Published: 1. October 2012, No. 101
That meeting was supposed to be different. Maybe not totally different but special. The plan of course was to meet and listen to music, have some conversation and friendly discussion over good wine, but this time I also wanted to celebrate the 100th edition of “High Fidelity” magazine.
Krakow Sonic Society is in fact its integral part; it is the magazine’s “social emanation” and its “human face.” It arose from the need to investigate certain things in a group of people, to examine audio components which I could obviously test myself, but which sometimes require more than a single opinion; instead of a collective “wow” they require a variety of opinions and different points of view.
As I wrote in my editorial to the 100th edition of HF (see HERE), initially our meetings at Janusz’s, because it was his audio system that started it off, were informal and were an extension of so called Audioszołki (“Small audio shows”) whose publication in “Audio” magazine had just ended. It all worked out well in the end, but initially no one had any idea it would be so.
After our first few meetings and listening sessions I decided to systematize them somehow, to put them in some kind of a frame, and so was born the idea of a “Society”, based on Western (mainly the U.S. and Britain) organizations of this kind. They usually bring together fans of music presented in the best possible quality, paying attention to every aspect of the music reproduction process, with particular emphasis on audio components, media and accessories. That was the beginning of 'Krakow' (for “High Fidelity” is located in Krakow) ‘Sonic’ (concerning all aspects of sound) 'Society' (it could as well be called a 'group', 'club', 'association' or something like that).
We meet at one of the three houses of our members – since "always" at Janusz’s, since a couple of years at Rysiek S., and more recently also at Tomek’s. We also met a few times at Marcin’s. There was also an away meeting (see HERE).
It was not supposed to be like that. The initial plan was that the meetings will be held in a larger room, perhaps an audio salon listening room, and will be open to all. But, as often happens, life got in the way of our plans. First of all, we could not agree on a meeting place without causing controversy in the so-called “audio business” – the level of animosity (not to say hatred or envy), the temperature of the conflicts between different audio salons, distributors, etc., the questions "why at HIS?!" or " Why THERE?!" heard over and over again resulted in our decision to meet at our houses, friendly places where we could focus on what is most important to us – the sound. And it seems that it will stay that way.
The obvious downside of that solution was a drastic reduction in the number of participants. It depended on the room capacity and the owner’s tolerance (or his wife’s, which was the same thing anyway). A smaller number of participants meant less diversity of opinions and it largely excluded so called “fresh blood”.
However, over time it turned out that these drawbacks could be turned into advantages. Gradually, a group of people was formed who were accustomed to the rigors of auditioning (this is very important!) and to its methodology, a group of people with good or very good audio equipment at home, people knowing and liking music and – perhaps most importantly – liking each other. I could always count on them, at any time, knowing that if I say that we are meeting in two days at this or that house, for we have a special guest or we have a certain audio product just for a short while, they would all come, without a murmur.
And so after eight years there came the 85th KSS meeting which coincided with the 100th edition of HF. I decided it was high time to honor my friends somehow. Before we started our listening session I handed them special certificates attesting to their membership in the Society and small memorabilia, including photos from different events. Special Associate Member Certificates are waiting for our guests from abroad who came to visit us in the past.
In order to keep us focused on listening I also prepared two products for auditioning: the Acoustic Revive RAF-48 anti-vibration platform and First Impression Music Ultra HD CDs. Since they are perhaps not particularly special in themselves, in order to raise the bar I prepared a comparative listening test.
In the first part of the meeting we focused our attention not on the platform as such, but on its new version, with the top shelf made of hickory wood instead of Finnish birch. Its frame is now also made of hickory. As it turns out, the new platform boasts improved shelf leveling and faster inflation time. The top shelf is not made of plywood but small wooden planks glued together. The test was not meant to confirm that the platform "works", because that is clear to us (most of us use them; some of us have two or three of them), but rather to find out how the sound changes with the new type of wood from which the shelf is made.
∙ CD player: Ancient Audio Lektor Grand SE, see HERE
∙ Power amplifier: Ancient Audio Silver Grand Mono, see HERE and HERE
∙ Speakers: Sonus faber Electa Amator (I), see HERE
∙ Interconnects: Acrolink Mexcel 7N-DA6300, see HERE
∙ Speaker cable: Tara Labs Omega, see HERE
∙ Power cord: Acrolink 7N-PC9100, see HERE
∙ Mains conditioner: Ancient Audio First generator
∙ Accessories: Acoustic Revive, see HERE and HERE
The second part of the meeting was devoted to something equally cool – comparing two versions of the same CD from Mr. Winston Ma, on his record label First Impression Music, issued under its sub-label Lasting Impression Music. Mr. Winston Ma issues his latest album in the U.S., and prepares them with UltraHD technology, using a 32-bit mastering.
