ONLINE - ISSUE 21
From Clark Johnsen's Diaries
REALITY REDUX: Now, better than ever
[Note to exhibitors at future audio shows: the contents of this column are a must-read.]
Nearly a year ago I wrote about a phenomenon called Reality Check CDs, a non-computer-based method of creating CD-Rs far superior to both the originals and other CD-Rs. How much better were they? Here's what I declared:
The Biggest News You May Ever Read (About Audio)
Now announcing: The Discovery of the Next Decade, Already! And it's all about digital .
(Perhaps you might care to review that column, before continuing: (http://positive-feedback.com/Issue16/RealityCheck.htm)
Ladies and gentlemen, now I am here to tell you that I jumped the gun. George Louis, in his latest round of development (the man is nothing if not persistent), has created a spectacular improvement. Let me tell you the whole story.
In his initial flush of enthusiasm, George had offered his duplication units and software for sale to others, but wisely withdrew the offer after being berated by unpleasant Audio Asylum inmates for being unable to guarantee that every result would match his own (at a modest charge of $5/disc). Still busy as a bee in San Diego, he kept advancing his art and when I visited in January, after CES, the process was that much better. Now, however... well, let's be glad we had to wait.
The latest iteration has produced results way beyond any expectation one might have had. Here we have CDs of basic Redbook spec, made from factory-original RBCDs, that so put to shame the originals, one's head spins. How can this be? Yes, we all know (or have been told) that CD-R dupes do often sound better, and I have heard that myself, but Lordy! What an astonishing revelation these are.
George did four for me—each one done earlier too—and there can be no doubt that here we have a miracle. A miracle, not just of sound, but of science, because no one (except George) can explain just what's happening. The same old 16, the same old 44.1, and yet... and yet... a whole new world!
No need to greatly detail the listening; I hate that stuff anyway.
I took them up to hear on Bill Gaw's monster system. For the first time since he installed his magnificent HD video experience several years ago, we avoided the screen almost entirely and after system warm-up did just music. First up: Highway 61 Revisited, revisited for the Nth time. "Desolation Row", dearly beloved from years past, also happens to be the last tune I played before dismantling The Listening Studio after twenty years of joy. (Some irony there, as the building became a desolate parking garage.) But never had I heard it to such glorious effect. The voice, the harp... Despite its pan-pot production, I remarked afterwards, and could hardly believe I was hearing this phraseology issuing from my mouth, "Sounds like a direct connection to the master tape."
Bill then put on an SACD of a roughly contemporary work, Blonde on Blonde, viz. "Visions of Johanna". Good, but no comparison. But then, that may have been an unfair comparison.
We followed those with an old Merc, the Hary Janos suite. Can there be a piece of classical music more inimical to digital reproduction than Hary Janos? I think not. The original RBCD was edgy and uncomfortable, although rangy. The RCCD conveyed the sweep and majesty and even the humor of Kodaly's writing without the slightest hint of the punishing aspect of digital audio. And, God! What a great recording.
But even that was eclipsed by the Everest "sampler" disc of music recorded by the late, great Bert Whyte, much of it on 35mm tape. I'd never heard it before! Not really, anyway. There seemed to be no intervention whatsoever between us and the musicians—unlike with the original CD, which sounded edgy, hard and unmusical. Anyway, amusical—like so many CDs.
For over an hour we both sat moved, and unmoving, arising only to correct the polarity, which (as usual) varied among the cuts. Thus I am now prepared to say, these are the best recordings ever made (great performances too!) with only one caveat: I haven't heard any of the competition as re-done by Reality Check.
Is it not a marvelous thing? That I, who for twenty years have disdained digital sound in a very public way, am now on record with these thoughts? Not that early digital reproduction didn't truly suck—it did, and digital mostly still does—but never had I imagined that the 16/44.1 PCM encoding scheme was not itself basically to blame. Now it would appear, not unlike with the LP, that information was locked up which only now we are learning to retrieve, and a fellow in San Diego barely connected to the industry, either computer or audio, has located the key.
What's the explanation?
