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Reviewer: Stephæn Harrell
Analogue Sources: Nottingham Analogue Studio Space Deck; NAS Space Arm; Dynavector 17D2MKII; Dynavector 20xl; AT OC9; Walker Audio Precision Motor Controller
Digital Sources: Tube Research Labs-modded Sony SCD-CE775; secondary: Audience-modded Sony DVP-NS900V; Alesis ML-9600 High-resolution master disk recorder
Preamp: Herron Audio VTSP-1A; Herron Audio VTPH-1MC; secondary: PSE Studio SL
Amp: Art Audio PX-25 with Sophia output and rectifier tubes; secondary: Wright Sound Company WPA 3.5 monoblocks; Sonic Impact Class T
Speakers: Cain & Cain Company Studio Series Intermediate Ben with cryo-ed 168 m. Fostex Sigma drivers; REL Strata III; secondary: Sound Dynamics RTS-3
Cables: Audience Au24 cables and interconnects; TG Audio Lab custom copper interconnects; secondary: Analysis Plus cables and interconnects
Stands: Primarily, wall-mounted maple shelving; Cain & Cain amp stand
Isolation: HAL-O Damping Instruments; Acoustic Dreams Dead Ball Isolators; Neuance platform
Powerline Conditioning: BPT 3.5 Signature; cryo'd Pass & Seymour wall outlets; Audience powerChords,T.G. Audio Lab SLVR power cords, Analysis Plus Power Oval; secondary: Brick Wall PW8R15AUD
Sundry Accessories: VPI 16.5 record cleaner; Shun Mook Valve Resonators; Auric Illuminator, Walker Audio VIVID CD & DVD Enhancer; Walker Audio SST Super Silver Treatment; Gibson J100x; Epiphone Dot (Gibson ES-335 knock-off); Epiphone Chet Atkins CE; Fender Blues Jr. amp (all-tube circuitry)
Office System: Washburn D10
Room Size & Treatments: 25' x 16' x 9' - ASC Tube Traps and Sound Planks; Echo Busters absorbers; secondary: Argent RoomLens system
Review Components Retails: Audience powerChord $449/6 ft.
| HAL-O® Vacuum Tube Dampers from $10 - $30 | Herbie's Way Excellent Turntable Mat $50 | Tube Research Labs Digital Modification $550

Recommended upgrades from 2004: From the esoteric to the practical, each and every one under $600

CryO me a Driver of Music
With every newfound improvement he's tried on his speaker line, Terry Cain has been bugging me to upgrade my I-Bens. Cables, deflectors, wires, the works. I keep saying no. His latest suggestion was cryogenically treated drivers.

Deep-frozen cones? I though he'd turned his woodworking shop into a designer speaker factory, not an ice cream parlor. Why should I do this, Terry? "Because we are cursed with appendages attached to our heads that are sensitive enough to be influenced by the subtle differences in the electromagnetic devices we electrically vibrate to attempt induced euphoria."

I stalled. Repeatedly. It's no different from my usual modus operandi. The proof? After Bob Crump (of TG Audio Labs) sent me the units, it took me over a year to give his cryogenically treated P&S wall outlets a whirl. But after hearing what the cryo treatment could do for power -- even after installing the BPT 3.5 Sig unit last winter -- I was hooked and ready to take Terry up on his offer. Turns out there's a shop across the street from his office that will bathe items in their cryo system on a by-the-pound basis. So, when Terry and his lovely (and award-winning landscape artist) sidekick Leslie stopped over for my bride's September birthday merrymaking, he brought the cryo'd babies.

A few rounds with the electric screwdriver and it was out with old, in with the new. Twenty seconds after dropping the Dynavector into the groove of Solomon Burke's latest, it was me who was cry-ing. Anyone who has dealt with the Fostex units in question knows how long they take to break in, tending to improve in subtle gradations over time. I had already spent two years coaxing the most out of the ones we took out. Now, these newbies had the nerve, the effrontery, the impudent boldness, to sound just as well-mannered right out of the freaking box (or bath as it were). Within twenty minutes, they sounded better than the ones we just took out: smooth, refined, liquid, deep and spacious. I frowned. My usual first response when I hear a piece of gear that catches my breath is: What's really going on here? Elevated this? Diminished that?

