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The First Battle Of Transports

February 2009/ March 09

Description of contenders:

1. Theta - chosen because it is legendary, because it is unmodded and for the worldwide audience can serve as a benchmark, and because it sounds bloody good in my home. So far - by far - my best transport.
Cost on ebay USD500

Theta Universal Transport

2. Pioneer DV300 was suggested by some fans as a great transport on the budget (additionally it is very exciting to know that Swiss Goldmund picked it as their choice of superb transport)  I have modded the Goldmund - namely it has a handful of os-cons, the battery powered Kingwa clock and direct s/pdif output straight from chip.

pioneer DVD

3. Shigaraki is the most discussed phenomenon in the whole Transport department worldwide. So IT HAD TO be included.
Modded heavily by The Master of Shigaraki Cloning  - Andy777 - with EVERY consumer onboard having a dedicated power supply - transformer, regulation and filtration. Clock from deTom (Polish) and nice case from JVC. Full black gate upgrade and tantalums in supplies.


4. The Fikus Transport 1,0 is a Philips CD940 chosen by me  because of its superb CDM9 mechanism.  I chose it because it plays well, it works fast, it can be bought for little money, it reads every CD without problems and there are millions of them out there.
I decided to tweak it to the limit: digilampizator, newest low esr os-cons SEPC, again every power  consumer onboard having a new dedicated power supply - transformer, regulation and filtration. This applies to laser, motor, servo, display, demodulator, microcontroller and S/PDIF transmitter.  Clock from Kingwa. Bituminous felt, new oversized transformers, new AC filter, etc.
Read about it HERE

5. The TEAC VRDS X-25
  with its very good VRDS mechanism level 2, with new Trichord4 clock, with Audiotuning chip upgrade - will be another benchmark.  We know it is very good and we know what sound to expect. VRDS does good job of playing depth, good order on thre scene, good silence between notes, good 3-d .
So far it won easily with both the Teac T1 and with NAIM CD-3 converted to Transport.  Compared to the Pioneer , Shigaraki and Philips / Fikus - this transport is from different school. The VRDS means heavy flywheel and big clamp. The other players are from the small inertia and small momentum camp.

6. Tube Technology Fulcrum Transport

As much as I am trying to avoid wasting time for exotic products, this one deserves attention. Tube Technology is one of the VERY FEW companies in existence who have anything interesting to say (and offer) in terms of inventions, pushing technology, finding own solutions, questioning status quo, etc. At the same time they love TUBES so it is a match made in heaven. They apply smd where it makes sense and tubes too.

What is so special about TT gear is that they don't use off the shelve DAC chip but rather design a computer that does all the function of demodulator, digital processor, filter and DAC in their fully controlled process. It is upgradable by eprom and future proof to a degree.
They are famous for EXCELLENT service and enjoy high customer loyalty.

The transport and DAC should go together because they work best with each other.

7. North Star Design Model 192 - the representative of CD-PRO2 camp (VAU 1254/11)

North Star Design 192

This transport is a small and funny job. Luuks like a garage company, with just standard CD-PRO2 kit mechanism and very cute own PCB design for power supplies. Basically, what it is is a CD-pro2 kit plus my sixpack. Price however is Gucci. Like almost everything in Italy.

Associated equipment:
Amplifiers: ARG OTL mono block (6C33C)
Preamp:  none
DAC: Lite Audio DAC-AH, Buffalo  Sabre32
Digital cable: generic
Speaker cable: DIY tin, stranded, multiple twisted pair
Speakers: P26 (Raal Ribbon, /Isophon Alnico, Altec Lansing / TESLA ARO

Music: Shirley Horn - Remembering Miles. Roger Waters Amused to Death, Miles Gurtu, Brian Ferry American Songbook.


1. Shigaraki v.s. Theta Universal

The Theta has a sound which is very solid, reliable, without flaws. But it does not surprize with fireworks.
Shigaraki is one big firework. It has super fast attack, the sound is full of very detailed trebles, making the background mothertape noise audible, which gives a sensation of closeness to the oryginal event and analog like presentation. There is also greater clarity and transparency with the Shigaraki. It does well what is the key to good "transportation" it addresses the key element. (I still dont know what the key element is). I can compare the sound of Shigaraki to a 3 years old racing horse. Lively, energetic, vibrant, crazy. Theta is an old emotionaly stable horse, it cant go wrong but it will not race either.
I could live with both transports, but the Shigaraki is more exciting. The difference is not big, but it is undeniable.
Also Shigaraki gets 2 BIG points: one for reading CD-R every time within 100 miliseconds - Theta does not read most of them and "thinks" for 3 minutes before deciding to play.
Second big point - Theta mechanism is irrepairable - Shigaraki can be bought for as little as 5 Eu on ebay. You can keep 5 of them in the freezer just in case ...  ;-)

