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POSITIVE FEEDBACK ONLINE - ISSUE 48
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An Analog Lover's Adventures and Adaptation of Digital
by Teresa Goodwin

 

This is the fourth and final installment of my "An Analog Lover's Adventure..." series I began two years ago as I am now a digital only music listener. I do still dearly love the sound of analog, however with DSD and high resolution PCM I no longer have the patience nor the ability to listen around many of analog's artifacts I used to be able to mentally block-out when listening to analog formats. I am more fully aware of surface noise on LPs and tape hiss on older analog master tapes.

Modern analog recordings such as those made by Reference Recordings when released on SACD or as high resolution downloads sound to my ears nearly as good as pure DSD with none of the usual analog artifacts especially noticeable from recordings from the "Golden Age" from the mid-1950's to the 1960's. Most of these golden age recordings suffer in varying degrees from worn or poor tape slices and other abnormalities. These have become the hardest for me to ignore. In short I am being spoiled not only by the resolving power of high resolution digital but to it's absolute quietness allowing only the music through.

Part Ten: Total emersion in the digital landscape.

Due to financial hard times I have been forced to sell my two 7-inch Open Reel decks, my Nakamichi cassette deck, my Music Hall turntable, and my entire collection of analog recordings. As such I have been listening exclusively to digital, mostly SACDs, DVD-Audios and computer music files. My stereo system has been updated with this information.

When my finances improve I will not be reacquiring any analog format. On the other hand, one of the things I am considering for the future is a Blu-Ray player as AIX has started releasing their 24 Bit 96kHz recordings in this format. The main attraction of the AIX titles is high resolution audio plus high resolution video. Since their beginnings ten years ago all AIX titles have been filmed, however on the DVD-Audio versions one cannot get high resolution sound and video at the same time. The video concerts were in Dolby Digital and DTS, well now thanks to Blu-Ray we can enjoy the Video concert in 24 Bit 96kHz high resolution sound at the same time.

Part Eleven: SACD, my slice of sonic heaven

SACD is my dream come true: all the precision of digital reproduction combined with all the warmth and ambiance of analog sound. It is like the best analog perfected, so realistic and beautiful it's really hard for me to believe it's actually digital!

But beware not all SACDs take full advantage of the sonic capabilities or comfort level of the format. Indeed to many SACDs sound as bad as the best CDs. I blame this on the use of lower resolution PCM master tapes coupled with poor microphone and engineering techniques. Also many older poorly made analog master tapes are not of high enough quality to benefit much from SACD treatment. We now have a consumer format that is sonically superior to the majority of master recordings.

All around the finest SACDs I have found are well engineered DSD recordings and more recent analog recordings. There have also been a few good sounding SACDs from high resolution PCM masters.

My favorite SACDs are all from Telarc and not just their DSD recorded ones but also most of their historic 50kHz Soundstream recordings. Unlike other audiophile labels Telarc not only offers the finest, most realistic sound quality the world has yet achieved but some of the finest performances in the history of music. Many of their recordings are by far the definitive versions in all areas. The sad fact that they were bought out by Concord Music Group and the SACD program retired is perhaps the biggest blow ever to the SACD format itself. I understand that Jack Renner wanted to retire so he and Robert Woods sold the company. Engineer Michael Bishop along with other team members carried on the "Telarc sound" handed down from the great Jack Renner which is an extension of the natural techniques used by the Mercury Living Presence team.

http://telarc-hires.blogspot.com/2009/11/telarc-records-living-legends.html

http://telarc-hires.blogspot.com/2009/12/telarc-masters-of-art-and-science-of.html

With the absence of Telarc, the best sounding classical music I've discovered lately on SACD has mostly been from Channel Classics, PentaTone, BSO and the rare Reference Recordings offering.

Recommended and not-recommended SACDs plus a few mini reviews:
http://pro-sacd.lefora.com/2009/11/29/recommended-and-not-recommended-sacds-plus-a-few-m/

Ratings of 138 recording companies that produce SACDs:
 http://sacdlives.blogspot.com/2009/09/ratings-of-138-recording-companies-that.html

Part Twelve: High Resolution downloads

Most high resolution downloads (88.2kHz-192kHz) are still priced higher than SACDs so my collection has not grown much, it is mostly limited to what is not available on SACDs. My favorites so far have been from Reference Recordings, BSO and Chesky most purchased from https://www.hdtracks.com.

I have not liked any of the tracks I tried from 2L, either directly from them or through HDTracks, their string tone has a strident almost CD-like quality to it I do not like, unlike the velvety smooth strings from Reference Recordings and BSO which I adore.

Perhaps Concord Music Group will release their Telarc DSD recordings as high resolution downloads in the future?

