In the small town of Oakville, just outside Toronto, Chris Johnson has set up Parts ConneXion, which is a mecca for audiophiles seeking high quality tubes, connectors and many other hobbyist components. As a second string to this business, the company offers a variety of modification services for amplifiers and digital sources. Today we are testing Chris's latest offering, the Level 2 Mods for the upscale and massive Denon DVD-5900 Universal Player. To make things more interesting, and to frighten my family out of the living room, I asked Chris to supply two 5900's -- one untouched, and one with all the stereo bells and whistles that Parts ConneXion could contrive.
The Denon is too deep for my equipment shelf, so I have it sitting on a small coffee table with its twin on a second such table, either side of my equipment rack where the Meridian G08 CD player sits as a reference. I wired up both Denons with identical power cords and interconnects from Soundstring Cables, and let them both run in continuously for 200 hours before pulling out pen and paper.
During that time I found a few interesting points common to both units. First up, the Denon is sluggish at reading the Table of Contents. On a CD, this process takes 11 seconds from the open drawer position, and on SACD or DVD-A you'll wait up to 18 seconds. If you enter 5 on the remote control with a disc in the open drawer, you might expect it to play track 5. Not with the Denon -- it sits and waits for you to press Play or Close. At this price point, I expect better on both counts. Also missing is a balanced analog output, but this is outweighed by the provision of a Denon Link DVI-D (HDCP) output for direct connection of the DVD data stream to suitably equipped Digital Preamps and Receivers, such as the Denon AVR-3805. This may not be important for you today, but in a few years we may see a wide range of compatible Receivers, and you will then have a great opportunity to further refine your sound and greatly simplify your wiring. Call it future-proofing your investment.
This machine packs a stunning list of features and components, especially for a $2,000 machine. Here's the list of labels Denon managed to include on the faceplate:
DCDi by Faroudja
In fact I believe they made the DVD-5900 this big just so there would be enough room up front to list all the features crammed inside. Chris Johnson feels that the machine has been optimized for home theatre, and does not live up to its full potential as a high-resolution sound source. This view is widely shared since there are a number of companies now offering mods for this model and its junior partners, the DVD-2200 and DVD-2900. Chris's Level 1 Mods for the DVD-5900 have been available and selling well for a while now, and he sent me the very first model with his full set of Level 2 Mods.
What exactly are these Mods? Here's what Chris told me:
First comes the base '2-channel' L/R mod ($1295) in the revised OPA-627 SMT-Adaptor version. This mod, which is primarily to the analog output stage, affects the sound no matter what format you are listening to, even DVD-Video. There are seven steps to this base mod, which takes 8 hours to complete using WBT 4% silver solder throughout.
Next we upgrade the Master Reference Clock - LC AUDIO X03, giving the unit state-of-the-art jitter performance. This adds another $420.
Now we add a pair of BYBEE ‘pure silver' Slipstream Quantum Purifiers to the main audio outputs, just prior to the RCA jacks ($350), and a pair of BYBEE Slipstream Quantum Purifiers to the AC input on the primary side of power transformer ($185).
We install a pair of Goertz 'pure silver' RCA jacks ($200).
Finally we make further modifications to the analog audio and power supply, using additional caps, resistors, diodes, op-amps (SMT 627 Adapter versions) and wire ($350)
This brings the PCX Level 2 modified Denon DVD-5900 unit to $4495 US for the 2-channel version.
You can have Parts ConneXion make these changes to your own Denon DVD-5900, or you can order a new unit with all the upgrades directly from Parts ConneXion. For customers in the United States contact your dealer and Underwood HiFi as they will take care of everything for you. Parts ConneXion offers a variety of similar upgrades for Shanling, Music Hall and Jolida players too. They also offer custom modifications, and all of these are available through Underwood HiFi for United States customers.
On a machine of this complexity, the user interface must be an important consideration. The Denon remote control is not going to win any prizes. It looks like any other black plastic universal remote and sports 49 buttons, including a menu button and four directional keys. It has no backlighting -- something we have come to expect from DV player remotes, which may be used in a darkened room. Denon calls this a Glo-key remote, but only 11 keys glow, and these are not bright enough to be useful. Too many similar looking buttons are grouped together and the all-important Stop and Play keys are quite small. There is no single key to toggle between stereo and multi-channel for SACD or DVD-Audio, or between the CD-layer and the SACD layer of a hybrid disc. On the unit itself, the controls are much better laid out and nicely sized. You must go through a front panel menu to switch between stereo and multi-channel for SACD, or to pick the Redbook layer of a hybrid disc. Good luck switching between stereo and multi-channel with DVD-Audio -- you'll need the on-screen menus for that. The menu system is not the most intuitive, but it does give you plenty of flexibility, including bass management and speaker alignment options. The instruction manual runs to 70 pages and is quite well written and illustrated.
