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Reviewer: Stephæn Harrell
Analogue Sources: Nottingham Analogue Studio Space Deck; NAS Space Arm; Dynavector 17D2MKII; Dynavector 20xl; AT OC9; Denon 103 cartridge; Walker Audio Precision Motor Controller
Digital Sources: Tube Research Labs-modded Sony SCD-CE5955; secondary: TRL-modded Sony DVP-NS900V and Sony SCD-CE775; TRL-modded 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; Audio Zone STi
Speakers: Cain & Cain Company Studio Series Intermediate Ben with cryo-ed 168 m. Fostex Sigma drivers; REL Strata III; secondary: Omega Speaker Systems Grande 6: 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 Component Retail: ca. $149 for stock Sony, add
$550 for the reviewed modification

A Recipe for Digital Bliss - but first, a prescription for what ails ya
For the better part of the last six months, I've been involved in ongoing physical therapy for a painful neck and shoulder injury. Ultrasound, electrotherapy, traction, hydrotherapy, anti-inflammatories (both homeopathic and allopathic), range-of -motion exercises... you get the idea. The injury and regimen have kept me from cycling (and often sleeping).

The upside to all this has been more time to listen to music, practice my guitar and cook. All of which I consider therapy too. Especially the music. At least it doesn't add further weight to a growing body that hasn't seen the seat of a mountain bike since November. So, with all this time to lounge, what could be better than hanging with friends and reveling in the music?

"Beard stubble," sez Terry Cain.
"It's Paolo Conte's beard stubble, man." He insists.
Uh, okay. Want some more wine, dude?

So began Terry 'Ten Fingers' Cain's evaluation of my system following the insertion of the Sony SCD-CE595 as modified by the guys at Tube Research Labs. An hour later, we stopped listening (but kept on grinning) only because it was time to eat. My sweet-tempered bride had cooked up some spicy turkey meatballs to go along with the homemade spinach pasta and densely reduced red wine and Portobello mushroom sauce I'd made earlier in the day. And, the only thing better than the music was the smell coming from the kitchen. Turkey meatballs may sound odd but you are well advised to blend up a batch immediately and see for yourself - equal parts turkey sausage and ground turkey mixed with smoked red peppers, minced onions and raisins, parsley, bread crumbs, grated parmesan cheese and chili pepper flakes. Mix, roll, cook, drool and savor.

Sorry for the detour. We were listening to Paolo Conte and about ten minutes into the session, Terry looks at me and sez "beard stubble."
"Beard stubble!"
Okay, whatever. So then he goes into a rant about how killer the system sounds with the Tube Research Labs modified Sony 595: Transparency galore, with none of the often-attendant downsides, blah, blah, blah. He then swore he could see Conte's three-day old beard stubble.

Not A Tube Tu Be Found
What I didn't clearly state in my review of the modded Sony 775 is that TRL mods are not tube-based. Yes, the name and sound certainly suggest otherwise. And yes, I did mention that while on the rounds of the local audiophile chapter, Bill 'The Watchdog' Van Winkle asked what kind of tubes they were employing. I just forget to add the answer. You may also recall that in my review of said product, I noted the following:

"I bought the stock SCD-CE775 for $180 late in the game (it had an original sticker price of about $350 but Sony eventually reduced it to a mere $199). I got it as a temporary stopgap while my $3,500 Sony SCD-777ES was in the shop. After listening to both upon the 777's return, I sold the latter. Oh yes, 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 aural analysis."

After the modification, we got:

  • More air, image dimensionality and tonal saturation
  • Deeper, tighter bass and an improved sense of rhythmic drive
  • Better frequency extension at the top; and
  • A soundstage that opened wide and deep.

Best of all, we got to sample more of the audio buffet without encountering the burn or astringency that some high-resolution machines will fire your way.

The downside of that review was clear-cut: the Sony SCD-CE775 had been out of production for some time and the odds of finding any leftovers on closeout were slim to none. I then learned -- barely in time to avoid a Merlot and chocolate binge -- that TRL had just pulled their first mod of the recently released Sony SCD-CE595 out of the oven. The mug of the 595 differs only in the absence of a headphone jack (boooooo - hisssssss!) and the placement of the disc exchange and disc skip buttons to the outside of the rotary dial that allows easy track selection when not using the remote (which is now smaller and more ergonomically friendly). Pop the top and you'll see that critical plastics around the transport have gone from a flimsier black to a denser white. "Hurrah!" cheered TRL's Paul Weitzel. "The carbon black plastic used in the 775 had some electrical properties that produced static and stray magnetism. Even better, the transport on the new version is improved, the clamp is a lot more solid and the 595 has a very good chip set."

