The ModWright™ Pioneer DVD Player Upgrades

The ModWright™ Pioneer DVD Player Upgrades

The Art of Transforming the Average into the Remarkable

Greg Weaver

26 December 2001


Upgrades to stock Pioneer DV-414, 525, 333, 343 and soon, the 444

1935 N.E. Cramer St.
Portland, OR 97211
Phone: 503-351-9743

Who is that Masked Man?

Dan Wright. Heard the name yet? If not, you will. I had the opportunity of meeting this industrious and creative young man at the 2001 CES. It seems Mark Schifter had suggested he look me up. I am even further indebted to Mark for this one! My digital playback world of both music and film has been taken to a level I had though unattainable – on a budget anyway – just a year ago thanks to that meeting. No small praise, you may say to yourself; but then, Dan has earned it.

When I had learned that Perpetual Technologies had decided to not only stand behind and warrant his upgrades to their already overachieving P-3A DAC, but were actually recommending them, my P-3A was on the first flight I could arrange to Oregon. My impressions were so strong that even before I published them they had influence on a number of other writers here at The Stereo Times (and other places as well). My digital world has been so much enhanced by his work that I actually had to upgrade my long-time reference analog front end. If you know me or are familiar with my work, you realize just how strong an endorsement that is.

In addition to bringing his remarkable abilities to the two-channel music reproduction world, he applies his skill set to the home theater world as well, offering enhancements to the already very good Pioneer family of DVD players. The modifications to these affordable DVD machines come in several varieties and levels. Transport upgrades deal with making a stock Pioneer deck a more solid performer for driving an external DAC. Thought these modifications will contribute significantly to the player’s standalone performance, they are by no means all that Dan can offer for that application. The overall, or standalone, enhancements he offers optimize the analog output circuitry as well, making the machine a much better device when it is to be used without an external DAC. Both the transport and standalone upgrades come in two degrees.

Bit Moving

The Level I Transport modifications include:

  1. Stock rectifiers are upgraded to ultra-fast soft-recovery diodes.

  2. The captured AC cord is replaced with an IEC socket to allow the use of upgrade power cords.

  3. Solen polystyrene cap bypassed Panasonic capacitors replace the stock power supply caps.

  4. There is a massive damping of the transport mechanism.

  5. The stock digital out jack is replaced with a high-quality 75-ohm impedance Canare digital RCA.

  6. The digital circuit is modified to include the addition of a high-quality 75-ohm pulse transformer and replaces the stock digital out resistor with a Caddock precision metal film resistor.

  7. The digital out circuit path is “simplified” and the stock output filter is upgraded to a Black Gate.

For the above modifications, ModWright charges $225 plus shipping. Moving to Level II of the Transport upgrade, beside all of the above, you also receive:

  1. Key digital decoupling caps are replaced with high-grade Black Gate capacitors.

  2. The main Panasonic AC filter cap is replaced with Black Gate’s best WK “Power Tank” cap that is also bypassed with an Auricap Film cap instead of a Solen

  3. The IEC socket used is now a filtered IEC socket.

  4. Further dampening to the deck enclosure is made.

This full application of the transport modifications sells for $375 plus shipping.

Standing alone

  1. Now, the standalone upgrades overlap in some areas the transport upgrades, but at level one, you receive:
    Stock rectifiers are upgraded to ultra-fast soft-recovery diodes.

  2. The captured AC cord is replaced with an IEC socket to allow the use of upgrade power cords.

  3. Solen polystyrene cap bypassed Panasonic capacitors replace the stock power supply caps.

  4. There is a massive damping of the transport mechanism.

  5. The analog coupling caps are upgraded to Black Gates.

  6. The stock op-amps are switched to high quality ultra-fast op-amps.

  7. Muting transistors and much of the (completely unnecessary) analog output stage are removed, simplifying the circuit.

  8. Output resistors are changed to a single pair of Caddock precision metal film resistors

  9. The individual power supplies to DAC and analog circuits are improved.

The Level I standalone upgrade price is $275, plus shipping. But what do you get at Level 2, you may ask? Well, take all the Level I Mods and add the following:

  1. Main AC filter cap upgraded to Black Gate WK “Power Tank” in lieu of the Panasonic and it is bypassed with a high-quality Auricap film cap instead of a Solen.

  2. Current-load to the op-amps is modified to bias them into quieter operation.

The “Full Boat” standalone upgrades come to $400 plus shipping. Dan now also offers OEM Bybee filters to level I or II mods for an additional $240 and a Audiocom DVC-1 Master Clock upgrade for $180 with any other mod or $200 by itself. This guy ROCKS! So, what does all this actually SOUND LIKE?

Let’s boogie

What does all this shipping, soldering and parts upgrading afford? More than you would have any right to expect. Even though I believe that the aural memory is much better than most are willing to acknowledge, especially with notes and the same source material, in order to avoid controversy, and thanks to “Tin Ear” Bob’s kindness, I had an identical stock unit on hand for direct comparison. I had both Pioneer DV-525’s installed and “hot” on two separate shelves in my Home Theater rack to allow for extremely quick head to head evaluation

For my video comparisons, I used both a 27″ direct view NEC S-Monitor and a 60″ Mitsubishi VS-60705 projection monitor. Video out was carried by a 2 meter Harmonic Technology Single Crystal Silver S-Video Cable and bits were transferred to the processor via a 1.5 meter Harmonic Technology Cyber-Link Copper. One of my long time video tests is the award winning Pixar short, “Geri’s Game” from the A Bug’s Life DVD [Disney 16698]. Wow! The chess pieces, the trees, the leaves on the table, all were presented with more vivid color and much-enhanced detail compared to the stock unit. Colors seemed to come alive in comparison. The wood grains in the chessboard and pieces, the veins and shadows in the leaves, even the edges of Geri’s hair were so much better defined and realized. Richer hues, greater gradation of color, blacker blacks and whiter whites. This wasn’t even close; it was like night and day.

