Sony WM-DC2 modification by Leonardo Montedoro (Dottor Walkman)
Hello and welcome to another of my reviews! This should be an interesting read for most of you here I think. Not just because it is about analog but also because for the first time I can honestly say portable audio is more than just comparable to what we’re usually accustomed to hear from full-size home stereo high-fidelity components.
The procedure consisted of long listening sessions, nothing more, nothing less. Some like to do A/B comparisons but in my experience, hearing is a highly adaptable instrument that tends to shift the perception rather quickly and one cannot really say what the difference is, not even in most basic of terms. What works and always has, however, is taking the time to get the grasp of how something sounds, recognizing what was performed well and what could have been performed better and with a larger dose of realism. Having a good sourse as a starting point is always a good thing to have. However, I have always found that experience is equally or even more important. I always refer to my experiences as a musician in an orchestra – how it sounded in live auditoriums, be it open or closed ones, in an acoustically dampened room or directly from the master tape. It helps to have a perspective like that, if nothing, then to be able to recognize whether instruments and voices sound real or not. It is this quality I always look for in equipment and if equipment is lying in one way or another, tonal correctness is one parameter where I will be able to say it sounds realistic or artificial.
The procedure consisted of taking notes on several different parameters of the reproduced material. Each parameter was then given a grade from 1 to 10, the former signifying an unacceptably flawed performance and the latter signifying something that is as close to realistic as it can possibly get. In theory, highest mark should be given to equipment capable of displaying complete transparency with no involvement of any of it’s own character but only what has been recorded on the medium.
Apart from the modified Sony WM-DC2 which is at the focus of this review, I have used both the Pioneer CT-S740S and Technics RS-AZ7 full-size cassette decks. Some recordings were done on Dottor Walkman’s own modified version of Sony WM-D6C, mainly on TDK’s latest version of MA type-IV cassette tape.
Other recordings were done on the aforementioned Pioneer cassette deck on TDK MA-X, MA-EX, Maxell MX-S and Sony Metal Master cassette tapes. These tapes were recorded from my reference studio recordings using Bryston BDA-2 digital-to-analog converter as the source.
Listening was done either through WM-DC2′s own headphone out using Ultimate Ears triple-driver in-ear monitors or through it’s line out driving the input of Bryston BHA-1 balanced class-A headphone amplifier which in turn drove Sennheiser HD800 headphones.
Alternatively, I also used my reference triode DAC v1.1 and reference OTL v1.1 class-A headphone amplifier with ECC88 input and dual 6H30 arrangement and true dual mono construction. Digital transport was either Denon DCD-1420 CD player (using a Sony KSS-151A optical block) played from it’s coaxial digital output or a Windows computer feeding the Bryston D/A converter via it’s USB interface. It was this interface that allowed for 24 bit material to be recorded onto tape. I used lots of music from either CDs or FLAC and all of the recordings were selected stricly on the criteria of my familiarity with them and quality of the recording.
TECHNICAL DESCRIPTION OF A STOCK UNIT
Sony WM-DC2, originally introduced in 1984, is considered to be one of the highest quality portable cassette players. Because if someone was going to create something so elaborate and so special, it had to be Sony for only they had the enormous financial resources and extraordinary technical expertise and perhaps even a bit of perversion to do it. It’s a company that didn’t necessarily always do it’s homework when it came to having a successful product sales-wise so it did have it’s fair share of misses but no one can deny their products were some of the finest in the world and before the Japanese market crash, unmatched in build quality that was bordering with insanity.
