CD: Jitter, Errors & Magic
Recently, however, there has been a veritable explosion of interest in all manner of CD tweaks, opening a digital Pandora's box. An avalanche of CD tweak products (and the audiophile's embrace of them) has suddenly appeared in the past few months, Monster Cable's, AudioQuest's, and Euphonic Technology's CD Soundrings notwithstanding. Most of these tweaks would appear to border on voodoo, with no basis in scientific fact. Green marking pens, an automobile interior protectant, and an "optical impedance matching" fluid are just some of the products touted as producing musical nirvana. The popular media has even picked up on this phenomenon, sparked by Sam Tellig's Audio Anarchist column in Vol.13 No.2 describing the sonic benefits of applying Armor All, the automobile treatment, to a CD's surface. Print articles have appeared in the Los Angeles Times, Ice Magazine, and on television stations MTV, VH-1, and CNN, all reporting, with varying degrees of incredulity, the CD tweaking phenomenon.
The intensity of my interest in the subject was heightened by a product called "CD Stoplight," marketed by AudioPrism. CD Stoplight is a green paint applied to the outside edge of a CD (not the disc surface, but the 1.2mm disc thickness) that reportedly improves sound quality. I could not in my wildest imagination see how green paint on the disc edge could change, for better or worse, a CD's sound. However, trusting my ears as the definitive test, I compared treated to untreated discs and was flabbergasted. Soundstage depth increased, mids and highs were smoother with less grain, and the presentation became more musically involving.
Other listeners, to a person, have had similar impressions. Since I am somewhat familiar with the mechanisms by which data are retrieved from a CD (I worked in CD mastering for three years before joining Stereophile), this was perplexing: I could think of no plausible explanation for a difference in sonic quality. As we shall see, the light reflected from a CD striking the photo-detector contains all the information encoded on the disc (footnote 1). Even if CD Stoplight could somehow affect the light striking the photo-detector, how could this change make the soundstage deeper? I was simultaneously disturbed and encouraged by this experience. Disturbed because it illustrates our fundamental lack of understanding of digital audio's mysteries, and encouraged by the promise that identification of previously unexplored phenomena could improve digital audio to the point where today's digital audio era will be regarded as the stone age.
These events prompted me to conduct a scientific examination of several CD "sonic cure-all" devices and treatments. I wanted to find an objective, measurable phenomenon that explains the undeniable musical differences heard by many listeners where, at least according to established digital audio theory, no differences should exist. For this inquiry, I measured several digital-domain performance criteria on untreated CDs, and then on the same CDs treated with various CD tweaks. The parameters measured include data error rates, ability to correct (rather than conceal) data errors, and jitter.
The six CD treatments and devices chosen for this experiment include three that allegedly affect optical phenomena and three that ostensibly affect the CD player's mechanical performance. The three optical treatments tested are CD Stoplight (the green paint), Finyl (a liquid applied to a disc surface, that, according to its promoters, provides "optical impedance matching"), and Armor All. The mechanical devices include CD Soundrings, The Mod Squad's CD Damper disc, and the Arcici LaserBase, a vibration-absorbing CD-player platform. I also measured playback signal jitter in a mid-priced CD player and the $4000 Esoteric P2 transport (regarded as having superb sonics). However, this is not intended as a survey of the musical benefits of these devices and treatments. In addition, I looked at the variation in quality of discs made at various CD manufacturing facilities around the world.
Another purpose of the article is to dispel some common misconceptions about CD error correction and its effect on sonic quality. If one believes the promoters of some of these CD treatments, errors are the single biggest source of sonic degradation in digital audio. In reality, errors are the least of CD's problems. However, this has not prevented marketeers from exploiting the audiophile's errorphobia in an attempt to sell products.
For example, Digital Systems and Solutions, Inc., manufacturer of Finyl, claim in their white paper that error concealment "results in a serious degrading of playback fidelity." They also state that errors can get through undetected, leading to a litany of sonic horrors including: "poor articulation of bass and mid-bass notes, attenuation of dynamics and smearing of transients, increased noise with loss of inner detail and intertransient silence, reduced midrange presence that diminishes clarity and transparency, loss of image specificity and focus, reduction of the apparent width and depth of soundstage—virtually eliminating the possibility of holophonic [sic] imagery, decreased resolution of the low level detail that is so necessary to the recovery of hall ambience, altered instrumental and vocal timbres that lack coherence or cohesiveness, obscuring of vocal textures and expression, instrumental lines and musical themes are more difficult to sort out, complex rhythms and tempos are less easily followed, the music will not be as emotionally involving and satisfying an experience as might have otherwise been possible, subtle breath effects on brass or wind instruments are more difficult to discern as are nuances of fingering and bowing on string instruments." This list, they concede, "is not claimed to be complete."
Encoding and data retrieval: Before getting into the measurement results, let's arm ourselves with a little technical background on how the CD works.
A CD's surface is covered by a single spiral track of alternating "pit" and "land" formations. These structures, which encode binary data, are created during the laser mastering process. The CD master disc is a glass substrate coated with a very thin layer of photosensitive material. The glass master is rotated on a turntable while exposed to a laser beam that is modulated (turned on and off) by the digital data we wish to record on the disc. This creates a spiral of exposed and unexposed areas of the disc. When the master is later put under a chemical developing solution, areas of the photosensitive material exposed to the recording laser beam are etched away, creating a pit. Unexposed areas are unaffected by the developing solution and are called lands. These formations, which are among the smallest manufactured structures, are transferred through the manufacturing process to mass-produced discs. Fig.1 is a scanning electron microscope of a CD surface. Note that a human hair is about the width of 50 tracks.
Fig.1 Scanning electron microscope of a CD surface.
The playback laser beam in the CD player is focused on these tiny pits and held on track by a servo system as the disc rotates. This beam is reflected from the disc to a photo-detector, a device that converts light into voltage. To distinguish between pit and land areas, the pit depth is one-quarter the wavelength of the playback laser beam. When laser light strikes a pit, a portion of the beam is reflected from the surrounding land, while some light is reflected from the pit bottom. Since the portion of light reflected from the pit bottom must travel a longer distance (1/4 wavelength down plus 1/4 wavelength back up), this portion of the beam is delayed by half a wavelength in relation to the beam reflected by the land. When these two beams combine, phase cancellation occurs, resulting in decreased output from the photo-detector. This variable-intensity beam thus contains all the information encoded on the disc.
Footnote 1: According to an article by Martin Colloms in the April 1990 issue of Hi-Fi News, the green paint selectively absorbs the infra-red laser light that is reflecting around the disc interior, the result being a better S/N ratio in the HF signal recovered by the photo detector. You might expect this to be apparent in the "eye" pattern displayed by the HF signal when displayed on an oscilloscope screen, but it actually appears to be very hard to judge this by eye alone.—John Atkinson