Audiolics Anonymous Chapter 39
Article By Bill Gaw
Hi! I am back again. I do not know whether anybody noticed my one-month hiatus from the column, as I continued to receive letters for the last two months from the previous one. Unhappily, I had a case of viral meningitis for two weeks during which I developed a kidney stone, which I finally had removed after four weeks of agony. Boy, did I learn how it is to be on the receiving end of a medical problem. Now all of my patients get pain meds until they're flying high and happy. Anyway, there was one saving grace. I was too sick to think about doing much tweaking, but not sick enough to turn off my system so I did get to listen to one hell of a lot of audio. Thus the second of my software columns...
This is a new high-end audio company out of California owned and possibly driven by Mark
Waldrep. I met him at the AIX Records booth within the Stereophile New York show this May and purchased one of his discs for trial. Then I happened to drop in on one of his demonstrations and could not believe the quality of the sound he was obtaining from a show system, so I went back and purchased two more.
Each recording is produced and mastered as a 5.1 channel DVD-A (24-bit/96kHz) and then reproduced on the disk as DVD-A on one side with MLP (24-bit/96kHz) with 5.1 and
stereo PCM, or DVD-V with video of the performance on the other side in Dolby Digital 5.1 and DTS. Thus you can have both the best of the high-end audio sound on your DVD-A player,
stereo PCM on your CD, or watch the performance in very good Dolby Digital... or in even better DTS. In addition, there are mixes for standard hall surround, or placement next to the conductor or in the center of the performers, video both from a hall perspective and over the conductor, biographies and photo galleries of the process, and, on some of the discs 5.1 setup and check information for balancing your surround system. You can not say he does not fill his discs to the brim.
Happily, one can spend hours listening and watching from various angles with sound and video and performances that are well recorded and fairly well performed. Unhappily, Mark is a West Coast type of guy, and I believe a musician, who seems to prefer the "center of the group" type perspective to the more natural center of the hall perspective most of us are used to. Thus the best of the DVD-A and DVD-V tracks are from the centered perspective. Now maybe there are some audiophiles out there who prefer this, but not me. Anyway, for the money, they are each jam-packed with entertainment and worth the price.
AIX 80006 - Beethoven Sym. No. 6 and Respighi Pines of Rome,
New Jersey Symphony, Zdenek Macal
The DVD-A side has both (24-bit/96kHz) 5.1 MLP surround and a (24-bit/96kHz) PCM stereo playback. The second side has DVD-V with the audience mix in Dolby Digital and the orchestra mix in DTS with multiple video angles. The sound is overall first rate, but it would have been great if the DVD-V audience mix had been the one in DTS as the sound is somewhat better than the Dolby Digital. Also, the audience mix on the DVD-A side was placed either a little too far back in the hall for my tastes, or the hall itself does not have the best reverb characteristics. Finally, the New Jersey Symphony is not the Chicago at its peak. While the performance is good for a second tier orchestra, it certainly goes with the Gordon Holt rule for high-end recordings - the best sounding never have the best performances. While all of the notes are there, the energy is not. The Sixth for the most part drags, and the storm is more like a shower. Those quibbles aside, the sound of even the Dolby Digital DVD-V track beats most of the Laser Discs music recordings I have, and the video is far superior. I can just imagine what Mr. Waldrep could do with a major orchestra in his hands if he just leaned toward a perfect audience perspective as his mindset for the ideal recording.
AIX80012 - Zephyr, Voices Unbound, A Capella Voices
This is a recording of a pick-up group of West Coast singers doing 23 songs from Baroque up to 20th Century. You'd never know this is not a group that has been singing together for years, as the ensemble is wonderful, their voices are beautiful, and the pieces are well recorded.
Unhappily, the DVD-A 5.1 channel mix is from a central perspective, with the singers in a circle around you, with the PCM stereo track for audience mix. While it was thrilling for a while to hear "singers to the left of me, singers to the right of me, singers in back of me, volleying and thundering", etc. after a while it was disconcerting. The video side used the inferior sounding DD mix to capture the audience perspective and the better DTS mix for the stage perspective. Also, the audience perspective wasn't actually a true one, as the recording was done with a mike over each singer who was standing in a circle. This was then synthesized to an audience perspective, which, like most multi-mike recordings, did not quite sound real. Again, the disc must use every bit of bits available on both sides to give the amount of material presented, and the music is well worth listening to, so the disc is worth the price. They and his other recordings can be bought from his web site at
SACD 230 - Great Opera Choruses, Wagner and Verdi,
Bruckner Orchestra Linz, Czech Philharmonic Chorus of BRNO, St. Florian Boys Choir, Bernhard
Well, here's one recording for which I had great expectations that were dashed. A Chesky that
does not live up to their name for quality of sound. Austrian and Czech second tier orchestra and chorus who play this stuff every day giving lackluster performances. The recording is 4.1 with no center channel, very little use of the subs, and is recorded about 7-8dB below maximum level. While each of these is not normally damaging, combined they give a soundstage which while spread across the room from loudspeaker to loudspeaker and is actually shallow, with very little hall effect. While their literature make the recording sound as if it has stuff coming at you from all angles, off stage, flying across the stage, etc., I actually had to turn my main speakers up 8dB and the rears by 12dB in order to get a balanced sound. Also, it is lacking in hall presence. I do not understand this as this is a pure DSD SACD recording, produced at the
BrucknerHaus, Linz, Austria, a classic great hall I actually saw a performance in 30 years ago of the Bruckner 9th. Maybe it was the engineers, both Germans and Austrians, who produced and made the recording and sold it to the Chesky's on the cheap. Anyway, I won't waste any more time. Buy this one only if you have money to spare.
Chesky's music can be purchased from their website at www.chesky.com.
