Richard Kern Modified XA777ES SACD Review - long
In the graphic arts world, to ‘Kern’ describes a typesetting process that eliminates some of the white space between letters and words, so that all letters read with equal weight and words form part of a one-dimensional, linear sentence. The very opposite is true in high end audio, where to ‘Kern’ (as in Richard Kern of Audiomod), means to modify with the utmost attention detail and sonics, so that instruments stake out their own defined space and weight, with a multi-dimensional soundstage that wraps around you like a warm blanket on a January morning.
A longer Journey then Frodo Baggins…...
Arriving neatly packed in its original double box and without any cross border scars, my XA777ES had traveled from Sony’s West Coast distribution; to Oade Bros. in the deep South; across the 49th border to the land of the 60 cent dollar and real beer; back to Richard on the West coast for the three weeks of mods and testing the mods; and finally back across the 49th to Canada – a journey that almost qualifies for the next installment of "Lord of the Rings".
Fortunately, the shipper’s trolls and the border ogres where of a much gentler sort than those in J.R.R. Tolkien’s literary masterpiece (and the must-see movie) -- it’s just too bad Sony doesn’t award frequent flyer points for such a lengthy journey. For those concerned about the risk of back-and-forth shipping damage, the key words are, repeat after me: double box, foam chips between the first and second box, ship air only, insure. With two-day FedEx air between each point, my Sony actually spent less time in transit than some one-way ground trips – and nary a scratch. Chalk it up to Oade’s excellent initial packing in their own custom-made outer box.
According to Richard at Audiomod, my XA777ES was the first flagship multichannel SACD player to receive the full set of modifications. (Richard has modded umpteen 777ES’ and SCD-1s). After eyeballing audiomods 3-course bill or fare for modification parts and labor, the electrical laundry list of changes reminded me of that cheesy 80’s show: “Six Million Dollar Man” – my XA was now “better . . . stronger . . . faster”: A new Superclock, modifications to the audio output stages and to the power regulators, a Vishay here, a Black Gate there -- suddenly we’ve got three stages of progressive improvements and a bill for over $2300+. Lee Major would be jealous.
A testament to Mr. Kern’s obsession with getting it right is that he wouldn’t stop until he achieved his goal. Indeed, Richard went far beyond what we had originally planned in order to obtain a level of improvement in two-channel SACD approaching that of his fully tweaked SCD-1. And throughout this, his labor portion of the bill remained at a very reasonable $600. (Richard didn’t have a multichannel set-up to test the XA on, so he really missed hearing all the fruits of his labor)
For Richard, modding the new Sony was a swim in somewhat uncharted waters. Although the XA is built to near the same standards as the older 777ES and arguably 85% of the SCD-1, everything in the XA is closer together – 3X as many channels and 4X the RCA outputs, a headphone jack, and new multiple DAC circuitry really clutter things up for the would-be tweaker. Of note, the Kerning stopped at the audio boards, as modifying all six channels on the boards would have added another $1,000 to my already pricey escapade and, according to Richard, would be quite difficult, given how cramped things are in a six-channel circuit.
So How Does it Sound?
Throughout the lengthy break-in process, the fully modded XA777 has improved steadily and is now quite good, no, make that excellent, with glass-like transparency and resolution. Gone is the XA’s slight muddiness that had the effect of lopping off those instruments that some of us find too shrill to begin with, such as a Herb Alpert’s trumpet or Jeff Beck’s highly distorted electric guitar in “Constipated Duck” (Sony/Blow by Blow SACD).
The roll-off illusion in the stock unit traded detail for a more blossomy midrange and although I used to quite like that compromise (so much so that I sold my SCD-1) it was not as sonically true to the source. On the modded version, the XA has moved back towards the sonic signature an unmodded SCD-1 and beyond – instruments now sound more true to life -- and if that means being irritated by a harsh horn or two, then so be it. (Granted this Tijuana Brass CD was not a SACD). Vocals such and Jacintha’s lush voice on “Here’s to Ben SACD” now spread like melted butter over the depth of the soundstage – no more pigeonholed vocals coming from dead center between the speakers.
There were however early moments of dissolution. Before proper break-in, the modded XA was colder than a Saskatchewan winter – clear and airy, but way too dark and barren, lacking the vibrancy that we equate with musicality. In fairness, this shortness of breath may also be attributed to a major cable change. (I upgraded no less than 6 RCA pairs at once to Stealth PGS Gold and Cardas Golden Reference intermixed with some Stealth Silvers).
What Richard had heard after he had finished with the final stages of the mods was not even close the current “warmed up” sonic characteristics -- no doubt Richard was being generous when he suggested that my XA was "a little darker" than his modded SCD-1. In reality, it was very, very dark when I first plugged it in after the mods -- almost unbearably so -- that is why I did not comment or attempt to write the review earlier.
