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Human after all: the ModWright-modded OPPO UDP-205

  • Simplicity – does your system have it? Do you wish it did? I recall the good old days when my entire playback chain consisted of one box. All I wanted/needed back then was a CD player, and I rambled my way through many of the best available at the time: Sony, Krell, McIntosh, Wadia, Lector, Meridian, Electrocompaniet, Simaudio, Linn, and Esoteric. I routinely gave my vinyl-loving friends a hard time about how many components they needed – table, tonearm, cartridge, stylus, phono stage, etc – and how complex it was to achieve an optimal setup. Meanwhile, my single-box solution was plug-n-play. Those were the days.

    Fast forward to the present, and the tables have turned. My system sounds better than it ever has but at the cost of being vastly more complex. Now my friends are giving me grief about it… and, I must admit, they have a point.

    My reference system starts with a music server fed by an external linear power supply. Then comes a USB decrapifier powered by an external PSU. That leads to a USB to SPDIF converter, and yet another outboard power source. And don’t forget the separate disc transport – I still use physical media now and then. Lastly, the DAC itself completes the signal chain.

    That’s a total of eight boxes – and we haven’t even counted the necessary maze of digital and AC cables or interconnects. It’s a beast of a setup, and I sometimes long for simpler times where just one box would handle everything. But how to achieve that without compromising fidelity? And without losing functionality?

    The answer, I’ve discovered, is the ModWright UDP-205 — a disc spinner, network streamer and DAC from OPPO Digital but extensively modded by Dan Wright.

    The name OPPO [Digital] is pretty much synonymous with top-notch video playback. From humble beginnings way back in 2005 (the $199 OPPO 971H) to near-domination of the Blu-ray generation (at least among serious video enthusiasts), and now a very strong start with 4K Ultra HD, OPPO has always been ahead of the curve. Across the various generations of video playback, it’s been tough to find anything else worth recommending when OPPO is such an obvious choice.

    The same hasn’t always been the case on the audio side of things. Early units were notable in that they could play both SACD and DVD-A when many players of that era merely did one or the other. But in terms of sonic performance, well… opinions were mixed. Personally, I loved these early players for their value and video capabilities, but that’s where it ended.

    The good news? OPPO has been steadily improving sound quality with each new release. Their BDP-83SE was a turning point, taking a rather mediocre sounding universal player and cranking up the audio performance by several notches. I used that model for several years in a modest audio-only system and with pleasing results.

    Since then, OPPO has gone full-throttle on the audio side. They now dabble in headphones, portable audio gear, and dedicated DACs, in addition to their ever-popular disc spinners. Each generation of player sounds clearly better than the last, which I feel speaks to OPPO’s dedication to quality audio – they aren’t just churning out headphone gear to capture a piece of that growing pie.

    OPPO’s latest model is the UDP-205 ($1,299 USD) – previewed here. It’s a technological tour de force, sporting a pair of the latest flagship ESS 9038Pro Sabre DAC chips, selectable digital filters, extensive jitter reduction circuitry, separate power supplies for analog and digital sections, and through-the-roof functionality, all in a reassuringly-solid 22-pound package. The UDP-205 looks and feels right at home in a dedicated high-quality audio rig.

    While its predecessors (the BDP-95 and BDP-105) were great performers overall, I found them both a bit sonically aggressive at times. They did a lot of things right, but in the grand scheme of things their treble presentation just wasn’t as refined as I’d like. The UDP-205, on the other hand, is the real deal. My experience in the sub-$2k space has it easily outpacing audio-only players from the usual suspects like Marantz, Rega, Cambridge Audio, and Musical Fidelity. I recently compared it directly to a roughly thrice-the-price AVM CD 3.2 and found the OPPO more appealing overall. In fact, I liked it so much I purchased one (at full MSRP, mind you) with no intentions of using it for video – it’s that good.

