DELIBES: Sylvia & Coppélia Suites – San Francisco Ballet Orchestra/ Martin West – Reference Recordings HRx 176.4K/24-bit WAV stereo audio files, HR-125. Sylvia: 40:25; Coppélia: 32:41 [Distr. by Allegro] *****:
This is the same material as we reviewed on a Reference Recordings CD earlier, but at the same bit-for-bit resolution as Keith Johnson’s original master: 176.4K/24-bit. (The CD has HDCD encoding, which can enhance fidelity somewhat if you have the proper decoding.) Reference has released 20 of their best albums in what they call the HRx form. They are WAV files intended to play on computer-based music servers or with a basic computer plus special sound card and DAC. Most computers can play up to 96K/24-bit audio files, but you usually need a special sound card to handle 176.4 and 192K. I don’t have that setup so didn’t request any of the HRx releases for review before.
Then I learned that several of the universal disc players, included my Oppo BDP-95, will directly play the computer audio WAV files without any additional gear. Some of the other Oppo models also play the files, as do some Cambridge Audio decks and the PS Audio Perfect Wave. The Reference web site has a list of compatible equipment here.
Since these super-hi-res files require large amounts of disc memory to store, it makes sense to have them on CD-R Data discs instead of your hard drives. (Notice that the 176.4K hi-res files required two CD-R Data discs to hold them even though the longest is only 40 minutes.) You could also convert the 176.4 files to 88.2K; that works better than converting to 96K, which is best for the 192K audio files. (I can’t tell any difference and am perfectly happy with 96K/24-bit, but then my hi-freq. hearing is not what it once was.) Chesky Records recently did some recording and listening tests between 96K and 176.4K and decided to do all their mastering from now on at 176.4K.
I can’t add too much to our review of the CD version. The two previous standards for this music are probably the Decca/London recordings conducted by Richard Bonynge—one 4-CD boxed set including a third Delibes ballet, La Source. The standard in my collection has been the Mercury Living Presence 3-CD boxed set with Anatole Fistoulari conducting the London Symphony Orchestra in the first, and Antal Dorati conducting the Minneapolis Symphony Orchestra in the second ballet. First, that runs over 172 minutes, so you can see that these two suites pick and choose from the complete ballet scores. Second, as to the A/B comparisons between the Mercury and the Reference: The 3-CD Mercury set was not one of the 15 or so briefly remastered as 3-channel SACDs, so it is standard CDs of materials recorded in the early days of stereo, 1957-58.
I found the Mercury set at a higher level, more closeup and rather blatant in their sonics. It is very clean and clear, but rather in your face. In contrast, the HRx recordings were more distant, much more refined-sounding, and with more ambience of the concert hall present. The wider frequency response was evident in the deepest bass and the overtones of the higher-pitched instruments such as the flutes and piccolo. When I switched to ProLogic IIz height setting, there was much more on the surround channels than from the Mercury CDs. The recording session was held at Skywalker Sound in Marin, renowned for its very low noise floor. True, it’s not the complete ballets, but they did seem to go on a bit too long, and I think the portions selected for the two suites are first rate. An illustrated booklet is provided with the two Data Discs. If you have an appropriate universal player or want to set up a hi-res system for computer music playback, the HRx approach certainly provides a hearable enhancement of the signal.
This is a special upscale audiophile vinyl that is worth it!