Thursday, November 22, 2012

To hack or not to hack: Sony MZ-R 700 & MZ-R 900

Sony MZ-R 700, ATRAC 4.5
This is finally it: my last MiniDisc article for the time being. I really have enough units already, I love them dearly. No need to buy more. Anyway, today I´m gonna talk about hacking the firmware of certain MiniDisc recorders. Those devices (and many other) contain a microprocessor that can be programmed to include or exclude certain functions. You can use the same IC for several different units without the need to manufacture two seperate ICs or in other words: the higher the model stands in the line the more functions are enabled. Companies do this to save costs on manufacturing, also do get more revenue. More money equals more features, even if entry levels units would be able to do the same - that would render the flagship models moot of course. Take my Pioneer BDP-140: it shares many features with the higher and more expensive model, the BDP-440. On my entry level player however fewer functions are enabled, it lacks DVD-Audio playback for example. Would you know how to tweak the firmware of the BDP-140 you could in theory add the missing features: my less expensive unit would then have the features of the more expensive unit. This also applies to several MD recorders of mine, by hacking the firmware you can add several features normally reserved for the top-of-the-line models.

Sony MZ-R 900, ATRAC 4.5
The two units you can see above are a Sony MZ-R 700 and two Sony MZ-R 900. The former was a gift to me from one of our mates, he didn´t need it anymore and upon hearing about my passion for MD he decided to give it to me for free. That made me really happy because I love new gadgets to play around with and I also wanted to try hacking its firmware. The MZ-R 700 was released in January 2001 together with the entry level model from the same production line, the MZ-R 500. The flagship MZ-R 900 had been released six months prior and according to many people all over certain boards it wasn´t as technically advanced as the later models. Being the top model it was of course much more feature heavy but it supposedly still lacked the newest ATRAC chip. The MZ-R 700 & MZ-R 500 were equipped with ATRAC 4.5 DSP Type-R configured to use the worse ATRAC 4.5 simply because the top model was using it: the cheaper models weren´t allowed an encoding engine more sophisticated than the one from the top model. Another proof was that the successor of the MZ-R 500 - the MZ-R 501 - was using ATRAC 4.5 DSP Type-R (proudly advertising it) yet both were using the exact same ATRAC IC, the CXD2671-204GA (MZ-R 700: CXD2671-203GA -> same IC, different hardware revision).

ATRAC IC, Sony MZ-R 900
Knowing that fact many people subsequently hacked the MZ-R 500 / 700 into not only having more features but also to use the more advanced ATRAC instructions. This could be done safely since MZ-R 500 / 700 / 501 were basically the same models with different shells and finish. But all the while people left the MZ-R 900 alone, using only the older ATRAC configuration. As it turns out the MZ-R 900 also used the very same ATRAC IC that turned the lower models into such pristine recorders. Look at the picture directly above: it shows the ATRAC IC on the PCB of my silver MZ-R 900 (the fingerprint is not mine and now gone), the CXD2671-204GA. Today I also opened up my blue MZ-R 900 and guess what: I found the same chip again. That means that both of my MZ-R 900 are able to use the more advanced ATRAC DSP Type-R. So I decided to hack their firmware based on this guide here on

Before we start to hack away a short disclaimer: I´m not responsible for any damage that might happen should you make something wrong. Firmware hacking can be an extremely powerful tool but it can also destroy your recorder completely! If your unit is dead after hacking its firmware don´t blame me, you are doing this on your own responsibility!

According to the Service Manual of the MZ-R 900 a less advanced hardware revision is in use, yet on the PCB itself the 204GA has been printed onto it (on both of my models)
Read this guide at least once before you actually start doing something. I also recommend reading the hints below it and to look at the pictures showing how the display looks. You finished reading? Then let´s start: first of all you have to enter the service mode on your unit. You have to remove any disc, you also have to make sure that it is sufficiently powered. I would add a fully charged battery as well as connecting it to the power supply. I also would unplug the remote as we will apply the hack by using the buttons on the unit itself.

