Review of Stock Sony 5400 ES CD/SACD and VSE Mod

Category: Digital

Review of the Sony 5400 ES CD/SACD Player as a Stock Unit and with VSE Mods

Review System;

Classe 350 Monoblocks Amplifiers,
Jeff Rowland Synergy Preamp
Jeff Rowland Cadence Phono Stage

VPI Aries I with Super Platter, HRX Feet, JMW 10.5i Tonearm, SDS and Motor Upgrade, Grado Reference 1 Low Output VPI Edition Moving Coil Cartridge

Cardas Neutral Reference Interconnects and Cables

PS Audio Premier, Ultimate Outlets, Headroom Max Headphone Amp and Sennheiser 800 Headphones, Billy Bags Component Rack

Bright Star Reference, Black Diamond Cones, Pucks and Source under Sony CD Player;

Black Diamond Cones and Pucks, Arcici Reference and 2 inch Maple Block under Aries I;

Q feet and other sorbethene footers under all other components except Classe Mono Blocks that are sitting on Billy Bags Amp Stands


Nic Jones, Penguin Egg
Rosanne Cash, the List
Various Blue Note Jazz SACDs

Review of Stock Player

Playing Redbook on the Sony 5400, what really jumped out was wonderful midrange. Vocals in particular had a presence that was striking. I also thought the player had real rhythmic snap. SACD’s had increased sound stage and air of course, but otherwise I thought the SACD was very comparable to the Redbook experience.

For a number of years my digital front end was a Sony SCD-1 paired with a Chord 64 DAC. The Chord DAC always filled out the sound of SCD-1 across the spectrum. Vocals had increased presence and the midbass had more air and punch with the Chord DAC. In a direct A/B comparison of the stock 5400 (after about 200 hours of break in) with the Sony SCD-1/Chord DAC combo, with carefully matched levels, when playing SACD, the two players were essentially identical with maybe a bit more air round the 5400.

More striking, with Redbook play, the 5400 matched the SCD-1/Chord DAC Combo exactly. Really indistinguishable to my ears. Amazing, when you think I paid in excess of $8000 for the SCD-1/Chord Combo and $1,110 for the 5400.

So the 5400 is sent off to Bill Thalmann of Music Technology and Vacuum State Electronics Bill is the US East Coast installer for its line of Sony Digital Player Mods. I ask Bill and VSE’s Allan Wright to install an UberClock and do a balanced output upgrade. I believe Bill did a few other tweaks, including adding damping to the case (Bill or Allan feel free to specify anything additional done).

Three weeks later back comes the 5400 in its original box accompanied by an additional box containing the UberClock.

The UberClock comes encased in nice looking 5 x 8 inch black aluminum box with a single light on the front that flashes red during warm up and then solid blue after about thirty minutes. The connection between the two units is via a 75 ohm digital cable with a bnc connector at either end.

The 5400 with UberClock sitting on top of it goes back to its usual perch on equipment rack. I sit down and put the Rosanne Cash, The List CD in, sit down and listen.

Now Bill Thalmann has been emphatic that the player should be played for 48 hours straight and then left on for two weeks before making any final judgments on its sound, and I am dutifully complying, but holy smackers what a difference literally out of the box!

Much deeper and wider soundstage. Way more presence around the vocals and every acoustic instrument in the mix. Bass is tighter, much tighter. And the music just jumps and skips. Amazing.

The SCD-1/Chord combo is sitting in my office now, but I went ahead a pulled out a vinyl copy of Cash album, dropped it onto the VPI Aries platter and dropped the Grado needle.

Now I am a vinyl nut. Probably have 7000 to 10,000 records in my house (I stopped counting years ago). I have always been very certain regarding the sonic superiority of my vinyl set-up over any digital player I have had. In this instance, the vinyl sounded great and it had coherency to the sound that was very pleasing. Rosanne Cash’s vocal, and the discrete instruments all had a common sonic signature to them, but when compared to the VSE modified 5400, I guiltily have to report I preferred the Redbook listening experience. More air around all the musical elements, deeper and wider soundstage, more snap. More fun. I wouldn’t say it has an analog quality per se (that’s the warm coherent sound I hear on the Aries). The VSE Modified 5400 is more revealing and vibrant.

It will be interesting to listen to this digital deck as it breaks in and I play a wider range of recordings, including plenty of SACD. I am going to compare the player playing some of my Bluenote SACD reissues with their Analogue Productions and Music Matters 45 vinyl releases played on my Aries.

I will report later in May. Till then, I leave you with two comments. One, I am immensely pleased with the modified 5400 just in its Redbook play. Two, I need to upgrade my vinyl setup if my records are not going to collect dust.
I have met Bill and he's a great guy. He repaired my Theta Miles about 2 years ago. I have a 5400 too. What does Bill charge for the up-grades?
I know I'm coming a bit late to the thread. I recently (end of September/11) spoke with Bill Thalman at his Music Technology shop in Springfield, VA, and he will charge $US 300 for the work to install the Balanced Audio Module and the Terra Firma clock boards into the XA5400ES. The boards themselves one has to order directly from VSE in Switzerland.
I have this moded unit at home, and concur with Okonrad that you get pretty close to good vinyl in sonics and overall performance. Truly a delightful experience. I'm listening to my redbooks for the first time all over again. Wow!