The WM-DC2 is a fine example of that. While the exterior is virtually identical to the previous “DD” models of players (DD signifying a “disc-drive” system which is a very important innovation in the function of this series of players), there are significant differences that differentiate the WM-DC2 from the rest. The most obvious physical feature is the silver lettering on the front, or rather, on the top panel but apart from that, to someone that isn’t as familiar with this series of players, it might appear to be the same as the rest. It is quite unassuming in that respect. The top is occupied by the transport buttons and a single red LED so it’s a rather simple and yet tastefully laid-out arrangement. The top panel is occuped by two 3.5mm connectors – for headphone and line outs, and a volume control dial for the headphone out. The right-hand side is occupued by two switches – for playback EQ and NR. The player has the ability to use either Dolby B or C type NR so you really are getting a full gamut of features here, at least when sound quality is in question. Innards of the player are also quite interesting, mostly because of it’s correlation to the aforementioned DD series. There are no belts inside, the capstan and reels are driven directly with gears. However, this is not a direct-drive system because the capstan shaft is not really the rotor shaft of the motor. It’s close enough though because the capstan has a gear on one end and this gear is in direct contact with the gear on the rotor. It would have been impossible to do it any differently back then because the motor was simply too long to be mounted in a way where it’s rotor would serve as a capstan shaft and flat-core motors were not yet available. Still, Sony made a lot of the parts themselves and that includes the Dolby decoding chips as well. For the playback head, Sony has chosen a “laser-amorphous” head. The original versions manufactured in the original year of release were featured with a hyperbolic-contoured head like the one in my own specimen of the WM-DC2. The later versions were featured with a more usual parabolic or radial -contoured head. The later versions also saw some revisions of the circuit board.
Some of the relevant technical data available on WM-DC2 suggests a wow and flutter numbers of 0.07% weighted RMS value, a frequency response of 40 – 15.000 Hz with a deviation of – 3 dB and a power output of 15 mW at a 32 Ohm load. Those numbers don’t really mean much even though the w&f figure does indicate a greater stability than nominal values of entry-level cassette decks and certainly a large majority of auto-reverse machines.
The construction is metal with a black non-reflective finish. Back then, you could not ask for an anodized scratch-resistant finish and so you didn’t get one. This means, while metal, damage can occur on impact and the color can be chipped off. The door is mounted rather flimsy and is held by two screws on both ends. However, this in turn means the door can be removed easily to allow for a better access to the head and the pinch roller for regular maintenance. The door latch is a small plastic thing and has been known to have a mind of it’s own so the door can open while the player is bouncing in the pocket of your jacket. There is also the known issue of the center gear. While many will say this particular problem is due to the use of low quality plastics, that is not exactly true. One must realize that polymer industry has reached it’s zenith only later as the material became increasingly popular in infrastructure. So much in fact that materials that were once taken for granted are now being replaced with polymers on account of their superior mechanical properties – properties such as isotrophy and therefore equal yielding strength in all directions and even hardness which is accomplished with different additives – such as glass fibers. All of this has enabled materials to become lighter and with higher redundancy, something that plastics of the era in which this particular player was manufactured did not have. Looking at the problem of the center gear from an engineering standpoint, it is quite obvious what causes it. The gear wheel is an assembly of a metal center disc and a geared plastic rim. Over time, the plastic loses it’s cohesion and elasticity module and it contracts around the metal center disc. The disc, on the other hand, cannot be deformed to accommodate the contraction of the rim and as a result, tensile stress increases along the rim eventually causing the rim to break. It is not surprising and it is not difficult to repair but is virtually impossible to restore it to perfect operation with no negative consequences to the rest of the gears and to eliminate the clicking noise which is common to this problem.
Despite all of this, providing it has been well maintained, WM-DC2 can perform very well and in certain cases, exceptionally well. So much in fact that it can easily be compared to high quality full-size machines and even outperform some of them. The conclusion of some of the users was that WM-DC2 sounds cleaner and more stable than auto-reverse cassette decks but also entry-level 3-head machines. All the reason more to modify it to see what is it’s real potential and whether it would satisy the demands of an audiophile with the analog in his noggin’.
THE MODIFICATION BY DOTTOR WALKMAN
Restoring equipment and improving it’s performance beyond original specification is not an easy task, especially when you are dealing with equipment for which there are no more spare parts or equipment that was rare to begin with. Over the course of more than thirty years, Dottor Walkman has found many ways to do precisely that. He is an experienced craftsman and a blacksmith. He’s best known for restoring devices that feature micro-mechanisms but he also has been known to repair electronic parts for equipment that is generally considered unobtainable. Being an audiophile himself and loving what he does, he’s a walkman enthusiast so one can understand why he wanted to explore the possibility of improving the best of what was already out there. He already had all the means – vast technical expertise and a laboratory in which he does all his work. Still, even he admits that for accomplishing this he manufactured the necessary tools from steel himself and that each tool has a very specific application.
