Show Business

Perhaps it's the air in San Francisco, or more likely the fact that exhibitors and attendees were equally upbeat, but I came back from Home Entertainment 2003, held at the grand old Westin-St. Francis Hotel days before I write this month's column, jazzed. I was one of 15,123 consumer, international press, and trade attendees, according to the official stats, and we were treated to more than 100 exhibit rooms showing and demonstrating 225 brands of audio and home-theater gear. Stereophile's full report on what we saw and heard at the Show will appear in our September and October issues, while our web coverage can be found starting here(footnote 1).

As well as the gear, Showgoers enjoyed great live music from pianist Robert Silverman, violinist Arturo Delmoni—the two joined forces for an impromptu but thrilling performance of Beethoven's "Kreutzer" sonata on Sunday morning—the Kevin Jones Band, Billy Bacon & the Forbidden Pigs, Ecstasy in Numbers, Dressed for Radio, the Hacienda Boys, Noah Wotherspoon and Wild Child Butler, the Carl Saunders Sextet, Josh Jones, Free Peoples, Melora Hardin, and the Daniel Glass Trio, culminating in a great set from guitarist-songwriter Richard Thompson. My thanks to music editor Robert Baird for helping put the concert program together, and our thanks to all the companies who sponsored the music: Acoustic Sounds, Delphi, Diversity Records, Immedia, John Marks Records, Mountain View Stereo, Very Tall Records, XM Radio, and especially Dolby Labs, who picked up the tab for the Thompson concert.

Dolby is a major proponent of DVD-Audio, and Richard Thompson's classic 1991 Capitol album, Rumor and Sigh, is now available on DVD-A. Of the two hi-rez media, it was SACD that I heard most often in HE2003 demo rooms, but my personal best sound at the Show was provided by two-channel DSD recordings played back on a Tascam DS-D98 HR tape deck. Using widely spaced omni mikes with a carefully shaped vertical baffle between them—a technique he calls Iso-Mike—Ray Kimber, of Kimber Kable, had captured a cappella voices, a string quartet, drums, a wind band, and other student ensembles with astonishing clarity, excellent imaging, superbly natural dynamics, and simply breathtaking fidelity (footnote 2).

Of course, Ray had mainly used small-capsule omnis like the Earthworks and DPA models, which inherently have wide bandwidth, low coloration, and excellent linearity. He also used minimal signal paths and zero signal processing, both of which undoubtedly contributed to the excellence of what I heard in San Francisco. But I have listened to a lot of digital of all flavors over the years, and there was a rightness to the sound of Ray's DSD recordings that is universally absent from CD sound.

I might be wrong, but I don't think it was the DSD encoding itself; I've heard the same quality from high-sample-rate, wide-bit-depth LPCM as used on DVD-A. This improvement over CD seems unmistakable. I fail to understand, therefore, why the "know-everythings" who seem to dominate the Internet newsgroups continue to insist that even 16-bit/44.1kHz PCM encoding is better than is required, and that the reasons for the introductions of SACD and DVD-A have everything to do with the desire of record companies to sell their customers the same back catalog at a higher price and nothing to do with enhanced sound quality.

Yet every time I have done comparisons using my own recordings, the result is always in favor of the hi-rez media, even when I don't know which version is playing. For example, I mention in my review of the Monitor Audio Silver S2 speaker in this issue (p.79) some mixes I had prepared following a trip to South Dakota the week before the Show, during which I had recorded male-voice choir Cantus. Because my Brooklyn neighbor Wes Phillips had been at the sessions, I asked him to come over and take a listen. I played him first some "Red Book" versions of two Cantus songs on CD-R: low-pass-filtered, decimated, dithered, and downsampled to 16/44.1 from the 24/88.2 masters on my PC's hard drive. "Pretty good," he felt. (He subsequently used one of the songs as test material at HE2003.)

But then I played him the original hi-rez WAV file from the PC, using the same DAC at the same playback volume (the two versions of the data had identical peak and mean levels): "Ah, yes. That's the sound I remember from the Washington Pavilion." I also had no problem identifying the two versions by ear, even though my HF hearing cuts off sharply above 16kHz these days. In particular, we independently felt there was a more solid quality to the stereo imaging on the hi-rez version, a more focused sense of the hall acoustic.

This seems a universal reaction to the quality offered by hi-rez digital. In the May 2003 issue of the UK's Hi-Fi News, John Crabbe discussed a letter from an Alan Mosley suggesting that while Mosley could not associate a cleaner, more extended HF with the higher sampling rate, he did detect a "dramatic improvement" in stereo imaging. John wondered if this was connected with better wavefront reproduction. I think it stems from the higher sample rate, which allows the brain to better localize the phantom images resulting from the information reaching the ears. (Psychoacoustic research indicates that the brain can detect differences in the arrival times of a sound at the two ears smaller than the ear's steady-state bandwidth would suggest is possible.)

There is an alternate explanation for the Cantus comparisons: that the mathematical reduction from 24/88.2 to 16/44.1 had itself degraded the signal's imaging potential. Because I had only a couple of days between my return from South Dakota and my departure for HE2003, I couldn't prepare the "Red Book" version in real time, using the dCS 972 I use for my mastering. Instead, I used Cool Edit Pro's sample-type change algorithm (set to its highest quality). But I had done such comparisons when I prepared the CD masters for Robert Silverman's complete set of Beethoven piano sonatas three years ago with the dCS 972, and the difference was the same: the higher sample rate gave more solid, more tangible imaging.

As far as I am concerned, the case is proven in favor of the new media. When I can put out some of my hi-rez recordings on DVD-Audio or SACD, you'll be able to hear those differences for yourself.

Rock On, Jackie
This issue of Stereophile was the last to be published under the aegis of Jackie Augustine, the magazine's Group Publisher since its acquisition by Petersen Publishing in June 1998. Jackie left the company following Home Entertainment 2003, so this seemed an ideal opportunity for me to say Thank You to her, both for reestablishing our Show since she became its administrator in 2000, and for helping me keep Stereophile's editorial ethos intact through the past five years and three corporate acquisitions. I wish her well in her future endeavors.

Footnote 1: Home Entertainment 2004 is scheduled to take place May 20-23, 2004, at the Hilton New York Hotel—site of the successful 2001 and 2002 events.

Footnote 2: The Iso-Mike recordings are naked rather than nude, to use the metaphor I developed in last month's "As We See It." Two-disc CD transcriptions, mainly "bleeding chunks" but including Morten Lauridsen's delightful "Dirait on" for choir and piano, are available. Send a check made out to Weber State University for any amount—the money goes to the college's music program—to Kimber Kable, 2752 South 1900 West, Ogden, UT 84401. Tel: (801) 621-5530. Fax: (801) 627-6980.