CD Treatments: Torumat, DiscSolution
And Esoteric Misteference
Review By Ray Chowkwanyun
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This is a review of three CD treatments: Torumat CDX-16,
DiscSolution, and Esoteric Mist. Torumat and Esoteric Mist are designed to leave a (thin) residue on the CD to help the laser read the pits on the CD. DiscSolution is a cleaner designed to clean down to the polycarb leaving behind no residue whatsoever.
I am majorly annoyed at Jennifer Crock, the inventor of Esoteric Mist. I had this review all wrapped up, based on listening to Torumat and
DiscSolution, when along comes this late entry of Jennifer's Esoteric Mist forcing me to completely re-write the review. Such choice sentences as "CD will never be able to reproduce cymbals convincingly" had to be completely excised. (Never say "never" in audio.) In short, La Crock is really on to something here, especially if one cleans the disk with DiscSolution before applying Esoteric Mist. There is a timbral accuracy that I have never heard from CD before, without any sacrifice of dynamics. Curious, isn't it, how a technology always seems to peak just as it's about to become obsolete? (CD soon to be replaced by the next generation of perfect sound forever. (Never say "forever" either in audio.)
First things first, let me emphasize the absolute need to plug your CD gear into some type of line conditioner. Pick your own weapon: Chang
Lightspeed, Power Wedge, even Tripplite, but do use something. My Tice MicroBlock blew its fuse and for awhile I was listening without power conditioning. The upper frequencies on CD's can be a real assault on the ears, but without the Tice
MicroBlock, it was agony. Talk about aggressive: the sound was bright, glassy, and etched. What a relief to plug the CD gear back into the MicroBlock again. The difference that power line conditioning makes is far greater than what I observed applying any of these fluids. So before you mess around with the small stuff, get the big stuff right first.
I picked the Uranus track from Mehta's recording of Holst's Planets for listening tests (London 28945 29102). This magnificent slab of Big British Bombast has it all: full orchestral dynamics up the wazoo (sledgehammer loud at the 4'10" mark (102 db sound pressure level)) followed immediately by hushed silence and then gently plucked harp strings over a shimmering bed of violins. As severe a test of a system's ability to deliver the beef, followed by finesse, as you'll find in a month of Sundays. All the orchestral food groups are present on this track: strings, brass, woodwinds, percussion.
The tympani whacks are a particular delight - not just macrodynamically, but
microdynamically. Listen to the difference in sound levels between each whack. Another treat is the grooowl produced by the bass trombone and tuba at the 2'30" mark! Truly this track is an all around test of system capability. (Recording engineers were James Lock and Colin
Moorfoot; producer was John Mordler; the recording was made in 1971 in Royce Hall, UCLA.)
I started with four disks of this recording that (to my ears) sounded the same. I then treated three of the disks with the fluids under observation, leaving the fourth disk untreated as my control. The control was important so that I wouldn't have to rely on my notoriously fickle aural memory as to what the disks sounded like before being treated. Finally, for my ace in the hole, I had a reel to reel tape of this recording against which to compare the four disks. IMHO, reel tape is the ultimate against which all comers must measure themselves. With the tape I could authoritatively find out which CD treatment came closest to the ideal. For as good as the CD's might sound, none give the shivers up the spine delivered by pure analog.
The combination of the Langevin D/A converter and NBS Signature II Digital Cable made these disks sound mighty fine even before any treatment had been applied. The overall impression is very exciting and one really feels the weight of a symphony orchestra in full flight - one of life's most intense experiences. There is also a sense of harshness. The high frequencies sound edgy and a bit hard even with line conditioning in place. What these fluids do is to take the edge off the harshness, each in its own way.
Uranus starts with a brass fanfare on stage right, followed by four mighty tympani whacks from left of center and deep in back. You don't just hear these drumbeats - you feel them in the pit of your stomach. On the downside, I felt the strings were a bit glassy and wiry. The horns could be hard too, as could the woodwinds, although the bassoon at 2'10" is lovely - all woody and full-bodied. This pleasure is interrupted by some overly bright piccolos and flutes at 2'20". There is a great display of microdynamics at 2'30" as each tympani whack has distinctly individual weight. The cymbals at 3'30" were definitely tinny. I find CD's are cymbal challenged. The CD standard seems not to be able to cope with the complex harmonics of cymbal crashes. Oftentimes the decay is not handled gracefully so that the cymbal crash dies abruptly into silence instead of tailing off slowly as it should.
The piece builds to a great crashing climax at 4'10" with the force of the entire orchestra making itself felt. However, I found the last chord terribly bright. There follows a quiet 30 second interlude of harp strings over violins before we get another huge transient where the tuba and bass trombone get to strut their stuff one final time. So, a wonderfully exciting piece with some great aural moments but more not so great ones. Uneven about sums it up.
Sir Toy de Torumat has improved on his old CDX-15 formula and repackaged it in blue labeled bottles with a new designation: CDX-16. With CDX-16, Uranus sounds more listenable and it's not done through some euphonic machination, but by making CD playback more tonally accurate, especially in the all-important upper frequencies - that fount of much painful screeching. How do I know this? Because the top end with Torumat sounds more like unto what I hear with reel tape. Overall, CDX-16 makes for a much more natural and relaxed sound.