I'm one of those people who would never succeed in repeated side-by-side, minute-by-minute comparisons. Gimme time to connect to what's happening with my mood, emotions and body when evaluating new gear. Do I tense? Relax? Does my mind wander or am I moved to not move? Am I reading or making long-overdue phone calls or simply listening? The only system adjustment I recall making during this phase of settling in to the evolving effects of the swap was (ever so slightly) turning down the volume of my sub. Of course, turning it off temporarily explained exactly why. Anyway, a week later I was sure that this was the real thing. What we have here is more dynamically nimble extension top-to-bottom. Plus, there's deeper saturation of tones and images and a sense of a wider (though objectively extending no farther beyond the edges of the speakers) and deeper (yet more focused though certainly not crowded) soundstage. Simply put, more spacious and ambient. But, wait -- say it with me -- there's more.

Even so, words can only say so much. It's hard to express the ease that the cryo treatment imparted to the same drivers I'd been living with for almost two years. In addition to the ease, dynamic dexterity and attack they displayed on, for example, the opening bar (and rush of sound) on "Mercy Street" from Christy Baron's Steppin', there's the delicacy with which they allow background percussion to express the gentle wildlife (chirping birds) and the ability to conjure up images of that steamy sax on the funky "Delays on the Downtown 6". These experiences demonstrated the yin and yang of what cryogenics did to these drivers - dynamic power and nuanced inflection exquisitely wedded.

Don't go cryoing to Cain
As I was wrapping up my thoughts, I asked Terry to chime in. He said he was happy to share his experience as it was great to plug cryo in general, but not as a Cain & Cain service. Cuz it ain't. To wit "I don't want every audio tweaker calling and picking my feeble uncryo'd punim." Period. Okay, okay. So, if you're piqued by the possibilities, know this: There are a few cryo-men that specialize in audio cryo applications. These folks know the materials and results better than Terry and are ready to serve. Alan Kafton's audio excellence az is a great source of information about where to go chillin' - er, get cryo'd.

Okay, Terry, so what is this cryo thing? In typical Terry fashion, he answers the question by starting with a piece of wisdom from someone he admires. "Lynn Olsen noted that the manufacture of devices causes stresses to the entire array of materials; they eventually settle out and harmonize and sound better when they do. Take the magnet," says Terry. "The pole plates are sheared and formed from steel that was heated to liquid, poured like cake mix and allowed to cool faster at the edges than in the middle. Steel's molecules, while commonly oriented by magnetism, are still packed and arrayed at dissimilar rates in the structures due to the uneven cooling and subsequent violence of the manufacturing process (shearing, rolling, brake punching and forming). Cryo evens the structure's molecular arrangement allowing, in the case of magnet structure, more even magnetism."

"In industrial applications like vibrating conveyors (around our area, that means potato harvesting/processing machinery) conveyor magnets increase magnetic strength by 15% and magnetic durability by some 600% when cryogenically treated. The potato machinery market is huge, way bigger than audio. As audio manufacturers, we can benefit from the potato industry's research into cryo applications. What this means is better French fries through chemistry. Or, a more even transfer of electrical energy through the voice coil and magnetic gap into momentum of the cone resulting in a grain-free sound as well as increased transient accuracy (sweetness)."

Okay Terry, what about the cones? "Cryoing a cheap machine-made violin relaxes the wood to an advanced state such that the difference in sound is startling. With banana cones (Fostex), it's the same thing. They relax, tensions even out unlike when the cone was made and glued to its surround and coil and then sprung in its terminal suspension." How'd you get 'em done? "I send the parts of a system to be cryogenically enhanced to a local cryoman. Normally he cryos parking-lot light bulbs, Toyota MR2 crankshafts and John Deere wheat-combine parts. He charges $7 per pound for the service. But, he only fires up the $250,000 system about three times a year. He bought it for his street rod and 3000-acre wheat-ranch mechanic shenanigans."

How much for a cryoed driver, then? "How much would I charge? I don't offer this service to the public and don't recommend it unless they can deal with the loss of whatever they are cryoing. There are industrial cryomen all over the world. I specialize in sawdust and band-aids. My cryo results are a mixed bag of ruined drivers punctuated with stunningly clear results when successful."

Guess I got lucky, huh? So, in keeping with the limit of $600, if you found a good cryo pro, and the cost was similar, and you could deal with the loss of "whatever"... then you could get about 85 pounds of whatever done. Let us know how it goes for you.
The Audience powerChord
Earlier this year, I reviewed (and purchased) the Audience Au24 speaker cables and interconnects. My bride was thrilled at the absence of huge snakes crawling across our floor and I was more than pleased to upgrade to wire that did not draw sonic attention to itself but supported the process that is music unfolding - them voices talking to me.

Although offered by the good folks at Audience at the time of that review, I did not request any samples of the powerChord. I'm not fond of making multiple and simultaneous changes to the main rig. But, after getting the full measure of Au24 cabling, I've now spent several weeks with a couple of them and am here to report that they, like their stable mates, are special.

