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Positive Feedback ISSUE 56
july/august 2011

audiodiscourse

 

High Resolution Audio, What is Next?
by Teresa Goodwin

 

Why have many Audiophile recording companies abandoned SACD and what is ahead for high resolution digital or is our future the audiophile analog LP?

Audiophile recording companies are the best able to exploit the full sonic potential of the SACD format, thus this mass exodus is not good for the overall health of the SACD format.

Most new affordable SACDs are from the classical boutique labels with prices of $20 or less. This is followed by reissues of geezer rock and classic jazz from the two remaining reissue audiophile labels: Analogue Productions and Mobile Fidelity Sound Lab priced at $30-$35 depending on the title. However most newly released SACDs are from Japan, especially the super expensive SHM-SACD series from Universal which cost around $65 each in the US.

SACD Audiophile labels and what they are releasing now: 

2L - has switched from releasing SACDs to more expensive SACD/BluRay combo packs, they may be switching entirely to BluRay coupled with high resolution downloads.

Analogue Productions - is still releasing re-mastered SACDs, although most of their licensed titles are released on LP only. In addition it has been many years since they have released any of their wonderful newly recorded Analogue Productions Originals made in their Blue Heaven Studios, a converted Gothic-style church in Salina, Kansas on SACD.

Audio Fidelity - started out as an SACD-only company with the goal of blowing the lid off of high audiophile pricing with the SACDs retailed at only $15.99 each. They have discontinued their SACDs and now only release 24k Gold CDs and 180 Gram LPs at $30 each. I guess if you can't beat 'um join 'um.

AudioQuest Music - another early supporter of SACD, all of their recordings were either analog or DSD recordings. They have kept their 9 SACDs released over ten years ago in print, however new releases are only on CD and MP3.

Chesky - I had high hopes for Chesky even though they record 24/96kHz instead of DSD as they announced several years ago that they were going single inventory and all of their new releases would be SACD/CD hybrids. Then they founded HDTracks and shortly afterword new SACD releases were missing in action, for high resolution one must now download the 24/96 music files from HDTracks.

Cisco Music - released several superb sounding SACDs mastered by Bernie Grundman including Jennifer Warnes' The Well and Clair Marlo's Let It Go licensed from Sheffield Lab. I was so impressed with The Clair Marlo SACD I was hoping for more material licensed from Sheffield Lab and then Cisco Music went out of business.

Delos - released only 12 SACDs, the last one nearly nine years ago. All were wonderful and special and many were DSD recorded. My favorite is "Dedicated to Victims of War and Terror" with Shostakovich's Chamber Symphony and Schnittke's Concerto for Piano and Strings.

DMP - released "Direct to DSD" SACDs. They are still to this day some of the most realistic and thrilling SACDs ever released. They do no editing within a movement or song as they felt it destroyed the spontaneity and adversely effected the flow of the music. If an error or wrong note occured they recorded the whole song all over. It's been over a decade since the last DMP recording was released, Tom Jung (DMP's owner) said he was going to retire and go fishing if SACD didn't replace CD, perhaps he did?

First Impression Music - superb sounding recordings, many years ago they quit releasing SACDs and now only release XRCD24, HDCD and LPs.

Groove Note - released much needed newly recorded jazz, superb musicians with state-of-the-art sound. They no longer release SACDs and are mostly concentrating on 180 Gram LPs.

Heads Up - founded in 1990 by Dave Love was not originally an audiophile label until it was purchased by Telarc in 2000, the equipment upgraded and towards the end recordings were pure DSD. This label is now owned by Concord Music Group who made the business decision to abandon SACD as they did not feel it was profitable enough.

IsoMike - is the label owned by Kimber Kable and they are dedicated to SACD only releases! IsoMike stands for "Isolated Microphones" and is an experimental acoustic baffle system used to address the interference of intra-channel sounds that results in compromised fidelity. You can read more about how these recordings are made at their website http://www.isomike.com/

MA Recordings - released one SACD sampler MA on SA which sounded excellent. MA is dedicated to high resolution digital and have released many high resolution DVD-Roms.

Mobile Fidelity Sound Lab - is still licensing many recordings for SACD remasters, even though most of their licensed titles are released only on LP and 24k Gold CDs.

Opus 3 - is still releasing SACDs as well as 180 Gram LPs.

Red Rose Music - is Mark Levinson's company, ten year's ago he released five reissues from his famous historic 30 IPS master tape collection on single-layer SACDs. Single-layer was chosen as he felt the CD format degraded the recordings too much and single-layer SACDs offered superior sound to hybrids. He also released "Live Recordings at Red Rose Music, Volume 1" which was a collection of pure DSD recordings made in the Red Rose Music store in New York City and he apologized for it being a hybrid SACD, he said it was a mixup at the pressing plant as it was also supposed to be a single-layer SACD. There was no Volume Two followup nor any more SACDs from Red Rose Music. Mark Levinson wrote an excellent essay "CD vs. SACD and LP" http://www.redrosemusic.com/essay.shtml

Reference Recordings - has only released three fantastic sounding SACDs so far, their primary high resolution format is 24 Bit 176.4kHz HRx DVD data discs with WAV music files that are loaded onto one's computer. Their recordings are also offered as 24 Bit 88.2 and 96kHz downloads at HDTracks.