There are things to consider when dealing with Dottor Walkman. Most importantly, he will not want to leave anything unfinished and will tamper with anything till he is completely satisfied with the result. He has no interest in doing a quick repair to a point where the component will be merely working, Over the years he has done numerous restorations and modifications and the comments of his clients are often most flattering.
The restoration and modification procedure of a Sony WM-DC2 is a lengthy process and is quite systematic in nature.
As a first necessary step, the machine is completely disassembled to the tinniest bit. Everything, including the smallest of gears has to be removed from the assembly. After a careful inspection with a magnifying glass, the gears and other moving parts are checked for any sign of wear or damage that might have occurred over the years or that was caused by a failure of some other component in the assembly. If imperfections are discovered, the part will be treated with it’s designated tool. The center gear is a common problem and one that can and usually does cause a series of other problems. While many have come up with a way of dealing with this problem, I must say I haven’t seen anyone else come up with such an elaborate and thorough procedure. While using a good plastic mass to fill in the part of the outer rim that broke is a good idea, the usual application is flawed in that the new material doesn’t bond well with the rest of the rim which means the mechanism stays fairly noisy. The second problem are the actual gears. One has to use a proper and highly precise tool in order to ensure perfect transmission and avoid damage to the gears in contact. He has devised a way to tackle both problems using specialized materials and custom tools.
After all the individual parts of the mechanism have been examined and proper treatment applied, the mechanism is reassembled and lubricated. The lubrication oil is by ReVox and is of the highest quality available. It is normally used for reel-to-reel machines. After reassembly, the mechanism is being run with necessary adjustments for minimal fluctuation of speed. The WM-DC2 has a clutch system that engages the mechanism. If this clutch hasn’t been calibrated properly, it can cause all kinds of problems that relate to mechanical integrity. For this reason, it is necessary to calibrate the clutch torque to it’s optimal value using a specialized cassette. The mechanism is then left to run while observing the pinch roller and it’s contact with the tape. If necessary, some changes to tape parth must be done to ensure that the tape-roller contact is consistent. The pinch roller itself is regenerated with a petroleum-based liquid.
The adjustment of the head is a particularly delicate task. This is primarily due to the fact that cassette players don’t allow for any adjustment of the tilt. This is where one has to be extremely precise and have experience with micro-mechanisms because even the slightest miscalculation can result in an unwanted outcome. Azimuth is adjusted as well. In the end, everything is rechecked and the mechanism is observed while it is in motion. What is observed is the tape path while the azimuth is being tracked on an instrument. If necessary, minor corrections can be made during the observation.
During stages where ensuring minimal fluctuation of speed is critical, special measuring instruments are used. These instruments were designed specifically for this purpose.
In the end, frequency response is measured on an oscilloscope and minor changes are done to the circuit board to maximize the available extension.
My specific WM-DC2 also received a new head and a new motor assembly. These parts are extremely rare and will be almost impossible to find. My specimen is a low serial number machine originating from 1984 and was therefore equipped with a hyperbolic-contoured head. Measurements have shown that this particular head design has significant cross-talk between the channels. The reason for this is unknown because the head was virtually intact and there was no question of any serious wear that could cause this. It is the opinion of Dottor Walkman this has to do with environmental conditions in the plant where the heads were manufactured. If moist found it’s way into the head, the isolation between the channels could be compromised and this would then have a consequence of greater cross-talk. It is speculation of course but well founded one nonetheless. However, not all hyperbolic-contoured heads suffer from this problem and in a large majority of cases, they are fine. The head was replaced with one that belongs to more recent specimens of this machine however and one that has superior measurements. It is also worth noting that more recent revisions have inferior circuit design so in a way, this particular modification embodies the best of both worlds. The motor had to be replaced because it produced a fair amount of noise. One other thing that had to be looked at was the actual door and latching mechanism.
On my specific WM-DC2, other modifications were performed as well even though they weren’t necessary and it is Dottor Walkman’s opinion that they haven’t paid off in terms of sound quality. The capacitors on the circuit board were replaced with hand-matched Wima red polyester capacitors and the stock red LED was replaced with a green one to differentiate the modified WM-DC2 from the rest in a more practical manner.