You may remember that FIM is a company focusing on advances in mastering and pressing of CDs. Through his personal contacts, Mr. Ma was often the first to implement such techniques as XRCD, XRCD2, XRCD24, K2HD and others – and now UltraHD. His favourite, I think, is XRCD (eXtended Resolution Compact Disc), which manages through appropriate techniques to achieve an equivalent of 20-bit resolution on regular CD, without any additional decoders.
One of the iron rules of XRCD pressings in each of its three variants was that we only get 2000 copies of any CD. The reason for that is that they limited the number of glass masters used to press the CDs and the number of CDs pressed with one master. Normally one glass master is used to press a dozen thousand CDs, despite the fact that the master wears out resulting in the less regular pits and lands on CDs.
No big deal, apparently, since any CD player will play such CDs. However, it appears that these CDs rely heavily on error correction system and that always results in an increase of jitter. You can easily hear it as sound deterioration, regardless of what so called "objectivists" say, claiming that "a bit is a bit".
These observations of how CD pressing techniques impact the sound was quickly recognized by companies other than JVC, which holds the patent on XRCD. I'm talking of course about SHM-CD (Super High Material CD), the idea of JVC and Universal Music Company and HQCD (HiQuality CD) from Toshiba-EMI, being a response to SHM-CD. The last, for now, manufacturer to join this exclusive "club" is Sony Music Japan with its Blu-Spec CD, meaning CDs pressed on Blu-ray pressing machines.
All of these CD variants (because they are not "formats") I described in February 2009, in my editorial Compact Disc alive forever? (see HERE), and in May of the same year there was a Krakow Sonic Society meeting (# 64, see HERE), during which we compared regular CD editions with SHM-CD, HQCD and Blu-spec CD versions. Let me remind you that the conclusion of both of these texts was not clear, i.e. we did not rush to exchange our CD collections, nor did we cry over the quality of the older technology. Most new recordings sounded better, but not all, and the changes were not consistent, in that it was not quite possible to pinpoint what it is exactly that the new technology brings.
Since then, however, much has changed. Now, without a hint of hesitation I point to Blu-spec CD as bringing the greatest improvement, followed by SHM-CD, and finally HQCD. Each one of them is a big step forward. Why did we not recognize it right away? I'm not sure; I can only speculate. I think it was probably due to musical material preparation, that it needed some further development. They were only first attempts, first released titles and I think the owners of patents did not yet quite know what they could do with them.
But let’s get back to XRCD. As I said, one of the basic assumptions of this method of master preparation and CD pressing was strictly limited number of copies made of one glass master. But what would happen if they used it to press more copies? Would they really differ from those pressed earlier?
This question can be answered indirectly. Mr. Winston Ma offers his CDs in two versions - the classic version and the "First 2000 pressings!" with a metal plaque on the CD cover and a suitable inscription. For our listening test we used G.F. Handel’s Messiah performed by Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Anders Öhrwall, originally released by Proprius, and now by Lasting Impression Music (regular version - LIM UHD 029, limited edition - LIM UHD 029 LE).
SOUND: Acoustic Revive RAF-48 vs. Acoustic Revive RAF-48H
Listening test had a character of A-B/B-A comparison, with the A and B known. First (A) was the original platform, sitting under Janusz’s CD transport (he has another one under his monoblocks but we focused on the CD transport). We then changed it for the new version (B) and in the end we came back to the original one. I collected all our comments after the listening session.
CDs used during listening test:
- Eric Burdon, Eric Burdon Declares War, Navarre Collection, ASR 10604-2, gold-CD.
- Herb, Al, Zoot, Serge, The Four Brothers .... Together Again!, RCA/BMG Japan, BVCJ-37347, K2 CD.
- Kraftwerk, Minimum-Maximum, EMI, 334 996 2, 2 x SACD/CD.
- Modern Talking, The Collection, Sony Music, 5439142, Limited Edition, No. 0420, K2HD CD.
- Peggy Lee, Black Coffee, Decca/Verve/Universal Music Japan, UCCU-9631, SHM-CD.
- Peggy Lee, Mink Jazz, Toshiba-EMI, TOCJ-9327, CD.
- This Mortail Coil, Filigree & Shadow, 4AD, CAD 3X05 CDJ, HDCD.
The Kraftwerk album seems to me to sound better on the new platform. But the tonal balance was slightly raised – it was higher, brighter, more flashy. Everything was different, rather than better or worse. But - after all, we can all hear it - the change is quite substantial; the new platform makes other changes in the sound than the older version. But I would have to live with it for a little longer before I could decide if I change something.
I am quite skeptical about all those platforms. To be honest, I've never heard any changes at home. Today, unfortunately, I cannot say anything so far because I'm still impressed with my Certificate ...
The older version, with the shelf of Finnish birch proved to be, in my opinion, worse – apart from the final track. There it seemed to better fit the track character. The new platform adds expression, explicitness to the sound. At first glance, these things always seem to be better - but I would need to spend more time with it to see whether it would not bother me in longer listening.
The new platform is simply better with more rhythmic repertoire. It better shows the rhythm, better emphasizes dynamics changes; is "livelier". I was a little worried how it would affect tonality, but it was good. The new presentation lost only once, with Peggy Lee’s album Black Coffee. There, the vocal lost some depth on the new platform, its multidimensional presentation was a little poorer. I think it was the only weak point of the new platform. Generally, I'm for it. And, answering the question asked at the beginning, of course, the differences are clear, large and repeatable. They were shown surprisingly well on the Modern Talking album.
It is the first time I was sent to the corner during listening (though I did not do anything...). From this perspective, I hear everything a little different than usual. But I will say straight up that although I'm a skeptic, an engineer through and through, I cannot but admit that the differences are clear and they show particularly well with different repertoire.
With electronic music the change on the new platform is definitely positive. And I'm sensitive to this because recently tuning the new Wings (Ancient Audio Wing (New) speakers - ed.) I tortured them for a long time with different electronic music. The new platform made the sound more open, it had better dynamics and wider soundstage. However, in my opinion the older platform works better with vocals.
I have a clear-cut verdict - in my opinion, you did not pay attention to treble on the older platform. It was drier and less differentiated. On the new platform treble was simply better and stronger. Maybe that is why Janusz thought that the tonal balance was raised. For me the new platform is simply better.
I will repeat what I said earlier - I'm as skeptical about all such inventions. This time it seemed to me, however, that in the second comparison, i.e. coming from the new to the old platform, the differences between them were better visible. And, I have to admit, they are there. It was clearly audible with Eric Burdon’s album that sounded better on the new platform - the vocal was more natural, more powerful and deeper. The same with vocals from This Mortail Coil album - and it somewhat contradicts what you said before about the vocals. Maybe we just got used to the change and we see both platforms in the same light, as something familiar? On the old platform all recordings miss some drama.
The four saxophonists, the recording that we all know by heart, sounded dramatically worse after returning to the old platform. Really, the difference between them didn’t seem so clear before. Unless Srajan Ebaen is right and we should not drink wine while listening... But I prefer my version - wine or not, it is clear now that the new platform is better. For me, the old one is an "evil darkness." I say 3 times “NO” to the old one.
I confirm - Burdon sounds much better on the new one. Better rhythm, dynamics, more sound between the speakers. The saxophonists - I am not quite convinced, I'm not sure which sounded better. It was certainly different. Slower tracks this time sounded much better than when going from the old to the new.
As for me, the saxophonists sounded better on the old one. There was fullness and differentiated details. Burdon - here I have no doubt that it sounded better on the new one. Bass was definitely better. The Hammond organ and vocals, for me, were better shown on the old platform. This Mortail Coil - it seems to me that on the old one I had a larger, more expansive soundstage. For me personally, the RAF-48H is the first product from Acoustic Revive, and I have heard almost all of them, that is not a step forward, and maybe even a step back.
Well, Ryszard, as usual, has a dissenting opinion ... But it's good, very good. I was struck, even though I'm sitting in the corner, by better spatiality of music on the new platform. The saxophones for me had better resolution, better differentiation. This Mortail Coil - on the new platform it could be heard, how the album had been recorded. I know that the listener wants music, not engineering, but for me 'beautiful' means 'true', and I had a much truer sound with the new platform. This of course is a matter of aesthetics, taste, but I find the new one more convincing. I think that every new thing from Acoustic Revive is better - I really do not know how they do it ...
We must accept some common platform - ultimately it is what we like that matters. We have no way of checking, how a particular track should REALLY sound. We come to this in small steps by comparisons and choices.