Rounder - released many extremely realistic SACDs nearly a decade ago, they had the bluegrass and acoustic folk music styles almost all to their own. They quit releasing SACDs when they were no longer able to get them pressed in this country feeling that the increased cost of imported European pressings would adversely hurt their sales.

Telarc - is my favorite SACD recording company and the one I feel that takes full sonic advantage of the SACD format. Telarc had the film music and orchestral pops genres almost all to themselves. No one released as many large orchestral works, especially of the late-Romantic and Modern eras as Telarc did. In addition Telarc was among the last company to release newly recorded Jazz, Blues and Folk music on SACD . Concord Music Group bought Telarc in 2005 and in 2009 ended the SACD programs of all the labels they own.

SACD boutique labels

I find the DSD recorded SACDs from the classical boutique labels offer very good to excellent sound and sometimes realistic sonics close to the level of the above listed audiophile recordings. Also some of the boutique labels using high resolution PCM or analog also sound extremely fine. My favorite boutique labels still releasing SACDs include Chandos, Channel Classics, Exton, Linn, PentaTone and Tacet. And those who are no longer releasing SACDs Harmonia Mundi and Hyperion. As you can see boutique classical labels are sticking with SACD more consistently than the above audiophile labels.

SACDs released since its inception:

At http://www.sa-cd.net/titles one can view all SACDs released since the beginning of the format 12 years ago by genres or label. As of June 22, 2011 there have been 7,184 SACDs released on 518 labels. Many are out of print but still available from Amazon Marketplace sellers that are linked from sa-cd.net

I advise purchasing any still affordable out of print SACDs of interest as soon as possible since the prices raise astronomically the longer they are out of print. 7,184 seems like a lot of releases until one notices how much of what one loves has not yet been released on SACD.

Audiophiles boycotting SACD and high resolution in general

Many audiophiles have either convinced themselves that 16/44.1kHz PCM is good enough, believed studies showing 16/44.1kHz PCM and high resolution sound the same or are afraid of supporting a format that may not be here in the future. The SACD/DVD-Audio war was also a hindrance in the acceptance of physical high resolution formats.

In many forums posters claim SACD is worthless and was only introduced because the patent for CD was expiring and Sony/Philips needed to replace the stream of income that would be lost. It is hard to argue with this as licensing fees can be a large part of corporate income, however in Sony's defense they did introduce DSD in-house for re-mastering the old Columbia analog recordings before SACD was invented. Some posters also claim CD replay has improved so much that they prefer the best CD players to SACD.

With computer music files many of the same problems exist, some computer users believe that anything over 16/44.1kHz PCM is a waste of computer hard-drive space. ABX tests claim that 320kbps MP3 and uncompressed formats are indistinguishable, thus the size of a 24 Bit 96kHz PCM file being over eight times larger than a 320kbps music file is seen as wasteful. Even though external hard-drives are much less expensive now, many are avoiding high resolution downloads due to this space issue, even some who have listened and heard the difference.

Personally I find CDs have indeed improved but they are still seriously lacking compared to high resolution digital, especially SACD. The best DSD recorded SACDs have a beauty of tone, comfort level, imaging and intricate inner detail that CD at any price will never achieve. In short after being exposed to SACD and other forms of high resolution digital I find any form of 16/44.1kHz PCM to be totally unacceptable both sonically and musically. My physical digital music collection only includes SACDs and DVD-Audios and all of my computer music files are now 24 Bit, most at 88.2kHz to 196kHz PCM.

Give SACD a chance

I firmly believe that DSD recorded SACDs can be enjoyed on equipment in every price range, from the least expensive to the ultra expensive. Of course the more expensive equipment will usually offer refined sound and superior sonics. I also feel going forward all recordings should be DSD recorded, DSD recording has been out almost 15 years, and SACD for over 12. It is time we demand the real thing, DSD recorded SACDs.

Playback equipment for high resolution sources

For high resolution analog and digital sources the entire chain should to be designed to pass at least a 40kHz music signal, 100kHz is even better. Ultrasonics are not heard as audible sound but overtones in the ultrasonic range effect the timbre of tones in the audible range, in addition ultrasonics are felt on the skin much as subsonics are felt in the bones and gives music that "live" feeling. So if your system is not passing ultrasonic information from high resolution digital and analog sources you are not hearing and feeling all the music.

SACDs famous copy protection defeated by HDMI

Allowing digital out of SACDs players by HDMI was clearly a mistake as people are offering 24 Bit 88.2kHz PCM rips of SACD on the internet defeating SACDs copy protection, one of the formats prime selling features. One still cannot get the DSD out, it is converted to high resolution PCM, however since HDMI 1.3 also offers DSD out to receivers and pre-pros that have DSD processors it won't be long until there are actual illegal downloads of the full DSD stream.