    Still, as impressive as the UDP-205 is at asking price and well beyond, it can’t quite hang with top-tier DACs. It lacks the effortless detail and last-word tonal weight of reference gear from PS Audio, Wyred 4 Sound, Resonessence Labs, Aqua Hifi and others of a similar high-end caliber, which seems fair considering the price differences involved. But what if we could bring the OPPO up to a significantly higher level?

    This is where ModWright comes in.

    Dan Wright of ModWright Instruments has been tweaking digital players for nearly two decades. He later expanded to offer his own proprietary designs for amplifiers, line stages, and other gear, but there’s always been at least one upgraded player on the roster. These tend to be high value-per-dollar offerings: Pioneer Elite and Denon in the old days (back when those brands still made quality players), and more recently Sony ES and OPPO. The ModWright 205 is an evolution of Dan’s tried and true upgrades, refined and adapted to each new generation. Just as OPPO keeps improving, so too does ModWright.

    The ModWright UDP-205 upgrade package sells for US$2,495. You supply the stock player, which places the combined total for player and mods at US$3,795. While not insignificant, that’s also nowhere near the price of most flagship players these days – even non-exotic brands like NAD and Yamaha have offerings priced higher than that.

    The extra outlay brings some pretty drastic changes to OPPO’s device. The stock opamp-based output stage gets completely gutted, replaced by a fully differential, pure Class A, transformer coupled design using 6922 tubes. A quad of Lundahl transformers, custom ModWright Instruments capacitors, and top-shelf resistors throughout the signal path speak to the aspirations of the design. In fact, the 205 design borrows extensively from ModWright’s statement Elyse DAC (US$7,000), which is fine company to be in. Worth noting: the mods here are more complex than the ModWright’s OPPO 95 and 105 upgrades. And the bill of materials is certainly much higher thanks to those high-quality transformers, yet the upgrade price remains the same. Kudos to Dan and team for that.

    Aside from the relatively subtle pair of tubes protruding from the OPPO chassis, the large outboard power supply is the main visual clue of deviation from stock. It’s a tube rectified/solid-state regulated beast and is again improved over prior versions. This PSU leashes to the OPPO player itself via ModWright’s “Truth” umbilical, a garden-hose-like affair that is thankfully nowhere near as stiff as it appears. Stock length is 4 feet but I imagine additional lengths can be custom ordered. Note – the player itself can run without the external PSU being active…. which is actually quite useful. More on this later.

    All these changes add up to a truly gratifying sonic experience. After burning in the player for a good week straight (not my intent, but I was swamped), I decided my initial approach would be to treat it as a standard CD player. Yes, it’s got a trio of digital inputs, network streaming capabilities, and can play music directly from a USB drive. But since I started this whole journey searching for simplicity, I figured I’d go old school with shiny discs for my initial testing.

    Despite ripping all my physical media to hard drives long ago, there remain a small stack of discs that I just can’t seem to let go of. I broke out a few favorites and set out on a listening journey, aided by a Pass Labs HPA-1 headphone amplifier driving a pair of modified Sennheiser HD800 headphones.

    First up – Tsuyoshi Yamamoto’s Midnight Sugar. I’ve owned half a dozen (or more) versions of this over the years: CD, XRCD, HDCD, and the limited 24K gold disc, among others. They all sound enjoyable, but to me, the definitive release is the SACD from First Impression Music. ModWright’s 205 renders this masterful performance with exquisite detail and spot-on tone color. The standout trait is the shockingly-well-defined sense of space it produces. It’s downright holographic at times. Imaging, while quite different on headphones versus speakers, is nonetheless highly accurate – a strength of the HD800 which can be nullified if your source isn’t up to the task. The stock 205 alone does a pretty solid job here, whilst the ModWright version is superb by any standard. The liner notes (remember those?) even include a map of each performer’s location in the studio, and the ModWright 205 places them just where they should be. Impressive!

    A few sections of this 39-minute performance have an almost ponderous feel. As much as I love it and have enjoyed it countless times over the years, my mind can sometimes lose focus if the presentation isn’t top notch… but the ModWright 205 oozes with emotion and firmly glues me to my seat. The stock OPPO, while very technically competent, doesn’t create nearly as personal of a connection with the music. It’s clean and clear, almost bordering on pristine, yet in comparison seems to be missing that bit of magic.

