The 5th Element #26

Perhaps I first should have consulted my horoscope in the local newspaper. But I can't imagine what it could have said that might have warned me off. So, in blissful ignorance, I went to the local big-box consumer-electronics chain retailer and laid down my lettuce. I thought I was buying the SACD version of Norah Jones' Come Away With Me (Blue Note 5 41472 8), but, by the end of the affair, I felt I'd gotten The Royal Scam (footnote 1).

I went out and bought the Come Away With Me SACD because I wanted a well-enough-recorded and very musically listenable pop album to use in evaluating SACD players, to go along with the handful of classical and world-music DSD-native SACDs I own. Not being aware of any DSD-native pop or rock SACDs, I thought that Come Away With Me would fill the bill nicely, as I was already familiar with its "Red Book" CD release.

Problem was, when I got it home and played it, I had to check to make sure the SACD player (Denon's DVD-2900, more about which below) was reading the SACD two-channel layer and not the "Red Book" layer. Hunh. Didn't sound very different. Indeed, the CD layer, played back with full upconversion on Esoteric's D70-P70 combination, sounded slightly better than the SACD two-channel layer played back on the Denon. Leaving all other issues aside, this did not unduly surprise me, given that the Esoteric combo partners an exceptional transport with a very sophisticated DAC, and costs 14 times what the Denon does.

But turning to the issue at hand, the only rational explanation I could imagine for the essential sonic dead heat between the two formats was if the original session tracks had been laid down using ProTools or some other digital software, and with the resolution set at 48 or even 44.1kHz. In this scenario, the only differences would be attributable to the format-conversion software or hardware used to author the SACD, vs the Esoteric's onboard processing of the "Red Book" data. If that were the case, then the raison d'être of Come Away With Me's SACD release really was the surround-sound remix (which I did not listen to) and not much else.

I then made several low-key and nonconfrontational inquiries. Travis McGee or Sam Spade would have been proud. Nick Charles, though, likely would have sneered. The facts, as related both to me and to John Atkinson, from multiple sources, were disappointing, exasperating, and even a bit maddening.

I was told that the Come Away With Me sessions were all analog, with 24 tracks laid down on 2" analog tape, and mixed down to ½" analog two-track. But for reasons—or total lack of reason—no one volunteered to explain to me, when it came time to create the high-resolution data file for the SACD's two-channel layer, someone ran the 16-bit/44.1kHz "Red Book" CD data through a DSD format converter, instead of going back to the two-channel analog tape and making a fresh DSD transfer. The differences, of course, being that the analog original had had its high frequencies above 22kHz knocked off by an anti-aliasing filter in the "Red Book" transfer, as well as having its resolution limited to a maximum of 16 bits.

To say I was aghast would be an understatement. In terms of the economic feasibility of doing things properly, we aren't talking about one of my own quixotic chamber-music recordings here, we're talking about an album that was recorded on a comparative shoestring, and which has already sold about eight million copies worldwide (footnote 2). It's not as though another five thousand bucks—maximum—to make a fresh DSD transfer from the original analog two-channel mix tape would have broken the bank. I'd bet you $5 that Blue Note has spent far more in a single month advertising this SACD in the audio and lifestyle magazines than it would have cost to make a new transfer to DSD direct from the analog tape. With friends like this, SACD doesn't need enemies (footnote 3).

As I see it, this situation presents two opportunities. The first opportunity is for Blue Note to admit that a shortsighted decision slipped past the chain of command, to do a fresh transfer from the original analog tape to DSD, to reissue the SACD, and to offer anyone who bought the "glorified CD" SACD version a free copy if they mail Blue Note their old SACD. That would be the right thing to do. The other opportunity would be for an entrepreneur to license the analog master from Blue Note and to offer his or her own direct-from-analog two-channel SACD.

Denon DVD-2900 universal player
Denon's DVD-2900 is more than just a progressive-scan DVD player. It plays all video sound and music audio formats, including DTS, SACD, and DVD-Audio—even MP3—and can display video stills from Kodak picture discs. Nifty. It's a substantial unit, weighing about 20 lbs, and is very well built. The default color for its brushed-finish metalwork case appears to be black, with silver available as a no-cost option.

The DVD-2900 is similar to the model one step down, the DVD-2200, but costs roughly half again as much: $999 vs $629. In the case of the DVD-2900, the extra money seems to have gone just about entirely into the audio sections. Of particular interest is its pairing of Sony's CXD-2753 second-generation DSD decoder with Denon-designed, Burr-Brown-manufactured 24-bit/192kHz DSD-1790 Audio DACs, which Denon claims convert PCM and DSD signals discretely, with no downconversion of DSD. Ever since the days when Enlightened Audio Designs was a major player in high-end digital playback, I have always been well disposed toward Burr-Brown's DAC chips.

One of the Denon's welcome features is a front-panel button that toggles SACD playback mode (indicated by a pilot light) among CD, two-channel SACD, and multichannel SACD. The default SACD playback choice can be changed by use of the remote control and menus displayed on your video monitor, but that front-panel button is nice to have. Furthermore, the '2900 features two programmable Pure Direct modes, by which users can save preferences specifying that certain features that might be considered unnecessary for music playback (such as video out, or even the LCD front display panel) be powered down. Be advised, however, that if you forget that a Pure Direct mode that defeats video out has been selected, and you then attempt to use the remote control and the on(video)screen menus to change an audio playback parameter, much frustration will result!

Other features that may or may not be relevant to your particular circumstances include digital bass management for both DVD-A and SACD, virtual surround sound from two speakers (I didn't even try it), and parts of the disc-loading mechanism's having been coated with a vibration-resistant "protein material." Soylent Green, perhaps?

Footnote 1: Not to imply for a moment that it would not be very worthwhile to have a DSD remastering, directly from the original analog master tape, of one of Steely Dan's near-masterpieces. For my money, the only indisputable masterpiece in their world-weary catalog is Aja, with Katy Lied a close second.

Footnote 2: A shoestring compared to, for example, Michael Jackson's Invincible, which cost multiple millions of dollars to record; some estimates ran as high as $20-$30 million, while Sony's total outlay for production and promotion was reported at $55 million.

Footnote 3: My friend Bob Saglio and I shared a bottle of Merlot at Bob's place with a famous mastering engineer who told us that he recently had had a record-label client decline to pay for an analog-to-DSD transfer because "it wasn't necessary." I can imagine someone having to take a job at a hardware store or a supermarket or restaurant or anywhere else out of necessity, not having any real insight into or feeling for tools or food or whatever, and just trying to get through the workweek. But for the love of God, Montressor—how do such people end up in positions of authority in the music business?