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Monday, May 11, 2015

Audiophile Modification Review!
Music Technology Oppo BDP-95 Player
Digital Clock/Discrete Analog Out Upgrade


©Everything Audio Network

Brevis
Price: $1,800 (unbal.); $2,400 (bal.)
Likes: organic analog tone, smooth treble
Dislikes: audiophile modifications cost $
Wow Factor! a more intimate-sounding '95
More info: Music Technology

by John Gatski
  Like cars, hot-rodding a piece of audio equipment has been around since, well, since the advent of audio gear. From simple replacement of stock tubes with “high-end” hand selected tubes to changing power supply capacitors, output devices, etc., no piece of audio gear is perfect when it is stock, say those who seek to always make hi-fi sound better.
  I remember in the 1990s, getting an Audio by Van Alstine Dynaco ST-70 upgrade kit that claimed to improve the classic EL-34 tube amp by installing a new component board with quieter driver tubes and improved power supply parts. Guess what? It worked; the upgrade kit significantly tightened the ST-70‘s lumpy bass, decreased the self-noise and gave the warm tone a little sparkle.
  Well here I am, 20 years later, in the middle of another article about a mod of a different component: an analog mod to a popular piece of digital gear, the very popular Oppo BDP-95/BDP-105 universal player, which uses the high-end ESS Saber 9018 DAC chip. As my reviews have noted over the last five years, these Oppo players offer tremendous bang-for-the-buck features and quite good audio. But of course, the tweakers always want to squeeze out a little more, so we sought a mod-focused company to see if we could get more sound out of an Oppo— and at what cost.

The Music Tech mod
  The modification I am reviewing here is the Music Technology discrete-output analog output section upgrade (JFET discrete output with upscale wire, caps, and resistors), combined with a digital clock upgrade that increases the clock frequency from 50 MHz to 80 MHz and provides substantially more power regulation of the clock than stock. Developed by Music Technology’s guru Bill Thalmann, the analog output upgrade is claimed to net a more audiophile, rich, organic presentation than the stock op-amp outputs. The clock mod is claimed to enhance digital conversion stability, and audibly increase the focus of the image and sense of space.
The green PCBs show the overall Music Tech/Oppo upgrade

  Music Technology has plenty of experience in the inner-workings of audio gear. It is one of the top East Coast hi-fi/pro audio repair facilities, located in Springfield, Va., and has a solid reputation for troubleshooting perplexing components. The company also does specialty repair and upgrades, including the reel-to-reel deck upgrades for the Tape Project Apogee ribbon speaker rebuilds, and can fix all brands of pro and musician-related gear.
  “Music Technology’s SACD/CD/DAC upgrades consist of our SteadiClock high precision, low-jitter clock and our all JFET analog signal path upgrade,” Thalmann said. “Practically all stock players use an abundance of op-amps. In my opinion, no matter how good the op-amp, they simply will never sound as good as a low- or no-feedback discrete circuit. The reason for this is the amount of feedback needed to control an op-amp’s gain. This damages time coherence, which hurts image focus, among other things.”
 I think it’s quite commendable that the Music Technology mod can eek out this enhanced listening experience considering how good the stock Oppo player is. With the upgrade, you get a more classic audiophile sound stage, that aforementioned smoothness, plus all the ergonomic benefits of the Oppo players.

  Music Technology has plenty of experience hot-rodding digital audio players. In 2004, Thalmann performed numerous Vacuum-State mods of Sony SACD players, such as the classic SCD-777ES and SCD-2000ES audiophile — players that were long on innovation, but came up short in ultimate playback potential. The VS mods, as I can attest since I had my ‘777 tweaked by Music Technology, pushed the players to true audiophile caliber — with a velvet smoothness and a wider soundstage. Thalmann said that Music Technology’s own custom digital player upgrades bring that audible finesse and to almost any player made today.
  Music Technology performs its upgrades for most digital players in either balanced or unbalanced configurations. But according to Thalmann, the Oppo BDP-95/105 series are popular candidates for the mod because they have a good-sounding stock circuit: the premium ESS Sabre DAC 9018 chip, which is known for its excellent performance and is widely implemented in audiophile players and DACs.
  Thalmann says the Music Technology discrete J-FET analog output and clock mod require quite a bit of PCB board modification to get it to fit in the Oppo players, especially the balanced version. But once the upgrades are made, usually two weeks from the time the player is shipped to MT, the time and expense is worth it, Thalmann added.
High quality caps are used throughout the mod circuit

