Happy April Fools Day!! That is if you're reading this on the first day of publication. To show my age, I still look fondly back this time of year to a magazine from yesteryear named Audio which, every April, would have a wonderfully written equipment review from a Professor Lirpa. Lirpa was supposedly from some true-sounding European university and wrote articles about a piece of equipment or some new theory which almost sounded real, but did some amazing thing or worked in such a way that was impossible. Like all great satire, it had enough logic in it to almost be taken as truth.
For the next few months, there would be replies in the Letters column debating the relative possibilities of the instrument. After a couple of years, most readers finally caught on but still the letters would come in debating the merits of the piece or even asking where to obtain it. Believe it or not, not one was a harsh condemnation about the wasted ink or pages not given to appropriate reviews. Imagine if one of these articles appeared today. Certain nameless and nearly useless 'crazed' discussion board would be filled with naysayers condemning or debating the article, or calling for the immediate execution of the author or the inventor of the product. Such are the times we live in.
One such product that time and again brings out the naysayers, or the schizoid psychopaths, is digital disc playback improvements. No matter how many individuals who've tried the product and given their endorsement as to its effectiveness, there are always some who either have supposedly tried it or found no discernible difference, or more frequently, those who without trying it claim that the effect is impossible. They claim those hearing the difference are duping themselves, just like the poor fools of yore who bought snake oil and other herbal remedies from traveling salesmen. They won't even accept endorsements from engineers, scientists, or high end CD companies, always screaming that double blinded test were not performed, or it's scientifically impossible, or digital is perfect and cannot be improved upon.
But even the recording engineers will tell you that CDs pressed in different plants from the same master will sound different and that a $100 CD player cannot compare to the $6000 high-end unit, although the nabobs will even debate that. On the other hand if they do agree that different players sound different, they'll say its secondary to the analog side rather than the digital, as long as the unit is picking up all of the information. Digital is perfect, and therefore cannot be improved upon.
The poor wretches. Let them wallow in their ignorance. For those high-enders with ears that are willing to listen and take the time to experiment, there are many way of improving on digital reproduction of both audio and video that will work on just about any machine except for possibly the worst or best caliber. Surprisingly even the best of the best can have their playback be improved by tweaks.
Improving Digital Discs
There are many places that one can improve the acquisition of the digital data from the disc:
First, as the disc is spinning rapidly, and as no disc is perfectly balanced round or centered, the sled on which the reading laser lies must continuously move side to side to track and obtain the return laser signal from the pits. This wobbling changes the relative distance and angle of the laser and receiver on the sled from the track; thus, the amount of energy directly picked up by the receiver, and also requires energy to perform. This can affect the timing of the changes that the unit perceives as the signal, affecting jitter, and possibly how the bits are translated. Thus using something, such as a stabilization disc on top of the CD will sometimes help, much like weights put on tires.
The stabilizing disc can also have a dye on it surface to absorb the excess laser energy that is passing through the disc to the back substrate which, if reflected back to the receiver, can act as noise against the signal derived from the pits. In a like vein, one can use inks on the inner and outer edges of the disc to absorb the energy, or one can true up the disc by using a lathe to again, balance and even up the outer edge of the disc with the center hole.
Second, the spinning disc as it's made of plastic due to its rotation produces a paramagnetic field which may react with the metal parts of the sled to produce perturbations in the sleds movement. This may defocus the laser thus again decreasing the accuracy of its read. This can be improved upon by using a destaticizer, such as the Furutech unit or the Walker Audio Talisman, or certain cleaning fluids, to reduce the disc's static electric charge.
Third, one can try to improve on the pit edges. The laser reads not the number of pits per distance, but the beginning and ending edge of it as signal, and it's actually the timing of the changes that gives the on-off digital information. Thus, if the edges are ill defined there will be a decrease in the accuracy of this timing information that makes up the signal. This is probably how light treatments, such as the Nespa unit work, as they supposedly sharpen up the edges of the pits and the aluminum or gold substrate of pressed discs. I have also heard another theory that the light energy in some way changes the molecular configuration of the plastic in which the pits are written. This may be the reason that home-done CD-Rs sound better than the original disc, as they do not use pits pressed by a mold, but changes in the color of the dye substrate burned by a laser, which may be more accurate.
Fourth, there are treatments out there that use as yet unexplained forces built into chips to in some way change the disc so it is more readable by the laser. Enough said on that subject, as just the mention of this sends the naysayers into apoplexy. Wouldn't want to cause any strokes in these poor fellows.
Finally, we come to the reason for my article today; the most effective way to improve the readability of discs, i. e., treatments for the reading surface. These solutions or suspensions contain chemicals that do one or more of several things:
1. Polish the surface and remove the chemicals used in the production process.
The first solution that I know of that was specifically developed for CD was Finyl, which came out in the early 80's. This was followed by what seems like several hundred other polishes, waxes, cleaners, etc., some of which worked superbly, and several of which were disasters. One Stereophile reviewer even recommended Armor-All plastic treatment, which did a pretty good job until several weeks later when the plastic degenerated and the discs became opaque. Others caused scratches in the surface, which certainly did little good, and one, unless it was wiped off very quickly caused an instantaneous white coating on the surface that could not be removed.
