The Music Hall CD-25 is an affordable, good-sounding and well-built $600 integrated CD player with coaxial and Toslink digital outputs. More than a few reliable after-market modification firms like ASI/Reference Audio Mods and Dan Wright/Response Audio embrace its solid platform to perform their upgrades on. In the latter case, this even includes a tubed output stage, a burgeoning trend apparently started by the popular Heart and Ah Tjoeb players based on gutted Marantz units.

Our CD-25 February feature review covered the Parts ConneXion/Graham Company Level 1 mod, performed then on a still Shanling-branded machine since we caught this unit just prior to Roy Hall completing the minor cosmetic silk screen changes and revised color scheme now released as the silver/black (rather than champagne/gray) MMF-CD25.

Today's brief follow-up compares the original review unit retrieved from Canada, this time including two upgraded OPA627 adaptor boards nicknamed "BrownDog 020302", to be installed for the Level 1+ upgrade after I had compared the familiar mod to the new, unfamiliar stock unit retaining the original twin 2604 buffer amps.

The incentive for today's follow-up exercise will be obvious to any performance-shopping, budget-conscious music lover. How much improvement exists between these three different incarnations of the same player? As the above images show, the stock [left] and Level 1 [right] boards differ in the output jacks, SoundCoat applications and capacitor/resistor upgrades around the main chips and buffer amps in the analog output stage. The + iteration of the Level 1's 627 addition has been made possible by ingenuity. Parts ConneXion head honcho Chris Johnson was looking for a way to upgrade the ubiquitous "dual" op amps that are commonly used in most players. These adaptor pcbs are custom and of his design. They can replace the following chips: AD712, AD827, LF353, LM318, NE5532, NJM2114, NJM4558, NJM4560, NJM5532, OPA2132, OPA2134 and OPA2604.

His proprietary BrownNose, er, BrownDog adaptor pcb is an 8-(gold)pin plug-in solution for any of these traditionally socketed op-amps. Should they be hard-soldered to your main pcb, a technician or your own solder-slingin' aptitude will have to unseat them. Those wishing to upgrade their op amps to these current top-drawer buffer amps can obtain them through Walter Liederman's Graham Company for $85/ea. The CD-25 needs two of these adaptors (the right chip is identified by its own speech bubble above), the soon-to-be-reviewed Shanling T-100 uses four.

Stock versus Level 1? The stocker sounded thinner, more bare-boned. It seemed bleached, threadbare, lacking in weight and, most importantly, slower as though the tunes were walking through ankle-high water and suffering minor resistance drag. A/Bing between both units on the fly, using identical interconnects and two copies of the same CD, instantly drove home the obvious extent of this performance delta. The increase in tonal fullness and raw drive with the hotrod was akin to notching up the volume control just enough to not be obviously louder, just more fleshed out - exactly what crafty audio salesmen do to subtly rig a demo. Switching back to the stocker was similar to actual veiling, like hanging a thin curtain in front of your speaker. Everything dulled a bit, like an overexposed photograph - washed out detail, softened contrasts, faded color intensities.

But how to assign a numerical qualifier to suggest the amount of perceived improvement? You'd have to be a machine to generate such a figure. Rather, let me suggest the very tactile response an enthusiast car driver has when his ride returns from a professional tune-up. It's the same car - but it responds better, handles tighter, often even accelerates harder. If it's an old car? Such a pep injection won't last long, true, but I'm sure that you can still relate. Unlike with the tired old jalopy, this tune-up won't fade. Popping the 2134s and inserting the 627s took all of 15 seconds and a flat-blade jeweller's screwdriver. You know the saying "if a reviewer can manage" ? With the chip socketed as in the CD-25, this was the proverbial no-brainer plug'n'play affair.

However - reviewers need a back-up plan to uphold their moronic reputation. So, you can still fry things. And fry them you will if you didn't pay attention to proper orientation first. The chip's corner marked 1 (with a number, square or notch) has to be in the upper left-hand position while facing the player's front panel. In fact, only remove one chip at a time to retain a visual reminder for how what you just took out was positioned - in case you suffer flash memory. Outside of such look-first-plug-second precautions? Child's play, though three end users reportedly have already managed to screw up. Perhaps they should have had their computer whiz kids do it rather than play hobbyist modifier to flush perfectly good money down the toilet?

Regardless of who performs this one-minute operation - it's clearly vital to the patient's health. This was another clearly audible step-up of near-equal magnitude. It took the player beyond my reference Cairn Fog v2.0 24/192 in single-ended hook-up which, as the CD-25's feature review detailed, had already been approached in the standard Level 1 mod to marginally eclipse the French machine in the image density department. The 627 + upgrade now had the CD-25 perform head-to-head with the Cairn Fog in balanced mode.

Quoting from my Cairn review: "... if you can take advantage of the Fog's XLR outputs, do. The sound gets fuller, as though the power transformer's already robust 200VA had increased. There's more drive, especially in the bass, more image heft particularly to the soundstage rear. You need to account for the increased output voltage of balanced operation to do a level-matched comparison, of course, but the difference isn't at all subtle unlike the two digital filter options...

Switching to the Cairn's balanced outputs was akin to turning up the volume, lowering the noisefloor or both - an across-the-board increase of image density, slightly better focus and image separation, a small sense of lateral soundstage expansion, more defined bass..."

The only remaining audible difference between the Fog and MMF-25? The Cairn's airier top-end. The moral of this finding? For $930 plus freight (a $180 upcharge over the $750 fee for the standard Level 1 mod) the Graham Company sells a CD player that handily outperforms the Cairn when operated single-ended as many people without XLR preamp sockets will. For the same $930, you can acquire a player that competes fair and square against the $1,695 Cairn even when the latter goes balanced. You even gain a coaxial digital output in the bargain. What you lose is visual sex appeal. Unless you were someone who paid for - er, such things...

Well, by owning the Cairn, this just turned self indictment. Merde, reviewers just can't win. But seriously, I don't mind at all admitting that yes, I still love the whole French package and wouldn't part with it. And no, you don't have to spend the extra $700 to get its $1,695 award-winning performance. Alors - if you can swing the $180 difference to affix the "+" behind the Level 1 mod and trade its 2134 op amps for the 627s, don't hesitate. Heck, that's less than the price of 10 CDs, something any bona fide music lover surely adds to their music library at least once every two month. So, even if this tariff entailed postponing this player's purchase by eight weeks, it'd be well worth it. I know - it's just two itsy-bitsy green parts with gold-plated spider legs. Never mind. Viagra pills, I'm told, aren't any bigger either. And look what they presumably accomplish. Seeing that the stock player retails for $600, adding another 50% to its cost nets a 100% improvement. Sounds like a wholesale deal to me!

Music Hall website
Graham Company e-mail