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No. 114 November 2013
Audio Files – a wonderful new world

he latest edition of “Stereophile” brings a list of recommended components, which will probably convince many a buyer to get it. Apart from many other articles that just can’t be ignored – for example, an editorial written by Henry Rollins (!) – you’ll also find reviews of two Compact Disc players: the Aesthetix Saturn Romulus (reviewed in the 107th, March edition of “High Fidelity” HERE) and the Audio Research Reference CD9, whose description you can read in the very edition of HF currently displayed on your screens. The Stereophile articles were connected by a short notice on the first page: The Last Frontier of CD Playback. The expression itself isn’t fully true, of course; but it’s not entirely false either. It’s just a catchy slogan. It’s worth noticing the message behind it, though: CD players, and thus CDs themselves, are falling into the past; physical media are slowly becoming history. The cover page seems to confirm this, being a picture of the Marantz NA-11S1 file player, which I – incidentally – reviewed a few months ago for the Polish magazine “Audio” (the player made its way onto the covers of many other magazines, such as the Japanese “NetAudio”). Let’s repeat – the message is clear: the king is dead, long live the king! Where the old king is the CD, and physical media in general, while digital audio files and their players are the new king. But are they really? Aren’t we rushing this joyful leap into the “cloud”?

The CD still has sharp fangs (and even increasingly sharp)

When you talk to engineers who have something to do with music, or at least audio signal, it’s hard not to notice their firm attitude towards how the music publishing market should look like. One of the basic beliefs is that vinyl is outdated, and its renaissance has nothing to do with sound, but with trends. I hope that he won’t mind me mentioning his name here, but Jarek Waszczyszyn, the owner of Ancient Audio – a company that manufactures some of the best CD players I know – believes this. As he says, he’s never heard anything in vinyl that would explain its current popularity. He sees the future written in the digital world, and moreover – in audio files. He’s got a lot of experience with this, gained through his work on the SDMusA project, and deepened through his work on new products. And that’s what this group of engineers relates to: a vast majority of them believes that the future of audio lies with files, especially hi-res ones. They reject the Compact Disc format as too “narrow” for transmitting all musical information, noting the inconveniences connected with the physical reading of discs and the readers themselves – transports, drive mechanisms, drives, or whatever you want to call them. And it’s hard to argue with this if you have a sound mind. The CD, with its 16 bits and 44.1 kHz sampling rate, requiring pressing, spinning and decoding seems an ancient relic as pointless as the vinyl. And it lacks the same sex appeal that its black predecessor had.

But I come across “common sense” all the time in conversations and emails concerning many things I’ve auditioned and experimented with that are rejected a priori by “clear-headed” people who find them too far-fetched. To me, all that matters is what I’m able to verify through multiple auditions – either personal or in a group of experienced people. I’ve said it before, but I’ll repeat myself: if I hear something that doesn’t agree with the general theory, something that disagrees with it, it means that the theory is wrong and there are exceptions to it that we may not know about yet; or that the theory is too general and doesn’t relate to specific cases. And an example of such an ultra-specific case is the sound signal. Just like analog, tubes should be nothing but an upsetting memory in the audio world by now. But they’re not. You can obviously easily explain this, with a lot of truth in your words: it’s all about marketing and the desire to sell something “different”. Many analog and tube-based products promote themselves in this very way, and in their case it’s the only excuse for using old technology. The best components show, however, that the constantly “new” technologies haven’t yet arrived at the level offered by their predecessors. That’s why justifying their presence has some solid basis. There are no such excuses for the technologies behind the Compact Disc – in the audiophile world, this format was often perceived as a path into nowhere, a system error.

My experience with the silver disc differs greatly from that of the black disc’s fans and the supporters of moving over to audio files. I love the former and respect the latter, but I mostly listen to CDs. There are a few reasons for this. Sound quality matters to me. I believe that the very best players of this format – and the one I own is top of its class – are capable of presenting so much music that searching for something else is only understandable in a select few cases. Analog master tapes are a notable exception. I know their sound and it’s the TRUE “master” sound, not what we know from vinyl; I can’t, however, ignore the fact that we’re talking about a curiosity, a tool for reviewers and audio designers, and not everyday audio equipment. The best turntables show more than the best CD players, but this difference stems partly from the euphonic character of the medium itself. Actually, this is largely a problem of the CD, but I wouldn’t call it a major problem, since things have gone well in this aspect. And things are getting increasingly interesting.