I began by comparing the two Denons. Sometimes reviewing is a tough job. You may hear little difference between two components, or you may hear significant differences but be in two minds over which is the better. Neither is the case here. The modified unit simply smokes the stock player. "All You Need Is Love" on the Beatles Yellow Submarine Songtrack (Capitol 21481) shows much greater presence and impact on the modified player as well as improved detail and better location of instruments. Leonard Cohen's title track from The Future [Columbia CK 53226] shows you just what the upgrade will buy you – a sense of menace and a visceral attack when the music demands. One track I like to play to really stress test a system is the final movement "Il Terremoto" from Haydn's String Quartet Opus 51 The Seven Last Words of our Saviour on the Cross (Teldec 4509-92373-2). This is played with such intensity by the Borodin String Quartet that I'm sure they must leave a trail of broken strings behind them after each performance. On the stock player this comes across as quite strident and fatiguing, while the modified player is both more relaxed and easier on the ears, without losing any of the tension of the playing.
Adding the mods is like tightening the focus on a telescope -- you see the same view but it is clearer and brighter and easier to make out. The upgrade provides all that and more.
There is still a lot to be said for the stock player. What you get for $2,000 is quite stunning, especially as a DVD player, but my interest is primarily in the CD sound, where the stock unit fails to impress. The modifications are aimed directly at improving the stereo audio performance and no attempt is made to upgrade the video output. In truth, no improvement is needed here, because this is straight up the best picture I have seen in my house. Feeding the component video output to my Pioneer Elite VSX33TX Receiver and Panasonic Tau 32" HDTV Television, the clear bright colors and lack of digital artifacts are a constant delight. I would have no hesitation in buying the stock unit for my home theatre system, because I do my serious music listening elsewhere.
The more interesting sonic comparison is between the heavily modified Denon and the Meridian. The Denon packs a lot of power with a front row seat and a bottom end drive that is difficult to match. The width of the soundstage is enormous, with a lot of detail and sharp transients. It is a completely different player than the stock 5900, and merits serious consideration as a CD player. The Meridian G08 offers quite a different perspective. The width of the image is a little less, but the front to back depth is superior and there is a sense of ease and flow to the music which is beguiling. The Denon is more impressive but the Meridian just gets out of the way and brings you face to face with the performers. It is a matter of preference -- you may enjoy the greater excitement the Denon can bring. "All You Need Is Love" shows less deep bass energy on the Meridian, but the bass line is still delivered tunefully. The Meridian's top end is more open and precise, giving improved definition to the vocals. Leonard Cohen's voice on "The Future" is more precisely located by the Meridian, and the soundscape is more spacious and atmospheric. Haydn's "Il Terremoto" displays more body to the strings and a warmer acoustic. The instruments are better defined in space rather than being divided strongly left and right. On this track the Meridian comes much closer to the sound of a string quartet in full flight.
I am not too disappointed that this modified Denon takes a back seat to the Meridian G08 -- both units list for around the same price, and the G08 offers no DVD-Audio, no SACD, no multi-channel, and no video output at all. In fact it is remarkable to me that this multi-talented Denon can run in the same league as the Meridian, which is a mighty impressive machine. The Denon's sound is not unlike the Esoteric DV-50 on CD material. The Esoteric is a little more agile, relaxed and musical, but it is also a fair bit more expensive ($5,500). If you enjoy the forward perspective you could be happy with the modified Denon or the Esoteric on Redbook CD.
Turning to stereo SACD, the stock Denon provides a much better performance than it does on CD. The lumpiness is gone, and the music sounds less in-your face and more like real instruments. There is more depth to the soundscape, and the music swings, while at the same time sounding more tuneful and relaxed. The modified Denon takes this several steps further with a sweet, warm and detailed sound that sounds a lot more like analog. The modified Denon playing SACD comes quite close to the Meridian G08 on Redbook, but with a supercharged low end. In some cases, I prefer the Denon, although only by a small margin. The Denon is still more upfront, and is much stronger in the deep bass--perhaps the strongest I have yet heard. This suits certain types of music and may make for a good fit with an otherwise lean sounding system.
Up against the Sony SCD-XA9000ES, the modified Denon provides a weighty, atmospheric performance of You Can't Always Get What You Want from the Stones classic "Let it Bleed" [ABKCD 90042], but the opening choir sounds quite artificial with some pronounced sibilance. The Sony plays this track more cleanly on both layers. The SACD layer improves over the CD layer in every respect on both players, but the Sony's SACD performance is unbeatable here. The choir sounds natural with no hint of sibilance, and I can easily make out all the words. Mick's voice is remarkably clear and tuneful on the Sony SACD layer -- he must have been having an off day.
