ONLINE - ISSUE 26
From Clark Johnsen's Diaries - Lotions Eleven,
or The Fluid Dynamics of CD
Back in 2000 when The Listening Studio closed, one of the tasks remaining that I regretted not performing was an assay of several CD emollients. Somehow it seemed I had become a magnet for these and half a dozen were on the shelf ready to go.
Evaluation of multiple treatments for CD is a bear, though. First you need a fresh run of CDs equal in number to your variety, plus two—one to remain untreated, the other treated with the best previous product. Also you need, really, to do it right, access to three or four different transports/players to gauge variations over a representative range. Finally you need the stamina and the time.
Recently, in A Letter to Harry , I discussed my own experience with one product, Optrix, back in 1996 and speculated on the reasons why it took an iconic audio critic almost ten years to catch up. (It had nothing to do with me being particularly avant-garde.) Nor had Optrix been my first fluid, nor was it even then the best; it was simply an affordable introduction to the world of CD improvement that few would fail to hear unless their minds were set against it.
Nor was Harry alone in his tardiness; not a single other major reviewer used, or admitted to using, a CD cleaning fluid. Anyway not after the Armor All fiasco. And why should they? With CD a happening thing, and with much new gear to review, such "tweaks" became an unwelcome and unexplored snag, among manufacturers as well as among reviewers. At any rate that was the gist of A Letter to Harry.
Yes, why does CD cleaning (or polishing?) affect the sonic result? I should allow up front that this writer, a former optical physicist/engineer, is sufficiently informed here to float an explanation that will have you nodding your head in agreement. Ready?
Sorry, not going there. Deception, even the comical kind, appalls me. Truth is, without the funds to do research neither I nor anyone else in audiodom can confidently and satisfactorily explicate this phenomenon. Suffice to say, correct realization of digital audio in its optical form is not the breeze implied by the Redbook standard. The Compact Disc, unrobust, immensely complicated and fraught with error, has yet to be fully tamed, although our future contains the Memory Player.
Remember when a famous critic back in 1983 expounded on CD and declared he had heard the future? Hey! He hadn't heard nuthin' yet, and now he deserves a sound thrashing. I propose raw CDs played over a Sony 101 to him at 107dB, day and night for a week, without protection, for all the damage done.
Nor are the lotions discussed here necessarily the best route to CD improvement. We also have the "degausser" (discovered by yours truly, although the term actually should be "decoulombizer" or "destaticizer", but the first serves best to rile certain disdainful and belligerent dim bulbs); the more conventional spray & wipe approach to same; the mat; the edge-paint; the truing; the edge carving; the Intelligent Chip; the duplicating onto CD-R; and God knows what else because everything so far seems to work.
Who knows, none of these make particular sense given the orthodox "bits is bits" wisdom. Which is why one takes such delight in expounding upon them, to watch the stuffed shirts puff up and the apoplexy set in. Few things in this world beat listening to good music, but watching those smug stiffs bluster and browbeat you certainly numbers among them. Anyway for a while; the spectacle is too shallow for longterm enjoyment.
CD's sonic problems defy reductionist analysis. Calling here upon some pre-audio experience, it was my distinct privilege to be systems engineer aboard the Mars Lander Camera, as successful a space mission as this country has ever mounted. The system engineer's role consisted of evaluating input and designs from various disciplines—optical, thermal, mechanical, electrical, meteorological, digital, etc.—to ascertain that they would succeed in consort to achieve the desired image resolution from the very dicey surface of Mars, through a low-data-rate transmitter and after a long and perilous journey.
"Digital" did I say?! In 1970? Yes. The Mars Lander Camera was a digital optical scanner with digital links. Many problems could beset the data, among which was an oddity called "aliasing". We looked long and hard at that and finally found a way around the central conundrum: How to create an image that pleased NASA's eye for publicity, yet satisfied the analysts in Pasadena.
(Note: This article is published on July 21st, the exact Thirtieth Anniversary of the Viking landing on Mars and its camera sending back the first dramatic pictures.)
While I never expected this early experience to return and haunt me, as it were, in audio, now at least I know, it's far easier to fool the eye than to fool the ear.
