Audiolics Anonymous Chapter 38
Article By Bill Gaw
Here it is... and thank goodness summer is over. Why? So I can enjoy my audio-video system. Happily, I have a great Media Room. Unhappily, it is not air-conditioned. This is usually only a problem for a couple of weeks in July up here in New Hampshire, but this year its been 90 plus from early July until late August. That certainly puts a crimp into my listening time with the heat prostration that sets in with multiple tube
amplifiers running the temperature up even more.
But now I have been listening almost non-stop for several days. Since
I have gotten my system to the point where I am actually happy with it, I have promised myself to back off on tweaking for a couple of months and just enjoy the music and films. Let's see how long I go before the inevitable
Tweaker's Itch sets in again. Anyway, I have decided this month to review some of my old favorite CD's that I keep returning to for equipment evaluation and enjoyment, and some of the newer DVD-A's and SACD's I haven't had a chance to discuss in previous columns. But first, let's go over some of my favorite tweaks that I use on the discs to maximize the sound.
1. Audiodesk Systeme Disc lathe. Previously reviewed in
Chapter VIII, this very clever German machine is a lathe which cuts a 45 degree edge out of the side of the disc. This rounds off the side and trues it up with the center hole, thus balancing the
disc and at the same time making sure that any stray light bouncing around on the disc
will not be reflected back to the laser. Both mechanisms make it easier for the laser to read from the disc, thus decreasing jitter, and who knows what else. It works beautifully for single sided discs, but beware with double-sided ones, as some of the edge is removed in the process, and I'm not sure that this
does not break the seal between the air and the reflective surface. It works great for sound improvement with the two sided
ones... and also for picture clarity and vividness with DVD's. I will not guarantee that laser rot won't set in with the double sided discs. This beats all other tweaks that I know for improving digital.
2. Walker Audio Vivid - Previously reviewed in Chapter XXXII, this baby poop colored suspension is the best product I know of to clean off, and destaticize discs. Four drops, wipe until clean, and the junk left on the surface by the production process or sticky fingers, is removed. At the same time any surface static charges are removed. I know, now you're saying "What static?"" Digital discs don't carry a surface charge like my old vinyl records", but indeed they do, just less so. And since they spin faster, that small charge has a higher effect on the laser mechanism. When finished, the discs refract incident light differently, which one can actually see. However, it
works. It definitely improves the sound retrieval and smoothes out the high-end digititis of CD's.
3. Bedini Ultraclarifier - This demagnetizer theoretically takes off the charge which builds up in the aluminum-poly interface, which opens up the sound stage. Put the disc in the unit, let it spin for 45 to 50 seconds until the machine stops, remove and you're done with everything you can do to maximize information retrieval. Well, almost all.
4. Put the disc in the machine on pause, and let it rotate for ten minutes. My own tweak!! I don't know why, but every time I do
this grunge is removed and the soundstage opens up further. Sometimes this takes less or more time, but it always works. Again, I don't know why, but
it's a free tweak so try it.
Some SACD's, especially from Telarc and Chesky, use the center and/or subwoofer channel to carry overhead information, which can be channeled to speakers hung from the ceiling or high on the side walls. Interestingly, not all of the discs having this extra are labeled as such by the manufacturers.
As I had two Telarc discs with listed height channel, SACD 60574, Turina and
Debussy, and SACD 60578, Berlioz, Symphony Fantastique, (AA
Chaprter 31) and an extra set of VMPS large bookshelf speakers, which weighed only 40 lbs. apiece, I dragged them up onto a beam over and in front of my listening position, and used an old Distech solid-state amplifier to run them.
Does the height channel make a difference? Yes, especially with the Berlioz, and a Hyperion I'll mention below, the height channel added realism to the hall envelopment. Where mono is a point reproduction, stereo is one and surround is two dimensional, the height channels adds the third dimension to the sound. The hall on well mic'ed recordings expands upwards, surrounding the listener with a true space.
About a month ago, I was listening to another multi-track recording, Hyperion SACDA 67286,
The Coronation of King George II, I went out to get a drink and on returning to the media room passed by my subs and noted a full range sound coming from them, with normal bass. On turning off the main and surround channels, and switching the sound to the overhead speakers, there was an overhead channel. Interestingly, no mention is made of this in the booklet accompanying the disc.
