Goodbye & Hello

It's the voice that grabs you first, balanced preternaturally high in the mix. As the singer effortlessly projects the vocal line, imperceptibly grabbing breath without disturbing the long, meandering melody, you can't help but realize what a superb instrument she had. As the song's harmonies modulate their way to the dominant, the bass guitar stubbornly sticks to the tonic so that what would otherwise be a conventional chord progression is transformed into a yearning series of suspensions echoing the lyric's despair. As guitarist Tony Peluso hammers down on his power solo, his instrument so fuzzed and compressed that the very plectrum strokes are thrown forward as disconnected transients, it becomes evident that there are layers upon layers to the backing vocals, each carefully placed upon the others by a master orchestrator, each appropriately filling in the gaps in the harmonies without turning the mix to glutinous syrup.

And as the coda, based on simultaneously descending bass scales and ascending choral "aaahs" over which Peluso reprises his solo, fades away, a sob catches in my throat—as if, for a brief period, a door had opened upon musical perfection but had gently closed, leaving me with a sense of loss.

Yes, I am not ashamed to say that, on my drive back to New Mexico from HI-FI '98 in June, the Mojave Desert northeast of Barstow witnessed me listening to the Carpenters' "Goodbye to Love" on my regular traveling rig of RadioShack CD-3400, HeadRoom amplifier, and Grado SR-125 headphones. (Given the choice, I prefer to drive rather than fly, the solitude of the drive allowing me to become immersed in my music to an extent I only rarely experience at home.) And as the Carpenters cut ended, I became aware that the temperature gauge of my 1976 Mercedes coupe was pegged into the red, and that hot water was spraying from beneath the hood!

Using my drinking water to keep the radiator topped off, I took advantage of some underpass shade to call AAA for a tow to a Las Vegas repair shop, an activity that gave me plenty of time to think back on all the good things I'd seen and heard at HI-FI '98 in Los Angeles (full report to appear in the September Stereophile).

A highlight of the Show for me was the public debut of Sony's and Philips' Super Audio CD (SACD). This hybrid, two-layer disc features a rear layer conforming to the "Red Book" CD standard and an intermediate, high-density DVD-type layer carrying high-definition audio data encoded in Sony's Direct Stream Digital (DSD) format. Forget the alphabet soup—I thought the sound of multichannel orchestral recordings stored on this proposed new medium, played back on a Sony DVD transport via a system featuring a new version of Sony's excellent SS-M9 loudspeakers, sounded stunningly real. And then, in a moment of audio theater, the Philips spokesman demonstrated the backward-compatible nature of SACD by playing the same disc in a CD boombox!

Telarc, DMP, and Mobile Fidelity all declared their support for SACD and DSD at the Show, the notion that record retailers will have to stock only a single inventory being a major factor in the medium's potential success in the marketplace.

No DVD-Audio discs were to be found in Los Angeles, but both Chesky and Michael Hobson's Classic Records were playing their DADs: DVD-Video discs carrying two channels of 96kHz/24-bit audio data. These can be played back on conventional DVD-Video players, and though most current models downconvert the data to a 48kHz sample rate, they still sound good enough to reinforce the idea expressed by Michael Fremer in this issue's review of the Bow Technologies ZZ-Eight CD player: As far as highest-quality digital sound reproduction is concerned, the 44.1kHz/16-bit CD standard is the limiting factor.

And perhaps even 96kHz sampling is insufficient. Mainly due to the efforts of Samsung, a sampling rate of 192kHz is incorporated into the provisional DVD-Audio standard, and Nagra and dCS distributor Canorus were demonstrating 192kHz stereo master tapes, each channel being played back from a four-channel Nagra-D with the two machines' word clocks synchronized. The piece of modern German chamber music being played was completely unfamiliar; however, as with live music but certainly not CD, the listeners were drawn into the musical experience almost despite themselves.

On my return from Los Angeles, I bought a dCS 904 A/D converter, which will output both linear PCM at up to 192kHz and a DSD datastream. I therefore will be able to report on the sounds of these new high-resolution digital formats in a future Stereophile, as well as future-proof our recording projects.

But, reflecting on HI-FI '98 in the cool of that I-15 underpass shade, it struck me that perhaps the most exciting thing I heard at the Show was neither hardware nor software, but an algorithm for compressing audio data into a smaller space without any loss of quality. MLP, for Meridian Lossless Packing, was developed by Peter Craven, the late Michael Gerzon, and Meridian's Bob Stuart to squeeze (for example) six full-bandwidth, channels of linear PCM, 96/24 data onto a DVD without compromising playing time. (Even the 4.7GB of a DVD layer and the 10Mb/s maximum data rate is not sufficient for this without some form of data reduction.) Unlike Dolby Digital or DTS, the bits you get out from an MLP-compressed digital recording are exactly the same bits that went in.

Meridian is a member of the DVD-Audio Working Group 4, and Bob Stuart flew to Japan after HI-FI '98 to continue his efforts to get MLP adopted as part of WG-4's v1.0 DVD-Audio specification. [His efforts were successful.—Ed.] Most important, it was announced at the Show that Dolby Laboratories had agreed to handle the licensing of MLP. This will be a significant factor in persuading member companies of the DVD Forum to take the idea seriously. Already, chipmakers Motorola, Crystal Semiconductor, and Analog Devices have reportedly shown interest in licensing MLP.

But MLP can also be applied to conventional CDs, the digital datastream from your existing CD transport being taken to a relatively inexpensive outboard DSP engine. An MLP-encoded CD can carry three or four channels of 44.1/16 audio data, or it can be used to carry two channels of high-resolution audio data, either with an increased word length (20 or 24 bits) or with an 88.2kHz sample rate. Bob Stuart demonstrated both for me at HI-FI '98, playing an MLP-encoded CD-R via a Meridian 861 processor. The 861's prototype MLP decoder automatically sorted out whether the data represented multichannel sound or higher-definition stereo. I came away jazzed!

In this month's "Letters," reader Ali Elam complains that there are no radical improvements happening in audio these days. I disagree. MLP opens a door to the future of sound reproduction that excites me enormously. I hope that political pressure from the record industry doesn't mean that that door will be prematurely closed.