SACD & Other Hi-Res Reviews
Hi-Res Disc Reviews, Part 4 of 4
Published on February 1, 2004
58 SACD & DVD-A
& xrcd Reviews Total!
Jan/Feb 2004 – Part 4 of 4 – Special Formats
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A Musical Alternative to 5.1 Surround Sound = D&G’s “2+2+2” DVD-As
A number of audio writers and recording engineers have weighed in on the disadvantages of the THX/Dolby-originated 5.1 channel/speaker setup for music reproduction as opposed to movie soundtracks. AUDIOPHILE AUDITION had a feature on Music Alternatives to 5.1 in our October 2003 issue. While I personally feel Ambisonics is the best music solution for multichannel sound, several engineers and labels have been trying to stay with the obsolete idea of basically one-speaker-per- channel and have been experimenting with keeping the basic L and R frontal speakers and L and R surround speakers where they normally are, but assigning the other two channels differently. Chesky, Telarc and DMP have used either the center channel feed or the LFE subwoofer feed, or both, to feed speakers located high on the sides, on the ceiling, or high up about halfway between the frontal speakers and directly to the sides of the listener (the latter is Chesky’s 6.0 approach). All of these call for using the full range of the LFE channel rather than just a limited low-frequency feed, and of course the center channel is not used at all.
The German record label Dabringhaus und Grimm (abbreviated D&G or DG and not to be confused with DGG – Deutsche Grammophon) has an approach that is somewhat akin to Chesky’s and they are doing most of their recording with it for release on their series of DVD-Audios. They call it “2+2+2” – the new speaker locations are directly above the L and R frontal speakers spaced at half the distance the L & R are apart from one another. (The surrounds stay where they are.) The L height speaker is fed the signal from the center channel and the R height speaker is fed the signal from the LFE channel. You have a vertical rectangle of speakers in front plus the surrounds in the sides/rear. Of course this entails some major switching around of connections as well as finding a way to mount the height speakers over the lower frontal speakers. D&G suggests mounting the high speakers facing outward or even on the side walls. In my case, for example, it was impossible to mount them in line vertically, and the height speakers must be about 1.5 feet behind the main speakers. Since the speaker delay function on my Sunfire preamp doesn’t operate in multichannel analog mode, I can’t use it to equalize the speaker distances. While it would be best to have identical mini-monitors all around, D&G co-founder, engineer, and producer Werner Dabringhaus advises that smaller speakers with similar timbre will work OK. I used stacked pairs of Paradigm Atoms (a la the old Advent ploy) which do sound remarkably similar to my main Celestion SL-600si mini-monitors. And I’m working out a couple of simple switches to change the center channel connection at one amp and to switch the LFE signal from my powered rear sub to another amp powering the R height speaker.
The 2+2+2 technique has been demonstrated by D&G in Europe and Japan and very well received, with publications calling it “a new dimension of music” and “absolute benchmark recordings.” Little has been written about it in North American publications, perhaps because of the extra effort required to set it up and audition it properly. Although D&G says it is really simple, it does take a bit of work and that is why I have procrastinated for many months reviewing these DVD-As myself.
Here is some of D&G’s thinking on this technique: 5.1 is a purpose-made system with only limited application to music reproduction, nor is its sound quality particularly “classical.” And sound reproduction, as with quad, remains two dimensional. Yet since time immemorial we humans have been quipped with a very sensitive aural sense of direction in the vertical place. We recognize all sounds approaching from outside our field of vision – not only from the side but also above us. When we attend a concert we hear the sound of the woodwind players on their raised platform coming in above that of the strings, and the choir is audible behind them, while the organ rises above all the rest…and the master builders of former times were as well aware as the architects of today’s famous concert halls how important reverberation from walls and ceilings is for good acoustics.
So what do they sound like?