  1. To prepare for service mode switch the HOLD mode on.
  2. Then hold down the VOL- button (just like the Shift key on your keyboard), then press the following combination quickly: » » « « » « » « then press PAUSE twice. Release the VOL- button. Should you have been successful the display of your recorder is now flashing its firmware version, my two MZ-R 900 were displaying V1.300 00 2.
  3. Press VOL+ VOL- VOL-Keisu 800 should be displayed ("Keisu" on the left, "800" on the right)
  4. Press PLAY and then VOL+ five times
  5. Press PLAY seven times. On the right you should now see 867 and on the left three rolling numbers and three steady values. Ignore the first.
  6. Using the VOL+- keys change the value on the left to S67, then press PAUSE to save.
  7. Press PLAY to go to the next register 868 (on the right), change the value on the left to S01, press PAUSE again to save.
  8. Exit Service Mode by removing all the power from the unit.
You don´t need to hurry once you have enabled the Service Mode. Take your time, it´ll be much less unnerving. Also, you can always go back to the starting point (where it flashes the firmware) by pressing STOP repeatedly. Remember: pressing PAUSE always stores the value you have just changed. If you don´t press PAUSE nothing will be saved. After changing the values and leaving Service Mode you should enter it again to make sure you really have changed the two values. Should you have done something wrong or if you want to reset the changes here are the original values: for 867 it´s S00, for 868 it´s S20. Shouldn´t you trust my instructions please refer to the site where I took them from:

Step 3 looks like this on the Display
Step 5 & 6 should look like this (the XXX indicates the rolling numbers)
Step 7 should look like this (XXX indicates rolling numbers)
Congratulations! If you have done it correctly you now have enabled ATRAC DSP Type-R on the Sony MZ-R 500, MZ-R 700 and MZ-R 900. I won´t tell you how to add more features to your unit, most of them are pointless anyway in my opinion. I was only interested in changing the ATRAC code... imagine: by hacking a firmware you can have better sound quality. I have not yet found any flaws, my three units still function perfectly. What? You want to know if changing some values really had an effect on ATRAC encoding quality? How lucky you are today, of course I anticipated this and therefore I´m going to present measurments to you (enlarge the pictures and scroll through them, that way you can see differences more easily)!

ATRAC 4.5 Total Harmonic Distortions from MZ-R 900 before hacking
Typical ATRAC 4.5 DSP Typ-R (MZ-N 510): less distortions all around
ATRAC IC of the MZ-R 900 after hacking: DSP Type-R performance!
Naturally all other measurments are the same. The 'attention-shifting' effect I described before also happened here. Are you surprised? I was, I now haven´t got any ATRAC 4.5 device left. I don´t care, naturally I´m gonna use ATRAC 4.5 DSP Type-R exclusively in the future. But one thing is curious: why didn´t Sony activate the most advanced ATRAC codec in the first place if the MZ-R 900 was already equipped with it? When it was released it was the only portable ATRAC 4.5 around (the predecessor probably used ATRAC 4.0) and Sony could have easily skipped an ATRAC generation, going straigt from ATRAC 4.0 to ATRAC 4.5 DSP Type-R. Why they didn´t do so is a mystery to me. Anyway, now I´m going to enjoy some music in pristine quality. Tata!

Sony MZ-R 700: it uses ATRAC DSP Type-R now,...
... as does this one and finally...
... so does this one. Wonderful!

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Review: Sony MZ-R 90/91

Sony MZ-R 90
This will be my last review of a personal MD recorder for the time being. I´ve received several complaints from personal friends of mine that I concentrate too much on ancient or obsolete technology. Since I also want to talk about other stuff ('snake oil' for example) I´ve finally decided that I have bought enough used MiniDisc recorders and that it´s time for different things. The next article will be about ATRAC, it´ll also contain a guide to hack the firmware of two MD recorders - that´ll be it. On with the review now, shall we? Just like the MZ-R 37 I bought this one not because I wanted it but because I was bored. I placed a bid, being confident that I wouldn´t be successful only to find out later that I´d won the auction. At first I became quite aggravated with myself for buying an MD recorder I never wanted to own in the first place but after it arrived I felt very lucky indeed... boy, this thing is a beauty! Released in 1999 it sports a fantastic manufacturing quality: everything fits perfectly, its shell feels extremely sturdy and is delightful to touch.

