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[adapted from article in AUDIO magazine, Aug. 1984: BEHIND THE SCENES series, by BERT WHYTE]
The Compact Disc was introduced into the American marketplace a little over a year ago [from 1984], with great fanfare and some rather extravagant claims. “Perfect sound forever” was a particular bit of hype that ruffled the sensibilities of many audiophiles. Few could deny the new system was a brilliant technological achievement, but almost from day one, the quality of the CD’s sound was the subject of heated controversy..
On the one hand, the CD was lavishly praised for its ruler-flat frequency response, 90-dB dynamic range, inaudible distortion, unmeasurable wow and flutter, and—above all—the total absence of ticks, clicks, and pops. Music was finally to be free of the tyranny of noise. On the other hand, a voluble group contended that digital sound was seriously flawed, a premature and retrograde step which badly degraded the music signals. This anti-digital group claimed that digital recording significantly attenuated—or even destroyed—ambient and reverberant in formation. Further, they maintained that inadequate sampling rates and low bit density, plus problems with the A/D and D/A converters and anomalies in anti-aliasing filters, resulted in spurious effects which seriously marred the sound. There were specific complaints about over-bright sound and orchestral instruments (most especially the strings) that were shrill, strident, edgy, and glassy—in a word, unnatural. The main bone of contention was that these anomalies were inherent in the digital recording process. Unfortunately, the claims were bolstered, early on, by the very substantial number of CD recordings exhibiting these negative qualities and indeed having a very poor sound.
The vociferous anti-digital forces have not accepted the idea that most of the bad CD sound is due to poor recording techniques and the inadequacies of ancillary analog recording equipment, from microphones to mixing consoles. Now, almost 18 months after the launch of CD recordings and players, there have been significant improvements in the technology of the players and a welcome reduction in their cost. There have also been refinements in the mastering and processing of CD recordings and a notable in crease in the availability of CDs with high-quality sound.
Yet, it must be noted that lists of recommended CD recordings in audio publications comprise fewer than 50 titles. Whether this dearth of CDs with high-quality sound is a result of hide- bound adherence to analog recording methodology or a failure to comprehend the more rigorous demands digital recording (both as to equipment and microphone techniques), the sad fact is that far too many CDs with atrocious sound are still being released.
Most readers of this column know that I have also been reviewing CDs for Audio for some time. You will have noted that I’ve not been very kind to a number of recordings. Please under stand that I have not singled out any particular company for poor sound; almost every record company issuing CDs is guilty of making some really awful-sounding discs. What recording transgressions I report are mainly due to a predilection of some labels for certain recording techniques which al most inevitably lead to poor sound.
Another aspect of record reviewing which must be particularly irritating to many readers is the often wide disparity of opinions among critics in various publications. By the same token, it is interesting and somewhat reassuring when critics, oceans apart, agree on the sonic merits of a recording.
This column had its genesis after I became incensed with the incredibly poor sound of Deutsche Grammophon’s CD of Richard Strauss’ “Metamorphosen” and the famous Death and Transfiguration,” with Herbert von Karajan conducting the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra. Here is a recording in which von Karajan’s performance has been widely—and justifiably- praised as magnificent and a veritable tour de force. The playing of the superb Berlin Philharmonic is simply glorious, but the sound quality is so poor that it is hard to believe. The overall sound is thin, which is exaggerated by the somewhat overly reverberant acoustics. The oppressive multi-microphone technique compartmentalizes each section of the orchestra and completely squashes any sense of atmosphere. The worst aspect is the sound of the first and second violins. I have heard more than enough shrill, strident, and steely string tones on CDs from many companies, but the sound here is a grotesque caricature of real-life violins. Moreover, the wonderful ensemble playing of the string section only serves to emphasize these dreadful shrieks. I just cannot imagine the DGG tonmeisters—the producer and the artists and repertoire director—sitting in an audition room presumably equipped with a reasonably good- quality playback system, listening to this awful recording and approving it. I have always had the greatest respect for Deutsche Grammophon, which has made thousands of great recordings over the years. However, since they adopted multi-microphone techniques some years ago, an unfortunately high percentage of their recordings have suffered from over-bright, edgy string sound. This situation existed before digital recording, and now that it is in daily use, the problem is exacerbated. You may recall that about a year ago I reported that the president of DGG had admitted, in Billboard magazine, to recording problems with digital sound, and he stated that DGG would modify their techniques to remedy this. Thus far, I find no evidence of these changes.
In terms of classical recording on CD, DGG is by no means the only offender. While it is true there are now more CDs available with good sound, the percentage of worthwhile titles among the hundreds being released is still woefully small. However, CD recordings are bound to improve, since there are no technical constraints to hinder such progress—no matter what the anti-digital forces contend. These sonic improvements will be almost exclusively in recording technology. While the companies pressing CDs will undoubtedly turn out a better product with stricter quality control, note that, from the beginning, most CDs have been remarkably free of glitches and other defects.
Lest you think I’m just a nit-picking old curmudgeon, let me admit that the divergence of critical opinion I mentioned earlier extends to me and other critics I respect a great deal.
For example, Angus McKenzie, who is associated with Hi-Fi News and Record Review and is one of Britain’s most prestigious critics, both agrees and disagrees with me. On a Philips CD of the Bruckner Ninth Symphony, with the Concertgebouw Orchestra, both he and I find the acoustics a bit too reverberant—but he finds the strings smooth while I find them steely. On a Denon CD of Haydn and Boccherini cello concertos, he found the solo cello “marginally too close,” while I felt Denon’s engineers had gone too far the other way.
On the London/Decca Mahler Ninth Symphony, with Solti conducting the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, both Angus and I felt that the high strings were edgy. Though I felt there was still some really spectacular sound in many parts of the recording, Angus thought it “the sort of CD that anti-digital people might well play and then try to blame digits rather than sound balance.” Yet, despite these sonic defects, this Mahler Ninth won a Grammy award for “best-engineered classical recording” (I heartily concur, however, in Sir Georg Solti’s picking up another Grammy for “best classical recording.” The performance is truly stupendous.)
I know that Angus uses Quad ESL 63 speakers in his evaluations. It just so happens that I have been using both ESL-63s and the new Duntech PCL-3 planar loudspeakers to review CDs. These are about the most revealing speakers extant, and I couple them with Janis W-1 subwoofers for extended bass and more power handling. I also use a pair of B & W 801F speakers, because they are the official monitors for Decca, EMI, DGG, Philips and others. Thus, I can hear sonic qualities and recording balances as perceived by the recording engineers.
Obviously, my tastes in equipment overlap with those of Angus, so it’s little surprise that he and I appear to be in general agreement on the sound qualities of CDs we both have reviewed. What differences we perceive may be due to our listening room acoustics. And, although we sometimes audition with the same speakers, different pre amplifiers, amplifiers and other equipment might contribute to our divergence of opinion.
On the other hand, a comparison of reviews of identical CDs by many other critics makes me wonder if we are listening to the same recording!
One thing is certain: The Compact Disc has proven to be a viable format, a superior storage medium for recorded music which, in its highest manifestations of quality, affords audiophiles the equivalent of original master recordings. For the very first time, there are recordings that can tax the capabilities of even the most advanced and exotic audio component systems.
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