Whereas speaker cables and interconnects tend to be system dependent, power cords are finicky in a different way so I dub them component and system dependent. Not only do power cords work better with some components, they also do and don't work better with the same components in different systems. So, there are no panaceas to personal experimentation in my experience. Lastly, power cords won't radically alter the basic character of your system. Some will highlight (for better or worse) certain aspects of it. What this means for the end user is a bit of trial'n'error to find the best fit for his system. Fortunately, many dealers appreciate this reality and offer a reasonable trial period. Audience is one of the good guys. Their products may be auditioned and returned within 30 days of purchase for a full refund (not including shipping charges, naturally). Refunds are subject to inspection of merchandise and approval by Audience.

As for me, here's the rest of my short story: I have a friend just getting into the audiofool-ish-ness of it all. He was over for breakfast after a long bike ride one Saturday. We were listening to tunes (playing in the music room) while eating in the adjacent dining room. While getting some more coffee in the kitchen, I remembered that I needed to swap out power cords. I wandered over to the CD player and quickly substituted my favorite budget cord --Volex 17504 at $5/ea. (formerly Belden) that beats the holy heck out what most manufacturers ship with their goods -- for the powerChord that had been burning in. They were side by side so it was easy to swap and hit play again in short order. As I entered the dining room, my friend asked what I did. I played innocent and gave him the coffee. He looked perplexed and then asked if I had changed the volume. Nope. He insisted that something changed. How? "For the worse." Really? "Yes," sez he. "The life has gone out of the music and the sound is now dirty, not clear."

Out of the mouths of babes. But he nailed it. Most competent after-market power cords will clean up the sound, usually by lowering the noise floor. Despite that general but important improvement, some cords then take a step backwards by imposing some measure of tonal degradation. Few of the cords I've tried seem to inject a life-like force to the music. Fewer than that improve timing and flow. Fewer still will broaden your musical horizons by rewarding you with depth of stage, all the while giving you insights on performer technique by allowing your gear to better resolve low level and inner detail in a musical, organic manner. The powerChords on my CD player and amp delivered the goods. Highly recommended for audition.

HAL-O® Vacuum Tube Dampers (photos credit Jeff Day)
I am not often impressed by any piece of gear, mostly because the prices tend to be so dear that I can only go so far as being satisfied that I got my money's worth. To be impressed, I need to see the value quotient (price vs. performance) go through the roof. Starting with the HAL-Os on just the output and signal tubes on my PX-25, I was impressed. The upgrade in performance went far beyond the $100 investment. In fact, some aspects of the overall improvement are such that I have only experienced them with major component upgrades before.

So I wound up HALO®ing every tube in the system. On Jennifer Warnes' The Well, I heard much more (sympathetically revealed, not etched) detail, timbral richness, inner detail and low-level attack, dynamic gradations and decay. I became more and more irritated with each passing song. What's not to like? Here's what: The cause of my agitation was that I thought my system was beyond silly help by band-aids! I thought I had the isolation thing pretty well covered and I still do ... but the issue here is the microphonics induced by the tubes themselves. Nasty little devils, they. And in this case, the devils mask the details.

On the vinyl front, we have Van Morrison's Poetic Champions Compose where the occasional raspiness of the saxophone (heretofore inappropriately smoothed out) provides a splendid counterpoint to the soothing piano backing. The bass line is better articulated while, at the same time, burrowing deeper into its respective octave as the clarion nature of the upper piano register slices through to provide just the right foil to keep the musical connotation well poised. "The Queen of the Slipstream" provided further illustrations of the impacts. The HAL-Os allowed for a propulsion and explication of the (usually back-grounded) strings. This is not say that it moved those instruments to the forefront but simply gave them a better chance of cutting through the mix to find their rightful place to more successfully contribute to the proceedings.

Have I mentioned ambience and retrieval of venue? Front-to-back positioning of performers? Illumination of the corners of the well-exposed soundstage? The subtle but fully saturated back-up vocalists? Which instrumentalist was lingering in my neighbor's back yard?

Laurie Anderson's Strange Angels was next up. Again, we have gobs of smooth detail but not to the degree that it ameliorates the computerized nature of some of the instrumentation; it simply allows you to mine (without more cognitive effort) deeper into the multi-layered events. Clarity of the 'real instruments' was still captivating, the cymbals and drums for example having a level of expression that was missing before. Vocal harmonies were not only more detailed, they were richer in timbre. With vocals and numerous instruments, it seems as though overall tones shifted slightly, like the difference of hearing a vocalist singing straight at you as opposed to her looking off to one side of the stage - for lack of a better example and more emotionally expressive thanks to a level of articulation that must have been masked in the past.