Always with that question.
For one thing, because the eye is ever charmed by new imagery—look at art!—whereas the ear is tuned to listen to the same old thing: clarinets, violins, Fenders, baritones. And when they don't sound right, the ear knows. As a corollary, when the sounds are new, as in today's phrase for degraded music, "new sounds", the ear cares naught about realism and thus accepts diminished, even distorted conditions: I give you, the iPod.
Vision is naturally more forgiving, operating as it does without the dimension of time to control the flow. Disrupt that flow of time, and you have trouble in River City.
Moreover, the eye is sensitive to only a narrow range of spectrum, making any outcome easier to accommodate, whereas sound encompasses an astonishing ten octaves, a far greater bandwidth than any other human activity within the electromagnetic spectrum. This problem, a unique burden on audio, I call the Octaves Obstacle.
Probably! But the foregoing should cinch the case that the ear is ever alert to sonic anomalies and that CD (if not necessarily 16/44.1 PCM) is there to provide them, else myriad amelioratives would be unneeded in the marketplace.
Look, enough with the attitude. You may doubt what I say, you may be the biggest CD fan in Christendom, but I'm asking you to reason with me. OK?
OK, but please don't use OK that way, OK?
Yes, my liege.
You may continue.
Here we be, in the scientifically advanced world of 2006 is it? And still having to smear our CDs with some substance or do something, anything to make them sound better. And just when CDs are about to be trapped by the whole worldwide web! Isn't that ironic? Just as 78s were supplanted by LPs, and LPs by CDs, so has the latest greatest met its Napster nemesis.
Can you say that three times fast?
No, can you?
Clark, I am unable to speak aloud, you know that.
'Deed I do. 'Deed I do! And that gives me courage.
So here we are. Where was I? Oh, right. CDs have become caught in the Web. Good ol' 78s had their day, about sixty years worth. LPs had about forty. CDs have had a run of twenty or so. That means—think about this, Mr. Interlocutor—iPod etc. will have... maybe ten!
That's so very exponential of you, Clark.
Call me progressive. I'm just sayin', history assures us there will be something beyond the present, and mathematics tells us the next one is likely to last five years. You wonder what's beyond the Net? How could progress possibly go any farther than our current imaginings and strivings?
It can't. You've reached the end at last. Happy?
You know damn well I'm not! And you're a damn liar. Begone, raven. If ravin' you be!
What's next? That's all I'm asking. Beyond CD, beyond the MPEG'd Net, I don't care. Forget LP. Will it sound as good as a degaussed, polished, recentered, edge-carved, edge-painted, matted, Chipped, and then duplicated-onto-CD-R CD? That's what I want to know.
OK, the silent treatment. No surprise there.
OK, so let's just go ahead with the info we've accumulated and see where it leads.
With your permission.
Very well. Without, then.
So, What's the sound of clean?
Never one eager to employ the lingo of audio reviewers, nevertheless I should offer a few observations. In my view, improvement at any point operates down the whole system; improvement at the source therefore ranks highest. And how much further back can one go, than to the CD (or LP) itself? Greater clarity there earns huge rewards. And just as with the LP, something about the CD requires devoted attention. A CD treated by a number of methods becomes far easier to enjoy: lower distortion, wider dynamic range and nuance, less lumpy bass, less edge, less artifice, larger stage, more accurate timing—in short, better sound and more music. A wonderful thing.
An untreated CD can hardly (to my ears) be tolerated, nor am I alone in thinking that.
And this word about SACD: While unlike CD it can be tolerated, as a general rule a fully tweaked CD equals or surpasses an untreated SACD. But fix up an SACD and mama mia!
A word on wipes
Should fluids be evaluated separately from wipes? Of course. But a little multiplication here—or factorializing—reveals that with six different fluids and five different wipes... well... rather many possibilities exist.
Now imagine if one submitted to the sullen mandarins' demands for double-blind tests. You'd have a month's worth of evenings devoted to burdens of proof for people who refuse to listen for themselves, who wouldn't believe your results anyway and who would then attack your procedures. What's the percentage in that?
