Cutting Up: Stereophile's Liszt Piano Sonata LP The Vinyl Experience
So which version of a digitally recorded solo piano recital do you think would sound better? The vinyl LP version cut from the full 20-bit resolution master? Or the CD edition dithered down to 16 bits?
I hear you: "Solo piano on vinyl? Are you kidding?" No. If an occasional pop or click is enough to scare you away, I guess live music is out of the question, too. After all, what's worse? An occasional tick? A bit of "pre-echo"? Or the rich, reverberant decay of smoker's cough? Like the occasional pops and clicks on a side of vinyl, a few hackers lurk in every concert hall. Once you get into the music, the hockers and chronic throat clearers magically fade away. They're still there, but do you hear them? I don't. I'm listening to music, not phlegm.
After comparing the fine-sounding 16-bit Sonata CD with a breathtaking LP test pressing transferred with all bits on board, I don't understand how anyone who calls him or herself an audiophile can live without a turntable. Yes, there is some sonic confetti, and in the silences preceding some of the more dynamic passages, a bit of "pre-echo," where you can hear ghostly images of what's to come . . . BUT the record conveys what is supposed to be there tonally, spatially, dynamically—and, yes, emotionally—with an authority and realism the 16-bit CD doesn't come close to matching, though it is "flawless" in ways records are not.
There's nothing crueler in audio than asking an arm and a cartridge to track an ultra-dynamic solo piano recording. Actually, there is: asking a mastering engineer to try cutting it, a plating guru to plate it, and a pressing plant to press it. As Wes Phillips found out overseeing the vinyl transfer, getting the most out of the old technology is not easy, but it is possible—as the vinyl version of Sonata demonstrates. On a good analog front-end, surfaces are creamy-smooth and quiet, and free of discernible wow and flutter—and please don't write to say "I'm a pianist and you're not and I can't tolerate the time distortions you can't hear," because quicker than you can say "ECM," I guarantee you'll get a quick retort from Keith Jarrett, who is probably a much better piano player than you are!
The image of the piano, somewhat diffuse and indistinct on CD, locks into focus on the record, left of center where the engineer's notes tell us it should be, helped in great measure by the old technology's ability to cleanly delineate the direct sound of the instrument from the reverberant energy reflected off the venue's walls, floor, and ceiling. On vinyl, the two energy fields occupy clearly differentiated spaces—the piano in front, the reverberant field behind. On 16-bit CD they mush into one.
The vinyl's ability to portray the complex timbral and textural character of the piano, the percussive element of the hammer felt hitting the metal strings, the sounding board's reverberant energy, and the pedal sustain and damping, is clearly superior to the 16-bit CD, which homogenizes all into a pleasant, ineffectual, and very "clean" oneness.
I haven't heard the original 20-bit recording played back at full strength, so I can't say whether the vinyl more faithfully captures the sound of the 20-bit master tape than does the dithered CD, or whether it is simply adding "pleasant-sounding euphonic colorations and artificial L-R spaciousness," as some would claim. Of course, these are the same folks who claim that 16-bit CD sound is "perfect," and that all that four more bits buy you are a few more superfluous dBs of dynamic range. Now you know what I, the analog maniac, hear. What I want to know is, what did engineer Atkinson and pianist Silverman hear when they compared the two formats?—Michael Fremer