We are about to embark on a listening experiment that involves three CD’s from Chesky Records and two different play back systems. The three CD’s are: 4 Generations of Miles Davis (Chesky JD238) a live high-resolution two-track recording, Three Guitars (Chesky JD248) a standard Chesky studio recording and, An Introduction to SACD (Chesky SACD204), a hybrid stereo Super Audio CD. The first hi-end sound system is located at a well-known NYC dealer; the second hi-end system belongs to a friend of mine who lives in the Ft. Lauderdale area of Florida. The sessions evolved into a two-part comparison: The first part was between Miles Davis and Three Guitars, which I auditioned in NYC and Ft. Lauderdale. The second part takes place in Ft. Lauderdale and compares the two different formats on the An Introduction to SACD. Are you with me so far?
It all started a few weeks ago during a visit to Chesky Records in NYC. Lisa Hershfield, Production Assistant (the one who runs the joint when the boys are out of town) was gracious enough to show me around the office. After the tour Lisa hands me a bag of goodies... several new CDs and some literature.
"David told me to give you this."
Then she looked at me and smiled, "Gigi, I have a treat for you, follow me. Our Mastering Engineer, Nick Prout is in the studio working on a special project."
Lisa ushered me into a quiet room. In front of the room is a pair of Wilson Watt Puppies hooked up to two small tube amplifiers. In the middle of the room is a comfy leather couch flanked by another pair of Watt Puppies. The back wall is a mountain of blinking glowing electronics. Sitting at a small desk and computer monitor is a sandy-haired young man. He stares at the screen, alternately tapping the keyboard keys and adjusting the levers, buttons and knobs on the impressive array of electronics.
"Gigi meet Nick, our mastering engineer."
"Hi Nick. Impressive set up you got here. Can you tell me about it? He
gives me a quick run-down of some of the equipment and this was
custom designed for us."
a quick run-down of some of the equipment and this was custom designed for us."
Woops, can’t give away any Chesky secrets – not if I want to be invited back. But I can tell you that Nick is mastering a new demo disc in 5.1 and 6.4 surround sound. He played me a few cuts and it sounded fabulous with lots of variety in the music and incredible detail and dynamics. True to its name, this format surrounds you in sound. Nick allowed me to peak at his computer as he played the tracks and I also got to sit in the leather couch for a quick listening session. What a treat to my senses: an excellent room, the painstakingly set up system playing an original recording and me deep in the womb of Chesky Records. As if that’s not enough, Nick pulled out some brand new un-mastered recordings, "Gigi check this out."
A quick listen and a little chat about the various cuts, where and how they’re recorded and then a bearded, long-haired gentleman sticks his head in the door, "Nick, we need to talk."
"OK. Gigi I gotta get back to work."
"Nick, thanks for your time. Hope to see you again soon."
Lots of amazing stuff is in the works at Chesky Records. I depart the mastering studio and return to reality.
My next stop was a nearby hi-end audio store, home of the NYC sound system
and the first part of my listening experiment. My friend Jack Rubinson (former
owner of Chestnut Hill Audio in Philadelphia) greeted me at the door.
"Gigi, what do you have there, some Chesky CDs?"
"Yeah, you wanna listen?"
"Sure follow me."
He took me into a room with Naim electronics, Spectral amplifiers and Wilson
Watt Puppy 7 loudspeakers.
"Let's try the Miles Davis High Resolution CD, 4 Generations of Miles." An experiment in high-resolution, 4 Generations was recorded live at a small venue in New York City. This tribute to Miles Davis brings together a select group of musicians for a memorable concert. Ron Carter - Acoustic Bass, George Coleman - Tenor Sax, Jimmy Cobb - Drums and Mike Stern - Electric Guitar play classic tracks such as "On Green Dolphin Street" and "My Funny Valentine". All four musicians played with Miles Davis during their careers and experienced the effortless phrasing and melodic genius of Miles Davis first hand. They also bring their individual style and interpretations to the music. The genius of Miles Davis is the glue that bonds them together for a once in a lifetime performance.
Jack popped the Miles CD into the Naim all-format player and the music was splendid. The well-known musicians and classic tracks are an unforgettable combination. But something wasn't right. The music sounded soft, lacking in dynamics and detail. The front of the CD pack says “High Resolution Technology” but the CD played in 2-channel format. The CD notes say that this CD is recorded at "Makor" NYC with a live audience... very interesting.
"Let's try a different CD" Jack suggested. "How about Three Guitars (Chesky JD248)". The music of Larry Coryell, Badi Assad and John Abercrombie filled the room with music. This CD is an interesting combination of innovative modern jazz, Brazilian music and traditional acoustic styles with cuts written by all three musicians. But the difference in sound quality was incredible. The music from this CD sounded detailed, transparent and open. After about 15 minutes the door to the listening room opened and a pleasant looking guy said, "We're closing, got to turn off the system and lock-up." "Bummer" I exclaimed, "what unpleasant news from a pleasant guy. We need more listening time to investigate this sound enigma."
Jack handed me the two CD’s, I put them back in my shopping bag.
"Let's go to dinner; where do you want to eat?"
A week later, I am back home in Florida and visiting my friend Michael M. in the Ft. Lauderdale area.
Michael has a brand new custom-built designated listening room overflowing with Krell Reference amplifiers, Krell 64D to A converter, Sony SACD-1, Apogee Diva speakers, 3-Velodyne subwoofers, MIT V2-1 Oracle cables, BAT 515E preamp and heaven knows what else. It also just so happens that I have a shopping bag of new Chesky CD’s just begging for a listening session.