  The upgrade price is $2,400 for the balanced/clock mod, which can be done in the Oppo 103/105s because of the extra room in that slightly bigger chassis — and $1,800 for the unbalanced/clock upgrade that was done in the BDP-95 for this review. Potential customers also should know that the said modification voids your factory warranty. If you don’t mind paying for a new one and losing your warranty, you can buy a new BDP-105 Oppo for $1,200 and have the player shipped to Music Technology for the upgrade. Another, less costly, acquisition route would be to find a used BDP-95 for, say, $400 or $500 and then do the unbalanced mod. The ’95 and ‘105 use the same DAC and both have balanced outputs. The stock ‘105 has a beefier power supply, fan-less cooling and could play DSD from a thumb drive, but essentially sounds the same as the BDP-95.

The candidate
  The mod version I reviewed was a 2012 Oppo BDP-95. To audibly determine whether the digital clock mod and the analog mod make an audible improvement in the player’s sonics, I had the upgrade done in stages and then evaluated their subjective performance, separately, and then with both in place. The clock mod was done first then the analog output upgrade
  Music Technology took about a week to complete the clock mod in late 2014. After the circuit was added, Thalmann said it needed a week of burn in. After the break-in period, I commenced the listening comparison between the Music Technology-modified BDP-95, and a stock BDP-105 (which essentially sounds the same as a stock ‘95.) I set up a listening test that included a Benchmark DAC2-D (now the DX), the stock ‘105 and the clock-modified ’95.
MT can mod unbalanced or balanced output, plus digital clock

  I took the analog outs from each component and connected them to a Coda preamp, which is quite transparent and has fast input switching. I matched the levels using test tones and an AudioControl RTA for each of the players and the DAC. The modified ’95 provided the digital signal for the Benchmark DAC. The Coda preamp fed a Rogue Audio Medusa hybrid amp/MartinLogan Montis electrostatic speaker set up. A fixed output from the Coda also distributed audio to a Bryston BHA-1 headphone amp. Oppo PM-1 and AKG K702 headphones were used during HP listening.
  All analog connections were made using WireWorld premium interconnects. A WireWorld coaxial digital cable linked the BDP-95 to the Benchmark DAC. Essential Sound Essence II reference power cords linked all components to the AC.

On the clock
  First up was the Warren Bernhardt So Real recording (Tom Jung’s DMP label). The original DSD, live-to two-track jazz album is so good, that I dubbed off a 24/96 version, made with the magnificent, accurate, ultra dynamic Benchmark ADC1 A/D so I could use the music to test PCM products as well. It is a perfect recording to test, subjectively, with extended dynamic range and excellent stereo imaging.
  After several hours of careful listening to the modded clock circuit in the BDP-95 player versus the stock Oppo, playing through the ML Montis and through the Bryston Headphone amp, I could not reliably hear a difference between it and the stock ‘105. Imaging focus, timbre, transient reproduction sounded identical. I played dozens of additional tracks over the next week, and the result was the same with the A/B comparisons. If there was a difference, I could not reliably hear it with the clock mod.
Music Technology has plenty of experience in the inner-workings of audio gear. It is one of the top East Coast hi-fi/pro audio repair facilities, located in Springfield, Va., and has a solid reputation for troubleshooting perplexing components. The company also does specialty repair and upgrades, including the reel-to-reel deck upgrades for the Tape Project and Apogee ribbon speaker rebuilds.

  I checked in with Thalmann and told him about my sonic observation with Phase I of the mod. He said the clock mod stems from his Vacuum State mods he did prior to his own custom mods, when the DAC clocks were not as good as they are today. I can attest that the Vacuum State clock mods did make a difference in smoothness on the old Sony SACD players, but today’s stock digital clocks, integrated into the Oppo and many other players, may be good enough that any further modification of the circuit will not net any sonic benefit. Older digital players, though, may benefit from the clock mod.
  Thalmann said the Oppo clock is better than most stock SACD/universal players, but he believes it is still possible to get some improvement with his clock mod that is further showcased by the analog upgrade. To my ears, I did not hear a difference with the clock mod by itself.

