DIATRIBES AND DIGRESSIONS
New Formats and the Real World.
by David Dyer
If like me you have been listening to classical music
for twenty years or more, quite a lot more in my case, you will probably
have a reasonably large collection of CDs, say a couple of hundred Ö
or even more. You will also probably have a mortgage and various financial
commitments which are part and parcel of normal mature adult-with-family
life. The chances are also pretty strong that your enthusiasm for music
will not be matched to the same degree by your partner. Your pursuit
of music will therefore be subject to a certain amount of critical scrutiny
by your nearest and dearest, particularly when it comes to spending
on changes to the "family" sound system. I use the term 'family'
because although you may be the principal user, it will have been funded
with money which could have been spent on "more useful things"
for the family, the house or whatever.
If at this stage you havenít a clue as to what Iím
talking about, then count yourself as very fortunate indeed!
Returning to my theme. The advent of new, "better",
sound formats is therefore bound to be a cause of mixed emotions. Eager
anticipation of the prospect of superior, more involving, musical experiences
in the home will normally be accompanied by a certain amount of unease
and concern as to how to obtain the acquiescence of the aforementioned
nearest and dearest. The usual inducements normally involve a quid
pro quo but this tends to double the cost, at least.
Having spent much of my working life as a salesman
I believe that to sell most effectively, whether it be a product or
an idea, you need to have deep faith in what you are selling. So to
sell the idea of the new technology to you-know-who, it will be of considerable
assistance to have faith, lots of faith.
Perhaps I have been fortunate but most of the people
I have met in my life have been basically honest and decent, and that
includes the majority of my colleagues in sales. Because of that honesty,
although we may be cautious or even sceptical, only the most embittered
cynic expects professional organisations such as companies to tell lies.
The problem is that when it comes to people who create advertising copy,
we tend to forget that their sole mission is to instil a desire on the
part of consumers to buy their product. This is quite different from
telling us what we really need to know about it. Objective, balanced
descriptions are the last thing they are there to provide. Regrettably,
their message will be intended to "bring a little joy and happiness"
into the lives of prospective consumers by telling them what they want
to hear, and if that involves a certain amount of exaggeration or omission,
so what. Not that they are entirely to blame. The senior executives
who sanction their companiesí products being promoted in this way are,
in my opinion, even more culpable.
If you think Iím being unfair then try to remember
the last time you saw an advertisement which gave the cons as well as
the pros. And while youíre at it, do you remember "Perfect Sound
Forever", or even worse, that shameful effort from one of the hardware
manufacturers which showed a compact disc having a gouge dug across
its surface by a pair of scissors, yet implied that the disc would continue
to play perfectly.
I therefore suggest that before embarking on a demeaning
and possibly costly campaign to overcome the obstacles to the acquisition
of this wondrous new technology so glowingly described, itís worth checking
out the claims made with some care.
At the moment in the UK there are two new audio formats
receiving considerable hype, these are DVD- Audio and SACD (Super Audio
CD). Both offer multi-channel surround sound as well as two-channel
stereo. DVD-Audio discs can only be played on a DVD-Video or a DVD-Audio
machine. These machines will also play CDs, but the consensus of reviews
in the technical press suggest that currently only the more expensive
machines do so competently. The DVD-Audio discs themselves cannot be
played on a CD player. Although I understand that DVD-Audio discs can
contain images, many of the discs are audio only with perhaps a single
visual Contents page. SACD machines on the other hand are compatible
with only SACDs and conventional CDs, but appear to offer superior replay
of CDs compared with DVD machines in the same price bracket. Super Audio
CD is primarily an audio only format, although machines are now being
offered which incorporate the replay of standard quality DVD.
Sadly neither DVD-Audio machines nor SACD machines
provide an uncompromised digital output which could be fed to the separate
DACs which many of us already have in our audio systems. The best we
can get from them is a CD quality output. Recently Pioneer announced
the imminent availability of a universal player which will handle all
formats, but it remains to be seen and heard whether it performs all
functions equally well.
If you are confused it is hardly surprising, with not
only two new allegedly superior sound formats being promoted, but also
surround-sound as an alternative to stereo. A cynic might be tempted
to believe that the variety of choice and resulting confusion on the
part of the consumer provides an opportunity which some companies will
find irresistible, as you will see later.
At the moment the market is clearly a minefield, and
only the very young or extremely foolish would ignore previous instances
when competing technologies met head on. Experience shows that there
is normally one winner and two losers, the second loser being the unfortunate
consumer who chose incorrectly.
The emphasis currently directed towards surround sound
software seems to be aimed mainly at those whose interest is in films.
This is confirmed by the paucity of classical DVDs available. I have
no argument with those who only want films, and good luck and many hours
of enjoyment I wish them. However, films are not my own cup of tea.
I am of course aware that during the past year or two
there have been a number of highly favourable reports from respected
sources, that multi-channel recordings can represent a major step forward,
even for those like me whose interest is mainly in classical music.