Now that everything is broken-in and settled-in, (300+ hours), I’m inescapably wrapped in the somewhat egotistically-driven ‘quest for the best’ world we audiophiles build for ourselves in order to justify our insanity and perhaps escape from the real world – to me, this is simply the very best multichannel player in the world. I'm constantly picking up the dropped jaws of those who have heard what this source can do with SACD, especially with properly mixed multichannel. Compare my reasonably high end DTS, 96 kHz DVD-A and even 192 kHz DVD-A to the modded XA, and Sony is clearly superior in all areas. No A/B needed (although I did this extensively) – the differences in resolving ability, micro details, bass response and imaging are substantial and thus easy to hear.
But I do caution that this transparency is also extremely sensitive to downstream components, cabling and power delivery. And although multichannel will somewhat compensate for a so-so room, I find that 2-channel SACD is not at all tolerant to any weak link. So I've been busy working on my room over the past month.
To break down the performance improvement of the XA777ES in terms of real sonic attributes, here's how the player rates. Standard disclaimer here: in my room, with my setup and my tweak fetishes (my ears are stock though!)
Multichannel: 50% better than the already exceptional stock -- this is a "must" hear. Nothing on God’s earth can touch this experience … if you've got a properly set up multichannel room, full range speakers all around, and decent subwoofers. Yes, two-channel advocates may realize some betterment in individual sonic categories, and the same money thrown at a two-channel setup will buy better sounding components – but that’s not the argument here -- I’m referring to the multichannel ‘experience’, not the quest for absolute sonic duplication of a live performance.
2-channel SACD: 30% better than before -- the player is more neutral and slightly laid back, but with exceptional detail. Better transparency and wider soundstage than my previous benchmark (stock) SCD-1. I would wish for only a smidgen more of warmth in the midrange.
Redbook: 30% improvement: Now that the XA mods have broken in (as well as the cables), the musicality has returned and I'm running at 90% of the performance of the better one-box players on Redbook (Audio Aero, EMC-1, Cary 306). I'm being hard here -- the mods actually are more true to the recording than I first realized, which means you lose some of the warmth that was inherent in the unmodded XA. (To me, the unmodded XA was a touch too warm; sounding a bit rounded or lopped off.) This ‘softening’ effect on the stock unit is why you could listen to a bad Redbook CDs without a DAC and why the XA sounded better with Redbook than the stock SCD-1.
Resolution: The Audiomod XA777 is much more transparent, with resolving ability dramatically improved over stock – there is none of the muddiness that is characteristic of my DVD-A setup. At first, my DVD-A setup (run through the same amps and speakers) sounded much better, so the DVD-A’s unchanged setup (Pioneer 38-A) has served well as a level benchmark to measure the break-in progress of the modded XA777. Throughout the break-in process, the XA has steadily become warmer and is now just shy of 'neutral', with a slightly laid back characteristic. High frequency detail, already good on most SACD players, is now substantially cleaner than either the stock XA777 or SCD-1 and this equation holds true across the spectrum of Redbook, 2-channel SACD and multichannel SACD.
Like all good digital front ends, the modded XA is brutally intolerant of bad recordings. And that goes for 2-channel SACDs, as well as multichannel. For example, the remastered Boston SACD is still not up to its vinyl counterpart, sounding harsh and compressed, the Bob Mintzer multichannel continues to sounds terrible, and the Vodka and Caviar SACD tastes like spoiled borscht and squashed bread rations. But slip in the O'Jays "Ship Ahoy" (Epic/Legacy multichannel SACD) and you are, how would those Stereophile writers put it, "transformed into a whole new world". (Oh, and I forgot that "veil is lifted" cliché too). Celine Dion (Epic/All the Way – A Decade of Song) has gone from an overworked, underweight, overrated "pop star" to truley deserved Diva status, as the modded XA reveals the extraordinary range of Dion’s vocal talent and her emotional attachment to the song. Decent mixing of the rear channels doesn’t hurt either.
Bass Extension:.... a surprising area of improvement -- the modded XA now goes down much lower yet remains very tight and controlled especially on that difficult 50KHz to 80 KHz region. When I peer into the cover of the intimidating 18" Velodyne HGS sub while playing a multichannel SACD, I notice how quickly the big woofer starts and then stops -- there is no bass overhang at all. But when I switch back to my lesser DVD-A system the woofer becomes much less defined in its movement, sloppy and uncontrolled (reminds me of my teenage years). My 2nd subwoofer, A Rel Stadium that helps out the tube-driven front channels, also seems slightly more at ease with the modded XA and I now find that I tend to fidget less with the Rel's bass settings.
PRAT: The unmodded XA 777 when playing SACD was quite good in this area, perhaps just a bit too soft -- now it's bang on. Well-mixed jazz recordings such as the Full Circle SACD move with lively pace and rhythm, 70’s rock keeps a steady 4/4, and classical orchestrations have the necessary instrument separation so as not to sound jumbled or compressed (so hard to achieve with classical). Drop back to Jacintha’s “Here’s to Ben” and things slow way down into a silky-smooth romantic presentation that’s so intoxicatingly slow, you’re waving down the waiter for another drink.