MOZART: “Prague” Symphony KV 504; Recitative and Rondo KV505 Ch’lo mi scordi de te – Non temer, amato bene (Soprano, obbligato Piano & Orch.); Piano Concerto KV 503 in C Major – Bernarda Fin, mezzo/Chamber Orchestra of Lausanne/Christian zacharias, piano & conductor – D&G Gold 2+2+2 Recording, DVD-A MDG 940 0967-5: [Purchase at Elusive Disc]
I should point out right off the bat that there is something of an access problem with these discs. They all proclaim “no pictures / only music” and that they are completely compatible for stereo or standard 5.1 playback as well as 2+2+2. However, since there is no onscreen navigation I’m not sure I understand how one would access either of these more standard formats. If in 5.1 the center channel was getting the left height signal that wouldn’t be far off, but then the sub would only be receiving the rather subtle left height signal rather than the LFE frequencies.
Musically, these three works focus on Mozart’s life in late l786, when his fortunes had gone downhill a bit and he had to move to a cheaper apartment and work harder. The Prague Symphony was written for premiere in the city where he always found a good reception for his music. It gets a sprightly chamber-sort of treatment from the Lausanne instrumentalists. Zacharias conducts from the piano in the C Major Piano Concerto, which opens with a quarter-hour-long first movement generally living up to its Allegro maestoso marking. Superb performances of all three works here.
There is no doubt that the alternatively-situated front/height speakers provide a great deal more three-dimensionality to music reproduction than do the normal use of the center and LFE channels. There is a feeling of being in the concert hall space with the spatial information being evenly spread out and not just in the horizontal dimension. I look forward to hearing some organ concertos reproduced via 2+2+2 – also some works for chorus and orchestra. One of the major advantages of this approach is the widening of the sweet spot. You can move around freely and still have a realistic sound picture of the venue, even to some extend from outside of the main listening area – as with Ambisonics. The effect bore some similarities to Bob Carver’s Sonic Holography circuit, except that approach still has a narrow sweet spot both sideways and front-to-back, even in the latest digital iteration as per my Sunfire preamp. D&G is definitely on to something worthwhile here and I’m sorry I waited so long to get on with the auditioning to pass on the news to our readers!
– John Sunier
ROBERT SCHUMANN: Concerto for Piano and Orchestra; Concert-Allegro with Introduction; Introduction and Allegro appassionato – Christian Zacharias, piano and conductor/Chamber Orchestra of Lausanne – D&G Gold 2+2+2 DVD-A MDG 940 1033-5: [Purchase at Elusive Disc]
This gold disc (all the D&G discs seem to be gold pressings) has a 96K/24 bit designation on it which I didn’t see on the other discs. I had received an earlier version of this disc for evaluation. It was in the form of an attempt to create a hybrid CD/DVD to achieve the same compatibility that nearly all SACDs now have, to be playable on any standard CD player as well as any DVD player. The approach didn’t work because it failed to play on many different portables, computers, and car CD players.
However, the combo 2+2+2/5.1/stereo disc works fine. My one beef is beginning to sound like a broken record: the piano sounds 50 feet wide; having the vertical information doesn’t seem to remedy this frequent situation. D&G has built in yet another option here – if you have no DVD-A player but do have an SACD/DVD player, there are six-channel 48K uncompressed PCM tracks here which will give you almost as good fidelity as the 96K DVD-A (D&G does not use MLP data reduction). You could also do the same with just a DVD video player if it has the six-channel analog out jacks, but how many do?
Oh yes, the music. This seemed like the freshest and least hackneyed Schumann Piano Concerto version I had auditioned in a very long time. I don’t know if that was due to the chamber orchestra approach, Zacharias sparkling playing, or the rich and spatial recording, but this is quite a thrilling musical experience. The other two almost unknown Schumann piano-orchestra works are both lovely and deserve more hearings. This would be a definite choice for any lovers of piano concertos whether or not you set up the 2+2+2 playback orientation.