    Next came the SACD release of Cantos De Agua Dulce by Marta Gomez, to get a feel for how the ModWright handles amazingly-well-done female vocals. Again, the stock OPPO comes across very strong here, so I wasn’t sure if the ModWright had much room to improve. Boy, was I wrong. The upgraded player delivers superior body and significantly more air up top – hard to adequately capture in words, but it’s a “you know it when you hear it” type thing. Palpable is one word that comes to mind. If you spend much time listening to live performances, you know how many HiFi experiences – even really enjoyable ones – fail to capture the authenticity of the experience. ModWright’s 205 has no such deficiency.

    The last of my audiophile-friendly discs was the DVD-A version of Lorna Hunt’s All In One Day. This criminally-underappreciated release is one I find vastly more appealing than the common girl-with-guitar audio show material. It just has so much going for it: really interesting music performed live at the wonderfully-ambient Lompoc Theater with Paul duGre of Classic Records engineering and mixing it straight to two-track analog.

    The resulting 24/96 DVD-A release is exceptional without being overly cheesy or generic. In the liner notes, Lorna Hunt describes it as sounding “almost as if a small orchestra is playing behind each song, while my voice is very present and intimate”. I totally agree with her assessment and really dig that unique duality of scale. Sadly, much of the ambiance and weight of this disc is lost when played through your standard analytical, sterile playback chain. The details are there, everything is nicely articulate, but the bigger picture is a blur. Not so with the ModWright 205, which manages to capture the size and feel of that old theater in a way that few other devices can. This performance is right up there with some of the best I’ve heard – generally costing far more, while doing far less, than the ModWright 205.

    Yep, ModWright’s 205 definitely passes the test when it comes to superb recordings.

    From there, it was time for some real-world listening, using material that isn’t necessarily ideal for demoing audio gear. I consider myself a staunch Music-First Audiophile which just means I use my system to play whatever music I enjoy. Simple, right? Yes, I’d love it if my entire collection was mastered by Bob Katz/Steve Hoffman and released in quad-rate DSD… but until that happens, I’ll continue taking what I can get – flaws and all.

    That meant listening to such favorites as Drawing Black Lines by Project86, Siamese Dream by Smashing Pumpkins, and Kaotic Chemistry by 2 Bad Mice – in standard CD quality because that’s what I have to work with. And guess what? The ModWright did a superlative job of decoding these discs without accentuating their flaws. Again, this level of performance is something I normally expect from the best stand-alone DACs in the $4-6k range and beyond, which of course don’t do anything on their own until we add a transport of some sort.

    I won’t go on and on with musical examples, but just be aware that I’m known to break out vintage ska, 80’s/90’s hip-hop, a very wide range of metal, and a genre-defying variety of electronic music – with some of the latter being well done and some… not. All in all, ModWright’s beast turns in a brilliant performance across the entire recording-quality spectrum.

    I don’t by any means consider the ModWright 205 a slow, syrupy DAC. It is highly resolving but doesn’t spotlight that fact as many devices tend to do. All things being equal, this is my preferred approach to playback – which is interesting, as I used to gravitate a bit more towards the more analytical side of things.

    A bit of history: I recall owning a Jeff Rowland Aeris DAC some years ago, which I did (and probably still do) consider world-class when it came to resolving minute details. I was in love with its speed, its responsiveness, and the way it effortlessly doled out layer upon layer of information from my reference tracks. Then one day a friend brought over his new-at-the-time Bricasti M1 for a quick comparison. The Bricasti was very enjoyable in its way, though seemingly not quite as technically accomplished as my Aeris. And yet, as we switched from impeccable recordings to modest fare and then downright poor quality material, I was struck by how the M1 maintained composure throughout. My Aeris was spectacular with great recordings but comparatively difficult to tolerate with anything less.

