Review: RAM X-01 "Unlimited"
Despite the recent proliferation of truly excellent modestly priced gear, it seems to me that there is something of an audio “arms race” occurring at the upper echelons. Everywhere I look, I see $50,000 amps, $250,000 speakers, $100,000 turntables, and the list goes on and on.
It almost seems that many manufacturers are building increasingly expensive components in a seeming attempt to see who can market the most costly and “exclusive” gear on the planet.
Now don’t get me wrong: I’ve owned some RIDICULOUSLY priced stuff, but over the past few years I’ve started to question that approach—both financially and philosophically. First, very few, if any, “silly-expensive” components I’ve heard or owned ever came close to justifying their lofty pricetags. In fact, many just plain sucked—with some of them, I just couldn’t fathom how their designers were getting away with it. It was THAT blatant. But, still, like many other audiophiles, I frequently got distracted by the numbers. If it costs 50k, it’s gotta sound great, right? Well, sometimes, but not always. In fact, more often than not, not.
Modding has always been on my radar screen, but until now I can count the number of modded products I’ve owned in 20 years on one hand. All of them performed way above their relatively modest price points, but, still, that lingering “audio snob” in me always attached that eternally damning “good-for-the-money” tag on them, believing that, to attain true SOTA performance, I had to jump into the uber-cash league. Of course, it was hopelessly naïve of me, but all of us take false turns in life, and I’ve taken more than my share, particularly where audio is concerned.
Anyway, I’d been getting increasingly fed up with the “elitist” nature of a lot of the high end—though many could easily accuse me of being part of that elite—not to mention the ever-increasing distance between audio “perfection” and most people’s realities. I got so disillusioned that I recently made a drastic reappraisal of my audio life and made some momentous changes that have left me happier and less anxious than I’ve been in a decade. The RAM X-01 “Unlimited” for review here was a big part of my epiphany.
As my aforementioned disgust at the industry was waxing, I discovered Reference Audio Mods. Located in California and with a satellite office in Warren, Michigan (run by Doug Jesse), RAM had been getting some great buzz for their ability to mod almost anything audio-related and bring it up to near-SOTA performance for a relatively modest investment. (Their modified Oppo DV-970 is a giant killer of epic proportions.)
After getting a feel for founder Kyle Takenaga’s core philosophy—which largely revolves around improving output stages and power supplies—I decided to send my new Esoteric DV-60 to him for surgery. I won’t go into the details of that mod—this review is getting long enough—but, suffice it to say, the transformation was revelatory, putting the DV-60’s performance scarily close to that of my $36,000 Goldmund Eidos Reference 36A, at almost 1/6th the price, and clearly outpacing my pre-Signature Meitner DCC2/CDSD combo. (Unfortunately, I later sold the DV-60 because of a grounding issue that strangely only manifested itself in my room.) I was totally convinced at that point. Of course, the prospect of losing the warranty on a costly piece of electronics gives one serious pause (and well it should), but I was willing to take the risk for these kinds of sonics.
Around this time, I was becoming disenchanted with my Goldmund, whose transport was giving me fits. In addition, I was beginning to seriously question its value, given my experience with the DV-60. I contacted Kyle again to see if we could go even further than the ’60. He quickly said we could, and by a huge margin. He recommended pursuing a used Esoteric X-01 or UX-1 as a platform for a balls-out mod that would eclipse any digital source I’d ever heard. Big words, but by now Kyle had my attention. I managed to pick up a barely used X-01 at a stupidly good price. (I thought about an X-01 Limited, but Kyle said to pass on it, as all of the changes made to that player would be addressed in his mod, and why spend the extra bucks when you don’t have to?)
We discussed several options, but I finally decided on RAM’s “Unlimited” battery mod. Kyle is a firm believer in getting gear off the AC mains for best performance, and having heard battery-driven gear before, I had no reason to doubt him.
The mod is pretty extensive, but here are the highlights:
• Fully battery-driven power supply. The ONLY thing run off AC is the display.
