Audiophile, Reviews

Review: Sound & Vision – The Bristol Show 2017

by Robert Cowlin

The Sound & Vision show takes place annually in Bristol and is the UK’s largest and longest running gathering of Hi-Fi manufacturers and enthusiasts. I had hoped to go last year but band commitments got in the way so my wife organised for us to go this year for my birthday. It was our first time visiting a Hi-Fi show and presented an exciting opportunity to hear many brands that we had read about but never had the chance to audition, we were also able to experience some indulgent cost-no-object configurations. The show was hosted at Bristol’s Marriott Hotel, with the ground floor conference suites being dedicated to larger demonstrations for twenty to thirty people per slot, and the hotel’s guestrooms being taken over by the smaller brands that convert the rooms into mock listening areas and living spaces in order to demonstrate their products to about six persons at a time. We went for two days, which was enough time to comfortably visit all the large demonstration rooms as well as all four additional floors worth of smaller demos. We could probably have done the whole thing in one day but it was nice not having to rush and being able to revisit some of our favourite rooms. The building was consistently packed for the entire time that we were there.

I wrote down our thoughts on some of the demonstrations and will outline them below, but first a couple of general observations. I was impressed by the number of manufacturers that had made a concerted effort to bring acoustic treatments to their demonstration rooms. Hotel rooms are hardly great for listening to music in, especially when every other room on the floor is pumping out tunes as well. A lot of manufacturers had brought bass traps and acoustic panels with them to treat the rooms, and the home cinema manufacturers were using digital room correction in their demos to improve the acoustics. I would estimate that around half of the manufacturers at the show were using some form of physical or digital acoustic treatments to improve the sound and those rooms unquestionably sounded the best. It is important to keep this in mind when reading my sonic observations below as not all the rooms were treated, but there really is no excuse when so many brands had brought something with them. Unfortunately, a lot of the manufacturers relied on either extremely bright or dynamically compressed digital music to demonstrate their products. In my opinion, this proved detrimental as it was countered by other manufacturers using excellent sounding vinyl set-ups to show off their products. I am very much a digital music enthusiast over vinyl, but the limitations of the vinyl format proved advantageous when compared to manufacturers that were playing hyped-up bright sounding productions in an attempt to entice attendees into their rooms. Generally, the rooms playing records sounded better because the lack of brightness or over compression allowed us to get a better impression of the products that were being exhibited without getting ear fatigue. Finally, the constant harping on by the brand representatives about ‘CD quality’ and ‘high-resolution’ got very tiring. We were regularly reminded that the demonstration tracks were only CD quality, and just think how much better this would sound with high-resolution audio being played. I am pretty sceptical about high-resolution for playback purposes and have never seen any evidence that a high-resolution master and its CD counterpart can be reliably identified in a blind test. Most of the attendees appeared to lap up the high-res voodoo talk however.

I have created a Spotify playlist of track highlights from the demonstrations reviewed below. Listen along and see if you can hear what I am talking about.

Brand Reviews:

ARCAM
Situated in one of the larger conference suites, ARCAM was demonstrating its AV860 Dolby Atmos & DTS:X 7.1.4 AV processor, with KEF providing the surround speakers and four Atmos ceiling speakers plus two bespoke sub-woofers with Celestion drivers. The amps were set up in a bridged mono-block configuration, with one amp per speaker providing 1,000 watts per channel of power. The overall cost of all the amps, speakers, 4K projector, and screen was around £100,000. The brand rep jokingly described the set up as their “lifestyle range”. The rep informed us that the demo was using Dirac digital room correction and played some rain sound effects with Dirac on and off to great effect. He then played the opening scene from Mad Max: Fury Road. The sound was immense and the picture quality was perfect, the demonstration immediately put every cinema I had ever attended to shame. The demonstration finished with a clip from a Paul Simon concert filmed in HD. I almost clapped at the end of the song, it was that convincing!

ASTIN TREW
I had not heard of this brand before but AT was launching its AT2-210 integrated amplifier, using a Planalogue ‘Prelude’ turntable with ‘Sibelius SG’ floor-standing speakers by Pearl Acoustics. We were the only people in the room so I chose “Vicious” by Lou Reed as the demo track. There is a repeating cowbell on this track and on this set up it was all we could hear. Reed’s vocal was lost somewhere down the hall but that damned cowbell just kept clobbering us over the head every second. Very tiring indeed. The ‘Prelude’ turntable looked an impressive piece of kit however.

AUDIOENGINE
The room was set up like an office as Audioengine was demonstrating its tiny HD3 Wireless active speakers, placed either side of a computer monitor. I connected to them via bluetooth and streamed Bullion’s “It’s No Spirit” from Spotify. I was not particularly impressed. The speakers failed to control the song’s pulsating and potentially flabby sub-bass, instead just spluttering out a choked boom throughout the track. The brand rep started talking over the sonic mess, probably for the best.

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HD3 Wireless speakers

AUDIO NOTE UK
I have read a lot about this brand, it appears to have a bit of a cult following particularly on US Hi-Fi forums. Audio Note had a CD transport and DAC combo feeding one of its amplifiers (didn’t get the names) with the ‘AN-J’ speaker at the end of the chain. Fleetwood Mac’s “Oh Daddy” started playing as we entered the room. This is a track we are quite familiar with so it was a good opportunity to make some brief evaluations. The sound was very polite and pleasant, quite a lot of mid-range detail. I did however notice that the track’s snare drum seemed to have a bit more added punch than normal, so perhaps the speakers have some reinforcement somewhere in the mid-range. This characteristic carried over to the next song, a female vocal track. Each time the singer held a particular note the sound became unpleasant.

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AN-J speaker

BOWERS & WILKINS
Another mega-bucks surround sound demonstration, this time by B&W. We heard the flagship ‘800 D3’ in a 5.2 configuration with the new ‘DB1D’ sub-woofer. First, the rep passed around some of the driver elements that go into building the 800 Series speakers. The metal structures were incredibly hefty and made no echo if you tapped on them. Impressive engineering on display. The rep then played Lou Reed’s “Vanishing Act” in stereo to great effect. The speakers had a vice-like grip over every speck of sound, the scale was of course massive. The rep demonstrated how well isolated the sub-woofer is by placing a glass of water on top of it and playing a bass heavy drum track. He called it the Jurassic Park test, the water remained still throughout the whole track! The demonstration concluded with the opening scene from Unbroken. The whole experience was incredibly tense and dramatic, with the various surround effects rendered to perfection. I wonder if you might feel a bit locked in by it all in the long-term, the sound was that commanding. The cost of the system was £60,000.

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CYRUS
This room was pretty cool. Cyrus was demonstrating its new ‘ONE’ integrated amplifier, a reboot of the original Cyrus One from the 1980s. Cyrus had a selection of its milestone products on display from the last thirty years and was demonstrating the new ‘ONE’ amplifier with three different speakers and Audioquest Nighthawk headphones (the new amp includes a very capable headphone amplifier). I was not familiar with the speakers or the song selection, and the brand rep kept taking forever to introduce the tracks and then only played them for thirty seconds! Nevertheless, one quality that I noticed across all the tracks and speakers was that the sound was incredibly clear and lucid without a hint of brightness or fatigue. I really enjoyed listening to the amplifier and found the half-width case aesthetically appealing.

DEVIALET
The self-proclaimed “best sound in the World”, Devialet makes a curious range of curved wireless speakers with mouthwatering specs. At the Bristol Show, Devialet was demonstrating its new ‘Gold Phantom’ loudspeaker. It (perhaps unfairly) struck me as a sort of Hi-Fi lifestyle product, retailing at ~£2,000. The sound was very good and benefited from the speakers being set up in a tight rule of thirds configuration with only two chairs for listening. Stevie Wonder’s “Superstition” was playing and the Gold Phantoms conveyed the song’s rhythmic elements and crunch with ease with excellent stereo separation to boot. Looks wise, the Phantoms are very much a marmite product that no doubt will compete with KEF’s new LS50 Wireless speakers (discussed below).