At present I find this irrelevant because, having invested heavily relative
to my financial means in optimising the stereo replay of music, I have
neither the space nor the cash to provide additional amplification and
speakers of comparable quality. I suspect that I am not alone in this.
As a consequence, my current concern lies solely with ordinary DVD for
audio/visual replay of opera and ballet. I remain wedded to CDs for
audio-only stereo replay of orchestral, instrumental, and chamber music.
However, I am very interested in any format which provides improved
two-channel audio from my own existing collection as well as the benefits
to be expected from forthcoming recordings using new technology.
Despite the hype and a veritable proliferation of new
machines, the availability of DVD-Audio discs and SACDs of classical
music are very few. Admittedly SACD offers a larger, albeit still miserly,
catalogue at the moment, so even those fortunate souls blessed with
cash to be spent without hindrance will find that there are probably
more machines available to buy than there are discs which can be played
Although more and more of the record companies are
stating an intention to reduce this famine, so far their efforts have
been lamentable. This may not be so surprising if you consider the way
in which many of them have been bemoaning the reduction in their sales
of classical recordings. Even the braver and more farsighted companies
who recognise the new technology as an opportunity to regenerate sales
may be deterred by the prospect of backing the wrong format. However,
the sceptic in me can well understand that the prospect of selling-off
old recordings under the banner of new technology might be quite attractive
to all but the most ethical. With this in mind it may be instructive
to read an article in the January 2002 edition of Hi-Fi News by the
respected technical journalist Barry Fox. This examines among other
things the issue by a major recording company of alleged DVD-Audio discs
based on seventies recordings. If I have understood the article correctly,
it appears that these discs, rather
than being a remix of original multi-track master tapes, are actually
derived by replaying the stereo recording through loudspeakers in a
recording studio. That acoustic output has then been
re-recorded for release as surround sound DVD-Audio. How long will it
be I wonder before we are offered DVD-Audio recordings of Caruso.
You must draw your own conclusions about this sort
of manipulation, preferably after reading Barry Foxís article for yourselves.
Mine are unrepeatable. A further aspect of this sort of activity is
that it could damage the prospects for sales of the genuinely new recordings
made using genuine DVD-Audio technology.
So, given the present state of the market what is the
best option for the music lover with a substantial investment in ordinary
CDs, and good kit on which to play it? Well honestly I donít know and
I donít think anyone else does either. It does seem, at present that,
if your interest lies more in the audio than the visual, SACD is the
best bet providing it survives; which I hope it does. If contemplating
change however, the fundamental question before committing to any expense
should surely be the magnitude of the prize to be gained.
I have heard neither DVD-Audio nor SACD played to their
full potential ie. on the appropriate machines, possibly even in multi-channel
sound if necessary. Whatís more, until the catalogue becomes considerably
more attractive, I have little interest in doing so. But I am interested
in the way these new machines perform with my present collection, because
even a marginal gain may be justified if it offers greater rewards as
the new software becomes available. With this in mind I have conducted
two brief comparisons in recent months with examples of each format
played in its "fallback" mode. The first was to compare an
SACD and a CD version of the same recording both played as CDs using
my Proceed transport feeding a Chord Electronics DAC. In principle I
know of no reason why there should be any perceivable difference, however
my impression, albeit on only a very brief hearing, was that the no
frills CD sounded better focused with a richer bass. I hope to repeat
this evaluation at proper length before too long.
The second comparison was more leisurely, in this case
the DVD Audio version of the Simon Rattle recording of Mahlerís tenth
symphony, again compared against the CD version of the same work. In
this instance the difference was readily perceptible, with the CD sounding
to my ears, and those of our esteemed web-master, altogether better
integrated, giving a much more satisfactory overall impression. In all
fairness some or all of the superiority noted in this case may be attributable
to the difference in equipment and cables. The DVD (stereo) version
was played on my well regarded but hardly audiophile-quality Arcam DV
88 with phono / BNC-terminated digital lead. The CD, as in the previous
comparison was played on the Proceed (at approaching three times the
price), with a balanced feed. The Chord Electronics DAC was used in
both cases. Whatever the reason, under those conditions the theoretical
advantage of the claimed "higher resolution" format of the
DVD-Audio disc was clearly less satisfying.
So what conclusions can be drawn from this? Clearly
with such restricted and superficial comparisons - none. Only a good
dealer has the facilities and expertise to perform a truly meaningful
comparison, as well as advising on the best combination of formats to
suit your own needs. Both DVD-Audio and SACD are hybrids. They perform
two functions, and it would hardly be surprising if manufacturers of
both the hardware and software were to devote the bulk of their efforts
and expenditure on the new format, leaving compatibility with the old
formats as a token bonus.
As for me, well ... if I were thinking of changing
either my CD player or my DVD player for one of the new generation,
I would be sure to take some of my existing discs along just to make
sure that what I gained on the new-format roundabouts, wouldnít be lost
on the old-format swings.
Now I wonder if that Pioneer universal player has uncorrupted
external digital outputs, or will there perhaps be a transport-only
MAY BE HI-FI BUT IS IT MUSIC?