ONLINE - ISSUE 24
From Clark Johnsen's Diaries: The Great Debate, Part the Nth - AND a Startling Product Announcement
Sow the seeds of evolution
On they go, the Great Debate and Revolution. What a pair.
But first, is it not hilarious that even here in this scientific backwater known as audio, so many of us be locked into a petty personal narrative? And that, although not unlike with the big boys in biology and astronomy, dissident views be greeted with hoots and hollers?
Solid state, the mensurable and commercial winner, for devoted listeners still yields not a whit to vacuum state; likewise by every measure CD triumphed over the favored LP. In each case the former was a much-heralded "revolution", the latter an evolutionary advance—and still evolving.
Yet mere listeners ("subjectivists") are thoroughly disdained by the measurements men ("objectivists"), who instruct that no statements regarding better sound may be made without "proof". The former simply reply, "Who's asking?"
We have here what's called a Sicilian standoff.
There's more. Holdouts from silicon and digital acculturation are thought by up-to-date university types to be worse than Republicans, or evangelical Christians even, for they pursue their deviancy with a devotion that baffles anyone under thrall to academe. Even the Wall Street Journal's otherwise observant technical editor Walter Mossberg salutes academe when he writes about the wonders of digital audio.
Story: At a party twenty years ago I was introduced to some people as one who thought CDs sucked. That was the very word used. I nearly got beat up, they became so angry. Of course we'd all had a wee to drink, and our host enjoyed provoking the conflict, but those guys were stoneface serious about their beliefs. There was no talking to them, because they did all the talking.
That's how conditioned minds react.
And now, ironically, here I am writing what a great thing CDs have become—and those same party guys would be dissing me for not getting with MP3!
On it goes. But: CDs, "great"?
Yes, and it pains me no end to say so. But, just as one had no idea until much later what those grooves from the Fifties and Sixties held (and, to be contrary again and invite getting beaten up once more, grooves from the Twenties and the Thirties as well), it has come to pass that what's inscribed on CDs be not the indelibly edgy sonic trash so many including myself had thought, but rather, a very decent copy of the master. Even the older masters from the Golden Era. Especially them!
How could that be, you ask?
Very simple: Just as with the wonderful LPs of forty or fifty years ago, no one knew how good they were making them; and, as the Clark Johnsen corollary states, had they known, they would never have made them so well.
Thus too with CD—and with any luck, MP3. But I get ahead of myself.
Two years ago I was apprised by George Louis, whom I hadn't seen for nearly a decade, of a new process for invigorating CDs—not just tweaking them, but fully remodeling them with a system he called Reality Check, which ripped and burned new copies without a computer. I sent him some discs and the returned results were gratifying. Then, George being George, as I was soon to learn, he informed me of a major improvement, so I sent the same CDs back and was duly impressed with the new results. And then I received another call...
Somewhere along the line the first Positive Feedback Online column about this phenomenon appeared and started the ball rolling. George received many inquiries and duped dozens of CDs for PFO readers. The outcomes were entirely favorable, sonically, but still there were those who demanded proofs and guarantees, so George, miffed, withdrew the offer.
Several months later he reached another plateau and I wrote another column extolling the virtues of Reality Check and questioning consensus reality. This time George had something truly monumental. There could be no denying, after even casual listening, that here was a procedure that yanked CDs out of edginess and amusicality, into the realm of analog.
But who would listen to this apparent ranting, outside a coterie of devoted enthusiasts?
None of the major, or minor, magazines picked up on this unexpected turn of events, nor any manufacturer, high end or low. And why should they? They had a good thing going: a captive and eager audience for off-the-shelf product. No blame to them. The function of audio publishing, any publishing, is to promote participation in an established industry by a pecunious segment of the public. This includes politics.
Not to mince words: CD inventors Sony and Philips now stand exposed as inept and amateurish, so too Wadia, dCS, Levinson, Linn, and other glamorous names. They did not, nor do they now, comprehend the enormous complexity of CD information transfer when it comes to music. Thus a $500 device that put them totally to shame could not be tolerated, so it languished, not covered by the loyalist press.
Until (ahem!) I happened along, and later Bill Gaw on EnjoyTheMusic.com. We were the only ones (I toot my own horn here with considerable sadness) plus a few on-liners and friends who became devoted enthusiasts.
Subsequent developments have proved, to a small circle of experimenters divided between the Boston area and San Diego, that strides far beyond anyone's imagination or expectation, my own included, have been taken. How this was attained, and where it may lead, are the topics today.
CD was ripe for improvement, so dreadful did it sound, although many disagreed and still do. Throughout the pro-audio world CD had become the sure route to bring "studio quality" sound to the masses; many in "the high end" demurred, however. Yet even among these there were some who declared CD a winner right out of the gate. One was the venerable J. Gordon Holt. What to make of his haywire advocacy?
Best answer: Differing experience and differing expectation.
