Improving on Perfection?

Most audiophiles are aware of the modification and add-on aftermarket. A few have learned the hard way that modifier competence varies from primitive magic and sales hype to real engineering skill. Some modifiers are serious audiophiles who are also good technicians; others are scam artists whose only goal is to make a quick buck on the latest fad. If you have only a rudimentary understanding of electronics, you may not be able to make a distinction. Even the most jaded and battle-hardened among us can still be hooked and reeled in by a slick sales presentation.

Can you tell a product made mostly of hot air from one with lasting value? A fly-by-night company from a "real" one? In the ordinary superficial sense you can't, because many products look to be well-made, and the companies they come from appear to be substantial.

But you can look behind the curtain if you try: Get an engineer's or technician's opinion of the quality and potential benefit of the work you're considering having done, or the value of the add-on device you're thinking of buying. At the very least, talk to other hobbyists. Cruise the Internet. Check your modifier's credentials and track record. Will they be able to back up their work should repairs become necessary? Or will they be gone and their phone disconnected as soon as the fad is over?

And remember: The original manufacturer, and most repair shops, will bounce a modified product right back without even attempting to fix it. Should the modified gear fail or damage something connected to it, you may discover that the last anyone heard of the modifier, he'd gone away on a long fishing trip.

One of the most effective modifications for almost any piece of gear is a power-supply upgrade: a bigger, higher-current power transformer; low-noise, fast-recovery rectifier diodes; and low-ESR (equivalent series resistance) filter capacitors. Sam Tellig's favorable comments about the Radio Shack 3400 CD player used with the Sequerra Power Station just over a year ago (Vol.17 No.10, p.51) mentioned the benefits of a big, low-noise power supply.

The success of the 3400/Power Station combo has spawned a few knockoffs. At Hi-Fi '95, Stereophile's High-End Hi-Fi Show held last April in Los Angeles, I was cornered by a veteran freelance manufacturer's representative who wanted me to listen to a modified 3400 he said had been praised by another high-end publication. The modification had been done by "an engineering group" with a name like "InterGalactic Audio," who had gone to the expense of beefing up their image with some professional ad copy and glossy pictures. I politely told him that Stereophile doesn't review modifications, I don't review products, and if that was what he was looking for, I was the wrong guy to talk to.

"But you wrote about the 3400," he said.

"I did?" I replied, feigning ignorance.

"Yeah," he said, digging from his bag a tattered Stereophile from sometime last year.

"Got me there," I told him. He insisted that he just wanted my opinion of his player, nothing more. Fair enough, I thought. We met later in the hotel lobby and sought out the quietest corner we could find. He'd brought along a fully charged Power Station, a pair of Grado SR 60 headphones, some high-quality cables, and his modified 3400, which we compared to my totally stock unit. Even in the noisy hotel, my player sounded considerably more robust than usual powered by the Sequerra, but his player had better bass than mine, and a bit more midrange clarity. Not an earthshaking improvement, but noticeable.

The sales rep chatted amiably about the extent of the modifications ("totally re-engineered"), and the cost, which I seem to recall being in the $200 neighborhood. After listening to the two portables, I turned his over and opened the battery compartment. Inside were the biggest audiophile-approved coupling capacitors the modifiers had been able to shoehorn in, secured by globs of silicone sealant. I asked if he cared that such a mod both voided the warranty and rendered the little player useless as a portable.

"Well, that is something to consider," he frowned, "but this is just a prototype. What we really want to do is produce an affordable power supply of the Power Station's quality. Would you like to try one when we get it up and running? I just want to get your opinion."

I reminded him that I was not the gate to free ink, but he persisted. I said, "Sure, why not? I'll let you know what I think," and wandered off, thinking that would be the end of it.

A couple of weeks later he called me, all excited because the company he represented was about to start producing their power supply. "It's going to be a dedicated supply for the 3400," he told me, "and if you want to use it with another player, you can send it back and have it modified."

"Whoa, hold on," I said. "Wouldn't it make more sense to build a high-quality supply that could work with any portable? You know, with taps for various voltages and an assortment of reversible plugs? I think there's a real market for a good, durable, universal power supply."

He fell silent for a moment, then quietly said, "Hmm, maybe you're right. I'll have a talk with the engineering staff and get back to you."

After that came phone calls every few days—which I failed to return—and enthusiastic messages about how they were almost ready to ship. He couldn't have been more pumped up if he'd been the sole distributor for Windows 95.

Then he stopped calling. A couple of weeks went by. Then one day he called and, sounding a little distraught on my answering machine, insisted that I call him back.

"I believe I owe you an apology," he said. "We're not shipping any product. Ever. I have severed my relationship with 'InterGalactic Audio.'"

"No problem," I replied. "I wasn't all that concerned to begin with, but I am curious."

"Well, I took your suggestions to them, about making the power supply applicable for all portables, and they told me they couldn't do it. And when I dug a little deeper I found out all they were doing was buying a stock supply from Radio Shack, putting it in their own box, and marking it up 1000%. I can't support that."

He went on and on about how he hoped he hadn't damaged his reputation (he hadn't) or wasted my time (he had). Had he scratched the surface a bit before volunteering to rep this "product," he would have discovered that "InterGalactic Audio," like many startup companies, was just two guys in a garage, and two not very technically astute guys at that.

