SACD Player Shootout

I had previously started a thread regarding break-in time for my new Ayre C-5xe. There is background here:

The comparison took place this past Saturday. 14 people ended up attending this shootout. I think everyone had a great time. I know that I did.

Conditions and Associated Gear: All players were placed on a modified rack and powered up on the night prior to the contest. They were not powered down at any time. A pair of 6’ Jena Labs Symphony RCA-terminated interconnects was used, and, as per Charles Hansen’s suggestion, the same preamp input was utilized for each player (i.e. the swap was made only at the outputs of the player under review). Associated gear consisted of my own primary system – Aesthetix Janus, Parasound JC-1s, Sound Lab A-1s, Acoustic Zen Silver Ref II balanced ICs between amp and preamp, and Acoustic Zen Satori speaker cables. Each player used the relatively inexpensive but excellent Signal Cable power cords. The amps were warmed up for an hour prior to beginning the critical judgments. Each person was asked to take notes and rank the players based on tonality, imaging, soundstaging, and the rest of the usual parameters, and then on Redbook vs. SACD capabilities. We used three disks as standards: Area 31 (Chesky SACD), Alison Krauss and Union Station Live (Rounder SACD), and Mephisto and Co. (Reference Recordings CD).

The Results:

EMM CDSD and DCC2 – All but two agreed that the EMM separates provided the best sound overall on Redbook playback. The group was split 7 to 5 in favor of the EMM gear over the Ayre on SACD.

Ayre C-5xe – the Ayre came in a very close second to the Meitner gear. Every single participant placed the C-5xe in second place. Several people commented that it was the most ‘analog-sounding’ player that they had ever heard. There’s no question that it is an extraordinarily relaxed presentation – not in the sense of being laid-back in any way; rather, it seems to be completely devoid of ‘digititis’. In comparison to the EMM CDSD/DCC2, it lacks only a bit of transparency and a smidgen of macrodynamic capability.

Denon DVD-5910 (Underwood Level 1 mod) - an excellent player in almost every regard, and another that shows a distinct lack of digital fatigue. The EMM and Ayre bettered it in minor ways in several areas. It was generally acknowledged that this Denon had one shortcoming relative to the top two: there seems to be a pervasive fine grain in the upper midrange that is not unpleasant but tends to obscure details in large-scale works, somewhat to the detriment of the soundstage.

Dcs P8i (tie) – those who have heard the big Dcs stacks had high hopes for this single unit player. It has no glaring faults, but at the same time was judged as a cut below the best in virtually every regard. In particular, it seemed a little soft at both frequency extremes.

Esoteric X-01 (tie) – the X-01 provoked more debate than any other player in this group. The two two individuals who did not put the EMM gear in first place had the Esoteric in that spot. Three others put in near the bottom of the pack. Why such differing opinions? The X-01, in my opinion, is a study in ‘excesses’, both good and bad. It clearly had the best macrodynamic capability of any of the pack. I mean, this is come-up-and-smack-you-in-the-face territory. On the other hand, it became harsher more quickly than any of others. Personally, this is something that I don’t willingly tolerate. Just to ensure that it was the player and not some other variable, we later (after the main session was over switched to two other power cords (Acoustic Zen Krakatoa and TG Audio Silver). No doubt some X-01 devotee will berate me for not changing out the IC or placing Ceranuts underneath the unit.

Denon DVD-3910 (Reference Audio mod) – judged to be an excellent value for the money, this player generally does everything well and provides little in the way of irritating behavior. It’s main shortcomings were a somewhat compressed soundstage, slightly blurred imaging, and a less than stellar handling of the midbass (it was the ‘fattest’) of the group. Don’t misunderstand – it’s many miles ahead of the low to moderate-priced pack.

Music Hall Maverick (Underwood 1+ mod) – very similar in almost ever respect to the modded DVD-3910, with a little litter midbass but a distinctly softer high end. The latter aspect may be one reason why the Maverick was graded highly on Redbook playback – it’s a somewhat forgiving player. I’ll be sorry to see it go when I sell it.