For example, many CD devotees when discussing "the inferior sound of LPs" cite "clicks and pops", which assuredly have nothing to do with sound per se. Likewise for them the convenience factor prevails—no touchy setting the needle down, no slipping a record carefully back into its sleeve. Unmentioned, the occasional obtrusive CD "helicoptering", the occasional problem with getting to a track, but let it pass, let it pass.
Unmentioned too, the undeniable and terrific improvements that certain treatments are known to provide for CD sound. These get lumped by foes under the dismissive rubric, "tweaks". Also they allege that tweakers are self-deluded saps. I ask you, what has happened to this once glorious hands-on hobby?
One word I offer: Gone. Gone, the traditional practice of audio. Gone, the experimental perspective. Gone the hobbyist vigor, gone the individual ear. Gone the dancers, home from the hills. Gone, all gone.
Gone, anyway, for anyone who accepted CD as anything even close to perfect sound, forever. The undivulged truth, however—known only to insiders—was that CD sounded nowhere close to digital mastertapes.
Again, how could that be?
How this discrepancy could have eluded public notice may someday be explained; at any rate such knowledge never surfaced in the newsstand press and only occasionally in the specialist underground press, besides here in Positive Feedback Online.
Be that as it may, Redbook CDs have engendered three subsequent embodiments: HDCD, SACD and DVD-A. Each in its way produces a closer experience of the mastertape, whether analog or digital. But not until recently were we vouchsafed that all our Redbook CDs from the previous twenty-five years may be really excellent copies of the masters, although only when certain steps be taken by the user—until such time as equipment comes along to read them rightly, which may be sooner than you think.
Yes, gentlemen and ladies, achievement of quality audio is now returned to the hands of practitioners, hobbyists, and experimenters. As well it ought to be.
This "CD tweaking" historically began with the famous green ink and the infamous Armor All. As though that weren't weird enough, along came the "degausser", a discovery courtesy of yours truly, back before, as though in a previous life, he became a writer.
Ah, yes. Writing, you should know, changes everything. Writing is what forces a person to think. Hell, writing IS thinking. Glittering thoughts in one's mind, however happily lodged there, must be aligned and organized before being committed to paper or screen. Because others are watching! Good writing is like good make-up: It enhances the face and increases the attraction but no one should notice the effort.
Writing for reporting further increases one's precaution, as duplicity, cupidity and self-delusion lurk. The last may be avoided, but the former two must be carefully accounted, as the commercial power is exceedingly skilled at their work, accompanied as they are by the academic power. Once the academy gets hold of an idée fixe it becomes imbedded throughout the populace. Like "global warming"... don't get me started!
Regrettably there's no fighting these things without facing immediate expulsion from the fellowship of educated men—which tells us something about "higher education", but let it pass, let it pass.
Back on topic
Gradually the horror of CD sound became so widely remarked, a few became motivated to rectify it. Mostly these folks designed electronics, thus successive improvements came to us in black or silver boxes, often for top dollar. But those units usually paled beside the success individual hobbyists wrought from a few simple treatments to CDs themselves.
Thus arose the present dichotomy between disc and player, and the central conundrum of digital audio: If it's so damn perfect, so powerful, why can't the processor correct all audible errors? Why must the disc be treated? What's so wrong with it? And why has no DAC or player yet appeared on the market that redresses this situation?
Good questions all.
My answer: Simple electronics and single-pass-read logic circuits cannot possibly cancel the gross errors that arise within the misconceived Redbook CD scheme. And the worst problems occur at the very head of the CD digital process: the electro-optical mechanism and the immediate error correction stage.
Unbeknownst to the majority of listeners and even to many audio engineers, the CD is an analog disc. Pits and valleys do not equate directly to bytes and the like. Instead the reflected light passes through threshold detection circuits (analog!), then the signal gets sent through Reed-Solomon "matrixes" and associated error correction routines before emerging as the ones-and-zeros of lore—the same ones-and-zeros that mistakenly are considered definitive.
The method by which these are read in real time, however, remains subject to opto-mechanical perturbations and logic decisions that are not as yet understood by regular electronics engineers. We know this because sonics can be so radically changed by treating the disc itself, with a more varied outcome than given even by various electronics packages.
In fact the improvements from simple "tweaking" are far greater than those obtained by spending sometimes thousands of dollars, but few equipment buyers want to read about this revoltin' development (Riley talking here) and even fewer magazines care to report it, save for this one which has obligingly printed my heresies for over fifteen years.
Oh, there's Doc Gaw's enjoyable EnjoyTheMusic.com column, and the occasional odd review in 6moons.com. But that's it, so far as I know. Maybe Stereotimes.com?
Enough already with the accolades.
Here are the challenges to the accepted understanding of how CD works:
Clearly any progress noted remains merely interim. CD is an evolving thing. (Ironic, what?) This magazine and this writer will continue to report intelligently as possible—meaning, with the latest intelligence. Even as we speak, experiments are underway to confirm that the actual problem with CD is, as we now believe, twofold: Optical misreading and attendant, copious error concealment. When the first happens, the second rules. Most of the "tweaks" result in lower optical mistracking, but some say that ECC (Error Concealment Code) is the real culprit preventing pure, analog-like sound.