I am also fond of using The Fifth Element, Luc Besson’s sci-fi thriller [Columbia 82409], for it’s stark lighting, contrasting colors and excellent audio. Throwing it in highlighted another rewarding change or two. One of the most exciting differences in the picture of the modded unit was the increased layering and dimensionality it brought about. Scenes which relied on “depth-of-field” to frame action or highlight plot development were much more effective. Though the stock unit does a convincing enough job of creating a three dimensional scene in deep focus shots, the modded unit became almost holographic here! These were some seriously wholesale improvements in video performance. What about audio, you say? Funny you should ask.

Still with The Fifth Element, the development of the entire presentation was affected. Dynamics increased, quite got quieter, loud got less aggressive and delicate sounds, like those of rain drops hitting leaves, became so distinguishable that you really began to feel that you were “there”. These are especially desirable traits when viewing any action adventure film at seat shaking volumes.

With music performances, like James Taylor’s superb Live at the Beacon [CMV 50171], or the Stop Making Sense performance [Palm 3013-2] from Talking Heads, the audio difference was even more notable. Try “Mexico” from the Live at the Beacon disc. Bass guitar runs took on individuality of plucked strings rather than a slurring of a group of notes into a homogonous blur. Instrumental timbre improved, especially in the upper mids to treble area. Upper mids and lower treble became much more subtle and vibrant at the same time.

As a “bit source” providing ones and zeros to my Perpetual Technologies P-1A upsampler and ModWright™ Signature P-3A DAC, the thing was nearly unrecognizable as even being from the same family as the stock unit. The stock unit lacked the depth and control of the deepest bass, the definition of the mid bass, the timbral richness and ease of the mids and upper mids and the air and finesse of the upper mids and lower treble when compared to Dan’s modified player.

Two other areas of significant improvement came in both the staging and imaging capabilities and in the dynamic capacity of the modified unit. The stage was considerably wider, deeper and slightly higher than with the stock unit. In addition, the music had come alive in the dynamic sense. Quiet was noticeably quieter! Both macro dynamics, like the recreation of sharp drumhead strikes as in “The Invasion” from the Seven Years in Tibet Soundtrack [Sony/Mandalay SK 60271], and microdynamics, like the delicately struck triangle in Aja from the Steely Dan album of the same name [MFSL UDCD 515], were markedly improved. This greater sense of both slam and involvement translated into much improved music making from the upgraded DVD-525 when used as a transport.

As a standalone CD Player, the differences noted head to head were all very similar to the above noted transport differences, but a few were not quite as pronounced. The bass performance, while improved over the stock unit, was not as deep or quite as controlled. Thought the upper mids and treble were smoother, there was still some of that “digital” sound. The dynamic transformations carried over very well to the standalone player, carrying much of that heightened portrayal of “life” to discs. Music was more alive by a great margin over the stock unit. The upgraded player boogied, where the stock unit could only polka. What can I say! I don’t lie any of the limits of the performance here at Dan’s feet. Quite the contrary, what he has achieved with a very affordable DVD player is nothing short of remarkable. Rather, I think it simply reveals the limits of the analog section of the design. Keep in mind; this is a budget Video device after all.

The ModWright™ Advantage

In terms of DVD player performance, this ridiculously low priced machine compares to some very highly thought of devices. In terms of its home theatre performance, it strikes remarkable close to, and perhaps equals, the $1500 long-time Sony standard, the DVP-S9000ES. I’m not talking about features or looks or whistles and bells. Just in terms of raw picture and sound quality. Video and Audio out were that good, to my examination. About the only player I’ve seen that I think has any real superiority over Dan’s modified Pioneer is the Pioneer Elite DV-09, and it sells for well over two grand.

This modded machine offers some stiff competition as an affordable transport. It hung right in there with my Elite PD-41 Stable Platter transport, though overall, the Elite won out in bass performance and overall voice. Nevertheless, it was fiercely close. Will it compete with the $18,000 C.E.C. TL 0 Mk II? Let’s keep it real, shall we? I honestly can’t think of a more affordable transport that offers its deftness and refinement. And don’t tell me that you don’t believe a transport has a sound of its own. They can have more impact on overall sound than some DAC’s.

As a standalone player this machine will compete with numerous players I’ve heard in the sub $1000 price range. There are some stiff competitors there, like the Rega Planet and Musical Fidelity A3CD, both very good in their own right. In some areas, like it’s dynamic capability, it easily coexists or bests many of them to my ear. In other areas of performance, such as bass definition and depth, it has some powerful competitors.

Exactly what are we talking about here? We take a machine that typically sold for just over $200 in the real world even though MSRP was $450 or so. You ship it to Oregon for a couple of weeks, along with a check for up to $400 (or more – if you opt for the clock and Bybee enhancements), and it comes home to you prepared to take a swipe at the top of the heap. You are talking about a device that will run you something like $700 that has the sheer ability to run with some $1500 DVD machines. If your thing is nameplates or status, hit the road and blow the $1500. If your thing is performance, and we all know it should be, call Dan and make an appointment to send your little underachiever to Oregon. Then, when it returns, sit back and revel in the knowledge that you are going to be hard pressed to buy significantly better Home Theater performance for any price. This mod ROCKS! Dan, you’ve done it again. Where will you strike next?

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