FEEDBACK ONLINE - ISSUE 35
From Clark Johnsen's Diaries: Thanks for the Memories
"I was afraid something like this might happen," I said.
We are gathered—Rob Hart, Alan Eichenbaum and myself—in Rob's spacious Fort Lauderdale living room this past December. The occasion: My first private hearing of the Memory Player from Nova Physics, about which I had been first to write. Those views were later expanded by Arnis Balgavis
and others elsewhere. In fact, the Memory Player was felt by every auditioner to be quite the finest CD source they had ever heard, if at a price.
My own personal exposure had been limited to CES 2007, where I had attempted, largely unsuccessfully, to get presenter George Bischoff to allow me to try some of my famous "tweaks" on it. Why would I want to do that?
Because the very susceptibility of CD to edge ink, destaticization, mats, cryo, cleaning and most astonishingly the Intelligent Chip belies the alleged power of the vaunted digital domain and unmasks the presumptions of our digital designers. (Apologies here to such as Ed Meitner, Charles Hansen and Alex Peychev, who freely acknowledge the present condition of unattained perfection.) Additionally one must confront the fact that CD players/transports are subject to floor vibrations, RFI/EMI and the AC supply; many products are available to ameliorate those effects too.
Such unhappy circumstances have driven me to declare, repeatedly and in print, that money is just wasted on any costly purchase of gear that's subject to so many after-market improvements. Buy an Oppo or a Jolida and await the day when you no longer must spend your precious hours and dollars making up for system design faults. (I speak here as a former optical systems engineer who never would have left final performance to be determined so willy-nilly.)
And who is to blame for these faults? Why, no one! No one in particular, anyway. An implacable force (Sony/Philips) met an unresisting wall (the Audio Engineering Society), causing a classic collision between a rock and a soft place. The latter fell, conceding "standards" that reflected the putative glory of CD. The result? Twenty-five years of encomia in the Journal of the Audio Engineering Society, and nearly everywhere. Witness the fatuous phrase "CD-quality sound".
Disclaimer: Innocently I joined the AES in 1967, although soon grew alert to their commercial dispensation. Most articles in JAES since 1980 embrace what critic Neal Levenson once called cubbyhole engineering analyses, few of which have much to do with sonic quality. (Ed Meitner, again, warned me as long ago as 1990, "Clark, never, never ever mention sound, at the Audio Engineering Society.") Thus CD early-on passed muster with orthodox academics and even with many recording pros, although the wiser among the latter (as reported in Billboard for heavens sake!) put their digital recordings through an analog stage to smooth them out for acceptability to clients. Clients who nonetheless demanded "digital".
Indeed, the sonic problems of CD were no secret among the pros; only consumers were kept in the dark. Many in high-end editorial rooms were fooled too. Once I even described, perhaps ungenerously, Gordon Holt, who advocated CD from the get-go, as having bent over forwards to accept digital.
Then again, Gordon has called the Wood effect "balsa", so fair's fair.
To judge by current implementations, CD digital remains a notionally failed system, else why the necessity for "tweaks"? Thus my stated requirement for a player that can dispense with such. Shouldn't all the rest face rapid elimination?
And the Memory Player has looked to be the contender, except that its presenter kept putting me off when I tried to experiment. I did manage to pull one off, with the Walker Talisman, an often quite effective treatment involving magnetics, but results were inconclusive; I and several others heard a minor improvement, but some heard nothing. Mind you this was on the last day of the Show, around five o'clock.
So here we are in Florida, nearly a year later, with a Memory Player on our hands. Well! What to do? I rub my hands in anticipation of glee. Warm it up, obviously. Meanwhile... I have a video to show. The first and probably only instance ever of audio performance art—captured on camera and newly transferred to DVD. Let's watch!
It's of the Boston D Party, "D" for Digital, December 16, 1983, 210th anniversary of the Boston Tea Party, and Beethoven's birthday too. Some fifty warriors gathered at The Listening Studio, my place, to paint protest signs:
STOP EAR POLLUTION
STOP DIGIT FIDGET
COMPACT DISC, COMPACT SOUND
PROCESSED SOUND = PROCESSED CHEESE
DIGITAL TAXES OUR EARS
NO MORE DANCING WITH MR. D
SINK THE TELARC!
Then we marched three blocks down to Boston harbor, chanting irreverent slogans ("Dunk the Junk", "No Standardization without Representation"), and threw CDs into the drink. Just like enraged Colonials! Only, we had strings attached, and fished the junk out afterwards. I made an impassioned, maniacal speech and then we headed back to the Studio to view the rushes and imbibe mulled wine.
And it was that speech that worries me tonight, newly heard after a ten-year hiatus. Here's some of what I said:
With digital our limits are set. Forever!... It has been decreed, 16 bits per sample, 44,000 samples per second... What we have, is all we'll ever get... Never to change... Cast in whole numbers, no imaginary parts left!... Yet music is a companion uncountable... We are met on a battlefield of war!