If a record spins with a fleck of dust or something in the groove, the sound might lose some detail while the contact is decreased. With major mistracking there would be a loud pop, or worst case the needle jumps out of the groove.
CD is the same way.
The difference is how mistracking is handled.
In analog the needle generally just plows through and regular play continues.
With digital there are little items called parity bits that tell the system how
to guess the missing contents, so the hole is filled by ECC with a synthetic
tone that also creates odd harmonics. Certain neophytes think these sound like
"detail", but they are actually what punish the ear. We knew
that the incorruptable "ones and zeros" data stream so often used to browbeat
dissenters had to be pre-corrupted somehow, and at last we have the explanation.
The latest, fastest chips now permit a new sort of non-ECC, multiple-pass approach soon to arrive on the market. In fact, here it is! The FIRST PUBLIC ANNOUNCEMENT: the Memory Player™ from Nova Physics. Rather than rely on a single read (with ECC disabled we'd hear crackling noises and silent gaps), the Memory Player™ logs every mistrack on the first pass, then rereads the CD to find the missing bits. Should that second pass fail, it begins to adjust the laser angle, or placement, anything to regain the bits. This will be known as Read Until Right™ technology, or RUR™. [Two previous uses of "RUR" exist. Think…]
The Memory Player™ alone among players extracts every single bit of information from a CD, and without adding spurious edges.
Meanwhile it would appear that we are witnesses to a punctuated evolution in the compact disc, the likes of which are both unprecedented and ultimately useless, as the CD is scheduled to disappear. It was a short revolution, and will be an even shorter evolution. But with any luck, at least we won't have to repurchase our record collection again.
Also let me say, perhaps too close to the end, that some players do achieve highly decent sound from what they're given (i.e. CDs); the three known to me are EMM Labs, Naim, and APL HiFi.
Stay tuned for Part Two, which will tell more about the Memory Player™ and report the results of ongoing work that may even allow you to achieve considerable sonic happiness on your computer, in a way presently not possible even with so-called "lossless" routines. (However, no computer can reread a disc to capture missing bits by varying the read mechanism.) And we'll have an interview with a European designer whose thinking seems to be along similar lines, although broader. You'll see; you'll hear.
This magazine and this writer are grateful to the Nova Physics Group for choosing us for their reveal. Chief designer and RUR-inventor Mark Porzilli seems to think that my regular castigations of CD and of what I call consensus reality have contributed greatly to audio mankind. [Blush] Also he notes that I was the first to observe and connect RUR™ to other efforts moving in a similar direction. Mark also wants appreciation given to his collaborators George Bischoff and Rod Handley, without whom he could never have gotten this product off the ground. Unfortunately, production will not begin until late spring and the website is still not up. But more here, later.
Other RURs? They would be the RUR Peton (Realized Ultimate Reality) and R.U.R. (Rossum's Universal Robots). R.U.R. was the title of a 1921 play by Karel Čapek; robota is the Czech word for drudgery.
The following remarks were sent mid-April to Mark by his alpha testers and their associates. Supplied by him, they are quoted here without attribution, although this writer [CJ] is impressed with their credentials.
A quantum leap forward in the endeavor to improve digital playback.
Trust me. Once you hear something like the Memory Player™, it will make you think about the limitations of standard CD playback and possibly rethink your next move.
One of the purist sound reproductions I've ever heard. During my initial listening experience it reminded me of the very best of analog with tube electronics!!! Absolutely zero digital artifacts and when compared to another superb and musically outstanding digital player, as [-] would say...."GAME OVER!" Basically, no contest—not even close by any standards.
How did the MP do what it did to the Wadia, outperform it easily as night and day?... So, my view is that MP is substantially superior to the Wadia 270SE.
The more I listen the more I'm convinced how good this MP invention is. My only concern is there are a lot of folks who think ridding a CD of ECC is common.
This thing has quite an amazingly transparent signature, or lack thereof. It is easily the most graceful sounding digital transport I've ever heard. Nothing has ever served the music to me in this manner.
I already have been emphasizing to everyone, I enthuse about the MP that it is an exceptionally sophisticated device. It is hard to conceive that that much processing can be taking place during the "mere" playback process. If the big studios are on to RUR™ or something akin to it, why have we not seen RUR™ from any of the biggies?
A thought that keeps haunting me is that why has it taken so long for the whole industry to [recognize] this problem. I mean the CD has been criticized mercilessly, and rightfully so, since it appeared on the scene. Now that I have heard what is actually on the CD the neglect stands out more than ever.
The dynamics, the definition, the articulation, the dimensionality now appear seamlessly integrated and presented in a stunningly credible manner. I can not recall any analog demo that was that impressive, although I do remember being bowled over hearing Keith Johnson playing his master tapes at a CES.
He said to me while starting his car, "This has to have been one of the finest hours in audio for me."
I think this thing is going to explode.
I would venture to predict that this will alter the course of music reproduction in the home.
After what I heard tonight I feel can assert with authority that YOUR MP WILL MAKE AUDIO HISTORY. IT WILL YOU KNOW.