Does this pattern repeat on other SACD titles? There is no trouble with sibilance on Patricia Barber's Modern Cool [Mobile Fidelity UDSACD 2003] from either machine. The Sony gives a cleaner, clearer and more nimble performance, with your seat a few rows back from where the Denon places you. If you have speakers that can plunge the depths, you're going to enjoy the Sony's bass--deep, full and funky. But let the Denon loose on track 5 "Light My Fire" from the same album and you'll go apoplectic. You may never have heard before the incredible definition the Denon can bring to deep bass. My speakers go lower and tighter than I've ever heard them before! If there is not a lot of high frequency information in the recording, you may not miss the Sony's extra resolution in the top octaves. The Sony does better at locating the performers, and offers a little extra in the subtle gradation of sounds, but the Denon is richer and bolder, and wins my vote on this recording. The stock Denon simply cannot run with these two, and I stopped listening to it after the first few SACDs.
On Prokofiev's Ivan The Terrible [Mobile Fidelity UDSACD 4003] Leonard Slatkin leads the St Louis Symphony in a 1979 performance of this music from the 1940's Eisenstein film. The Sony is more open and coherent here, the brass more burnished and the transients more clearly defined without a hint of digital edginess. Count this up as a clear win for the Sony. The Denon, which has less focus and air here, still has more presence and definition than the Meridian can muster from the Redbook layer on the same disc, which is not a shining example of Redbook potential.
DVD-Audio at 96kHz/24bit presents something of a disappointment on the two Denons, largely because I went in with such high expectations. The best digital sounds I have heard in my house so far have come from the Esoteric DV-50 on DVD-Audio. I have to hand a few tracks recorded at 192kHz/24-bit on a reference test disc (AIX 7 0433-82000-9 4). These tracks certainly sound better than their 96kHz counterparts, and bring the sound up to the level of the best SACD tracks on the Denon. What a pity so few DVD-Audio discs offer 192kHz recordings. The difference in the ease and flow of the music is palpable on both Denons. On these tracks, and on the very best SACD tracks such as those on the Red Rose albums, high-resolution audio shines, and clearly tops even the superb Redbook performance of the Meridian G08 and the Gamut CD1. I'm speaking now only for the modified Denon and the Esoteric DV-50. The stock Denon does not reach these heady levels of refinement.
Switching to surround sound in a colleague's A/V system, the modified Denon is less aggressive and forward than in 2-channel play, creating a very relaxed acoustic while retaining plenty of detail. Norah Jones' title track on the album Come Away With Me [Blue Note 7243 5 41747 2 8] gives two quite different presentations when played on the Denon and on the Sony SCD-XA9000ES. The warmth and ambiance of the Denon gives way to a very clean cool sound on the Sony, with greater extension on top but less richness in the lower octaves. It is simpler to precisely locate the performers with the Sony, and the words are easier to catch, which is a key quality for me. Each sound picture is very attractive on its own, but of course they can't both be true.
With DVD-Audio, the Sony cannot read the discs of course, while the Denon produces a sound quite consistent with the SACD performance. Peppino D'Agostino's "Accoustic Guitar" [AIX 80013] is laid back and smooth, and the sound projects well into the room.
If I could combine the upper octave purity of the Sony with the mid to low range power of the Denon I would be a happy man. If I had to pick one over the other, I would opt for the Denon for multi-channel, and I would have the added benefit of being able to play DVD-Audio discs and DVD-Video. This is one player where the surround sound shows a clear improvement over stereo. This effect was greater here than on the Sony, which did a better job with image depth in 2 channel than either Denon.
My recommendations depend on how you intend to use your disc player.
If you are looking for the very best stereo sound look elsewhere. The modified Denon is a great player, but there is no great advance here on the best that Redbook CD can offer.
If you are looking for a great DVD player, and you don't listen to a lot of music, the stock Denon-5900 is a superb buy. If you are looking for a surround sound player in an audio only system, you would be very happy with the modified Denon or the Sony SCS-XA9000ES, although the Esoteric DV-50s is an even better performer at a slightly higher price.
If you are looking for one machine to build a video and high-end audio system around, then you should consider both the modified Denon and the Esoteric DV-50. The Esoteric has the edge in sound in all audio formats save HCDC, which the DV-50 does not support, and its ergonomics are clearly superior, but the Denon has a strong edge on video and your wallet will be about $1000 lighter.
If you want the best A/V deck at anywhere near this price, then this modified Denon is the beast for you. Are your pockets (and your equipment rack) deep enough?
Type: Universal Disc Player
Progressive Scan DVD-Audio/Video Super Audio CD Player
Price: $4,495 US (With Parts ConneXion Level 2 Mods)
Denon Electronics USA