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Super Audio CD

Super Audio CD

These are the first 10 reviews of a large stack of SACDs that has been waiting for the arrival of Sony's latest SACD player, the 9000ES. Shipment problems caused the player to arrive too late to review for this month. It will be reviewed next month covering all of its playback capabilities - SACD, CD, 96K DVD and progressive scan video DVD.

While all the SACDs except those from Sony were hybrid discs - meaning separate CD and SACD layers the best comparison procedure seemed to be playing separate CD-only versions of the same material on my reference CD head end. The MSB Link DAC was used with upsampling but without the Taddeo Digital Antidote II reviewed last month. The 9000ES was used with both its video and digital audio outputs disabled for best possible sonics. The subtlety of some of the comparisons can be attributed to the fact that the player is nowhere near the very long break-in time suggested by other knowledgeable users, the ibuprofen this reviewer has been ingesting for a sore hand, and the short amount of time available for writing these reviews since receiving the player. More and even better reports next month.


CoplandArr. By JOSEPH CANTELOUBE: Songs of the Auvergne (selections) - Netania Davrath, soprano/Orchestra cond. By Pierre de la Roche - Vanguard Classics SACD VSD 502:

Some of the most beautiful songs for soprano and orchestra in existence are on this SACD. I'm pretty much an instrumental music person myself, yet these tender settings of folk songs of the Auvergne region of France (sung in their particular dialect) are among my favorite recordings. Other more recent and more famous sopranos have recorded these works since Davrath's 1963 original, but to my ears none have equaled her innocence and dulcet, light-hearted delivery. There are sprightly tunes such as Chut, Chut and The Cuckoo, and dreamy lyrical ones such as The Abandoned. All are brimming over with gorgeous melodies. The same selections from the six different series of Songs of the Auvergne have been reissued as an audiophile LP by Analog Productions, and five years ago as a complete 2 CD set of all the Songs of the Auvergne. Though the latter, also on Vanguard, used 20-bit SBM processing, it sounds seriously muffled and phasey compared to not only the SACD and LP but even to the CD layer on the new hybrid SACD. Vanguard must have either used a different master tape this time or equalized it entirely differently. Chad Kassem's LP pressing must be reported as still having the edge, even over the SACD - but then the 9000ES is not nearly broken in as yet, so stay tuned. The LP almost sounds as if a different EQ was used on it, with Davrath sounding more forward and there being more presence overall on the orchestral sound than heard on the SACD.

- John Sunier



COPLAND: Appalachian Spring; GOULD: Spirituals for String Choir & Orchestra - London Symphony/Walter Susskind - Everest/Vanguard SACD VSD 504:

One of the finest CD reissue series of recent years has been the Everest masters reissued by Vanguard - especially those originally recorded on 35 mm mag film, as these selections were. The CD reissues used 20-bit process plus Super Bit Mapping, so the SACD/CD comparison is probably going to be quite close. Musically, there have been several other fine recorded performances of both of these gems of American music, including ones conducted by each of these composers. However, they all pale in comparison to the deeply felt emotional communication of the Copland work and the white-hot excitement of Gould's dynamic five-movement work inspired by black spirituals. Combine these great performances with the knock-out sonics of Everest's original 1962 mag film sessions and you have a sure winner here.

Appalachian Spring relies heavily on the string section of the symphony orchestra, and the first difference noticed in the CD/SACD A/B comparison was the much wider and deep layout of the strings on the stereo stage. Also, each individual instrument seems more delineated on the SACD, both spatially and timbre-wise. At about 3 min. into the ballet suite the music increases in complexity, with the strings on the left playing a repeated dance-like figuration while the brass section on the right emphasizes the main melody of this section. While this isn't on the level of the climax of a typical Mahler symphony, it does pile on more simultaneously-occurring sounds than heard at the opening of the work. This is where the SACD shines - continuing with the same detailed, crystalline clarity as in the earlier passages with only a few instruments. The CD, on the other hand, clots up and becomes rather opaque as the sounds increase in complexity.