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Gold Phantom speaker

DYNAUDIO
Celebrating its 40th anniversary and exhibiting the What Hi-Fi 2016 Product of the Year ‘Emit M20’ stand-mount speaker (among other models), the sound in the Dynaudio room was very impressive. The M20’s imaged with pinpoint precision, emphasising the importance of space between one’s speakers, and had a pleasant airy quality that would certainly suit warmer sounding electronics. They retail at £600, I expected them to be twice that price.

Demo track: Stevie Ray Vaughan – “Tin Pan Alley”.

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Emit M20 speakers

HARBETH AUDIO
Quite possibly my favourite room of the show that has left me coveting a pair of Harbeth loudspeakers! Harbeth was also celebrating its 40th anniversary and demonstrating the limited edition ‘SHL5plus’ large stand-mount speaker. Unlike many other rooms, designer Alan Shaw was playing a selection of classical and jazz recordings with the idea being to convey a subtle and nuanced sound rather than the whizz-bangs going off elsewhere. The speakers framed everything perfectly and had an addictive and comforting sound that you could listen to for hours. Highlighting the fact that speakers are probably the most important part of a Hi-Fi set-up, Alan was simply playing tracks from his portable digital player to superb effect. No high-res gimmicks, no exotic cabling, very little in the way of isolation. Just great speakers. Quality clean amplification was provided by Norwegian manufacturer, Hegel. If you ever get a chance to hear a pair of these speakers do not hesitate! Dynamic range, realism, and perfect sound await!

Demo track: Art Blakey – Moanin’.

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SHL5plus speakers

ICON AUDIO UK
A room full of modern valve amplifiers, valve phono stages, valve CD players(!), and valve headphone amplifiers from award winning valve Hi-Fi manufacturer Icon Audio. Far too many things to list but Icon was demonstrating its massive 15″ horn speakers which did not sound as impressive as they looked.

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Icon Audio display

KEF
I own a pair of KEF’s award winning LS50 speakers so I had to hear what it had come up with for the new LS50 Wireless active version on demonstration at Bristol. One issue that people have reported with the passive LS50 is that it is a bit fussy about what amplifier it is paired with. I have not experienced any issues with it connected to my Rega Elex-R, but I think – given the speaker’s relatively affordable £800 price tag – many owners try to mate it with entry-level amplifiers that do not have enough power to properly drive the KEFs. It appears that one really needs an amp in the same price range as the LS50 (or higher) to get the best out of the speaker. With this in mind, KEF has decided to create an active version of the LS50 with purpose built dual amplifiers inside (one for the mid/bass driver, one for the tweeter), thus solving the potential amplifier pairing problem. The new LS50 Wireless is a complete Hi-Fi solution, with everything happening inside the speaker boxes. You just add stands and cables, then control everything via your phone or tablet. Design wise, it is the same as the original LS50 but with the amplifier and DAC added to the back, so they are pretty deep! Three tracks were used to demonstrate the speaker’s most noteworthy qualities: scale, sound-stage width, and pinpoint imaging. We were sat at the back and still the spatial cues were faultless despite us not actually being able to see the speakers. The speakers come with a phone app that lets you dial in DSP room correction, compensating for room dimensions and speaker placement. If I did not already own a pair of passive LS50s the new active version would definitely be on my audition list.

Demo track: Malia – Celestial Echo.

MISSION
The only real attempt at budget Hi-Fi in the whole building, Mission was showing off its What Hi-Fi award winning LX-2 stand-mount speaker (£160). We were the only ones in the room at the time so we picked “Kooks” from the 2015 remaster of Hunky Dory. The LX-2s did an admirable job of rendering Bowie’s vocal, but not much else. The song’s tuneful yet subtle bass was non-existent and there was very little realism on the piano. Overall, a somewhat unbalanced presentation. Bizarrely, the speakers were being fed by hundreds of pounds worth of quality Audiolab electronics so the source certainly was not at fault. The speakers were quite far out in the room given their size, and perhaps would have performed better in a smaller environment where reinforcement from the main wall would have improved the bass. Nonetheless, I have heard better budget speaker performance from the likes of Wharfedale and Cambridge Audio in the past.

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LX-2 speakers

MQA
MQA is a new file format, developed by Meridian, that aims to bring high-resolution audio streaming into the home. It is able to compress 24-bit high-resolution audio master files into sizes that are similar to 16-bit FLAC/ALAC files. It can do this because MQA uses lossy data compression to achieve its small file size, whereas FLAC and ALAC utilises lossless compression. Consequently, a high-resolution audio master file converted to FLAC/ALAC will retain all of its audio information, whereas the same master file converted to MQA will be much smaller in size but lose some of its audio information forever. MQA is currently being used by Tidal to stream high-res audio to subscribers. MQA was being demonstrated by Bluesound, who makes a selection of sleek network streamers and amps, and Audioquest, who brought its newly MQA-enabled Dragonfly USB soundcard to the show. The companies were demonstrating with MQA off and then on. Can YOU hear the difference? etc. Bluesound was using a more realistic pair of B&W floor-standing speakers than what we had heard in the B&W room earlier, the sonic characteristics of the earlier B&W demo remained the same though, which was interesting to note. Audioquest had its Dragonfly soundcard connected to a splendid Rega Elicit-R amplifier and speakers that I do not recall the name of. Both demos used a pre-digital era jazz vocal recording and Adele’s “Hello” to demonstrate the apparent difference between CD quality and the supposedly superior MQA. We were the only people in the Audioquest room so took the opportunity to test the rep on his knowledge. The jazz vocal track had an excruciatingly high analogue tape noise floor and I mentioned that any benefit between 16-bit CD quality and 24-bit high-res MQA would be redundant on this track because its high noise floor was obscuring any audible differences happening below -96 dBFS. I told the rep I could not hear any difference and he went: “Right! Let’s try Adele!” The track, “Hello”, is mastered so loud that it has just 4 dB of usable dynamic range. We blissfully sat there, switching back and forth between a CD file capable of containing 96 dB of dynamic range, and the high-res counterpart capable of 144 dB of dynamic range. Both of these ‘buckets’ are capable of rendering “Hello” in all its DR4 glory without hindrance or any audible difference. I tried to explain this but Audioquest was having none of it! By now a few more people had come in and I was loudly proclaimed to be the only person throughout the entire weekend that could not hear a difference between CD and MQA, much to my delight and pleasure! Shortly afterwards I returned to the Harbeth room to hear properly mastered songs being played off a smartphone with incredible sound, go figure.

MUSICAL FIDELITY
I previously owned Musical Fidelity’s excellent entry-level V90 DAC and often regret selling it. However, I have had the opportunity to hear MF amplifiers at dealers and now at the Bristol Show and have always come away with the impression that they exhibit a false sense of air or top-end extension. MF was showcasing its ‘Encore Connect’ all in one music player (files, streaming, CD, etc) and ‘NuVista 600’ integrated amplifier. Speakers were KEF ‘Reference I’ stand-mounts. Lots of brands were using various KEF speakers throughout the show, and this was the only time when we both felt they sounded brash and false in the top-end. I can only assume this impression was down to the Musical Fidelity electronics. In addition to the unpleasant sound, the huge components were finished in a hideous mid-nineties computer off-white colour, the kind you might associate with an old CRT monitor or keyboard. Next!

