Listening #14

Five years: My brain hurts a lot.—David Bowie

Cherry Valley has turned out to be the unofficial turkey-buzzard capital of upstate New York, and they especially like the hill I live on. They're circling overhead as I write this, probably because they detect the swollen carcass of my first CD player, a Magnavox, stinking up a corner of my toolshed and waiting for Saturday morning, when I intend to take it to the village dump. No sense pretending I'm ever going to use it again.

Its sliding tray full of memories includes lots of uninvolving Beethoven, uninvolving Wagner, uninvolving Ives, and, of course, the glassy, gritty opening chord of the Beatles' "A Hard Day's Night"—my first-ever CD experience at home. The last was so bad I had to literally leave the room: There was no remote handset, and instinct told me to back away from the volume knob rather than approach it, like a dog with a face full of porcupine quills. Talk about "run right out."

I've bought a few different CD players since then: a Marantz, a Naim, and the SACD/CD player I currently own and use, a Sony SCD-777ES. The Marantz didn't play music any better than the Magnavox, but it sounded warmer and smoother: a less aggressive sort of boredom. The Naim sounded smooth and played music—the first time I heard digital audio take a step in that direction—although it lacked some of the color and texture I enjoy hearing from my LPs. The Sony is slightly less effective than the Naim at playing music from standard CDs, but its SACD performance more than makes up for it: I think the best SACDs are as good as LPs in terms of getting the notes, the beats, and the overall flow of the music right. And that's an enormous step forward.

In one part of the audio world, then, there is progress—which is interesting, because other parts are living in the past. Not that there's anything wrong with that.

A very special, old pail
Like other hobbies, home audio has its classics—things such as the Marantz Model 7 preamp, McIntosh MR77 stereo tuner, Quad ESL loudspeaker, and Advent Receiver all fit there, most people would agree. Lesser-known things—the Naim NAP250 amp, Stax F81 speakers, Decca ribbon tweeter, and certain older Garrard turntables—also have their devotees. And now, in this age when rebuilding them has risen to the very heights of craft and commerce, we can allow ourselves to think that some phono cartridges are classics: Koetsus, Kisekis, Fidelity Researches, and so forth.

So there are lots of early amps, early speakers, and early record players that are considered classics. Are there any early CD players that are classics? No, because they all sound like shit.

That's an important distinction, friends: For the most part, audio's acknowledged classics have achieved that status because they work well and remain competitive—more than competitive, some would say—when stacked against the stuff that's being made today: buckets with knobs, in a great many cases.

Contrast that with, say, the world of motoring. Most drivers don't use even the most abundant and readily repairable classic cars—MGs, Triumph Spitfires, older Corvettes—for daily transportation, because the automotive arts have made such progress over the past quarter-century. The cheapest Honda will outperform any of the above on a skid pad—I'm talking numbers, of course, not mojo, so spare me your letters of indignation. And when it comes to safety, nothing beats an agile, maneuverable modern car with ABS and traction control. Airbags may help, too.

But the audiophile—aw, you see where I'm going with this already, you rascal!—the audiophile who owns that classic Marantz preamp probably does use it daily. Why? Because it still stands among the best. It's still damn good. If that preamp has been surpassed in the years since its introduction, it hasn't been by much. In fact, when you get right down to it, the whole home audio industry hasn't progressed that far: certainly not as far as automobiles or wireless telephones or contact lenses. ("Does surround sound count?" asks Mudhead. "Only to 10," replies Porgy.)

To the enthusiast who has always cared less about spatial effects and timbral colorations than the distortions to which the musical message itself is subjected by audio hardware, PCM—for Pulse Code Modulation, the technological basis for the original compact disc system—was a cruel misstep. Analog tape and LP records might have been fragile and noisy, but they were capable of presenting recorded music as the temporal art form it is: an event comprising a string of distinct pitches, re-created for a listener with nuance, momentum, and flow. PCM failed to do that, and failed miserably, setting some of us off on a 20-year grumble. At least analog kept us warm, to misquote T.S. Eliot.

Then, five years ago this spring, hope pushed through the dead earth when Sony and Philips jointly announced a new digital music technology called DSD—for Direct Stream Digital, the technological basis for the Super Audio CD—and demonstrated it to all of us in the Northeast geek press at a small auditorium in New York City. Never mind the sound: I was sitting too far away to hear what DSD did for imaging or spectral balance or any of that. What I did hear, from 20 rows back and way off-center, was that Sony and Philips had figured out how to capture the flow of real music in digital playback. Mine was the typical, if giddy, reductionist reaction: If digital can do it once, it can do it any number of times. Nurse, this patient is cured.

But it wasn't that simple. A special player was required—which I bought, of course. But it wasn't that simple. Special discs were required—which I bought, of course. But it wasn't that simple. Only a relatively few titles were available, even fewer of which I wanted—and, of course, I checked Sony's SACD software website almost daily, always hoping for word of good new releases.

I went from having to scrape to find money for all the things I wanted, to scraping to find things I wanted to buy with all the money I had. I convinced myself that I really liked George Szell's Wagner. I convinced myself that I needed another Blonde on Blonde.

Things are different today. Where there were once only two SACD players on the market—both Sonys, and both expensive—the number is now 83 and growing, from 26 different manufacturers, and with prices that start at just $250 (for Sony's own DVP-NC685V). The Amazon-affiliated SACD website showed a total of 1570 music titles available for sale in mid-November, the vast majority of them from real recording artists and real record labels, as opposed to audiophile efforts. David Kawakami, director of the SACD project for Sony Corporation of America, observes that three new SACD titles are released every day.

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JT's picture

I vote for the Marantz CD63 Mk II KI Signature.

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