VIVALDI: Concertos and Chamber Music = Concerto in g RV 531 for 2 cellos; Concerto in G RV 436 for Recorder; Sonata in d “La Folia” RV 63 for 2 violins; Concerto in D RV 564 for 2 violins and 2 cellos; Concerto in a RV 108 for Recorder & 2 violins; Sonata in c RV 83 for violin, cello – Musica Alta Ripa – D&G Gold 2+2+2 DVD-A MDG 909 0927-5: [Purchase at Elusive Disc]
A fine program with plenty of variety, played with a fresh and invigorating brio and presented with great realism via the 2+2+2 technique. Musica Alta Ripa is an authentic instrument ensemble which has won many prizes for previous early music recordings, but none of those Baroque violins will get on one’s nerves as on many standard CDs because there’s no digititus in the strings here. The three major concertos featuring two violins include the string orchestra and are rarely heard among his works. The double cello concerto is the only such from the Red Priest, and it ventures into more unusual tonal territory than one is used to hearing from Vivaldi – almost as though he pickup some tricks from Gesualdo. Although all the performers are presumed seated at the same level, the addition of the vertical element to the soundspace opens up and enhances the sound picture considerably. Interesting: I just discovered that my Sunfire Theater Grand III was set on automatic and during long pauses between works it often switched suddenly from the 8-channel analog function to the 5.1 DVD video function. No way this could be missed, because all the realism and depth of the music went away and it became a flat and opaque sound picture.
ANTONIO CASIMIRE CARTELLIERI: Wind Concertos Vol. 2 = Concerto for 2 Clarinets and Orchestra; Allegro aperto for Clarinet and Orchestra; Concerto for Flute and Orchestra in G Major – Dieter Klocker, clarinet; Sandra Arnold, clarinet; Kornelia Brandkamp, flute/Czech Philharmonic Chamber orchestra/Pavel Prantl – D&G Gold 2+2+2 DVD-A MDG 901 0960-5: [Purchase at Elusive Disc]
Completely new to me, this composer was born in Danzig in l772 with an Italian father and German mother, and lived until 1807. He was a gifted composer with a highly individual style, though it may remind one of Haydn, Beethoven, and a number of other much more famous masters of this general period. He anticipated musical trends that were later established by composers such as Schubert and Mendellsohn. It appears Cartellieri was as nuts about the recently-invented clarinet as was Mozart, and he wrote a number of works for the instrument. The first one here is a nearly half-hour-long work of considerable beauty. The Flute Concerto is also a worthwhile work which may remind you a bit of Beethoven though the idea of a Beethoven flute concerto seems ludicrous somehow. The timbres of the two clarinets joining together is striking and it’s richness seems to blossom with the 2+2+2 speaker layout.
BRAHMS: String Quartet Op. 67; String Sextet Op. 18 – Leipzig String Quartet (added for Op. 18: Hartmut Rohde, viola & Michael Sanderling, cello) – D&G 2+2+2 DVD-A MDG 907 0969-5: [Purchase at Elusive Disc]
Brahms wrote two chamber works in B Flat major and described this key as “udders giving good milk.” Both come from the most productive creative period in his career. He struggled with the string quartet form for years; before he arrived at this quartet and two that came shortly before it – he had composed 20 of them and later destroyed all of them as unworthy. The quartet is animated via the juxtaposition of varying time signatures. The sextet opens with a 14-minute movement full of very Brahmsian melody.
I get a bit of edginess to the string tone on this recording I didn’t notice on the others, and there is a hole-in-the-middle effect which is not aided by the presence of the frontal height speakers. It is almost as if three of the players are on the left side and the other three over on the right. The reproduction is still rich and deep, but it seems that the addition of a centered channel could correct the problem in this case.
– John Sunier
[Next issue I’ll have more 2+2+2, including a complete Handel oratorio.]