Sony MZ-R 90 close-up
But once it starts to play or to record a MiniDisc the impression of high quality is diminished quite a bit: the drive is extremely loud, it literally seems to be 'grinding' along while the disc is spinning. It´s so loud that I can hear this unnerving noise easily during soft passages when playing music over my Sennheiser HD-448. Furthermore, the drive mechanism behaves extremely sluggish: in an effort to conserve battery power Sony chose to implement an aggressive power saving strategy which occasionally results in a waiting time as long as five seconds - and that´s only for a track change. The successor MZ-R 900 is a lot faster but still not as fast as the MZ-R 55. The MZ-R 90/91 also is the first recorder to lack a seperate line-out - it has been combined with the headphone output and can be configured via the menu. It´s a bit smaller than the MZ-R 55 and does seem to have a higher level of integration for some ICs. The ATRAC IC is a CXD-2660GA which uses version 4.0 or 4.5 (measurments are inconclusive) of Sony's proprietary codec, it also seems to combine several ICs into one. Apart from that some things (the DAC for example) have been left unchanged, they are the same on the MZ-R 55, MZ-R 37 and the MZ-R 90/91. The drive and its laser have been completely redesigned compared to the two former models - both are much smaller and also much slower. When I first listened to it I immediately noticed that it sounds much crisper than the aformentionend units, in fact its crispness appears to be a bit too much. I suspected jitter so let´s have a look at my measurments:

Sony MZ-R 90/91 measurments, line-out activated
Sony MZ-R 90/91 measurments, headphone output activated
Sony MZ-R 90/91 jitter
ATRAC measurments, 24 bit input: ATRAC 4.0 or 4.5?
Dynamic Range & IMD are like ATRAC 4.5, THD is like ATRAC 4.0
My suspicions were wrong because as you can see jitter isn´t the culprit here; while it might be audible I think that it isn´t the main problem of the MZ-R 90. Much more serious are high frequency distortions over the analogue output, not even the MZ-R 37 distorts that much. Total harmonic distortions are 10 dB higher, intermodulation distortions are four times as high. BTW, measurments don´t change, no matter how the output is configured which means that the line-out function is nothing more than setting the volume to max and switching of AVLS and MegaBass (the MZ-R 900 has a real line-out setting, changing voltage levels). Another word about the jitter performance: isn´t it amazing that it differs so much from the measurments I did for the MZ-R 55 and MZ-R 37? All three use exactly the same DAC (AK4517) so in laymans' terms they all should have the same performance. Instead, these differences prove that the overall PCB layout is much more important than the DAC-IC itself.

Sony MZ-R 90
I´ve already told you that it sounds very crisp. On some recordings this is nice but on others it adds an aggressiveness not very suitable for well rendered sound quality. While it doesn´t distort as much as the Sansa Clip+ it nevertheless shares some of its sonic traits: dynamics are a tad too explosive and contrived, stage congested, the sound sometimes lacks warmth. Apart from that its sound is ok; stage is much flatter than the reference but equally wide, leaving enough space between instruments. Overall articulation is ok, albeit a bit artificial, the resolution walks a fine line between slightly exaggerated brightness and edginess. Despite its brighter-than-necessary sound the details are rendered too casually, high frequency definition on occasion dissolves into noise. Timing is ok but nothing to be mad about; it´s slower over the whole frequency band which results in missing snap and punch, the aggressiveness doesn´t help. I have to say that I´m disappointed by its sound; for some recordings it might be helpful but for most available releases it´ll be too much because it sounds too forward. Mediocre, predecessor and successor both are the superior units.

Sonic Balance:
Stage / Ambiance:

Sony MZ-R 90: perfect built quality
Sony MZ-R 90 close-up

Monday, November 19, 2012

Audiophile bulls**t & final thoughts about nine reviews

Hallo meine süßen Lieblinge!

