Sony CDP-101 Compact Disc Player JGH Responds part 2
What about that wiry digital sound from massed violins? Now that's definitely a problem with most CDs. I have had several months now to live with a Sony CDP-101, and have run through it an estimated 50 CDs ranging from standard DG/London/CBS commercial fare to audiophile-type discs from Telarc and M&K/Realtime Classics. Most have varied from fair to awful. Our opinion is that the master tapes also vary from fair to awful—certainly this has been borne out in those cases where we were able to compare a Compact Disc to its analog-disc counterpart. And every time I play a disc which should sound better than previous ones, by virtue of better microphones, better PCM mastering systems or what have you, it does.
Yet there are still some problems with the best CDs I've heard to date, usually relating to high-end roughness during loud passages. But no one I have talked to has claimed that the digital recorders used for mastering those were the best around either. Recording engineers who have made comparisons declare that the best-sounding PCM recorder is the little Sony PCM-F1, but there has not (to my knowledge) as yet been a CD made from a PCM-F1 tape. Interestingly, no one has anyone ever complained about the "digital sound" of Sonic Arts' PCM-F1-mastered analog-disc releases. We hope to hear CDs from Sonic Arts to verify our high opinion of CD's potential.
CD does expose mercilessly all the dirty tricks of the average big-name record producer (footnote 3): the high-end hype, the multi-miking, the knob twiddling to spotlight this instrument or that, and the rest of the repertory of fraudulent practices that all the major record companies have been committing for the past 20 years. Not only is there no longer any excuse for these practices, there are compelling reasons for abandoning them. Because of the price of a CD player, will probably not be purchased by anyone except the person who cares about really good sound. So record companies can no longer pretend that their market is the tone-deaf mass market they have been catering to all these years. CD will force them to start giving us the best recordings they can deliver, and there's a helluva lot of room for improvement there.
Many CD listeners have claimed however that CD not only exposes these shenanigans, it exaggerates them. I can think of several possible reasons. First, there is growing evidence that CD reproduction through extremely wide-bandwidth electronics (which do so well with MC phono sources) does nasty things to the sound. Since there is measurably very little garbage from CDs above 20kHz, the reason remains a puzzlement but there it is, nonetheless.
There is also, on most discs, an appalling shattery quality lurking behind full-orchestra passages. This is such an awful sound that it probably accounts for much of the disappointment (putting it mildly) that audiophiles have expressed. Yet again, the fact that some orchestral recordings are free (notably the CDs from M&K) from this flaw would seem to be strong evidence that the fault is not with the system itself. Either there is some defect that the system merely exposes more clearly, or digital recording is susceptible to an overload characteristic (or some other form of distortion) that has not yet been uncovered.
Thirdly, record producers claim that analog-disc reproduction is and always has been a losing battle between high-end response and stylustracing distortion, and that the amount of real top they can get onto a final pressing is limited by the ability of a cartridge any cartridge to trace high-amplitude modulations of very short wavelength. This has resulted in a backing off of very high frequencies on analog discs. CDs don't have this limitation, and one of the results is more high frequency material than you'll find on analog disc.
Those same record producers, being in a position to compare their master tapes with the CD reproduction thereof (something an audiophile hasn't the opportunity to do), insist that the CD provides an almost perfect replication of the master-tape sound. This finding would imply that any shortcomings in the CD sound are in fact only reflecting shortcomings of the original master recording.
The audiophile who hears a grossly exaggerated and excessively hard high end from CDs (because his system is optimized for analog) immediately assumes that the CD is wrong. Here I would beg to differ. In order to give CD a fair shake, it is necessary to assume, if only for the sake of open mindedness, that the CD high end is right and the analog is wrong, and adjust the playback system for a musical high end balance from good CDs, like Telarcs or M&K Classical.
Footnote 3: Even they are wising up, though. The latest recordings from CBS, RCA, DG and Philips are soft-pedalling the spotlighting and zooming and EQing. Except for a slight, lingering veil, their most recent recordings are beginning to sound a little like releases from RealTime, Telarc and English EMI.