Strings are not as wiry as they were on the untreated disk, but still a bit screechy nonetheless. At 2'20", the piccolos and flutes are mercifully not as sharp. However there was also a softness, a loss of dynamics that made the music seem less alive. So for all you Torumat fans out there, and I know ye are legion, look for the blue label.
As with the Torumat, I thought there was a definite improvement in the higher frequencies. However, DiscSolution works differently from Torumat and provides a more transparent presentation that also happens to be brighter than
Torumat. Oddly, I found myself preferring the DiscSolution piccolos and flutes at 2'20" and the cymbals at 3'30" despite the added brightness. The clincher was the extra growl the DiscSolution gives to the bass trombone and tuba at the 2'30" mark. The Torumat treated disk seemed a bit sleepy by comparison.
I cleaned the disk with DiscSolution immediately before the test. The manufacturer recommends periodic disk cleaning with the frequency of cleanings increasing with the amount of pollution in your listening room. I think a valid case could be made for either treatment. Those preferring a softer presentation will choose Torumat and those preferring more transparency will go with
DiscSolution. I will not dodge this one. My personal bias is towards the more transparent sound of the
DiscSolution. The ideal, of course, would be to have your cake and eat it too: the transparency of the DiscSolution and the tonal qualities of the
And there my review would have ended, with a sad nodding of the old bean and the oft-heard sigh that CD will just never quite cut it when stacked up against good ol' analog. But wait! Take heart, O ye in thrall to the silver disk, a
savior arises at the final hour, unlooked for and from the unlikeliest quarter: out of the great, damp, dark Northwest arises an Esoteric Mist, summoned forth by the Lady of the Lake (Oswego) to clear away the CD cobwebs and reveal that there was good sound lurking down in them thar pits after all.
Yes, Esoteric Mist (don't blame me - I didn't make up the name) let's you have your cake and eat it too. All the transparency of
DiscSolution, plus the admirable tonal qualities of Torumat. I haven't been this jazzed about a cleaning product since I got my first Nitty Gritty (with
Torumat). Then I wanted to clean (and listen to) my entire LP collection that very night. Now I have the same urge to go through my entire CD collection with Esoteric Mist. (Idea: put a 1/4" dot label on the jewel box after treatment as a reminder that the disk has been treated. I use blue dots in honor of the color of Esoteric Mist.)
After Esoteric Mist, the piccolos and flutes at 2'20" no longer sound like steam whistles. Even though the flute is the closest acoustic instrument to a pure sine wave, it still has harmonics and with Esoteric Mist this harmonic structure is more accurately rendered. No longer will you have to settle for the fundamental only. In sum, the disk treated with Esoteric Mist was all shimmering lucidity, but it is a cool, icy lucidity. For warmth, you have to turn to analog. So which do you prefer? Winter or summer?
(Jennifer recommends that the CD be cleaned first with a product called Reveal before applying the Esoteric Mist. However, she didn't supply any Reveal so this test was conducted by applying Esoteric Mist alone. She did supply some diapers to rub the disks down with. I found these diapers shed an incredible amount of lint. The trick is to give the diaper a little squirt of whatever you're applying before drying off the disk. This keeps the diaper from shedding. These diapers are available as a separate product from
Jenalabs. I thought I got just as good results, with a lot more ease of use, with a $5 Allsop cleaning
It was fascinating to compare the disks against reel tape. The imaging on the tape was more diffuse. The CD undoubtedly presented much more tightly
focused images that were more solid and with more sense of air around each image. Also, the CD soundstage appeared wider. But the tape had an immediacy and sheer breathiness that you just don't get off a CD. The brass in particular seem to unfold in a much more natural way on the tape.
Which is more correct? Having just attended, within the space of a week, both Verdi's Falstaff and a dynamite performance of Da Rite by Gergiev and the Kirov Orchestra, IMHO, the tape is far closer to the concert hall experience. The kind of pin-point imaging so beloved by some audiophiles is a recording artifact. In a real concert hall, each instrumental section simply is not cocooned in its own little envelope of air. The sound of each section is diffused and spread out. Not that you get a huge congealed blob, but the boundaries of instruments are certainly not as clear cut as presented on this CD. There is more of a blend at the borderline between sections.
The Decca Record Company, wonderful in all other respects, unwisely decided to re-mix this release digitally, instead of using the analog master. I'm almost certain this re-mix is responsible for the difference in imaging between the CD and reel tape based on my listening experiences in the same hall where this recording was made. Sitting in direct line of sight of the mikes and giving myself a close approximation of what the mikes hear, I heard the same softly diffused images found on the tape rather than the pinpoint imaging found on the CD. That pinpoint imaging had to be added in the mix. A naturally recorded album would have the same relaxed sound as one hears in real life - as the tape attests. Would that record companies refrain from digitally "fixing" perfectly good analog masters, presumably for marketing purposes.
