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Almost analogue...

[Italian version]

This was pretty much the consensus of the New Jersey Audio Society members and guests who heard the dramatic improvement wrought by the higher sampling rate of the new 24/96 Digital Audio Discs (DAD). It certainly was my consensus. Indeed, it occurred to me that if this is where CD had started, the promise of "Perfect Sound Forever" might have been fulfilled, and the LP would not have survived as it has, even in the used artifacts marketplace.

It is that close. But not quite there. . . yet.

An outstanding demo given by Mike Hobson, CEO of Classic Records, provided an opportunity for direct comparisons between 24/96 DAD, 16/44 standard CD and 45 rpm LP pressings all made from the same analogue master tape! As comparisons go, you can't get much better than that in terms of being able to validly and quantitatively assess the sonic differences between the three formats.

The musical lineup included tracks from the best-selling Red Rodney jazz title, 1957, which was originally recorded by Rudy Van Gelder (right here in Bergenfield, NJ, by the way) direct to a 2-track 15 ips tape, Then we heard a similar comparison of the famed David Hancock 30 ips 2-track analogue recording of the Rachmaninoff Symphonic Dances, and last, a 45 rpm-24/96 comparison only of an acoustic recording of Chris Whitley, singer/guitarist in what is probably one of the most unusual, if not unique, recording venues ever: a tool shed!

Mike discussed some of the political ramifications of the coming "format war" being waged by the Sony/Phillips group, who seek to derail the DVD (Digital Versatile Disc) engine in favor of their own DSD (Direct Stream Digital) technology. It is clear that this difference in approach has absolutely nothing whatever to do with sound quality, but involves far more mundane (and powerful) financial considerations, with questions of royalties and other corporate booty at stake. (Shades of the Edison cylinder vs. the disk, or more recently, VHS vs. BETA . . .!) In any case, the audio consortium (which includes the likes of Classic Records and Chesky at the software end, and conrad-johnson, Muse and Ayre, to name a few, at the hardware side) have chosen to put their money on the DVD horse for some very good reasons -- there are over a million players already out there in the marketplace, the audio portion of DVD is already there and ready for use in two-channel playback desirable for high end audio and, most important, the discs are less costly to produce. They don't think that over a million people are going to be persuaded to trash their existing DVD players in exchange for a format that offers no discernible difference in quality yet whose software costs four times as much to produce while rejecting any other options of compatibility.

We shall see. (And, Mike predicts that the final line will be drawn before the end of the year.)

Another question too is whether or not there will be a rush to reissue existing CD titles (there has been an enormous output of LP reissues plus new recordings by current artists over the past 12 - 15 years) and whether or not such reissues (if they occur) will be attempts to sell rehashed 16/44.1 masters which are not upgradeable to 24/96. (Bits is bits, folks and y'all cain't make mo' bits than they is to start with!) Any reissue to the new format must go back to an analogue master first, if one exists.

Also, the density of the 24/96 format precludes any editing whatsoever (such things as adding reverb, etc., are included under the umbrella of "editing"). So, even a "live" recording, which could presumably be recorded at 24/96, might still want some "fixing," such as equalization. Since this is not possible in 24/96, Mike does not foresee it as a viable format for mastering.

Classic (and others) are of the opinion that the 24/96 format gives you a 98% approximation of what the master tape sounds like. Yes, that close to the Holy Grail, the revered and elusive Master Tape toward which we have all groped and for which we have all lusted, holding in such awe as the next best thing to the absolute sound . . . and yet which few audiophiles have ever actually heard.

We were told that in fact, we might not like the sound of the master tape at all! What heresy is this that Mike Hobson speaketh? In fact, he even went so far as to say that while the fidelity of the 24/96 format is extremely exciting to those who can make that comparison to the master tape itself, there is much polishing that takes place between the master and the final recording that make the sound more pleasurable, such as equalization, the addition of light reverb for spaciousness, etc. He also mused that this might justify a resurgence in equalizers as a way toward creating the kind of sound the individual listener finds the most pleasurable to his ears. (I just finished a conversation with a famous and respected (and crotchety) amplifier designer of the '80's who insists that preamps without tone controls are a ripoff (along with the missing phono stage(s)) . . . In fact, what he had to say on these issues is largely unprintable.)

So, okay . . . what did it sound like ?

