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Modwright-Oppo BDP-105 with “Truth” Modifications

Modwright-Oppo BDP-105 with “Truth” Modifications

The Modwright “Truth” modifications to Oppo’s BDP-105 player were brought to my attention by Infinity co-founder Arnie Nudell when I interviewed him for The Absolute Sound’s Illustrated History of High-End Audio. I asked Arnie which current products most impressed him, and he named two: the marvelous Constellation Audio Reference Series amplifiers, and the surprising Modwright-Oppo BDP-105. Since I regard Arnie as one of the greatest of all high-end speaker designers—having owned many of his stellar creations including the Infinity RS1, RS-1B, and Beta—his opinion carried a lot of weight. What was most intriguing was Arnie’s contention that this set of Modwright modifications vaulted the Oppo to a reference level. He claimed, “With the right program material it does as good a job as anything conveying the musicality and emotion of a live concert.”

I had to hear for myself what these modifications could do to enhance the performance of the already well-regarded Oppo BDP-105. In my experience, incorporating tubes in digital front-ends can certainly lead to better sound. Long ago, I purchased a California Audio Labs Icon II because its tubed analog output stage made those bits sound more natural to my ears compared to other moderately priced digital players of the day. Admittedly, many costly digital front ends have left me somewhat uninvolved, particularly with SACDs, whereas others that sound great are either far beyond my budget, such as the remarkable dCS Vivaldi, or are no longer available. Could the relatively affordable ($2495) Modwright “Truth” upgrade to the Oppo BDP-105 be the solution to my “digital dilemma” and enable me to get more enjoyment from the latest high-resolution digital media?

In my experience, modifying stock products to improve performance can be a slippery slope. One assumes that since most products are designed to a price point, they can be improved, at a minimum, by replacing select components with higher-quality, more costly ones. However, there are several risks involved. First, the manufacturer’s warranty is voided. Second, more costly parts do not always ensure better sound. Product designers spend a lot of time and effort listening to their products to carefully voice them, and monkeying around with the original design can destroy this delicate balance. Third, there is the issue of workmanship and reliability. Whereas the stock units typically undergo rigorous testing, too many modified units do not. Fourth, when you go to sell a modified product, you generally recover only a small fraction of the cost of the upgrade. Fifth, you often take your chances on a modified unit without being able to audition it and without the support of your local dealer. If you don’t like the results, you’re stuck. Last, once you start down the modification pathway, where do you stop, particularly with tubed-based modifications? Besides several additional Modwright options to the basic “Truth” modifications—including the Bybee Music Rail and Audio Magic Pulse Gen ZX upgrades, which were not added—one can also spend a lot of time “tube rolling” to find the perfect sonic match. I did upgrade the Modwright-supplied Electro-Harmonic 6SN7EH driver tubes with some wonderful Sophia Electric 6SN7 tubes, as well as swapping the Sovtek 5AR4 rectifier tube in the external power supply for a taller and wider Philips 5R4GYS, recommended by tube-maven Kevin Deal. (Note: This latter change requires a top plate with a hole, which can be supplied by Modwright.) Both these tube replacements move the Modwirght-Oppo closer to the sound of a live performance with gains in openness, inner detail, image depth, truth of timbre, and dynamic explosiveness.

The key questions for me were: Would the Modwright “Truth” modifications to the Oppo BDP-105 be worth it, and what has Modwright done to help minimize the associated risks?

The Stock Oppo BDP-105
Modwright starts with Oppo’s highly successful, award-winning BDP-105 universal player as its digital platform—TAS’ 2013 Disc Player of the Year that was reviewed quite favorably by CM in Issue 232. He was impressed by its “clean, clear, and detailed” presentation,” commenting that “it is far more revealing than it has any right to be for the money.” I concur and would add that with high-resolution sources this player is surprisingly good. However, during extensive listening sessions, I always knew I was listening to a digital source.

Modwright’s Dan Wright selected this Oppo because “it is universal, state of the art, reliable, and lends itself well to significant improvement by way of our modifications.” (The modifications are the same for Oppo’s new BDP-105D “Darbee” edition that offers 4k video and a DSD input.) Fortunately, I was able to borrow a stock BDP-105 from Oppo’s CTO, Jason Liao, for comparison. My listening observations mirrored CM’s for the most part. I appreciated the Oppo’s remarkable clarity and fine detail resolution; however, I thought that the stock unit was somewhat lean-sounding in the upper midrange when reproducing massed strings, a limitation I hear on most digital front-ends. This limitation has kept me from enjoying digital music as much as I do analog, and typically leads to aural fatigue during my extensive listening sessions.