During the last few weeks I´ve reviewed the following units: Kenwood DP-5090Pioneer DV-610Sony CDP-470Pioneer BDP-140iRiver IMP-550Sony MZ-R 55Sony MZ-R 37Sony NW-A 1000 and the Sansa Clip+. You might have wondered where I was getting at with all these reviews; I usually have an overarching theme or reason for my articles, haven´t I? Well, I planned to feature all reviews in just one article, in the end stating my conclusions - of course, that would have enlarged that article into gross proportions. So I seperated the already written article into ten singular parts, the one you´re about to read contains my conclusion and opinion.

For as long as I can think I wanted to read a review where units from different classes are compared to each other. Why not comparing a portable player playing lossy music to an SACD player spinning high resolution media? I mean their goal is the same: playback with a-good-as-possible quality. But have you ever read a review where something like that happens? I have not and I assume peoples' misconceptions about compression, size, weight, number of parts and price have something to do with it. Ask yourself: why should a tiny, portable player be worse than a much bigger stationary player? Can less available space really be a reason for worse sound? I also wanted to know how well ancient players would hold up to more modern devices, a universal disc player for example. You only have to take a look at eBay where more than 20 year old CD players are able to reach high prices; something that also applies for units that were not even top-of-the-line back then. Yet recent universal players are derided as being far away from high fidelity sound by magazines and the public alike. People seem to believe that everything was better in the old days... a curious thing really when you think about it: assuming modern units contain more advanced parts why should they be worse? Common conceptions therefore are:

  • old units have better built quality
  • they contain much more parts - good for sound, isn´t it?
  • ancient units are heavier - must sound better
  • small units with their space restrictions must sound worse
  • older technology sounds less 'digital'
  • huge, conservative power supplies are vital for perfect sound
  • lossy media cannot ever be competitive against high resolution material

I could extend this list to infinity but it wouldn´t make much sense in light of the contents of this article. I could for example mention the recent craze about NOS (Non OverSampling) D/A converters... there are so many things wrong with this approach that it´s very confusing that people even consider it as an option while ignoring 30 years of technical progress. Or tubes... no, I won´t start. I´d rather talk about audio magazines  seemingly confirming those conceptions about quality as stated above. You see, magazines only compare units from their respective classes, they also support the view that smaller gadgets must sound worse simply because of their size. But the biggest thing they are claiming is that High End audio sounds much better than 'normal', standard audio. For some years now I have the opinion that High End audio isn´t really better, only different. Expensive media players for example are more or less tweaked to sound a certain way, a sound pleasing to the common audiophile. Companies subsequently tweak their units towards sonic goals such as warmth, precision, punch, snap etc. Will those expensive toys sound like the original? Of course not. They will sound well with Rock or classical music and not so well with anything else - but that doesn´t matter since few audiophiles actually branch out of the musical genres they usually listen to. I have to admit though that heavy units look and feel better, you extend a considerable trust towards them by assuming that weight and complexity are good traits for players.

Let´s ignore my own and your prejudices and take a look at the actual thing. In this article you won´t have any of the prejudices or certain preferences with me because as I´ve stated many times before I don´t compare any unit to another one, I compare directly to the master used for the creation of the testing media itself. No one else does this and I believe my approach to be genuine and also to be the only methodology coming close the precision of DBTs without their disadvantages. Regarding my reviews I didn´t know what to expect or what I´d be ending up with. I thought it possible that all the conceptions above might be true while also accepting the opposite. Naturally, this article reflects my findings, with different hardware it could have turned out different. So you have to be aware that I don´t regard my conclusions as written in stone, they could change depending on experiences with other units. I also accept that you, dear reader, won´t agree on a comparison of high resolution to lossy material. But think about it: the advantages of high defintion might be swallowed by the imperfections from the device playing it back so that in the end lossy material coming from a superior unit might be the better representative.