Linn Unidisk – absolutely the biggest surprise of the day. This just did not sound anything like a SOTA contender. In fact, it sounded so much like a $199 Circuit City special that its owner has sent it off to be checked out. Because he has ears that I respect and claims that the Linn ordinarily sounds so much better, I would withhold judgment at this point.

So, there you have it. For the most part, both very experienced listeners and relative novices generally agreed on the above, with the one real exception being the aforementioned Esoteric. I am 100% sure that the rankings will ruffle some feathers, but please understand that there is only so much that can be done under the circumstances. I make no apologies for either my own opinions or for those of the participants. Needless to say, your mileage may vary.
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Hi Curriemt11,

Thanks for the thoughtful review. Do you have information on the APL modification, if the unit had the currently used AKM - D to A converters in it? I had the similar concerns with mine until the AKM DACs were installed. Now it is great.


It's always interesting to read comparisons like this thanks. I agree with others, it would be even better if Modwright and VSE level 5 units were in the mix.
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I listened to the linn unidisk at a dealer for about an hour on an all linn system.I tried all sorts of discs.I couldn't understand how this unit received great reviews cause it sounded like an elcheapo player to me.I would have guessed it around 2-3 hundred bucks as well and no more.
Good write-up though. You covered a lot of the contenders and it seems churlish to complain that you did not have X - so I won't. (X for me would be one of Allen Wright's Sonys).

The EMM Labs and the Ayre are the two I am considering, so your shootout has helped.

Great post. If you only had John Tucker's 3910 it would have been perfection. I finally decided, anyway, which way I am definitely going, but it would have be nice to see how the Exemplar held up with the competition. Also, Dan does a mod on the 3910, as well, which he told me over email is even better than his BonWright. That's right Jayctoy. I betcha he'll give you a peace, warren :)
I believe the Ayre retails for $4950. I have one and can state that it is better than the Accuphase 75v for CD's. It is my first SACD player, so no comparisons; but, it sounds very good. Have fun.
Thanks very much for your replies. Why am I not surprised that there are a number of "wish XXX had been included" comments :)? Basically, we had what we had. I'm not under any illusions that this was as extensive as it could have been, nor that extremely strict procedures were followed...nor that my diminished supply of single malts had no effect on the results (see my (poorly updated)system photos at for a notion of the extent of the potential damage).

Let's see, I'll try to answer the questions and comments:

Yes, the APL mod had the current AKMs in it (per its owner).

Regarding the Linn - I have heard this guy's unit before, and while not terribly impressed at the time and believeing that one can do MUCH better for the money, it was definitely better than it sounded on Saturday. I believe that there was something wrong somewhere.

The current retail price of the Ayre is $5850.

I am reasonably sure that the APL mod was a 5910, but will check with the owner to make sure if I can get in touch with him. This was a person that I had not met until Saturday.
I'm curious as to which Linn unidisk you used here. Although I've not heard most of the other units, my experience with the Linn 2.1 and 1.1, comparing to MF Trivista, just doesn't square with that you report here.

Linn 1.1 - I should have been specific, sorry. I've stated that I think there was likely a problem with the unit. My personal opinion of a correctly functioning Unidisk is that it's squarely in the second tier of players, and is a fairly poor value for money.
Another glaring omission would seem to be either the Sony SCD-777es or DVP-s9000es with the VSEI level 5 mod. Considering that the editor/publisher of Positive Feedback gave the VSEI level 4 modded version of the latter of those two the 2004 SACD mod award and claimed it to be an extraodinary value, I think it would have at the very least made for an interesting inclusion.
Nice and interesting review! Thank you for posting it!

APL does not modify Denon 5910. We only have 3910.

It would be nice of you (or the owner who brought it) to post a clarification about the level of the APL Denon used in the shootout in terms of how many AKM DACs per channel are there, was it equipped with he latest 211KHz/32bit upsampler and how many hours total it had on it. This would be really helpful.


