PentaTone – A Success Story in a Period of Depression

by | Oct 1, 2005 | Special Features | 0 comments

A bit of history

PentaTone was founded just over three years ago. During our brief
existence we’ve accomplished a lot: We’ve already won a Grammy, an
Echo, and two Edison Awards. Additionally, “The Gramophone” has chosen
two of our SA-CD’s for “Editor’s Choice”. Other awards and
acknowledgements include a Diapason d’Or, two CHOCs by “Le Monde de la
Musique”, and two Supersonics from “Pizzicato”. These, together with
numerous excellent reviews in other magazines throughout the world,
demonstrate the superior artistic and audio quality of PentaTone’s

Perhaps most importantly, we’ve managed  to build relationships
with young conductors such as Kreizberg and Jurowski, institutions such
as the Bolshoi (recording of Ruslan and Lyudmilla) and the Russian
National Orchestra (7 SA-CDs so far), and instrumentalists such as
Julia Fischer. We’ve also signed  a young baroque ensemble (The
New Dutch Academy) and a piano trio (The Storioni Trio). Today
PentaTone’s catalogue comprises more than 75 items. For more detailed
info please refer to

Unlike any other label, PentaTone was founded specifically to take
advantage of the emerging market for high-resolution surround
recordings. PentaTone’s founders and investors believe that surround
recordings will gradually replace stereo recordings, as stereo replaced
mono during the late 50’s and 60’s. We believe that surround adds a new
dimension to sound reproduction, and that consumers will recognise the
benefits of this new technology, opening up new markets for the music

PentaTone’s belief in high-resolution surround arose during listening
sessions comparing conventional CD recordings to high-resolution
surround recordings. Many musicians, engineers, and audiophiles
participated in these listening sessions. The reactions – especially
from musicians – were overwhelmingly positive. High resolution surround
recordings, done well, bring listeners closer to the experience of
listening to live music than has ever been possible before. Instead of
listening to the music through the “window” of stereo, the listener is
placed in the same acoustic space with the performers. An altogether
more realistic experience, with far greater impact and emotional
involvement than listening to stereo recordings.

The launch of SA-CD provided a perfect opportunity to finally bring
high resolution surround into the homes of listeners world-wide, with
the added benefit of backwards compatibility with CD.  PentaTone’s
founders and investors are convinced that high resolution surround
recordings, delivered on Hybrid SA-CD, will open up a new listening
experience, and create a new market for classical music recordings.

Polyhymnia International, formerly the Philips Classics recording
centre, worked closely together with Philips Electronics and Sony
during the early days of SA-CD. Starting in 1996, long before SA-CD was
launched, Polyhymnia was involved in numerous test recordings using
experimental DSD recorders. Polyhymnia’s engineers were also involved
in many of the early SA-CD demonstrations (at AES conventions, MIDEM,
CES, IFA), often using Polyhymnia’s own recordings.

Surround sound was not new to Polyhymnia. In the seventies, Philips
Classics was involved in experiments using the quadraphonic system.
Many recordings were made using this four-track recording technique,
but were never released on quadraphonic LPs, due to the fact that
Philips Classics was not satisfied with the playback equipment then
available. The quad system flopped, not because of the quality of the
recordings but because of flaws in the playback equipment. The
recordings were released on stereo LPs and many of them were also later
released on CD.

In  2001 Dirk van Dijk, one of the founders of PentaTone became
convinced that the DSD/SA-CD technology had the potential to become a
new commercially viable audio format, and  discussed a business
plan with two former Philips Classics colleagues and Polyhymnia, to set
up a new label for this purpose. The mission of the new label would be
to generate work for the studio and build a new catalogue of recordings
in surround sound of the highest possible quality, performed by a new
generation of artists. The business model was based on projections of
Philips and Sony with respect to player sales. The three former Philips
Classics employees decided to bite the bullet and established
PentaTone. They combined more than 80 years of experience in the
classical recording business, with a broad area of expertise. Job
Maarse had worked as producer and A&R manager with renowned artists
and orchestras all over the world. Dirk van Dijk had worked in various
capacities for Philips Classics; after a start as recording engineer he
had been responsible for product management, managing the recording
centre as well as logistical matters. Giel Bessels had been responsible
for legal and business affairs at Philips Classics.