I mean, even with the Vienna Philharmonic playing on their home turf of the
Musikverein, you just don't get the kind of pin-point imaging heard on this CD. Of course, I'm relying on aural memory here of my concert experience in the Musikverein aka "The Golden Hall". Did I mention that such memories are notoriously fickle? Note to editor: time to raid the Enjoy the Music slush fund and refresh our memories again. Of course, if you don't wish to re-create the concert experience, that is a fish of a different color. Image away, by all means.
Moving on to tonal qualities, strings on the tape were silken rather than wiry as on even the Esoteric Mist treated disk (which was the best of the CD's tonally). The presentation on the tape is more relaxed and natural and more like unto a live performance. Take the piccolos and flutes at 2'20". While the Esoteric Mist disk gets you more of the harmonic structure, the tape goes even further and delivers the sound entire. Once you move onto an instrument with more complex harmonics like the cymbal, the untreated CD is a bad joke compared with the tape. On CD, you just get an ugly splatter. Nothing like a real cymbal. The tape comes much closer to the delicate shimmer of a real cymbal. The Esoteric Mist disk is the first time I've heard CD come close to rendering a cymbal correctly. Again though, it is the tape that delivers the richer, more accurate sound.
Overall, the Esoteric Mist disk presents a paler, leaner version of audio reality than the tape. Certainly if your tastes lie with a paler, leaner sound that is a valid choice. But for those of us liking out music full-bodied, rich, and dripping with calories, the choice is clear: reel to reel analog tape by a mile. Or to put it another way, do you like your music in Avery Fisher Hall (CD) or in the Musikverein (tape)?
One of the worst examples of cymbals on CD that I know of is the SBM version of Brubeck's classic Time Out (Columbia CK 52860). Yeah, the gold plated version. The cymbals are
nasssty. Spitty, ugly, splats of sound. Admittedly the original recording is itself on the hard side, but still very beautiful sounding. This CD takes that hardness and turns it into something unlistenable.
Cleaning with DiscSolution helped reduce the spittiness and I can hear more of the harmonic structure of the cymbal. A
follow-up dusting with Esoteric Mist improved matters even more, but it was still borderline. Even these splendid products couldn't make a silk purse out of this particular sow's ear. The combination of DiscSolution and Esoteric Mist did make Paul Desmond's sax sounds great. The bass, drums, and piano all come through wonderfully as well. Only the cymbals fail to make the grade. These products can help a lot, but don't expect miracles in the worst case examples.
As a check on my findings, I convened a panel of independent listeners consisted of a speaker builder, my ace car stereo installer, and a random audiophile to compare the effects of the different treatments. The test was run single-blind. They were allowed to take notes and heard each disk once. The only information they were given in advance was that they would hear the same track played five times and then be asked to rank the tracks. The order of play was untreated,
Torumat, DiscSolution, Esoteric Mist, reel tape.
Of course, they'd have to be really blind not to realize that the last was reel tape. They all let out what I can only describe as a sigh of recognition as the tape started playing. It was the real thing at last. Both the speaker builder and the car installer preferred Esoteric Mist over the other two treatments, essentially for the same reasons I have described above. The random audiophile actually liked the untreated disk the best (out of the four CD presentations)!!! He also made the interesting comment that the disk treated with DiscSolution sounded slower. i.e. the tempo of the music appeared to slow which raises a fascinating question, "What is the connection between tonality and the perception of tempo?" His comment about the tape was classic, "Is it live?", he asked That just about sums it up for me.
The CD's, especially the treated variety, deliver a superb sonic experience but it was analog tape that delivered the spiritual experience. Oh well, not to despair. DVD and/or SACD is just around the corner. May the audio gods smile on us and do digital right this time around. I for one am looking forward to being able to slip a silver disk into my system and have reel quality sound come out without all the attendant fussing and cleaning which analog entails. Convenience + Reel Quality Sound = Audio Bliss.
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Maximum sound pressure level (SPL) was set to 102 db (One Zero Two) for both CD and tape playback. This occurred at the 4'10" mark. The system can go louder, but it would overload the room and what's the point in that? I measured the SPL with a high precision instrument from that temple of high tech, Radio Shack. I have a digital SPL meter, but true to my analog bias, I prefer the metered version. Something about watching that needle desperately bouncing back and forth trying to keep up with the dynamics of the music. (Meter was set to C for Charlie weighting and fast response.)
Both CD's and tapes were listened to with no phase inversion. i.e. I thought they were in phase.
This review powered by Brahms Symphony Number One in a, get this, 1951 (FIFTY ONE) performance by the North German Radio Orchestra under the baton of Wilhelm Furtwängler
(FURT 1001 on the Tahra label). Hint: this Brahms First will do more to knock your socks off more than all the Big British Bombast in creation.
Gentle reader, you're probably groaning, "Arrrgh. Is there no end to this review?" so I'll keep it short.
About a year after I wrote the above review, Toy sent me an improved version of Torumat CDX-16, now designated Mark 3. (Wonder whatever happened to Mark 2.) He's gotten rid of most of that dynamics robbing quality which I described above so that now I'd rate CDX-16, Mark 3 as delivering 80 to 90 percent of the performance of Esoteric Mist. Given that the Mist appears to be made from distillate of
unobtanium, this will probably be close enough for most folks.