Platinum SHM-CD, HR Cutting, PureFlection – the Compact Disc anew

It’s already getting loud about the meeting of the Krakow Sonic Society that covered different techniques of improving the CD sound, largely due to the fact that a report from the meeting was published in “Positive-Feedback.com” (see HERE). I get e-mails from people who notice a similar potential in this medium like me, but also from “analogers” and “filers” who are furious with us about what we heard. I can’t help it: we heard what we heard. And although the CD is unavoidably fading from the mainstream music market, the specialist companies are putting in a lot of effort and money to squeeze out the last bit from it. We all know the Crystal Disc, SHM-CD, Blu-spec2, HQCD, XRCD24, and Gold-CD – the discs prepared in these formats, aside from a few exceptions, offer much better sound than their classic counterparts. This shows that you can improve it from THAT side of the recording studio’s glass. Although audio recording and mastering are most important, the method used to prepare the material for a release seems equally important. Of course, you can say that companies are only driven by the will to earn money and all these efforts are nothing more than a way to trick us poor people and suck a little more money out of us for this outdated format, which should’ve vanished long ago, along with its creators. For starters: yes, the job of record companies and music labels is to earn money. Period. Everything they do serves that purpose. Another period. However, to do this they must use different kinds of bait to convince customers to buy their products. The ones that work best in the audiophile world are products that improve the sound of reproduced music. If it’s the XRCD24 – or the method of preparing the digital master and disc pressing – that’s great! We’re getting the added value here, noting the progress in CD technology. If it’s the SHM-CD – or different material used for the disc’s transparent layer – that’s even better. That’s why whenever I hear about new technologies, and methods of CD preparation and pressing, I’m as happy as a baby! I’ll spend some money, for sure, partially for titles I already own, but that’s what this branch is about, the pursuit of perfection.

The appearance of a new edition of the SHM-CD, namely the Platinum SHM-CD, is very exciting to me and I don’t feel like I’m being used. I’ll repeat – it’s a symbiosis: the disc company wants to get some money from me, so they have to offer me something I’ll want to buy. If it translates into better sound – I’m in. That’s why auditions focusing on verifying a given solution are so important. In this case, sprayed platinum was used to form the reflective coating on the ultra-transparent and uniform layer. That resembles the solution used in HQCDs (although its reflective layer is made of silver). The Platinum SHM-CDs I ordered are already at the customs; I’ll try to compare them to their SHM-CD and CD counterparts. Fun fact: the publisher announced that the discs won’t play on CD players that can’t handle CD-Rs!

As it turns out, in addition to the Platinum SHM trademark, the new CDs also feature another one: HR Cutting. Little is known about the technology itself, and that is mostly because nearly all information about it is only available in Japanese. But some things can be said. Discs bearing this mark are only pressed in Japan – the technology and logo both belong to Victor Creative Media Co., Ltd., the XRCD24 rights owner. You’ll also find this mark on the XRCD24 box set titled Okihiko Sugano Record Collection, Victor Edition/Trio Edition, selected by Okihiko Sugano, the editor of “Stereo Sound” (Audio Meister XRCG-30025-8, 4 x XRCD24 [2012]). Although the disc was prepared by a branch of JVC (although its logo can’t be seen anywhere, I presume that it is JVC that owns Audio Meister, whose name features on the disc and box) they are endorsed by the Japan Traditional Cultures Foundation.

In the booklet that comes with the box you’ll find a description of the XRCD24 and HR Cutting. It states that the technology applies to a narrow segment of the entire technological process of preparing and pressing a CD. It claims that instead of a PMCD with encoded DDP signal, DVD-Rs or BD-Rs with WAV or AIFF 24/176.4 are used for cutting the glass master, and the conversion to 16/44.1 is done “on the go”, during cutting. The cut itself is done in similar conditions as with the “regular” XRCDs, using a K2 laser designed for cutting DVD masters, here modified for the CD needs. Unfortunately, I couldn’t find any information about the differences between this and the technologies used for XRCD24s. In the latter, during the cutting process CD-Rs aren’t used as the signal medium either, replaced by magneto-optical discs with 24-bit signal. I can, however, say that the sound from the discs in this box is stunning. Pretty warm and deep, as most XRCD24s, but also detailed.

Not everybody likes this idea – it’s worth reading the discussion on this topic on the “Steve Hoffman Music Forums”.

Barry, a guy working in the audio publishing sector (www.soundkeeperrecordings.com), believes that transcoding the signal on-the-go into 16/44.1, on site in the pressing plant isn’t a good idea and he prefers to do it in his studio, because he’s sure of the result. He’s probably right, except JVC used this technology for their XRCD2 and XRCD24, with good results.

