Review: Sonic Frontiers SFCD-1 CD Player

Category: Digital

Review: Sonic Frontiers SFCD-1 SE upgrade

I just had my Sonic Frontiers SFCD-1 CD Player upgraded to the "SE" model by Chris Johnson at Parts Connexion (PCX) - My SFCD-1 originally retailed for $3,800 and was built in 1997. I had put in Telefunken tubes, which were a significant improvement over the stock Sovtek’s. I was very happy with the non-SE sound, a nice blend of detail with a hint of that tube warmth. As I considered the upgrade, I looked for info on Audiogon and other places for others’ experience, but found precious little. I hope this helps anyone considering this upgrade for themselves.

If you are reading this, then you likely know that SF went out of business some time ago, but the former president, Chris Johnson, founded PCX to service the Anthem/Assemblage line as well as the SF gear. I'm sure they do a bunch of other stuff too, check it out on their website.

The impetus behind the upgrade was the failure of the transport - a not uncommon affliction of the SFCD-1's I understand. Symptoms are the “no disc” display on the front on a percentage of your CD’s. Mine, over time, grew from just a few to well over 50% of my CD’s giving this error. A quick note to Chris confirmed the problem, and for $99 + labour (that’s how the spell it in Canada) would solve the problem.

It was at that point I inquired about the SE upgrade option. It was something I had heard about and had been considering for quite some time (it’s been available for a number of years now) but had never gotten around to. There are quite a few options around the upgrade, more that I care to bore you all with here, but many caps and resisters are replace, tubes upgraded, silver fuses installed, new RCA’s etc. The cost of the upgrade is around $600, plus shipping both ways to Canada (~$75 each way). Add to that the cost of the transport repair ($150) and I managed to shoot a pretty big hole in $1,000. Clearly there was a bit of trepidation on my part, as $1000 goes a long way to buying a good new player these days. Not to mention one that supports SACD.

Talking with Chris at PCX, he described the sonic differences (improvements) of the SE over the stock SFCD-1 to me. He said that there was a night and day difference in the sound, and while the SF was great in it’s day, it could really benefit from some modernization. The resulting sound would be more open, have better channel separation, top to bottom linearity, extension and more detail - putting it on par with some of the best players in the $4k-$6k range.

But on to the interesting part – the results of the upgrade! Unpacking the SFCD-1, the first thing that I noticed was a strong “hot melt glue” odor. I had to open it up to re-install the tubes and could immediately see the internal changes. I had taken detailed pictures of the inside before shipping so that I could compare. I have no formal EE training, but the installed parts looked great, very cleanly done. Indeed, some of the new components had been glued in place, perhaps to protect them during shipping or to ensure they were not subject to vibration. Fortunately, the smell was completely gone within a few hours. PCX also returned all the old parts, so I have a bag full of misc. stuff.

After I reinstalled the Telefunken tubes I put it all back together and let it break in for about 10 hours before I did any serious listening. But it was impossible NOT to listen a little. With 0 break-in, I was immediately surprised by the detail. That’s not to say that the SF wasn’t detailed before, but this was to another level. As if a veil was removed, there are more layers, more depth to the sound. I forced myself to turn off the amp leaving the SFCD-1 on repeat until the next day.

I’m not sure if there will be further break in as I continue to listen, but after the initial 10 hours, there was not a lot of difference compared to when I first turned it on. Given that the tubes were already broken in this was not a huge surprise. Playing some familiar music, the SFCD-1 SE continued to amaze. Where my CD playback had been very good, the mod really took it to the next level. No CD hardness or glare, the sound is far smoother, with a depth that I had not previously heard in my system. The highs are very extended, yet not harsh in any way, the bottom is solid without being over-emphasized or bloated. The SF was always very linear in response, and continues to be so. The mod, however, made the sound more 3 dimensional. There is also more separation and better placement of instruments and voices in space. I’ve had several occasions of hearing new things on CD’s - ones that I thought I knew very well! Going in, I was pretty unsure of spending almost $1k on a 10 year old CD player and wasn’t sure what to expect. Chris Johnson made a believer out of me!

At the end of the day, I’m more of a vinyl/tube guy then a SS/CD guy. I used to enjoy showing friends how much better the ‘table sounded than CD playback. The mod to the SFCD-1 has gone a long way to leveling the playing field. I'm REALLY re-enjoying my CD collection, hearing many of them as if it was the first time. If you have to send your SFCD-1 in anyway, definitely consider the SE upgrade, I am very please with the results on mine.

Associated gear
• Onix SP3 tube integrated (38 wpc)
• DK MII tube/SS integrated (150 wpc)
• JA Michell GyroDec TT
• Spendor 9/1 speakers
• REL sub
• Harmonic Tech IC’s
• Audience AU24 speaker cable
The dreaded Philips 12.4 CDM strikes again. Surprised you got that much life out of it. Had a Classe CDP with the 12.4 that was replaced on an almost every other year basis. Happy to read it has worked out for you, although I would not have opted the route you went. Enjoy the SF.
I had that player once also. It sounded great when it worked. The last SF straw for me was when the Phono pre died, only a resistor in the power supply but still cost me $ 200.00 to fix at Analogique in NYC. I have not had any issues with products from Audio Research.
Transport problems aside, I have been enjoying my SFCD 1SE for a few years and only been (more) pleased as time passes. A minor board problem popped up recently and was repaired locally without having to deal with shipping.
Friends bring there new CD players by on ocassion for comparison and nothing in the CDP forest of players has surpassed the SFCD 1 for sonic performance.
So what kind of players are you guys using, that's sonically superior to the SFCD-1?
For the last few years been using the Audio Analogue Paganini of which I have been most happy with. Will quite soon move up to the Maestro CDP from Audio Analogue.

Although the newer Northstar CDP could also be on the short list as well.
Pardon my rant...
I wouldnt trust Chris Johnson of Sonic Frontiers with anything.

After buying a new SFT-1 Transport it displayed the same problems the Original poster descibed.
Three times I shipped this unit back for $$$ and three times it came back the same.
Chris Johnson kept saying my CD's were defective.
He had to know there was something wrong with this player.

After a long posting on the web and support from the other audiophiles , I finally did get a refund.
After that, I sold my SF Dac. Never would trust that man again.

Godd Riddance!

After that unit I have owned a Meridian 508.24, APL 3910, and now I own the Cary Audio SACD Pro.
Over the past several years I have collected 2 SF-CD1s and went through numerous laser heads.

Whenever they act up, one will not read anything (NO DISC)
and the other one reads intermittently and absolutely will not read any copied CD-Rs.

A unit with a newly replaced laser will not survive a short road trip to a friend's house... NO DISC upon arrival and it happens everytime.

Yes. It's just Philips CDM12.4, you can find them everywhere on EBay but most of them are "cannibalized parts" sold as new.

The CD1s seem to "chew through laser heads one every few months so I thought. Lately it got so bad I thought its more likely the board underneath the transport that is getting too old to read anything.

Spent the weekend trying to fix my them and after fiddling with just about everything it turns out the lasers are still fine. The heads need manual adj despite all the docs floating around stating otherwise.

Tweaked the alignment of the heads with a torx screwdriver using purely trial and error gets rid of the "no disc" error and the "skipping track" and "not able to read copied CDs" problem.

The SF-CD1, unlike Levinson and Wadia, does not have a locking screw to secure the head.

Your experience with your T1 was probably related to the damn silicon stud mounts giving way during transportation and causing the heads to be misaligned. They were probably marginal in the first place if Chris hadnt known the secret to the laser head alignment.
My SF played only after or before midnight.I have ARC CD2 and CD3MkII. No problems.