I want to change my post. I originally said I agree with the order - but should have mentioned one exception which causes me to question the Denon 5910 as well. It is pretty much the best I've heard (maybe second to the EMM).

" there seems to be a pervasive fine grain in the upper midrange that is not unpleasant but tends to obscure details in large-scale works, somewhat to the detriment of the soundstage."

This is something I haven't heard at all in the 3 systems I've heard it in which begs the question - what did you really listen to and who modded it? (note that I don't pretend to have the best ears compared to my audiophile friends).

By the way this is just for discussion. I appreciate your time on the shootout and posting your results.

One more thing; I am not sure if this is the case, but I feel this would be a good place for the following very important clarification;

Hot Rod Audio Mods / Verastarr have a number of Denon 3910 and 5910 sold using an all solid state modification I have helped them to develop. They also use my APL Hi-Fi Master Clock. You can see these machines offered for sale here on Audiogon. I believe they are in the $2500 range for Denon 3910 which includes the actual player. I don't know how much they are selling the mods for Denon 5910.

I have received calls and emails from number of people asking why APL Hi-Fi machines are available at $2500 for sale on Audiogon. Also, some even said that I am almost a criminal because my Denons don't have what I claim there is inside. Sure, this will be the case if they've opened HRAM modded Denon.

Bottom line is that one needs to read carefully the information provided by the owner/seller in order to determine whether this is indeed fully re-engineered APL Hi-Fi Denon they are buying or evaluating.

Must have been a lot of fun. As for Linn, the cost is abnormally high because Linn went its own way in developing the chip sets that allow "universal" it "sounds" like an investemt that has not paid off!

Thanks very much for your post. I am still trying to clarify exactly what we auditioned. As I said previously, I am reasonably certain that it was a Denon 5910, so now I'm wondering if it was actually an APL mod. I will get the information as soon as I can.
One thing that I should have mentioned - every unit was certainly broken in. My Ayre, being new, had the least at approximately 120 hours of playing time.
OK, I have just received an email from the owner of the Denon 5910 and must apologize. This was NOT an APL modded unit. According to its owner, it had an Underwood Level 1 modification. I'd like to blame it on the single malts, but I wrote down the information early in the day, so would you accept my plea of old age? Once again, I apologize for the confusion.

For what it's worth, I looked up this up on Underwood's website. Looks to me like the list on new modded machines is $3790. Considering how well it performed, I'd say that's real value for money.

I made it clear that this was somewhat informal and that we used what the participants owned. "Glaring omission" suggests to me that we were somehow negligent. Sorry if we couldn't do everyone's personal favorites.
Not an APL 5910 mod? That is some glitch in your player shootout. Kind of like having a sports car shoot out and leaving out Ferrari, don't you think? Try it again with Alex's baby primed and ready, and while you are at it throw in the Exemplar 3910, as well. Back to the drawing board...

Thank you for sharing this information. I am appreciative of the work involved.

Now, where was the modded Toshiba 3950? THAT is an unforgivable ommision :)

a well done informative comparison. this is a service to the community, thanks.
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I fully agree with Tvad. An egregious error. Single malts? maybe you should try a twelve step program. I thought Alex, the APL man himself, handled that a hellava lot more gentlemanly than if that were my baby..peace, warren
Few readers of these threads bother to read all the posts

That's their problem. ;-) Those readers skip to the end of the magazine review to see if the writer recommended it.

No, I actually agree with you. Best for both APL and Underwood to get this corrected.

OK, I have just received an email from the owner of the Denon 5910 and must apologize. This was NOT an APL modded unit. According to its owner, it had an Underwood Level 1 modification.

> Kind of like having a sports car shoot out and leaving out Ferrari, don't you think?

One last time...we had what we had, end of story. Please don't presume to know what I think. As for the Exemplar 3910, I have heard that one at length, as a close audio buddy has one. It would place at least halfway down the list, if not further.