The beauty is always in the details and it is the attention to detail that sets Dottor Walkman apart from the rest. He uses the original Sony adhesive fabric to arrange the wiring in a tidy manner, not the usual adhesive insulation tape. Battery contacts plagued by battery corrosion are removed and placed in acid to remove the hardened residue. In addition, a special layer of conductive material is applied on the contacts ensuring resistance to battery corrosion and rust. These vintage devices are wonderful and one small detail you won’t see on any modern device is the fabric strap in the battery compartment that helps to remove the batteries. However, after a good while of use, these straps can break or fall out of their place. Dottor Walkman will replace them with new but original Sony straps. Quite unbelievable!
If even all of this is not enough for you, special orders are possible as long as they are possible to do. I already mentioned the Wima capacitors and green LED in the case of my WM-DC2 and even though they did not add to the performance, they did make it even more unique.
Frequency response and balance: 9/10
Frequency response has been greatly expanded and there is more presence in the top end. The bass was particularly impressive on David Sylvian’s nostalgic cello parts with excellent extension and really plenty of low-level detail. The precision with which the bass was handled was truly excellent and so I must conclude the bass in general is very good indeed. A full-draw church organ on Handel’s Largo was as powerful and dramatic as ever and it just reinforced my impression of a well-controlled and deep bass with a lot of meat on the bones. it was clear and impactful and joyous. Electronic instruments revealed this one more time as Astral projection swept me off my feet with those surreal instrumentation where each note seems to be modulated differently. That fact that I could hear this is impressive alone but to hear the finer pieces of it is truly special. So far so good then!
The middle of the spectrum was a rather interesting combination. While it wasn’t completely void of coloration, it was highly enjoyable and uncluttered. What I like to do is run the same series of tests I always do. Tamburica instruments, like I have said many times before, are extremely difficult to capture and to reproduce. They are often very sibilant but in turn have a harmonic richness that cannot be matched by any other instrument, certainly not when a full-scale orchestras are in question. The WM-DC2 portrayed these instruments in a way that was both enjoyable and realistic. While I didn’t necessarily think the tonality was spot-on, I didn’t find any reason to criticize it either because of the sheer richness and presence of the instruments that seemed to compose a greater picture where everything was clear and yet, didn’t force me to analyze it. This presence was clearly noticeable while playing type-IV formulation tapes, especially the TDK MA-X and MA-EX. Euphony is the word I’d choose to describe it. It won’t make you believe you are listening to an actual concert in an auditorium but it won’t let you stop listening to it either. An exceptionally good performer it is! Voices possesed intelligibility and were quite clear so studying languages or audio books wouldn’t be a problem at all. What I hold more dear than that, however, is how Sarah Brightman sounds and she does sound really good. I couldn’t detect any iimperfections not taking into account the general bloom the mid-range seems to have. Norah Jones with her sweet and seductively private voice sounded even more seductive through this player and I was simply mesmerized by it.
The high end of the spectrum was extended and the improvement over the stock player was obvious and one that would undoubtedly be described as a “day and night difference”. It wasn’t as extended as on aforementioned Pioneer and Technics decks nor did I expect it to be. Still, it offered a lot of room for everything to fit in nicely and I didn’t think I was missing a whole lot from what was there. Piano strikes were clear and I must say that Chopin’s piano compositions sounded very good indeed. The notes possesed clarity to them which I must conclude has a lot to do with excellent pitch stability of this player. I could hear no smudging of the air around the notes and when I thought I did, I was quickly proved otherwise because the next high-pitched tone on the recording possesed no such imperfections. I therefore concluded it is the inherent feature of the recording itself. The recordings done on Dottor Walkman’s own D6C sounded even clearer so I am forced to believe that my own recorders are responsible for this slight deviation in the piano notes, not the WM-DC2 itself. In a way, this is even more impressive and for two reasons:
- Dottor Walkman’s D6C has superior technical performance to the Pioneer’s Reference Master mechanism and
- WM-DC2 could resolve and display this imperfection in the recording. Quite unbelievable I should say. Apart from that, the high end just as the mid-range sounded smooth and with no spikes and embodied qualities one expects from a good analog source.
