Boy, this is the beginning of the seventh year writing this column. Seems like only yesterday that Steven R. Rochlin asked me to please write something to fill some pages of his new web magazine. How time flies when you're having fun. Each year, on this anniversary, I try to find a product that in some way will revolutionize our media rooms. While I'm still in the 20th century with my feeling that vinyl and 1/4" tape still rules, I am an advocate for maximizing what one can accomplish with digital sound reproduction. While SACD and DVD-Audio has improved upon what one can normally attain with the average CD, and Blue-Ray and HDDVD are on the horizon, analog still rules. But none of these high bit playback systems have really caught on with the masses, and most digital recordings are still being reproduced with the now 24 year old 16-bit/44kHz digital standard.
One of the trends I see for digital reproduction is using computers for storage and playback of digital information. Both the soft and hardware are improving significantly and one must remember that just about every digital recording sold today has at some time or other been A/D encoded, stored, manipulated and transcribed from a computer to the CD master. Only we audiophiles have been reluctant to use them for the D/A step. There are several pro companies, such as M-Audio, MOTU and RME that produce super stereo and multi-channel 24-bit/196kHz cards that come close to the best high-end decoders. Since they are pro cards with large circulation in the recording market, they are usually relatively inexpensive compared to most high end products.
While I will go for the super-expensive product, such as my Walker Audio Proscenium Gold Turntable and Alan Wright preamps and amps when I feel it is necessary, I usually look for the bargain that gives close to the best sound reproduction for a reasonable cost. I was losing all hope this year of discovering a product that met all three of the above, when Clark Johnsen came over a month ago with some CD copies he had made by a fellow audiophile name George Louis using an algorithm of his design. You can read about that in last month's column seen here.
As the results were remarkable, needless to say, I immediately called Mr. Louis to ask about his process and to obtain a couple of his discs for review. Instead, he was kind enough to send me his ClearBit and ClearDisc solutions, 10 of his approved CD-R's and his:
I have seen such duplicators advertised for about $350, so his asking price for his souped up unit with his programming of $575 is certainly not exorbitant by high-end audio standards. One can also purchase his special CD-R blanks and his solutions for less if purchased with the machine. He also guarantees free updates to his programming by CD-ROMS for a year after the sale.
Each new disc takes about 15 minutes to produce. George, the developer of FINYL, one of the first disc cleaning solutions, recommends that one clean both sides of both discs with his CLEARDISC and then twice with his CLEARBIT solutions to maximize the transfer effect. By the way, both work superbly to improve information retrieval on regular digital discs. Just using these on the original CD opened up the sound stage. I would give equal rating to it and Walker Audio's VIVID CD Enhancer for maximizing reproduction from digits, although Lloyd has notified me that he has reformulated the Vivid, and will be sending some in the near future for review, so who knows which is best at this point. VIVID costs $45 and the CLEARBIT and CLEARDISC cost $40 and $16 respectively, with a discount when the Duplicator is bought at the same time, each doing about 400 discs. Thus, it's a wash for both products (no pun intended.)
One then inserts the disc to be copied in the top drawer, the disc to be copied to in the bottom drawer and hits the Enter button. The rest occurs automatically over about a 10 minute period of time per disc. When done the lower tray opens up and the new disc is ready to play. To make a second copy, just leave the original disc in the top drawer and add a new blank to the bottom drawer and hit Enter again. That's it. No more difficult than making CD-R's on a computer. The difference is in the results.
First a word to the "Bits is Bits" crowd. There are some who say that if the bits are the same, and then there can be no difference in sound. There are other who say that even if the bits are the same, unless there is a major loss of data, the CD error correction system should alleviate any difference in the sound. The third group says that no matter how much you improve the ability to retrieve the data, there should be no difference. There has been a mention on an Internet discussion board that this disc reproduction process somehow changes the bits. George claims that his process gives exactly the same bits on the new disc as on the old, and can demonstrate that fact. He states that his solutions and special CD-R's improve the ease of retrieval of the information for the player, thus minimizing the jitter and error correction. His disc processing synchronizes the harmonics with the base tone, a process he calls synchromonics, thus removing a defect in the digital recording process. I have no way of determining who is correct, but if there is a difference in the sound, and the bits are the same, that blows the above naysayers out of the water.
As you can probably tell, I am not a member of any of the above groups. Over the years, experimentation has taught me that there are several things that can be done to improve the D/A process and thus the sound. In descending order of improvement, they are:
Although the improvement in sound with George's process far surpasses any other digital tweak I've ever heard, doing the lathing, demagnetizing and the GSIC process did add a little more refinement to the process, although George's process significantly decreases the added benefit of the above.
So what does one hear with the new CD-R versus just using the Clearbit and Cleardisc solutions on the original disc? The major difference is the ability for the D/A process to pick up the least significant bits. While the traffic sounds outside the hall and the audience sounds on live recordings may distract some, to me, this just adds to the realism. The soundstage opens up, with significantly more hall sound, and space between the instruments becoming visible. This is especially significant when playing back 2 track CD's with hall ambience information using Dolby or DTS multi-channel decoding. Attacks and bass are tighter, treble is smoothed and more analog-like without the added digital enharmonics, and the mid-range becomes clearer, much more analog-like. All in all, this is the first time I've been able to listen to digital for long periods of time without wanting to go back to analog.