Four stationary players: Pioneer DV-610, Sony CDP-470, Pioneer BDP-140, Kenwood DP-5090
For better comparison of all the reviewed units I have calculated the average of the points they earned, these are subsequently used for a ranking (this is a first for my blog). Be advised that those averaged numbers obscure the differences between the units, a unit like the MZ-R 37 for example might not have a sonic character suitable for you despite receiving a high number of points. For the described details and difference please have a look at the respective articles linked on the top of the page. The results were surprising on some occasions, on others however they were not:

1st place

Pioneer DV-610, SACD:
4.6 Points

2nd place

Pioneer BDP-140, CD/SACD:
4.4 Points

3rd place

Pioneer DV-610, CD:
4.0 Points

4th place

Sony NW-A 1000
3.8 Points

4th place

Sansa Clip+
3.8 Points

5th place

Sony MZ-R 55
3.6 Points

5rd place

Sony MZ-R 37
3.6 Points

6th place

Kenwood DP-5090
3.0 Points

7th place

iRiver IMP-550
2.6 Points

8th place

Sony CDP-470
1.2 Points

If you´re a believer in high end units you are probably crushed now, right? A multidisc player playing SACDs is the winner (it really sounds close to the reference) while another multidisc player follows closely. Both multidisc units are lightweight, not manufactured that well, have very few parts and cheap plastic drives. Their power supply doesn´t seem to have received much care at the design stage, they 'only' have those dreaded and efficient switching power supplies supposedly known for causing bad sound quality on PCs. Likewise, small portable players are not necessarily worse in sound quality - as proven by the two 4th places, the Sony NW-A 1000 and the Sansa Clip+. The NW-A 1000 is especially interesting since it has to use lossy material - who would´ve thought that mp3 would sound that well? Most disappointing were the results for the iRiver IMP-550, the Sony CDP-470 and the Kenwood DP-5090. The latter was surprising because it contains many parts (some of high quality), has a decent power supply, a well built CD drive and a good overall built quality. It also received favourable reviews from magazines when released in 1997. But its sonic signature favors 'shrill' and 'piercing' way too much, it´s not neutral and introduces very audible differences though all of these could be pleasing for a certain target audience. The Sony CDP-470 was supposed to have a good old school sound... it does indeed sound old school - but in a bad way. It´s a very digital and harsh sounding player, the numerous parts on the PCB and the reliable drive are not helping. The Sansa Clip+ is beloved everywhere but doesn´t hold up to its reputation, due to age related imperfections it shows enormous amounts of audible distortions. The best gadget for the price would be the Sansa Clip+; while it´s not perfectly balanced its dynamic and slightly more aggressive sound signature will appeal to many people.

What does these results tell us then? Not as much as I´d hoped but nonetheless they pose some interesting questions: when a cheap multidisc player sounds close to the reference how can a high end unit have superior sound? Answer: it can´t. It probably changes sound into something different with a more charming character, appealing more to the intended audience it was designed for. When a player using as few parts as possible can sound so well and refined why are many, high quality parts even necessary? Answer: they aren´t. Both Pioneer players achieve their goal of good audio quality with a layout that only seems to lack sophistication, yet in reality it works well. If lossy material (mp3 or MD) holds up so well against lossless or SACD, are those even necessary? Answer: Yes and No. High resolution is indeed able to extract the last little detail and crispness - the real question is if it´s audible for everyone which I´d answer with a 'No'. It certainly isn´t audible on every unit as proven by the BDP-140. Generally, sonic disadvantages of lossy audio are exaggerated as well as advantages of lossless or high resolution audio. Are portable personal players worse than their stationary counterparts? Answer: not necessarily. The NW-A 1000 or the Clip+ perform well while the two stationary players (DP-5090 and CDP-470) really fucked up. Are ancient players any better than more recent counterparts? Answer: No. The last place is occupied by the oldest player, also sounding 'old'. If you want to listen to an example of the supposedly digital and distorted sound of the CD go for that model. Can units playing back lossy material be superior to units playing back lossless quality? Answer: Yes. Three players, using mp3, AAC or MiniDisc are superior or equal to four others using lossless material. The codec therefore doesn´t decide about sound quality, the device itself does (provided that one uses well encoded material).