And then, some details revealed will, for some people, appear to be less than musical. An example that immediately comes to mind is the guitar work on Lambchop's Is a Woman release. The sliding up and down the neck on "The New Cobweb Summer" can be viewed as either a distraction or a taste of what it's like to work a guitar. As a student of the craft, I am more partial to the latter view.

Herbie's Way Excellent Turntable Mat
Here's yet another bargain that buys you double-ended frequency extension and a lucidity in the upper mids that, for example, reveals previously hidden textures of massed strings. Please note that Herbie's Way Excellent Turntable Mat might beg you to turn down the volume. What's up with that? Did I mention improved transient attack? I guess that goes hand in glove with the upgraded retrieval of ambience. Instrumental and vocal articulation is more incisive across the board; this may be a blessing -- or curse -- depending on the leanings of your current system. For those of you who listen at low volumes, all this will be revealing ... for those of you who with a propensity to take advantage of your volume control knob -- or abusing it, depending on the point of view -- prepare to be startled. The dynamic gradients are there in a way you may not have experienced before.

If you're like me and love to dig deep into the grooves late at night without disturbing your loved ones, just get the mat, spin the black licorice and get ready to hear more than you thought possible from a $50 upgrade. Then look into the mirror and see what I did: One happy music lover.

Tube Research Labs Digital Modification
Back in March, at the end of my review of the Omega Grande 6 speakers, I laid out my recommendations for a $2,500 system which I could easily live with. I also hinted that if instead of using the Ah! Njoe Tjoeb 4000 CD player, the Sony SCD-CE775 would be a good alternate and bring the final price tag to just $2,000.

I've thought highly of the very practical 775 since the moment it serendipitously landed in my system. It was in the fall of 2002, two days after I sent my Sony SCD-777ES ($3,500) out for repair, that I realized we needed music for a gathering my bride was hosting that evening. Was I gonna be jumping up and down from the festivities every 20 minutes to spin vinyl all night long? No way. I needed a cee dee player now. I headed out the door with my mind made up to buy a cheap carousel player just to get us through. No more than $200 would be spent.

Now, there's something to be said for having a vision even if it's a lame one. My car practically steered itself to Circuit City where I found the 775 five-disc SACD player on closeout for $180 and snapped it up. Sure, this should tide me over for two weeks or so, I thought. After spending a few days with it, I called around and found that Best Buy had a floor model they were selling for $130. Got that one, too. Long story short: When the triple-seven returned from surgery, I took it to post-op (my secondary system) and let it settle-in for a few days. Then, it was back to the main system. I unplugged the 775 ... hooked up the 777 ... pressed play ... sat ... listened ... and sold.

So, is the 775 a giant killer? Wrong question. I simply preferred it over the 777 in my system. It sucked less and that made it easy to make a decision when confronted with the different shortcomings of each player. The triple-seven stomped the 775 with respect to all manner of detail retrieval, extension in the frequency extremes and sheer bass tautness. It made exceptional sounds. The 775, on the other hand, made music; the kind that allowed me to drop my shoulders, open my ears and relax into the moment without fear of being aurally attacked by analysis.

So, the 775 remained my primary source for spinning aluminum. A few other players have come and gone but I had no real complaints as I prefer listening to vinyl anyway. Then synchronicity intruded. In late October, I get a call from Paul. Mr. Weitzel of Tube Research Labs that is. I met Paul at VSAC a few years back and have enjoyed some of the recordings he's made on his Diversity and Fidelis labels [left]. He tells me he heard from a friend that I have a 775. I nod. He tells me that he has a mod. I resist. All the mods I've read about are pretty spendy. Why would I dump thousands of dollars into a $150 machine? Or course, the answer is to make it better. But, this is a carousel ... and when it comes to money, I tend to be risk-avoidant ... and who knows, I might not even like the mod and ... Paul sez the TRL
mod costs $550 ... hmmmm ... okay, that's interesting ... and since I'm in the business, he'll make me a sweet deal. Well, when someone makes it that easy, it gets a lot harder to say no. Plus, I have an obligation to our 6moons readers, no? Besides, I knew where to get another 775 if things didn't work out.

Paul warned me that FedUp has been getting sloppy with shipments and to pack things really well. Fortunately, I had some hard-core bubble wrap that protected my last kayak purchase during shipment. That and a double box made for smooth sailing to his shop. Five days later, I had my baby back. Paul says the typical turnaround time is two to three days. It didn't hurt that TRL's headquarters are in Quincy [right next to George/WA, no lying], just 100 miles from where I live.