My friend escorts me to his audio shrine. Except for the lights of Krell equipment glowing in the distant sound stage, the room is dark. In the middle of the room is a single seat, an unusual looking lounge chair.
"Sit down, Gigi. Let's see what's in the bag."
He turns on a small lamp and rummages through my bag of tricks.
"Lets try Miles Davis."
"Yeah, I am interested to see how it sounds on your system. I played it in NYC and it sounded kind of blue."
He replied, "I have 15 dedicated lines of 20/30 amps each and 1,400 watts of power in this room."
And then the music... the music was beautiful. The sound was open and sweet. The bass was defined and tight. I recognized the small club venue. The sax was effortless and smooth; you could hear George Coleman’s fingers work the tenor's valves.
I must digress a moment. My late father played the tenor sax and his big band, The Philip Krop Orchestra got together on a biweekly basis to practice in the basement of my family home. Needless to say I am well acquainted with the live sound of the tenor saxophone (and live big band music). I still have fond memories of my Dad striking up the band for a private concert and a special rendition of the song "Gigi" in my honor. And yes, the combination Chesky CD and Krell/Diva system reminded me of that private concert when I stood in the middle of the room, in the center of the soundstage surrounded by trumpets, saxophones, keyboard and drums. Just like the live performance of my memory, the music in this listening room was all around me, three-dimensional, transparent, lush and detailed.
"This CD sounds great on your system, but sounded soft when I listened in NYC. I wonder why?"
"Gigi, it's late. I need to get up early in the morning. Why don't you come back next week and we'll listen some more. Can you leave this CD with me till next week?"
"Enjoy it, but remember to give it back."
The next morning I open one eye, jump out of bed, grab my phone and dial the
number for my friend at the NYC dealer.
"Hi Jack, it's Gigi. I'm really confused. Remember the Miles Davis CD we listened to in the store?"
"It sounded soft on the Naim/Spectral/Wilson system. But when I listened on a Krell/Diva system it sounded detailed and lush. What's the problem? It's not the Naim, Spectral or Wilson equipment, can it be the room?"
"Well the room has some problems."
"Is it possible that the equipment was hooked up out-of-phase?"
"Well it is a store and the system is constantly being broken down and set up, anything is possible."
"Perhaps it’s a combination of things."
"But the Three Guitars recording sounded fine?"
"Yeah, I can't explain it. Gigi, the store is busy. Come visit again when we can spend more time listening."
I am totally baffled by this multi-format, different system same CD scenario.
"Michael, can we listen to the Three Guitars CD?"
"Gigi, sit down and relax."
"What's this remote for?"
"The massaging chair."
"How does it work?"
"Let's find a CD first."
"Michael, what about the Three Guitars?"
"Gigi, we'll listen to that one another time."
He picks An Introduction To SACD (Chesky SACD204) a Hybrid SACD/Super Audio CD and sets the Sony for the SACD format. Then he turns on the chair. It comes alive and begins to message me. I feel like a message therapist is in the chair messaging my neck, back etc. I start to get crazy. I tell myself, "Calm down, Gigi. It's only a chair." Then I am able to relax and enjoy the therapeutic message and the music.
Livingston Taylor is singing in my ear and I am in heaven. The Piano, Sax, Drums and Bass of the McCoy Tyner Quartet have excellent separation and sound stage. There’s a light touch on the piano keys and the drums have incredible detail... you can feel the sticks hit the drum skins. Rebecca Pidgeon’s Spanish Harlem is one of my favorite tracks. The SACD version has a sweet natural voice and effortless bass. The violin is compelling and the castanets are airy.
I announce, "Let's try an experiment. Please play the McCoy Tyner track in the stereo mode." My host changes the format and stands behind me to listen. At the end of the track we sit in silent thought. "Michael, I like the stereo version better. It is more natural, more focused."
"Gigi, I agree."
After the confusing results of all our experiments, I still leave Michael's listening room with a smile on my face and an invitation to return again soon... with another shopping bag full of wonderful CDs.
"What does it all mean?" Two hi-end systems, three
different high-quality CDs from the same recording company each one recorded
under different conditions and different formats. What conditions result in the
best recording; which format is better?
The reply, "I dunno. But I do know that there are few things in this world as beautiful as talented musicians on a well-recorded CD, a fine playback system and a custom-built sound room."
The bottom line: In my opinion, many more listening sessions, more hi-end systems and more recordings are needed to determine what formats sound best on which systems. On a personal level, I would like to see more recordings of mainstream musicians on the Chesky Records label.
Note: Earlier today I was chatting with Richard (Rick) Fryer owner of Spectral Audio, Inc. (Stay tuned for my upcoming article on Rick Fryer and Keith Johnson of Spectral Audio, Inc.) In passing I mentioned the Chesky Records listening dilemma. Rick replied that the people at Chesky were very special and that the music-lovers of the world are lucky to have small recording companies that are willing to push the envelope and work with new formats. When you experiment with new recording techniques, the results can be unpredictable. But we should appreciate the time and effort that goes into these experiments. I agree that experimentation is necessary to develop new techniques and formats.
We both agree that unlike the large commercial labels, the small audiophile companies are concerned about the accurate reproduction of sound and the ultimate beauty of the music.