George is understandably cagey about revealing his secrets, wanting, after spending so much time and research dollars on it, to regain some of his investment—even, quel horreur, make a profit. Off the record I have been vouchsafed some details, but not the main deal. Folks, I haven't the faintest.
First there is the mystery of why CD-Rs do most often sound better than the originals. To my knowledge no one has explained that trick. You won't find an answer in the Journal of the Audio Engineering Society, who are in avoidance mode, if not in full denial. Yet many pros have known for years that DAT masters and such excel the sound of CDs made from them, although that knowledge was hidden from the public, including not only readers of the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal and Sound & Vision, but of Stereophile and The Absolute Sound as well. My own thinking tends towards misunderstood or not-understood problems in playback; the CD-Rs, with their smoother pit profile, don't stimulate the, ah, anxieties in players that mass-produced RBCDs do. But most CD-Rs are produced through computers and George is dead set against that.
Then there is jitter. At first dismissed by the "experts", then, after Ed Meitner's ground-breaking research, delivered to the AES in 1991 (I was there), then gradually accepted, then elevated (this is how the experts work) to the throne of the be-all explanation. George, and he is not alone, dismisses this exclusivity. Jitter, yes, but there must be more.
Error correction! Yes, that's it! Those two together must be the total explanation.
No. Synchromonics. That's George's word for what he achieves. The idea is to align all the transient overtones of each note to fall together in time, as they naturally do in analog but not (for some reason) in digital. The principle element of his software algorithm addresses that problem. And indeed, what one hears is sharper transients. Jitter and error correction are addressed by him too, but secondarily.
Now George has been accused, unfairly and incorrectly he says, of rolling off the treble, changing the bits and reversing some of the polarities. Had he done the last, I for one would be very unhappy, as it would complicate comparisons and he realizes that. The bit profile, I cannot address. As for the treble, when the edgy enharmonics of CD are reduced or eliminated, it's often the case that treble seems reduced, although in fact the upper registers are portrayed more realistically.
As an aside, no symphony hall I've ever been in (except Avery Fisher) sounds in the slightest bright.
But there is more
Just last week there was a high-level (at least for around here) convocation to assess the latest RCCD results. Present besides myself were the owner/operators of the three best systems to which I have regular access: Bill "Doc" Gaw, Kwame Ofori-Asante and Steve Klein, at whose place the meeting occurred. Each of these gentlemen have high-efficiency systems driven by 300B amps, variously Audionote Japan, Mactone, Vacuum State and Border Patrol. Not too shoddy in the turntable department either: Walker Proscenium, Simon Yorke, Basis Debut Signature Vacuum. Expensive arms and cartridges too, and Vibraplanes galore. Without resentment I can assure you that each of these systems is better than anything I have ever put together.
Nor has mere money just been thrown at them. Each obeys the rule I first laid down fifteen or twenty years ago: Spending time, earns you greater rewards than spending money.
Not only were we there to listen to George-made RCCDs, but Bill had just acquired his own duplicator. So how well did that perform in comparison? Tough to say. There were several complications. For starts, Bill had only one left of the special CD-Rs that George supplies (more were on the way). At least we were able to dupe on three different types: George's, Imation and Memorex. Of the result there could be no question: The first was far superior.
Unfortunately that winner was not quite up to the snuff of the George-made version. That may be attributed to the fact that we failed, deliberately, to tweak the unit in any way. No isolation base, no specialty AC cord, no AC filtering, no case damping. Straight stock. George, needless to say, pays attention to those matters (and more) when he makes dupes for others. We did, however, follow his instructions for cleaning and treating the blanks before duplication.
There were two mild surprises. First, a dupe we made on Memorex of a George-made dupe came damn close and was noticeably superior to the one made directly (on Memorex) from the same RBCD. Huh?
Then we put on the original 10" LP of Ricki Lee Jones' version of Under the Boardwalk that we'd been using. Yes it was better, but only slightly—and already I've told you about the majesty of these guys' record-playing gear. Moreover, one has the imponderables of what mastertape generation each was cut from and the pro equipment employed. It could go either way.
