Today's column was partially fomented by a letter I received in the past week, which I replied to in the Letters part of this magazine.
Unlike some letters I've received over the years, Mr. Stram's is intelligently written and brings up several valid points. First, I would love to have the proper equipment to do the measurements. Unhappily, I and this "free to the reader" magazine do not have the funds to purchase the expensive equipment. Thus we have to rely on our senses, which have hopefully been trained over the years to be better than average at picking up differences. Whether those differences are significant enough for the general population to sense or feel to be of value is a question that only the reader can decide.
As a physician, I do agree that when one can use scientific methods with quality instrumentation and proper experimental technique, it is always preferable to observation, especially when differences are small or may be non-existent. But I do trust my ears to make judgments.
I do believe that not all differences that can be ascertained by well-trained human senses and brains can be quantified and measured as yet. Every day, science, through experimentation, is ascertaining new properties of matter and energy.
But before that experimentation can be done, someone has to figure out that there is a hole in our knowledge, due to some variance in the physical laws that needs to be filled in, and in most cases this first realization was derived by subjective observation. Just about every change in paradigm of scientific thought has come about because some individual had the ability to ascertain that known knowledge of the time did not explain some phenomenon that was sensed and then had the guts to go against the scientific establishment and declare it. Usually only after much brouhaha and character assassination, will the establishment take on the task of trying to prove or disprove the concept. I won't list examples as every one of you can come up with some.
On the other hand, one cannot trust our sense entirely, as their effectiveness varies and they can be made to sense things that are not really happening. This is where solid experimentation comes in.
Unhappily, unlike the subjectivists, who are willing to listen to the arguments of the objectivists and believe in their data when it is presented in a logical fashion, the objectivists seem to detest the concept that some individuals can sense differences that other less trained or sensorially deprived individuals and present day machines cannot. In a complete turnaround from the Dark and Middle Ages where subjectivism reigned and those spouting objectivist scientific theory were punished, in this day and age its the subjectivists who are being burned at the pillar by those who feel that only something that can be measured by an instrument is a valid observation. Even when presented by evidence through their own ABX or other testing techniques that a number of individuals can, for instance, ascertain differences in amplifiers, interconnects, etc., the objectivists still spout; "if it cannot be measured, it cannot be." Then they go on to lambaste the findings and all those involved, as unscientific and worse than snake oil salesmen.
So please, lets have a little more civility in the audiophile community. Get rid of both the known subjectivist charlatans, and the objectivist bomb throwers. Our community is small and growing even smaller over the years as the audiophiles of my generation are being replaced by the videophile of the younger generations. Obviously, if there's no apparent audio quality of reproduction difference between equipment, wires, software, etc., then there's no need for a high end. Unless we can work together to continue improvements in music reproduction and attract new members, our organization will die from within. So a little less bomb throwing and a little more rational discussion, please.
Digital Systems & Solutions Ultrabit
It is interesting how things converge. While writing this article I received a package from George Louis, developer of several digital disc treatment solutions. For a review of his previous efforts, please go to Audioholics Anonymous Chapter 77 and Chapter 81. Before further discussion, I must tell you that George, Clark Johnsen and I have had some serious discussions and disagreements relating to absolute polarity, which ended in basically a shouting match. I mention that so that you will know that this made this evaluation somewhat more difficult than others as I did carry somewhat of a grudge against Mr. Louis. But he was still willing to allow me to evaluate his product, letting the stones fall where they may.
If there is any topic that gets the bullets flying between the two audiophile camps, its whether any disc treatment can make any difference in sound. Through experimentation, I've found several which make a distinct difference, and others that do absolutely nothing.
The objectivist are usually in the camp that feels that none of these treatments can possibly help as long as there are no major dropouts, as there are various methods built into the information recovery and processing that should make any treatment superfluous. "Bits are bits" and any decent unit should be able to recover all of them and reproduce the music, at least on the digital side, perfectly, is the argument. If this were true though, there would be no reason for the high end to exist, as any decent player should reproduce music as accurately as any other, and obviously, I'm not in that camp. If you're reading this column, you probably aren't either.
What these individuals don't realize is that the recovery of the bits from a digital disc is actually an analog rather than a digital process, with not the bits being recorded on the disc as on and off signals like tape with 0 and 1 numbers, but a pit system with the laser seeing the beginning and end of the pits vs. the flat unburned or unpressed surface of the disc, measuring the lengths of the pits and flat areas to determine the values. If the beginning or end of the pit is slightly indistinct to the reading head, or the CD is warped or not perfectly round causing a misalignment similar to record wow and flutter, or the head is seeing the pit from the side rather than straight overhead, this will lead to timing errors of the on and off signal, otherwise known as jitter, or dropped bits which then have to be recalculated by the processor chip, giving its best guess estimates as to what the dropped bits represent.