In both of the cases where a standard 16 bit CD was available, the Red Rodney and Johanos/Dallas Symphony discs, it was typically good, but glassy, two-dimensional (to me) sound. Very pleasurable and of obvious quality, but no more exciting than listening to FM. On the Red Rodney, I in fact preferred the 24/96! While the 45 had a great sense of room ambience placing the players in a real space, plus a lifelike solidity and realism to the timbres and tonality of the instruments, there was the unmistakeable groove/surface noise of the vinyl which was noticeably absent on the 24/96. All other things being equal, I would prefer this quieter background against which the dynamics of the music are more dramatically perceived.

On the other hand, to my ears it was absolutely no contest on the Johanos, slight surface whooshing notwithstanding -- the 45 rpm won hands down in terms of just musical gestalt (as Harry Pearson defines that indefineable something that makes a recording sparkle with hair-raising life force).

The Chris Whitley 24/96 again took it away from the 45 in sheer resolution and detail of imaging. Lower midrange sound on the LP was somewhat spongy and overblown, most noticeable in the sound made by the performer's rhythmic, percussive foot tapping. On the DAD, there was no mistake that it was the sound of a shoe-clad foot hitting a wooden floor, whereas on the 45 it sounded just sort of "thuddy." Overall, the voice sounded more chest-sourced and the guitar in better perspective with the voice.

Given these results, it seemed strange that the Johanos alone stood testament to the LP's superiority. I would have to hear more, in more extended listening, to form a final no-ifs-ands-or-buts opinion, but suffice it to say that as it stands, I think it is a v a s t improvement over the standard CD, and I for one am glad that I did not invest heavily in a CD player (indeed, I did not invest in a CD player at all -- I'm not called "Anna Logg" for nuthin' you know!)

So, okay . . . what do we do now ?

Well, those of you who already have good CD gear can, according to Mike, realize most of the sonic improvement of the 24/96 by just getting an inexpensive DVD player (they go for around $400) to play the new discs in the interim while the technology sorts itself out and while high end manufacturers develop CD/DAD players of audiophile quality. The DVD player can then eventually be downgraded for use in a home theater setup if and when you decide to upgrade to a high end transitional DVD/CD player.

Shades of those old record players that offered cartridges that could be flipped back and forth for an LP versus 78 stylus. We have heard the future . . . and it seems that it is back to the future with deja vu all over again!

NJAS Members Comment On 24/96:

"Mike Hobson gave us food for thought in his talk about the pluses and minuses concerning the two basic types: vinyl and digital. After hearing what the DVD can do, as demonstrated by Classic Records, it was sometimes difficult to choose just which format was preferable. Digital can now be said to be able to compete very favorably with vinyl. And as we have heard, they do not sound the same. Just which you prefer depends on which format you feel best presents the essence of the music."

Bob Scott

* * * *

"IMHO, both the new 96/24 DAD and the 45 LP sounded far better than the present standard 44.1/16 CD.

The 96/24 demonstrated the tightest, best controlled lower frequencies and better focus throughout the entire audible frequency range than the LP. While Mike Hobson felt that the 96/24 more closely mimicked the analogue master tape, I felt that the trumpet on the preliminary selection sounded more natural on the 45. In subsequent listening to another cut, I thought the flute sounded more correct on the LP as well -- more immediate or palpable at any rate.

An interesting contrast was apparent in the high frequencies too. Where the 96/24 cuts had more treble energy and sounded more forward, the LP was softer, sweeter, and more laid back. While I confess that I preferred the LP's softer presentation, I tend to think that the treble from the DAD was probably closer to the master tape.


Realizing that the LPs we heard were of the absolute highest quality, it is pretty much a no-brainer to understand that the average 33 rpm. LP pressing won't come close to the quality of the Classic 45s Mike Hobson so graciously shared with the gathering -- this on about 7 or 8 thousand dollars worth of Basis/Graham/Benz-Micro.

Therefore, if, as Hobson claims, a $400. Panasonic DVD player can provide nearly that quality of sound and also play movies with 5.1 channel surround capability, I believe our choice will be clear... Unless of course Sony decides to screw it all up with a down & dirty format war !

Frank J. Alles

* * * *

"It was easy to hear that the 24/96 DAD was superior to the 16/44 CD. Was it better than the LP? To these ears, mostly yes. Is the CD sound less "being there" than the LP sound? Is the background sound of the stylus rubbing the groove walls the thing that makes LP's sound more "being there" because we are used to living in a world in which the everyday background noises that we hear are, for us, normal, while a complete lack of background noise, as in CD playback, is considered to be abnormal? These are good subjects for discussion by psycho-acoustic philosophers, i.e., audio society members."

Steve Perlmutter

© Copyright 1998 Anna Logg

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