All of this should prompt you to think carefully about purchasing an ancient unit, it should also create skepticism regarding fantastic reviews of high end gadgets and their supposedly gorgeous sound quality. Many parts or heavy units don´t automatically guarantee perfect sound. You should also regard the recent craze about high resolution with serious doubts; it can have an advantage and better sound quality but the differences are so small that many people won´t ever hear them. The Pioneer BDP-140 comes extremely close to the sound of the Pioneer DV-610 (using SACD) with CDs only. So please, think twice before you buy something or trust someone, go out there yourself and don´t stop comparing and being skeptical.

Last update: 17.06.15

Thursday, November 08, 2012

Review: Sony MZ-R 37

Finally: you´re about to read the last out of nine reviews. You still don´t need to read them all, just pick the unit that seems to be the most interesting to you. During the last few weeks I´ve reviewed the following units: Kenwood DP-5090, Pioneer DV-610, Sony CDP-470, Pioneer BDP-140, iRiver IMP-550, Sony MZ-R 55, Sony MZ-R 37, Sony NW-A 1000 and the Sansa Clip+. Stay tuned and enjoy the last review: the Sony MZ-R 37! I also implore you to read the article describing my rigorous testing methodology before you actually start reading this one.

Sony MZ-R 37
Yay!! President Barack Obama has been re-elected one hour ago (at the time of writing)... I can´t tell you how really happy I am for the American people. What better opportunity to celebrate this marvellous win with the last review, the Sony MZ-R 37? This awkward looking MiniDisc recorder was released in 1999, roughly half a year after the Sony MZ-R 55. - both however contain 90% of the same ICs. A/D-/D/A converter, ATRAC, RF amp, DC converter, System Control IC, Laser and drive mechanism are exactly the same. The amp for the line-out/headphones however is different, the MZ-R 37 apparently uses a slightly more recent IC. However, all parts have much more available space compared to the MZ-R 55, they are evenly distributed on the PCB and not so tightly packed. Both are equipped with exactly the same drive, it is clearly stated in the service manual that the MZ-R 37 inherited the fast, noisefree and reliable drive from the MZ-R 55. All of this might not interest you but you´ll find out soon enough why it´ll be important.

Sony MZ-R 37 close-up
To be honest... I never wanted to own this unit, I acquired it by accident only. It usually sells for roughly 35,- to 70,- Euros on eBay depending on its condition; so I placed a bid of just 15,- Euros. I had nothing else to do, was bored and also convinced that I´d never get it. In the end I forgot all about it. Hence my surprise: many hours later when I checked my mails I became aware that I was the winning bidder and that I also payed only 12,- Euros for a MiniDisc recorder which - when it arrived - I found to be in pristine condition. As you can see on the photos there aren´t any scratches, blemishes or dents, it really looks like new. How incredibly stupid of me never actually considering this lovely recorder because upon the touch it feels really decent, manufacturing quality is excellent. Yes, it´s lighter and bigger than the MZ-R 55 but nonetheless everything fits nicely, feels great and sturdy. Featurewise both of them aren´t that different - the MZ-R 37 only misses an internal clock, meaning it doesn´t stamp the date of the recording onto the MiniDisc. The MZ-R 37 also has the peculiar destinction of being the last portable MiniDisc recorder sporting a seperate Line-out, all others that came after either had none or combined it with the headphone output.

Sony MZ-R 37 front
Sony MZ-R 37 measurments
Sony MZ-R 37 jitter
Now you see why it´s important that I mentioned the similarities to the MZ-R 55: they measure differently despite containing the same ICs. Jitter for example is much higher on the MZ-R 37... which is very curious when keeping in mind that both feature the same A/D-D/A converter (AK4517), subsequently they should have the same amount of jitter. With the MZ-R 55 jitter probably won´t be audible, with the MZ-R 37 however it will: low frequency jitter reaches levels of -80 dB which might be responsible for its characteristic sound signature. Total Harmonic Distortions are higher as well: -71.4 dB (MZ-R 55) vs. -64.3 dB (MZ-R 37). Both of them are equipped with the same ATRAC 4.0 chip, enabling recordings featuring a bit-depth of 24 Bit through their digital inputs. Analogue recording and playback through their own converter however will yield only 16 Bit performance (even less if you consider the mediocre noise performance). Back to the point: will the measurment differences also lead to audible differences?