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Musical Fidelity display

NAIM AUDIO
Naim had taken over the executive lounge to demonstrate its new ‘Uniti’ range of products. It is another all in one solution that includes streaming, bluetooth, radio, network sharing, and apps that basically means you never need to move ever again. To my delight, the new range also promotes file-based playback specifically from CD rips and Naim has built a device that rips, stores, backs up, and serves your music to the network (‘Uniti Core’, £1,800). With more audiophiles collecting older CDs to get a specific mastering or out of print recording, or simply buying CDs because they are currently so cheap, it is now more important than ever to back up one’s CD collection to a lossless archive. Older discs can contain errors that ordinary disc-based playback would struggle with, but if you rip the disc you are more likely to get files that play perfectly because, when ripping a disc, error correction is not time-domain limited, i.e. the software can spend as long as it likes ripping a problematic track whereas a CD player only has a couple of seconds before having to come up with a fix or it skips. Using software such as dBpoweramp with AccurateRip enabled, one can ensure that a ripped CD is in fact a perfect copy of the disc by automatically comparing the CRC codes from the rip with a user-generated database of codes. If the rip’s CRC codes match someone else then it is an accurate rip as the likelihood of errors being identical across rips is almost impossible. Frustratingly, when the Naim rep promoted lossless CD ripping, he simplified it dramatically by saying: “CD players lie to us because they use error correction, whereas ripped files do not need error correction”. Well, that is sort of true, but the act of ripping a CD might still require the use of error correction in order to accurately rip the disc. I assume/hope Naim’s ripping system includes error correction! The rep did not say whether the ‘Core’ uses AccurateRip or indeed whether it has any method of informing the user that it has achieved a secure/insecure rip. I would not like to be on the receiving end of an irate Naim customer whose wonderful collection of ripped discs all contain audible errors and skips! The Naim rep played five tracks (jazz, classical, rock, female vocal, electronic) through the ‘Uniti’ kit and Focal ‘Sopra No. 3’ floor-standing speakers (£15,000). I have long wanted to hear the ‘Naim sound’ so I was looking forward to this demo but I was quite unimpressed. There was lots of attack, you knew precisely when a note was struck, but the amount of detail was so dizzying that I wondered how much processing was going on inside those boxes. The whole sonic picture was ruthlessly forward and off-putting. How could one listen to that for extended periods? As we went round the show we noticed a few other manufacturers using Naim components in their demonstrations, including some headphones, and that sonic characteristic remained apparent.

naim

Uniti Nova

PRIMARE/REVEL
Swedish electronics manufacturer, Primare, teamed up with US speaker manufacturer, Revel, to present one of the best sounding rooms of the weekend. The minimalist set-up consisted of Primare’s EISA award winning ‘I32’ integrated amplifier (£2,000) and ‘NP30’ network player (£2,000), feeding Revel’s Concerta2 M16 stand-mount speakers (£950). The sound produced by this set up was clean and open. As with Harbeth earlier, the rep took a more relaxed approach to song selection and mixed older more dynamic recordings in with modern productions. I do not have much more to say other than it sounded excellent with no single element causing any offence or annoyance.

primare-revel

REGA RESEARCH
Rega was showcasing its new ‘Planar 3’ turntable and the 2017 iteration of its award winning ‘Brio’ amplifier. It also launched an MC phono stage, modified TT PSU with variable speed control, and digital stylus gauge for accurately setting VTF to two decimal points at the show. The system was playing through Rega’s ‘RX-5’ floor-standing loudspeakers. The new turntable is extremely light and good at dispelling airborne vibrations. I previously demoed Rega’s RX-1 stand-mounts to go with my Rega Elex-R and DAC-R but thought they sounded too dull. At Bristol, the RX-5 certainly sounded better than I remember the RX-1 sounding, not dull at all, but perhaps a bit too open on the top end.

SENNHEISER
We found out that Sennheiser would be exhibiting its £50,000 ‘HE 1’ headphone and amplifier combo at the Bristol show so booked a slot in advance to hear it. We fed the amp with lossless CD rips from my iPod via a FiiO line-out dock to essentially mimic the output of a CD player. The sound was just incredible. As expected, it was the best sounding headphone rig I had ever experienced, digging up newfound detail in performances and unveiling instrumental characteristics that I had not heard before, as well as lifelike vocal realism and exquisite separation. Motorhead’s “Ace of Spades” sounded incredible through it, with the drumming in particular gaining an additional sense of realism, particularly during the mid-track rim-shots.

TECHNICS
I was itching to see and hear the just announced ‘SL-1200GR’ turntable, which made its UK debut at Bristol alongside last year’s ‘SL-1200G’ reference turntable. The new GR iteration is almost identical to the classic SL-1200 MK2 and will retail at £1,299, whereas the reference G version is ~6 kg heavier, has a magnesium finished tonearm and brass platter, and retails at £2,999. The cartridge was Ortofon’s 2M Black PnP (~£500) and this was all feeding Technics’ ‘SU-C700’ amplifier (£1,250) and ‘SB-G90’ floor-standing speakers (RRP TBA). With the exception of the added weight, both turntables felt identical to use. Everything was supremely machined to perfection and felt even more sturdy than my trusty SL-1210 MK2 at home. On the whole, the sound of the full Technics system was a bit restrained, with vocals being slightly recessed, however resolution of very low level detail on David Bowie’s “Lazarus” was excellent and I definitely noticed quiet effects that I had not heard before. Perhaps the set up just needed something to wake the mid-range up a bit, maybe a change of cartridge?

That’s it for the 2017 round-up. Roll on 2018!

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Audiophile

Collecting: Vintage CDs

by Robert Cowlin

Poor old CD takes a regular bashing from so called audiophiles and even the mainstream media, which is a shame because it remains the cheapest and most convenient way to get high quality sound, printed artwork, and transportable lossless audio data. Despite this, a significant number of people have decided that CD is not for them and are ditching their collections in favour of vinyl (under the assumption that it always sounds better) or streaming. Contrary to popular opinion, CDs manufactured in the 1980s generally have very good sound quality. Ironically, we have the laziness of the record labels to thank for all of the wonderful sounding vintage CDs that are now swamping the secondhand market. In their haste to take advantage of the fledgling digital format in the 1980s, great swathes of EQ’d cutting masters from the vinyl years were pulled from the shelves and hurriedly transferred to digital with minimal additional processing. Added to this are the then-contemporary releases that were mostly treated very well (up to c.1994) and often came with bonus tracks to promote the new format. The result is that there is now a great wealth of catalogue titles just waiting to fill gaps in every music fan’s collection for very little outlay. One need only add the simplest of playback devices (such as an iPhone and a good pair of headphones, or an old DVD player outputting digitally to a low-cost DAC like the Musical Fidelity V90) and good sound is ready and waiting. Much like in the 1990s when vinyl was a buyers’ market, so too in the 2010s is CD a buyers’ market. As anyone who has read these pages will know, buying music isn’t as simple as getting something on one’s preferred format (if only!), not if one wants to hear a recording in the best possible sound. Unfortunately the purchasing of music on CD is just as problematic as it is with vinyl. With this short post, I’d like to draw your attention to some particular types and series of vintage CDs that pretty much guarantee good sound quality. Next time you’re shopping for used CDs, keep these in mind!

Target CDs:

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So called because the label design resembles a crosshair, Target CDs were released by WEA in the early to mid 1980s. They are collectable from a historical standpoint because they are the original issues and thus represent the first time these albums were released on compact disc, they are also generally “flat transfers” of the tapes used. They were predominantly pressed in West Germany and Japan and are most likely sourced from EQ’d production masters originally intended for vinyl with no additional processing, compression, or noise reduction applied during mastering. Target CDs (and their associated “Target masters”) were later reissued as standard silver-faced CDs and some of them (like Rumours) are still in production today which means one can still purchase Target masters without paying the collectable price.

Toshiba EMI “Black Triangle” CDs:

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“Black Triangles” are first generation CDs manufactured by Toshiba EMI Ltd in Japan during the initial launch of the CD format in 1983. Most stayed in print for less than a couple of years (some, like Abbey Road, much less), and are highly sought after because they are reasonably faithful transfers of the Japanese master tapes used for each title. These discs have a very natural unprocessed sound, particularly when compared to the officially sanctioned versions that British EMI released after 1986.