Here is how they are doing it now:

1) DSD internally converted to a 24bit/88.2KHz PCM stream by the Oppo DV-980H player

2) The PCM stream is conveyed into a high-quality HDMI 1.3 cable

3) The HDMI is connected to an Octava 1x2 HDMI Distribution Amp with Toslink Out

4) The PCM stream is splitted into a toslink cable

5) The toslink cable is connected to a M-Audio Transit USB adapter

6) The PCM stream is captured by Cockos Reaper 3.1x using the M-Audio ASIO drivers.

Free high resolution music downloads

In the past I have mentioned legal free high resolution downloads available from recording companies and HDTracks to entice one to purchase the full albums in high resolution. However there are a growing number quasi-legal and illegal high resolution downloads on the internet. I have advised against BitTorrent downloads as it is a two-way peer-to-peer (P2P) communications protocol for file sharing that can make one's computer venerable to attack. Traditional downloads are one-way but they can still have Trojan's included dangerous spyware and malware. So before downloading (pay or free) from any website check it out first by doing a Google search with the websites name and the word "review". Look for traditional reviews of all aspects of the site and look for ratings from all the famous anti-virus and internet security software makers before downloading anything. Also if your web browser gives you a warning message that a site may harm your computer, choose the option highlighted "Close Page" which will return you to the previous page. Never choose "Ignore Warning" no download is worth risking the health of your computer. To be extra safe I close the browser and restart my computer.

I first stumbled onto a free high resolution site by searching "24 Bit 96kHz downloads" and have downloaded some out-of-print rare audiophile LPs from up-loaders using excellent turntables, expensive moving coil cartridges and tubed preamps. My feeling is that downloading out-of-print audiophile LPs especially from companies no longer in business does not deprive anyone of a rightful sale, however downloading in print recordings could be considered stealing. You will have to let your moral compass be your guide.

For the bigger picture I believe these sites prove that paying for music may indeed be a thing of the past. Within a decade it is possible all music will be free and likely directly from the artists website to promote their live performances. Music companies as we know them will no longer exist and neither will physical formats including my beloved SACD.

16 Bit 44.1kHz PCM is unacceptable in any form!

I find CDs, 16/44.1kHz lossless music files (WAV. AIFF, Flac, Apple Lossless), 16/44.1kHz lossy music files (AAC, MP3) unacceptable for music listening purposes. I just cannot enjoy music so crippled.

At first I thought I could live with 320kbps MP3s since they discard most of the irritating digital sound that infests 16 Bit 44.1kHz PCM playback, problem is they also throw away way too much resolution. While I find MP3s more comfortable to listen to than CDs or lossless music files, with my growing high resolution digital music collection I now find them completely unacceptable. All 16 Bit 44.1kHz music files have been deleted from my hard-drive, I now listen exclusively to 24 Bit music files, most with sampling frequencies from 88.2kHz - 192kHz. My physical formats are all high resolution SACD and DVD-Audio.

I have never recommended the MP3 format to anyone as it is a low resolution format and it does throw away real resolution, but if like me one cannot tolerate the CD format, perhaps MP3s more comfortable low resolution sound will be more pleasing to one's ears, that is until the missing resolution becomes an irritant, forcing one to high resolution audio only.

The Audiophile LP's resurgence

There are now more audiophile LPs available than at any time history. When LP was the dominate format only a very, very small percentage were audiophile LPs, now the majority of LPs are of the audiophile nature. New audiophile LP companies are continually popping-up cashing in on listeners unhappiness with "digital sound" and offering a smooth, pleasing analog alternative.

A lot of dedicated analog lovers have never heard SACD or believe it is just a multi-channel format. In addition some who embraced SACD at the beginning have since switched back to analog LPs and Reel to Reel tapes due to SACDs general lack of marketplace acceptance. Even though SACD is the most analog-sounding digital format yet, nothing sounds as analog as analog.

High resolution digital is still suffering from limited selection either in physical formats or downloads whereas LP collectors not only have thousands of new audiophile LPs to choose from they have millions of used LPs that can be had on the cheap from thrift stores, garage sales and online. I have found mint direct to discs, Lyritas, EMIs, Deccas and many other desirable LPs at thrift stores hidden in all the muck.

My bottom line

I don't plan on collecting LPs again, though I do considerably enjoy my 24 Bit 96kHz vinyl computer music files of audiophile LPs. Problem is I never cared for the care and maintenance of LPs especially their constant playback alignment parameters. I do love how mint LPs with inaudible or minimal surface noise sound.

I have quit purchasing high resolution downloads, my reason is economic as I find only about 10% of the music I purchase actually stays in my collection for over a year. If it makes it a year, it will likely stay in my collection for life. With physical formats I can recoup part or all of the cost and sometimes even turn a profit when I sell them. With downloads all I can do is hit the "Delete" button and it is a complete financial loss, thus downloads are not for me unless they are completely free. SACDs are what I love and purchase, I try to pay $20 or less per disc. It will be a sad day when they disappear.

 

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