Spirituals opens with a loud series of declamations involving the strings and a very violently-struck xylophone. On the CD version these transient peaks were almost disrupting - with a roughness and rather unmusical timbre to them, plus a sudden unnatural increase in the hall reverberation that quickly disappeared as the loud notes died out. On the SACD they seemed faster, cleaner and more in tune, with no aurally-upsetting increase in the hall sound during the peaks.

- John Sunier



Antiphonal Music of GabrieliThe Antiphonal Music of Gabrieli - The Glorious Sound of Brass - Philadelphia Brass Ensemble/Cleveland Brass Ensemble/Chicago Brass Ensemble - Sony Classical SACD (non-hybrid) SS 89173:

Nineteen brass virtuosi from the Philadelphia, Cleveland and Chicago Symphonies were brought together at Philadelphia's Town Hall for this brass fest recorded in 1966 and 1968. About half of the 32 tracks are devoted to the expected source for early antiphonal music - Giovanni Gabrieli and his Canzonas and Sonatas that placed groups of players in various balconies around St. Mark's Cathedral in Venice. The rest of the SACD features brass works by Brade, Pezel, De Lassus and Holborne. Two thirds of these works are performed by two of the three brass ensembles spatially separated for the call-and-response effects of these works. The remaining one-third employ all three brass groups for a really spectacular sound.

The original Columbia LPs were full of distortion and are best forgotten. A few years ago Sony Classical reissued the first 13 Gabrieli works on this SACD (paired with an E. Power Biggs album of music for organ and brass) as one of their Masterworks Heritage remastered series. Using 20-bit and SBM, this series set high sonic standards. It also had a printed chart in the notes that was unfortunately missing from the SACD notes: it laid out clearly all 13 tracks, identified which brass ensembles were heard on each one and whether they were located on the left, center or right. A/B comparison of that CD with the new SACD showed a number of improvements, if of a subtle nature: When all the brass blasted together at high volume there was a smearing effect on the CD that was ameliorated greatly on the SACD, with individual voices standing out whereas before they were hidden in the sonic mush. There was more of a sense of the reverberant acoustics of Town Hall, similar to the effect found on most classical HDCD-encoded discs (when properly decoded). Though I had been doing most of the comparisons on only my left and right front speakers with the Cantares surround processor out of the loop, I was moved to fire up the processor and select the UHJ setting. I got a wonderful surround field that with a little adjustment of the front-to-back levels came close to replicating a discrete five-channel recording.

- John Sunier


BRAHMS: Symphony No. 4 in E Minor Op. 98 - Columbia Symphony Orchestra/Bruno Walter - Sony Classical (non-hybrid) SACD SS 6113:

The series of recordings Walter made in l959 and 60 in the American Legion Hall in Hollywood with hand-picked studio and symphony players from the area are among the gems of early stereo. Unfortunately their sound was constricted and peaky yet dull on all the original LP versions and the later CD reissues didn't fair much better. Now we can hear these historic tapings they way they sounded in the control room at the time. This is such a warm and loving treatment of the glorious Brahms Fourth that though I had intended to audition only a movement I ended up transfixed, put my feet up and soaked up the whole 40-minute symphony. The separation of the sections and the instruments within the sections is phenomenal - this was one of the most successful attempts to bring a symphony into my listening room that I have ever heard. Yes, there's a bit of hiss but it is reduced with noise-reduction processing to such a level of barely-being-there that only when you raise the volume and aurally search for it do you realize this is not a recent digital recording. The low bass end is also greatly extended from any previous reissue of this Walter material. I didn't have the Brahms Fourth but I did have a Walter Mahler First on CD from the same series. It sounded thin, strained, flat and distorted next to this SACD reissue.

