CD: Promises Unfulfilled

If you are to believe all the promotions for the Compact Disc, simply buying a player will transport you instantly to sonic nirvana. No background noise! No distortion! Flat frequency response from 20 Hz to 20kHz, pIus or minus zilch! The most perfect sound that modern hightech can provide! But if CD sound is so perfect, what are so many people screaming bloody murder about? It seems that half the golden ears who hear it are smitten with hate at first hearing. The other half finds it the best thing since tax shelters.

CD sound is variously described as "liquid," "grainy," "gorgeous," "garbagey", "detailed" "harsh," "very musical," and "horribly unmusical." Yours truly writes an editorial in Stereophile urging everyone to buy a CD player. Sheffield's Doug Sax writes letters to 160 manufacturers and Billboard magazine decrying the CD medium as offering "half the music for twice the price." Are we all listening to the same thing?

Spokesmen for the CD record manufacturers have claimed "There is no possibility for sonic degradation!" or "Science does not know how to make a better-sounding record," or "The CD sounds exactly like our master tapes," or...Hey, wait a minute. What was that last one? Exactly like the master tapes, eh? And what, pray tell, do your master tapes sound like? Like your CDs, perhaps?

Exactly like them.

Well then, let's examine the pedigrees of those tapes? How were they recorded?

"Why, we just put a bunch of instruments in this great big hall, and we use microphones to convert all those squiggly little sound waves into..."

No, no. What microphones do you use to make your master tapes?

"Well, we usually like AKG and Neumann condensers, and sometimes our chief technician brings in his Acme electret because...."

Hold it right there! Why don't you use Schoeps or Coles or B&K mikes? They're supposed to produce the most accurate sound.

"Oh, we don't want accuracy; we want each mike to have its own sonic flavor, so we can choose the one that gives the best sound from the instruments it was aimed at."

You mean, they weren't just aimed at the whole orchestra?

"Oh dear, no. That's so primitive. Bell Labs was recording that way back in the 1930s. We find it easier to get the kind of sound we want that is—that our market researchers want—if we pick up every instrumental group separately, from closeup, and..."

You mean you multimike?

"Of course. Doesn't everybody?"

Some don't. But tell me, what do you feed those mikes to? A Neve console, maybe?

"What's a Neve? No, ours was custom-designed by a local firm that services touring rock groups. It's a honey! Twenty four inputs, six independent foldbacks, separate bass and treble controls, artificial reverb on each input. Weighs a ton and a half! Give you an idea how good it is, it cost us $27,000 before installation."

Uh-huh. What digital mastering recorder do you use?

"Oh, we don't master in digital. Do you know how expensive that stuff is? Heavens no! We have this old Ampex 350 tubed recorder. Helluva reliable machine. Would you believe, that thing has run for over 13,000 hours and it's never needed any attention at all. How's that for reliability! Oh, the heads need cleaning every few months, but that's normal for any professional recorder."

Yes. Well, who converts your tapes to digital?

"Oh, we have that done by the Japanese firm that stamps our CDs. They're really good, y'know? There's this little Japanese gentleman, I think his name's Osha or something like that, but he's got real good ears. He can hear 18kHz! He trims up our tapes before he transfers them to PCM-1601 format—you know, adds a little bass here, puts some bite into those violins—the real thing sounds so dull, you know."

So after your programs go through your public-address mixer and equalizer and onto your never-maintained Ampex, they get processed a second time before they become CDs?

"That's right. We put a lot of care into our product, because we want it to be good. After all, that's what CD is all about, isn't it?"

The foregoing was of course completely hypothetical, and grossly exaggerated to make a point. The point is that 99% of the Compact Discs which have been issued to date, in the US at least, are in fact of dubious ancestry. And most of them sound pretty bad.

Traditionally, the major record companies, which are the force behind CD's software end, have sneered at the audio perfectionist and his preoccupation with minutiae. The ideas that microphones should have low distortion and flat response, that multimiking destroys depth and ambience as well as distorting musical timbres, that mixers (if absolutely necesssary) should have vanishingly low distortion, and that the engineer should keep his equalizers out of circuit and his cotton-picking mitts off the gain controls, have been scoffed at as impractical nonsense. Until CD.

For the first time, the consumer has a signal source which is a clear window on everything preceding it, warts and all. The CD is absolutely merciless in its ability to spotlight everything that was done to musical sound from the time it reached the (multi-) microphones to the time it cleared that last analog-to-digital converter. Most commercial recordings cannot stand that kind of close scrutiny. And most listeners cannot stand what that kind of scrutiny reveals.