That’s not the end of the news, though. Winston Ma, the owner of First Impression Music and Lasting Impression Music announced the market launch of PureFlection discs. As you can read in the description, it’s the last CD format Mr. Ma will release. Combined with the Ultra High Definition 32-Bit Mastering technology, known from all of his previous discs (see HERE) the end result is a CD in what he calls a “final” form. And I’ll remind you that Mr. Winston Ma pioneered many technologies, and it was usually in his company that the earliest HDCD, XRCD, XRCD2, XRCD24, and K2 HD first appeared. It thus seems that he knows what he’s talking about.

“The Pure Reflection (PureFlection) Process” refers to the method of burning the glass master – similarly to XRCDs and Blu-spec 2. The FIM masters are burnt using modified devices used for pressing Blu-ray discs. It’s a special thermic process which creates more precise pits and lands, and with better-optimized distances between individual paths. The latter seems pointless, since we’re not talking about an analog disc, where the signal from neighboring grooves is cross modulated. And yet it’s true. It turns out that with densely packed paths the servomechanism is overloaded, which generates noise modulating the signal (Cross Talk or XT). Although it’s not high, and its influence on sound is ignored by most audio engineers, after many comparisons Mr. Ma has come to firmly believe that ‘the less noise, the better’. To prove his words he adds hard evidence: measurements of ALL errors that occurred during the pressing process (BLER – 17 elements, BERL – 9 elements, Physical – 6 elements, Jitter – 6 elements, E22 and BLER graphs). And they are shockingly low! And we’re not talking about dandy UDM Master Editions or golden CD-Rs burnt directly from the master disc, but about CDs pressed in a pressing plant. Each disc will come with an attached “certificate” listing all its errors. The limitation lies within the number of pressed copies – only 1,000 per title. When you take a closer look, you’ll notice – I bet – that it’s all about the technology used for production of Blu-spec 2 discs. The new discs are prepared by Sony in its pressing plant and they include recordings from its catalogue. Using machines originally intended for Blu-ray production seems to confirm this. Mr. Ma combines this with his own method of mastering and that may be THE difference. We’ll see – I have an interview scheduled with the owner of First Impression Music, and the UHD 32-Bit PureFlection CDs are currently on their way to my house.

Blu-ray – an alternative to hi-res files? I’m doubtful, but…

Everything I’ve said above clearly praises the physical media, especially the Compact Disc. But not only the CD – it’s a general praise of a certain model of sales and of thinking about the physical media. Mainly the Compact Disc, but not only it – we’re on about much more here.

I don’t know if you know this, but the audio files you have on your hard drives, Flash memory, and your mobile phones do not belong to you. They have been “shared” with you by record labels and you just paid for this sharing. You cannot legally sell a hard drive containing music and video files nor can you sell a phone containing those files – not even an iPod or iPad. Before being sold, their memory should be formatted – I’m obviously not talking about the black market here. Physical media, on the other hand, as well as the material they contain belong to their owner. You can borrow them (but not for commercial purposes), sell them, and make copies for your personal use. They’re YOURS. That’s not all, though. It seems that record label lobbies want to pass a law in the USA that allows controlling the data stored on file player hard drives. You partially allow it when you download new software – you share your device with a third party this way. But we’re talking about actually allowing access to the contents and managing them. Of course this is called improvement and help, etc., but it’s all about controlling our resources. “Ours” in our head alone – all the files belong to the label companies.

Hence, all ideas for selling music in physical form have an added ethical value for me, so to speak. While the CD is a well-known subject, discs containing high resolution music are still the future, highly questionable at that. We know the case of DVD-Audio – the format is in a decline and not making any comeback. However, High Fidelity Pure Audio Industry Group, a new organization whose members include, among others, Universal Music Group, Sony and Warner, is trying to revive it in a modern package.
The first official presentation of High Fidelity Pure Audio format took place at the Dolby headquarters in London, just before the last summer. The launch had great PR and was covered not only by specialist audio magazines but also e.g. "Forbes" (see HERE). The event was led by Robert Murphy, Global Head of New Business at Universal Music Group, and Chairman of High Fidelity Pure Audio Industry Group. The idea is simple: to sell high-res music on Blu-ray discs. The recordings are supposed to be mastered at least in 24/96, in stereo or – wherever possible – in surround sound. They will be encoded in three formats: PCM, DTS HD Master Audio and Dolby TrueHD. Initially they will be sold in the UK, Germany, Japan and the USA. In the first phase the offer will include 36 titles from UMG, which by the end of this year will increase to 150. Other labels are to join in and the whole initial offer is supposed to be approximately 300 albums titles. Sony and Warner expressed their interest. The members will pay £5,000 annual fee and will meet every month in Berlin, London and Paris (see also: Barry Fox, Singing the Blues, “Hi-Fi News & Record Review”, October 2013, Vol 58 No. 10, p. 113).

