Product: Hi-Res Music DVD Recordings
Manufacturer: Hi-Res Music - USA
Retail price: $25.99 USD each
Reviewer: Richard George
Reviewed: September, 2002
In 1983 the Compact Disc was marketed to the world with the now famous catch-phrase, "Perfect Sound - Forever." After listening to early CDs, many audio enthusiasts believed the phrase should have been, "Imperfect Sound - Forever." Due to limitations in sampling rate, word length, and other factors, CDs earned a well-deserved reputation for lackluster performance. They tended to sound overly bright, harsh, gritty, and artificial. Of course, this is a generalization - certainly the best CDs can be very enjoyable, provided a high-quality DAC or CD-player is used to help calm the digital audio jitters. In addition, modified production standards in later years resulted in improved CD sound quality compared to early discs.
Despite the improvement in CD audio performance, recently there has been a push to provide a higher-resolution medium to satisfy demands for improved audio quality. The original CD consortium, which included the Japanese electronics giant Sony and the Netherlands Philips, has devised the Super Audio Compact Disc (SACD) to fill the need. SACD is a completely new design that is incompatible with existing CD or DVD technology. SACD players have the additional circuitry needed to read CD as well as SACD. Additionally, DVD players are now available that play DVD-V, CD, and SACD. The Pulse Code Modulation (PCM) technology used by CD and DVD has been replaced with Direct Stream Digital (DSD). Sony claims that DSD is superior to PCM regardless of sampling rate or word length used. Of course, this claim has yet to be proven. While most SACD discs and non-DVD SACD players are 2-channel stereo, SACD also was conceived to provide superior resolution in a multichannel format. A lossless compression system is used to ensure adequate storage space for multichannel sound.
However, SACD is not alone in trying to capture the market with a new digital format. DVD Audio (DVD-A) is being promoted as the next high resolution music format. DVD-A retains PCM technology, but instead of the CD standard (16-bit/44.1KHz), it uses a 24-bit word length and 96KHz to 192KHz sampling rate. DVD-A machines will be backwards compatible with CD and DVD-video standards. However, in order for DVD-Audio discs to be compatible with legacy DVD-V players, a lower resolution track equivalent to the compressed sound on DVD movies is incorporated (DVD movies use a lossy compression scheme that increases available space while losing some audio detail). As such, DVD-A discs played on DVD-V machines generally don't sound better than CDs. Like SACD, DVD-A also is designed to provide superior audio resolution in a multichannel format. In fact, DVD-A is dedicated to multichannel. DVD-A, like SACD, uses a lossless compression scheme, in this case MLP (meridian lossless packing), in order to provide adequate space for the high resolution format and six-channels of sound. DVD-A has also been at the forefront of copy protection by instituting digital watermarks on many discs.
With both formats competing head-to-head, most people so far have been unwilling to jump into the a new digital format because they have so much invested in CD music collections. The questions are: which will win, and, which will go the way of the Sony Betamax? Further, if the public continues to greet both formats with a collective yawn, will both vanish? Uncertainty as to which format will prevail (or survive) is preventing most people from buying either. After all, the only people looking forward to changing entire music collections over to a new medium is the music industry, a sadly short-sighted industry that becomes increasingly moribund with each passing year.
Given the difficulties the music companies have had launching DVD-A and SACD, what if a new format arose that could combine resolution superior to CDs, without the authoring difficulties of SACD? What if the new format did not carry the dubious watermarking that DVD-A seems to be inheriting? What if this new format was optimized for two-channel stereo on existing DVD-video machines? And, what if the discs cost less than audiophile-grade CDs? The format is here now. It is DVD-Video/Audio, and Hi-Res Music has begun publishing discs.
DVD-A, and to a lesser degree, SACD, are being used to further the push for multichannel audio, a standard that was designed with movie playback in mind but has yet to show any real value for high-fidelity audio where music, not special effects, is the purpose. While 2-channel stereo enthusiasts have been deemed a 'dying breed' by home theater publications, the fact remains that five or six channels of audio costs substantially more than two channels. Most people who are interested in the ultimate musical experience, as opposed to the ultimate hifi experience, tend to gravitate toward 2-channel systems for a variety of reasons, not the least of which is economical. After all, a true, high-fidelity, 2-channel system can be assembled for about the price of a mid-fi multichannel system.
Until recently, SACD and DVD-Audio playback machines were very expensive, commanding the typical high prices reserved for new technology. However, mass market players capable of DVD-A and SACD playback are now available for well under $200 (although no universal machine that can play both is presently being marketed). Unfortunately, as is typical with cheap, mass-market CD players, it can be expected that there will be no provision for digital output on many of these machines. The quality of the internal DACs in cheap machines is questionable. For comparison, the Pioneer DV-525 DVD-player used in this review is relatively inexpensive, but worthwhile for use as a transport - however, the DAC portion falls far short of medium-priced, 24/96 CD-players. The addition of a $129 ART DI/O DAC resulted in a substantial improvement in sound quality.
While the future of SACD and DVD-A is uncertain, the DVD-V format is not going anywhere - it is not going to disappear because of lack of interest. In fact, exactly the opposite is true. DVD-V is the fastest growing entertainment medium in history. Inexpensive, DVD-V players are available everywhere, and prices are falling quickly as DVD rapidly takes over the home-video market. While many cheap DVD-V format machines do not have digital-out capability, moderately-priced units do. The combination of a moderately-priced DVD-V player and a reasonable DAC would be quite low, especially considering that a setup such as this also would enhance movie audio playback.
Of course, there is a downside to DVD-video/audio. There simply are not many DVD-VA discs currently available. HiRes Music is working to improve their output to keep up with demand. However, there is secondary source of DVD-video discs for music-lovers. There is an increasing variety of audio and video concert DVDs, which, by themselves, would justify upgrading the DAC from a DVD player to something more suitable for high fidelity music playback.
HiRes Music is a relatively new player in the field of music publishing. The stated goal of HiRes Music is to "provide a rich catalog of high resolution digital music beginning in February 2002." Since they are such a new company, their catalog is currently small, but is growing monthly.
HiRes Music starts with analog or DAT master tapes recorded in 2-channel stereo, then remasters the music to 24-bit/96KHz digital. DAT master tapes are upsampled from 24-bit/44KHz or 20-bit/48KHz, to 24/96 with good results. However, HiRes Music does not use 16-bit/44.1KHz masters to create their discs, as upsampling from the lower standard provides insignificant improvement over standard CDs. Since DVD discs have such a large amount of space (4.7GB, minimum), no compression is needed to store the 2-channel stereo. The result is uncompressed music with 24-bit/96KHz resolution. In fact, since there is so much available space, extra tracks are included on some discs compared to the original LP releases. More information on their process may be found on their website.
Unfortunately, no SACD or DVD-A players were available for comparison. Consequently the only comparison that could be made was between CD and DVD-VA. During the time of the evaluation, only one album could be obtained in both DVD-VA and CD formats. That album was Forever by Wayne Horvitz (and it took almost two months to obtain in CD!). Whether playing CD or DVD-VA discs during the evaluation, the same digital front end was used: a Pioneer DV-525, DVD-player, used as a transport, and a slightly modified, ART DI/O 24/96 DAC.
When listening to all the discs supplied by HiRes Music, the most obvious characteristic is smooth, clean sound. At no time was typical 'CD sound' evident. The HiRes Music DVD discs were never overly bright, brittle, or gritty. The sound was simply clean, clear, and sharply defined. In fact, these discs presented some of the most musically satisfying, digital sound I have heard yet in my listening room. They sounded so good, they prompted me to purchase a second-hand, Pioneer DV-535 for exclusive use with my 2-channel stereo equipment (sometimes, $50 from eBay can buy amazing things).
Compared to typical CDs, details of music were noticeably crisper sounding, without any apparent harshness. Transients, both treble and bass, were much cleaner and more realistic. On some recordings, the musical detail was stunning in its realism. In particular, the acoustic bass and piano on the Trio disc featuring Monty Alexander, Ray Brown, and Herb Ellis, was extraordinary - the sound seemed almost as solid and clear as if they were live. The illusion of realism was sublime.
Using a direct comparison between CD and DVD-VA versions of the Forever album by Wayne Horvitz, a few other characteristics become clear. At first, the differences were subtle - a slightly cleaner strike on a cymbol, note decay more clearly and evenly reproduced. The soundstage seemed a little more open, a little deeper, and the instruments seemed a little more solid. Taken by themselves, these differences weren't great, they were numerous, small things that were much appreciated and whispered a difference. However, while listening to the DVD-VA version, one difference was so clear that it didn't whisper, it shouted - simply put, it was easier to understand the music, to feel the flow of the notes, and to appreciate the performances and the musicians. By comparison, the CD was a little flat and dull, almost lifeless. Taken by itself the CD wasn't bad, in fact it sounded very good, but, the HiRes Music DVD-VA disc simply did everything better; it was several steps closer to real music than the CD version.
One minor invconvenience was noted while working with the DVD discs: unlike CDs, tracks could not be randomized, and the player could not easily be set to repeat the disc. While the DV-525 will randomize and repeat entire CD discs, DVDs work differently. The only way to repeat the disc was by using a function on the machine that allowed the selection of starting and ending points, then repeating everything in between.
Several times, I tried to play HiRes Music DVD-VA discs on my computer DVD-player, but initially met with little success. The disc would begin to play, then after less than one minute, the sampling speed of the audio card DAC seemed out of synch with the disc - in short, it was 'unlistenable'. After upgrading my computer OS (for unrelated reasons), and upgrading the DVD-playback software to match, it became apparent that the problem was not with the discs. Important Lesson - if you wish to play HiRes discs on your computer, be certain you have the latest drivers and compatible DVD-playback software (WinDVD v. 3.1 worked quite well with my Turtle Beach sound card).
I had the opportunity to sample several discs, and noticed something very interesting about one of them. The Herb Ellis, Joe Pass, Ray Brown, Jake Hanna live recording, "Jazz/Concord" had persistant tape hiss during quiet passages. It was minor and, during a discussion with the company president, David Swartz, found that it was left in place on purpose. The original master for this disc was from a live performance and was recorded analog on tape. For those of us who remember analog, tape hiss is a normal part of analog recordings. David explained that, removal of the hiss with noise reduction methods would also remove a small part of the musical presentation. This was a compromise HiRes Music was unwilling to make. The result has been worthwhile, as neither the quality of the musical presentation was degraded by remastering, nor does the tape hiss detract from the performance. The HiRes Music disc captured the delightful shadings and wonderful quality of this quartet.
I have spent substantial time listening to tapes and LPs. Consequently, minor background noise has never been a problem, but it was unexpected in a digital medium. Some listeners, who are used to the background silence of CDs, may be distracted by tape hiss on this and other discs. However, I would encourage them to simply listen to the music, as it will speak for itself.
HiRes Music offers a superior digital product. Should average music lovers attempt to convert all their CDs to DVD-Video/Audio format? Is this format going to replace CD, SACD, or DVD-A? The likely answer to these questions is, "No". The HiRes Music DVD-VA discs provide a music-lover that already has a DVD-player with an opportunity to obtain digitally remastered, 2-channel music that is superior to CD, while adhering to an existing format, playable on existing equipment. It also gives everyone else who is considering purchase of a DVD-player yet another reason to buy one. The DVD-VA format has sufficient space and resolution capabilities to provide a music enthusiast with a superior and entertaining musical experience. This is not a replacement for the Compact Disc, but rather, it is a worthwhile addition that does not require purchasing an expensive machine to play a small number of discs. Just as important, the discs produced by HiRes Music are optimized for two-channel sound. This is an important consideration since most music has been recorded in 2-channel and must be remixed to 5.1 when used in DVD-A and some SACD discs - what subtle musical details might be lost in the remix while engineers attempt to enhance HiFi special effects?
SACD and DVD-A are interesting formats with great potential. Which will win, or more importantly, which will survive? Could it be that if enough music companies jumped onto the DVD-VA format that it, too, could be a contender as the next digital music format beyond CD? While you are waiting for answers, you should log onto HiRes Music and pick up a few discs to play on your existing DVD equipment. Now that I'm done with this review, I think I'll sit back and explore the new HiRes Music Leon Russell disc I just bought... Hey! It even has tracks that weren't included on the original LP!
Many thanks to David Swartz, president of HiRes Music, and Antonello Di Domenico for providing background information and the discs used in this review.
© Copyright 2002 Richard George -http://www.tnt-audio.com