"I have heard the future of audio...and it is digital."

Two recent listening experiences of mine echoed the overblown praise Jon Landau lavished upon Bruce Springsteen after he heard The Wild, the Innocent & the E-Street Shuffle. But all hype aside, Landau was right: Springsteen was the future of rock'n'roll—or at least what passed for the future of traditional rock in those pre-MTV, pre-techno, pre-house, pre-gangsta, pre-rap, pre-hip-hop, pre-grunge, pre-Mariah Carey, pre-Garth Brooks, pre-sampling, pre-digital days. And I believe that, Landau-like, I too will be right. I have heard the future of audio, and it is digital—digital technology has finally surpassed the sound quality of analog.

"What?!" you splutter into your breakfast java as you peruse this first issue of the new, big, 20-bit Stereophile. "Has JA finally gone deaf? What about this issue's 'Letters' section, in which Athena Productions pleads for high-end magazines to recognize the LP as still scoring over CD as the medium of choice for quality music? What about high-end political correctness?"

But I didn't say "CD"—I said "digital." And by digital I mean the new recorders capable of storing up to 24-bit data. Stereophile recently borrowed such a machine, the $26,500, four-channel, open-reel Nagra-D, fitted with 20-bit ADCs, to record pianist Robert Silverman performing Liszt. Before the sessions, Peter McGrath, recording engineer and the proprietor of Florida's Sound Components [with Wilson Audio Specialties as of 2001—Ed.], flew out to New Mexico to share some of his arcane knowledge with us. Peter brought a selection of his open-reel masters of some of his orchestral recordings, made with the Nagra. He also brought some CD-R dubs of the same recordings.

The 16-bit CD-Rs sounded like very good CD. But the 18-bit Nagra tapes decoded by the same Mark Levinson No.35 processor didn't sound like CD at all. They had a fragile tangibility—that presence that sounds like nothing so much as a live mike feed—that you never hear from CD, but that does get captured by good analog.

Robert Harley reports in this month's "Industry Update" on a visit he and I paid to Sony Classical in New York. Sony's David Smith had arranged for us to audition 20-bit open-reel digital masters. Again, they didn't sound like CD. To hear that combination of transparency and ease was to lust for it in my own home.

Coupled with Pioneer's and Mitsubishi's introduction of DAT and open-reel digital machines with a 96kHz sampling rate, Pacific Microsonics' HDCD® process, and Mobile Fidelity's use of a Mike Moffat-designed 16-bit ADC with a 352.8kHz sampling rate, it looks as if digital master tapes can finally be made with the resolution and sound quality we were promised more than 15 years ago.

The only remaining debate will be how to preserve as much of that master-tape quality as possible on the commercial 16-bit CD release.

But what if I'm wrong? What if the future of audio doesn't lie in improved quality? As Robert Harley also reports in "Industry Update," the audio-engineering community seems to be much more excited about the reduction of the CD's profligate 1.4Mb/s data rate to something that can be stored on a teeny MiniDisc, that can be squeezed alongside a film's frames between the sprocket holes, that can be jammed into an HDTV video signal, and that ultimately can be squirted through a cable into your home.

For these engineers, existing CD quality is an unachievable goal, not a minimum standard. This is why I detest the whole subject of perceptual or low-bit-rate encoding.

But one thing about it does excite me: the idea that you can look at measured defects of components, not in absolute terms ("0.01% of second-harmonic distortion," for example), but in terms of the calculated audibility of the error—"6dB above the average threshold of hearing at 2kHz at 90dB SPL." Both Robert Harley and Peter Mitchell talk about this Noise/Mask Ratio technique in "Industry Update." For me, it holds the promise of finally locating the source of high-end components' sonic qualities. Currently, as Jack English writes this month, "The importance of very small differences that may well be inaudible to some [is a] point of contention." Perceptual measurement techniques will make it a point of contention no longer.

A letter in response appeared in April 1994:

Setting the record straight

Editor: Just thought I'd drop you a note to put in my vote on the new format (thumbs up) and to set you straight on Bruce ("As We See It," January '94). Jon Landau's infamous comments came after seeing Springsteen in concert, not after listening to the second record (which was already out and had already been positively reviewed by Landau). It was the 5/9/74 show at the Harvard Square Theater that inspired Landau's "I have heard the future..." statement; The Wild, the Innocent & the E-Street Shuffle had been out for more than six months at that point.

I edit two magazines (the quarterly Springsteen fanzine, Backstreets, and the biweekly Northwest music magazine, The Rocket) in addition to having written a couple of books (including one on Bruce, Backstreets, Springsteen: The Man and His Music. But, my resumé aside, I like Stereophile, and particularly like the new format.—Charles R. Cross, Seattle, WA

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