Blah, blah, yeah, yeah. Whatever. Ingredients are necessary but to me, the proof is in the port - er, pasta ... ah, pesto. Hey, I was getting hungry. In true eyes-bigger-than-stomach fashion, I immediately bought two 595s and had one shipped to TRL.

A chat with the chef
Following my review of the 775, a mixture of oddiophools wrote to ask questions and/or confirm my experience of Paul keeping his cookies in the jar when it comes to discussing what the chefs in Quincy actually do to the provisions you send them. So, nudged along by all the natural enquirers, I asked Paul -- for the last time, I promise -- about TRL's modification process.

"Certainly there are people who would like to know what we do, what we do differently from other modifiers, what parts we've identified as the best, etc. In short, we don't publish our parts list or schematics at TRL. We've never done that for our amps, and there's really no compelling reason to do so for our digital modifications.

Let's face it, we aren't really privy to much of the intellectual property or proprietary information behind the $11,000 Clearaudio Insider phono cartridge. How does this affect Clearaudio's sales? Do they sell by word-of-mouth, magazine review, reputation etc. without disclosing to us their work and parts sources? Of course they do.

There are modders that add an outboard "clock" board and a baggie of Blackgate capacitors worth, what? And some mod shops charge the customer upwards of $4,000 or so. What I can say is that for a price that many music lovers can afford, we strive to optimize every circuit in any particular player. On the Sony players, our standard procedures have settled in. The basics include acoustical damping, IEC jack location, parts values, clock calibration and circuit optimization.

People also frequently ask about the older but more expensive players by Sony. The SCD-777ES, for example, can be made to sound better but they still implement the older chip. Over the years, it's been easy to see (and hear) that digital technology gets better quite regularly. So a newer but less expensive machine can often yield better results. And of course, everybody knows that Sony can sell their players for less profit than, say Denon because they want to make the money from the software royalties of other labels adopting the format and releasing titles on SACD.

Lastly, at this time, all the mods are $550 per unit, no matter what product you send us (DVD players, projectors, whatever). I should add, $550 per box so if you have a transport and DAC, that counts as two units."

Let's eat: A short course
The TRL-modified SCD-CE595 eclipses the performance of the 775 in a manner that appropriately addresses the mission of music making. The made-to-order version does all the things that the TRL 775 did right and then, a few things better. Most importantly, it beats the 775 by delivering music with even less of the digital edginess so commonly found in other (often more pricey) players. When I was using the TRL 775, I was impressed by the seeming lack of digital edginess displayed. Once the TRL 595 cooked in, I was surprised again. Its performance on this parameter exposed the 775 as a comparative wannabe (albeit better than many). Now, add to the mix the beard-stubble factor, better resolution, tighter and deeper bass, improved macro-dynamics and better (but you'll have to wait for it to settle in) high frequency extension and you've got something very delectable on your plate.

Speaking of drooling, the tour of the Sony/TRL 775 around our Northwest Audio Mafia circuit left many diners craving more of the music it delivered and -- being mostly intellectually driven males -- wanting to know more about how it compares to the digital behemoths. This review won't help sate that hunger because none of the local crew own the mega-buck gear. But we all love (and own) vinyl that we regularly spin.

And while I could go on and on to fill space, I simply won't. There are dozens of owners posting at AudiogoN and the Asylum who have perspectives to lend, many of them well thought out and worth reading. Others, sadly, are typical of what you'll find when folks PUI (post under the influence) or hide behind their keyboards saying things they would never say to anyone's face.

Anyway, if you think I'm thinking you might appreciate hearing from others about their experience, you'd be right. Or I might be wrong. But, the folks who share their thoughts below are people whom I know personally and more importantly, whom I trust. We have been together on regular listening panels ever since the summer of 2001 when I first organized a group exploration of power cords for Issue 132 of The Absolute Sound.

Sure, I could tell you about all the CDs I used. It's probably more useful to tell you that I put it on a Neuance isolation platform and employed an Audience powerChord. What I will say is that I do have a respectable analog setup and then I will tell you this: It hasn't seen nearly the level of action it used to. Sure, I still treat myself once in a while and it's still better when all is said and done. But, ladies and gentlemen, the gap has narrowed profoundly.

So other than to add that TRL has also modified (and thereby improved) my Sony DVP-NS900V and Alesis ML-9600 high-resolution master disk recorder, I'll push away from the table and end with a few anecdotes. In early February, John 'The Pig' Hoffman entered the fray. He pretty much has the system I used to have several years ago - Audible Illusions M3A pre, Art Audio Diavolo amp, Cabasse Catalane 500 speakers and the Sony SCD-777ES. I recently loaned him my modded 775 to try. Those of you paying attention will note that I didn't -- and won't -- loan him my modded 595. A few days later he reported back that this was the best top-to-bottom balanced, most cohesive, full-bodied-yet-rhythmically-nimble CDP he'd ever heard. He likes it better than the 777 in his system and would trade in a heartbeat. I reminded him that I once had a triple-seven and insisted he stop trying to take advantage of me. He subsequently sent his 777 up to Quincy for the treatment.