But wipes definitely do make a difference. Lloyd Walker recommends Viva paper towels, while Bill Gaw favors Charmin toilet tissue even though it dusts up; both are very soft indeed. (Aside: As member of a local save-city-trees campaign, I was recently handed a sheet that showed the recycled content percentage in various brands of paper products, with the preferred ones at the top; at the bottom for paper towels was Viva, for toilet paper, Charmin. Huh!)
Myself, I have two further non-auditory ways to evaluate wipes and fluids: Appearance and feel. I do my work under direct light and inspect the result for unimpaired reflectivity, noting too the feel of the surface: When it's really clean the cloth beneath my fingers glides over the disc soooo smoothly. That has to be good, right?
George Louis supplies a yellow Microtex cloth, others have their own unlabeled choices. But again, going strictly by feel, the cloth included with Liquid Resolution may be the best of the lot, although I cannot yet speak to its drying properties after multiple usage. You may want to keep some Charmin handy.
History of fluids - see Appendix
The recent crop:
Vivid - from Walker Audio, revelatory and still available (in updated form UltraVivid), unlike all the appendixed others save for Optrix. Two problems, however: It's a bitch to apply and after a year in the bottle the ingredients separate, never to be rejoined. In my circle however, as in others, it became the prevailing standard.
Auric Illuminator II - This updated version of a popular treatment was intended to surpass Vivid. In some informal tests, it did.
RealBit, UltraBit, and UltraBitGold - George Louis' ongoing replacements for original Finyl.
Nanotech 8500 - the new Internet darling. An unlikely one too, as it looks like a suspension of lead particles, something intended for your vehicle. (Shades of Armor All!) Its application requires a fast hand as it dries in ten seconds and fogs up if you aren't quick. Still...
Liquid Resolution - the newest product. This will likely be its first mention in the press. (On the phosphors? On the LEDs?) Also fondly known as Liquid Rez.
And now, the winnah
Jetting up to New Hampshire the thirtieth, fortieth, fiftieth time to visit Bill Gaw and employ his system for Positive Feedback purposes (he of EnjoyTheMusic.com), I reflect how my own system, once fairly accomplished, came to pale beside his own, and how I no longer even have much of one (although that shall soon change). Likewise do I travel to Steve Klein's, Kwame's, and other fine locations to assess what's what; it's good to have company for these boring evaluation exercises.
Regrettably the greatest number of CDs I can locate from a single run is four, but an excellent four: Ray Kimber's Isomike demo from CES 2005. That shortfall necessitates some head-scratching, plotting and planning. One given: The Nanotech seems irreversible, so once a disc is done, it's done; the others are susceptible to the Louis ClearBit removal treatment, which we employ successively.
Also, while huge fans of Vivid in its day, both of us feel it has been displaced—for Bill by the Nanotech, for myself by the Auric Illuminator. That means we needn't do Vivid in this restricted lineup, nor regrettably do we have room for the A.I.
So, not wanting to exhaust people with every detail, here be the summary:
Untreated disc: Barely listenable (over Doc Gaw's widerange SET/horn system), which in our experience is altogether typical of CD. His Walker Proscenium turntable outplays and outlasts any CD transport anyway.
ClearDisc - Immediate improvement, less congestion, tighter hand-clapping (in one particular cut). And this is only a preliminary treatment.
RealDisc - Individual claps noticed from a player further back in space; smoother flow overall
UltraBit - Greater dynamics, although maybe less depth
UltraBitGold - Louder! Depth returns, along with better articulation in the bass. Cymbals seem sweeter too. Very nice.
Liquid Rez - Almost as loud, not quite. (Why?) Quieter background, very (too?) smooth. Seems to eliminate a previously unnoticed wolf tone in the bass.
Liquid Rez + Rinse - Slightly faster attacks on handclaps, beautiful flow, greater dynamic articulation on piano fingering. Best features of all the above and then some. Only downside: A two-step process, but each application is easy.
Nanotech 8500 - Not quite as dynamic (or as loud) or as "musical". A comedown, but only slightly. Downside: Be careful applying!
And there you have it, a clear winner. Or, do you?