Sony MZ-R 37 die-cast drive: extremely reliable; also used in the MZ-R 50, MZ-R 55
The Sony MZ-R 37 does indeed sound different, it really isn´t a balanced recorder. Stage for example seems rather compact and full of depth on the MZ-R 55 whereas the MZ-R 37 manages the rare feat to keep the mindboggling depth while also widening the stage considerably. The MZ-R 37 doesn´t sound close to the reference, it creates more space between instruments instead, recording venues sound much bigger albeit dimly lit. Vocalists (or everything in the center) are pronounced as well, I´m able to make out Madonna more easily, it seems as if she takes an additional step towards the microphone while everything else is placed a bit further behind. It´s interesting: this is only the second gadget I´ve reviewed that does sound forward without sounding aggressive. The marvellous stage and ambience performance is indeed its most appealing sonic characteristic; even though it occasionally creates disadvantages because on already very wide sounding recordings the MZ-R 37 punches 'holes' into the virtual stage which sometimes sounds odd and a bit 'empty'. It combines this with lovely dynamic capabilities: speed, pace and rhythm are a bit faster than the original, timing is rendered exceptionally well throughout all frequencies. The Sony MZ-R 37 is one of the rare units (like the Sony D-335) that doesn´t represent the truth but exchanges it with its own, convincing character, it 'lies' so well that you won´t recognize it most of the time.
But when something is exaggerated another things suffers: the track from "The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo" sounds much too mellow, it looses its aggressive treble, lower frequencies are unintelligable and muddied. Deep bass is diminished as well, the same goes for treble. Transients are too lovely, avoiding a grungy or aggressive sound. Additionally, you won´t exactly marvel at resolution and precision with the MZ-R 37, details are rendered too casually for that. Despite these shortcomings this is one of the most appealing MiniDisc recorders (and one of the best 'interpreting' audio units) I´ve ever heard.

Sonic Balance:
Stage / Ambiance:

Sony MZ-R 37: bottom

Monday, November 05, 2012

Review: Pioneer BDP-140

You´re about to read the penultimate out of nine reviews. You don´t need to read them all, just pick the unit that seems to be the most interesting to you. In the weeks to follow I´ll review the following units: Kenwood DP-5090, Pioneer DV-610, Sony CDP-470, Pioneer BDP-140, iRiver IMP-550, Sony MZ-R 55, Sony MZ-R 37, Sony NW-A 1000 and the Sansa Clip+. Stay tuned and enjoy the new review: the Pioneer BDP-140! I also implore you to read the article describing my rigorous testing methodology before you actually start reading this one.

Pioneer BDP-140 (picture copyright by Pioneer)
The Pioneer BDP-140 is my first BluRay player and the most recent of the bunch. My boyfriend bought it for me last month as a present for my birthday. Until a year ago I didn´t spend one minute on BluRay simply because the picture quality of the DV-610 was so wonderful with upscaled DVDs. At the same time I however noticed that special DVD editions were becoming less common; special or Collector's editions started to be produced for BluRays instead. Point is, I really like to put those nifty looking special editions onto our cupboards (or into drawers, the cellar... where there is available space). I´m a collector and DVD started to become extinct in regard to special editions so I concluded that I would finally need a BluRay player. In September 2012 the BDP-140 was going to be replaced by the BDP-150 (its very similar successor) and as a result it became very cheap: my boyfriend bought it for roughly 100,- Euros (compare that to the 170,- Euros for the DV-610).

