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The East West Audio player

A deeply modified Esound CD-E5 SE CD player

[Italian version]

Product: East West Audio CD player
Manufacturer: East West Audio - the Netherlands
Cost: 2000 Euro
Reviewer: Maarten van Casteren - TNT UK
Reviewed: July, 2007

[EWA CD player]

Introduction

A couple of months ago I reviewed the ESound CD-E5 SE CD player, which I liked very much. The player was provided by East West Audio (EWA) in Nijmegen, the Netherlands, and the reason for reviewing this specific player was that EWA also do a modified version of it, which they market under their own name. To be able to review the modification as such, I first reviewed the original donor player which turned out to be an absolute pleasure.

So, expectations are rather high this time. The ESound player more or less redefined what I expected at its price. And the modified player is more than half as much again: 2000 euros instead of 1200. You would like to see, or hear, a substantial improvement for that money. Well, seeing a difference turned out to be easy, as the top panel has been replaced by a perspex one. The original top panel (4 mm anodised aluminium, by the way) is packed with the modified player, just in case you prefer the opaque version. The transparent top allows full view of all the player's naughty parts, and with that all the modifications.

The main change is a completely new set of output stages. These are supplied by Machmat, another Dutch company specialising in upgrades and audiophile components. Machmat claims that 80% of the sound of a CD player is determined by the output stage and its associated power supply. Machmat's Mattijs de Vries states that while changing the clock or digital power supply might result in differences in certain details, changing the output stage always results in a different player. A sister company of Machmat is Pink Faun which produces high-end audio units. One of Pink Faun's products is a preamp, based on the same circuit used here as an output stage. It is a single-ended class-A amplification stage using a FET (Field Effect Transistor). The circuit is extremely simple, but uses very high quality parts, like the famous Black Gate capacitors in the power supply and Sprague Vitamin-Q paper-in-oil capacitors as output caps. The FET is said to be biased and used like a valve, and to provide the best of both worlds. A full set of 4 of these stages is installed, with single-ended outputs using just one pair, and balanced using both. The original, opamp based, output stages are left in place, but by-passed.

The actual work involved in the modification is done by Louis Raatjes of Art Speak in the Netherlands. He modified the transport and the power supplies, added extra shielding, put in new output connectors and new cabling and installed the new output stages. He also added extensive extra dampening of the bottom panel of the player. The original ESound player already weights in at 13 kilos, so adding dampening surely is taking things to extremes, but I do agree that a CD player cannot be too solid. All in all a quite extensive modification. Of a player that was basically very healthy to begin with.

[EWA CD player]

The Sound

First audition, after some burn-in, immediately reveals that the player has changed completely. This really is a different sound, barely recognisable as the ESound player it is based upon. The first thing that hit me was the bass. The ESound player had impressed me enormously with its fantastic bass, which made everything sound solid, large and with strong rhythmic drive. To my disappointment the bass wasn't as strong anymore and more boomy and less tight. More listening soon made clear that it probably wasn't just the bass that had become somewhat weaker: it also was the rest of the spectrum that had improved tremendously, making the bass feel less strong than before.

I do have to add that I wasn't very impressed with this player during the first couple of weeks of use. It sounded fine, but I wasn't sure if the difference with the original player was worth the asking price of the modification. But then the Anatek MB50 monoblock power amplifiers arrived. They beat my own amplifiers (either an Anatek A50 integrated or a Django preamp with an Electrocompaniet ECI-2 used as power amp) with so much ease that I was very surprised. And they brought out the qualities of the EWA player. Soon it became clear that this CD player had more to offer than I thought. The extra refinement and dynamic range of the Anatek monoblocks showed that this was actually a very good source. With many older jazz recordings I could hear straight to the (minimal) tape hiss, and with more modern recordings the depth and detail were truly impressive, enabling me to hear deeper into the recording than ever before. All impressions are based on the combination with these power amps.

With the original ESound player I had the impression that the sound was built up from the frequency extremes, as bass and treble dominated the picture, at the cost of the midrange. With the EWA player the whole sound is constructed from a very strong midrange, making more sense of the music and especially helping vocals a great deal. There's a presence and directness to voices that is thoroughly enjoyable and the amount of detail is excellent. Treble has improved too with much less harshness or aggressive sibilance. Instead there's a wonderful openness and, again, a wealth of detail.

All this results in an enhanced feeling of tonal balance. The original player put a big spotlight on the bass and a smaller one on the treble. With the modified machine, you have a feeling of the whole frequency range being floodlit, everything clear and bright, without accentuating one thing at the cost of another. There's a lot more to hear, and it isn't just detail in the sense of high frequency information. There's much more spatial, tonal and textural information available too. And it isn't restricted to the upper frequencies: the midrange is supremely detailed as well.

The depiction of space has improved too. Not only is everything more focussed, the soundstage also feels more natural in proportion. The original player was able to suggest a large acoustic in your living room thanks to its deep bass talents. The modified player still does a decent job at this, but adds quite a bit of 'air' on top. Hall reverberations and other acoustical cues are very well reproduced. Strangely, this is in spite of the treble actually being a little bit soft.

[EWA CD player]

Is there nothing to criticise then? Well, not much at this price. It isn't a budget player, obviously, so we do expect excellent quality for our money, but the EWA player does deliver. Is has very few flaws, which is all the more remarkable as this player isn't muted or overly soft at all. The only real weakness is the very deepest bass, which is less tight than the rest of the bottom end, making bass sound a bit thick and slow. This has the effect of muddling up complex rhythmic information. It also makes the bass feel a bit disconnected from the rest of the spectrum from time to time. This is disappointing, as the original player was so extremely good at this.