Among fluids, yes: Liquid Rez + Rinse. But, several caveats: We did not apply the Rinse after the other treatments, so who knows? And these results involved only one system and (mostly) one disc. Also our selection of fluids was not exhaustive.
Afterwards, our play continued. We created Reality Check copies and submitted everything to the ministrations of the NESPA device. It was all good, all good. I have no reservations recommending the NESPA, or any of the tested fluids; my favorable views on Reality Check are already a matter of record, although it must be emphasized that George Louis, responsible for much good work, no longer is considered reliable by anyone associated with him through this publication, or by Bill Gaw, or on the Audio Asylum. His disgrace is a shame.
What to conclude? Clearly, the thriving CD improvement business looks legit. Detractors still insist however that tens of thousands of customers are deluding themselves about a little bottle, for example, on which the unpardonable sum of four to thirty cents per application was spent to improve CDs that everyone knows were perfect from the get-go. What perfect idiots these people be! A fool and his money and so on.
Still we experimenters beat on, boats against the mainstream, hoping somehow to be borne back to LP generosity of delivery. And with these several procedures we may yet reach that goal.
For more on this... read Should a Columnist Express Second Thoughts?
1) Two recent fluids in this admittedly non-comprehensive project eluded our grasp: L'art du Son and Jena Labs' 3D-X, which was not available for an assessment during this session. Perhaps we will see samples from these two before too long and file a report.
2) The Intelligent Chip was not employed in this run, although both of us stand by our earlier reports of its freakily beneficial behavior.
Auric Illuminator ($40) www.audience-av.com/accessor.htm
Walker Audio UltraVivid ($70) www.walkeraudio.com/vivid_cd_and_dvd_enhancer.htm
Nanotech 8500 ($80) www.soundsofsilence.com/
Liquid Resolution ($100) www.liquidrez.com
NESPA Optical Disc Finalizer ($450/$825) www.soundsofsilence.com, and for more information, visit these links: http://www.positive-feedback.com/Issue23/clock_nespa.htm and http://www.6moons.com/audioreviews/nanotech/nespa.html
The first fluids
Armor All - It worked very well, sonically, just as Sam Tellig wrote, but possible destructive properties were evident from my first whiff so I returned the can to my trunk. The ensuing scandal suffered by Tom Gillette and Stereophile had nothing to do with its sonic properties, which were undeniable but got lost in the sneering, madding crowd.
Finyl - from the now-infamous George Louis, circa 1988. It worked.
Torumat CX-15 - from the late, great Toy Shigekawa, who swore to me he would never ever update his fine TM-7 LP cleaning fluid for CD. I told him he was crazy, the money was in CD. Then one day he called... and it was good.
Lasergain - from Jeff Nyquist. It was good too, and the first such product in my experience to be supplied with its own wipes, now the standard package.
Reveal - Apologies to an accomplished designer, but I took to calling it "Conceal".
Optrix - became the benchmark for its accessibility and low price ($16). John Murphy, a fine fellow and chemist by trade, simply adapted his lens cleaner product to the audio trade.
The ones that sat on the shelf, tried but not tested
Bedini Cleaning Solution - came with the Bedini Clarifier, itself an item.
Allegro - from a talkative fellow named Rick; like the Torumat it had its beginning in LP cleaners.
DiscSolution - Can't recall where this came from, or anything else about it.
Music Advancement - another mental mystery; sorry, guys.
Wipe Out! - At one of those prime Stereophile parties of the Nineties where the whole high-end industry gathered to sip and graze, a fellow approached me with this bottle and said I'd been pointed out as the best man to whom to give a sample. In the event, someone erred. Apologies all 'round.
Elvanol - Again I haven't the slightest.
Digital Juice - An elaborate package, it all looked good, then the guy sent me an update... then another... so I waited for the next...
CD Clarity - Aha! I remember clearly. It was.... Brad!... somebody…
Esoteric Mist - from the newly-formed Jena Labs and with a very generous supply of wipes
Altogether, including the Appendix, there were not lotions 11 of the title, but lotions 22, twice as many. Anybody notice?