The overwhelming majority of CDs I have heard have been more or less terrible. Some are tolerable. A precious few are quite good. But is that the promise of CD? Quite good sound from one disc out of 50? How would the Federal Trade Commission view a product of which one production sample out of 50 met its advertising claims? How do you think Consumer's Union would rate it? Would Ralph Nader insist that the product be recalled? Yet the mass hi-fi magazines, which have been crying for months about how rotten most CDs are (while nonetheless assuming, along with me, that the medium itself is not the problem), have yet to suggest that the promoters of CD might be guilty of fraud and misrepresentation—whether wittingly or not. Well, I'm suggesting it.

Spending $1000 for a CD player is not a ticket to sonic perfection. If the manufacturers are going to promise that it is, then dammit they have a moral, if not a clear legal, obligation to come forth with software that will do justice to that player. But there's a hitch. (Isn't there always?) You see, no court has ever tried to define a high-fidelity recording.

The FTC established minimum standards for "high fidelity" some years ago to establish ground rules about the advertising of audio products, as a result of flagrant abuses during the golden days of hi-fl. But the FTC's definition of "high fidelity" described it only in terms of specifications. Any manufacturer is as free today as he was 30 years ago to claim that his product is better than (or higher-fidelity than or more accurate than or more musical than) anybody else's, because in the eyes of the FTC such assessments are a matter of personal opinion.

Unfortunately, there isn't much the public can do about it. If you buy a CD with terrible sound on it, you're stuck with it, fella. Write an angry letter? To whom? Most of the bad recordings come to us from our neighbors in Europe or Japan, and there's no address on the box unless you want to direct your vituperation to the company c/o a City and Country, and hope their postal department will add the address and deliver it.

Dealers have been instructed not to accept returns even for disc defects, let alone lousy sound. They'll negotiate with the manufacturer for you to exchange a dud for another of "the same title." But for bad sound? Heh-heh. GOTCHA!

If you, as a CD buyer, get mad enough about being reamed time after time to want to do something about it, there are several things you can do. One of them is to write letters of complaint.

A few hints about the letter you write:

(1) Do not assume that the record company is intentionally trying to gyp you. Believe it or not, bad recordings are a result of ignorance about what good reproduced sound really is rather than venality or malice. You are a customer, and they want to please you; they haven't yet learned how.

(2) Be polite. In fact, after you've dashed off that letter, put it aside and read it the next day. You may wish to rephrase some parts of it.

(3) Be specific. For example, don't just say the recording stinks. "The strings are steely" or "The instrumental placements are all messed up" will show you are thinking rather than simply emoting.

(4) Don't come off as a fanatic, even if you are. Letters from fanatics have a habit of ending up in the circular file. Remember that CBS and DG are not Telarc, and Telarc is not Reference Recordings, and it may be some time before they can catch up. So don't compare Rosé with Ripple. But by all means do compare a mediocre DG or CBS with their best.

(5) Make a good Xerox of your letter before sending it off If you get no reply within several weeks, or an unsympathetic reply, make copies from your Xerox and send them to every consumer organization you can think of. Don't bother with the mass hi-fl magazines; they're out to sell their advertisers' products, not rock the boat.

If you get no satisfaction, sell the disc, cheap, to someone with a rotten system, or offer it for sale to a jewelry maker. (Bits of the iridescent discs are becoming popular as earrings.) And stop buying that label's products for the foreseeable future.

Read the CD reviews in all the magazines which review them, paying the most attention to our reviews of course. The English magazine Hi-Fi News & Record Review has excellent CD coverage, including releases not yet available here but soon to be.

Consider also the possibility that your system may be exaggerating some of those things you would rather not hear from CD. Many audiophiles have worked hard to assemble a system that will make an analog disc sound as if it has better detail and transient response than it ac tually has. The CD has detail and transient response to spare, but if your system sounds just right from analog sources, it may sound right with CDs or it may sound wiry and harsh from even the best of them, depending upon whether it is your cartridge or your speaker system that is compensating for analog's shortcomings. A truly neutral system—one that sounds just right with master tapes—will need a little added rolloff starting around 10kHz to sound musically natural with good CD sources.

Be patient. The CD system is not perfect, but I firmly believe its imperfections are far less than some have claimed. Every time a CD's ancestry suggests that the sound should be better than usual, it has turned out in fact to be better. I think the promise of a nearly-perfect signal source will be fulfilled eventually if not soon. As of now, there's more hope than fulfillment. But you can help to change that.