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The hi-gain JJ ECC99 was specifically developed as a 300B driver and combines very linear response with clarity and detail to mirror the 6H30. High transconductance and low plate resistance are similar to the 7119/E182CC and the pin configuration is like a 12AU7/ECC82 or 12BH7. "Very recently, I became aware of the ECC99 gold-pin version. Luckily they had a quartet in the US distributor's stock. I like what I am hearing - more life, more ambience and inner detail, more relaxed too - the golds are worth seeking out ... The original Esoteric power supply features two R-core transformers. The R-core transformer is the best I've found for audio. It also converts single-ended AC power to balanced, eliminating the need for power conditioners and/or regenerators. My clients have sold conditioners and regenerators costing from $2K to $10K. I highly recommend plugging the NWO direct to the wall as it brings best results so far.

the original Esoteric stereo clock/DAC/analog output stage board

"I add a third R-Core custom made for me by Kitamura-Kidden of Japan (they also manufacture the original Esoteric R-Core transformers). This unit was made possible by my good friend Hisao Kimura from Japan, a brilliant mechanical engineer who helps me with the mechanical designs. I'd also like to mention my Bulgarian team of engineers who are of tremendous help to me. Danail Genov is the main coordinator and in charge of the Bulgarian manufacturing operation. Atanas Obreshkov is the software specialist while Emil Iliev is in charge of final PCB design. Lastly, l could tell you about the H-Attenuator but then I'd have to kill you. Suffice to say that it is not directly in the signal path."

The replacement parts for the above board in the NWO 3.0-GO rebuild

It seems fair to call the NWO 3.0-GO a radical rebuild rather than mere modification. Where other digital modifiers alter the output stage, perhaps bypass certain converter stages and add a super clock, the Peychev team changes - well, radically more. Arguably the only reason for not issuing their very own player from scratch is the financial commitment of becoming a VRDS-NEO OEM. The $150,000 investment for 50 of the smaller sleds is prohibitive for a tiny firm, $300,000 for the top NEO even more so. Acquiring complete players a few at a time is more cost-effective for APL Hifi in more ways than one. It adds a first-rate enclosure, remote control, owner's manual and packing materials. The punishment is redundant labor. Already finalized boards have to be carefully stripped of the wrong parts rather than being stuffed with the right parts to begin with. It's like deep-pocket real estate. If you can't find the empty property you want, you buy one with a house on it - any house. Then you demolish the dwelling to build the one you really want (faster) or gut just the insides to retain the outer shell (slower). In the APL Hifi line, the forthcoming DAC will be the first from-scratch machine to address this scenario. That will move the company into the next growth phase - transitioning from advanced modifier to bona fide manufacturer as competitor ModWright has already accomplished a few models ago.

Exceptionally heavy as is de rigeur for Esoteric's top players, I was shocked to discover that the vaunted VRDS NEO had misaligned in transit to merely open the tray to the end of its lip, then hanging up on the slot opening's upper edge. Physically pulling the drawer out allowed me to replace the disc Alex had shipped installed, then hit 'close' and very deftly guide the drawer back in. If fast enough, I managed to avoid an error message. Otherwise I had to repeat the manual open/close procedure. Naturally, I put in immediate word with Alex to learn how to realign the mechanism. It turns out Esoteric ships their machines with a special card-board insert which locks the tray/transort block during transit. Alex didn't have one on hand and took a calculated risk using a CD instead (not a brownie point in my book). My tray has just a bit of lateral play, i.e. when open, it can be slightly pulled to the left or right. By pulling it in the opposite direction of where it sat while catching, it subsequently cleared smoothly going in and made just the slightest clunking noise ejecting. Checking in with my Esoteric US contact Mark Gurvey, he estimated transport-related misalignments at 1-2% when they were still using FedEx and UPS. Always the direct results of serious mishandling and drops, he forwarded some blood & gore pix. Since Esoteric shifted to ABF Timekeeper for inter-US deliveries, shipping damages to VRDS machines has been 0. My machine, due to location, shipped by -- you guessed it -- FedEx.

Despite this mechanically less than illustrious beginning, once I hit play, those cocky words "game over" did do a full frontal assault number quite without volition. When you're in the presence of better than you're used to by a significant enough margin, it takes no time at all to recognize it.

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The above photo shows the quintuplet stack of the D/A module wired directly to the tube pins of the externally mounted ECC 99s. In a touch less class than befitting ambition and sticker shock, the chassis holes vacated by the previous RCA outputs (new low-mass WBT NextGens have taken the place of the stock center and left surround sockets below) haven't been covered even with plastic snaps. Ditto for the black felt-tip markings of 'digital input' and 'L' and 'R'. A 50-cent metallized printed sticker would seem more appropriate. Mind you, being the beneficiary of this enormous gift, I'm not complaining in the least for myself. I'm complaining on behalf of those who'll personally spend the very long green.

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