Sara K., Made In The Shade, Audio-only Blu-ray + Multichannel SACD (2009)

by | Jul 15, 2009 | SACD & Other Hi-Res Reviews | 0 comments

Sara K., Made In The Shade, Audio-only Blu-ray + Multichannel SACD (2009)

Performers: Sara K: vocals & guitar; Ian Melrose: guitars; Johanna Single: concert harp; Lutz Moller: piano; Hans-Jorg Maucksch: fretless bass; Beo Brockhausen: saxophones, clarinets, percussion.
Studio: Stockfisch Records SFR 357.7052.2 (Blu-ray), SFR 357.4052.2 (SACD)
Producer: Gunther Pauler
Audio: Blu-ray: DTS HD Master Audio 5.1, PCM 5.1, PCM Stereo
      SACD: DSD 5.1 Surround, DSD Stereo, CD Stereo (44.1/16)
Extras: Lyrics booklet
Length: 48 minutes each
Rating: ****

Santa Fe, New Mexico-based artist Sara K has mostly been known as a darling of the Audiophile circles, especially since her six-album stint with Chesky Records. During a European tour with several stops in Germany, Chesky Records had contracted Gunther Pauler to handle the sound engineering for the shows. He was so impressed with Sara K’s musical style, he offered her a contract with his own Stockfisch Records. With her Chesky contract nearing an end, she accepted, and soon began a fruitful partnership that has garnered even more critical praise for her truly superb-sounding Stockfisch offerings. Gunther Pauler is without a doubt a true genius, and his Stockfisch discs uniformly offer some of the most realistic and dynamic sound available.

I’ve been messing around with audio for more than thirty years now, and I really thought I’d pretty much seen and heard it all, seeing just about every album being released in just about every possible newfangled format. When SACD and DVD-Audio arrived, I really thought we’d reached the pinnacle – how much better sounding could a digital disc get? And although I don’t think we ever really saw the DVD medium as a music carrier, I think you could pretty successfully argue that the SACD was, in a convoluted kind of way, just a glorified version of the DVD disc – with no video, of course. So when Blu-ray rumblings first started appearing on the internet in blogs and various audio forums, I took it with a grain of salt, and saw the Blu-ray as a vehicle most likely for movies only – why would anyone even consider a music-only Blu-ray? And with essentially the abandonment of SACD by the major labels, I can’t begin to tell you how shocked I was to see music-only Blu-rays appearing a few months ago. So when I cued up both the Blu-ray and SACD versions of Sara K’s Made In The Shade, things got really confusing – and pretty darnn cool at the same time!

Now I have to preface my remarks with a couple of truths: there was an obvious level difference between my Sony SACD player and my second-generation Samsung Blu-ray player, and I have no way of level-matching the two. So any differences I heard could pretty easily be attributed to the louder output of the Sony SACD machine. And my Samsung, while a fine Blu-ray player in its own right, suffers from the usual ailments and inabilities of players in general from two years ago, so newer machines hopefully won’t exhibit the stubbornness and occasional refusal to readily perform as did the Samsung. [I have the new Oppo and can’t agree with that, but I think it’s the programming on the discs rather than the players now…Ed.]

That said, I still found the Pure Audio Blu-ray disc a little clunky in operation, especially when trying to use the player without a video display. The Samsung’s display is pretty spartan, so after fumbling around for a few minutes, I finally broke down and read the information on the Blu-ray box (pretty novel idea) and discovered that by pressing the color-coded buttons, I could easily jump between the available audio options. And while A/B’ing between SACD and Blu-ray, if I paused the Blu-ray player for too long it would lock up, requiring me to restart the player to get any action. I eventually just started toggling the input switch on my preamp between the multichannel sources and didn’t bother pausing anything from that point. Regardless, the sound quality from the Blu-ray disc was superb, whether from the DTS Master Audio 5.1 track or from the uncompressed PCM 5.1 track. And two channel purists should be delighted with the uncompressed PCM stereo track as well. Ultimately, I felt the SACD sounded perhaps a smidge better, with a more seamless surround presentation, and – I truly felt – a significantly greater degree of midrange warmth compared to the Blu-ray tracks. However, this could easily just be my mind playing tricks on me. After turning on the video display, I was happy to see that the Blu-ray disc loaded fairly quickly and was easier to navigate versus the Pure Audio (no video) option, but was somewhat underwhelmed by the lack of any video extras, like perhaps access to the song lyrics or maybe a photo gallery – sorry, no cigar!

The music was superb, and Gunther Pauler has definitely gotten a good handle on the whole multichannel aspect of recording. I wasn’t incredibly impressed with his first venture into surround sound – it just seemed that too much was going on in the surround channels, but both of these hi-res discs provide a convincing degree of realism, very much on par with the excellent stereo-only SACDs that Stockfisch initially released. The songs are poignant and reflective, and the sparse accompaniment given many of the tunes here gave me a real clue that the album was headed down a less fiery path than usual for Sara K. The title track, “Made In The Shade,” was written for her stablemate and musical partner at Stockfisch Records, Chris Jones, who was diagnosed in August 2005 with Hodgkin’s lymphoma and died a mere month later. Check out the Stockfisch disc Sara K and Chris Jones, Live In Concert for a thrilling reminder of the chemistry between the two artists. Sara K’s website seems to be no longer functional, but a trip to her page on the Stockfisch website confirmed a posting I’d seen on another blog – she’s announced her retirement from touring and recording, and mentions this disc as her last – she’s just had enough of it all.

Regardless of whether you choose the SACD or Blu-ray option, trust me, you won’t be disappointed. I was both thrilled and surprised by how good the music sounded via my Blu-ray player, and it gives me great hope that some form of mainstream hi-res music will continue into the future. Very highly recommended!

What’s A Little More Rain; After There’s A Blizzard; Aura Of The Blade; Gypsy Eyes; Your Name; Watching You Fall Into Sleep; Manchild; Made In The Shade; Sizzlin’; Don’t I Know You From Somewhere?; When I Didn’t Care; There It Is.

— Tom Gibbs


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