The Mod Squad Prism CD player

While it can't exactly be said that the folks from The Mod Squad invented the game of audiophile modifications of existing, current-production hardware, they certainly have grown to be one of the major leaguers. Their mods have a reputation for being well-thought-out, nearly always offering improvements over the originals. And while they weren't the originators of the concept (footnote 1), any company which brought the world Tiptoes (probably their most famous product) will probably have a niche in the 21st-Century Museum of High-End Audio.

It's hardly surprising, therefore, that the folks from Leucadia would turn their attention to that most modifiable of components, the CD player—specifically, the ubiquitous Magnavox CDB 650. I had a great deal to say about CD in general, and Magnavox players in particular, in a recent survey (Vol.11 No.3. March 1988), so I won't go into detail here concerning either. Suffice it to say that the stock 650 is basically a good player with plenty of room inside to tempt a modifier, and plenty of room for improvement in its basic analog-output stages—the area concentrated on by all modifiers, The Mod Squad included. It also needs improvement in its rather clunky, plasticky transport mechanism. Fortunately, Magnavox (manufactured by Philips) has solved that problem in the new 470 series. These less-expensive models have a silky-smooth, robust transport. The Mod Squad is also working on mods for these players, but, for now, the subject at hand is their 650 mod, renamed the Prism.

The Prism
On the surface, what The Mod Squad does is not so different from what other modifiers do in its upgrade of a player's analog stage. But there is one feature I haven't yet seen in other modifications I've examined: an external transformer drives a separate power supply for the electronics, leaving the original supply to drive the transport mechanism. The Mod Squad also considers power-supply polarity to be important, and goes to the extra trouble of properly annotating the leads and providing instructions for hookup; if your home outlets are keyed with wide and narrow slots (as is most recent construction), and assuming your house or apartment is properly wired, correct hookup will be simple. The Prism also remains permanently on—the external power switch is disabled.

The Mod Squad player is also designed with considerably higher output than other players I have tested—about 8dB higher than the California Audio Labs Aria player and the Audio Concepts/Brasfield modification of the Magnavox 650. The reason for this is unquestionably for use with passive line stages—including the Mod Squad's own Line Drive. I didn't use it that way, but fed it through the high-level inputs of my Klyne SK-5A to facilitate comparisons with other players of more normal output. No overload problems were encountered with this setup, but a potential problem might exist with lesser preamps.

On a positive note, some of the more recently introduced low-cost preamps have a switch-selected bypass of the high-level stage (the new PS Audio 4.6 and the Sumo Athena, for example). I have found that the typical output of most Magnavox players, and modifications thereto, don't really have enough output for passive drive; the Prism should be an exception. Both of the above-mentioned preamps recently arrived for evaluation; use of the Mod Squad player with them is definitely on my agenda. Stay tuned.

The Prism, unfortunately, arrived with a defective transport, joining the three other defective Magnavox-based players I have encountered (out of a total of seven units) in recent months. Two of the other three flaws (see comments on the Aria, below) were undoubtedly in the original, unmodified machines. The Prism's problem was a transport which, about half the time, refused to turn the disc. It was promptly repaired by the manufacturer (apparently, replacement of the transport is a simple task) and the evaluation commenced (although the delay did postpone this review's publication).

The Mod Squad recommends the use of a CD damper (footnote 2), and Audioquest Sorbothane feet with short Tiptoes embedded in them. I also used the damper along with standard Sorbothane feet with the players to which I compared the Mod, but made no attempt to characterize the specific effects of the damper and feet. Let's just say I treated them like chicken soup.

Sound Quality
The Prism ranks with the best solid-state CD players I have yet auditioned. It may well be the best, but I won't make such a claim lightly; it has real strengths, but also some minor weaknesses which only became apparent on comparison with competing players.

First, the good stuff. The Mod Squad was superb at rendering midrange detail and definition, together with excellent vocal reproduction. Several of the cuts from Gordon Lightfoot's If You Could Read My Mind (Reprise 6392-2) have long been favorites of mine for naturally recorded pop vocals, and I was delighted to find the CD to be excellently remastered (footnote 3). The Prism provides Gordon's voice with a natural balance of body and resonance. I found this on a range of other recordings, instrumental and vocal; the palpable presence through the midband, if not quite up to the level of the best I have heard (that distinction belongs to the CAL Aria), was nonetheless convincing.

Part of the credit for the Prism's midrange reproduction must concern its transient response and dynamics. I refer here to the subtle shadings of level and impact which make music come alive. Whether this involved a transition between soft and very loud (try the explosive dynamics of La Folia de la Spagna, Harmonia Mundi HM 90.1050), the impact of a well-recorded piano as on Nojima Plays Liszt (Reference Recordings RR-25CD), or the subtle shadings of a talented guitarist (Leo Kottke's A Shout Toward Noon, Private Music 2007-2-P), the Prism didn't fail to provide impressive but totally natural reproduction.

The weaknesses of the Prism were not serious, but were heard in comparison with another solid-state player I have been recently impressed with—the lesser-known Audio Concepts/Brasfield modification of the Magnavox 650. The latter player was superior to the Prism at the frequency extremes. Listened to on its own, the Mod Squad was not at all deficient at either end of the spectrum, but the Audio Concepts had an open, airy transparency in the uppermost octave that the Prism could not quite match. It was, on occasion, accompanied by a slight dryness or fine graininess, but I suspect it was merely revealing flaws in the program material.

