|CD SoundOff 2009: Welcome To The Jungle|
|Home Theater Feature Articles Audio Related Articles|
|Written by Todd Whitesel|
|Thursday, 17 September 2009|
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I played each CD on three different players (the SACD on two) to ensure a certain unit wasn't biasing my judgments. First, I listened to each disc in its entirety to get a feel for the recording and then began critical listening to tracks and bits of individual tracks.
First up was Neil Young's Harvest. I had the 2009 redbook remaster, #4 of Young's recent dive into the archives. This particular Harvest underwent restoration and analog-to-HDCD 24-bit, 176 kHz digital transfer, prior to digital editing and mastering. Even back in 1972, when Harvest was first released, Young was as interested in putting out a great sounding record as he was a great record of songs. The sound on his early albums still holds up 37 years later, and this CD remaster is very good. If you've clung to your vinyl copy or copies of Harvest, you'll be happy to have this new edition in your collection. The mix of “Out On The Weekend” is particularly good. I listened in amazement as Young's voice seemed to emerge not from either the right or left speakers – or both – instead it seemed to come from in between the two, in a perfect stereo image. I haven't heard many recordings accomplish that, and even on this disc it doesn't happen every song. The SHM-CD version of Harvest sounds so similar to the remaster that I could detect no appreciable differences. At first, I thought the SHM disc was slightly brighter, but after several listens the two became one. Both discs feature a wide soundstage and bring out the emotion in Young's voice. As folks say in Minnesota, “It's a horse apiece,” meaning either one will work. In this case, I'd stick with the redbook remaster and pocket the savings. It goes to show that given a good original recording and some thoughtful studio work, modern CDs – plain old redbooks at that – can sound pretty darn good.
Genesis' Nursery Cryme is the first album that first brought the “classic” Genesis lineup together on a recording. This early effort from Peter Gabriel, Phil Collins, Tony Banks, Mike Rutherford and Steve Hackett is a creative triumph, conceptually, lyrically and musically. The tunes flow through disparately different sections and flow ever-forward like a river. Complex, layered and challenging, there's a lot to listen to and for on Nursery Cryme. Whether the dove-like notes from Gabriel's flute to the gentle arpeggios and savage leads laid down by Hackett, this is a recording that rewards repeated listens. I've listened to this record perhaps more than any in my collection over the last 25 years; even still, there were threads of background vocals throughout the recording that I had never heard, and listening to “The Fountain Of Salmacis” was like hearing it for the first time, so much more musical information was presented. The SACD stood tall against the bonus DVD, mixed in higher-res surround, and is worth purchasing the dual-disc set on its merits alone. I've been a fan of SACD from the beginning. It's a shame that it's fallen so far from the public's ear, now relegated primarily to classical releases. For all who say SACD is dead, please send me your fallen!
Santana's Caravanserai was one of those life-changing albums for me. Discovering this side of the great guitarist's music was like finding a hidden country on a world map. The fusion of jazz and the exotic, driven by myriad percussion and Santana's brilliant fretwork cemented this in my Top 10 ever. I know every note of this album and was anticipating hearing some lost chord within the tangle of beats and energy. The Blu-spec disc has a spacious soundstage and everything sounds right, but it doesn't sound better. I've heard this album hundreds of times – so much that each note is stuck in my head permanently – and I could detect no differences between this and the 2003 remaster, on which this is based. It makes me wonder what the blue laser hoopla is all about. If its main purpose is to correct bit errors, then it's an expensive correction. I have never experienced a problem with a CD player and failed error correction. Unless you're sliding in a severely scratched or otherwise damaged disc, you'll likely too not encounter such a situation.
In the case of Fripp and Eno's Evening Star, the album was remastered in 2007 by Simon Heyworth and Fripp, whose ears I trust. In the liners, it is noted, “A measure of hiss was always present with analogue tape recordings. The use of two tape recorders on these recordings added an extra element of noise to the original masters. Modern mastering equipment allows for the removal of a great deal of the unwanted noise. However, a point is reached where further removal of hiss would also involve removal of some of the audio. These re-masters represent the optimal signal to noise ratio achievable using current techniques.” Tis true, that hiss is present if the volume is turned up appreciably, but it's also “part” of the recording, and as Fripp notes, decisions must be made not to compromise the spirit of the music. Is it a good remaster? No. It's an excellent remaster with even more of the music's pointillistic beauty revealed. From the intoxicating shimmer of “Wind On Water” to the haunting beauty of “An Index Of Metals,” this overlooked masterpiece has never sounded better. Is it due to the HQCD? I say no. One can purchase the same remaster on redbook CD for less than half the cost of the Japanese import and be happy.
The XRCD of Gustav Holst's The Planets was my happy surprise of the lot. I knew of the recording, performed by the Los Angeles Philharmonic under Zubin Mehta's baton, but I had never had the pleasure of hearing it, particularly through such excellent playback equipment. The performance was captured originally with a complement of almost 30 mikes and recorded directly to 2-track Studer tape machines. The recording nearly jumps out at you from the first sweep of strings presaging “Mars, the Bringer of War.” Instruments sound like instruments arranged in symphonic space and have a tangible sense of vibration that emerges from the speakers in great gusts of notes and rhythmic flurries. The recording is equal parts thunder and sublime. Worth purchasing for the mind-blowing horns, alone.
As much as I wanted to – straining my ears, sitting in different positions, realigning my speakers and doing several blind tests – I found no appreciable sound differences between redbook CD, SHM-CD, HQCD and Blu-spec. Unless you are a CD collector and want your discs wrapped in alternate packaging and stuffed with liners printed in Japanese, you'll do just fine with redbook CD. The XRCD was the best of the non-SACD batch, with help from an excellent original Decca recording. Unlike the strange gimmickry of SHM-CD or Blu-spec, I could relate to the philosophy behind XRCD and wouldn't hesitate plunking down the extra dough for recordings dear to me. If you're looking for great CD sound, you can find it on CDs that were recorded properly to start. If you want more of a good thing, go for the SACD, where offered. They call it super, and mostly, it is.