As for your last message, I am mystified why you consider it necessary to be so rude. I certainly won't answer you further - it's not worth my time. Bye.
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Didn't mean to imply negligence, but I don't want to see Denon (or anything at that particular price point) garner any accolades, lest I be tempted astray of my current system plan. Bravo!
After auditioning several players including the Ayre C-5xe and an early version of the APL 3910, I decided to buy the APL. The Ayre C-5xe is an excellent player (significantly better than it's little brother the C-7xe, which I own in my second system), but the APL (non-AKM version) was clearly in a higher league, IMO. I have since had my APL upgraded to the AKM version. That resulted in a dramatic improvement. (For details, see my post in another thread.) So, I was suspicious of your rankings from the start. Now it turns out that the "APL" player in the shoot-out wasn't an APL. That is an unfortunate error in reporting. I look forward to upgrading my APL to the 211kH/32 bit version. Alex, you are not only a gentleman, you are the cutting-edge of digital!
Remember the tale of the Scorpion? It's my nature. Sorry that I hurt your feelings...peace, warren :)
Wow, isn't this a discussion forum - someone casually posts some shootout results (for free - it's not a rag review) and they get flamed because everything wasn't layed out perfect. He was honest enough to double check and reconsile everything. I don't think he had bad intentions.

Anyone deciding to purchase something based on a thread here is nuts anyway. I'd say 1/2 of the posts on A'gon are people that own something and talk it up to feel better about it. People should listen for themselves otherwise it's on them for making a bad purchase. It's all personal opinion anyway. Even in a shootout.

By the way the Denon 5910 that was the best I've heard I think was actually a Modwright with a seperate power supply and tubed output. My dealer said that they only use the Denon box but completely rebuild it. I don't know what model it is now. Any guesses?
We're getting the initial post has my Audiogon user ID where the 'review' was. I've asked Audiogon to paste in the corrected text.
Curriemt 11,
Reading some of these posts is simply more evidence that "no good deed goes unpunished". Thanks for the effort.
Thank you Curriemt11! Your quick response and concern are greatly appreciated!

Please send me a private message if you would like to hear my Denon against your Ayre since now you have the idea how the Ayre compares to the EMM Labs combo. I will see what can be arranged.

Thanks again!

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Robm321 - kind of strange, isn't it? I've never understood people who treat honest differences of opinion as some sort of personal attack. It's notable that the individual who had the most to lose from my mistake (Alex) replied both publicly and privately in a most gentlemanly manner.

Phaelon - my pleasure

Alex - see my email to you

Tvad - and I appreciate those spotting the error for mentioning it. As for the rags, at least those guys get paid to write controversial copy - or at least get a bunch of good sh!t to listen to :)

Hi Currient11,

Thanks for taking the time and effort to correct the oversight about which unit your group compared, and for being responsible enough to have the original review corrected.

I am with Puremusic on this one, with both my own personal experience; and evaluations of the units I have know; and feeling the same sense of suspicion for the results. I also had the AKM DACs installed as an upgrade. They are very special!

I have not heard the EMM labs unit, but I am confident that the APL will easily out class the Ayre. I have no prejudice about the Ayre, I love the Ayre preamp that I have, and really like their amplifier designs as well.

I am sorry to see you suffer such aggressive flaming over this issue. Every one of us can, and probably has made some mistake in fact or semantics in something we have written within the forums. At the end of the day if we have a clearer understanding of what to expect from a product, and we respect each member for participating in the forums, then we have had a productive and worthwhile dialog.

Best regards,

Curriemt11...curious are the comments applicable for both SACD and redbook or did you find certainly players exceling in one format but not the other?
Curriemt11, you are a lucky guy, If Alex lets you compare, whoa baby.....A fellow audiogon member, Puremusic owns both, the APL in main system, and your Ayre in second will be SMILING soon, better look in your pocketbook again.