Pretty definite opinions there, Clark old boy.
Now, the Memory Player
We are listening to whatever had been stored on this unit's disc drive by visitors to the Stereophile show. Yes we might upload something ourselves, but you know what? Everything sounds so good, so listenable, so faultless sonically, so absent of enharmonic edgy artifacts, so musically involving, that we almost passively accept one selection after another. This is not our usual style.
But then I hit a song from Mahler's Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen, the only classical selection that seems to have been entered by Show attendees, and after I translate some of the sentimental German lyrics for Alan and Rob they decide we've had enough, and it is getting late. Although Thomas Quasthoff sounded great!
And that's when, referring to the realized ultimate reality for CD that we had just auditioned, entirely contrary to my dire prognostications, I remarked, "I was afraid something like this might happen."
"Yes," Alan sighs, "but digital was bad for a lot longer than it's been good."
A few caveats
The Memory Player, while presenting far and away the finest digital reproduction I've ever heard—including SACD—does have a few operational constraints as presently embodied. A CD must be loaded onto hard-drive via the distinctive and somewhat sluggish RUR (Read Until Right) mechanism, then be transferred to flash drive for play. All this is PC-based and the front-screen display musters all the ergonomic beauty of that wondrous OS. On the other hand, the accompanying laptop (or use your own, for a $500 price reduction) provides acceptable accessibility to both menu and catalog. Still, you cannot finger-drag a selection down to "play", say, a la Apple. Although some of the more fun CD players now hitting the market claim to be "memory players", it will be found (I think) that their on-screen delights do not transfer to their sonics.
Expense must factor in however. The Memory Player transport's tag is $11K; avec DAC and a fully-balanced tubed output stage, $17.5K. On the more enticing side, several options are offered: expanded storage, A-to-D converter, LP input, HD-DVD and Blu-Ray playback, high-bit audio recording and more.
On the negatives, availability has been spotty and limited. There is no polarity switch, although that critical aspect can be flagged in memory. Moreover the MP designer's explanation of its "Code-Less" reading has raised the hackles of Robert Harley (most strenuously), John Atkinson and Ted Smith, tech moderator at Audio Asylum; and of Robert E. Greene, who, if I read him right, believes that the playing per se of a disc makes little or no difference to the sonic result. (See appendix for details.) These are not men to be trifled with, so the customer is again advised to be careful.
Back to positives, Mike Hobson of Classic Records has said that if the Memory Player isn't better than LP, it's at least as good, and gives listeners access to a sonic quality on CD heretofore unimagined. Sam Laufer has actually bought the company (this is the first report) so Nova Physics Group will become Nova Physics Corporation. Laufer comes with a production company that builds amps and computers and soon, Memory Players; and LauferTekNik (www.lauferteknik.comm) will handle distribution. The Memory Player will now be available to the struggling masses.
Hang the expense sometimes, life is good.
And I am a most happy fellow, to have been disproven.
As with LP, it develops that there was far more information inscribed on a CD than most people had ever thought possible. Playback therefore seemed to be in stasis, but now we know how to recover the complete signal. With CD we had all been in thrall to a mistaken theory. Theory told us (or so we were told!) that a certain number of samples, a few simple operations, some well-understood error correction coding (ECC) and so forth would produce a fixed result, at least within the digital domain. Bits are bits! It's all in the numbers!
But it wasn't a done deal.
The theory began to unravel, at least in the minds of many actual listeners, after "tweaks" were discovered. Suddenly the decoding process was not so set-in-stone as it had seemed. Even the players that got all the numbers right, by every known measure (and computer geeks were hot on the case), were still found to be susceptible to these mysterious, unexplained treatments. "Voodoo", the geeks and the academics sniffed.
Then too, many listeners were noticing that apart from tweaks, copies made on CD-R's in computers and stand-alone machines sounded different from, and quite often superior to, the originals. Yet the numbers again remained the same. How could this be?
So the search was on, within a small coterie, to find acceptable explanations for these anomalies. Few were forthcoming, and none that addressed the situation overall. None, that is, until Mark Porzilli advanced a narrative so daring, so unheard-of, so ritually unacceptable that many tried (as they often do) to laugh it off the stage.
Mark asserted that not only does ECC mar the music, but that flaws embedded within the very Reed-Solomon structure cause a constant distortion, a distortion without a name. Thus Mark and his partners in Nova Physics Group produced a machine that acted upon those principles. A full statement can be found on-site, but here are a few excerpts gleaned from correspondence:
And here is the aforementioned Mr. Greene, from his site (www.regonaudio.com/), claiming not only that the reading process introduces no gross errors, but that such talk is "audio babble". Most would agree.