The treble could be perceived as lacking some 'sparkle'. EWA market this player with the phrase 'as analogue as it gets', and they do have a point. It is not really like vinyl, but it has the same feeling of warmth and flow, to an extend, as a decent turntable. Of course, it still is a CD player, not a turntable, and the basic strengths and limitations of the format do shine through. But it is less flawed than you could reasonably expect at this price, something I mean as a compliment. To be fair, there still is a bit of grain and a slight accentuation of 'leading edge' at the top end that is so typical of the CD format, but it is minimal and not intrusive at all.

A thing that I particularly noticed is that this CD player made me enjoy pop CD's more. Many pop recordings are sonically challenged and difficult to enjoy on a revealing system, but they do sound boring on more 'polite' systems. This player is very revealing, but copes admirably well with less than perfect recordings. It provides all the energy necessary to be able to 'rock', without accentuating the limitations of many sub-audiophile pop recordings. Very enjoyable indeed.

I did compare the single ended and balanced outputs, as my Django preamp accepts both. In my ESound review I reported that the balanced outputs are constructed from a single ended signal produced by the Crystal DAC chip, but I have meanwhile discovered that the DAC chip actually does provide a fully balanced stereo signal. So, in theory the balanced output could be superior to the single ended ones. But I really couldn't hear any difference between the two modes, to be honest, except for a higher volume coming from the balanced ones.

It has to be said that this is not a player without character. Although there's no obvious distortion or strong coloration, it certainly isn't completely neutral either. Its personality could perhaps be summed up as 'valve-like' with all the prototypical pros and cons associated with that label: sweet treble, strong midrange, thick and woolly bottom end, overall on the warm side and above average on spatial presentation. Not the worst set of characteristics in the world, but many people are looking for other things. The review period overlapped with that of a Naim CD5x player, and the differences with that player made the personality of the EWA player very clear. In direct comparison the EWA player was softer while the Naim was more transparent and articulated, especially in the bass.

The comparison with the Naim also made it easier to hear why the EWA player has such problems with complex rhythms. This is a particular talent of the Naim player (of all Naim equipment, actually) so it presented an almost perfect reference in this respect. The EWA player seems to have a less strong attack on bass notes, and accentuates the 'tail' of notes more than the Naim, which sounded 'shorter' in comparison. The effect of this is that the perceived center of gravity of a note shifts to a slightly later point in time. This affects the bass more than the rest of the spectrum, I suspect because bass notes simply are longer, making the shift larger too. The total effect is that bass is perceived to be ever so slightly behind the rest of the music, which messes up the rhythm. In the treble the same effect is responsible for the enhanced 'air' and hall reverberations as these are mostly in the 'tail' of the sound.

The second modification: Output capacitors

I ended up with a clear preference for the Naim player, which isn't strange as it is about a third more expensive as the EWA. But there was still the nagging feeling that something was wrong, as the original ESound player had such great bass, and this modified one failed precisely on the bottom end. I couldn't help feeling that the child had gone out with the bathwater, no matter how much improvement there was elsewhere. So, I wrote my review and sent it to Ron Wevers of East West Audio, with some critical remarks on the bass. To my amazement he agreed! He told me that this was probably caused by the output capacitors. Those were the famous Sprague Vitamin-Q, remember? They were actually running out of stock and are now using a new type. Ron said those gave 'much better bass', and if I was interested he could send a set over for me to try out. Of course I agreed to that, and some time later received 4 new output capacitors.

[EWA CD player]

The difference was enormous! Gone was the slow and thick bass, the woolly presentation and the soft, boomy quality that had made me doubt the quality of this modification. And the improvements weren't restricted to the bass: the treble was more open and lively too. The sound was now much closer to that of the Naim CD5x and thoroughly enjoyable. None of the positive aspects of the earlier modified version, or of the Chinese original for that matter, were now diminished. This new version only adds to all existing qualities and creates a player that makes you question the need for anything better, or dearer. To be completely honest: the Naim is still better, but the difference is small.

It is extremely interesting to note Giorgio's experiences with paper in oil capacitors in his review of the Auricap capacitors. He also noticed that paper in oil capacitors can actually add to the sound: in his case an enhanced soundstage that was not present in the recording. He mentioned fuller bass as well. But he seemed to have liked the overall effect, which was certainly not the case for me with this CD player.

[EWA CD player]

Conclusion

If you have a budget or midrange system, and do not intent to upgrade your amp or speakers, the original ESound CD-E5 SE player remains a very strong recommendation. The added subtlety and detail of this modified player only really shines with very good amplification and loudspeakers. But used in a better system, this player is very good indeed. It extracts amazing amounts of detail and music from your CD's, while not adding too much of itself. If you like your sound to be forward and 'sparkly' or super-tight in the bass, you might prefer something else, but for the rest of us this is a rewarding and musical player that is more than worth the asking price.
I wouldn't call it a giant killer, but certainly very good value indeed. Just make sure you get the new, Art Speak, capacitors. And if you already own a version with the Sprague capacitors, my advice would be to audition the new version, and have those Vitamin-Q paper in oil caps replaced as soon as possible.

Copyright 2007 Maarten van Casteren - www.tnt-audio.com

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