Part II: the analog connection
  So I sent the player back to Bill so he could do the analog output section mod. After a couple of weeks. He called me and said it was ready. I picked up the player. Allowed it to “stew” for a few days, and then resumed my listening sessions that I had started weeks before.
  This time, in the first few minutes of the Bernhardt album play, I definitely could hear an audible difference between the stock BDP-105 and the upgraded ’95. There was a warm, more laid back presentation from the modified Oppo. As good as the stock player is for sound quality — a warm, smooth midrange and tight bass — there are some types of music with low-treble, presence emphasized instruments that can sound a little glassy. The Music Technology analog mod smooths out that glare, more like a tube-design signal path. A textured presentation that gets its presence tamed a bit. More natural on upper register piano, high notes on a violin and the metallic brush attack of a drum cymbal. This signature reminds me of the best turntable/preamp combo played through a FET or tube amp, but the bass is more accurate.
The Music Technology analog mod smooths out that glare, more like a tube-design signal path. A textured presentation that gets its presence tamed a bit. More natural on upper register piano, high notes on a violin and the metallic brush attack of a drum cymbal.

  I did notice, however that the top end seemed to be a bit constrained versus the Benchmark and the stock ‘105. I asked Bill if he was doing any additional filtering on the top-end to enhance its analog organic flavor perception in the midband. He said indeed the roll-off filter, centered at 30 kHz, was in the circuit. I asked if he could extend the frequency response to 40 or 50 kHz in order to open up the top of the base band enough to allow high-res recordings with extended top-end to standout in the playback. He complied, swapping in a 40 kHz filter.
  Back in the review system, the Music Technology-modded Oppo, with new bandwidth filter, now was hitting its stride. Over several months I played scores of recordings that were flattered by the change. Old '80s CDs really benefited from the Music Technology/Oppo treatment. My vintage 1988 ‘Til Tuesday  —Everything’s Different Now, sounded less glaring through the Music Technology-designed mod. And the HD Tracks Tom Petty and The HeartbreakersDamn The Torpedoes 24/94 album, always a bit edgy to my ears, gets a smoother sonic portrayal — without sounding rolled-off. “Just right” was what I had written in my notes.
  Versus the $2,000 Benchmark DAC, the modded Oppo held its own, but the separate D/A netted a modicum of increased resolution in the top-end and a small, but noticeable high-treble presence that the Oppo mod lacked. The Oppo, however, was a trace smoother in the low treble. Would be interesting to hear the MT mod in the Benchmark.

Hot-rod Oppo
  After all the listening was over, I mulled over the sonic merits of the Music Technology mod, I knew that the eternal question would be: is the Music Technology mod worth the bucks? To my ears and through very careful listening, the analog mod definitely has an audible effect on the sound over a stock Oppo. Its classic, textured, almost tube-like persona should appeal to those who like the organic, analog character in their music. Those who want their digital to sound more like vinyl and tube amps. Smoother with a generous, wide, sonic portrait that makes you want to is sit down with a glass of red wine and spend the evening listening to a symphony, or Kenny Burrell’s Midnight Blue SACD.
BDP-93/95/103/105 players are prime candidates for MT mod

  I think it’s quite commendable that the Music Technology mod can eek out this enhanced listening experience considering how good the stock Oppo player is. With the upgrade, you get a more classic audiophile sound stage, that aforementioned smoothness, plus all the ergonomic benefits of the Oppo players, including ability to play music from a thumb drive as well as SACDs, DVD-As and Blu-rays.
  Since the clock mod is part of the upgrade package, it does not hurt the player to have it done,. But in my test setup, I could not reliably hear a difference between the clock-modded ’95 and a stock BDP-105. The JFET analog mod, however, does make a difference. Music Tech said they believe the two mods together make a bigger difference than just the analog mod. Since I did the clock mod first, I do not know if the analog mod by itself would have sounded different.

The verdict
  I can’t wait for Music Technology to add more products to the “mod” list, such as some classic DACs and CD players. As long as there is room to install the board, Music Technology can mod pretty much any DAC or digital player.
  Based on my listening experience, the Music Technology mod is worthy of an Everything Audio Network Stellar Sound Award, but as with most audiophile mods that I have seen, upgrades don’t come cheap. If you buy a new BDP-105 player at $1,200 and spend $2,400 for the balanced upgrade/clock package, you’ve got $3,600 invested. If you are big in the wallet, it does not matter. If not, find a used player to sweeten the proposition. Either way, I think you will like the result.

   John Gatski has been evaluating consumer, audiophile, home cinema and professional audio gear since 1992. In 1995, he created Pro Audio Review, and he has written for Audio, Laserviews, Enjoy The Music,The Audiophile Voice and High Performance Review. Everything Audio Network is based in Kensington, MD. Articles on this site are the copyright of the ©Everything Audio Network. Any unauthorized use, via print or Internet, without written permission is prohibited. He can be reached via everything.audio@verizon.net

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