The moral of this little tale is to look and listen hard before you fork over your hard-earned money, send your gear in for surgery, or get involved in marketing an add-on of dubious value. The guy mentioned above has over 20 years' experience in this business and should have known better.

On the other hand, not all modifications are snake oil: many standard features on hi-fi equipment (such as spiked feet on loudspeakers) began as modifications. Many audiophile CD players in the mid-'80s were modified Magnavox/Philips units. Some of them were quite good, but most of their makers are gone now. Despite all the wishful thinking to the contrary, sow's ears still don't become silk purses, and cheap portables, no matter what's done to them, still don't become Forsells or Levinsons.

Robin Landseadel's picture

Had a 3400, made a huge rechargeable power supply for it, 60 amp hours of gel cells bypassed with a farad's worth of caps. Great CD transport, John Curl told me the CD Rom spinner at the heart of this portable was the 3400's secret weapon. Great CD transport, ok portable player. Modern stuff is so much better, it's not even funny.

tonykaz's picture

We as a Civilizied Society have been on a Technological tare since Ben Franklin harmlessly re-directed Storm Energy with his Lightning Rods which he gave to the Europeans : Free of Charge!! i.e. no more Barn fires.

However we seem to be briefly in another Societal & Industrial Doldrums almost like we're stalled, becalmed or depressed.

However, inventive minds are continuing to churn-out powerful improvements.

We should be looking for and noticing a significant advancement in Quality of Life in our post 2020 World.

We are already abandoning a large percentage of our 19th & 20th Century superstitions.

Rest up everyone, we are about to enter an intellectually vigorous New World with an exciting possibility for an even greater/thrilling life.

Tony in Venice

ps. we had ingenious "gear tweaks" back in the 1980s. I recall a lad called Mel Rader who could transform a basic Conrad-Johnson tube preamp into a stunning High-End performance challenger. He re-wired, teflon Caps, re-tubed, Cramolined, Litz wired, etc. His gear was outstanding against ALL Comers. I think that Guys like Art Ferris of Audible Illusions, J.Stoddard of Schiit and quite a few others are still revealing great performance from otherwise modest gear, Mr.Dudley and Mr. HR are revealers of modest greatness. ( the Audiophiliac too, of course ).

ps 2) Mr.D'Agostino has laid claim to "improving on perfection" with one of his new designs, is he actually capable of improving on perfection?

invaderzim's picture

However we seem to be briefly in another Societal & Industrial Doldrums almost like we're stalled, becalmed or depressed.

It would seem to me that a fair amount of ideas and inventions come from daydreaming; staring off into space and letting your mind wander and thinking 'what if...'. Now that we have 24/7 entertainment in our pockets the bulk of people don't have time for such things anymore.

I wonder what it does to our brains not having downtime to contemplate and process things.

AJ's picture

We are already abandoning a large percentage of our 19th & 20th Century superstitions.

Careful you don't get "Stereo" quantum entangled in your argument.


CG's picture

There are no hard and fast rules.

Schiit quite literally began as two people in a garage. Over time, both their business and their products have evolved. If everyone had ignored them, they'd, ahh, still be ignored. Something like that, anyway.

Lots of other companies began small and became great. Some of these then went into the toilet. Some of those toilet dwellers have risen again. Many (most?) are long, long gone.

The point is, you need to do your homework.

And, if you aren't handy with tools and test gear, it's probably a bad idea to get somebody else to modify your gear, at least if you plan to resell it soon or care that it might die in a couple years. If you do the work yourself and can fix what breaks yourself, you have a fighting chance to keep your gear running. That highly reviewed amp from the 80's can be made to work even better than back when it was reviewed (you have better access to computer simulation and test gear than almost all the bona fide professional companies did back then, and often can get better components), but it's on you.

Now that I think about it, there's enough examples of companies that seemed solid at the time but are long gone now, or went through that toilet cycle and aren't willing to fix gear with their own name on the front panel, that it's probably a good idea to learn to fix your own gear. Otherwise, choose manufacturers with decades of good customer relations. Or, find a really good repair shop that'll support your products. Or, only keep your gear for a year or two and then move on. Otherwise, you might be left holding the bag. Sad, but true.

tonykaz's picture

We were there about 10 years ago.

These players were part of a stack of 3 rubber banded electronic boxes. I remember everyone seemed to have one of these Stacks at that memorable RMAF11 where I met Tyll, Steve G. and Jason Stoddard.

10 years ago was an exciting/fun time in the Headphone world. Everyone was trashing Beats!!

I miss Tyll, I'm holding out hope that Mr.JA2 will reach out and present a nice Stereophile offer. I'm hoping Tyll to become our Wandering Audiophile Albatross, contributor to all things travel music gear: Li powered, shirt pocket, Stereophile gear along with a generous report on travels. "Travels with Tyll". ( does anyone recall "Travels with Charlie" by Steinbeck? )

We might have an exciting RMAF22 with fascinating Seminars. ( perhaps JA1 & JA2 being the Keynote Seminar presenters )

Tony in Venice lock down