One of the biggest difficulties in the early days was finding
investors. The timing to start a new label was not good; the classical
music market was saturated, and the news was full of the recording
industry crises, including massive cutbacks at the major labels.
Additionally, the founding of the company coincided with the collapse
of the stock exchange in 2002. Despite this, investors were finally
convinced by the founders’ firm belief in the future of surround,
listening demonstrations, and the success of a few rather unusual

The first of these was a recording of the music played at the wedding
ceremony of the crown prince of The Netherlands Willem-Alexander,
released on the day of the wedding, which sold over 75.000 copies,
topping the pop charts in Holland for several weeks. Furthermore
PentaTone made a new recording of Prokovief’s “Peter and the Wolf”,
coupled with a new composition “Wolf Tracks,” for which it succeeded in
attracting a unique team of narrators: Bill Clinton, Mikhail Gorbachev
and Sophia Loren.

How and why Quad came on board

The introduction of the SA-CD format in the market was not an overnight
success. On the contrary!  Apart from the fact that the existence
of a competitive format (DVD-A) was not helpful, Sony and Philips
encountered difficulties in communicating the advantages of the new
format to the outside world. PentaTone has from the very beginning
chosen for DSD/surround sound for the recording element and hybrid
SA-CD for the playback element. However, the format was not helped by
the sometimes inferior early releases (often less than perfect
transfers from old recordings, including older PCM recordings, often
issued on single layer SACD only, and then also without any
multichannel content).
Another complication was the fact that the biggest improvement (the
step from stereo to surround) can not be communicated through print or
TV-advertisement. Consumers can only be convinced by actually hearing
good surround recordings reproduced well, an experience that is still
not widely available. Sony and Philips, with their struggling consumer
electronics divisions and a limited promotional budget, were unable to
reach enough retailers or consumers to generate the hoped for consumer
interest and sales.

The slow growth of the format forced PentaTone to look for new ways to
increase its sales. The new recordings did not generate sufficient
turnover to continue to invest in new recordings at a rate of 20 per
year as was originally planned. Dirk van Dijk remembered the
quadraphonic catalogue of Philips Classics and also knew that the tapes
of these recordings were still in pristine condition. They were ideal
for release on SA-CD and fit in wonderfully with the PentaTone
philosophy of being a truly surround sound label. Decca (now in control
of the Philips catalogue) proved willing to license the quad recordings
to Pentatone and enabled PentaTone to create its own “back-catalogue”.
After extensive listening tests, PentaTone decided not to transfer
these recordings from 4 channel to 5.1, but to keep them in 4 channel
as was originally intended by the artists and the producers.

The re-mastering of the old quadraphonic analogue tapes is not a simple
mechanical process. First of all, when possible the original Philips
producers/engineers are consulted. Many of them are still alive and
active, and excited to hear these recordings for the first time as
they were originally intended. Polyhymnia has also invested a lot of
time and effort in specially designing and building new playback
amplifiers for the Studer A-80 4-track tape recorder. One of the most
important design aspects is a completely transformer-less and
capacitor-free signal path, with extremely low noise and distortion.
Furthermore, this design offers a fully symmetrical audio path with
floating balance in- and output from the Studer A-80 reproduction head
to the DSD A/D converter. Since many of the tapes were encoded with
Dolby-A noise reduction, Polyhymnia also extensively modified and
refurbished an 8-channel Dolby-A decoder. All of this equipment is
installed in a specially designed studio with ideal acoustics,
isolation from external noise and vibration, extremely clean mains
power (balanced, using two 5 kilowatt isolation transformers, special
filtering, and a dedicated earth pin), and even high frequency
shielding in the floor to reduce radio frequency interference.