Part Thirteen: MP3, the Perplexing Enigma

How the hell can ultra-low resolution MP3 sound better than CD when most of the music file is thrown away? Audiophiles like to rag on MP3 and with good reason as they throw-away real sonic information. However, to my ears MP3s sound better and are more comfortable to listen to even though they have less resolution than CD. This is a real enigma, and perhaps the greatest contradiction I have ever found in audio.

I prefer lossy compressed 44.1kHz MP3s at bit rates of 192kbps to 320kbps which by all rights should worse than CDs, however in reality I think they sound better, considerably warmer and more comfortable to listen to, usually without CDs strident digital-edge.

320kbps MP3 to my ears sounds more analog than either uncompressed .wav , uncompressed AIFF, or Apple Lossless. It seems with 44.1kHz PCM less is more. I find MP3 bit rates from 192kbps to 320kbps quite enjoyable.

The secret I believe is a combination of what MP3 throws away and the roll-off of the highest frequencies. It seems MP3 discards the irritating digital sound that infests CDs plus from what I have read 192kbps MP3s usually have few frequencies above 16kHz and 320kbps start rolling off at 18kHz. It could be the sampling rate of 44.1kHz PCM adversely effects the upper audible frequencies making them harsh and digital-like.

To give you an example of how much musical information is thrown away by MP3, a CD or an uncompressed 44.1kHz .wav or AIFF music file is 1411kbps, so a 320kbps music file must discard 1091kbps!

When I first heard MP3 it was at 64kbps and was horribly distorted, like listening to music underwater, and had lots of artifacts. 128kbps solved the underwater sound and artifacts however it was even more strident than the worst CDs, being ugly in the extreme. Then I discovered variable bit rate 192kbps MP3s, which to my shock and surprise had the warmth of analog tape, even when from a digital master. I also have 256kbps and 320kbps MP3s.

I recently transferred the CD layer of all of my hybrid SACDs to my computer so I could play them on my iPod. First I tried uncompressed .wav and AIFF but they didn't sound much better than the CD layer. I converted them to Apple Lossless and to my surprise they gained some warmth, but with repeated listening they were not that much better and really not suitable for anything other than background music.

So I experimented with different rates of MP3:

192kbps: this was the warmest and most comfortable.

320kbps: a little less warm than 192kbps but with considerably more detail.

I settled on 320kbps because it was the best compromise as it had most of the warmth of 192kbps, most of the detail of uncompressed .wav and AIFF but still retained analog-like sound.

Ironically it was MP3 that allowed me to bid my final farewell to the analog formats as it offers the selection and variety that SACD and high resolution digital lacks especially in rock and popular music. However I do not recommend the MP3 format to anyone as it is a low resolution format and it does throw away real resolution, but if like me you cannot tolerate the CD format, perhaps MP3s more comfortable low resolution sound will be more pleasing to your ears as it is to mine.

Part Fourteen: One of the best sounding CDs versus one of the worst sounding SACDs.

Bond and Beyond - Erich Kunzel, Cincinnati Pops Orchestra, Telarc CD-80251

versus

James Bond Themes - Carl Davis, Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, Membran SACD 222910

The thing that sealed CDs doom forever in my home was a comparison between Telarc's CD Bond and Beyond versus Membran's SACD James Bond Themes - The Membran SACD won hands down as it was more realistic, vivid and it actually sounded like music.

The Membran SACDs are some of the worst sounding SACDs I've ever heard but they sounded about ten times better than a Telarc CD. And by contrast a Telarc SACD sounds about ten times better than a Membran SACD. So I learned that Telarc SACDs are among my favorite SACDs, but not even Telarc can produce a listenable CD. And that any SACD no matter how bad, sounds world's better than even the best CD to me.

Bond and Beyond was used by Cary Audio to demo their tubed CD player at Audio Shows. I will not say it is the finest sounding CD I've owned but it is damn near the top and I have owned CDs from ALL of the audiophile labels. All CDs are sonically unacceptable in my opinion, especially after experiencing SACD, high resolution digital, and high quality analog playback.

Part Fifteen: Updates to my past adventures.

Two years ago in "An Analog Lover's Adventure in Downloading" http://www.positive-feedback.com/Issue37/mp3_downloads.htm I told of my introduction to decent sounding computer music via a new Mac Mini. At that time there were no DSD downloads but that has changed as DSD can now be downloaded in Stereo and Multichannel. Though so far they are playable only on the Korg DSD recorders and Sony Vaio computers. One can make a DSD disc using a DVD-R and they are playable on Playstation 3 and the new Sony SCD-XA5400ES. In time there will be many more devices that can either the raw DSD files or DSD discs.