- John Sunier



 Piano Trio in D MinorFAURE: Piano Trio in D Minor; DEBUSSY: Piano Trio in G Minor; RAVEL: Piano Trio - The Florestan Trio - Hyperion SACD A67114:

Hyperion's first SACD release comes from a Tony Faulkner recording session in Henry Wood Hall in London in 1999. It brings us a trio of gorgeous French impressionistic chamber works that are not over-played and work together brilliantly in this program. They all abound in subtle interplay of the piano, violin and cello, with the youthful Ravel trio the most surprising find of the three. The instruments are placed close together at center stage, the violin left, the cello centered and piano behind and somewhat to the right. There's not a trace of digititus in the tone of the two stringed instruments. Also, the piano lines seem easier to follow than on the CD version, though the instrument doesn't sound any more forward or emphasized in the SACD version. Being a pianist myself, this is always the instrument I focus on aurally in determining sonic quality, since I'm familiar with what a piano should realistically sound like. The CD layer sounds more distant, somewhat reticent, and there is a very subtle edginess riding on the string tone that is not found in the SACD version. Altogether a wonderful demonstration of the subtle wonders of SACD in such seemingly non-demanding material as chamber music.

- John Sunier



PAUL DUKAS: Fanfare to La Peri; La Peri ballet; The Sorcerer's Apprentice; Symphony in C - Cincinnati Symphony orchestra/Jesus Lopez-Cobos - Telarc SACD CD-80515-SA:

This 1999 Telarc release was a collection of colorful scores sure to appeal to most audiophiles and yet aside from Mickey Mouse's Fantasia music not overly-played. Now with SACD we can hear what's really going on in some of this music. The brass fanfare to La Peri sounds clean enough on the original CD, but the SACD version realizes a whole new level of clarity and separation of the various instruments' sounds. The Peris are fairies that are supposed to be descended from fallen angels, and this sensuous ballet score abounds in orchestrations that often sound like a mix of Scheherazade, Daphnis and Chloe and Hollywood film scores. The general impression here between the CD and SACD is simply a quantum upgrade in resolution. The CD version doesn't sound muddy until you listen "into" the SACD and hear what has been missing heretofore. The grand conclusion of the Symphony's first movement on the CD is satisfying in its optimistic summing up of earlier themes, but hearing it on the SACD clarifies all the different lines while still retaining the grand gesture of the full orchestral summing up.

- John Sunier



Italian Concerto in F MajorJ. S. BACH: Italian Concerto in F Major; Partitas Nos. 1 in F Flat Major and 2 in C Minor - Glenn Gould, piano - Sony Classical (non-hybrid) SACD SS 6141:

Gould's Bach recordings have long been associated with Columbia, now Sony Classical, and it natural that one of their first SACD reissues would be from the large library of Gould masters in their catalog. His quirky interpretations of Bach's keyboard music - often attempting to achieve a harpsichord-like sound with exaggerated pizzicato notes - have had musicologists arguing for years now. All six Partitas plus several other smaller Bach works were part of a two-CD release in The Glenn Gould Edition on Sony eight years ago. In that case SBM was used for an excellent enhancement of the original tapes. The SACD version of just two of the Partitas has, again, some improved resolution over the CD, but this time the difference is quite slight to my ears. The piano sounds just a bit dulled on the CD - but only after listening to the SACD for a time. The hiss on the original tapes clearly has more high frequency components on the SACD than it did on the standard CD, but the improved clarity of the piano sound puts the hiss further in the background and it is not bothersome in the least. What does come through with increased clarity on the SACD vs. the CD is Gould's famous singing, humming and general distracting noise-making. On headphones it's pure hell. So my advice on this one is stay with the complete set of Partitas on CD and listen at lower levels on speakers.

- John Sunier



New York ReunionMcCoy Tyner Quartet - New York Reunion (with Joe Henderson, tenor sax; Ron Carter, bass; Al Foster, drums) - Chesky SACD 206:

I'm not a big fan of Tyner, but I am of Henderson and Carter, and find this eight-tune session a gem both for their contributions to it and the together sound of the entire quartet. All the tunes are quite long; one - Monk's Ask Me Now - coming in at over 12 minutes. The opening Recorda Me is by Joe himself, it was on his very first album back in 1963, and it also featured Tyner on piano. So this is quite a reunion after all. It's a lovely tune and Joe really caresses it through many changes during its ten minute duration. Carter has some great solos, as always, and drummer Foster is very supportive of the other three players. My Romance gets a very lyrical treatment from both Henderson and Tyner's own tune, Home, closes out the album. Recorda Me is also on a Chesky SACD sampler, providing an easy A/B test. The SACD give Henderson's sax more presence, the piano more clarity, made Carter's bass sound more musical and less thumpy, and furnished more subtle details of the various sounds of Foster's drum set.