Do you want in now? Entry comes at a price. Hold on to your hats. George will make you one of his own CD-Rs for—$65! As many as you want, actually. Sky's the limit!
Yes, I know what you're thinking. I'm with you. But the deal goes on: If you're not happy, he'll give you a full refund, plus—get this!—five dollars for your trouble, and you get to keep the CD-R.
I have told him not to do this. It's too much. People will be suspicious, feel perhaps overly beholden to him and not wish to engage in a transaction where they feel pressured—if only by themselves—not to take such advantage... say, if they're only mildly impressed. George replies that he thinks the totally upfront attitude will be encouraging. OK, I certainly hope so.
But there is more. George has once again put his duplication unit on the market. For $575 you can have it, details at the end. Also he sells his special CD-Rs, $125/hundred, or with the unit $100. Crazy? Think how much some people, perhaps yourself, spend on player and DAC—thousands!—and nothing they do, in my experience, improves CD sound like this.
And there is still more. Already I know that his ClearBit solution excels even the excellent Vivid (updated version soon to arrive however), the new Auric Illuminator (a very close second) and of course the standard Optrix, which nevertheless has the triple virtues of being the standard, being the cheapest, and being beloved of Harry. (Don't miss my next column, A Letter to Harry.)
Now we have, from George's Digital Systems and Solutions, yet another liquid product, ClearDisc. ClearDisc is actually a cleaner, whereas ClearBit is, well, a treatment. First you do one, then the other, after five-minute interval in between please.
The result? A poor man's Reality Check. Excellent value, for $16 and $40 respectively. We liked it a lot, but the RCCD process more than doubles the fun.
And now, an answer to the question that must be burning in the minds of many readers: What effect does the Intelligent Chip have on these RCCDs? Marginal, but definite. Is there no end to wonder? Or any beginning to explanation? "The greatest obstacle to discovery is not ignorance, it is the illusion of knowledge." Daniel J. Boorstin.
Finally, we have paid George Louis the ultimate compliment. All three of us have now bought his duplicator, just as we three did after first hearing the Vibraplane.
Why haven't the experts on digital audio—ranging from AES types (Hey, I'm a member too) through our vaunted high-end designers and down to Sony—figured this stuff out, after twenty-five years at the helm? I submit one answer: They were generally so pleased with themselves, they never were able to hear the error of their ways despite voices raised in protest.
And now, a powerful suggestion. If you're an exhibitor at any upcoming audio show, there is nothing—nothing!—you can do for anywhere near the price that exceeds the effectiveness of these sonic enrichments. Make a compilation CD with all your favorite tracks, then send it off to George. Let the yokels think it's your gear that sounds so great. You'll be laughing all the way to the bank, knowing it's your source quality that swung them. Do it soon and you'll be way ahead of the pack.
Non-exhibitors: You didn't read that!
See how you get a leg up by following Positive Feedback? No one else knows yet! Uh-oh. Waitaminnit. Bill Gaw has readers too, on Enjoythemusic.com. He's on the case as well, in his very enjoyable Audiolics Anonymous column. Damn! That's what I get, for taking him my stuff.
On a personal footnote, I might add that regularizing the polarity of all selections on that compilation disc would further aggrandize an exhibitor's enviable position.
Now back to work on A Letter to Harry.
There you have it. Why wait? You can call George at 619-401-9876 between 8 AM and 11:30 PM Pacific time. Or you can write him at firstname.lastname@example.org
Or you can mail him your CD at:
Digital Systems & Solutions
A word to the wise: Unless you have cheap minutes and extra time, I recommend not calling.
In all good consciousness I must tell you, the world seems rife these days with corrections for Redbook CDs, and who can blame one for trying to improve the awful things? Besides George Louis I am in touch with three other individuals who claim to have solved the problems to create a technology that makes most RBCDs grandly listenable. I must believe that there is more than one way to rope a bear. So far, however, judging by the samples I've been sent, RCCD way outclasses the others. The one I have not heard, however, is a regular-type player, only very special, due for introduction at the next CES. It sounds very promising, but then you can't take discs around that play better everywhere can you? Still…
Welcome to the underground.
Read George's response here.