Happy New Audio Millennium Page 2

Ironically, the 17 years since the introduction of the CD have seen an astonishing improvement in the playback of vinyl LPs. A couple of days before I wrote these words, I visited Brian Damkroger to listen to the Thiel CS7.2 loudspeakers he will be reviewing in the February 2000 Stereophile. The sound of LPs played on his VPI TNT rig was awesome—not a trace of surface noise, enormous dynamic range, and wide, deep soundstaging. Most important, there was a sense of ease to the presentation that had us reaching for LP after LP. It is a rare CD-based system, in my experience, that can compete with this kind of vinyl experience.

In those same 17 years, CD has also been refined tremendously. The first players did well to achieve 14-bit performance, while the discs themselves may have had even less resolution than that (footnote 2). But now, when you consider the measured performance not only of high-end players and processors like the Mark Levinson No.30.6, but also of relatively inexpensive components like the MSB LinkDAC (one of this magazine's "Joint Budget Components of 1999"), it's hard not to conclude that 16-bit digital is a "solved problem." But if so, then why, as you can read in Markus Sauer's article, do so many audiophiles still complain about CD sound? If the current implementation of 16-bit discs and players is indeed as good as it can get, then it can only be concluded that 16-bit digital audio is insufficient for the highest fidelity. Hence this magazine's advocacy of SACD and DVD-Audio!

But the medium is not the message. I mentioned last month that the state of recording of rock music at the turn of the century is woefully compromised by the desire for unrelenting loudness. But that doesn't mean that other forms of nonclassical music recording have not benefited from late-20th-century technology. Jazz, in particular, is very well served these days, and much of the product coming out of Nashville routinely offers superb sound quality.

I may be an avid purchaser of classical CDs, but even so, I can sample only a tiny fraction of the current releases. But from the evidence of the compilation CD that I receive each month with my copy of Gramophone magazine, the art of two-channel classical recording is currently experiencing a new Golden Age. The widespread use of uncolored, quieter microphones, higher-resolution and high-sample-rate digital gear, and the coming of age of a generation of balance and mixing engineers who learned their craft at the feet of the masters in the second hi-fi boom in the 1970s have dramatically raised standards.

As we move into an age of surround-sound reproduction, I hope that the audio and record industries can build on what has been achieved, and that we don't experience a sonic step back before we can go two strides forward.

Happy New Year, and Happy Third Millennium.

Footnote 2: To avoid confusion: Though all CDs conform to the 16-bit "Red Book" standard, the last few bits of early discs did not convey musical information, but instead consisted predominantly of noise and distortion.