2. Pioneer DV300 v.s Theta Universal

Pioneer sounds more or less as the Shigaraki. The point for Pioneer is that we dont have to spend 5 weekends to modify it, as we need to with the Shigaraki. To upgrade the Pioneer takes 1 hour of easy work. The Pioneer, compared to Theta - is also faster sounding, with more trebles, with more plankton, with great pace and rythm. The Theta beats it in bass department by a hair. Also Pioneer can play movies too, Shigaraki can't, and Theta can do - but only Laserdisc  ;-)
Joking aside, Pioneer is a very attractive proposition for what it costs, but the lack of some authority in the  deepest bass makes it not as sexy sounding as the Theta or Teac or even Shigaraki. The difference - as all differences in Transport - is VERY small. I can detect it only thanks to my hyper transparent equipment downstream. On a positive side - the Pioneer is making the best trick of around the head 3-d illusion. With the clock installed - it is also the most liquid sounding of all of them.

3. CDM1 in Philips 304-2 V.s. Theta

I really wanted to try the good old full metal cast alloy mechanisms from philips but unfortunately all these players don't have S/PDIF output. All- except one. The Mother of All CD's - the near perfect beauty Philips 304-2 has at the same time BOTH:  CDM1 AND the 7220 chip with S/PDIF.
Compared to Theta, this transport is a little bit worse in every area. From bass to trebles, width, depth, instrument separation, microdetails, sensation of being there - in every area Theta is nicer.
Both players were un-modded, but the Philips traditionally had horrible S/PDIF trace on the scope. It was like spaghetti. The signal is generated nicely in the SAA7220 chip but after it leaves the leg 14th, it goes through real trauma ! Especially their shitty output transformer is really bad. I have no idea what it is for. Who said that there must be galvanic isolation ??? Why not optoisolate ? Are they using the transformer for no reason at all? I read all kinds of explanations and I am not convinced at all.
So before you dispose of your Philips used as a transport - please capture the pure signal from SAA7220 leg 14th, float it (cut off old line)  and wire it straight to the RCA. To make it lower in absolute voltage - use a 75 Ohm resistor to ground. That is the simplest way of doing it. Trust me on that one.
The result of the Philips means that I will not use if for the future battles. It scores below the Theta benchmark and gets eliminated.

As a side note: the old machines - tens and tens of models from Grundig, Philips, Marantz, Loewe, and many more - which use the superb CDM0 and CDM1 to my knowledge have neved been "forced" to work as transports. The internal data protocol of the four chips: SAA7000, 7010. 7020, 7030 - use different data format. I think it is too difficult for me to design a HC74xxx chip which would convert the data into I2S and then we could take it to SAA7220 and get S/PDIF. If anyone knows how to do it - please write me.

But to be honest - these machines are FANTASTIC on their own, playing with their built-in TDA1540 dacs and in NOS mode with Lampizator - they sound heavenly good. So no need to add dig output and use external DAC.

4. Fikus Transport 1,0  V.s. Shigaraki

This one was a tough battle. Both players are very capable. Going straight to verdict: the shigaraki sounds a little bit colder, more sterile, but at the same time with more details, better highs, more transparent. The difference is VERY small and at the same time - Fikus' Philips is warmer, with fuller bass, and very appealing presentation. Depending on preferrences, one may find his preferred player of choice to be better.  On A-B test - shigaraki wins on my system, but it is very subjective. Surely Shigaraki is an impressive player.

I know I could make for the Philips an I2S output, I am not sure it is possible with the Shigaraki. On I2S surely there would be no contest - Philips would win. Also the amount of work needed - gives a nod to the Philips because Shigaraki needs a LOT OF WORK to be what it was in my test. Philips - needs one evening of easy work.

5.  Fikus Transport 1,0  V.s.  Teac VRDS X25

This time - I had to admit loosing a little bit to the Teac. The Philips was good, but Teac - more "interesting" and involving sound. Wider stage, more intimate connection to the event. My preference was to Teac but distance was small. Most noticable difference was that Teac had wide stage uniformly populated by sounds, and Philips put all threads more in the centre of the stage. A subtle but interesting difference.

6. Fikus Transport v.s. Pioneer DVD DV300 / (Goldmund)

7. Fikus against Theta

As a stock unmodified  Philips CD940 transport - it plays quite well. I would say - better than most players used as transport. Theta is still a touch better in every area: bass is deeper and stronger, space is better in all 3D aspects, trebles are more airy, it is more musical and mole pleasant. But difference is not night / day - just a liiiiittle bit.

