Welcome to another meeting of Audiolics Anonymous. Its been three weeks since I came back from my vacation in Europe and the High End Show in Munich, and things are finally getting back to normal. With jet lag, the pile-up of work at my regular job, the typical late spring fever, and a mistake I made prior to going to Europe, listening has been almost impossible... never mind tweaking. What was the mistake you may ask? Before I left, arrangements were made to send a couple of pieces of equipment back to their respective factories for updating, and, since there was time on my hands the day I was leaving, decided to tear my system apart for its annual cleaning.
At least once every year everything gets torn down and contacts are cleaned/oxygen protected, tubes are tested and reseated, and components are rearranged. Normally I do this in one day, but there was just enough time to break the system apart before leaving. Unhappily, on my return after two weeks parts could not be found and how everything should go together had completely faded from memory. So it took me three days to get everything back in order and playable.
Luckily, everything worked the first time, which is unusual. Most times something is not wired correctly and the whole process has to be restarted. It is recommend that every audiophile worth their salt should do this at least once a year as corrosion of contacts, tube aging, etc., does slowly decrease the transparency and overall sound (and video) quality of our systems. You'll be surprised at the improvement when you put everything back together. This used to be done monthly until the system got so complicated that it was no longer fun.
Interestingly, there was not as much of an improvement this time. Most of the contacts and tube pins were in as good a shape without any signs of oxidation or corrosion, as when it was done in October, when I first used the Walker Audio SST silver paste. In the eight months since its application even the tube pins were clean and the tube noise I had attributed previously to aging was definitely from contact corrosion problems. Interestingly, even the paste on the hot output tubes had not dried out. This, to my mind, is still the best tweak I've used in several years and for its $70 price can't be beat.
Unhappily, three days after the system was whole my Denon 5900 modified universal disc player purchased from Underwood HiFi started with a weird problem. With stereo CDs, while side images sounded fine and ambience on the recording seemed to be balanced, centered instruments and voices shifted towards the right speaker and became spread out. It was almost as if the channels were out of polarity relative to each other. By adding three dB to the left channel the images could be centered again, but then the whole image was pushed to the left. Reversing polarity on one channel didn't get rid of the phaseyness.
On calling Parts Connection, they asked me to return the unit immediately for evaluation as they couldn't tell from my description whether it was a hard or software problem. Happily, it was just a software problem so the unit is on its way back with a software disc to reload if it happens again. One thing reviewers don't do very well is keep you informed on breakdown percentages and repair costs. This company honored its warranty, even though it wasn't the fault of the update. Kudos to Parts Connexion.
This month, I've been experimenting with vinyl and my home theater computer, the alpha and omega of the past hundred years of music reproduction. There have been two major advances for high enders on the computer side over the past month for music reproduction that have increased my feeling that sooner or later the computer as a home entertainment system, will make many other high end audio-video components obsolete.
The first advance is a program, WINDVD6 from Intervideo. One of the programs I've been using for years for video DVD playback and scaling of NTSC television through the S-Video input of my computer. The big deal is that they've added the ability for a computer to play back DVD-Audio. If the disc has no block, the playback is 24-bit/96kHz, 5.1. It seems 20 out of 23 of my discs, all classical, play without problem. Two of the others were down-rezzed to 24-bit/48kHz and one of them would only play the Dolby Digital track. Happily for the classical lovers the locked ones were pop recordings. Guess the record companies don't think the old fogey classical music lovers will try to make copies.
Sound quality, at least through my M-Audio 1010 eight channel sound card is much better than expected, with very good hall ambience, deep tight bass, and good mid-range. Highs are slightly peaky compared to my modified Denon 5900, but this could be toned down with the program's digital equalizer with little loss of high frequency information and there's not as much ambience retrieval. I'm not sure whether this is due to the program or the sound card, but at $69.95, the program is a steal just for the DVD-Audio, never mind the excellent DVD-Video playback.
Another new advantage of the program is the ability to decode the new Windows Media Video High Definition discs. Microsoft has come up with a program to encode 1080p (the highest quality video available) onto a standard DVD for those individuals who want the best video reproduction. On the three discs I have with WMV-HD, the video is equivalent to some of the best high definition from DirecTV, VOOM and network, and far exceeds standard DVD's upsampled to HD. Audio is also excellent, with the discs using Windows Media Audio Pro encoding. This new codec sounds as good as high bit DTS to my ears in my system. Now if we can only get some good movies in this format and a standard DVD player that can decode them.