    After more acclimation, I actually ended up liking the M1 better on the reference tracks too. It was just so unforced, so natural sounding, that I couldn’t resist. I’ve found myself preferring that type of signature ever since, and the ModWright 205 falls squarely in that category. In fact, I’d say the ModWright is actually extremely similar to the (more pricey) M1, though I’ll stop there as I don’t have one handy for direct comparison.

    Of the similarly priced DACs that I have on hand, I find the ModWright puts up a worthy fight, even when going up against my battle-proven favorites. Again, keep in mind I’m strictly judging as a DAC for the moment, whilst omitting the numerous advantages it has due to functionality.

    The most similar performer in my current stable is the Exogal Comet Plus (US$3,500). I reviewed it several years back for a different publication, and it’s been on my “must own” list ever since. I finally tracked one down a few months back, complete with upgraded WyWires umbilical to connect DAC to outboard PSU.

    While the ModWright machine relies on top-of-the-line ESS Sabre hardware for conversion, the boys at Exogal (former Wadia designers, from back when that really meant something) handle things via custom FPGA programming a la Ted Smith (PS Audio) or Rob Watts (Chord). Meanwhile, Exogal’s minimalist output stage is opamp based, whilst ModWright stuffs their chassis to the gills with transformers and tubes. Despite taking very different routes, both machines end up in roughly the same place – abundant detail that doesn’t force itself down your throat, rich tone colors, gobs of finesse, and an easygoing vibe conducive to long-term listening of any and all musical selections. If forced to nitpick, I’d say the modded OPPO doesn’t quite resolve excruciating minutia quite as well as the little Comet. But ModWright’s device fires back with superior low-end texture and articulation. Again, these differences are extremely small, and both devices turn in very enjoyable performances. I have a difficult time choosing, or frankly even telling them apart based on sonics alone.

    The ambitiously-named UltraDAC (US$3,990) from German firm B.M.C. is another of my favorites (this side of spending absurd money). Four grand ain’t cheap but when a reference caliber DAC comes with sublime integrated headphone and preamp capabilities, it’s an easier pill to swallow. UltraDAC plays a bit looser than the modified OPPO in terms of image specificity, whilst cranking up the low-end grunt and dynamic bombast. The ModWright, certainly NOT over-caffeinated by any means, nonetheless carves out a more finely-etched sonic image. I’m tempted to call the UltraDAC more stereotypically “analog” sounding, but I won’t use that cliché…. or maybe I just did.

    Regardless, the two devices sound more alike than different, and my preference tends to hinge on musical selection and downstream gear. I’d choose the smoother German contender to offset the stark presentation of Sennheiser’s HD800 or the Enigmacoustics Dharma, whilst ModWright’s machine brings welcome speed and pep to comparatively sleepy cans like Sennheiser’s HD650 or Stax SR-007 mkII.

    To reiterate: these converters from B.M.C. and Exogal are two of my favorites, at any price. I rate them above well-regarded competitors from the likes of Benchmark, Mytek, Chord, and Bryston. Considering everything else it has to offer, the fact that ModWright’s OPPO 205 performs in this same space is, frankly, remarkable.

    Let’s circle back around and focus on that robust functionality again. The ModWright 205 works as a stand-alone DAC with coaxial, optical, and USB inputs – the latter supporting up to DSD512 and MQA (which I have not tried as of yet, and thus have no opinion about). It also functions as a transport via Toslink and coaxial outputs. Spinning discs of almost every audio/video variety are covered, save for the defunct HDCD and HD DVD formats. It has a dedicated low-jitter audio-only HDMI output which may come in handy in certain situations. And of course, there’s the standard HDMI option for viewing 4K discs, plus 7.1 analog outs for surround duty – an increasingly rare option nowadays. These features alone make for a very full-service player, and I haven’t even mentioned the best parts yet.

    A rear panel Ethernet port unlocks the magic. Using OPPO’s MediaControl app, a networked 205 can stream music via SMB or UPnP, or just play local files stored on a USB drive. OPPO handily gives us a front panel USB port plus two more around back, with support for flash-based storage and 4TB portable hard drives (or maybe larger, but that’s all I tried). So feel free to load up with several drives worth of material. Or, just point the player to your NAS and stream everything that way. It’s all fairly simple to configure and use, even without using a monitor (something many universal players tend to require for initial setup).

    Quick caveat: while I’ve had generally great results using OPPO’s app on my Galaxy S8, the reviews for both Android and iOS versions are fairly dismal. Apparently, lots of people report crashes or unresponsive playback after a short period of listening – the first few tracks play fine, then it loses the plot and requires a reboot of the player itself. I have not encountered this during my fairly extensive use. My only real gripe is that browsing music on a NAS via SMB shows seemingly randomized track lists… not sure what that’s all about, but using UPnP mode puts everything back in order – at the expense of gapless playback (a common UPnP casualty). Those experiencing issues with OPPO’s app are free to switch to another option such as BubbleUPnP, which seems to work flawlessly.

    Or, do what I do and sidestep those issues altogether by using the ModWright 205 as a Roon endpoint. This feature wasn’t present when the 205 first launched but arrived later via a firmware update, thus tipping the scales in favor of a license purchase for this rabid Roon fanatic. Having my personal collection of over 100,000 tracks, plus nearly 50 million more via Tidal, accessible via Roon’s superior interface – what could be better? I normally have to break out my SOtM sMS-200 plus Wyred 4 Sound PS-1 linear power supply just to bring Roon integration to the average DAC. Direct Roon playback on the ModWright 205 sounds identical to that combo, and superior to the solo sMS-200 with stock PSU, so it ends up greatly simplifying my audio rack.

    The potentially bad news: the 205’s network hardware has a hard cap at 24-bit/192kHz and doesn’t handle DSD. This means all DSD and 384kHz PCM material gets downsampled – a seamless process in Roon, and one which I feel offers little to no impact on sonics. I went back and forth extensively between 205 standalone and the aforementioned SOtM/Wyred combo (which does support DSD), and I’m confident in saying the penalty is trivial. Purists may balk at this, and I might agree on a conceptual level, but in practice, I see no reason to complain about something I won’t really notice.

    As if that wasn’t enough, there are two more features to be discussed.

    First, volume control. OPPO uses the internal 32-bit attenuation scheme in the ES9038Pro which does a fine job overall. Technically, this allows the 205 to drive amplifiers directly. I say ‘technically’ because nowhere does OPPO actually discuss this or recommend users ditch their dedicated preamplifier. Real world results? Hit or miss with the standard OPPO, but very doable with ModWright’s version. The stock 205 comes off as a bit sparse and edgy when driving amps directly, and goes downhill from there as volume levels drop. Remember, more volume reduction equals more bits thrown away. In the right system the stock 205 does the job well enough, but you almost have to build the rig around it. The extra tonal richness of ModWright’s version makes it a far more universal match – though keeping volume levels at “40” or above remains desirable. This means systems with really efficient speakers and/or high-gain amps end up working against you. Ultimately, as a relatively “quiet” listener, I still prefer to use a dedicated preamp more often than not… your results will vary based on your particular gear and listening preferences.

    Last, but not least, is the front panel headphone output which the ModWright mods leave well alone. Not even a throwaway bonus feature in earlier models, OPPO has improved the headphone stage on the 205 to be surprisingly decent. While it doesn’t threaten monster amps from Pass Labs or Violectric, it nonetheless gives a clean, neutral presentation without the treble harshness or flat dynamics inherent in most built-ins. It comfortably drives sane loads and can even do sensitive IEMs without hiss. I paired it with headphones from Focal, Sennheiser, Ultimate Ears, and Audeze, and it acquitted itself rather well. To achieve any meaningful improvement required the addition of an Arcam rHead (US$599) or Rupert Neve RNHP (US$499). The iFi Micro iCAN (US$250 in non-SE form) didn’t add much to the conversation, and a Schiit Valhalla 2 (US$349) was different yet not necessarily better. All in all, a rather impressive performance from what is often an afterthought in many multi-purpose devices.