Another disc with the overhead replacing the sub channel is Teldec 8573-82041-9,
Bach Organ Spectacular. With the overhead channel in, one is transported to the environ of the Baroque church it was recorded in. Finally, a
Telarc SACD-60569, Mahler Sym. #5 also has an unannounced height channel.
The fourth label doing it is DMP, at least their SACD-09, Gaudeamus. This is another church recording, where the height channel puts you in the cathedral setting. Since this discovery, I have found an article entitled
Achieving New Heights in Surround by Michael Bishop, recording engineer from Telarc in
Surround Professional Magazine, issue June, 2002, where he confirms the above. What they do is combine the height and low frequency channel into one. To correctly reproduce both, one should split the signal with a 12dB active crossover set at 160 Hz, sending the low frequency sound to the sub, and the rest to the height channel. Since everything below 160Hz goes to the subwoofer, small speakers may be used for the height channel.
I have found that with two full range speakers overhead on a beam, and HSU seven
feet tall Tower Subwoofers woofing above my head and cutting off naturally above 120Hz, the entire signal can be sent to both without degradation for an even more enveloping sound. Try it.
Once you have the loudspeakers up there, there is another great use for them: as a height channel for videos. If one has a 6.1 DD or DTS pre-pro, or a
Smart Devices CS-3x and MM-1 circle surround decoders (AA
Chapters XXIV and XXXVII), one can obtain a pseudo-height channel from the center front and back channels. While not high-end audio, it still adds realism to hear jets or howitzer shells whizzing from in front in an arc overhead to the rear rather than through your listening position. So if you have an extra set of loudspeakers, amplifier and
loudspeaker wire -- nothing fancy mind you -- and some way to hang them from overhead, go ahead and experiment. You
will not regret it.
When evaluating a new tweak or piece of equipment, rather than bouncing back and forth between the new and the old, I prefer to listen to a few compilation albums that I have heard several hundred times and know better than my wife (except in the biblical sense.
I am not that hung up on my system). Why compilation albums. First, they each have different types of music on
them. Usually varying from orchestral, to chamber to voice, from classical to jazz to blues, etc., which makes it easy to jump from one style to the next with the changing of a track rather than a whole disc. Second, most of these cuts are the best from each of their albums, and are reproduced to their best standards to suck you into buying the whole recordings. I
do not know how many times I have listened to a superb cut from one of these compilation discs, have gotten the original album, only to find that the sound is inferior to the compilation discs'. Third, they are usually cheaper than any one of the discs the music is taken from, and usually are the best cuts. There's the Scotch in me again. Getting more for less.
Opus 3, Test Recording One - I have been listening to this one, especially Track 1, Tiden Bara Gar, since Clark Johnsen introduced it to me back in 1982, and he and I have been using that particular track for years when trying to make fine distinctions in setups. Every track on here is great, whether you listen to the vinyl or CD, my favorites being
"Innsbruch" for choir, and "Polka" from
The Bolt by Shostakovich. Still available.
Opus 3 Test CD 4.1 - Again, an eclectic mix from opera to jazz to blues, with each cut better than the last. Several are so good that I might be fooled into thinking that even the CD sounds like a SACD recording, but they are just good old analog recorded properly. Still available.
The Sound of Everest - This is a compilation disc brought out about four years ago by Everest Recordings, and may still be available. While several tracks have moderately excessive tape hiss, all are orchestral and voice recordings of the highest caliber, easily equaling the best Mercs and RCA's. Look for it in the used bins.
Folk Era Live Sampler - From Folk Era Productions, of Naperville, Ill., these are some of the most live sounding folk recordings available, and each piece is just plain fun. The best are the last two, by the Kingston Trio. "Scotch and Soda", a mono live recording is the best reproduction of voice that I have heard on a CD, and "Charlie on the
MTA" is just plain fun, especially in the club setting it was recorded in. And "Martin
Greigh" by the Northeast Winds, and "Finegan's Wake" by the Clancy Brothers will take your mind off of tweaking for as long as they are playing. Gee, maybe they aren't so good for equipment evaluation purposes.
Copland Conducts Copland, SS89041 - A two track redo from an old Columbia tape. Most of us probably have the vinyl already in our collection. The SACD sounds somewhat better than my original record, with somewhat less tape hiss. Unhappily the top end is almost as bright as the original vinyl. While Bernstein did them better, these are the definitive interpretations by Copland himself with the London Symphony, and are very good. Well worth the $19.95 asking price.
Bernstein Conducts Bernstein, SS89043 - Bernstein at his finest conducting his own works. The Symphonic Dances from West Side Story is my favorite. Again, like the Copland, the top end is still too bright ALA Columbia, but a little judicious use of a graphic equalizer and adding a little ambience with my Smart Circle Surround unit made this disc very listenable. Again, worth the $19.95
Time Out Dave Brubeck Quartet, CS65122 - Another mastering of this 60's favorite. The two-track portion of the SACD is the best reproduction
I have heard of the recording, but forget the four-track surround. Sounds like fake hall ambience and instruments coming out from where they shouldn't. Maybe stick with your Classic vinyl of this one if you have it.
Antiphonal Music of Gabrielli, SS89173 - Believe it or not, this recording was the second vinyl record that I ever bought. I played this on my father's mono record player until the grooves were gone, and still love it. Columbia took the brass sections of the Philadelphia, Cleveland and Chicago Symphonies, and combined them into two brass choirs playing against each other. Luckily, Sony was judicious in its cleanup of the tapes as some hiss can still be heard, and did not try to turn this one into a surround recording, leaving it stereo. The sound is the best brass recording available and the playing is superb, never matched in my opinion. Well worth the cost.
Showpieces and Encores, Moscow Chamber Orchestra, DS3284 - I don't know, I've never been enamored with Delos' recording techniques, right back to their earlier CD's. They tend to record as though one is sitting way back in the auditorium, and this one is no exception. Also, these may be crowd pleasing encores in Moscow, but I was only familiar with four of the 19
tracks. While most were adequately performed, I certainly didn't feel like standing and giving a roaring adulation for any of them. The soundstage was pretty good, just narrow, and the hall ambience was somewhat lacking. Whether this is the true sound of the hall I am unsure, but if it is, its about as dead as Lenin and Stalin. Sorry but I
can not recommend this one.
Dmitri Hvorostovsky, Passione di Napoli, DS3290 - While a much better recording than the previous, a few of these cuts go a long way, except maybe to some Italians. He's not one of the BIG THREE, either in voice or prominence, but he certainly does a fine job with these tid bits. Probably worth the price.
Vodka and Caviar, The Ultimate Russian Spectacular, DS 3288 - If that isn't hyperbole, nothing is. While well recorded for a Delos, with good staging and hall ambiance and adequate playing, it doesn't even come close to an old CD I have of Rozhdestvensky with the Moscow Radio orchestra playing the Tchaikovsky
6th. Now that's the ultimate Russian spectacular. On the other hand each piece is played well and I did enjoy the album. Again, just worth the price of 26.95.
Petrouschka, London Symphony, VSD506 - Beautifully played and recorded old analog tape that was produced during the original surround era. Thus, it has four true channels of information. Unhappily they produced it in such a way that the piano and percussion come out of the rear channels. This was actually interesting to me as an old French Horn player who used to sit right in the position the mikes must have been in. After a while I really thought I was in my original position in the orchestra, which is actually the best place to be. Otherwise, the sound is beautiful, coming as close as any recording of an orchestra to live sound in a concert hall.
Pick of the Month
Mahler, Sym. # 6, Michael Tilson Thomas, San Francisco Symphony, 821936-0001-2 This is a superb recording by a good conductor, pretty good orchestra, doing a phenomenal job. This is the first of a series of live concert recordings by them, and I hope not the last. Everything clicks here, the sound, interpretation, audience electricity, etc. Recorded the day after Sept. 11, the emotions of all involved can be felt through the speakers.
This is probably the only way we are going to get American orchestral recordings now that the costs have gone through the roof, and fewer and fewer Americans are buying classical. Funded by the Getty Foundation and done during a concert where the musicians are already being paid, the production was cheap. Luckily it was also superb. I am unsure whether this was recorded by the San Francisco Orchestra's house engineer, or by Delos or Sony, both of which being given credit. All I can say is everybody keep your damn hands off the controls and leave them as they are for the rest of the series. A superb recording and well worth its price. Can be purchased through
Best Pick from Last Month
The Rolling Stones Remastered - ABKO - I received this disc just before I sent in last month's column and mentioned it there. ABKO is remastering all of the Rolling Stones albums in SACD, and if they are as good as this compilation disc, you are in for a treat. They didn't mess with the dials, left mono mono and stereo stereo, did some judicious removal of tape hiss, and left the voices alone. For any Stones fan with a SACD player, the series will be a must. Highly recommended.
That's it for this month. I need to get back to the music.