Most of the disc tweaks supposedly improve the ability of the head to more correctly read the beginning and ends of the pit, thus improving jitter. Mr. Louis has been in on the development of fluids to improve this since the early 90's when he developed Finyl, one of the first disc improvement products. His latest products are the Ultrabit Platinum Optical impedance Matching Disc Treatment, and CleanDisc cleaning solution. The Clean Disc is actually the same as his previous ClearDisc solution, and need only be used if other disc solutions have been applied to the surface.
Unlike his previous solutions where he recommended several applications, with the Ultrabit Platinum, only one application is necessary. Supplied in the kit are two shammy cloths to spread and clean off two drops of the oily fluid. One can easily see if all has been removed as there is a beautiful sheen to the cleaned areas as opposed to a film on the unpolished ones. If one is making a CD-R of the original disc, which by the way tend to for some reason sound better than the original (go figure), one should clean both the original and CD-R before copying for best results. If the original has been treated with any other solution, clean it with the CleanDisc before applying the new solution. That's all there is to it.
For experimentation, several CD-R's of two of my best discs were made using George's RealityCheck CD duplicator, a Folk Era Sampler that is no longer available, and Opus One, both before and after treatment of each disc. Blind experimentation was done by putting numbers on each disc, then having my wife play several tracks without her knowing what the numbers represented and in no particular order, and recording my findings.
With an almost perfect score (two misses out of about 50 tries) I could tell whether the original and/or the CD-R had been treated. So there's some objectivist related information; there is a difference in sound between treated and untreated discs, at least with this experimenter's ears. While this wasn't a so-called ABX test, it was double blinded with my wife not knowing what the hell I was doing and my not knowing what disc she was playing.
So what did I hear as a subjectivist? First was a tightening of space around instruments and voices, in other words more clarity of position. The sound actually projected more from a specific place that sounded more natural. Second, the bass was firmer with more thwack and less blah, if you know what I mean. There was also a more natural decay to the bass.
The biggest improvement though was a more 3D freedom to the space, with stereo mic'ed recordings allowing the hall signature to come out beyond the listener. With 5.1 SACD and DVD-Audio discs, the rear channels could be turned down by one or two dB with the sound being more enveloping and the decay of hall sounds more natural, plus all of the above characteristics. Remember, I'm using a TEAC DV-60 universal player, one of the best units out there. Also, I'm comparing some of these differences to George's previous fluids effects, which were as good as or better than all of the others I've tried.
Video also showed some improvement, making images out of the TEAC at 1080I a little closer in quality to true high definition video from DirecTV. DTS and Dolby digital decoded either by the TEAC or my Lexicon MC-12B pre-pro was superb with more dimensionality and naturalness.
Any disadvantages? First, the stuff is brand new so I cannot say how long the improvement lasts and whether we'll go through problems with disc degradation down the road. I would doubt it as George has been producing fluids for digital discs for years and must know the chemistry by now.
He's also suggested that I could be the first to experiment on cleaning my vinyl and possibly the cartridge stylus with the fluid, but I'm a little reluctant to use the stuff on my $15,000 list Kondo IO-J cartridge, so I'll leave that experiment to others. I believe the cleanest record is the best, so I'm not so sure that gunking up the surface with this fluid would be of value, but who knows. Somebody with a cheap cartridge try it out and let me know.
Price is very reasonable, at $65 for the Ultrabit Platinum and $16 for the CleanDisc, which will treat about 500 discs. Included are two shammy cloths for polishing. I like to use Charmin Ultra toilet paper for the initial removal as then the cloths don't get dirty as fast and the Ultra never causes any micro-scratches to the discs that other papers do. Plus my wife then gets it for the house, which is very nice for the po-po. If one buys his RealityCheck CD duplicator at the same time, there will be a further reduction in the total cost.
George is an audiophile fanatic who wants as many people as possible to get as much enjoyment as possible from their recordings without taking any monetary risk. Thus, if one doesn't think the solution lives up to one's expectations, George will take the fluid back, reimburse you the full cost for it and the shipping both ways, and will add $5.00 for your time and effort. So I hope this will get some of you objectivists off of your duffs and try it to see if there is a difference and whether its an improvement or not over a straight from the store CD.
He can be reached at: