CD: A Lie Repeated Often Enough Becomes Truth

Larry Archibald on CD:
This article on Compact Discs and CD players is by Doug Sax, president of Sheffield Records and a longtime opponent of digital recording. J. Gordon Holt offers a response elsewhere in this issue, in which he advises readers to buy a Compact Disc player as soon as they can afford it. Gordon in general hails the Compact Disc as the greatest thing to hit audio since the stereophonic LP.

Sax's article was initially written for Billboard magazine. Billboard also ran a response from Peter Burkowitz of Polygram entitled "Sax on CD: A Bigoted Attack." We don't have room or permission to run the Burkowitz reply but, if anything, it was even more extreme than Sax's original article, though more in line with Stereophile's editorial position. Statements like the following have simply never been borne out in the entire history of the recording industry: "there are no means of adding anything to, or subtracting from, the master tape" (in CD mastering); and "16-bit uniform quantization digital recording and reproduction, including the CD, does not, and cannot, add or subtract audible sensations of any kind. Period." (emphasis added)

Sax has carried his anti-CD campaign further, in a letter to 140 high-end audio manufacturers. In fact, our original intent was to print that letter, but we are bowing to Sheffield's desire to have reprinted the Billboard article. The letter appealed for an end to silence on the CD (from high-end manufacturers), and contained its own forceful language: "Clearly the CD does not match the abilities of a digital master tape"; "it (the CD) is a finite, low-resolution, synthesize model of its input. The only thing infinite about the CD is the BS."; "I simply cannot enjoy music that has been digitally processed."

Doug Sax has proved himself to be one of the best producers of audiophile discs in the world, especially when it comes to sonics. Stereophile's reviews of Sheffield discs have become practically boring they are so unanimously raves. All the more surprising, then, that one of Sheffield's greatest fans, J. Gordon Holt, should have such profound disagreement with him on the subject of digital recording in general and CD in particular.

It should be noted that Sax is making two distinct points: 1) he "respects the ability of digital recording systems to store energy," but finds digital recordings musically unacceptable; and 2) the Compact Disc is a woefully inadequate version of the digital master tape—you might as well compare the sound of a cheap Sansui to a Conrad-Johnson Premier One.

For the record, there is some disagreement in the recording industry about Sax's statements. Jack Renner of Telarc frankly feels that the CDs Telarc is now producing are identical to their digital master tapes. The particular sound you get from the CD depends on the player you use. It's Renner's opinion that the Philips Magnavox players provide a significantly more accurate version; he feels the Sony has a glassy high end.

Sax's statements about the British press don't tell quite the whole story. Readers are recommended to the excellent British high fidelity magazine, Hi-Fi News & Record Review (HFN/RR), in whose pages are found both high condemnation and vigorous defense of the Compact Disc. [HFN/RR was edited at this time by John Atkinson.—Ed.]

As we have noted in these pages before, there seems to be no middle ground about digital, particularly CDs. Having heard truly excellent sound from CDs, I simply cannot condemn the process. There seems to be even more evidence for accepting digital recording as an acceptable medium: our experience with the Sony PCM Fl bears this out, as do the records from Sonic Arts.

I think it is unwise, however, to put all the blame for the many terrible-sounding CDs on bad miking, bad mixing, etc. These were all present with analog records, and I simply don't believe that the analog record-making process has that kind an effect on poor engineering practices. In other words, I think there is still much to learn about how to produce truly excellent digital recordings, and perhaps faults in the processes by which the digital master tape is turned into a Compact Disc—or in the digital master tapes themselves.

At this point, the debate over CD and digital is still a very spirited one and we are all learning more because of it. Not the least important result has been a resurgence of analog discplaying equipment, as if to meet The Digital Challenge (as Monster Cable puts it). Let's keep our minds open and try to learn from both the critics and proponents of CD.—Larry Archibald