On our local club scene, my TRL-modded 775 has since been compared to the stock version in four systems. The other systems were those of fellow-moonster® Jeff Day, Pete Riggle (maker of the VTAF®), and Bill Van Winkle (best described by Jeff Day as "the ultra-cool 75-year old sightless master piano restorer/tuner and babe magnet®").

"Astounding,'"said Bill. "Lots more air and dimensionality." He was right but the first thing I noted was the improved sense of pace. The often driven and slightly polka-ish bass on Michelle Shocked's Short Sharp Shocked was transformed by a newly found grip on the balls of the mid-bass. It showed the stock version of the 775 to be comparatively inept; think white boy with no riddim. Vocal articulation and instrumental details were splendid, without any edginess, repeatedly reminding me of my first SET amp experience. In short, the TRL 775 ate the stock unit alive and then -- as we wanted to push things along -- pretty much had Bill's Njoe Tjoeb 4000 for desert.

The story at Jeff's was similar but not as dramatic. Still, the changes were obvious, especially with respect to frequency extension on both ends. The stock version was comparatively closed in at the top and loose in the bass. Lastly, when I took the unit to Pete's (he has his own stock 775), he did a lot of grumbling. Translation? Let's just say that as I was coming out of the restroom just before heading home, I heard the familiar sound of scraping Styrofoam. 'Twas Pete trying to sneak his unmodded 775 into my box.

In my system where it has spent the better part of a month now, I'll say this: As time passes, I notice a significantly improved -- and still improving -- top end as demonstrated by the lifelike shimmer of cymbals and clarion upper octave of the piano. Startlingly life-like would be the right phrase. The mid-bass also continues to improve, driving all manner of music to communicate its optimal rhythm. I also found that the level of resolution this player is capable of continues to sneak up on me. Take Lambchop's Is a Woman recording. On lesser systems, Kurt Wagner's mumblings can be difficult to decipher. Since the TRL mod, I've never better understood him and the relationship of the understated accompaniment to his lyrics. It's easy to get sucked in by the tube-like warmth and then loiter in the fluidity of the proceedings. Bill got that feeling,
too. As I recall, he asked what kind of tubes TRL was using in the mod. Regardless of what CD is on, I'm hearing more of what's on every recording but without glare or edginess. Lastly, the soundstage has opened wide and deep and seems to be getting deeper still.

Convinced that this modification was an outright steal, I had to ask Paul about it. He wasn't exactly forthcoming. In fact, he was downright tight-lipped. Looking inside the hot-modded unit won't tell you much either. TRL covers the circuit boards with damping compound before closing up the box. What he would say is that his R&D team started investigating consumer-targeted mods after what they learned in the process of improving their own recording consoles. Paul offered "We're just simple farm boys looking at making circuit alterations that are aimed at getting the signal from D to A most effectively." Farm boys indeed. I understand that they've also learned a lot through other contract work, especially in the medical field where they upgrade and service high-end devices. Paul concluded by saying "No spendy caps required in our mods. By the way, our partners Joel and Brian have also started applying these ideas to DVD players and projectors."

So there you have it: A marvelous mod at a sensible price. As a committed vinyl hound, I'm reluctant to end on this note but I really don't mind listening to CDs anymore. If that sounds like damning with faint praise, so be it. Coming from a licorice pizza die-hard, I think it's quite a statement.

The downside of this narrative is that the Sony SCD-775ES has been out of production for some time now and the odds of finding any remainders on closeout are now slim to none. Still, there could be a very happy ending for those frugal but discerning audiophiles who have read this far. Back in March, at the end of my review of the Omega
Grande 6 speakers, I noted my ideas for budget system and then suggested, "The next generation of Sony SACD players are going to hit the stores (not the street) for $150 (no, that's not a misprint) and if they are as good as the SCD-CE775 carousel from a few years back, you'd have another fine match ..."

Guess what? Paul just called to tell me that TRL has completed their first mod on the recently released Sony SCD-CE595. He said it's much better than the modded 775. Better than the TRL 775? Hmmmm ... okay, that's interesting ... hey Paul, I gotta get to a meeting ... talk to you later. No sooner was I off the phone than I was in my car. Circuit City, here I come. The price? $149.99. I bought two and took one home to burn in for later comparisons. You don't have to be clairvoyant to know what I did with the other. And I'm not trading it for Paul's $25,000 Golden Triode Multi-Channel Reference preamplifier neither [above] ... Stay tuned.
Cain & Cain Website
Audience Website
Herbie's Labs Website
Tube Research Labs Website