The second advance relates to my wanting to transcribe all of my best vinyl to hard disc and thence to CD-ROM or DVD. Until now, there was no program that would allow high bit recording at a reasonable price. Of the many programs out there that will transcribe analog to digital, none under the several hundred dollar price range allowed anything higher than 16 bit at 44kHz.
While the programs do allow one to manipulate the digital signal, doing things such as dehissing, removing noise, and equalization as well as the best super-expensive pro programs from only a few years ago, the 16-bit/44kHz limit and the ability to use only CD discs made the try useless as the results were never up to high-end standards. This is too bad, as there are semi-pro sound cards out there that will do 32-bit/96kHz or 192kHz sampling and storage on hard drives has become cheap. DVDs would easily hold one or two hours of the highest bit rates at less than $1 per disc.
Why, you may ask, would one who has a Walker Proscenium Turntable with Kondo IO-J cartridge want to transcribe to digital? For two reasons: First, there are times when I don't feel like going through the steps and time to play back vinyl, but the best CD transcriptions don't give me close to the same quality as the vinyl. Second, even though several of my recording have been played over a hundred times with little if any sound loss, I still would like the option of archiving many of the best performances because their like will not be returning.
As you can tell from previous articles, my feeling is that high-end audio storage and playback of audio and video will sooner or later be done primarily through computers. Many of you must think that's crazy, but even now home computers can do things that the best recording studio equipment could not just a few years ago. Remember, the entire recording end today has to go through one or more computers, their sound cards and programs, no matter if it is MP3 or DVD-Audio or SACD quality. So why shouldn't all storage and reproduction use computers?
Storage is simple with computers, using large 300 gig hard drives, hours of even the best 24-bit/96kHz multi-track recordings can be archived and now one can produce and play back home produced DVDs with better sound than all but the best studio produced recordings. That is if one has the best sound card possible, the most important part of the signal chain, and the appropriate program.
We're not talking about the digital converters built into the motherboards or the $79 sound cards sold with most computers, but the pro cards with external processors such as those from M-Audio, Lynx or RME that have the best 24-bit/192kHz D/A and A/D conversion and very good analog stages.
The sticking point has been the software. There is no perfect software program in this price range that will do it all. Each has it advantages and idiosyncrasies. All of the reasonably priced programs out there such as Roxio and Nero, which I'll define as under $100, while doing many of the necessary functions to get the best transcriptions and allowing many other functions that are helpful for computers (such as data storage, video, backup, etc.) have had one block for audiophiles in common: none would do conversion at higher than 16-bit/44kHz or 48kHz CD-DAT quality. One had to step into the $300 plus range to get to higher bit standards, and even then, they wouldn't allow you to burn easily to disc the higher bit rates. Worse, many required one to step down to MP3 bit rates. UGH!!!
Thus, I was happy to see that three companies had come out with new programs that might do exactly what I wanted. So contact was made with them and review samples were shipped.
The first received is from Magix Entertainment and the product is Magix Music On CD & DVD priced at $39.95. They advertised the program as being able to transpose analog to CD and DVD, which made me believe I had my dream program for high bit recording, but read on. Advantages are easy loading to the computer, easy and excellently written instructions, and the ability to record analog to digital. Also, if one wishes, the program will do declicking, decrackling, denoising, and dehissing, allow editing, digital equalization, volume control, and reverb. Most high enders would probably be throwing up their hands at signal manipulation, but the program is pretty good at allowing one to do just enough to improve the signal.
It even has a digital RIAA equalizer for those individuals without phono stages in their pre-amplifiers that actually worked to a high degree. It will allow resampling of the signal for incorrect turntable speed and play back 78rpm discs at 45rpm or 33rpm and upsample for appropriate speed. It will even do Dolby B & C Noise Reduction. Finally, with DVD or VCD it will allow adding video pictures that can be projected on the computer or TV along with the recordings. Then once the project is completed the program will burn it to a CD or as a DVD data disc. This is the first program to break the $100 barrier that will do all of the above functions easily.
So what's missing for the high ender? First, the maximum sampling rate is 16-bit/48kHz, so no high bit recordings. Second the low bit rate recordings are burned to DVD as data files, so they may not play on some DVD players. Thus, while this is the best program I've found for low bit rate recordings, it leaves out the most important ingredient for us, but for those happy with CD quality, it's a steal.
The second program that looked interesting is CD & DVD Maker 6 Platinum from New Tech Info Systems at $49.95. While this program doesn't have all of the digital manipulation bells and whistles of Magix, and will only do a maximum of 16-bit/44kHz, it does do a couple of other things that I haven't seen before. First and most interesting for us, it will do live recording. Place a disc in the CD recorder, set the software for live recording, put the needle on your vinyl, or step up to the mike and sing, and click start, then stop when the record or track is over. Drag the results to the layout panel, hit write, and in a few minute you'll have your CD.