At the low end, down to about 35Hz, there was little to choose from between these two players, though a subtle midbass leanness of the Audio Concepts slightly improved its apparent clarity through this region, while conversely drying out male vocals a bit. Below 35Hz, however, the Audio Concepts came out a winner. Both players had a deep, extended low end, but the AC had the better definition. On Widor's Toccata, Symphony V from Encores à la Francaise (Telarc CD-80104), the deep, guttural shudder of the deepest pipes was more clearly obvious through the Audio Concepts. The Mod was equally potent, but lacked the final word in detail. If your speakers give out below 35Hz, as do most, this difference will mean little to you.

Both players were also comparable in imaging and depth. I have to say that the improved top-end transparency of the Audio Concepts more often gave it a slight superiority in this area, but the differences were not pronounced, the improved "air" of the AC probably more responsible for the subjective improvement than any esoteric quality. The soundstages of both units were consistently well-defined; though neither quite equalled the best of analog in reproduction of depth, both were excellent in presentation of a lateral image.

But the dynamic shadings and detail in the all-important midrange were definite winners on the Prism. With the exception of the low bass, band three on the aforementioned La Folia was a capsule demonstration of the differences heard between these two players on a wide range of program material. As the band begins, the softly played instruments and bells are more open on the Audio Concepts, with a slightly more palpable depth. As the midrange content begins to predominate, the Mod Squad comes into its own with improved body and definition. Neither machine blew the other away; I feel it's important to emphasize this as there are entirely too many things being "blown away" in audiophile circles these days. If I ultimately came to prefer the Mod Squad because of its superior and all-important midrange, that doesn't mean I wouldn't miss the improved frequency extremes of the Audio Concepts. I could live happily (though perhaps not ever after, given the unpredictability of progress) with either player. Neither is likely to be used as a boat anchor any time soon.

But where does this leave the Mod Squad player vis a vis my current champ, the CAL Aria? As I write this, an improved version of the Aria is due (a sonic update, not just the improved Philips transport, which my sample doesn't have either), so any comment I make now must necessarily be tempered. The sample I now have is also a slightly more recent sample than the one I reviewed; that unit suddenly ceased making sounds in both channels in an apparent fit of pique and was returned to CAL for repairs.

But the new sample is every bit as good as the returned unit—perhaps better. It was, simply and obviously, more alive and open (a superb expansiveness up and down the frequency range), and more three-dimensional (both between instruments and in the reproduction of individual instruments and voices themselves), than either the Audio Concepts or the Mod Squad (with the exception of the deep bass, where it was very good but not quite as taut as the solid-state players). It took only a brief audition, after extensive listening to the other players, to indicate the Aria's superiority, at least to this reviewer. But that takes nothing away from my high regard for the Prism. Besides, the Aria costs $400 more.

Summing Up
Should The Mod Squad Prism be your CD player? It depends on your priorities and budget, and on how you weight its strengths against those of the competition. I have not yet had, in my system, any of the $2000+ "super players," but the potential superiority will be moot for most readers. In the real world of here and now, I find it difficult to believe that any other solid-state machines at any comparable price will substantially better the Prism sonically. The real world, however, is an unpredictable place. It's perhaps enough to say that this analog-first fan is at least hopeful about the digital future with such companies as The Mod Squad striving to make it work.

Footnote 1: The use of pointed spikes, especially on loudspeakers, to couple a component to its supporting surface, seems to have originated in the UK. I witnessed Linn, Exposure, Russ Andrews, and other companies demonstrating the idea in 1982.—John Atkinson

Footnote 2: For those recently returned from a long space voyage, a CD damper is a thin rigid or semirigid disc placed atop the CD during play for improved sonics. Or so the ads say—many users seem to agree, though it's still rather controversial. The damper will not fit in all players, but seems to work in all those of Philips origin.

Footnote 3: This is, for me, far and away Gordon Lightfoot's best recorded album for Reprise, before the powers-that-be at that label decided to juice up his arrangements with excess instrumental backing and artificial reverb. Try "Me and Bobby McGee," "Sit Down Young Stranger" (the original title of the album before the much inferior "If You Could Read My Mind" went megahit), and "Pony Man."

The Mod Squad
Leucadia, CA 9202
Company no longer in existence (2019)

Bogolu Haranath's picture

' .... this analog first-fan is at least hopeful about digital future...... '

Now in 2019, TJN only listens to digital ........

'The Times They Are A-Changin' :-) ...........

JRT's picture

Rip once, read many.

Digital music on a server is all about listening to the music, and not fussing about trying to find a specific example of the physical medium in the collection, handling the packaging, handling the physical medium, maybe cleaning the physical medium, handling the playback hardware, and doing it all again in reverse order when done.

With the data on the server, it is quicker and easier to find the desired music and begin playback, all without leaving the listening chair. Streaming from a server is a good late 20th century solution to the problem, now much improved over the last quarter century.

Other older music playback solutions are now archaic, and are less about playing music than about playing with archaic hardware and media.

If collecting/hoarding media and gear and playing with same is the desired goal, then fine, there is nothing wrong with that. But that is not listening to music, just as playing with a collection of baseball cards is not playing or watching a game of baseball.

edit: My rantings here were intended as general comment, not in reply to another's post.

Bogolu Haranath's picture

Some people love cleaning solutions, cleaning brushes, cleaning machines and similar such rituals ....... It is like 'foreplay' ......... They don't want to miss such activities :-) .........

JRT's picture

So foreplay to what exactly?

edit: That is a rhetorical question that can remain unanswered.

Bogolu Haranath's picture

You can take a guess or you can ask them :-) ........