After performing all the work on the Philips - I made a new monster. In fact, If Levinson or Krell or any other Jadis were doing a good transport - that's what they would do. Use off the shelf components either from Philips, Sony or Sanyo, and build good power regulation and overkill oversizing everywhere. Thats wat I did.
My own practice is to do away with the S/PDIF output transformer which I consider a bad thing. I just remove it.

So how does the "Fikus Fillips" compare to the Theta?

It does very well. I was struck by the similarity of the two, after remembering how he Theta bettered it just 2 weeks ago. (After all they are both based on almost the same Philips chips). My Philips jumped two classes up after the mods.
As much as I admire the ability of theTtheta to have deep strong bass, wide and deep 3-D space, musical drive, energetic pace, dark silent backgrounds. air between instruments - now the Phil does it all and more. I would say that my Philips beat the theta by 5% on every dimension, being over all more interesting to listen to, and definitely MUCH faster to operate..
The strongest feature of the Fikus Philips is that the musical event image in our brain is easier to follow, has more reallistic connection of the "dots". Also the sudden sounds like strings plucked or triangle struck - sound more scary and immediate on the Philips. If they were battery toys, the Philips would be the one with fresh Duracell batteries. Its spring is wound stronger.
They are very very similar - but Theta needs tweaking to equal or beat the Philips (of course I can imagine the theta running on all OSCONS SEPC !)
At the time of writing - Philips is a winner. If my memory serves me well, at this quality level the Fikus Philips can easily go and meet the Shigaraki clone. Their are both slightly superior to the theta.

8. Fikus Philips 1,0 against the North Star Design Model 192

These two players have many similarities: The North Star uses CD-PRO2 mechanism, Philips uses CDM-9 (in my opinion better). Both have 7 regulators. Both have similar chipsets from Philips. Only the North Star was 25 x more costly.
How do they compare?

Despite trying hard all sunday I could not nail down the difference. Both offer similar sound, very similar, and I think I liked my Philips better by a thin hair. It had more lively sound, more vibrant, with better attack, with more inner light and information about background details. But I want to be prudent and modest and I will call it a deuce. I liked both of them and I could live with any of them. If you can get the NORTH STAR MODEL 192  - get it. Just be careful not to over-pay for it.  And it will sound best with his own DAC from North Star especially in I2S mode.

9.  Pierre Lurne Audiomeca Mephisto 2   V.s.  Teac VRDS X25

OOoo this is getting interesting. Mephisto2 is a super cool player from one of the most specialized  company from France. In some circles, Audiomeca is considered the king of transports. This company became famous thanks to the turntable production. But I used to have many contacts with the Mephisto One,  I myself - like it a lot. How does The Two compare ?
Well, mechanically it is totally different concept. The one had CDM9 mechanism from Philips, the TWO has a sanyo mechanism. The one is a top loader with a lift up lid, the two - has a sliding cover. The one has integrated puck, the two -  a loose puck that has to be put on manually.  The one has s/pdif output, the two - has s/pdif. aes/ebu and i2s. So far so good.

Under the cover - the news are disappointing. The Sanyo mechanism is not on haal magnetic rails, it is a simple mechanism, a'la shigaraki clone. Nothing impressive.
The electronics consists of the regular Sanyo PCB from some stock cheap player. The PCB is absolutely stock and plain. It contains all controll electronics - the microcontroller, the servo, the receiver demodulator and (probably) the DAC too.   The caps and parts ate low end, nothing has been upgraded.
The Audiomeca player has a separate PSU unit. Unfortunately - inside we find a very cheap and small transformer with just about 30 VA of power and simple CRC filter. I would say - this is the same PSU as was oryginally deployed in that cheap sanyo they hacked.
So is there any value ? Well, there is an Audiomeca PCB added to the system which contains three quatrz oscillators, probably - for three sampling frequencies: 44,4; 98 and 192 Khz.  I did not understand all of the extra circuitry - but I would say - nothing exceptional.
The small plus I can give to Mephisto 2 for the mechanical construction. On one hand - the body is made of thin cheap steeel press, so it might ring like a bell. On the other hand - they suspended the mechanism on some rubber cushions. So it is a bell with a cushion.  HMmmmm, my reaction is a mixed bag.

Visually - the player is simply stunning ! It screams  HIGH END  and also I AM NOT A SHANLING. Very nice indeed.

The ergonomy is okay - there are the most needed buttons on the front, and the remote gets 2 points out of 10. It is the sanyo stock remote.

Can we compare it to the real deal Teac ? With its serious VRDS mechanism with Sony Kss151A laser, with heavy tank like body, with impeccable high end electronics and big ego (sorry - I meant FAME).

Lets try.

We tried the most intimate recordings of the collection - Holly Cole's Temptation. I heard beautiful rattles,  clean picture, details easy to follow, etc. I did not have the usual goosebumps. Holly was remote, distant and COLD. I mean the sound was great but not intimate anymore.