Balance and integrity of the spectrum is the place where one might find things to criticize. Looking at the spectrum as a straight line, one could hardly say it is flat in the case of WM-DC2. Nothing was really accentuated but I could hear some stitches between the low end and lower parts of mid-range. This difference is likely due to the presence the mid-range has and if that takaes a bit of imbalance to be achieved, then one can hardly argue it is a good thing. It is an interesting mix of qualities I think and while not my way of reliving a live session I know so well, it is very enjoyable nonetheless. Integration of the mid-range and high end was excellent however and I could hear no coloration there.
Dynamics, attack and decay: 9/10
Without dynamics, music is a pure assemblage of notes – tones of different frequencies and volume. Fortunately, the WM-DC2 delivered in this area and then some one might add. Dynamics was generally excellent throughout the low and mid -ranges. Small chamber groups sounded refreshingly alive and shimmering with finer musical structure. The full scope of a symphony orchestra was portrayed very well and I could feel the variations in timpane being hit harder and harder and and I was really enjoying the smooth transitions in Beethoven’s 5th symphony which, inevitably, lead to a dramatic climax. All of this has been portrayed well and in a manner that is both exciting and subtle. Micro-dynamics was also very fine, especially in the mid-range where finer articulations of stringed instruments were being presented in a hand-waving way. It seemed very available and yet well integrated. Some of these recordings I know so well that I know exactly what I am supposed to hear at each moment. One particular person in the orchestra accidentally hit the spruce top of a bisernica ([bisernitza], the smallest of the instruments in a tamburica orchestra, translated to English = pearls). Not only I could hear this, I did in fact hear it in the recording room and in the mixing room. I can also hear it on the recording and because of the very specific tone that laminated spruce produces, I know who it was and where was that person sitting. I think this above all other things demonstrates just how good the timbre is. However, I am not so sure that high end couldn’t have been reproduced in a more realistic way. While extended, it lacks some body and therefore, the full scope of dynamics. This was obvious on piano notes where there was little variation in volume. The notes were clear of course and I suspect this particular flaw (for a lack of a better word) allowed for me to hear just how the stable pitch was so it is a bit of a contradiction – one flaw enabled one virtue to be more exposed. Still, I didn’t feel like it was a critical issue most of the time. Pianos in general are extremely difficult to capture and reproduce so I am not very suprised about this apparent shortcoming.
Attack and decay were rendered well and this too is not surprising considering dynamics of the low and mid -ranges was generally excellent. Attack was reasonably speedy, if not as fast as lightning, and decay and was controlled and lasted no more than it needed too.
Sound stage and imaging: 9/10
Sound stage is a bit of a difficult thing for cassette players in general I think because cross-talk between the channels cannot be that great. In my experience, I have found this disadvantage to be responsible for the collapse of the stereo image to a degree and for imaging that is difficult to describe. While some will undoubtedly disagree, one must also remember that the review cycle was done through a headphone system and this changes the perspective. One will not disagree that such a system will provide a more detailed reproduction however. Now that I have put that aside, I will have to say that the WM-DC2 performed admirably well and did offer a wide stereo image. Improvements after the modification were undeniably significant. The stage was sufficiently wide to fit all the instruments and in a symphony orchestra, we are talking 80 or 90 musicians. Width was quite good but instrument separation left some things to be desired. While I could separate the orchestra into groups of different instruments, the groups themselves couldn’t have been separated to individual instruments. While some recordings are done in a way that a group of instruments is recorded with a single microphone, it is also true that better recordings were done with as many microphones as there were instruments. Still, I didn’t find this to be a critical issue because it is as good as I have heard it on a cassette deck. Not better but certainly not worse. Besides width, the stage also possesed good height and depth. All in all, I can say my impressions were very positive.
General thoughts on sound and mechanical performance: 10/10
It is obvious by now this is one impressive machine. It offers clarity and excitement and will not let down no matter what you decide to listen. Count of the features that really make a difference is impressive so it allows for a great level of compatibility with different tape formulations and recording techniques.