******** Five New XRCDs from JVC *********
While the format war in hi-res recorded product proceeds unabated, and the general public has still not really embraced either of the new formats, there is an alternative for two-channel audiophiles who don’t want to commit to either new format by purchasing new players and perhaps all the associated multichannel gear along with them. It’s been around for several years and doesn’t require a special player, decoder or surround sound equipment. But you do need a fairly high end CD player to appreciate the improvements in these hi-res discs. Known as xrcds, they utilize careful control of all aspects of the mastering and manufacturing process to bring the highest fidelity to the standard 44.1 Red Book format that has so far been achieved, and with a resulting disc that is completely compatible with all CD players. Various further improvements have been made in the xrcd process, so that the latest releases are dubbed xrcd24, indicating 24bit processing used in the production of these extended resolution discs. Though pressed on standard aluminum, they are in general superior to most of the gold audiophile CDs (there are a number of duplications to compare the two approaches). The repertory is primarily chosen from some of the most highly regarded jazz and classical albums of the past. They are expensive (around $30 each) and seldom employ the full 80-minute length capability of CDs, but on the best CD players or transports/D-to-As the sonic results often equal or surpass that of many stereo SACD or DVD-A discs. In addition to JVC, First Impressions Music has also released several xrcds. The several Living Stereo classics already released by JVC were well received since the original vinyl is outrageously expensive and though Classic Records has re-pressed many of them (some even in 45 rpm multi-disc packages) there is now a major percentage of audio buffs who some time ago parted company permanently with their turntables and LPs. So now JVC has ventured into the Decca/London library of golden age classical recordings, and the first two of these five new offerings come from that source.
— John Sunier
BRITTEN: Young Person’s Guide To The Orchestra; Variations On A Theme Of Frank Bridge – London Sym. Orch. & English Chamber Orchestra/Benjamin Britten – Decca/JVC xrcd24 JVCXR-0226-2: [Purchase at Elusive Disc]
Generally historical recordings of famous composers conducting their own works are at least mono and often scratchy old 78s or from acetate radio transcriptions. When digital noise reduction software was first introduced a number of such historic recordings were issued on CD processed with the early NoNoise system. Unfortunately the mastering engineers applied the audio band aids with a heavy hand and much of the music was lost along with the noise and hiss. There are no concerns of that sort here. I was surprised to see such a historic classical recording turn up on xrcd, though the series has released a number of mono jazz sessions. I thought back to the execrable soundtrack on the original British 16mm film (once shown extensively to grade school classes) for which Britten wrote the work to illustrate the different instruments of the orchestra musically. Then I remembered the excellent fidelity of Britten’s stereo recording of the Bach Brandenburgs, and looked at the date for these inscriptions. The first is l963 and the second is 1966. The acoustically acclaimed Kingsway Hall in London was used. Any concerns about tape deterioration over the years should also be forgotten. These are impactful, very cleanly-reproduced recordings of extremely wide dynamic range and the sort of naturalness and “air” one associates with the best vinyl reproduction on a top-flight turntable. The Variations on the Bridge theme can also serve as a fine educational work, illustrated as it does in its 11 short movements the structure and style of the variations principle. These would have to be the definitive recordings of both works in definitive sonics.
STRAVINSKY: Le Sacre Du Printemps (The Rite of Spring) – Chicago Symphony Orchestra/Sir Georg Solti – Decca/JVC xrcd24 JVCXR-0225-2: [Purchase at Elusive Disc]
See what I mean about recording lengths? The Rite of Spring is only 34 minutes but that’s all there is on this disc. If JVC has actually discovered that fidelity is improved by spacing out the rows of pits from one another just as some audiophile LPs have done with the analog grooves, I’d really like to know about it. Anyway, May 1974 was the recording date for this session in the Medinah Temple in Chicago – a site of many well-made classical recordings. Surprisingly it was recorded not only to normal two-track tape (using the Decca “Tree” plus several other spot mics) but also at the same time to a separate eight-track recorder for possible quadraphonic release. That never occurred – as with the Philips masters that are now being released on 4.0 SACDs by Pentatone – but the album notes indicate that Decca may eventually issue the multichannel version of The Rite as well. Since they are part of Universal which is now straddling both hi-res formats in its releases, it well could be in both SACD and DVD-A forms. The Chicago band and Solti are perfect for this music and play it to a fare thee well. The percussion is both performed and reproduced with all its required violence. This is after all one of the most avantgarde/atonal works embraced by the general public. Don’t forget the huge riot it caused in Paris’ Champs Elysees Theater at its premiere! (George Antheil was the only one who wasn’t concerned, because he had a loaded pistol in his pocket!) Even those who don’t follow classical music have probably heard a bit of it; it was Marilyn Monroe’s favorite classical work. I heard/saw a live performance of it last year with a chamber orchestra of mostly keyboards and drums and a single dancer. I think I prefer the original, and this is one powerful recording of it, even if it costs nearly a dollar a minute. The Japanese love to reprint the original LP back-cover notes in these reissues, but since the resulting reduction is only 3 3/4 inches across you need a microscope to read it.
