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Tube Research Labs Digital Modification

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.

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