Music in the Round #38

We all recognize that the Super Audio Compact Disc, despite being an almost ideal format for high-resolution audio, has not replaced the "Red Book" CD. However, Sam Tellig's comments in the June and July issues of Stereophile, and Steve Guttenberg's "As We See It" in July, unleashed e-mails urging me to champion multichannel sound (don't I do this already?) and smite the unbelievers (not a chance).

I can't find fault with Steve's disparaging comments about multichannel pop and rock recordings. In fact, I share his disappointment at their failure for one self-serving reason: The success of that market would have ensured SACD's success in the smaller niche markets, like classical music. I also have an opinion about why pop and rock multichannel did not thrive while classical multichannel survives. In my view, multichannel's raison d'être is its much greater ability, compared to two-channel stereo, to re-create an actual aural event. However, most pop and rock recordings are assemblages of multiple sonic events, some or many of which never existed as sounds produced in actual spaces, but were produced purely electronically. So unless the original artist actually conceived the work as an exercise in surround sound, translating it to multichannel is like putting galoshes on a duck. I share Steve's disappointment in most multichannel remasterings of classic pop and rock recordings. In fact, his parting note about "terrific sounding" hi-rez audio on Blu-ray concert videos fits my analysis. Like recordings of classical concerts and operas, those do re-create actual events in actual spaces.

On the other hand, I get tired of cranky commentators, like Sam, who pick on things that don't appeal to them. At the very least, this is uncharitable. What piques me is Sam's dismissive attitude toward SACD because there are too few SACDs that interest him, even as he admits their sonic superiority (in two channels, at least). This is surprising, as the majority of SACDs are of classical music, which is what Sam mostly listens to, and the small classical niche continues to endure. While at this point in his dotage I can't seem to convince Sam of the felicities of hi-rez multichannel, he does represent a major segment of Stereophile's readership, most of whom cannot accept this paradigm shift in listening. Nor is Sam unique among Stereophile's writers and editors, many of whom simply ignore SACD and/or multichannel facilities when reviewing disc players. This is consistent with editor John Atkinson's policy of ensuring that the magazine's writers represent the wide range of perspectives of the readers. Sam is just preaching to his choir. So am I.

So there's no reason for me to take up my lance and sally forth. A steady stream of new SACDs continues from the independent classical labels, including many releases by major orchestras and ensembles. These artists want not only to make money, but to present their work in the best possible sound; that they almost always choose to release their recordings on multichannel SACD/CD is the format's strongest endorsement. Overall, SACDs arrive faster than I can listen to them; my recommendations in "Recordings in the Round" are only the tip of the iceberg. Want proof? Go to www.sa-cd.net.

My advice is to pick up all of the SACD or DVD-Audio recordings that interest you in the highest resolution you can, and enjoy them. Download the music you want in the format you want. When you see the program material to justify it, consider getting a Blu-ray player for audio—I have. And keep buying CDs and LPs, too, if that's what floats your boat. Support the companies that make the products you want. Your purchases speak louder than all the noisemakers in print or on the Internet.

Ready Acoustics Chameleon Super Sub Bass Traps
Along with speaker selection and placement, the most important factor in achieving good sound is the acoustic of the listening room. We spend a lot of time and money—perhaps more than is justified—on all the other elements simply because it's easier to replace an amplifier or an interconnect than it is to change your room, especially if the sensibilities of others must be considered. So while physical construction and treatment of a room remain the best ways to deal with its sound, the emergence of room equalization based on digital signal processing (DSP) is a welcome development. However, the many types of DSP out there are far from equal in their mixes of advantages and disadvantages. Physical treatments such as sound absorbers and diffusers, and bass traps, are conceptually simpler.

Rooms vary, but almost all suffer from the modes that their dimensions impose on the sound. These effects are most significant below the so-called Schroeder frequency, because the higher-order interactions above that frequency become effectively random. In most rooms these are the frequencies below 200–250Hz, where modes can be dealt with by installing broadband bass traps. While a considerable number of strategically placed traps is needed to completely treat a room, even a few traps can make a real improvement. For my room in Connecticut, I built a soffit as a bass trap, mounted panels on the walls, and installed a pair of RealTraps TriCorners. But my Manhattan room posed some problems: It has few useful corners, aside from at the ceiling, and those were nixed by my wife; and our apartment building is constructed of reinforced concrete, making a headache of mounting anything on a wall or ceiling.

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mdunjic's picture
SACD sluggish wide acceptance

Establishment of computer audio should be blamed ... iTunes doesn't play SACD format and it is the most used user interface for playing the music through the computer. Most people who switched to computer music libraries (I have all of my collection in WAV format stored on hard disk) are happy enough with old CD format.

That's why.

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