Original Jazz Classics (OJCCD):

original-jazz-classicsNow for something a little cheaper and easier to find. Original Jazz Classics is a reissue label created in 1982 by Fantasy Records to present classic jazz albums from the Fantasy-owned labels (Prestige, Riverside Records, Milestone Records, Contemporary Records) with their original artwork and liner notes. Over 1,000 titles to date have been reissued as part of this series. Initial OJC releases were on vinyl and cassette, but they started pressing CDs in the mid-1980s which resulted in a huge array of previously rare titles being reintroduced to mainstream jazz fans and critics to much acclaim. In general, OJC CDs are very faithful to the original master tapes and can be purchased for less than £3. They’ve gotten some negative press in recent years because they sound a little soft and quiet next to overly processed remasters, this isn’t helped by the fact that OJC themselves reissued some of their catalogue as 20-bit remasters in digipaks in the late 1990s with an OJC20 catalogue number prefix – these are to be avoided. An original OJC master can be identified from its packaging, which uses traditional black CD trays and often has a late-1980s “digital remastering” credit on the back, and OJCCD catalogue number prefix. They are almost universally a safe buy, plentiful, and cheap. Many incredible jazz recordings are available through OJC, of particular note are Sonny Rollins’ Saxophone Colossus (OJCCD-291-2) and the Bill Evans Trio’s Waltz for Debby (OJCCD-210-2). Some of the OJC catalogue is available for streaming on Tidal and continues to use the original CD masters created in the 1980s.

MCA/Impulse!

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In 1986 MCA Records revived the 1960’s jazz label Impulse! for a brief series of reissues. The mastering engineers involved with this project went uncredited, but it is known that veteran audiophile engineer, Steve Hoffman, worked on twelve of these titles in the early days of his career, with other respected engineers working on the rest. “All sourced from the original tapes with the exception of A Love Supreme, which was from the original Bell Sound cutting tape“. A list of releases in this series can be found here.

Island Masters (IMCD):

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This series was initiated by PolyGram in 1989 and focused on reissuing good selling records from the Island catalogue at “mid-price” level. Sound quality is generally very good and faithful to the original recordings with the Cat Stevens and Free catalogues getting praise from fans and audiophiles to this day.

The Penguin Guide to Compact Discs:

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Also known as The Penguin Guide to Recorded Classical Music and The Penguin Guide to Compact Discs and DVDs, this indispensable tome is a must buy for all classical music fans. The annual publication ranks and reviews currently available recordings of classical music, awarding points for both performance and recording quality. It makes the purchasing of classical music – which can be a minefield – much easier for novices and experienced collectors alike, which brings me on to…

Holst – The Planets (OSM/Dutoit), Decca ‎417 553-2, 1987:

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Every music fan should own a copy of The Planets, and the OSM/Dutoit recording from 1987 is the way to hear it. Generally regarded as the greatest performance of Holst’s most popular work, this award-winning recording represents the pinnacle of late-1980s digital engineering with out-of-this-world dynamics and realism. If you only ever buy one piece of classical music, it should be The Planets.

Albums recorded and released in the 1980s and early-1990s:

Original CD issues of ’80s and early ’90s recordings are generally considered the best sounding for a given album. Of course, these should be considered on a case-by-case basis, but the proliferation of extremely harsh sounding modern remasters, especially of ’80s rock and pop, often makes the purchasing decision pretty easy. It is also worth remembering that, by the mid-1980s, most major studios had moved over to digital recording and the CD masters were given preference over analogue ones (frequently analogue masters were simply D/A transfers), with vinyl being pressed in increasingly poorer quality in an attempt to persuade consumers to buy the CD. The quality of vinyl records got even worse in the 1990s as CD became the dominant format.

Care, back-up, playback:

If properly cared for, a CD should last for a very long time and exhibit no playback degradation. Collectors of used CDs are advised to keep a micro-fibre cloth handy to wipe clean any soiled discs, more heavily damaged discs can sometimes be returned to full playing order with an ultrasonic cleaning machine that one would use to clean jewellery with. The best way to ensure accurate playback of all discs is actually to rip them to a lossless file format and play the resulting rip, this method offers an error-free form of playback and CD rips can be backed up for peace of mind. Most importantly, CD rips can be made with error-correction that isn’t time-limited and therefore malfunctioning discs can be rescued. The British Library uses dBpoweramp CD Ripper to back-up its CD collection with AccurateRip enabled for ensuring that the rip is an exact 1:1 copy of what’s on the disc. AccurateRip works by comparing binary data from your rip with a user-generated database. If your data matches another user’s (or, as is often the case, many other users’) it is highly likely that your rip is accurate. It is also important to use a CD drive with a high level of accuracy to make CD ripping easy and fast. Using AccurateRip data, it is possible to ascertain which drive is the most accurate. As of 2016, it is the LiteOn IHAS124, which can be purchased for less than £20 (CD/DVD Drive Accuracy List 2016).

Modern digital playback is source-transparent and reveals the excellent sound of many vintage CDs. A perfect sounding budget-conscious setup might consist of the highly regarded Marantz CD5005 CD player, vintage NAD 3020 amplifier, and Wharfedale Diamond speakers for less than £500. Alternatively, the Audioquest Dragonfly is a USB powered digital-to-analogue converter and headphone amplifier, capable of driving many high quality headphones from your laptop, phone, or tablet. This device paired with an award-winning headphone, like the AKG K550, can cost as little as £200 and offers brilliant sound quality. It’s never been easier to get good sound on a budget, so hunt down a bunch of vintage CDs, get yourself a good quality digital player, and enjoy pure perfect sound forever!

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Audiophile

What Constitutes Good Sound?

by Robert Cowlin

I often write about “good sound”, both at the source end and playback end, but what exactly do I mean when I speak of this? To me, the quest for good sound is what differentiates audiophiles from other music fans. Crucially, it isn’t about putting together a collection of hi-fi demo material, nor does it concern owning high ticket playback components. Rather, it is a collecting method one can apply to both music and component purchases that focuses on maximising sonic potential on a case by case basis.

The Good Sound method can be applied at either end of the musical spectrum, but I’m going to start at the end and begin with playback… I’ve written at length previously about vinyl set-up and playback so I’m going to concentrate on digital for the time being but the goals remain the same. In 2016, we find ourselves at a peculiar point for digital audio. Never has it been easier or cheaper than right now to get accurate transparent sound out of a digital device. Gone are the days of bright sounding CD players or inaccurate digital-to-analogue converters (DACs). An iPhone is capable of providing bit-perfect CD quality audio (assuming it’s fed CD quality files) straight out of its headphone jack, and the same is true of many other smartphones, portable digital audio players, and USB sound-cards. It’s also never been easier or cheaper than right now to measure the analogue output of a digital device (should you feel so inclined) to find out whether the product you are using is actually capable of providing bit-perfect audio or whether it’s colouring the audio. A multitude of excellent DACs for different needs at varying price points are reviewed here. Portable, stationary, with or without an inbuilt headphone amplifier, and packing all the digital inputs you might require, now is the time to get into digital audio.

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Pure, Perfect Sound-Forever!

The listener concerned with good sound needs only a few simple components to get themselves up and running. This could be as minimal as combining a low cost (but, crucially, bit-perfect) DAC with a high quality pair of headphones, such as the AKG K550 or something from the Sennheiser HD 6## range; to something more ambitious like a full blown hi-fi with accurately positioned speakers and a well matched amplifier. The point is not to get too preoccupied with gimmicks and woo but instead to focus on the components that really matter (source – amp – transducer) and chase accuracy wherever possible. If you want to manipulate the sound (for example, give everything a “warm” tonal quality) it’s best to do this at the end with your speaker/headphone of choice. Those interested in vinyl playback should note that my previous article was written from much the same standpoint as this one.