Mechanical performance, after the restoration and modification process, is exemplary. The machine runs silent. The only sound that can be heard from it is when you put it close to your ear. It is a slight clicking sound that really has nothing to do with the center gear I talked about but is normal state of operation for this machine. That is how it should be and I must also stress out that anyone else who claims otherwise isn’t telling the truth. The mechanism engages quickly and assuredly and the door latching mechanism now works flawlessly and the doors are aligned to the main chassis with precision and it doesn’t allow for any movement of any kind.
The machine was calibrated to correspond with Dottor Walkman’s reference machines and so it sounds it’s best when used with tapes that have been recorded on those machines. The Dolby C NR tracking is flawless and completely transparent. I cannot really say I have heard a Dolby recording sound so good before and I consider Pioneer’s top quality machines to be among the best ones when Dolby implementation is in question. One does need to make proper adjustment to tape EQ and Dolby settings because anything else would be the wrong thing to do. People often listen to high bias tapes with EQ set for type-I tapes in order to enjoy a more extended high end. In the case of this machine, it would be the wrong decision and it sounds it’s best when EQ switch has been set to the appropriate position. It is the same thing with Dolby-encoded recordings.
Still, providing you have a good quality recorder and tapes, you will still be able to enjoy what this machine has to offer and it does offer plenty. Dolby B recordings will still sound very good with a slight loss of high end but that is to be expected. On the other hand, if you decide to have the machine calibrated to your own recorder by providing a reference tape with recorded test tones to Dottor Walkman, it will be possible to calibrate your WM-DC2 to that tape, providing your recorder is good enough.
In the end, what tape is good enough for a WM-DC2 that has been modified by Dottor Walkman? At what point is the price too high? Only you can answer that. The better the tape, the better the sound will be. But make no mistake, if you decide to record on your best tapes like I did, you will not regret it and think the machine is simply incapable of making full use of the tapes you have selected. For me it was a somewhat bitter-sweet experience because while I was in a state of shock and amazement, it was a bitter reminder of just how much money and time I put into everything else that didn’t live up to my expectations. This little machine brought me joy that none of the Aiwas or Teacs could and I am sorry to say, that includes the V-8030S.
COMPARISONS TO OTHER PORTABLE PLAYERS
Being a portable device, I couldn’t resist the temptation to do some comparisons between the Sony WM-DC2 and other popular and more recent players – a portable CD player, a portable MD recorder, a mobile phone. So, let’s see how this thirty year old piece if machinery compares to these digital players that were on the cutting edge at the time they were released.
Sony WM-DC2 vs Sony D-EJ815 portable CD player
The D-EJ815 CD player was the top model in 2002 on east European market. It’s a highly compact and light player with plethora of features, including the digital optical out and for this purpose, it proved to be highly useful in revealing just how good the WM-DC2 was. No matter what I did to the sound of this CD player, it just couldn’t compare to the WM-DC2. So, to raise the stakes, I connected it to the Bryston D/A converter with an optical cable and did the comparisons that way, through the Bryston’s own headphone amplifier and the Sennheiser headphones. Listening to the CD player that way, it sounded nothing like when I was listening to it through it’s headphone and line outs. While this made the comparison unbelievably unfair to the WM-DC2, to my amazement, the cassette still sounded fuller. How? Well, the converter itself is sensitive to the quality of the digital signal that is fed into it. But even so, the CD player was only reading the disc and outputting the signal to something that was of a qualitatively completely different order and it still couldn’t reach the level of performance of it’s analog counterpart. By this time, I was completely convinced that other comparisons would end up with the same result. Still, I found out some interesting things in the later comparisons that made the endeavor worthwhile.
