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Living Stereo in SACD
by Robert H. Levi


Tchaikovsky, Piano Concerto No. 1, Rachmaninoff, Piano Concerto No. 2, Van Cliburn, Kyril Kondrashin and Fritz Reiner, conductors (RCA/BMG 82876-61392-2) vs. Tchaikovsky, Piano Concerto No. 1 (RCA Victor LSC 2252, 23S Shaded Dog pressing)

Here we go again! The first ten shaded dogs from RCA's top producers pop out of the vault in pristine condition after fifty years or so, redone in the latest format. This time is different, they say. The SACD format will give you the sound of the master tape in your own home. I've listened to all ten, and can report that they do sound very good—occasionally almost excellent. They sound different rather than better than the XRCD issues, and tie or beat any other digital reissues of which I am aware, but are they the second coming (or, shall I say, the twenty-second coming)? Absolutely not.

An effort was made by BMG. They used the RCA master tapes. Three-track tapes were blended into two channels for stereo. In surround, three-track tapes became left, right, and center, with no rear channels. If only two-channel tapes were available, they are provided only in stereo, with no surround mode. This was all very "audiophile," though I wonder whether it was done for authenticity or because it was cheaper. The tape recorder was a Studer machine similar to an Ampex ATR, with Aria mods. Per Aria's website, the electronics incorporate:

  • Class A circuitry throughout the audio path, utilizing discrete transistors. There are no integrated circuits in the audio path.

  • A transformerless topology, which enhances transient response and extends bandwidth.

  • A whopping 438 kHz bias frequency, assuring ample separation from the audio bandwidth and contributing to the ultra-low overall distortion.

  • Super-high-current record/bias amplifiers, providing headroom that far exceeds any other recorder, past or present.Independent channel circuit cards, simplifying service and factory support, reducing spares stock and down time, enhancing reliability, and eliminating future interconnect problems.

They used Siltech interconnects, which are fine products, but which have a definite "New York" sound—in your face. No signal processing was used to "improve" the recordings, although someone had to make decisions about the proper way to blend the channels. To get this kind of vivid sound, someone did some judicious tweaking. These SACDs don't sound like downloads, and they don't sound at all like the bleached Chesky reissues of fifteen years ago, which were also taken directly off the master tapes.

Here's my problem: They could have gotten an "A" rather than a "B" for their efforts, damn it. Who knows how much longer these aged tapes will hold up? Why on earth didn't BMG use some real judgment and use a TUBE Ampex tape recorder, like the original deck, tricked out by someone like Tim de Paravicini? Why oh why in the name of all that's audio did they use a solid state machine, and a Studer, no less? Whose bright idea was it to use Siltech cables? Why didn't they listen to the original LPs to check balances? Whose lack of taste dictated that these recordings should sound like they were recorded last week? These SACDs aren't bad, but they could have been a contender! Instead, the effort is only slightly above the ordinary, at least in two-channel.

I will focus on the Van Cliburn disc, as it seems representative of the group. Comparing the LP to the SACD was fascinating. I went to great lengths to minimize system differences. The LP and SACD front ends are wired entirely with Kimber Select. I even used the same Tara Decade AC cables in both front ends. I gave the Van Cliburn SACD a spin in the Bedini before playing, and it made a difference. My ZYX R100H cartridge is as revealing as it gets, and so is my ModWright Sony 999 with Signature Truth Mod. The LP was cleaned in a VPI 16.5 with L'Art Du Son record cleaning solution. Let the musical truth be known.

The SACD is clean, clear, well textured, and very big sounding. There's lots of depth and solid imaging. The sound is vivid, bold, swaggering, and entertaining. Does it sound like a master tape? No way. Does it sound like an LP? No way. What does it sound like? A fairly modern recording, say 1975. It has less tape hiss than I expected from 1955 master tapes. The Aria mod must dampen tape hiss somewhat. So much for linearity.

The textural differences were interesting. Transients on the SACD have vivid leading edges, with textures a bit laid back after the initial impact. There are good textures on the follow though, but they're on the cool side of neutral. The LP presents the same note as a whole, with the leading edges blending more musically into the sonic texture. There is a certain je ne c'est quoi to the sound of the LP that is quite believable. It's just not there in the SACD. The SACD seems lost in a race for super detail, in which delicacy comes in second. The LP is vastly more delicate.

These SACDs will do richness, and occasionally sweetness, but never warmth. I missed this, and believe that BMG's choice of the Studer is the main problem. Depth perspective was close. The depth on the LP was slightly superior on my Eidolons. There was so much attack going on with the SACD that it was difficult to focus on depth. My ModWright Sony usually ties or even betters my ZYX in these important musical parameters, so I was surprised at this turn of events. Here is a 1958 LP, and it still sounds more authentic.

The LP is noisier, less dynamic, a bit smaller. It is also very nearly alive. It is so vivid and detailed that the SACD sounds like a zombie vs. a human being in comparison. I would be happy if the SACD replicated the solidity of the master tape without slightly bleaching the sound. It does neither. The producers at BMG, who strived so hard to clone a copy of the master tape, missed Shangrila and gave us something like Disney World. It's a nice replica, but certainly not the real thing. Why didn't this project bring us something new and amazing? Where was Wilma C. Fine, or Tim de P., or Bernie Grundman, when we most needed them?

Other SACDs sound mellifluous and delicate. I have dozens of SACDs, mostly Telarcs, that yield master tape authority and musicality in spades. There is no excuse for BMG not to do so. I think the answer lies in pricing. These SACDs will be mid-priced, about $13 each. This is the only breakthrough to come out of this project. XRCDs remain $30 each, and are amazing efforts for low-bit CDs. Sampler SACDs from other companies are more costly than these, with less important and commanding material. I suspect that if these SACDs had been full price, we'd have seen heavyweight producers involved, and higher taste levels to boot.

By the way, the Saint Saens Organ Symphony SACD is a killer. It rattles the roof. It's lots of fun. The sound is still a bit dry and overdone (i.e., solid state), but for some reason the crispness is not as obvious. It sounds amazingly clean and undistorted for its age. I have never heard this recording sound totally right in any media, so this one is as right as it gets.

Should you buy these recordings? They are better than the Living Stereo CDs of fifteen years ago, with fewer digital artifacts. I think the XRCDs are somewhat more textured and more realistic, but they are not twice as good despite being twice as expensive. I think these SACDs are worth the budget price you will pay for them, and not a penny more. Buy them, but pay as little as you can. Figure that a vote for the Living Stereo SACDS is a vote for the future of an audiophile medium that we need. Let's all go to Disney World one more time. Robert H. Levi