Once the playback end has been honed for good sound, it becomes very simple to drop recordings into the system and appreciate the way the recording sounds rather than how a component sounds. The problem now faced by the musically curious is simply the sheer amount of recordings available, especially when a title is reissued. Some recordings, like Kind Of Blue, are available in a dizzying array of varied releases each one sounding different to the last because they’re all mastered differently. With one’s playback components in mind however, it is easy to whittle down the possibilities by following some simple rules: mastering, format, price, availability:

  1. Mastering: For those interested in good sound, mastering is always the paramount quality. A good master will make or break your enjoyment of a recording and a bad one could turn you off something that you might otherwise have appreciated. A good mastering will maintain the dynamic integrity of the original mix, utilise a mastering chain that is sympathetic to the recording (for example, the 1992 Motown CD compilation Hitsville USA utilised a “specially restored full-track tube tape deck” for the analogue-to-digital transfers that mimicked the way in which those old tapes would have been mastered to vinyl in the ’60s), and only manipulate the sound when it is truly necessary or where such alterations have been requested by the artist. You need all three for this to work, there’s no use in having that tube tape deck in the mastering chain if the songs are then crushed to death with brick wall limiting. Similarly, an overly dynamic master might sound thin and lifeless. Choose something that clearly respects sound quality throughout.
  2. Format: This simply involves weighing up which mastering(s) is the best versus which format is best reproduced by your playback chain. There’s no point in buying an expensive Monarch pressed Sticky Fingers if your turntable isn’t up to the task of revealing why Monarch pressings are so revered. With a little research you’ll find there is generally a consensus amongst the audiophile community regarding the best example of a recording on each format. Identify the format that is best reproduced by your components and focus on it. I have written more about this concept here. If you’re lucky enough to have a system that reproduces multiple sources well, you might consider price as a way of dictating which edition to buy.
  3. Price: This is fairly self-explanatory. You might find that there are a number of good examples of the recording you’re looking for. A Japanese black-triangle CD, for example, is going to be more expensive than a run of the mill vinyl reissue from a supermarket. If both are proven to offer good sound, pick according to budget.
  4. Availability: This is linked with price. Unless you’re happy to wait, it’s often easier to pick up the edition that was/is pressed in the hundreds of thousands than a boutique rarity. Be aware that sometimes it is the boutique releases that have the best sound quality.

These four points can be applied to any album, old and new, and they aren’t reliant on the existence of a high quality recording. This is the crux of the good sound method. It is one hundred percent not interested in collecting things like Jazz At The Pawnshop (unless you happen to like those sorts of records). It is entirely about obtaining recordings in the best sound possible – regardless of the recording quality – and hearing those recordings in the best sound possible to you through clever system building and diligent set-up.

The music industry distracts consumers with formats, products, and remasters in an attempt to fool them into re-buying recordings and equipment under the illusion of better sound. In reality however, the music industry cares little for good sound as evidenced by its continuation of the loudness war, audible watermarking of classical music, and promotion of wildly inaccurate headphones. The vinyl revival is not about good sound, high-resolution downloads aren’t about good sound, active noise cancelling headphones can’t offer good sound, bluetooth speakers don’t have good sound. Sometimes it is possible to find a diamond in the rough but, more often that not, it is the responsibility of collectors and audiophiles to separate the wheat from the chaff when pursuing good sound quality. The truth is, most recordings are good and it doesn’t take much work to figure out which editions are worth buying. By exerting a little effort before making a buying decision, we music fans and audiophiles are more likely to get greater enjoyment from our music and perhaps even learn something about it along the way.

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Audiophile

Ode to Streaming

by Robert Cowlin

Today my Tidal subscription renewed for the first time, marking one month since I joined the CD quality streaming service. In that month I’ve come to understand how streaming can work for the audiophile who might be sceptical of such services, what with them contributing to the redundancy of physical music and lack of provenance regarding mastering of catalogue titles. By approaching streaming from a learning perspective – not necessarily of ‘try before you buy’ but more a position of open musical exploration – it becomes very easy for streaming to complement one’s curation of an owned music collection as the connected audiophile uses the latest developments in content access to expand their musical outlook.

I first discovered streaming when Spotify was launched in the UK in late 2008/early 2009. I was a university student living in halls, and it seemed like a useful way to access music that I didn’t have with me in my small accommodation. Unfortunately, what with it being very much a fledgling service at the time and not yet having found its feet in the musical landscape, I quickly became frustrated with its patchy availability of albums I was interested in and, when they introduced the subscription fees, couldn’t justify the expense of streaming music that I already owned in higher quality (i.e. on CD). The constant adverts didn’t help either. Consequently, whilst the rest of my peers kept up with streaming, it became useless to me as I slowly started ripping my CD collection to Apple Lossless and then of course got into vinyl and latterly hi-fi. Thankfully my time in the small student accommodation didn’t last for too long!

Fast-forward eight years and the International Federation of the Phonographic Industry (IFPI) is reporting that “streaming has emerged as the digital sector’s main driver of growth. As download revenues have declined (down 10.5 per cent in 2015), streaming – helped by the spread of smartphones, increased availability of high-quality subscription services and connected fans migrating into licensed music – has grown to 19 per cent of global industry revenues, up from 14 per cent in 2014” [Global Music Report: State of the Industry Overview 2016, IFPI]. The IFPI’s 2016 overview reveals that digital music sales represent 45% of global revenues, with streaming revenues accounting for 43% of digital sales (N.B. in this use of the word, digital does not include sales of physical music that contain digital audio, such as CD). In a section of the report titled, “Music Streaming Goes Mainstream”,  Michael Nash, UMG’s executive president of digital strategy, makes a crucial assertion that reflects my newfound experience with Tidal: “With the initial move to digital [music files], people took their physical collections and transferred them to digital, adding a few bespoke digital purchases so a lot of product concepts remained unchanged … But the move from downloading to streaming means consumers have access to millions of tracks. This means everything we are doing now around establishing artist brands, driving preference and marketing, is different”. This notion of “product concepts” is very relevant to the way in which I’ve been interacting with my streaming subscription this past month. Rather than using streaming to play all the albums I already love, I’ve been using it as a means of musical discovery. Now that streaming is so mainstream, any album worth its salt is released on streaming platforms either on release day or sometimes earlier. With great new music being released every week, one can easily use a streaming service as a means of hearing the latest releases that one is interested in and, perhaps more importantly, the latest developments in music that one might not otherwise have known about or been able to hear with the traditional pay-per-album model.

If you ask the average audiophile (…stay with me) what they think of streaming, they will invariably say something like: “The Beatles/Neil Young/The Rolling Stones/etc isn’t on streaming”. The idea, to them, is that streaming would constitute a music fan’s entire experience of recorded music, past present and future. Now, I’m aware that, for the average Millennial, streaming probably does constitute their entire experience of recorded music and to them the waffle that is this article will seem terribly outdated and its conclusions patently obvious, but we’re in the audiophile section so I’m going to continue writing with my audiophile hat on (it’s perfectly adapted to the curvature of my head to allow for a pinpoint sound-stage), and that means we’re talking about people that consider themselves music fans (and therefore engage with physical music products, go to concerts, and possibly have a hi-fi) and those who go beyond that into the realm of audiophilia. What I’ve come to appreciate, as a music fan, is that streaming isn’t really about replacing one’s whole music collection with a subscription, it’s about augmenting the collection and – most importantly – expanding one’s musical education through the thing it does better than anything else: instant musical access.

This is where Tidal steps in. Tidal’s “Hi-Fi” subscription service differentiates itself from the other major streaming platforms by offering lossless CD quality (FLAC, 16-bit/44.1 kHz) streams to its subscribers for £19.99/€19.99/$19.99 per month. By moving away from the free ad-supported streaming services and upgrading to an ad-less higher quality experience in the form of Tidal Hi-Fi (Spotify Premium is the more popular example but doesn’t offer lossless quality), it becomes very easy to see how one could implement the aforementioned “product concept” idea and incorporate a streaming service into one’s musical life. With a lossless streaming subscription, the tech-savvy connected audiophile can integrate it seamlessly with their physical music collection and change at will between CD quality streams, real CDs, and whichever other formats constitute their collection. This is how one can utilise streaming to its fullest potential: want to hear the 2016 shortlist for the Mercury Prize, it’s all there; enjoying the bass playing on that jazz record but don’t own any records by the bassist, stream that musician and discover new gems; want to hear The Gouster but can’t afford the box-set it’s limited to, it’s right there on the streaming services as well.