This idea isn’t new. MSM Studios from Munich showed a similar system during Munich High End Show in 2011, I believe. That’s how Stockfisch released Sara K’s albums. The label seems to have discarded the idea, though. But there are other companies that distribute their sound material in this way, most notably the Norwegian label 2L. As I’ve had Stockfisch and 2L albums in my hands, and also the first so far “HD 1080i Disk” from First Impression Music (it contains video, but you can listen to the music without it), I’ve decided to put together a system to listen to hi-res music encoded on Blu-Ray discs.
The basis needs to be a sensible Blu-ray player. There are loads of them on the market, including those offered by audiophile companies, and you can easily begin with such models as the Cambridge Audio Azur 752BD (and the previous 751BD), the OPPO BDP-105EU, or its modified version, the OPPO BDP-83 by Dan Wright. You can also step up and buy a Marantz, or the BD32 from Primare.

They are expensive machines. You can take a different approach, though. Asus, a manufacturer that was known in the PC market, has recently stormed its way into the audio world. In addition to great DACs (see HERE), it also offers absurdly cheap Blu-ray players. You’ll find that even its top line BDS-700 sells under $300. That’s right, less than 300! Although I’m calling it a “Blu-ray player”, it’s really a multimedia player as it can also play music and movies from an external hard drive, preferably a NAS.
Inexpensive players won’t sound the same as premium audio components, there’s no doubt about it. Yet the material I had on BDs sounded really nice. I hooked up the Arcam irDAC to the digital output, which dramatically improved the quality. It was confirmed by auditioning hi-res material from Pink Floyd’s box set. A big problem, at least for me, was the necessity of using an external screen for this. As Brian Fox, mentioned above, has noticed, audiophiles hate everything associated with video. And although the Asus is simply a brilliant movie player, here we’re talking about its specific use, as a hi-res sound source. It seems that for the High Fidelity Audio Pure to have any chances, this problem needs to be solved. Similarly to what MSM Studios did before, using a simple menu and corresponding colorful buttons on the remote control. Except that it’s too late for all of that – at least in my opinion.


Welcome to the real world…

Digital revolution 2.0 cannot be stopped, and there’s not even a point or reason for doing so. Soon enough most devices will be only capable of playing audio files. This revolution has its casualties – like any revolution – in this case, our sovereignty and usage rights for purchase products. I don’t want to sound too lofty, but it’s both a legal and ethical issue. All oppressive systems begin with small things: interference, stigmatization, separation, and – in special cases – extermination. Although nothing seems to suggest this for now, corporations gaining control over what we buy is an introduction to this kind of world.
Keeping physical media has quite a real value. It makes us independent from record labels, since the material contained therein belongs solely to us. It’s also a great backup, protecting us from data loss. And the fact that it’s inconvenient and outdated? Even if, sometimes it’s worth taking a step back to prevent stepping into an abyss. Am I exaggerating? Only time will tell.

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Our reviewers regularly contribute to “Audio”“Enjoy the Music.com”, “Positive-Feedback.com”“HiFiStatement.net”  and “Hi-Fi Choice & Home Cinema. Edycja Polska” .

"High Fidelity" is a monthly magazine dedicated to high quality sound. It has been published since May 1st, 2004. Up until October 2008, the magazine was called "High Fidelity OnLine", but since November 2008 it has been registered under the new title.

"High Fidelity" is an online magazine, i.e. it is only published on the web. For the last few years it has been published both in Polish and in English. Thanks to our English section, the magazine has now a worldwide reach - statistics show that we have readers from almost every country in the world.

Once a year, we prepare a printed edition of one of reviews published online. This unique, limited collector's edition is given to the visitors of the Audio Show in Warsaw, Poland, held in November of each year.

For years, "High Fidelity" has been cooperating with other audio magazines, including “Enjoy the Music.com” and “Positive-Feedback.com” in the U.S. and “HiFiStatement.net”  in Germany. Our reviews have also been published by “6moons.com”.

You can contact any of our contributors by clicking his email address on our CONTACT  page.

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