Last Thursday night, we had a listening session at Steve Klein's listening room, the owner of Sounds of Silence, US distributor of Beauhorns, Kondo, Mactone and Simon Yorke turntables, all super high end equipment, where we were met by Clark Johnsen and Kwami Ofori-Asante, all three with some of the best ears in high end audio. Clark has written up the evening's events much more eloquently than I could (his Harvard education had to give him something of value). The outcome was that all four of us have purchased their own unit, when we could have shared one, and Steve is talking to George about possibly distributing it along with his other super high end products. If that happens, the price will probably go up significantly, so I would suggest you call George for a unit while the price is so ridiculously low.
A couple of words of advice. First, buying a CD duplicator, while producing CD-R's that will probably sound better than the originals, won't come close to the improvement wrought by George's software. Second, don't cheap out and use regular CD-R's. We tried several different types, including Imation, Memorex and HP types, and none came close to the sound from those sold by George. While they are expensive at $1.00-1.25 per disc compared to those sold at Best Buy, a dollar each is dirt cheap for the effect obtained.
For those skeptics who don't believe me, for $65 each, George will make a copy of any of your CD's for you to try, and will even refund the money plus $5.00 if you are not satisfied with the results. So far no one has taken him up on the refund offer but many have bought the unit to use themselves. From the above, you should be able to gather that this product is truly an advancement for high end audio. While I still prefer SACD and DVD-A for its 6 channel immersion in the recording venue with the best, with George's CD-Rs fed directly to the front two channels and then feeding the same signal to my EAD processor doing DTS decoding for the rear channels, I can come very close to the best of the high bit recordings with all of my several hundred CD's. I think I have my product of the year, and at $575, it's a bargain to boot. Give George a call or e-mail as his information is near the bottom of this page. Try it, you'll like it. Guaranteed.
And now a few words from Mr. Louis:
Thank you for the kind words. Beginning with your last comment, I have unlimited long distance so I'll be happy to call anyone right back and to save them money.
The RealityCheckCDs are bit for bit identical with the copied disc. Some of the differences are: reduced jitter, each note's fundaments are better time aligned with its harmonics (Synchromonic, more about this in a bit), and there are less errors to correct plus many proprietary improvement to the bit stream that I've put under the rubric of UltraLog Bezier Curve Re-Algorization.
I can add a hard drive (for an extra charge) to the duplicator for those who want to store many tracks and make many different compilations without re-duplicating the tracks by re-inserting the original discs each time. I feel that this degrades the sound a bit but it's still better than the original. It's just not as good as the direct digital-to-digital duplicating of an original disc to a CD-R.
Sometimes, a copy of a copy (also may be read as duplicate of a duplicate i.e. a multi-generation copy) improves the sound even further. Thus if you make a master compilation disc it's copies will usually be at least as good as the compilation disc tracks that are better than the original disc they were duplicated from.
Synchromonics improves the time alignment of each note's fundamentals with its harmonics so that its harmonics neither lead nor lag the note's fundamentals. Since the harmonics neither lead nor lag the note's fundamentals there's no softening of the sound do to delayed harmonics or brightening and/or harshness do to the harmonics early arrival at the listener's ears because they lead the note's fundamental. This also makes the sound seem louder because the note's fundaments are being reinforced by it's harmonics. Additionally, there's more space between instruments and voices because there's less smearing of the note's time signature, plus there's better inter-transient silence and the dynamics seem better with Synchromonics. And you may hear for yourself that the whole of this process is greater than the sum of its parts.
Please note that the speed of sound is independent of its frequency. If one follows the logic here the necessity of a speaker system being time aligned is obvious and that's not even considering the harshness that created in the overlapping region of the crossover because drives at different distances from the listener's ears are reproducing the same frequencies. The result is some nasty comb filtering that's worse with lower order crossovers than with higher order crossovers due their greater range of overlapping frequencies. I prefer lower order crossovers for their ability to more closely replicate the input waveform and their lower group delay, which sound better to me.
In the analog domain (otherwise known as Gaussian domain) despite what some speaker manufactures claim, time alignment cannot be achieve through the crossover, because phase shift is frequency dependent. In the digital domain, however, a time delay that's constant with frequency is obtainable but then you give up the possibility of pure analog. If you're only listening to digital sources such as CDs it doesn't matter because there's no analog in the source material (except the eye pattern that's read from the CD's pits by the player's laser pickup and then converted to digital).
I apologize for going on so long but I felt the need to clarify at least some of the confusion about various aspects and sonic qualities of my process that at its core due to financial necessity remains a propriety trade secret. Just for those who've inquired, much of what I do is strictly applicable to the RealityCheckCD Audiophile Grade Duplicator and Compilation Maker and I currently have no plans to sell programs or firmware to upgrade computer burners.
George S. Louis
Voice: (619) 401-9876