As mentioned earlier, this method of interacting with music is widespread amongst millions of people and as usual we audiophiles are lagging behind (or perhaps the audio companies and magazines are simply resistant to promoting real advances in our hobby), but it’s something that I’ve only just come to appreciate through my first month as a paid up member of Tidal. Of course, this approach requires one to actually want to seek out new music. It also requires a level of computer-based understanding if one wants to integrate the service with the rest of one’s hi-fi (I stream Tidal lossless across my home network to my DAC via my Android devices using the BubbleUPnP app), but the hour or so spent getting it set-up correctly (i.e. ensuring that it is actually sending a lossless stream) is more than worth it simply for the expanse that it has added to my music collection. I’m now in a position whereby, for catalogue titles, I can determine the best version available and buy it on any format that I desire; whilst, for new titles, I can stream them in CD quality and then decide if it’s something I want to buy (say, if the mastering is excellent). Readers will be aware of my opposition to loud styles of audio mastering, this is all well and good but it poses the risk of easily ignoring great swathes of modern recordings simply because they aren’t finished to a high standard. This approach isn’t acceptable to someone who considers themselves a music fan. Consequently, a premium streaming subscription enables me to hear as much music as I want (and not feel too guilty about royalties), but still vote with my wallet on titles that deserve a place in my physical music collection. With space at an all time premium, this seems like a sensible approach.

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Audiophile

Vinyl Revival: Do Record Labels Actually Care about Quality?

by Robert Cowlin

You were promised a review of Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds’ new record, Skeleton Tree. It’s a great record, I rated it 4/5 on All Music. I really like all the bubbling meandering synth work and Cave’s vocal is bang on. One could perhaps draw obvious lines of comparison with Blackstar based on the timing of surrounding events. The CD sounds like garbage but the YouTube videos (taken from the accompanying film) sound great. When it comes out on blu-ray I’ll rip the audio but until that time it shall remain in my Tidal streaming library.

Now that that’s out of the way, it’s time to turn to what could quite possibly be my favourite topic: moaning about vinyl. If you are one of the poor victims, unfortunate enough to have paid £20 for Skeleton Tree on vinyl, chances are high you’ll know what this article is going to be about. Pictures speak louder than words though, so if this recent scandal in the annals of audiophilia has somehow managed to pass you by, feast your eyes on these:

It seems that Kobalt Music, the company tasked with producing physical copies of Skeleton Tree, failed to perform any quality control checks on their monstrosity of a product and the result is a record with a murky surface, covered in scuffs, and there are even reports of glue being lodged in the playing surface. Complaints about quality control and the vinyl revival are not new. Many modern pressings are riddled with defects, and there is even a twenty-one page thread specifically devoted to issues arising from one particular pressing plant! To make matters worse, in the case of Skeleton Tree, the record comes in this ridiculous oversized sleeve making it impossible to store properly, especially if bought by the kind of vinylphile who likes to keep their records in protective polythene sleeves. I couldn’t tell you what it sounds like because I haven’t bought it (would you?). Needless to say, for a recording that is pretty sparse, you really do need to have it pressed on pristine vinyl if you want to enjoy it on that format. The combination of the unplayable record and stupid sleeve is the perfect embodiment of what the vinyl revival is truly about: conning music fans out of their money (duh, I hear you say). It didn’t have to be this way, and perhaps there was an innocent point over the revival’s now ten year history when vinyl was good, but greed has taken over and the labels are predictably putting just as much effort into their vinyl releases as they are their digital ones (hint: zero).

Think about it, here is a product that 48% of buyers probably won’t use, 7% of which can’t use, and for the remaining 52% it is highly likely they’re playing the record on this. Why on earth would anyone who is seriously concerned with audio reproduction entertain the notion that the labels actually care about their vinyl output when, statistically, that market is a niche within a niche? The biggest con of all is that vinyl is an objectively inferior technology to CD when it comes to sound reproduction, but it’s being marketed as a superior product! A cursory glance at Amazon’s Best Sellers in Vinyl reveals that consumers are spending on average £20 for a top 10 vinyl record that half of them aren’t going to listen to. With this in mind, it seems blindingly obvious that something like Skeleton Tree would happen sooner or later, as the labels realise they’re basically selling big pictures. I’m surprised Blackstar didn’t run into similar problems, being that it is a record that came packaged in a razor sharp plastic sleeve. Of course, these points won’t stop the kind of deluded vinylphiles that populate hi-fi forums and magazines from believing that anything pressed on Glorious Vinyl sounds like it has been produced by the ghost of George Martin, mastered by Orpheus on an all-tube lathe, and individually hand pressed by Japanese artisans…

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It isn’t difficult to press a high quality record. All you need to do is make sure it’s mastered specifically for vinyl with dynamics intact, instruct the pressing facility not to apply any additional processing to the sound, and pay the extra fee to have the record packaged in a poly-lined inner sleeve. At the time of writing, a run of 500 LPs will cost a DIY label with no major label discount around £2,000 (including mastering and VAT). You can see that selling such a product for £20 would result in a huge profit for the label and many happy listeners. I don’t even know how it would be possible for a label to spend so little to end up with a record that looks as bad as Skeleton Tree but apparently Kobalt Music has found a way.

In addition to all that, I’ve even heard of labels that let their individual bands organise the mastering of their records. How stupid can you get? Imagine the hodge podge of varying sonic signatures such a label would be putting out, rather than releasing a string of products with an element of sonic consistency. Clearly, a label that does this (I’m naming no names here) has absolutely no clue about maintaining quality control or presenting some semblance of a coherent catalogue of albums. We are at such a low point for sound quality compared to the relative high point of current recording technology that it seems hard to imagine how we could sink any lower. Compare this to the movie industry and the successful implementation of the blu-ray format amongst videophiles and it’s not difficult to see why the home music industry is trailing behind home video (evidenced by the way in which What Hi-Fi has increasingly turned its attention to home cinema, and the popularity of home theatre forums over hi-fi ones).

For a brief moment it was possible for the modern music fan with a penchant for sound quality to “get it on vinyl” and not have to concern themselves with the loudness war or streaming distractions. This patently is no longer the case. In the seventies, when audio production quality was high, music consumers might have concerned themselves over whether a label was using recycled vinyl to press the latest record. Now the music consumer must simply ask: does the label care about quality at all?

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Audiophile

Stop Buying Physical Music for its Physicality

The original intention of this article was to defend the compact disc format against those who see it as pointless, outdated, or superseded. However, during the course of my writing I came to realise that it wasn’t the format I wanted to defend, it was the choice offered by the format. Specifically, the ability to choose between different versions of the same material in order to make an informed decision when acquiring music.

by Robert Cowlin

Much as vinyl was kicked to the curb in the nineties by the music labels who saw it as unprofitable; the media who saw it as uncool; and the general public who saw it as cumbersome next to the by then fully established compact disc format, so today the wheel spins and it is the turn of the CD to play the industry scapegoat. In our post-Millennial world of streaming and downloads, those humble silver discs of yore appear antiquated and useless to the average consumer. Indeed, if music is simply a thing you hear to pass the time during your commute, or in the background at restaurants or at work, then yes the CD is probably completely useless and a Spotify account will do you just fine thank you very much. If, however, you’re are an actual fan of music, then the CD can be a very useful tool in your exploration and acquisition of music, in just the same way as vinyl, cassettes, and downloads are.

This entry is primarily inspired by a recent Noisey/Vice article entitled, “Does Anyone in the World Still Buy CDs?” It’s your typical run of the mill click-bait from Vice in which they pick a hobby and get an ill-prepared journalist to produce something of little substance and zero prior research. A cursory glance at Google will reveal that, as of 2015, UK CD sales accounted “for two thirds (66 per cent) of all album sales (excluding streams)“. So there you have it, one Google search has answered Vice’s question. Not only do people still buy CDs, but CD remains the most popular music format in Britain. Look a little further afield and one finds that, in Japan, “the second biggest music market, CDs still make up 85% of all music bought“. To Vice’s credit, they did interview shoppers in HMV, Fopp, and Rough Trade to get their take on why they still buy CDs. However as is always the case with these articles, be it CD, vinyl, or cassette buyers, the answers are always the same: “I like having a physical object”, “I like stuff to read like a booklet”, “I just hate downloading”, “I like the feeling of rummaging through CDs”. An alternative purpose for CD acquisition is presented below.