• Many of the regulators were changed to low-noise, low-impedance Invisus PPR2 discrete regulators from Audiocom.
• Analog output stage uses RAM’s reference-level Silver Rock stage from Audio Consulting.
• All DAC chips remain stock, using the four PCM1704s per channel, as Kyle is a big fan of that particular chip.
• I/V conversion is performed by the OPA627 opamps.
• Audiocom Superclock 4 driven with battery power.
• Internal wiring is 24-gauge Audio Consulting silver/cotton wiring.
• Caps are Rubycon ZA/ZL and Audio Consulting Euro oil bypass caps.
• Maple/pine battery chassis for optimal resonance control.
The mod took a while to complete—actually, so long I can no longer remember how long :). My first order of business upon receipt was to compare it to my current reference, the mega-buck Goldmund 36A. I was optimistic, but one can never tell—expectations are meant to be shattered. After giving the X-01 a few days of burn-in, I was ready to roll. (I had to act quick, as I had already committed to sell the Goldmund.)
I’ll give you the short version. No contest—on redbook or SACD. The Goldmund, despite costing three times what I had invested in the Esoteric, was hopelessly outclassed. Prior to the X-01, the Goldmund had been the best source I’d ever owned. It clearly bested the widely heralded EMM Labs DCC2/CDSD combo, boasting superior resolution, smoother mids and highs, and an overall naturalness that the Meitner couldn’t match. It also easily handled the Audio Aero Prestige, whose sound I never fully cottoned to. I pretty much thought I was at the top of the digital heap. Well, as ESPN’s Mike Berman is fond of saying, “THAT’S why they play the game!”
As good as the Goldmund was/is, the Unlimited X-01 positively smoked it in every respect. The first thing one notices about the Unlimited is its utter lack of ANY perceivable distortion. At first, I thought it was overly smooth and was rounding off transients and obscuring detail, but the more I listened to it, the more I realized that, in fact, I was hearing more detail than I’d ever heard before, but that it was being presented in the most effortless, free-flowing manner I’d ever encountered. I never realized how much grit and edge I was hearing, even with the best equipment under the best electrical circumstances, until I got the Unlimited. The Goldmund was awesome at etching images in space, but the X-01 made it sound overly etched and thin. With the Esoteric, images had much more body, with absolutely no bloat or “Harlequin” bloom, and with dimensionality that I’ve only heard from the very best analog rigs.
The Unlimited throws an absolutely immense soundstage. When it was in my system, the room had no walls. They were just gone. Soundstaging was a strength of the Goldmund as well, but not like this.
In the low end, the Goldmund was tight and quick, if a little lean. The Unlimited was just as tight and fast, but the bass had considerably more heft and body, with incredible pitch and precision.
The case was similar in the midrange, where the Esoteric had a fuller, weightier presentation, and superior resolution. Where it absolutely destroyed the Goldmund in the mids was in terms of presence. Images simply exploded out of the blackest blacks I’ve ever heard. By “exploded,” I don’t mean to imply that the sound was in any way forward. It really wasn’t. There was just simply so much more energy there, it made the Goldmund sound reticent and two-dimensional in comparison.
Before my recent experiences, I always had a hunch that modding was a viable avenue that I needed to explore a lot further—and I’m glad I did. The Unlimited X-01 is simply the best source, digital or analog, I’ve ever owned. I can’t say with absolute certainty how it compares with everything out there, as I haven’t heard everything out there in my most recent system. But I have owned or auditioned some of the very best, including dCS, MBL, Zanden, Burmester, and the aforementioned EMM, Audio Aero, and Goldmund—I’m going to audition a friend’s new Meitner CDSA in a few weeks, so we’ll see how that goes—but I’ve never been as impressed as I’ve been with the Unlimited. It just presents music in the most unforced (yet lively) and natural manner I’ve ever heard a digital setup manage (only the best analog rigs can compare in this regard). For a total investment of a little over $14,000 ($8,500 of that for the mod), I hesitate to call it a bargain. But considering that it bests rigs costing many multiples of its pricetag, what else would you call it?