Channel Classics Goes Chinese With SACDs

Classical music specialist Channel Classics, headquartered in the Netherlands, has begun releasing the first DSD-native, hybrid multichannel SACDs recorded in China. Issued under the Channel of China imprint, the first two titles, Ambush on All Sides (CCS-SA-80106), featuring Zhang Hong Yan on solo pipa, and Soliloquy at Cold Mountain Temple (CCS-SA-80406), with the China National Symphony Orchestra under Li Xin Cao, have recently reached the US. A third SACD, featuring Yu Hong Mei on erhu (CCS-SA-80206), is scheduled to reach European shelves at the end of September and the US three or four months later.

Channel Classics and Channel of China are the brainchildren of Jared Sacks, 53, an American expatriate who played French horn in orchestras for 15 years before entering the recording business over 20 years ago. Channel's Chinese recordings became possible only after Sacks met a music lover in China who was willing to put his other work aside to devote 18 months to getting the project off the ground. Concerted efforts to solve problems of distribution and educate Chinese musicians and the public about the SACD format were also prerequisites.

The first recording, made over a year ago, has now been joined by six others. Because Chinese artists excel in their native repertoire, Western classical music appears on only one of the first six scheduled releases. The recording quality is said to be enhanced by the use of van den Hul's new Integration and The Second carbon interconnects, which Sacks considers a "dramatic match" with his handmade recording equipment, and the donation of B&W Nautilus 805s as monitor speakers.

With A. J. van den Hul, Sacks has presented SACD seminars to both the public and press in Brazil, Turkey, Korea, and Japan. This past June, he presented four days of SACD seminars to Chinese recording engineers, and brought in the manufacturer of the Pyramix editing system to further educate attendees. Other seminars were held for recording departments in Beijing and Shanghai.

In addition to readily available Chinese-made SACD players whose reproduction is limited to two channels, Sony and Philips distribute multichannel SACD players in China. Given the country's large population of wealthy, highly educated music lovers, interest in the technology is growing rapidly. B&W has established high-end stores with listening rooms in China, and is working with Sacks to promote SACD.

"It takes time to build up interest and educate the Chinese," Sacks told Stereophile. "It will take some time for people to understand the difference in sound between DSD and PCM. I really had to start from the ground up. After solving problems with distribution and recording venues, I've had to give lessons in recording. The Chinese have no idea how to record acoustic instruments. One of the most famous violinists in China had to record in a dry pop studio, standing next to the drum and looking through a window while wearing headphones to hear the rest of the orchestra. To record our pipa player in a concert hall rather than a studio was a completely new concept for them."

Happily, interest in classical music and native instruments is very strong in China. Virtuoso pipa artist Zhang Hong Yan, whose technical ability and artistry Sacks terms "phenomenal," can fill a huge hall playing music that is 2000 years old. China even has its own version of Gramophone magazine, owned by a Chinese company, that is furthering interest in classical music and SACD.

"Asia remains our best market," says Sacks, "because classical music is still a central part of the culture. Parents give it to children, and it's taught in the schools. In Korea, you see as many young people in the classical record departments of stores as adults."

The Chinese, however, are in a stage of musical development different from that in the West. Sacks reports that they are mainly drawn to romantic and classical music and have "no concept" of baroque music. "Bach is very strange to them. The Beijing National Symphony Orchestra has very good strings and woodwinds, but the brass has a long way to go. They've come an incredibly long way, but they don't have sufficient experience and knowledge of Western classical music. Right now, they're best at playing Chinese composers."

Sacks remains totally sold on DSD, whose sound "is so dramatically improved from PCM, even in two-channel, that you can't go back. Being a musician, I'm most concerned about performance, with the technical aspects an added value. Of course I enjoy the challenge of the technology—I was even a beta tester of the [SACD] software. But in the end, it's the music that stands out. With SACD, technological concerns no longer get in the way of listening to the music."