The problem with the findings of articles like the Vice one (the BBC ran a similar article a few months ago about the vinyl revival) is that one sees, time and again, people resorting to this concept of attachment to the physical object rather than the music contained therein. It seems as though the physical object takes precedence over the music when in reality it should be the music that dictates one’s purchases. If one approaches music acquisition from the standpoint of music first, the way in which one interacts with music changes as one’s purchasing habits become more concerned with the manner in which the music is translated rather than the form in which the music is presented. When I say “translated”, what I actually mean is “mastered” (or, more simply, how it sounds), but I’ve banged that drum quite a bit recently so I want to approach this from a slightly different angle here.

Let’s look at vinyl for a moment as that seems to attract the most amount of interest from object fetishists. Imagine you want to purchase Black Sabbath by Black Sabbath and you’re presented with three purchasing options: a vintage pressing on WWA Records from 1973, a recent reissue on translucent red vinyl, and a seemingly run of the mill reissue on Rhino from 2010. I’ve purchased all of these in the past for around £15 (yes, collectors, the WWA one too) and the eagle eyed amongst you will note the specific absence of an original Vertigo pressing in this scenario (a mint condition example will set you back at least £450). The purchaser driven by physicality might note the vintage pressing’s gatefold sleeve, or the reissue on red vinyl, or the Rhino’s lack of any special packaging. Perhaps they’ll purchase the WWA because it’s vintage, or perhaps they arbitrarily collect coloured vinyl. All the while, the comparatively ordinary looking Rhino pressing sits on the shelf. On the other hand, the purchaser driven solely by the sound of music, might note the fact that the WWA pressing uses the original Vertigo stampers, the coloured pressing’s lack of any provenance, or the Rhino’s hype sticker stating that it has been “cut from the original analogue masters”. In this example, it is possible to see how the music fan driven by sound quality is more likely to make a satisfying purchase than the one driven by packaging. The vintage WWA pressing is essentially a cheap way of obtaining a first pressing Black Sabbath as it reuses the original Vertigo pressing stampers from 1970 (though they’re slightly worn sounding), likewise the Rhino reissue is a cheap way of obtaining a freshly cut all-analogue pressing on high quality modern vinyl, the pressing on red vinyl of dubious origin is an expensive way of getting a turd. A far cheaper way of obtaining Black Sabbath in excellent sound would be to purchase the original mid-eighties Castle Communications CD (not the abysmal mid-nineties remaster also on Castle) from Amazon Marketplace for less than £5 at the time of writing. Here’s where the music fan who sees sound quality as paramount really wins. The packaging itself is abysmal, the jewelcase is cheap, the artwork is barely reproduced, there is no booklet to speak of, and the CD doesn’t have a pretty picture on it. It is the very definition of vanilla. However, it sounds just like the original Vertigo record without the associated imperfections of vinyl or eye watering price-tag. The result is that the sound-driven music fan enjoys a far richer exchange between themselves and the artist because they’re focused on enjoying the music from a listening perspective, rather than enjoying music for its packaging. After all, when a band makes a recording they are primarily creating something to be listened to, they’re not designing a box.

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Looks boring, sounds great.

Time and again one sees music fans ditch the best sounding editions (often old CDs from the eighties or early vinyl pressings) in favour of lavish new box-sets with zero provenance and a big REMASTERED sticker on them. If you ever want to buy a recording on the cheap, wait for it to get remastered and head to your nearest charity shop wherein you’ll find copious copies of the album you’re after, donated by the object fetishist!

There are exceptions to the rule. The recent Beatles In Mono vinyl box-set is a perfect example of modern packaging design and audio engineering combining to create a truly marvellous release that trumps the originals in every way. Such releases appeal to both types of collector and, considering all of these classic albums have been paid for long ago, there really is no excuse for record companies that get sound or packaging wrong.

Even when the music fan approaches musical acquisition from the goal of absolute sound, s/he still ends up with a sizeable collection of objects, however they stem primarily from a desire to connect with the music. Consequently, such a fan would also have a healthy collection of lossless and high-resolution downloads as there are plenty of recent examples whereby the download is actually the best sounding version of a particular recording (or the only version). Such a fan might also have a collection of first pressing LPs. The reason why an original Vertigo pressing of Black Sabbath is so expensive is not because of its gatefold sleeve, but because it is the best sounding version of that record. The original sound is what collectors are paying for. Much like the bibliophile would seek out an unabridged version of their chosen novel (regardless of how it is presented), the cinephile would seek out the best presentation of their chosen film, so too should the music fan seek out the best sounding version of the album they want to hear.

Try it. Next time you want to buy an album, do some research and see what other music fans think of the various versions available. Also consider your playback set-up and focus on the format that is best reproduced in your listening environment. In the case of catalogue titles, there will often be a variety of safe bets depending on your budget and format of choice. Focus primarily on sound quality rather than packaging or newness. You’ll probably still end up with a physical object of some description, though it might not necessarily be the best looking box in the shop. The key element in this article is the notion of connecting to music for music’s sake, rather than via an object or ritual (e.g. the act of playing a record, or rummaging through discs). Many listeners say that the rituals associated with music playback facilitate their connection to the music and that’s absolutely fine, as long as the ritual isn’t the driving force behind the acquisition of music.

Lastly, here are some cool pictures from the early days of CD…

Further reading:

 

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Audiophile, Reviews

Songs & Sonics : Vogue Noir EP (by Vogue Noir)

In Songs & Sonics, I review an album in two stages. First, I write a bit about the songs on a record and what I think of them, then I turn my attention to sound quality.

by Robert Cowlin

Vogue Noir (stylised as VOGUE.NOIR on his releases but you’ll forgive me for not littering this page with capitals) is the brain child of Dominique Cologne, formerly of the synth duo SATO SATO. In Vogue Noir, Dominique maintains that band’s machine-based approach and combines popular elements of 1980s underground electronic genres to convey a reflective and melancholic sound with the energy of dance music. I first became aware of Vogue Noir through his superb collaboration with DRIFT. (more capitals!) on the spellbinding “Segments”. That song has frequently graced the PA at A New Dusk during peak dance hour and continues to invoke a positive reaction from our punters. What particularly pleases me about “Segments” is that, along with being a simply excellent modern synth-pop track that encapsulates an enormous chunk of what A New Dusk is about and celebrates, it has also been recorded, mixed, and mastered to a very high standard. Unfortunately, a great deal of contemporary -wave music is ruined at the mastering stage through high amounts of dynamic range compression and bizarre EQ choices that turn perfectly good sounding songs into fatiguing sonic messes (popular and prime examples come from the likes of The Soft Moon, Trust, and Light Asylum). In contrast, when I first heard “Segments” I was drawn to its silky presentation of the vocal, expertly controlled instrumentation, and expressive drum sound. The single version is mastered with an incredible (by modern standards) 11 dB of dynamic range (as defined by the Dynamic Range Database) which is almost unheard of in today’s climate of brickwalled recordings, created under the false belief that a dynamically compressed master sounds better on the radio or at a nightclub. In fact, the very opposite is true and anyone who has danced to “Segments” at A New Dusk will notice the manner in which it fills the room and leaps from the PA, in contrast to the flat and congested sounds of the poorly mastered competition. The reason why all those old electronic tracks from the ’80s and early ’90s sound so great in clubs (and at home!) is because they take advantage of the PA’s ability to react quickly to dynamic shifts in the music, thus creating a powerful beat that the body responds to through the medium of the deux-étapes gothique. Consequently, when I heard that Vogue Noir was releasing an EP, I was filled with a great amount of hope and expectation that it would continue on the same sonic trajectory laid out in “Segments”, both stylistically and technically.

