Thursday, September 06, 2007

Tweaks

"Buried in the rubble of an audio disc format war, with no winner, lie the remains of two high-resolution audio formats, SACD and DVD-Audio," says the home electronics industry Web site, Audio Video Revolution.

That's maybe an exaggeration. SACDs and DVD-As continue to be issued by a few labels, mostly oriented to classical music, in these high-resolution, surround-sound (in some cases) formats. Technically, everyone agrees, they beat the sound of conventional CDs all hollow. Commercially, though, they are hanging on by a rope that is down to its last threads. At best, even if the formats survive (and we really only need one, not two — that's part of the problem), they will be a tiny niche market.

The competing formats, invariably compared to the Beta versus VHS debacle of two decades ago, are widely blamed for the lack of public acceptance. Check. Others say that few home music listeners are willing to go to the bother and expense of buying five speakers, or five speakers and a subwoofer, plus a multi-channel receiver, plus an SACD or DVD-A player, and hooking them up. That makes no sense to me. People by the millions have installed home theaters, which generally involve the same number of speakers and multi-channel electronics for DVDs. DVD players will even play DVD audio discs, not just videos. (SACD requires a player designed for the format, but most SACD players also play DVDs.)

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Much more than those factors, the main reason for the collective yawn over high-res audio is the worst invention of the new century, the Satan-inspired MP3/iPod system. It has nearly destroyed the appetite for quality. Ten out of 10 audiophiles agree that owning an iPod should be a crime. The iPod is a step backward in music reproduction, and its devotees are Cro-Magnons who should devolve as fast as possible into amoebas. MP3, in order to be transmitted and downloaded over the internet, and to enable its pitiable users to store 14 billion songs (all of which are dance traxx that sound alike) onto their primitive devices, entails severely compressing the digital encoding. The result, when played, is to music what a PowerPoint presentation is to an essay.

But although full of exit wounds, the audience for high quality music reproduction is not going to disappear, which is why I think at least one of the high-res formats will stick around. There will be enough of an audience that cares to keep a few companies in business producing the software and hardware. Even the Lost Generation of iPod listeners will get older and, in select cases, wiser. A teenager who's downloading some poison-dripping MP3 file to his iPod at this moment will, 20 or 30 years hence, be listening to Miles Davis or the late (God bless him) Pavarotti uncompressed, either on a high-res CD or downloaded via a lossless compression format. (I understand that lossless compression already exists, though as yet no commercial application has been launched.)

But there is further good news.

Even if you lack the means, space, or motivation (but why should you lack the motivation?) for adding SACD or DVD-A capability to your existing sound system, there are several relatively simple and inexpensive ways to juice up the quality of the sound reproduction of your conventional CD collection, and I'm here to testify.

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"Tweak" is audiophile jargon for any gadget or treatment that will upgrade the realism of what comes out of your speakers. There are literally hundreds of different tweaks, some commercial products, others homemade. Professional audio engineers tend to fall into nearly unstoppable fits of laughter over them, and it's quite possible that some of their inventors need to get out in the sunshine more often. But I'm going to let you in on several tweaks that have worked for me, and which I've appreciated right down to the ground, because although I have an SACD player and a couple of dozen SACDs, the vast majority of my music collection is on standard ("Red Book" in audiophilespeak) compact discs.

All of the following improve the sound of ordinary CDs played on my system. I can't guarantee what they will do on your system, but if your hardware is reasonably good you will probably notice the difference.

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Mikr0-Smooth, developed by a small recording company called Mapleshade, is a kind of polish that you rub on the playing surface of a CD, then wash off. The polishing makes the plastic surface smoother, so the laser beam and microchips in your player have less work compensating for irregularities. I've used Mikro-Smooth on hundreds of discs and almost never failed to notice more dimensionality and presence in the sound of voices or instruments. (I do not endorse other Mapleshade products and am quite uneasy about the over-the-top way they hype their recordings, cables and collateral equipment, but fair is fair: their Mikr0-Smooth product is an incredible bargain.)

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The Auric Illuminator is, similarly, gunk that you apply to the business side of a disc, then wipe it so the surface is clear but it remains as an invisible residue. (There is also a marker pen that you use to black out the edges and transparent center of a CD; I usually don't bother because it's extra work, but it may add to the effect.) The Auric Illuminator, too, reveals details and atmosphere that you never heard before.

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The Marigo CD mat comes in two versions, which ring the register at 100 bucks and 200 bucks, respectively. I bought the cheaper one and was impressed enough to pop for the high-end model. I wouldn't say the more expensive mat gives you sound twice as good (whatever that might mean) as the less expensive one, but it adds yet more subtle joy. The CD mat is the easiest of all to use: just place it atop the CD in your player. That's all there is to it. I don't fully understand how it works — at a guess, mostly it stabilizes the disc as it spins, so the player reads it more accurately and has less error correction to perform — but work it does. It takes you more "inside" the notes; with a good recording, the results can be spectacular.