Pioneer BDP-140 from inside
Its manufacturing quality is reflected by its price range: compared to the DV-610 it has been reduced somewhat. While the BDP-140 is bigger than the DV-610 it weighs roughly half, probably because everything inside is smaller, less complex with a much higher level of integration. The power supply board for the DV-610 for example is three times bigger, its PCB is twice as big and also contains more parts. When BluRay players first hit the market their cases were filled to the brink with parts, they even needed fans to cool their power hungry hardware. The BDP-140 has only one D/A-converter (a fairly recent Asahi Kasei 4430) which also seems to include the complete output stage... yes, it´s true, I can only see six additional parts for the output in the Service Manual. BUT: I might be talking bullshit here so I´d be thankful if someone could enlighten or correct me. Anyway, the DV-610 was still aimed at analogue playback, it could pass six  analogue channels for Dolby Digital, DTS, SACD and DVD-Audio through its RCA outputs while the HDMI-output felt like a fancy gimmick in comparison. The BDP-140 on the other hand has only digital interconnections in mind, achieved through its modern HDMI 1.4a output. Few people know that it´ll also allow digital output of SACD signals through its optical S/PDIF output with 24/88.2 (2.0). it´s one of only two players on the market able to do that. EDIT: The last two generations of Pioneer BluRay players apparantly have been able to do that, I became aware of it thanks to members from the AVSforum. Since everything can be done digitally the analogue output seems to serve as some kind of spare. Apart from being extremely lightweight it also doesn´t look good from the outside or the inside. The front and the mechanical parts (drive) feel like rather cheap and not well-manufactured plastic and the whole layout appears to lack sophistication and care. The impression I have is that this player is a mass-produced, off-the-shelf creation constructed without love - or so it seems.

Pioneer BDP-140: cheap looking front
BTW, Pioneer didn´t manufacture it, it was built for them by Chinese manufacturer TCL. That might be one of the reasons why several people at for example reported that the drive emits loud noises, that the menu of the player has faults or that the software embedded in the player crashes often - they don´t trust the Chinese even though they have been manufacturing high quality devices for years. I however have not witnessed something like this in the one month I´ve used it: for me it has been working without flaw, played every disc and every file I´ve fed it with so far. The drive is fast and doesn´t emit loud noises, the player also doesn´t get very warm. In short: since I got it it has been working very reliably.

Pioneer BDP-140 CD playback
Pioneer BDP-140 SACD playback
Pioneer BDP-140 jitter CD playback
As you can see on the RMAA charts the BDP-140 measures almost as well as the DV-610; jitter performance has been improved and I´m sure that it´s 100% inaudible. With CDs the sound through its analogue output is equally impressive: as detailed and defined as the reference it only shows a lack of power at the presence range to some extent. I assume that this somewhat laid back sound is also the reason for a recessed stage - but when I say "somewhat" I really mean that it´s hardly noticeable at all. The stage for example is as wide and deep as the reference files yet a tiny bit distant because of aforementioned reasons. The slightly diminished mids are also responsible micro dynamics losing a small part of their appeal. These are the only flaws I could find because it doesn´t have any problems with timing, snap, transients or speed. Resolution and details are top-notch, it also retains the reference files' character. I wish I could tell you that SACD sounds better, I can´t though because it sounds exactly like CD. Just like the DV-610 the BDP-140 resamples DSD to 24/88.2 - but apparently not as well. Taking other reviews I´ve read to their logical conclusion I´d like to point that even the digital output won´t reveal as much of the music as the analogue output of the DV-610. But I´m complaining on a high level... because consider this: the engineering focus wasn´t on analogue output and it still sounds that well? Above I wrote that it seems to be constructed without 'love'... as it turns out you won´t need emotions to create well sounding devices, apparently you´d 'only' need engineering skills! Congratulations, Pioneer:

CD/SACD playback

Sonic Balance:
Stage / Ambiance:

Update 17.04.2013: Over half a year has passed since purchasing this BluRay Player. I would love to write that something dramatic has happened (no, I wouldn´t) but this player still performas as expected. Not one Disc it had to play during those seven months has malfunctioned, it didn´t matter if it was a BluRay, DVD, CD or SACD. There has been one complete crash of its system software which was caused by an error I made myself (I was trying out video encoding and created a faulty encoding). Furthermore, during those seven months I´ve come to love its remote. It feels wonderful in my hand (because of mixture of plastic/aluminum), has every button I wish for it to have and seems to have an incredibly powerful infrared light as I can point it anywhere with the player receiving every command. The result is that I can still recommend it, if you should find it anywhere go buy it.
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