Happy New Year!! Hopefully you've survived the holidays, especially that New Year's Eve bash, and are ready to begin paying more attention to your systems during the winter doldrums. Also, maybe there's some leftover cash available that can be spent on some inexpensive tweaks, several discussed below that should improve your system and allow you to spend some hours in experimentation.
Before I begin that, I've had interesting email discussions with a reader over my last month's article on the Esoteric D05 and its ability to improve CD playback. Basically it's his contention that Redbook standard 2 track 16-bit/44kHz CD's, when played back through some of the best players or converters today, with possible center channel reproduction by a great pre-pro such as from Meridian, can match or even be better than multi-channel 24-bit/96kHz DVD-Audio or SACD playback for musical enjoyment.
My contention is that there is no way, no matter how you manipulate the 16/44 numbers, that one can obtain the realism of the concert hall experience as well as using the originally higher bit encoded multi-channel recordings. While my system playing back 2 channel properly recorded Redbook CDs can sound very good to excellent and get me into the musical experience, and using my Lexicon 12B pre-pro to extract a 7.1 channel surround experience is even more satisfying, they still fall short of the almost live "you are there" experience of a well recorded 5.1 channel DVD-Audio or SACD.
I have several SACDs with both CD and SACD layers, and my Esoteric player has the ability to put out either 2 or 5.1 track decoding of the SACD or DVD-A layer. Every time, the SACD multi-track playback will recreate the concert hall experience far better that two or even three front channels. Even the three front channel RCA SACD recordings from the 50's and 60's sound better than their two track brethren, and CDs when one adds the ambiance recovery ability of the Lexicon these ambiance loaded recordings, the effect is almost but not quite as good as original multi-track high bit recordings.
The reasons are self-evident as follows in ascending order of importance:
1. 16-bit/44kHz played without loss is the theoretical lower limit for the ear-brain system to hear what's on the recording without distortion. The number was developed in the 70's as that was the maximum rate that could be produced for a reasonable price at the time, and in most cases up until the mid to late 80's both the recording and decoding equipment couldn't even capture and decode at that level. Thus it is a minimum standard that has been far surpassed by DVD-Audio, with levels up to 24-bit/192kHz, and DSD.
2. While dithering does allow some of the information from 20 or 24 bit recordings to be captured to 16 bits, there will still be a loss. I've attended concerts where there have been peaks at the fff's, in for instance Mahler's Second Symphony, where levels have reached over the 110 dB's my Radio Shack level meter can capture. Background noise at the very beginning of the concert when the audience has hushed down fall in the below 60dB range of the meter, so theoretically, one should be able to fit all of the information in the 96dB afforded by 16 bits. So while I agree that 16 bits should be all that's necessary, and 24 bits may be overkill, with today's highly improved chips, lasers, playback mechanisms, etc., why not gain some leeway and go with 20 or 24 bits. As long as the equipment can handle it without distorting the signal, even if only 19 to 23 bits can be decoded, there's nothing to lose and all to gain. And why have to then truncate those 20 or 24 bits to 16 with the subsequent loss of information?
3. Rates of 88, 96, 176, or 192 kHz or DSD recordings allow the capture of higher frequencies and much shallower cutoff filters, which should improve high frequencies. I know, supposedly the human ear and brain can only hear at best to 20 kHz, but there have been experiments done which show that the brain does perceive higher frequencies through some as yet not figured out method. With the advantage of using shallow high frequency filters, the steep cutoff effects of distortion become moot. Yes, one can use the playback machine to upsample to higher rates and then use shallower filters, but why bother when you can get the same effect with DVD-Audio or SACD, and eliminate the filters completely.
4. Using the higher rates, at least on the recording side, allows the recording engineers to play with the signal (G-d Forbid) without losing vital information.
5. Two channels do not cut it for the reproduction of a concert hall space. Two was the necessary maximum both in the vinyl era and early digital, where only two channels of information could be captured on the playback medium. Yes, there was a short time when vinyl could play back 4 channels, but that died a quick death, not because persons couldn't hear the difference, but in order to do it the rear channels had to be recorded at 40kHz plus, which rapidly deteriorated as the needle destroyed the high frequencies in the grooves, and because there were three different codecs which divided the market. With CD, DTS and Dolby tried piggybacking added front and rear tracks to the CD with only modest success, and increased distortion. Obviously there's no other way to piggyback added tracks as the highest frequency available is 20kHz.
There have been many experiments done as to the optimum number of discrete channels to produce a surround field, and all have suggested the more the better. The easier we make our brain work at reconstructing the original concert milieu the more enjoyment we get from the recording. I have an 8.1 system in my house with three front, two side, two rear, one overhead and multiple subwoofer channels, with the overhead channel being present on a few Telarc SACDs coded into the subwoofer channel.
I'll state right now that neither two channels, or multiple channels decoded by processors from the two, can come close to even a 5.1 discrete multi-channel setup playing back 4.0 to 5.1 recordings. At best, the two channels may envelope the front of the room, giving information beyond the speakers both in height and width, and the soundfield may go even somewhat beyond the listening position, but in the best of cases it would be equivalent to listening to a concert from the back door of an auditorium. Remember, at least 40 to 50 percent of the sound energy is actually reflections from the walls, floor, ceiling and bodies in the room, and not that directly radiated from the musicians and the front walls. It's that ambiance information that is missing from 2 channel recordings that cannot be recaptured.
For The New Year
During my review of the Audience equipment (seen here and also here), they suggested that I try their optical disc treatment called Auric Illuminator. I didn't want to confuse my findings on the units with an added variable, actually variables, as I'd want to compare its effects with the several other disc treatments available here. Those non-believers in disc treatments should now go take a break as I don't want to get letters next month calling me a charlatan or, even worse, an imbecile who's been taken in by snake oil. It has happened before. According to them, the CD is perfect, and, if not, then the error correction circuitry should be sufficient to make up for any flaws in the reading and transcription of the data.
Well I'm here to tell you that it's not. One need only hear the difference that the so-called Memory Player does with music reproduction to prove the point. It works by re-reading the disc multiple times until its sure that it has correctly picked up all of the bits properly, then re-clocks it. This cuts out the error correction that all other players must use. Some discs need to be re-read multiple times to get the entirety of coded data as close to perfect as possible. The difference in playback is not subtle.
Why is this so. Well, part of the reason is the imperfectness of the optical disc. The majority are pressed in plants as quickly and cheaply as possible, allowing for imperfections both in the centering of the grooves in relation to the center hole, which causes the laser to have to move around in order to retrieve the data, and imperfections in the laying down of the pits, the reflective surface and the coatings. There are plasticizers, lubricants, etc. placed on the surface to allow proper pressing and removal which remain after production that affect the playback surface and it optical reflectivity and refractivity. As it is a plastic disc, with its rapid spinning motion, there is a paramagnetic effect with even the minimal static charge on the disc that also affects the playback mechanism. All in all a system with probably as many imperfection as our good old vinyl.
While the top of the line players make up for many of these problems, I've found that even the best reproduction of digital discs with the best units can be improved on by using many of the disc treatments available.
On the other hand, using them in an inappropriate manner may ruin a disc. Why? Because if one leaves some of the material on the disc, or one puts any micro-scratches on by using a poor quality cleaning cloth, problems with reading will swamp the benefits.
The package comes with the solution, a black magic marker for coloring the outer and inner edge of the disc, and cleaning cloths. Testing consisted of making several copies of my favorite testing CD's onto black blanks, with the blanks being cleaned with the solution either before and/or after copying. The discs were then played back both before and after putting on the black ink.
So how does the Audience product work? Very well, thank you. Application is easy; simply apply a couple of drops, spread it evenly across the surface, let it dry, and then gently wipe it off with the supplied cloth. I actually prefer Charmin Ultra toilet paper, at least for the application of the solution. It does leave some fibers that must be air-brushed off, but I have yet to scratch a disc with it. Then use the marker to coat the inner and outer edge of the disc.
Interestingly, for the life of me, I could hear no difference between those discs with and without the marking pen ink. Some treatment companies swear that not coating the edges, or applying their own treatments to the edges (read next product) works better, but I haven't found a significant enough difference to comment.
On the other hand, treating the discs before burning them allowed slightly more information to come through than treatment after burning, and treating both before and after burning didn't significantly improve on the findings. So one treatment before burning was best. With the added advantage that home burned CD-R's have over bought discs for sound, the optimum was treating both the original and black CD-R before burning.
I have come to that point in life where if a product significantly improves playback and there are only subtle at best differences between it and other products of the same type, I won't spend hours trying to differentiate between them. Maybe younger ears and minds have the time and are willing to do that. What I will say, is that Auric Illuminator Disc Treatment, for $40 for enough product to do a couple hundred discs, does as good a job or possibly better than any of the several other disc treatments that have been evaluated here. While it won't make a cheap player sound like a high-end model, it will work to significantly improve the playback potential of both.
Any problems? Remember, as with all treatments, one needs to clean off the disc thoroughly of excess material. This is especially important with the opaque ones, such as this product, as the discs certainly won't play correctly. Also, one must be careful not to scratch the discs, as this may make their playback worse.
Digital Systems and Solutions
As a follow-up to my September article on this solution, I have been inundated by several letters from George Louis, the manufacturer, suggesting I try doing two or three applications as he hears clear benefits. Unhappily, two and three applications were tried on several discs, and my ears could not discern any significant improvement over one. On the other hand, two problems occurred doing this. First, even though this is a clear solution and dries clear, if one doesn't properly wipe it off, which one can detect a liquidy sheen, it negatively affects disc playback, and one disc could not even be read until it was rewiped with a clean cloth. Second, the more treatments one does, the greater chance that micro-scratches may occur.
What I did find interesting was that if one doesn't clean off the Auric Illuminator before applying the UltraBit Platinum, an opacity fogs the disc surface. This fog, and the various solutions tried, can be removed by applying George's CleanDisc solution. Interestingly, cleaning even a brand new disc with the Cleandisc a couple of times before applying either of the above solutions did improve playback.
Could I hear a difference between the two solutions? Not enough in my estimation to make a difference. On the other hand, the CleanDiscis definitely a necessity before applying any of these or other solutions that have been tried here. Cost is $65 for the cleaning and polishing of several hundred discs with both solutions.
Walker Audio Prelude Brushes
Lloyd Walker of Walker Audio has made a very nice addition to his Prelude record cleaning system, first discussed in AA Chapt 91 , in adding three brushes for the three different fluid applications. Until now, I'd been using some old brushes from The Disc Doctor fluids used in the past. Unhappily I only had two of them so had to use a brush picked up at the local hardware store for the final water flush. The three brush kit, costing $55, or adding only $50 to the original kit works as described to spread the fluids evenly over the disc surface and the fibers appear tiny enough to reach very deeply into the grooves. In addition they don't waste as much fluid as they are more compact and don't retain as much on the brush. This may also decrease contamination from one recording to another. The brushes if they do become contaminated, may be cleaned off with Lloyd's ultrapure water.
While I cannot hear any significant difference using these over the Disc Doctor brushes, their being numbered does decrease the possibility of mixing them up and contaminating them with a different fluid. As this was and is the best vinyl cleaning system that's been used by me, not hearing a difference is not a negative. About 75 recordings have been cleaned with the new brushes without significant wear and tear suggesting they will probably outlive the kit, so I doubt you'll need another set with a second set of fluids. A really good addition to a great product.
Thank you for your let the bits fall where they may feedback. I agree with you regarding the necessity of using CleanDisc to remove any prior treatments to a disc, per the instructions, before applying UBP. It's also very important not to use the UBP polishing cloths for cleaning very dirty discs or other treatments because they may become contaminated and then could transfer dirt or treatment residues to other discs which is a good reason for using inexpensive soft disposable wiping towels with CleanDisc. When it becomes difficult to buff a UBP treated disc to a high gloss, it's time to wash the application cloth which is one of the reasons the kit includes two cloths so there's always a clean one to use. Most customers, beta testers, and myself feel that if we don't over apply UBP and carefully buff the disc, a second application to the entire disc (both inner and outer rims, playing and label sides) substantially enhances its musicality and fidelity but naturally each user has to weigh for themselves the tradeoffs between effort and perceived benefits.