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Not exactly a tweak, but another way of putting new life into your old CDs, is upsampling. When the CD was developed in the late '70s, the "word length" was standardized at 16 bits, and the sampling rate at 44.1 KHz. Once CDs appeared on the market, they were a popular success but many audiophiles scorned them, and there was widespread criticism among the cognoscenti that the sampling rate had been set too low. ("Forty-four thousand times a second is not enough," as the music critic Alan Rich said.)

Upsampling circuitry, in an outboard unit or built into a CD player, raises the score to 24 bits and as much as 192 KHz. I frankly do not know how a recording made at the original specs can be improved by sampling it at the higher rates used for DVD soundtracks and high-res audio, but once again, a touch of magic is there. Upsampling looked to be the Next Big Thing a decade ago, then virtually disappeared, owing to the expense of the units and mass-market indifference. It seems to be making a comeback, though. A couple of years ago Philips came out with a DVD/SACD player that incorporated upsampling, at a very reasonable price point, and I snapped one up. The Audio Advisor catalog lists several new players with upsampling technology, and I hope enough people discover its virtues to keep it alive for at least a minority market.

You can get far better music reproduction without embezzling from your company to pay for it. And if you're still at the MP3 stage, I'll pray for your soul.
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5 comments:

DarkoV said...

Mr. Darby,
I really, truly appreciate this post. Being classified in the early stages of codgerry, I've been shunted over in that pile of crapola associated with folks who walked 5 miles to school in deep snow (and further when returning home).
This all started when I got an iPod Nano for free and proceeded to copy some CD's to the Nano. Ditching the ear-buds, I plugged in some decent Sennheisers. What was the big honking toot about the iPod? The sound quality sucked. I then plugged the Nano into my somewhat decent stereo. The sound was awful.
When I dared make negative comments about the iPod sound quality to some younger "associates" at work, I overheard "Cro-Magnon" being bandied about.

Thanks for making me feel that I belong back with Modern Man.
I've put the Nano in a drawer, waiting for eBay's bids to start rising.

DarkoV said...

..and thanks for all the tweaks advice. I'll be sure to check out at least some of the low end suggestions.
Does the Mikro-Smooth have to be applied more than once, due to the time factor or the qty of times the cd is played?

dearieme said...

Yup. I got my daughter to put some of my CD music onto her i-pod and I gave it a listen. The colour had all gone out of it: dreadful rubbish. And the music was simple, folksy stuff (George Lewis, Jazz at Vespers); Lord knows what it would have done to my Haydn string quartets.

David said...

Sounds like a real case of opportunity-blowing by the record labels...instead of just complaining about commoditization of their product via downloads, they could provide an upgraded-quality product at a premium price, and market the heck out of it.

Apple or Microsoft could also do this, as a centerpiece of their interest in "owning the living room"...downloading hi-def audio might be a little slow, but I bet it's feasible with a good connection.

The situation seems a little bit analogous to what Kodak faced with digital photography. Until fairly recently, film was considerably higher resolution than reasonably-priced digital cameras...seems to me that Kodak should have strongly marketed the quality advantages of film, while simultaneously working on their digital programs. Maybe they *did* have some aggressive advertising on the goodness of film, but I don't remember seeing any.

Rick Darby said...

Darkov,

I suspect that most people who listen on iPods listen to purely electronic music, which can sound like anything. So realistic sound quality isn't important to them.

What saddens me is that there are young listeners whose tastes might be broadened to include music produced on acoustic instruments if they heard what it actually sounds like. They don't get to when a computer algorithm determines what bits can be omitted for the sake of compression, and the music is delivered through "ear buds."

A disc only has to be treated once with Mikro-Smooth, which polishes away small irregularities in the disc's playing surface, so the effect is permanent.

dearieme,

Yes, exactly. That's a good description. MP3 recordings don't have to be listened to on an iPod, of course; they can be played through a normal sound system and speakers, which is an improvement, but there's still something missing. The notes are there but the music is just out of reach.

David,

Yes, there is a market for high-resolution audio, and people who want it are not the sort to freak out if a download takes longer than 20 seconds. There might be bandwidth problems, but it doesn't strike me as an insurmountable technical hurdle. Sooner or later a lossless compression format should make downloading high-res practicable. And the overhead cost for the supplier would probably be very low, with no packaging and physical distribution involved. Record companies holding the copyright might be willing to offer a limited license to a high-res supplier for a modest fee — if they're not going to serve the audiophile market, what do they have to lose?

In the meantime, there are many excellent SACDs, which can be played in high-res even if you only have a stereo speaker configuration! (Assuming you have an SACD player, of course.)