Compared to the previous listening when I would say that the old platform won 3 to 1, now I have mixed feelings, and I'm not sure that the old platform has an edge. Rhythm, pulse – they are better on the new one. Organicity - half and half. I find it hard to choose. If I were to decide to swap one for the other I’d say NO. But if I were to buy one of them for myself and I didn’t have either, I would buy the new one.
In the beginning I asked all the listeners a fundamental question: "Can you hear any difference?" I asked it a little out of duty, because the differences were there and they were large. However, as evidenced by the statements of the participants (for the sake of argument somewhat abbreviated) the differences have been confirmed, but at the same time, it turned out that not every change must be necessarily for the better.
We all agreed on the fact that the RAF-48H version, made of Hickory wood, is much more showy, striking. It has more powerful bass and deeper midrange. Janusz mentioned raised tonal balance, but I think it was just the opposite, i.e. the balance went down. The feeling of stronger treble came from the fact that there was much more information, more of it was clear. That's why every track with stronger rhythm as the base, even the already mentioned Modern Talking (I brought that album for fun, to let off some seriousness, but its presence was validated by the fact that it’s released by Sony as a K2HD disc!) sounded cooler, stronger, more similar to the live sound.
The strong point of the older platforms is the way it shows vocals. Since both bass and treble are a little weaker with it, a bit smaller than with the Hickory version, midrange comes more to the front – a well-known thing. That’s why the participants pointed to Peggy Lee’s album as the one that demonstrates the advantages of the "normal" version of the platform. But the longer we listened to the new one, the more we appreciated it, which could be seen in the comments after returning from the Hickory to the ordinary version.
SOUND - Georg Friedrich Händel Messiah, Lasting Impression Music; "regular" version vs. Limited Edition version
This part of audition had the character of A-B-A comparison, but with A and B unknown. Hence, it was a blind listening test. The listeners were informed that they’re listening to the "left" or "right" CD. No one, including myself, knew which one is the "regular" and which is the limited edition version. The appropriate stamp is only on the cover; the discs look identical.
My first, colossal impression: the right meant depth, better space. Beautiful vocals. The left was brighter, background noise was better heard. It’s amazing how these two versions differ from each other. I hear the same changes every time you change the CD – it’s really incredible! But when we came back again to the right, I liked it, too... If I had to choose, I’d go for the left.
The left sounded loudly, noisily, with "empty" space. The right was much better weighted down. After coming back to the left I could even better appreciate the sound production on the right; I could hear singer’s throat vibration. If I had to choose, I’d be going with the right.
There is nothing to say – the right sounded much better. Cleaner and with more different sound components; it was more vivid. The third test came out worst for the left, i.e. after returning from the right to the left version. The right - by far the better one.
I can hear the differences, which to me is a little strange. I like the right one much better - more space, freedom, just more going on. I have no doubts - the right wins.
The differences are indeed quite pronounced. The right had better acoustics, more vividness. In certain registers, vocals on the left seemed terribly noisy, almost unpleasant.
The differences between the two versions of the same disc boiled down to one single thing: only one of them was pressed with a new, relatively little used glass master. The difference in sound was just incredible. The left CD sounded bright, light and flat. The right one showed vividness, much better vocals presentation.
Interestingly, for a moment you could think that the left side version has better resolution, because it had more tape noise (the material was recorded on the Nagra IV-S analog reel-to-reel tape recorder) and large room background noise. It seems, however, that it happened only because the instruments and especially vocals were flat and withdrawn. The right side version showed them much fuller, slightly masking the noise. Not that it was not there; of course, its level was similar, but we heard it differently. The most surprising thing was not HOW these versions differ, but that they differ AT ALL.
All characteristics of the sound named by the listeners coincide with what is normally associated with XRCDs - perhaps things like special limited editions, proper care of the master quality, are not the result of oversensitivity of some audio freaks, but a real problem. After all, we listened to both CDs on one of the top transport mechanisms, the Philips CD-Pro2 LH, with outstanding error correction. Yet, the differences were very clear.
The left CD was the "regular" edition (LIM UHD 029), and the right one – the Limited Edition (LIM UHD 029 LE).
Information about manufacturers:
3016-1 Tsunatori-machi, Isesaki-shi Gunma Pref. 372-0812 | Japan
tel.: +81-270-24-0878 | fax: +81-270-21-1963
Website: Acoustic Revive
Country of origin: Japonia
FIRST IMPRESSION MUSIC
17530 Ne Union Hill Rd # 150 | Redmond, WA 98052-3387 | USA
tel.: (425) 883-3330
Country of origin: USA