Sony WM-DC2 vs Sony MZ-RH1 portable MD recorder
The MZ-RH1 is the last of the great Minidisc portables from Sony and together with the MZ-NH1, represents the pinnacle of MD technology. Equipped with a whole range of features, like the most advanced DSP and latest converter technology and the proprietary “HD” digital amplifier, it always sounded good to me. But… the WM-DC2 was now a “fierce creature” and not at all what it used to be before Dottor Walkman had his take on it. Like I expected, the cassette sounded much more refined, extended and balanced. While MD sounded pretty decent with a welcome warmth in the mid and smoothness in the high frequencies, the cassette just had more of everything. The one thing in which MD did outperform the cassette was the volume control. Top models of Sony MD machines always sounded good and in this case, the aforementioned digital amplifier was more capable at driving low impedance headphones such as the highly sensitive in-ear monitors. It also allowed for finer vokume adjustment and channel balance at low volumes. But using anything that is a bit more common sways my preferences towards the cassette. The MD just couldn’t portray such a wide and deep stereo image. Again, using both machines through their respective line outs with a dedicated headphone amplifier showed who was the boss, and I am not talking Bruce Springsteen here. So once again, using the WM-DC2 in a high end setup proved that it’s origins belong precisely there and that many benefits can be achieved if it is connected to serious equipment.
Sony WM-DC2 vs Samsung Galaxy SIII smartphone
The Galaxy SIII is the previous flagship smartphone from Samsung. Being twisted like me means even your smartphone has to be chosen according to it’s sound properties. Well, the Samsung had what others did not and among other things, a Wolfson WM1811 sound processor and A/D-D/A converter system. This allows for 24 bit resolution files to be played with some small modifications to the software. The volume control proved to be quite unacceptable due to only so much of preset volume level settings and being a device with numerious wireless technologies integrated into it, it wasn’t completely free of hiss either. Still, with adequate headphones and volume adjustment, it sounded clearer and smoother than both the CD and the MD player. Image possesed depth and the separation was quite acceptable. The possibilities with a smartphone are virtually unlimited so one can modify the sound to his heart’s content and even apply an upsampling algorithm with which to elevate the sampling rate of any file in it’s memory to a higher rate. Still, a device could have all the features in the world and still sound horrendous. Fortunately, it didn’t. It sounded quite good for a portable device but WM-DC2 it wasn’t. It couldn’t provide the air and the presence which the WM-DC2 had in spades. So once again, the new technlogy loses ground to something that should belong in a museum.
So, which portable player is the best of the bunch?
What was common to all digital players was glare. The MD recorder provided the best volume and drive capabilities as well as the best bass extension of the digital players. The CD players offered a sense of uncompressed mid-range and fine instrument and vocal rendering. The smartphone was limited in it’s abilities to drive anything but properly chosen headphones but in turn proved to sound more alive and fun of digital bunch. It also sounded noticeably deeper and so some classical sessions sounded less constrained. It also offered a superior interface to all of the players in this small comparison. Still, the unquestionable winner was the cassette player. It sounded clearer, more transparent to the music and yet with a mid-range presence that made the instruments more alive and more joyful, more extended frequency extremes as well as a general sense of ease and effortlessness with even the most difficult of passages.
Being something of a headphone enthusiast, I used a variety of different headphones with the WM-DC2. While the WM-DC2 performed admirably well with all of them, I found some headphones to sound exceptionally well. Generally, headphones with impedance higher than 30 or 40 Ohm will sound very good but headphones with an impedance of 100 Ohm will sound exceptional, providing the headphones themselves are exceptional as well. Ne does not neet to pay that much attention to sensitivity of the headphones and anything with a sensitivity of 95 dB/mW or higher will be plenty loud without turning the volume control too high. In-ear monitors will work fine but some of these are really highly sensitive and even the slightest change of the volume control can cause the level to raise too steeply and too quicly so I wouldn’t use something with an impedance lower than 32 Ohm and a sensitivity higher than 110 dB/mW. Full-size headphones are a different kettle of fish altogether and it is among these that I found which ones would sound really excellent with the WM-DC2. Considering what I said about impedance matchnig, Sennheiser HD700 would be an excellent companion to the WM-DC2. It’s an expensive headphone though and there are cheaper ones to be had for sure.
One of my top picks would have to be the Audio Technica’s ATH-AD900X headphones. The -1000X model would be an even better choice, not to mention the -2000X. The AT headphones have a slight colouration in their sound in that the mid-range seems to be slightly more distant, possibly due to insufficiently flat frequency curve, but the vocal representation is very nice indeed and combined with WM-DC2′s presence in this frequency range, it makes for an amazingly enjoyable and warm performance.
Something like the Sony MDR-MA900 will be excellent as well and Denon also makes a range of headphones that will suit this player rather nicely.