Following Terry and Leslie's visit in January, I asked Terry to comment:
"Beard stubble. That's your job."
C'mon Terry, fess up.
"Okay, the turkey and raisin peppered meatballs were real yummy. The tremendous red wine embiggened the spinach pasta's bright green delectability with organic buoyancy."
Uh, Terry - the CD player, dude. What about the CD player?

"The modded 595 exhibited a nutty and dark fruity morass of sonic delight one would expect from a fine numerical compote."
"Okay. It had tons of depth and hit the red book ceiling, which probably sets a record for low cost. No edginess - which the player surely had before the mods."

A couple of weeks later, fellow Moonster® Jeff 'da Daze' Day weighed in after I brought the unit over to his place. Truth be told -- and bless him for his honesty -- he couldn't get excited about it and basically questioned my ears after observing my delight. Ouch! You can check out Jeff's system here at 6moons (and it's certainly no slouch!) but for now you need to know that the TRL 595 at Jeff's was trading places with a Meridian 508.20 CD player used as a transport with an Audio Logic 2400 vacuum tube DAC. Okay?

He found the bass to be articulate and organic - better than his reference. He gave it high marks for PRAT -- better than his reference -- adding that it sounded like a tight band, i.e. a group of musicians who have played together so long and so well that they know each others' moves inside and out. He experienced the unit getting a touch edgy in the upper mids and opined that the Audio Logic DAC does tonal saturation better, is warmer, presents a bigger soundstage, offers more presence of performers and a bit more air. He summed up, "Giant killer ... no!" Whatever -:)

Earlier that week, Pete 'The Riggler' Riddle weighed in with the following via e-mail. Now, without saying that he's not getting any younger, let's just note that Pete's forgotten more about audio than many of us can ever hope to know. He's built his own formidable and fully flavorsome 845 amp and as the designer of the VTAF (adjustable VTA on the Fly), he's certainly no stranger to quality vinyl setups.

"It all started in late 2002 when Stephæn installed a Sony 775 CD/SACD changer and announced he liked it better than the much more expensive unit he'd been playing. Several in our local audio club listened and agreed. Later he announced he preferred the stock 775 over another more-expensive Sony DVP-NS900V -- one already modified by another outfit -- unit he was playing. Then through a chain of events, that same stock 775 ended up in my system, actually taking pride of place over my Ah! Njoe Tjoeb 4000. The bass of the stock 775 tended toward the woolly side, not as good as the bass of the Ah! unit but in general, the stock 775 seemed more musical to me than the Ah!.

I dropped by Stephæn's one afternoon. Two look-alike stock Sony CD/SACD changers were installed, one on the floor. Stephæn poured me a glass of Merlot and threw down the gauntlet. I was to listen and tell him which was which and why. We did the listening. It was pretty easy. The newer but stock 595 was up first (although I did not know that until after I had heard both). The bass was immediately recognizable as altogether
purer than that of the stock 775. The mids and highs were quite nice. Next came the 775. Bass was woolly. Mids and highs were nice but not as nice as those of the 595. Also, and this was more subtle, the 595 was clearly more musical than the 775.

A week or so later, Stephæn called me over to listen to the 595 as modified by Paul Weitzel of Tube Research. I was just knocked over. Clean, unexaggerated bass, excellent mids, excellent highs, all very well blended and unified. Sounded better than most vinyl systems I've heard. But most of all, it was the music! I can still hear one particular accordion vibrantly floating in midair with a lovely entwined female vocal [Alessandra Belloni Tarantata].

Like Gizmo said, "It's the tone." Paul Weitzel's magic turned the 595 into a truly musical instrument. It's often said we vote with our billfolds. My modified 595 will be delivered next week! Incidentally, I've also heard Paul's modification of the 775, which is quite an improvement over the stock 775. The modified 775, though, is not in the same league as the modified 595. Also, if you happen to have an expensive old Sony player around and are thinking you'll just get that modified, don't do it. Go out to the appliance store and pick up a 595 for $149 and send it to Paul. Magic is magic but it depends on the right ingredients how far it'll go."

So there you have it, people: Another gourmet meal from the Sony/TRL partnership at a modest price. And, this dish earns them the right to add another star to their overall rating.
Tube Research Labs Website