Jason also volunteered to measure both units using his test software at the Oppo offices near my house. As I expected, the stock Oppo measured better than the Modwright on all distortion parameters, but as most audiophiles know, test results do not tell the whole story. Indeed, according to Jason, the higher level of second-order harmonic distortion of the Modwright is something Oppo is trying to design into some of its products to help them sound richer and more natural.

The Modwright “Truth” Modifications
The Modwright “Truth” modifications to the Oppo BDP-105 are quite extensive and include a total redesign and replacement of the single-ended and balanced output stages with Modwright’s tube analog output stage. The most noticeable physical differences are: the inclusion of two 6SN7 driver tubes rising above the top plate of the Modwright-Oppo; a separate external power supply with one 5AR4 rectifier tube and two 13EM7 voltage-regulator tubes; and a Modwright “Truth” umbilical cord connecting the power supply to the main unit. The Modwright-Oppo also includes upgraded Cardas RCA connectors (for stereo outs), a Furutech cryo-teated IEC, upgraded resistors in the signal path, cryo-treated solid-cord silver wire for the signal path, and damping mods for the chassis and transport. As mentioned, the external supply can accommodate taller, larger-diameter tubes with the new top plate from Modwright.

The digital stage is not touched by Modwright, except that the “Truth” modifications improve the existing supplies that power the digital circuitry. Modwright’s Dan Wright said that Oppo’s stock clock “is excellent and unique,” and its DAC (employing two ESS Sabre ES9018 chips) “is exceptional.” He added that because they could not improve upon the clock or the DAC, Modwright left them alone. My review unit did not include any other optional Modwright modifications, but in addition to “tube-rolling,” I did add the outstanding Shunyata Alpha digital power cord, which significantly increased the transparency and improved the naturalness of the timbre of both the Modwright and the stock Oppo.

 

While I hesitate to recommend any unit you cannot audition beforehand, Modwright takes the risk out of owning its modified Oppo BPD-105. Although the factory warranty is voided, Modwright offers a one-year warranty of its own and offers to service the unit should it fail in a way that would otherwise be covered by the factory warranty, for cost of parts alone. Because the Oppo is so reliable, this is “very seldom necessary,” according to Dan. Even Oppo’s Jason Liao praised the workmanship of the Modwright modifications as “exceptional.” One rarely hears this kind of praise about any modification from the manufacturer of the original equipment.

Listening Comparisons
The sonic comparisons among the stock Oppo, the Modwright-modified Oppo, and my turntable system were illuminating. As both digital units required extensive break-in, I did not conduct my listening tests until after both had time to fully settle down. I was able to switch between them on several discs, using all the same ancillary components. Since the upgraded tubes in the Modwright and the addition of Shunyata’s Alpha Digital power cable to the stock and the modified Oppo units moved me closer to the illusion of hearing a live performance in my listening room, I used both for my extensive sonic comparisons.

With the glorious Reference Recordings CD of the Rutter Requiem, the stock Oppo sounded surprisingly good for such a modestly priced component, with appealing clarity and bass extension. However, I noticed some sibilance and stridency in the voices, particularly on dynamic peaks. Switching to the Modwright-Oppo, the voices and instruments bloomed, and I found myself immediately more immersed in the music. There was still very good clarity and detail, but now without any of the digital stridency. The soundstage seemed to take on an added dimension, too, with layered depth separating the performers in the chorus and a really good sense of the hall. Voices sounded richer in tonal color and music just flowed with more natural ease. In short, the Modwright-Oppo opened the door more deeply into the music, and I found myself listening to the entire piece rather than a few sample tracks.

On the higher-res SACD of Reference Recordings’ Exotic Dances from the Opera, percussion on the stock Oppo had appealing transient quickness and “snap.” Soundstaging was also good, particularly in width. Turning to the Modwright-Oppo, the decay of the cymbals and triangles sounded more natural, woodwinds had more body, and there was greater separation among the performers on stage. The sonic gap between the Modwright-Oppo and my turntable system was surprisingly narrow, and both left the stock Oppo in the dust. Admittedly, I preferred the enhanced bloom, air, soundstage depth, and more natural timbre of the vinyl to the Modwright-Oppo, but bass articulation, impact, and extension were comparable.

