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Positive Feedback ISSUE 16
november/december 2004


A First Look at the Sonics of the New Mercury Living Presence SACDs
by Robert H. Levi


The first five Mercury Living Presence SACDs are now available, and they are wonderful! They eclipse the rather disappointing effort made by BMG to put RCA Living Stereo on SACD. They sound like real music in real space. They sound (more or less) like the master tapes. They are superb! The first five reissues include Stravinsky, The Firebird (4706432), Suppe, Overtures (4706382), J.S. Bach, The Cello Suites (4706442), Respighi, Ancient Airs and Dances (4706372), and Rachmaninoff, Piano Concertos 2 and 3 (4706392).

The CD layers are the original CD recordings, done in the 90s, and they sound that way—crisp, dry, forward, and sibilant. The SACD layers are vastly superior. The work on these was done in Germany, including the pressings, at Emil Berliner Studios. As with the RCA reissues, they used a Studer tape machine and solid state electronics, but they used Wilma Cozart Fine's Ampex for comparison and mixing. If you aren't using the original tape deck, a real-time reference is the next best thing! Here, superior taste governs, and the results are musical and realistic. There is not a hint of dryness, only superior depth and definition. Should they have been mastered with tubes? Maybe, but the Germans used some very articulate and sweet sounding solid state electronics. They achieved neutrality with a bit of sweetness and warmth, they eliminated colorations, and they gave us musical sound!

Respighi, Ancient Airs and Dances - A minus

The CD track is a bit plastic-sounding, with very good imaging and nice depth. It sounds like an older digital pass, with crunchy dynamics, and dry and peaky sound. The SACD layer sounds mellifluous and delicate. There is more apparent depth, the texture is better, and the highs are a bit sweet. All plastic coloration is gone. The sound is entertaining and fun. The air around instruments is clearer. The hiss is similar to that of the LP and CD, with no apparent attempt to doctor it away. (The RCAs sound doctored to me.) I was delighted with the delicious master-tape-like sound. The SACD does not sound like an LP or CD, but may be better than both. Distortion was close to zero. There was a “you are there” quality to the sound. An engineer with very good taste and excellent hearing did these transfers!

Suppe, Overtures - A minus

Again, the CD sound was not very appealing, but the SACD sound was both thrilling and delightful. The SACD process has lots of headroom, and they used it. Lots of added depth, detail, and soundstaging were apparent. This is a winning, entertaining recording, though it's not the best of the lot. The disc sounds cushy, with lots of air. It is sweeter than the others, which may be due to microphone coloration.

Johann Sebastian Bach, Suites for Solo Cello, Janos Starker - A

Very good CD sound—better than the rest. The SACD sound is stunning and alive! This is a WOW! I loved the realistic textures and tactile sound. This is a must-buy if you love cello. It will also be a great test disc for checking imaging, air, soundstaging, and the like. It's a two-SACD set for the same $20 list price, so it's a great value, too.

Stravinsky, The Firebird, Antal Dorati/London Symphony Orchestra - A plus

The CD layer is very good, but still plastic and sibilant. The brass is thin as well.

The SACD reproduction is fantastic and alive, with superb depth, luxurious detail, wonderful horns, and great bass drum definition. There is no sibilance or dryness. There is lots of depth and air, with oodles of master tape solidity. The SACD is possibly bettered by the Classic Records LP, but the LP is more different than superior. The SACD's crescendos are a bit laid back compared to the LP. This is the first time I've heard an SACD reissue in which the engineer did not try to use every available bit. This is a killer SACD, and a must-buy!

Rachmaninoff, Piano Concertos 2 and 3, Byron Janis, Antal Dorati, Minneapolis Symphony Orchestra, Lonson Symphony Orchestra - A plus plus

The CD layer is the best of the bunch, but it is clearly and dramatically bettered by the SACD layer. The piano is near perfect in its blending into the orchestral spread. The sound is realistic, natural, smooth, sweet, mellifluous, and airy. The definition is master tape gorgeous and oh so delicious. And what wonderful performances! You will lose yourself in the sound and grandeur of this disc. Buy it with your first SACD player if you don't already have one.

With better taste and attention to musical cues than the RCA releases, the Mercury SACD releases are must-haves. They are full price, but worth it. The CD layers are a waste of time. The two-channel SACD layers are wonderful and alive, with virtually no discernible colorations. I was not able to hear the three-channel layers, but they must be really grand. Maybe I'll buy a third speaker! These discs are that good. Buy all of them. Give them as gifts. Vote with your dollars, and we'll get the SACD goods. May I have some more, sir? Robert H. Levi