Audio Lunchbox has since merged with Puretracks and no longer offers a monthly download program. CNET's free legal MP3 downloads now have their own unique web address http://www.mp3.com/

When I wrote this I preferred listening to CD-R copies on my Universal player instead of the original music file from my computer as I'm was not very impressed with the sound quality of my Mac Mini though my Sennheiser HD-580 Headphones. What I didn't know at the time was that computers sound best with the volume turned up to maximum and the level decreased with the Volume control on a preamp. Which means if one listens through headphones directly out of the computer one is decreasing resolution as one lowers the volume and that is why it sounded unacceptable to me. So the solution was to run a line-out to my preamp. I am using the analog out from the MAC Mini using a Monster Cable mini to 2 RCA's into my tubed preamp. So now I greatly prefer playing both MP3s and high resolution downloads directly off the hard-drive. There is an ease of presentation and smoothness that the CD-R copy cannot match even with the Terra Firma Light clock mod in my Yamaha Universal player.

I was also concerned about a monitor being turned on when I listen to music, as I turn off the display on my Yamaha Universal player and of course the overhead lights. Then I listen in total darkness except the three small on indicator lights from the SACD player, preamp and power amp. I discovered I can do the same with my computer, after I pull up iTunes and start playing the music I select, I turn off the monitor and I can now listen in complete darkness, just the same as a physical format, and if I feel really lazy I can just let it play for hours and hours and never touch anything. My fears were unjustified!

Finally I prefer 44.1kHz MP3s with my core audio set to 24 Bit 96kHz, this internal upsampling of lossy music files seems to sound smoother with more air and delicacy in the high frequencies. While I realize it is impossible to create more resolution using this internal upsampling, however the music just sounds better to me. I also tried the core audio set at 24 Bit 88.2kHz as this is an exact doubling but it didn't sound anywhere near as good as setting at 96kHz as illogical as that seems. I never question such things I always go with what sounds best to me.

Since I no longer burn CD-R's of my downloads, I back up to DVD-R data disc using iTunes' File Library Back up to Disc and choose, "Back up entire iTunes Library and Playlists" and "Only back up items added or changed since last back up". I check the DVD-Rs periodically for playability. The safest bet is to backup to an external hard drive.

Two months later in "An Analog Lover's Adventure in Digital Land" http://www.positive-feedback.com/Issue38/digital_land.htm I discovered that Apple Lossless was "warmer" and more analog sounding than AIFF or .wav uncompressed 44.1kHz music files. I have since converted all of my Apple Lossless 44.1kHz and 48kHz music files to 320 kbps MP3 as to my ears they are warmer still and even more analog sounding. I still use Apple Lossless for 88.2kHz, 96kHz, 176.4 and 192kHz music files.

In my last update a year ago "An Analog Lover's continuing Adventure in Digital Land" http://www.positive-feedback.com/Issue42/sacd.htm I was wrong to say I was wrong, what can I say? It's a woman's prerogative to change her mind. At the time I just could not live with the loss of resolution caused by encoding 44.1kHz PCM to MP3, and also could not live with the uncompressed lossless 44.1kHz .wav and AIFF music files, which had more resolution but also some of the stridency and dryness of CD. I had the iPod shuffle so I couldn't do Apple lossless which in my early tests I found warmer than .wav or AIFF.

I discovered 24 Bit 88.2kHz and 96kHz lossless uncompressed music files have much greater resolution than any type of 44.1kHz music files. They have even more warmth and ambiance than MP3, which is "real" warmth and ambiance instead of the artificially created variety caused by the lossy compression and high frequency roll-off in MP3s. However I couldn't play my 24 Bit 96kHz music files on my iPod, so I sold my iPod, and deleted all computer music files lower than 24 Bit 88.2kHz.

Well six months or so later there was music I missed from my MP3s and reloaded them on my computer from my backup DVD-Rs. While they are definitely low resolution, many sound quite wonderful and a lot of enjoyable music. With the latest version of iTunes I swear these MP3s sound even better. Most are quite satisfactory for background music, but many MP3s from Telarc, Reference Recordings and Lyrita are enjoyable for serious listening as well. I prefer SACDs and 88.2kHz or higher music files but not everything is available in high resolution. I suppose I have gotten used to MP3s lower resolution which sound more analog-like than CDs and have a comfort level of analog cassettes. I waited this long to confirm that it was just not me missing the music but that the sound quality of these MP3s were acceptable for enjoyable listening. And I have now have an iPod again as well.

Finale: An Analog Lovers Survival Guide

My 61 page eBook "An Analog Lovers Survival Guide" is now available as a PDF file delivered by email. http://analog-lovers.blogspot.com/ or as a Kindle Edition from Amazon http://www.amazon.com/An-Analog-Lovers-Survival-Guide/dp/B001PTGQ80/ref=sr_1_2?ie=UTF8&s=books&qid=1244682685&sr=8-2

Even though I am not longer a pure analog music listener as my analog music is now converted to digital; the accuracy, beauty and comfortable listenability of the analog formats is what helped me in my pursuit of listenable and enjoyable digital. In short analog (and acoustic live music) is still the yardstick to measure against.


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