In addition, the program will do data backup, either as CD or DVD-ROM, do VCD or SVCD of video, make slide picture shows with music. While not as versatile musically as the previous program, it is simpler and quicker to use. But still no high bit recording.
So how can one do high bit recording and what will it cost? The method I've found unhappily requires two programs. In the end one will get the equivalent or better to a store bought DVD-Audio that can be played back on any DVD-Audio player.
The recording program I prefer is Adobe Audition from Adobe Systems ,the same company that gave us Adobe Reader we all use. Actually, they bought out a program called Cool Edit, improved on it, and changed the name. Unhappily, the program costs $299, which while a pittance compared to what some of us pay for interconnects, does certainly go beyond my $100 price limit. Happily for me I lucked out. I bought one of the last copies of Cool Edit for $69 before they were bought out, and a month later Adobe offered to update it to Audition for $99.
I have the 1.0 program, which will do recording and every signal manipulation imaginable but will not do any burning to disc. It's a comparatively simple program to use, and will allow one to do up to 32 bits at 192kHz sampling and hard drive storage, yet it will not alow burning to disc. The new 1.5 edition for the same price or a $69 upgrade charge from 1.0, will burn to CD, but not DVD. As with all high-end programs, it has all the bells and whistles for signal manipulation, and will do up to 32-bit/192kHz A/D conversion and storage. The newest edition will also produce a CD from low bit information but cannot produce a DVD-Audio.
Until a couple of weeks ago, one would have had to spend another $500 to $2,500 to be able to just do a straight data DVD which might not play correctly on DVD-Audio players. Enter Minnetonka Audio Software with their program discWelder Bronze. Previously, they had two programs, discWelder Steel and Chrome pro type programs at $495 and $2,495 respectively. Now they've added Bronze at $99.95. Chrome will do Meridian Lossless Packing, DSD import and conversion, video track link to audio, allow multiple menus, transition effects, DVD-Video on the same disc, so that all of the bells and whistles for producing DVD-Audio are in one program. Steel drops out most of the video components and MLP, and Bronze will produce pure DVD-Audio discs without video or MLP. At $99, this is ideal for most high enders, as one can fit several hours of 24-bit/96kHz recordings onto the disc without taking up space for the video.
One can import and transfer to disc all forms of PCM in WAV or AIFF file format, up to 24-bit/192kHz stereo, but because of the inability of drives to read 6 channels of 24-bit/96kHz without MLP, only 24-bit/48kHz can be used for 5.1 recordings. Obviously this is not a problem with our need for stereo reproduction. One can burn to any DVD +/- R or RW discs equivalent to DVD-Audio. One can even alternate stereo and surround tracks, and each track can have varying bit rates and frequencies.
While the Adobe Audition is somewhat difficult to use, especially if one decides to do any signal manipulation, discWelder is a snap. One opens it up, lists where one has stored his music, moves the tracks down to the record area in the order one wants them until the program lets one know the disc will be full. Then insert a recordable DVD of any type in the drive and hit record. The program does the rest. If you wish, the program will test the system to get the optimal burn rate for the discs, and even do an evaluation of the burned disc to see if it is bit perfect.
I have done several DVD-Audio discs in stereo and some with just 24-bit/96kHz A/D transfers from my vinyl, and two with both 24-bit/96kHz transfers mixed in with 16-bit/44kHz files from the computer (CD transfers) and all have played perfectly on my Denon 5900 and Apex universal players as well as my computer using the WINDVD 6.0 program. Experimentation was also done using the Audition's declicking, denoising, equalization processes, and, interestingly enough, I preferred the original transcriptions from vinyl without the digital manipulations. They all seemed to take away some air, or maybe its just that I prefer those vinyl distortions.
So for those people who want to store their precious analog to digital with the best bit rates possible, and be able to play them back on any DVD-Audio player, discWelder Bronze will be the program to beat. If one wants the simplest way to record analog to digital at 16-bit/44kHz and burn to CD at the lowest price possible, go with CD & DVD Maker Platinum. For those happy with 16-bit/44kHz or 48kHz who want to be able to do digital signal manipulation like the pros, get Magix Music Maker 2004 Deluxe.
Next month will feature my 60th column. Hopefully I'll have something special to cap off my fifth full year of writings.
And now some comments from Steve Clark of Minnetonka Audio: