Understanding The Format Alphabet Soup
An aid to making sense of it all.
Article By The Erudite Listener
I have been listening to high-resolution digital audio for three years now, with a focus on SACD. Using a Sony SCD-1 for playback, I have found that SACD draws close to the accuracy and musicality of the best vinyl recordings (subject, of course, to the music, and to who mastered and/or produced the recording). For the last three months, since the acquisition of a Linn Unidisk player, I have been able to play DVD-A recordings, and have started down a new sonic path. While it is obviously still in its infancy due to the limited number of available recordings in two-channel 24/192, DVD-A should prove appealing to those music lovers that strive for the most articulate and resolute stereo reproduction. In addition to the Linn player, I used Kharma 3.2 Reference Monitors and various solid state and tube amplifiers and preamplifiers to evaluate these discs.
This mini-survey, of three DVD-A discs that contain popular music that in many ways defined the mid-70s to mid-80s, is the first in a series of reviews of recordings that exemplify high-resolution two-channel music. Most future reviews will focus on classical music. These three DVD-As are not only of reference quality and wonderful examples of the DVD-A medium, but are also classic "guilty pleasures."
DVD-Audio and SACD both offer very high-quality surround sound and two- channel music, but differ in several ways. DVD-Audio is closely associated with DVD-Video. DVD-Audio discs offer high-resolution two-channel and multi-channel audio plus extra content such as video and still images. They can also include DVD-ROM content. DVD-Audio is a multimedia format, playable on all DVD players and DVD-A-only players. Future discs may include a CD layer. SACD was designed as a higher resolution, audio-only format with no video or still images. SACDS will not play on standard CD players or DVD-Video or DVD-Audio players-you must use a SACD-specific player. Some SACDs offer backward compatibility with CD players via a second CD layer, but others only offer an SACD layer.
Each format is available in three versions: single layer, dual layer, and hybrid:
Most DVD-Audio discs include DVD-Video content; so will play on DVD players. Most SACD players also play DVD-Video discs.
One of the main differences between DVD-Audio and SACD is that while the former uses PCM (pulse code modulation) to code the audio, SACD uses DSD (direct stream digital). PCM recording, which has been used for the compact disc for the last twenty years, codes the audio as samples. However, it has been recognized for some time that the CD does not offer sufficient quality to satisfy some audiophiles.
DVD-Audio uses PCM at up to 96kHz (192kHz for stereo) sample rate and up to 24 bits per sample. SACD uses one-bit DSD (Direct Stream Digital) at a bit rate of 2.8224Mb/s, which is 64 times the CD sampling rate of 44.1kHz. DSD is simpler than PCM, and removes the need for steep decimation and interpolation filtering, but independent studies have concluded that DSD (also called 1-bit sigma delta) suffers from a number of problems that makes it unsuitable for archiving, and possibly distribution. These problems include non-linearity and high frequency noise. DSD is also not easy to edit without converting to PCM. One conclusion is that DSD makes digital-to-analog conversion easier, but PCM provides a more reliable and accurate representation of the music. In practice, both can provide a quality level that should be acceptable to most audiophiles.
Yes Fragile (Electra/Rhino R9 78249-9)
Released in 1972, Fragile is a progressive rock masterpiece that defines the popular music of the 1970's. Yes was and is one of the founders of progressive rock. The band lineup of Jon Anderson, Bill Bruford, Steve Howe, Chris Squire, and Rick Wakeman produced
Fragile, a recording that has become one of their most adored. This was keyboard impresario Rick Wakeman's debut with the band, and he brought a strong classical influence, a fine example of which is "Cans And Brahms."
Fragile was the band's fourth recording. Well-known songs (if you drove a car in the 70s and 80s, you heard them incessantly on the radio) are "Roundabout," "Long Distance Runaround," and the finale, "Heart Of The Sunrise."
The Fragile DVD-A offers 24/96 in 5.1 channels, 24/192 in stereo, Dolby Digital, and DTS 5.1 sound, along with a photo gallery and the full-length version of Paul Simon's "America" as a bonus track. The two-channel mix sounds delectable, with quite noticeable recording venue boundary definition and an articulation rarely found, in my experience, on any other format, including SACD and vinyl. I especially liked the separation of instruments and voices highlighted on "Heart Of The Sunrise" and even more so on "Mood For A Day." On "Mood," Steve Howe's guitar is full-bodied and defined. Listen closely to his fingers on the strings. This, along with a few of the other DVD-A recordings available, is a fine example of what DVD-A can offer.
The sound of this new 24/192 remaster is far superior to that of the early 90s remaster. It is cleaner, and has more midrange bloom and lower frequency extension. Tim Weidman has certainly done a great job recreating the original production. The DVD-A offers an expansive three-dimensional soundstage, and, if your loudspeakers are properly set up (use either the Cardas or Audio Physic methods, available on their respective websites), a well-centered and coherent soundstage. If you enjoy classic 70s rock like Emerson, Lake & Palmer and Genesis, "Fragile" will compare.
Donald Fagen Nightfly (Warner Brothers R9-79138)
Elliot Scheiner has produced, in 5.1 channels, an improved version of the original, incredibly well known two-channel recording. The stereo and 5.1 mixes are 24/48, and the disc includes DTS and Dolby Digital layers as well as a bonus video of "The New Frontier" and lyrics. While the recording was made on the ubiquitous 3M digital 3 2-track in 1980, the DVD-Audio re-mastering portrays a nice defined three-dimensional sound field, though it is a tad muddy at times.
I think most will agree that Steely Dan offers audiophile-quality recordings that, given a well-assembled stereo system, can provide much of what we as listeners strive to achieve: articulation, realism, and even (hopefully) an accurate rendition of the live event. This new DVD-A recording demonstrates that Donald Fagen certainly can write songs and produce recordings on his own. As Fagen suggests in his liner notes,
Nightfly is an attempt to write a series of songs that represent the fantasies of a young man growing up in the late 50s and early 60s. The liner notes are quite interesting, and give a glimpse into Fagen's mind.
Fagen extends the recording quality and popular music expertise of his efforts with Steely Dan into the realm of the autobiographical concept album, taking his earlier fondness for intricate maneuverings, evocative narratives, and alluring imagery to the logical next step. Fagen's connective thread is futurist nostalgia for the "New Frontier," as anticipated from the vantage point of prosperous late-50s America. He romanticizes a brave new world of technology in the sultry diorama of "I.G.Y.," celebrating the coming glories of the atomic age. He then filters that view through his own suburban adolescence, via a would-be seduction in a fallout shelter. Song for song, this recording stands apart from earlier Steely Dan efforts thanks to a poignant romanticism personified in Fagen's "Maxine" and a creamy update of Dion & the Belmonts' "Ruby Baby."
The Eagles Hotel California (DVD-A Electra 60509-9)
Certainly a popular music classic by any standard, The Eagles' Hotel California continues to exemplify the "Southern California sound" of the 70s. This is typically considered to be The Eagles' best album, and was their best selling until the release of the ubiquitous
Hell Freezes Over. It was also a piece of marketing genius, in that many of the songs were well-played radio hits.
The title track reflects the album's theme of paradise lost in California, painting this picture with a musical arrangement that punctuates strumming guitars with theatrical, sometimes over-abundant drums, and perhaps the band's most celebrated lyric: "You can check out any time you like, but you can never leave." "New Kid in Town" is an equally fine-albeit much more traditional-ballad. "Life in the Fast Lane" aspired to hard rock, but largely gunned its engine without taking off. The rest is okay, but no more than second-tier Eagles songs that happened to be nestled into the album that came to define the group. The DVD-A highlights the advantages of this high-resolution medium, and is really quite an improvement over both the vinyl and 16 bit Red Book CD releases. The image definition, separation of voices and instruments, and three-dimensional soundstage make this DVD-A a must for the audiophile looking to demonstrate the capabilities of his sound system. Produced and engineered by Bill Szymczck and remastered by Elliot Scheiner, this is a 5.1-channel mix (24/192 and Dolby Digital, but no DTS).