss or strain.
I wanted to compare the Pioneer to a higher reference standard than the little $200 Oppo, so I brought out the big gun Pro-ject turntable system described earlier. This is a $4,000 system that has been my standard for midrange accuracy, transparency and “organic” feel to my music. No digital piece in my house has matched it so far.
Stockfish Records of Germany recently issued a D2D recording of The Bassface Swing Trio, which is a surprisingly good piano trio playing standards. The recording of the piano, bass and drums are sonically as good as it gets, in my experience. The kicker is that they include an SACD, made by taking the D2D two-channel mix straight to 2.8MHz DSD, which is then down-converted to SACD. So you get the same feeds in a great recording in both D2D analog and hi-rez digital format.
I highly recommend this LP/SACD to anyone interested in an analog to digital comparison. The LP pressing is A++ and the SACD production is top drawer.
This LP and SACD have some really heavy double bass, recorded closely. The Pro-ject front end handled it well, but the modded Pioneer was a clear winner here. Of course, when I pushed the SPL up near 100dB, then universal player showed its almost total immunity to feedback, when the cartridge howled "uncle" just over 100dB, despite being isolated in an armoire and sitting on top of two very good isolation devices (I think airborne sound got to the cartridge, given the high frequency of the initial howl). When I kept the volume low, bass was almost equal, until the dynamics got loud, then the turntable’s cartridge couldn’t keep up, adding a touch of opacity. I never experienced a total mistrack, but the focus and detail got lost when the cartridge was stressed.
Mids were glorious on both the turntable and the Pioneer, with lots of details and harmonic richness. The Pioneer equaled the Pro-ject against the Pro-ject’s strength. There was no feeling of congestion with Pioneer, while the Oppo did let me feel it’s “digitalness” with less detail and a slight feel of congestion in the sound vs. the turntable and the Pioneer. (Once again I checked to be certain that the Oppo was playing the SACD layer).
My final test was to listen to piano played loudly at the upper end of its range on the Stockfish recording. This can clang and glare, which it did on the Oppo; however, with the Pioneer and Pro-ject it was smooth and loud. The Oppo slightly smeared the overtones, while the Pioneer kept them separate. There was no electronic sounding artifact produced by the Pioneer, just pure, musical sound.
I’d probably have to double my expenditure on a turntable to equal the Pioneer and then only at lower levels, unless I moved it to another room. The Schultz-modded Pioneer is clearly a top level universal player.
Oh, I almost forgot, after I finished the draft of this I review I was sitting relaxing listening to the title track of Karrin Allyson’s Concord CD “Azure Te’”. I love all of Karrin’s releases, by the way. This cut has harmonica, nylon string guitar, bass and drums, among other things. What I almost forgot was the delicacy. You hear fingers and nails, but only as part of a larger tone. Those little details come across delicately, with micro-dynamics that enrich the listening experience. It’s all very relaxed and very alive and organic when played through the Pioneer.
One other thing, I did the entire review with the “Pure Audio” function engaged. This turns off the LCD screen, all LEDs and operates only the two-channel components. I think it’s a great idea, but I’m not certain that I heard any difference. If I did, it was very small. I’ll listen more over the next few weeks to see if anything becomes apparent, but today I wasn’t able to identify a difference.
Hopefully over the next several months I’ll get a chance to compare the Pioneer to more expensive players than the Oppo. As I do, I’ll add addendums to this review. Still, I can conclude that it’s an excellent value at under $1,500.
See Schultz’s site at http://www.tweakaudio.com/EVS-2/Pioneer_DV-58AV_mods.html