Back to the TEAC X25  (Trichord4, Audiotuning chip upgrade.)  Holly moved closer, I could almost smell her perfumes. There was an aura of studio reverb around her, the recording was intimate, private, engaging. The difference is really subtle but I report wnat I thought.  The stock Mephisto 2 does not cut for me the very important aspect of music, it is cold like a computer.

We decided to try and mod the Mephisto - maybe os-con the sanyo PCB, upgrade the shameless power supply and maybe - steal the signal before it is manipulated. The signal did NOT come from the source chip intact. Lurne tried to "improve it" to justify his high price and his sonic genius signature. Unfortunately - the result is opposite from thre excellent Mephisto 1.  The sequel is - as usual - a failure. Long live the VRDS X25.
I am gonna let the winner take some rest  after this tiring battle and then - to face my Fikus Transport 1,0. There can only be one champion.

10. Mephisto2  against the Fikus1,0

The mephisto, still quite cold and less involving than the Teac X25 - played by a thin hair better than Philips. You could call it a personal taste but Mephisto had deeper stage and more clear detailing. If Teac was 100 that evening, Mephisto 2 was 90, and fikus transport - 75.

The winner of these games will travel to the other home and will be having the final test against the Audiomeca Mephisto driving the Audionote  DAC-4.

11. Mephisto2 against Mephisto 1.

In this scenario - the stock mephisto 2 was tested against the fully black-gated Mephisto 1 driving the Audio-Note 4 se DAC
The two walked over the one without a doubt. The presentation was more interestimng, more engaging, with better scene, with clearer sound. I liked it more in every aspect, including the looks and ergonomy of the lid.

12. Modded Mephisto 1 against the two

After adding a three-pack of power supply to the Mephisto1 PCB it took off to another league. It was better than the two - fuller, warmer, more musical, although not by much.
I wonder how the two will sound after similar mod with oscons and regulated 5V DC power lines to all chips.

13. Recent test - the modified  CEC TL-1X against the Theta and the Sony

The CEC TL1X was compared to Theta Universal transport (my bass reference) and to Sony CDP-xa5es - my overall transport reference.

The CEC wins with the Theta in the bass, and in all other departments as well. Theta is great in the bass and space, but CEC has so much more details and goosebump illusion of musicians in the room. No contest.

The same for Sony. Cec wins with one hand tied behind the back. It is that good. All bass problems disappeared, while there is still beautiful musical mid, space, depth, stereo, goose bumps, magic - you name it.

My hotrodded Behringer with Lampizator driven by the CEC sings beautifully now. I am so happy that despite discovering a crappy motor and unbelievably terrible stock trace of spdif - I can call CEC the winner and the keeper. I am not parting with it no matter what.
CEC compared directly with TEAC T1 transport with VRDS4 crap - shows so much more music - it is another league.
The only transport which holds against the modded CEC is the Mephisto2, very similar machine.

14. Nov 2009 - Hot rodded Kenwood X9010 transport against the CEC TL-1X and hot rodded TEAC VRDS 25 and the Fikus Philips 940     

The good old friend - Mister Ken - returned to me for a quick  laser adjustment. I noticed a new clock, etc. So I took it for a spin against the permanently reigning MahaRaja of Fikus House - THE CEC.
Kenwood, 3 years later, after me seing hundreds of other players inside - remains to me the best made CD player ever. I mean mechanically speaking.
In stock form it never managed to beat the other high end transports on  sound quality. And Kenwood company soon after took a nose dive. They left the leftovers of their heavy engineering department to Accuphase, but thats another story.

The Ken with new electrolyte caps. new laser, and aftermarket clock - sounds great. It is in the world elite of transport but not quite up to beating my tweaked CEC. The difference is very very small, but I still prefer the CEC for its liquidity and silky smooth presentation. Having said that - Ken is between 5 to 10 times cheaper.

The CEC against the VRDS25 from Teac - again - same result as with the KEN. I feel that Ken equalized the VRDS25 but the CEC is safely reigning.
I even opened up the VRDS25 to see what can be upgraded as a transport - and I found NOTHING that I could improve. The TEAC is as simple and purely made SP/DIF as possible. No crappy SP/DIF transformer, no maze of PCB traces - just a perfect job. I AM IMPRESSED.

Fikus Philips 940 transport  - plays on a different note - it is lighter, faster, more smooth and easy than the heavy fisted Ken. The Philips 940 is like the Mephisto for the poor. It is similar to CEC sound but CEC wins in the bass depth. Just a notch. But again - the CEC cost 23 times more than Fikus940.

A FINAL NOTE: In the process, I found that the Behringer Upsampler improves every transport by a considerable quality margin and it is a must for every DAC chip except TDA1541 and other 16 bit machines.

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