    Remember I mentioned the 205 still working, independent of the external power supply? It’s a handy feature to extend the life of your device. ModWright’s massive PSU just powers the analog stage, which feeds the redone RCA and XLR outputs. Users running a home theater or dual-purpose system with video are free to watch for hours via what remains of the “standard” 205. That means using the HDMI and/or 7.1 analog outputs without wasting valve hours in the upgraded output or external PSU. Very thoughtful.

    Speaking of tubes – ModWright ships the unit with a pair of Electro-Harmonix Gold 6922 valves for the output stage. These are among the best sanely-priced (around $25/each) production 6922s you can get although Dan says 6922 or 7308 options can be rolled in their place. He likes NOS Amperex and Siemens among others. However, do NOT use 6DJ8s, as they can’t handle the voltage levels. Rectification is handled by a Sovtek 5AR4 (also roughly $25 new) which is supposedly an excellent choice. Here Dan recommends the Philips 5R4GYS which has really sky-rocketed in price lately. I recall Upscale Audio having them for about $60 maybe 5 years back, and they now fetch $169; no doubt due to a combination of scarcity, demand, and excellent reputation.

    For the purposes of this review, I did not spend much time exploring alternative valves. In fact, I have not yet swapped out that Sovtek at all. I did try out a vintage batch of mystery Amperex 7308 gold pins for the output stage – thanks to a steal of a deal I found on eBay – as well as some assorted Brimar and Mullard 6922 sets I had lying around.

    The stock tubes are very capable. Unlike many other tube-based devices I’ve encountered, there’s no need to rush out and replace them straight away. All my prior comments about sonic performance were achieved on stock tubes, and I would be perfectly happy never messing with that successful formula. Having said that, tube rolling can bring about small but potentially worthwhile changes, for those with the insatiable itch to tweak. While taking nothing away from the superb stock performance, I do think folks can dial in an even more desirable result by throwing a few hundred more dollars at it. Great stock results plus moderate (and optional) tweakability equals win-win in my book.

    What happened to the “simplicity” I mentioned at the very outset? While ModWright’s upgraded OPPO 205 will take a reviewer in numerous directions, it is simple to use and enjoy. We don’t quite end up with the one box solution from back in the day. There are two boxes here, both of which require AC cables, and I still need another PC elsewhere in the house to run Roon Core. Still, compare that to my extreme eight-box setup and the choice becomes pretty obvious. If I add a nice set of headphones – perhaps a Sennheiser HD650 or Meze 99 Neo – these could be the only two boxes we require.

    If we look at the ModWright 205 as a DAC (and DAC only), this ignoring its additional features, I’d classify it as a Division 1 on the Darko DAC Index. It would be up there with the PS Audio DirectStream, Exogal Comet Plus, B.M.C. UltraDAC, and Resonessence Labs Veritas. Keep in mind I’m extrapolating this from my own experiences. I’ve heard many (yet certainly not all) of the DACs on Darko’s list, and tend to agree with their placement, but it’s still not an exact science.

    My Premier League would include the Wyred 4 Sound DAC2v2SE 10th Anniversary Edition, Resonessence Labs Invicta Mirus Pro Signature Edition, Metrum Pavane, and Aqua Hifi La Scala MKII, all of which outperform the ModWright 205 in some tangible way. I’d place the PS Audio DirectStream Junior and Chord Hugo TT down in Division 2, along with some others, since my ears tell me the ModWright plays on a higher level. This all seems nice and tidy until we factor in value quotient due to extra features. Then I’m not sure what to make of it.

    All I know is this: of the massive pile of excellent DACs listed above, none that sound on par with the ModWright 205 can match it on features. It’s not exactly simple, but it does simplify my audio rack by a substantial amount. Were it not for the reviewer gig, I’d happily stick with the ModWright 205 and call it a day. How’s that for a vote of confidence?

    Further information: ModWright Instruments

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    Written by John Grandberg

    John Grandberg is a US-based audio journalist who has been immersed in the scene for over a decade. A recovering percussionist, he has a particular affinity for headphones and associated gear.

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