However, some of the Denon headphones are 25 Ohm impedance so I would be sure to audition them through the player before purchase. AKG headphones are well known and I did find a model that suited this player very well. It is the K550 model and indeed, it sounded very nice and very close to what I would consider transparent. In any case, whatever you decide to use with your WM-DC2, make sure it is of high quality because anything less would be a waste of talent.
Every once in a while I meet people that thrill me. Being good in what you do is an important thing in life. It is important to see beyond yourself and to always be ready to learn. The more I learn, the more I realize just how little I know is something that comes to mind often.
I worked very closely with Mr. Montedoro on this project and he did listen to me and took everything into accound even though he was perfectly aware that I couldn’t possibly be familiar with all the facts and things that had to be done in order to achieve the necessary effect. He’s a craftsman, a virtuoso and as I have come to know him, quite a gentleman as well.
Doing this review was a lot of fun and frankly, I enjoyed it more than other review I had done before. The results were surprising to say the least and it changes perspective on the landscape of audio technologies. There will come a day when people won’t even remember analog tape and will think, not that they already don’t, digital fulfills their needs perfectly. Digital players with heavy digital sound processing and mobile phones have the precedence. Still, the core function and sole reason for existence of music player is music itself and as we can see, analog still has it’s place. If not convenient by the standards of today, it certainly is worthy. And if above all of this it sounds good like this machine does, then it just as well might be the only reasonable way to go.
When I started writing this review several months ago, I was wondering how people would react to it. It’s a big claim to say a miniature machine like the Sony WM-DC2 can compete and in fact, outperform most quality full-size machines. Many of you here know me for being overly honest to the point of being brutality when I want to make a point and when I am absolutely sure in what I am saying. So I think I owe Mr. Montedoro a benefit of that. After all, an artist’s growth relies on accurate feedback.
So to conclude, was it worth the effort? Absolutely and positively yes! It’s custom work after all, something that goes beyond simple restoration to factory specifications or maintenance. I am just all too thrilled with the results even if it does leave me in a bit of a depressed state for my digital source cost thousands of Euros and it is where the question “was it worth the effort?” becomes much more valid and I would be hard-pressed to answer it. Perhaps no other comments with respect to the performance of this marvel is required and it captures how I feel about it as anything I have said before.
I highly recommend Dottor Walkman and his services.
SPECIAL THANKS TO
Glantoir for sending his Sony MZ-RH1 portable MD recorder for a review and a comparison. Thanks Pat! Sorry it took so long!!!
The Walkman Archive for his friendship and for taking the time to take some seriously good photos for this review!
And lastly but certainly not leastly, Leonardo Montedoro (Dottor Walkman) for his service, dedication, emthusiasm and for the friendship he has shown me. Leo, you are one of a kind!
Thanks to all of you for reading!
Author: Antun Katona, a respected Croatian Audiophile
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Some of you already know about my fondness of portable audio devices and portable cassette players popularly called “walkmans” in particular. I have had plenty and when I say plenty, I do mean more than several dozens of them. I spent many hours reading about the technology, what is good and what is not so good and why everything works the way it does. This fascination with “the spinning reels” had to do with my then-studies, now-profession which involves a lot of physics and related mathematics. It had soon turned into an obsession and lead to a bitter knowledge that I would never be able to restore all of these portable devices to full operation. That is when I realized I would have to sell most of them as the prospect of having them sitting on a shelf collecting dust wasn’t appealing. What good is a machine that doesn’t work? Especially a machine that has lots of moving parts inside it and which operation depends on each of these parts performing their designated function.
It was a long time till I found someone to do it. Some of these people were decent and most of them were either completely incompetent or even worse, corrupt. Enough to keep whatever they received in mailbox. Fortunately, I had a pleasure of meeting Mr. Leonardo Montedoro who goes on the forums as Dottor Walkman. It is a bit of a funny story because my first meet with him was precisely here, on Taoeheads, and he was trying to convince me why his approach is the correct one and why I was talking nonsense. I didn’t want to listen because I had just recovered from yet another bad experience with an another „technician“ whose only motto was “you can’t make old electronics as good as new, it’s old after all”. After a while, I started trusting his judgement and advice.