On Reference Recording’s brilliant HRx DVD-R of Rachmaninoff’s Symphonic Dances (recorded at 176.4kHz/24), the stock Oppo displayed more of its remarkable bass power and extension, dynamic explosiveness, and clarity. Although massed strings had realistic shimmer and woodwinds sounded good, they were reproduced with some digital artifacts (edge), which detracted from the illusion of a live performance. Moving to the Modwright-Oppo, woodwinds had more body, and strings were more natural—verging on the lush. The timbre was more harmonically fleshed out, the instruments had more air, and the music breathed as it does in the concert hall. Yes, there was more warmth, but no syrupy or caramel tube coloration here, and the enhanced tonal richness didn’t come at the expense of transient speed, inner detail, or dynamic explosiveness. Moving to vinyl, the differences in clarity and inner detail between it and the Modwright-Oppo were too close to call. However, with vinyl the sound was a bit more open, particularly in the highs, with slightly more delicacy and hall ambience, as well as more body and richness. However, I had to give a slight nod to the Modwright-Oppo in bass power and articulation, and its lower noise floor was more appealing.

As expected, the sound of both the stock Oppo and Modwright improved fairly dramatically as the resolution of the digital media increased (on good recordings). Arnie provided me with a 2.8MHz DSD recording (converted to 24/176 PCM) of Mahler’s Symphony No. 7 in E minor from the San Francisco Symphony. The strengths of each unit increased and their shortcomings were less in evidence. For example, the sound on the Modwright-Oppo was stunning in balanced mode with see-through transparency, a deep, wide, and precise soundstage, fleshed-out timbre with no sense of digital artifacts in the pure harmonic overtones, and explosive dynamics with deep bass extension. The fine detail has a delicacy that is mesmerizing, perhaps lacking only the last bit of air one hears with top-notch analog sources, albeit with the benefit of a lower noise floor. Regrettably, in this instance, I did not have the vinyl for comparison, but I must concur with Arnie that on this recording, the Modwright-Oppo certainly conveys the musicality and emotion of a live concert!

One of my audio buddies and a frequent listener to my system said that he thought that I was playing my turntable when the Modwright-Oppo was in the system. I must admit that there were times when I was so lost in the music that I had to look up to see which source was playing. That is very high praise and has never happened to me before with a digital source in my home.

Conclusion
So are the Modwright “Truth” modifications to Oppo’s BDP-105 player worth the cost and the risk? The answer to that question is a resounding, “Yes!” The build-quality is exemplary and the sonics are exceptional. It is the first digital player I have had in my listening room that didn’t make me want to go back to my analog rig right away, and that’s because it sounds so much like analog in many respects, without giving up the bass extension and control, clarity, fine detail resolution and retrieval, and convenience that can make digital so attractive. With outstanding sonics that can make you forget you’re listening to digital, and its remarkable flexibility and compatibility when playing discs from a player or a computer-audio setup, I suspect this is one universal player that you’ll be hanging on to for a long time. While I’m unwilling to abandon my analog rig, I can see why others, like Arnie, have chosen to do take this path, particularly when one feeds the Modwright-Oppo first-rate, high-resolution source material. The Modwright Oppo is now my digital reference.

SPECS & PRICING

Price: $2495 (for Modwrightv“Truth” modifications alone)
Price of stock Oppo BDP-105 (user supplied): $1199

MODWRIGHT INSTRUMENTS, INC.
21919 NE 399th Street
Amboy, WA 98601
(360) 247-6688
modwright.com

ASSOCIATED EQUIPMENT
Merrill-Williams R.E.A.L 101 turntable with Tri-planer U-II and Ortofon MC Cadenza Black and Kiseki Purple Heart Sapphire cartridges; Esoteric SA-50 and Oppo BDP-105 digital players; MFA Venusian (Frankland modified), PrimaLuna Dialogue Three, and Constellation Audio Virgo II preamps; PrimaLuna DiaLogue HP monoblocks and Constellation Audio Centaur amplifiers; Magnepan 3.7i and Quad ESL -57 (PK modified) loudspeakers; Silver Circle Audio TCH AIK6 power conditioner; Shunyata Research Alpha digital power cable, Nordost Valhalla interconnects and power cords, AudioQuest Niagara interconnects and Metro speaker cables, etc.

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