Many of the Philips recordings re-issued by PentaTone feature artists
who have since had formidable careers. Examples include Ozawa, Davis,
Marriner, Arrau, Szeryng, Grumiaux, Brendel, and Ameling. Many of these
artists are extremely pleased to hear the re-issues of their old
Philips recordings on PentaTone. For example, Kurt Masur was very
enthusiastic about the revolutionary surround (quadraphonic)
technology when he recorded his first Beethoven cycle, and he was
very moved when he recently heard a play-back in surround for the first
time after more than 35 years.

The RQR-series (Re-mastered Quadro Recordings) comprises recordings
that were from the outset meant to be true surround sound
recordings. This was a revolutionary approach in the seventies. It was
the intention of the producers, engineers and artists to make
a recording which would recreate at home the performance as it sounded
in the original recording venue. For this purpose a
4-microphone/channel set-up was used to record the direct sound as well
as the information reflected via walls, ceiling, floor etc.

Most of the other historical recordings which are currently being
re-released on SA-CD by other labels (such as Living Stereo and Mercury
Living Presence) are not true surround sound recordings. Most are
either two-channel stereo, or 3 channels, all in front. These
recordings are generally considered to be some of the best recordings
made at the time, but they are not surround sound recordings and do
not provide the added realism provide by the rear channels.

The first few years

PentaTone’s new recordings have always been recorded in DSD and in
surround, and all of PentaTone’s releases (both new and RQR) have
appeared exclusively on hybrid SA-CDs. Although it has taken a few
years, many labels now consider hybrid SA-CD as their standard format
for new recordings. The big advantage of hybrid SA-CD’s is that the
retailers can stock the SA-CDs in the alphabetical bins instead of in a
separate SA-CD section. This, together with more and more single
inventory releases (no separate CD version), and SA-CD prices moving
closer to that of CDs, has created a major improvement in the
availability of SA-CD, though there are still significant regional

The confusion in the market place about the true nature of SA-CD, the
existence of a competitive surround format, and the  marketing
problems encountered by Sony and Philips Electronics has delayed its
acceptance and negatively influenced the market impact. Nevertheless
the number of players and available titles continues to grow steadily.
For the music industry as a whole SA-CD may not yet be seen as the
format for the future, but for the independent classical labels it
looks like the SA-CD is getting closer and closer to becoming the
prevailing format. Some research by PentaTone about the vision of the
classical divisions at the major labels has taught us that the pop
divisions dominate the major music labels. Furthermore, for the pop
divisions digital distribution is the key issue. In addition, a
long-term strategy with respect to a future quality format with
excellent copy protection is missing at the majors. Obviously the
quality of a recording for pop music plays a less prominent role than
in the classical domain.

And how do we move on?

At PentaTone we see an interesting development. Amongst consumers the
SA-CD format may not yet be generally understood and accepted, but in
the artist community the added value of SA-CD is clearly understood. In
particular, more and more artists are interested in making and
releasing SA-CD recordings on the PentaTone label (often supporting the
releases with their own money or sponsors). It has not gone unnoticed
in the artist community that PentaTone has succeeded in building a
roster of interesting artists, that PentaTone recordings are on sale
all over the world through a network of good distributors, and get good
reviews. The fact that Naxos now distributes PentaTone in North America
speaks for itself.

Artists hear the difference and support PentaTone’s belief that
surround sound and SA-CD are the future. In some countries radio
stations start experimenting with surround broadcast. Many TV stations
already do. As far as PentaTone is concerned the trend is irreversible.
The only remaining question is how long it will take until the general
public comes on board. This could happen very quickly, as we saw with
the move from video to DVD. In less than a year, DVD moved from a 25%
market share to 75%. More recently, we saw consumers buying digital
cameras en masse, even though nothing was wrong with the cameras they
already owned. Consumers always choose for the best if the price is
right. If all stakeholders in the classical music business would join
forces and enthusiastically support a single format, the process would
move forward, revitalising the business. There is huge new market
potential, as we know from the days that CD replaced LP. PentaTone has
the ambition to become a major player in the surround market, but for
now we can only welcome new competitors to come on board and help us
unveil and market this wonderful new technology.

— Giel Bessels

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