Which finally brings me to the product of the month....
Walker Audio Ultra Vivid
If you read back, I've reviewed many of Walker Audio's products and in certain circles been vilified for this. There is a reason. Lloyd is one of those high-end individuals who seem to come up with product after product that is top of the line and super high end, and also continues to improve upon it. On the other hand he doesn't bring out a new and improved version unless he truly feels that it is better, and in all cases I've had to concur. I've never been disappointed with anything I've reviewed of his and continue to use most, including his exceptional turntable that is listed by Absolute Sound as one of, if not the best turntable available. When one comes upon a winning horse, one tends to continue to bet on him. Anyway, on to his cleaner.
The previous iteration of this suspension was reviewed way back almost five years ago in AA Chapter 32, and this was an improved version of Lloyd Walker's original product. One thing about Lloyd; he can't leave well enough alone. His original solution, or should I say suspension to be more correct, is still one of the best available out there, and until mine coagulated and was unusable after about a year, was my favorite. Then I reviewed Clear Disc and Clear Bit cleaner and other iterations from George Louis, which had the advantage of being colorless and clear, so it was easier to wipe off and worked equally as well.
Lloyd then sent me two new chemical treatments to try, his new and improved Ultra Vivid CD cleaner and a brand new enzyme based vinyl disc solution, which will be reported on in a later article. The Ultra Vivid comes as a kit with a large bottle of a very thick creamy solution sufficient for several hundred discs, wiping pads and soft cleaning cloths in a double box for $70. The solution is recommended for all types of digital discs except for SACD's with a gold external tint, which are few and far between. Since I don't have any of these, I could not experiment to find out what could go wrong when applying the solution to them. Maybe Lloyd will explain at the end in his rebuttal.
The solution supposedly cleans, removes any release films from the surface, and destaticizes at the same time. It's recommended that you do two applications per disc. Unlike most other cleaning solutions, it's very viscous and one must shake the bottle vigorously before use. Also, it's possible the solution over time may degenerate and become unusable like its predecessor so I suggest cleaning all the discs you can in the first few months. (What's your feeling on this Lloyd?)
One applies and rubs in two to three drops on the disc with the pad, then immediately wipes it off with the supplied cloth before allowing the solution to dry, otherwise it's a bugger to get off. One must be careful to always use a clean pad and wiper each time as otherwise surface scratches may be the penalty. I've personally found that Charmin Ultra toilet paper works better with fewer possible scratches, but one sometimes does have to blow off some fibers that are left on the disc. An old cotton undershirt will work equally as well as long as it's still soft. Do not use regular paper towels or other toilet tissues as they do tend to be abrasive and the one thing you don't want to do is produce microscopic surface scratches.
So how does it work compared to his original and other cleaning agents tried here? Very well thank you. On DVD's there appears to be more color saturation and depth of image, both related to better reading of the bits with less interpolation. On CD's there's a bit (no pun intended) of improvement in resolution of low-level information with the instruments and voices better focused. The biggest improvement is a further decrease in high frequency harshness over other products tried, which is probably secondary to the player not having to work as hard at interpolating missing data. This does not come at the loss of high frequency information.
I've not been able to try it on the latest HD-DVD and Blu-ray discs as I refuse to dive in until they come out with a machine which can read the best audio standards and possibly include the ability to read SACD and/or DVD-Audio.
The biggest surprise was how effective the solution was at improving DVD-Audio and SACD. Since, like DVD-Video, the pits are much smaller and must be read more accurately by the laser, the solution seems to have a significantly greater effect, especially on my RCA SACDs derived from their great master tapes of the 50's and 60's. By the way, all of the discs in this series are the best reproductions available of the master tapes, and even are a little better than the copies of the master tapes I have, which were discussed in a previous article. These two and three channel discs sound better than the vast majority of present day digital original high bit discs, possibly because they have so much information embedded in the tape hiss, which for some reason is either not picked up by present digital techniques or removed by the mastering engineers who don't want the least little amount of noise to intrude on the music.
Obviously these guys have never attended a classical concert or haven't listened to how the extraneous room sounds add the liveness of the event. The old recording masters knew, or at least with tape noise to have to work with the premise that the human ear needs background information to interpret properly what one is hearing. If you've ever been in a sound isolation room where the noise floor is approaching zero, you'd realize how disconcerting it is. This is why the old analog tapes seem to sound better in some ways than the new stuff. They not only give a feeling of presence, but also allow background information to ride along that is either lost or driven out by digital manipulation.
Anyway, this background information which resides in the least significant bits is where the ambience information resides and that the Ultra-Vivid shines at retrieving. Right now, this solution seems to be the best that I've been able to review at improving information retrieval from digital discs and highly recommended. Combined with his Talisman disc destaticizer AA Chapter 85, the effect produces some of the best digital sound I've heard from my favorite recordings. Using both, I hear no further improvement using several other disc tweaks, such as the Bedini Ultraclarifier, the Audiodesk System CD lathe, although the NESPA Disc Finalizer, AA Chapter 77, still adds some finishing smoothness to the sound.
That's it for April. Next month hopefully I'll have had a chance to try his vinyl solution and possibly review a new (to me) pre-pro, which has opened my eyes to the possibilities of room equalization and correction.