The Absolute Sound of What? Page 2

The CD has all along been touted as an absolutely accurate recording/playback medium, no doubt to the embarrassment of those manufacturers who so promoted it. Even the mass circulation hi-fi magazines have been reporting that some players sound better than others, and that the best are getting better as time goes on. But another question that has assumed growing importance is just how good the Compact Disc system actually is, because the answer to that question will determine how far the CD can go towards needs of the audiophile who cares about accuracy (footnote 2).

Numbers of audiophile-oriented record manufacturers have been claiming that the CD sound is "virtually indistinguishable from" the sound of the original master tapes. Even allowing for a certain amount of hyperbole (footnote 3), this would seem to indicate that a CD may offer us the most direct path back to the sound of the original master recording. But how much does a CD sound like its master?

To my knowledge, the only investigation of this was done a couple of years ago by England's Hi-Fi News & Record Review. Those listening tests involved direct comparisons between the sound of some Decca CDs and their digital master tapes. The test results were not felt to be entirely conclusive. While there was agreement that the CDs sounded pretty much like the original masters, there was some disagreement as to how important were the minor differences noted.

HFN/RR's experiment is already outdated anyway. Since that time the audio quality of the best CD players has improved dramatically, while many of professional recorders have stayed the same. And the conditions of HFN/RR's tests were not quite the same as an analog disc/tape comparison, because a set of spurious electronics were introduced into the "original" signal: the digital recorder's playback circuitry.

When mastering from analog, the original signal—that is, the signal feeding the cutting system—is already in analog form and can be auditioned directly. But in CD mastering, the original is in digital form, and stays that way up until the time the disc is played in your home. In order to compare the original (digital) with the playback (analog), D/A conversion must occur at the output of the recording deck. And there's the catch. That D/A converter and audio section was not present in the chain that delivered the original signal to the CD. In other words, when we make a CD/master-tape comparison, the "original" sound is being processed by electronics which are different from those used for the CD playback, and the former may not be as good as the latter.

Professional recording equipment is notorious for having less than perfectionist-quality audio circuitry and parts. That's why every recording studio that aims for the best sound customizes its tape decks. Some consumer CD players, such as the Meridian and Mission units, probably produce a better sound from CD digital than do the decks used to master those CDs. So it is more than likely that, if HFN/RR were to repeat those tests today, the CD sound would emerge as the clearcut winner, and would actually be judged better than the "original tape."

Under the circumstances, though, it is likely that such comparisons between the master and the consumer product are more reliable for digital recordings than for analog ones, because there are no mechanical transducers involved. Bad electronics can do some nasty things to digital sound, but they tend to have relatively little effect on the spectral balance of the sound—the balance between bass and treble, and the absolute high-end content. Thus, while we may still quibble over other aspects of CD sound, there is little doubt but that what we hear from a CD is much closer in spectral balance to the master tape than what we hear from an analog reproduction of the same recording.

This is why I adopted CD as my "standard" for judging most aspects of the sound of analog signal sources. Where CDs contrast consistently with what I hear from analog, I assume (on faith, you might say) that the CD sound is closer to the truth in spectral balance and low-frequency quality. If that CD sound is not "good," I do not assume that the better analog sound is "right." Instead, I adjust the other components in my system—the loudspeakers, in particular—until the sound I hear from CD in the listening room is as close as possible to what I remember of live music. This then becomes my standard for evaluating analog sources. The sound I get from analog is of a very high standard, and it has very similar spectral balance to digital sources.

The CD is still not what I consider to be anything like an "absolute" standard, but I do believe it is the closest approach to such an absolute that we're likely to find. It's certainly better than wondering whether the lovely sounds I get from some analog discs are the result of almost-perfect everythings in the chain, or merely a fortuitous mating between gross system colorations all the way from the microphones to the loudspeakers.

Footnote 2: The answer will also determine the clarity with which future generations—not to mention ourselves—can observe today's music. Of course, it's not impossible that the furor over CD will die down as it is replaced by the Digital Audio Tape (DAT) that will be widely available in 1986. The DAT has the advantage of recordability, and it may sound inherently better than CD—or it may sound worse!—Larry Archibald

Footnote 3: Those of you who are familiar with only the abbreviated form of this work—"hype"—may be interested to know that it means "extravagant exaggeration."—J. Gordon Holt