- John Sunier



Sketches of SpainMILES DAVIS & GIL EVANS - Sketches of Spain - Columbia Legacy SACD (non-hybrid) CS 65142:

Reams have been written on the musical ramifications of this historic Davis/Evans collaboration - for my money the best of everything they did, though others would opt for their Porgy and Bess session. It's probably the most all-around successful attempt to meld classical music and jazz that's ever been done. As in its inclusion in the fancy metal-case Davis/Evans CD set, three bonus tracks not on the original LP are here: Two alternate takes of the Concierto De Aranjuez and Song of Our Country.

This is a perfect choice for one of the first SACD reissues because there is so much going on in Evan's highly original arrangements and most of it is of a subtle nature that is easily missed without the utmost clarity of reproduction. Miles' trumpet has a presence not heard on the CD versions, and the space between it and the rest of the ensemble is much more clearly sensed than on the CDs. The spread of the instruments across the soundstage is also wider and deeper, with more specificity of location. In general, it's the same thing again: greater resolution all around.

- John Sunier



What a Wonderful WorldJAY McSHANN, vocals & piano - What a Wonderful World (with Ahmad Alaadeen, tenor sax; Sonny Kenner, guitar; Gerald Spait, bass; Todd Strait, drums) - Groove Note SACD GRV1005-3:

McShann, whose name may be unfamiliar to you, has had a long and illustrious career that almost wraps up the entire history of jazz and blues in one performer. Charlie Parker's first appearances onstage were with McShann's band in Kansas City. The dozen tracks alternate between great blues vocals and both rollicking and introspective piano-based instrumentals. McShann has such an upbeat slant on life - as captured in the album's overall title - that even his blues sound happy.

Groove Note and producer Joe Harley did a magnificent recording job, live to two-track Studer analog tape at 30 ips. Thus the original gold 44.1 CD, the double audiophile LP package, and the new SACD all sound remarkably similar. In fact, if I simply re-insert the Taddeo Digital Antidote II into the output of my CD transport/LinkDAC source, I would defy any non audiophile to hear the slightest difference between the three sources. However, to be fair, that tweak shouldn't be in the comparison, and without it the CD has just a shade less presence and depth - with the piano sounding like it has a cold coming on vs. the reproduction on the SACD and LP. The primary difference noted between the LP and SACD was the increased soundstage and depth of the SACD. Normally in making CD/LP comparisons from the same masters the poorer separation necessitated by the physical matrixing of the two channels into a single vinyl groove is hardly noticed, but this time it was extremely apparent.

- John Sunier



Just Like LoveERIC BIBB, vocals/acoustic guitars - Just Like Love - Opus 3 SACD 21002:

The Swedish perfectionist acoustic label Opus 3 has been striving many years now for a perfect combination of worthwhile acoustically-produced music and honest, realistic recording quality. Producer Jan-Eric Persson began offering HDCD-encoded discs some time ago in an effort to squeeze improved reproduction out of 44.1 CDs. Now he's taken the next step with several SACD releases. I'm not much of a folk fan, but I do like Taj Mahal, and singer/songwriter/guitarist Bibb has been accurately compared to him. Most of the 17 songs here are Bibb originals; I especially liked the opening Wrapped Up in Her Arms. Bibb has a clear, dulcet voice that doesn't strain like some folk singers. Opus 3's purist-mic'ed approach is to create a "snapshot for the ears," and that's the way it comes across on this SACD. The tasteful arrangements behind Bibb add a lot of interest; especially for those of us who find a whole set of just singer/guitar a bit of a drag. The backing includes mandolins, guitars, accordion, piano, melodica, Kalimba, harmonica, banjo, Sousaphone and acoustic bass. Opus 3's vinyl releases were some of the best. I don't believe their recent CDs are available also as LP versions, but I had an earlier Eric Bibb LP. The quality was very similar, with a bit of additional impact and presence on the SACD. At the very least, and with a SACD player not yet completely broken in, audiophile LP fans can no longer claim there is no digital format that can equal the sonic quality of a good LP pressing!

- John Sunier



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