SS87711 - Prokofiev - Alexander Nevsky, Mussorgsky - Pictures at an Exhibition, New York Philharmonic, Westminster Choir, Lili
Chookasian, Thomas Schippers.
While the previous recording supposedly used all modern equipment and pure DSD recording and was poor, this one is a DSD remastering of an analog tape recorded at the Manhattan Center on Jan. 11, 1965. Happily it was recorded in surround multi-track using one of the systems prevalent then. While this was during the time I had a simple mono system therefore didn't get involved in surround, I do remember that it flopped because of the difficulty of getting back the quality from a two track record and the multiplicity of methods of each of the record
companies. (Hopefully this won't happen in the DVD-A and SACD war.)
Like with Dolby, one needed a special decoder box and a cartridge that could pick up information out to 40kHz. Happily, the master tape survived to now, when a six-channel DSD recording could be produced and sold. First the problems... This is a classic Columbia recording, with a hot top end and needs taming. This will have to be done in analog as there is no way to equalize DSD digitally unless you convert it to 24-bit/96kHz, and then you will use the analog-like fluidity inherent in the medium. Not a problem for me as I have tone controls built into my active crossovers, but maybe for you. Second, and minor, there is no PCM 16-bit/44kHz layer. This again is not a problem for me, but may be for somebody who likes to take his or her discs to the car.
This is an amazing recording. I almost gave it my pick of the month. It is 5.1, but unlike Telarc that which uses the .1 channel for both a height and sub channel, Sony uses it for subs alone that on a typical high-end system is a waste. The orchestra is splayed out across the stage with the singers floating above and behind them giving a wide and deep soundstage. One can hear just about every musician moving in his chair, pages turning, and some foot shuffling that keeps all of the soundstage lit. While a little distracting at first, one becomes immersed in the field. It just proves that analog, with it higher noise floor than digital, can still pick up the very low volume information that gives us the feel of being in a concert hall with real people. Very few pure digital recordings do this.
It's not a failure of the process, but the engineers who think any extraneous noise should be filtered out, thereby producing sterile recordings. I think this derives from the 16-bit/44kHz era where most of this information was lacking due to the low number of digits, and the fact that most engineers today probably were not brought up on the "going to concerts tradition" of the great older ones, except to rock concerts, where everything is a blast of noise. Thus, they think there should be dead silence or continuous noise between the notes. Nothing is further from the truth. I think it is very disconcerting to the mind to go to absolute silence rather than background information. My two cents anyway.
The surrounds are used to increase the feel that one is in the hall listening to a live performance. The entire hall is alive. Again, too bad the effect is truncated just above my head. The performance of both pieces is superb and the
Nevsky, one of my favorite pieces, now takes first place among my several recording of it both for interpretation and sound. I actually found myself getting an adrenaline rush during "Arise Ye Russian People" thinking about the Horrible Huns of both Nevsky's and Prokoviev's time. This doubled with "The Battle on the Ice" where I actually felt I could see the Huns charging toward me. This is a first for me with an audio recording without video. Lili Chookasian and the Westminster Chorus are also phenomenal at getting the blood going. While I have enjoyed the original and redo audio of the 1930's film, I think next time I watch it I'll try while listening to this recording. Enough gushing! This is a great recording and worth every penny. Get it.
Pick of the Month
San Francisco Symphony Recordings - 821936-0002-2 ,
Mahler Symphony No. 1, San Francisco Symphony, Michael Tilson Thomas
I know I gave Recording of the Month to their last production, the Mahler Sixth, but this one truly is the second best SACD I have heard. While not quite up to the level of the previous one, which was recorded with an adrenaline rush on September
12th (the day after the Twin Towers), this one a week later, when just about everyone's energy had dissipated, it is still a superb interpretation of the Mahler by great musicians and conductor. The surround effect places you directly in front of the orchestra about a third of the way back in the hall. Unlike the Chesky, but like the
Prokoviev, the entire stage is lit up with sound, giving a wholeness to the
soundspace, proving it is the engineer and equipment and not whether its analog or digital that makes the difference. Happily for those with CD players, it is a hybrid disc with a PCM stereo layer, and when played using my Smart Circle Surround decoder almost gives the same feeling of hall space. I mention this because I believe even those people without the ability to play back the DSD layer should purchase it now.
Why! Because the Mahler 6th has already sold out its first printing and I am unsure whether it will be redone. While expensive at $25 purchased directly from
www.sfsymphony.org, and only running 56 minutes, I believe it will become a classic demo
disc. Besides, you will be contributing to the San Francisco Symphony. Just think of it as a charitable contribution. Wait till you hear the jump from the sublime third movement into the stormy fourth. You may have to change your undies afterward. (I didn't but came close.) Make sure you don't set the volume too high the first time or you may watch the cones on your drivers fly like a Frisbee across the room. (That will definitely soil your Tighty
Whities.) I'd say more to fill the column up so our editor would give me more money, but I'll stop there. I not only recommend the recording but also plead with you to get it before its too late and support the San Francisco Orchestra at the same time. Go to their web site and buy it now.
Finally, I wish all American Orchestras would start doing SACD recordings of their live broadcasts and sell them directly to the public. They certainly have the equipment to do it, and it certainly is not difficult to have a private house do the mastering. I think that would be a great way of financing them, giving us real music in real environments, and getting the recording companies out of our pockets. It would certainly be cheaper for the orchestras not to have to pay for recording sessions, clear their red ink… maybe make enough to give the musicians raises and give us beautiful live sound. Also, it would be great if the Boston and Chicago Symphonies and New York Philharmonic would do the same with all those miles of analog tape recordings from the 40's to 90's of the great conductors before Ozawa. Just imagine what is in those vaults.