Looking for a WoW experience in multichannel? "Sacred Feast" (Telrac Mulitichannel SACD) moved me so much so that I thought of changing my religious convictions just to hear this kind of choir experience every Sunday. I remember when Yamaha tried to do this ‘cathedral hall’ thing way back in the 80’s with their DSPs, but the sound was always electronic, mechanical and faked. There’s none of that with this multichannel SACD – you are there, in the Cathedral, with its 100-foot ceilings and 75 or so harmonically haunting voices.
Soundstage: steadily improved -- now finally wider than the speakers with instruments occupying their own distinct space, or at least with more space between them. As an amateur drummer, I'm now able to place where on the drum kit semi-circle the sticks are striking as the drummer moves around the kit. And the kick drum isn’t muddied up with whatever else is happening in mid bass.
Further proof of the expanded soundstage was offered when I played both the multi-channel and 2-channel ‘Just Drums’ SACD. Before the mods, I thought this CD was, well, OK – interesting, but lacking in the dynamics and slam that a multitude of percussion is capable of – such as that in the Blue Man Group DVD-A. Now, ‘Just Drums’ is just awesome, with the both the multichannel and two channel version’s soundstage width moving the drums well outside the speakers. That said, I much prefer the multichannel version. Don’t get me wrong, there are 2-channel SACDs that I'd choose over their multichannel counterpart (Dave Brubeck’s “Time Out” is one that comes to mind), but usually the multichannel versions have that extra space-filling 3D realism and the ability to move the soundstage across the entire width of your listening room.
If the rest of your system is very revealing, you may like to warm things up a bit – overly resolving SACD systems are brutal on poor rooms, bright wires, or overly forward solid state systems. In my case, the resolution achieved by the combination of a Placette Active Linestage, silver cables, and the revealing SS1 setting on my PS 300 was too, too much for the room; switching to PGS Gold cables from pre to XA and then running Golden Reference to the tubes helped a lot. Changing the setting on the PS300 to PS2 from the Sine Wave settings also made a noticeable difference. (On multichannel, the preamp signal is routed to a Sony TAP 9000ES that is not as transparent as the two channel Placette, and that change results in a slightly warmer sound at the expense of some detail.)
By contrast, I found my original unmodded XA a touch too warm or ‘rounded’ on SACD, when compared to the slightly cooler and more resolving presentation of the SCD-1. Yet that DAC-like warmth of the stock XA helped immensely with Redbook -- equating to my initial observations posted back in November, in which I reported that harsh Redbook (sans external DAC) sounded more tolerable on the XA than on the SCD-1, while the 2-channel SACD edge went to the SCD-1. Move forward three months to the modded XA, and you notice an immediate loss of unwanted (rolled-off) warmth, retaining just enough lushness to get rid of the digital fatigue, unless that fatigue is caused by poor recording techniques. This is what good DAC circuitry should do – move you closer to the musicians and mixer, be they good, bad or downright ugly.
For those that are still debating between the XA777ES and a used 777ES or SCD-1, I would suggest that modding the 777ES/SCD-1 may be more cost effective if your are primarily interested in 2-channel SACD. (Richard’s bill will be a lot less to achieve the same level of benefits with only a 2-channel player). However, I would still give the edge on Redbook to the XA, as I was never impressed with my SCD-1s performance in that area compared to that of say an Audio Aero Capitole or the Levinson 360s DAC.
Is the Richard Kern modified XA777Es the best all-around one-box player in the world? I can’t answer that, although I’m tempted to say yes. Surely, if you throw enough money around you can better the modded XA777 in both two channel SACD and Redbook. But not by much -- a damn expensive endeavor far exceeding the sub-$2500 cost of the mods.
And for those of you who like to do that value equation thing, the multichannel improvement alone is worth two times the price of admission of the mods. Tack on resolving 2-channel Redbook without the digital graininess, and then add the precise micro-details and instrument placement achieved by world-class 2-channel SACD, and you have true one-box perfection at a sub $5K price.
Highly recommended --Lorne
Power: separate, dedicated lines for front end and amplification. Wattagate 381 outlets, PS Power cord into PS 300 for front end. Audio Prism II power regulator for amps.
Sources: Richard Kern modified Sony XA777ES SACD player. Stock Pioneer 38A DVD-A.
Preamps: Placette Active Linestage (2-channel), Sony TAP 9000ES (six channel).
Amps: Aranov 9100 monoblocks (tubes) for front channels, Marantz 14EX for rear channels and center.
Speakers: Kef Reference 4 (front) Reference 2 (rear), Kef 200 (center). Rel Stadium II sub (front) Velodyne 18 HGS sub (multichannel LFE)
Power cords and cables: Electraglide digital reference, Bybee Quantum and Power Snakes cords. Stealth PGS Gold, Stealth Cross Wrapped Silver, Cardas Golden Reference and JPS Super Conductor 2+ cables. Synergistic Magic Woofer and Tweeter double shotgun speaker wires. Kimber Illuminations D-60 digital cables.
Tweaks and Racks: BDR “the shelf” and “the source” under the Pioneer and Sony respectively. BDR cones under the BDR shelves. Various Orchard Bay acoustic pucks and cones. Atlantis reference racks with Atlantis cones. Home brew acoustic fabric room treatments and a few well-placed silk plants.