The EP consists of five new tracks plus “Segments” as the sixth. “Crush!” – our starting point – is overwhelmingly bleak; with the deep oppressive synths representing a locked gate to the listener. As one discovers as the EP progresses, an interesting to and fro is developed throughout the record whereby Dominique flits between the powerful aural dominion exhibited on “Crush!”, and a sweeter more euphoric release on latter tracks. The creative palette on show is precisely restricted, but it is through these concisely defined threads that the Vogue Noir EP sews its cloth. The EP confronts the listener with two emotions: on the one hand there is an aching anxiety, whilst on the other there is a sense of bliss or relief. These are primarily inspired by the instrumentation as one merely glimpses the vocal through a wash of effects. The EP simply darts between these states thus recalling the Eno-Schmidt axiom: “repetition is a form of change”.

On “Belief”, the listener is presented with the first contrast. The sense of crush is preserved through a rarely distinguishable lyric – “just stay, forever” – yet the instrumentation has a positive and upbeat air that recalls some of Vogue Noir’s ’80s inspiration. I’m not going to directly reference older bands because I don’t feel this EP needs to be propped up by such references. It is perfectly capable of taking the listener on a profoundly present journey all by itself.

“Stratosphere” retains the sense of euphoria or uplift introduced by “Belief”; an avenue that is explored further in “Berlin”. At this point in the EP, the gradual sonic shift that starts with the power of “Crush!”, and carefully introduces elements of the ambient and chill-out genres through the pop of “Belief” and sleekness of “Stratosphere”,  lands elegantly in “Berlin” with its endless synth streamers and cool vocal by Tullia Benedicta. “Void” takes this concept full circle. The aforementioned aching anxiety returns as a wrenching guitar rains over the listener, washing away any sense of euphoria that may have been experienced on “Berlin” or “Belief”. “Void” appeals to the same sensibilities as “Crush!”, but approaches them from a slower introspective angle that juxtaposes yet recollects its bubbling emotional maelstrom.

My one criticism is that “Segments” should not have come after “Void”. It should be marked clearly as a bonus track, or incorporated at the centre of the EP where it would actually sit quite adequately. It’s pop veneer feels somewhat incongruous after the impassioned “Void”. Nevertheless, Nathalia Bruno’s (DRIFT) vocal is superbly rendered and further demonstrates Dominique’s diversity when it comes to songwriting, as well as his excellent ability to place a choice guest vocal.

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Sonic Impressions…

These notes are based on listening to the official download of the Vogue Noir EP purchased from the Unknown Pleasures Records bandcamp page. At present, this is an internet only release and the lossless download is in high resolution at 24 bits / 44 kHz. I listened to the 24/44 download through two systems, the primary one consists of a: Rega DAC-R for digital-to-analogue conversion, Rega Elex-R amplifier, and KEF LS50 loudspeakers. The secondary headphone system comprises a: NwAvGuy designed ObjectiveDACRega Ear headphone amplifier, and Sennheiser HD 650 reference headphones. I also listened to the EP at work with a pair of FiiO EM3 open earphones. The EP was recorded, mixed, and mastered entirely by Dominique (with some extra ears at times, he tells me) in his bedroom studio using a combination of vintage and modern hardware synths (Roland GAIA SH-01, Roland SH-101, Roland Juno-60, and Korg MS-10) and digital sampling for the drums.

Upon playing “Crush!”, the first thing one notices is the space between the instruments. The deep pulsating bass synth is never intrusive or intruded upon by the rest of Vogue Noir’s electronic arsenal. The vocal is slightly recessed for my liking, which is unfortunate as the performance throughout the EP is strong and it certainly could have been brought to the fore. However, this style of vocal mixing is very common amongst the current crop of dark wave tinged bands so it certainly isn’t incongruous. In a similar fashion, “Belief” exhibits a careful separation of the electronic instruments that is impressive, with each synth occupying a distinct zone in the frequency band. There is a clever but subtle widening of the stereo field here with some ping-pong synths that dart around the room. “Stratosphere” also does this and it points towards an overall sonic impression that one develops listening to this EP, the techniques are ones that rely on simplicity and they work very well. I perhaps would prefer a greater expanse of the sound-stage as – on the whole – sounds appear to stem from a somewhat narrow area, nevertheless this is sewn together very nicely. “Stratosphere” is the most dynamic track on the album and its endlessly arpeggiating synths benefit from the added headroom. If this track were subject to brickwall compression, the arpeggios would become fatiguing and the listener would soon become bored with the track. By maintaining space between the loud and quiet notes, the ear can tune in and out of the arpeggios as they rise and fall. The synth itself keeps a steady volume, but it is natural rather than overly effected. “Berlin” is the best sounding track on the record. I particularly love the aforementioned ‘synth streamers’, the vocal is perfect, and the stereo tom-tom drums that periodically splatter the sonic plain are perfect in their minimalism. Again, the synths that rise and fall in volume benefit from the preservation of dynamics. One minor thing I noticed when listening is that the silence between tracks felt a little rushed which meant I didn’t have enough time to savour the end of a song before the next one started up.

Setting aside the excellent songwriting, careful selection of instruments, and perfect vocal collaborations, this recording is important from a sonic perspective as it proves that excellent sound quality can be achieved even in a bedroom studio environment. Dominique is a sound technician by trade so he knows what he’s doing, but the fact that this release is entirely DIY puts many a modern recording to shame. If one focuses solely on the post-punk revival genre (a loose collection of contemporary post-punk, cold wave, and minimal acts wherein I would include synthesiser artists like Vogue Noir), the past ten years has witnessed the release of many great songs that are – from a songwriting perspective – perfectly acceptable in their position next to the old classics. However, the thing that lets many of these new recordings down (and the reason why they never truly sound like the real deal) is the terrible engineering decisions made in the studio. Oftentimes the recordings and mixes are perfectly fine and it’s important to remember that recording quality is never an indicator of songwriting quality; however many artists and engineers working in the post-punk revival genre appear to have little to no idea about mastering, dynamic range, tonal balance, or the development of a cohesive sound-stage that the engineers of old were so adept at. High amounts of brickwall compression are particularly problematic within this genre, and the result is that songs quickly become fatiguing and just blend into the background (or, worse, get turned off). Are the artists actually asking for this, or is it an assumption being made by mastering engineers who really should know better? Listen to the Vogue Noir EP in its entirety, then listen to something like the In Tension EP by Light Asylum (don’t adjust the volume) and notice how quickly the sound of the Light Asylum recording becomes stressful and annoying. Now imagine if all the sounds in nature were the same volume (this is essentially what brickwall compression does to a recording) and think about how intolerable that would be. The great thing about a dynamic mastering such as the Vogue Noir EP is that the music is constantly shifting, therefore requiring a higher amount of the listener’s attention and thus a greater sense of exchange takes place between the artist and listener. In addition, the sound is never fatiguing which means one can go on listening for longer. Quality mastering seems to be the one thing missing from the post-punk revival genre and it means that, in the long-term, few of the songs will stand the test of time as they will simply become part of the wallpaper. A sludgy sonic cesspool that does very little for the advancement of the wider post-punk umbrella. If artists would only stop to think about how much better their already good sounding recordings could sound with some careful mastering moves that preserved the dynamic integrity of their mixes rather than crushing them, I think the current state of the post-punk genre (one littered with excellent songs) would be further enhanced. We already have a myriad of good bands writing worthwhile modern classics, we just need to push the quality finished product envelope to get everything perfect.

Scores:

  • Songs : 8/10
  • Sonics : 8/10
  • Overall : 8/10

If you’re in a band and are interested in assessing the dynamics of your mixes and finished masters, you can analyse them with the simple Dynamic Range Meter app, available from the Dynamic Range Database. Plain old listening is of course the most important test, but it is sometimes handy to be able to assign a simple number value when making comparisons to other recordings.

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