– John Sunier
CHOPIN: The Scherzos: No. 1 in B Minor, No. 2 in B-flat Minor, No. 3 in C-sharp Minor, No. 4 in E – Arthur Rubinstein, p. – RCA/JVC xrcd24 JM-XR24009: [Purchase at Elusive Disc]
This was an interesting A/B shootout. The Red Seal CD reissue of these recordings came out in l984, near the beginning of the CD Era. They contained in addition to the Scherzos all four of the Chopin Ballades, and there was still nine minutes to spare before hitting the 80-minute mark (but few CD ran to that length at that time). So let’s perk an ear to the original. (The actual original tapes come from l959). I remember how when the first CDs were demonstrated to our local audiophile society how we had our reservations about the tonal quality of orchestral and chamber music recordings but we agreed that piano sounded so much better than on vinyl because the pitch was rock-steady – not a hint of flutter or wow speed variations. Well the l984 effort doesn’t have any pitch variation, but boy does it sound tinny! Big climaxes in the music also sound very edgy. Switch to the xrcd: Still brilliant (he plays, after all, a Steinway and the practice is to mic very closely) but the tinny is gone. There is also more low bass end and the impression of a real piano in a space is strong whereas on the standard CD its only a very rough sonic suggestion. These are amazing virtuoso works that show all of Chopin’s skills in creating some of the most pianistic pieces every composed. They are somewhat flashier than the Ballades but make a fine pairing with them – unfortunate they can’t both be on the same hi-res disc. I guess I’ll have to get out the AIX DVD-A recording of the Ballades next time I want to hear them because I won’t be able to stand that tinny RCA CD again.
CHOPIN: Piano Sonata Nol. 2 in B-flat Minor “Funeral March;” Piano Sonata No. 3 in B Minor – Arthur Rubinstein, p. – RCA/JVC xrcd24 JM-XRC24008: [Purchase at Elusive Disc]
These recordings from 1961 have been a standard if not definite versions of both works for over 40 years now. The rich and golden tone that Rubinstein coaxes from the Steinway is finally revealed in the superb remastering carried out by JVC’s perfectionist process. It is free of the subtle speed variations of any of the vinyl pressings and free of the tinny piano sound of the standard RCA CD reissues made in the 80s (Perhaps the reissues of the last few years are better but I don’t have any at hand to compare.) I guess RCA was lucky the original tapes had not deteriorated over the four decades as has happened with many priceless recordings – oxide flaking off, tape curling, etc. Perhaps they used good old Scotch 111, which seems impervious to age damange. The point is I didn’t hear a single instance of dropouts or level changes even when auditioning via headhones; you can hear that on some of the historic jazz reissues. Perhaps the reason for this is that RCA often recorded their piano soloists at 30 ips instead of the normal professional speed of 15 ips – twice as much tape past the heads at any instant, better frequency response and a halving of any chance of dropouts from tape damage. No notes of any sort in English with this xrcd again; guess JVC figures the buyer will have an earlier version which does have the notes. Obviously, xrcds are bigger sellers in Japan than in the English-speaking world.
BRAHMS: Sonata No. 3 in F Minor; Intermezzo in E; Romance in F – Arthur Rubinstein – RCA/JVC xrcd24 JM-XR24010: [Purchase at Elusive Disc]
This time we get a painting of Brahms as a young man and two photos of Rubinstein, surrounded by Japanese text. No English except a piece on the complete xrcd24 process. 41 minutes of music this time – about what an LP held back in l959 when RCA taped this Rubinstein album. Rubinstein grabs your attention right at the start and keeps up interest throughout the work, though with surprisingly little of the sentiment he displays in some other recordings, such as the Brahms piano concertos. He even takes a couple of the movements faster than most other pianists. The Andante – lengthiest of the five movements at over ten minutes – therefore suffers a bit in losing some of its dreamy feeling. The sonics are again superbly rich and resonant, without the hardness or brittle quality of the ordinary CD transfers.
– John Sunier