The Fifth Element #55

When I was a kid, I saw the Marlon Brando remake of Mutiny on the Bounty. I'm sure you know the story—lots of bad-guy/good-guy tension between Captain Bligh and Fletcher Christian. There's also an overlay of class conflict, but with a twist: The up-and-comer is the sadist, while it's the aristocrat who is nature's nobleman.

From the outset, Bligh complains about his cabin's not being cleaned properly. In an effort to save time and ingratiate himself with his superiors, Bligh ill-advisedly attempts to round the Horn in winter, and the Bounty is almost completely inundated by a huge wave. Mr. Christian can then report, "Sir, your cabin is awash." Pre–James Bond, my brothers and I thought that was the epitome of ironic sangfroid. We repeated it for weeks.

Not that John Atkinson at all needs me to clue him in on what's happening in the wider world, but I have been tempted to send him an e-mail with the subject line "Sir, your chessboard has been shaken." But I'm sure he already knows.

I started the current project of putting together affordable music-lovers' audio systems based on one-box CD receivers in hopes that I could find a cost-effective, generally valid solution. I think that, for a lot of people, I can do that—but I'm not sure how futureproof some of the solutions might be for a lot of other people; and for still others, I have increasingly grown convinced that a CD receiver may not be the optimal solution at all (see "To CD-Receive, or Not" in my April column).

The way it looks to me at the moment (bearing in mind that I still have a few trees to bark up) is that not one of the CD receivers I have yet auditioned will accommodate all sources—which may be fine with you, if your sources and a particular player are in sync. An example: To date, the $1995 Carat I57 has been my favorite overall in terms of sound. Great. And it supports HDCD playback. Tant mieux, as they say in China. However, it has no S/PDIF output (you can't use it as a transport) or S/PDIF input, let alone a USB input. So, no network music—unless you use an outboard DAC. And no phono—unless you use an outboard phono stage. And no SACD playback—unless you use a separate SACD player. All of which defeat a major benefit of the one-box idea. So if you have a lot of HDCD-encoded CDs and don't mind not hearing the DSD layer of SACDs, it's a fine choice. But I fear that these caveats will disqualify the Carat for as many people as there are whose listening styles it fits.

The other trees to bark up: I've just received Denon's one-box, the RCD-CX1 SACD/CD receiver ($1500). It's a great little machine, with elegant rather than dorky industrial design and excellent build quality. In my April 2009 column, when I wrote about the Integra DSR-4.8, I was under the impression that it was the only CD (in its case, CD/DVD) receiver that could play SACDs. Well, I'd missed the Denon. I had seen their two-box disc player/tuner/integrated amp in Montreal, but had ruled it out on price grounds. I later discovered Denon's one-box, which they were happy to send into the fray. I ultimately didn't go crazy over the Integra because of the sonic limitations imposed by its low build budget, necessitated by its bargain price of $600. So, the Denon RCD-CX1: between a $1500 price and SACD playback, we should be in Goldilocks Country, right? Um, perhaps for most people, but not for all.

The good news is that the Denon RCD-CX1 has phono inputs, switchable between moving-magnet and moving-coil, standard. Also good, a variety of iPod docks are optional accessories. The less-than-perfect news is that it has no USB input. Optical digital out, but no digital in. So the Denon is a real contender—as long as you don't plan on using your computer as a music server, or on listening to Internet radio. Of course, for Internet radio and iTunes, you can buy an external USB DAC and run its analog output to the Denon's Auxiliary analog input—but that is no longer a one-box solution.

The other tree I might bark up is that of the newly announced Naim Uniti, which looks great—but no SACD playback, and as of the time I write this I don't know its price. But this project has gone on much longer than I'd planned—if you want me to run down every possible option, let me know.

Format Wo-wo-woes
About disc formats and player choices: Despite Sony's less-than-optimal handling of nearly every aspect of SACD, I think the format has a secure future. However, that future will consist of a combination of new releases from a handful of classical labels, and an even smaller number of remasterings of old masters from all genres, in both senses of old masters.

I'd pay retail for an SACD remastering of Michael Franks' Sleeping Gypsy, as well as Joni Mitchell's Court and Spark, Mary Black's No Frontiers, and Jennifer Warnes' Famous Blue Raincoat. There are enough great-sounding SACD players out there in peoples' systems already—and, pace Sam Tellig, SACD is not just for surround fans. Just two labels, Harmonia Mundi and Avie, between them put out more new SACD releases each month than I can keep up with.

What baffles me is no-video-content classical music on Blu-ray. (Concert, opera, and ballet videos are different, of course!) I understand that, in the fullness of time, Blu-ray may gain a larger installed base than SACD. But a large installed base does not necessarily mean people who know or care about music. Blu-ray seems to be displacing SACD in the more upmarket disc players—and I'm not aware of any player that plays both Blu-ray and SACD, though I might have missed something (footnote 1).

My thought is, if we really want the ultimate in home playback quality and are willing to pay the price, there are two ways to go: backward, to analog open-reel tape (as The Tape Project has done), or forward, to ultra-high-resolution digital music on removable hard disks.

In theory, I could hire Bob Ludwig to transfer the original 30ips, ½", two-track analog master tapes of Arturo Delmoni's Songs My Mother Taught Me (CD, John Marks JMR 1) at DXD data density: 24-bits (with 32-bit floating-point precision) at 352.8kHz. Then just clone it, hard drive to hard drive. The well-heeled consumer would need a drive rack such as a Drobo (, a DXD DAC such as one from Digital Audio Denmark (, and software that can handle 352.8kHz PCM, running on a dedicated computer.

At this stage of the game, I think it's pointless for me to worry about intellectual-property issues. When I ripped my own CD copy of Songs My Mother Taught Me with iTunes, a string of (I assume) Chinese characters popped up where Arturo Delmoni's name belongs. Someone in the FSU is offering a Songs My Mother Taught Me MP3 album download for five bucks—half the cost of the authorized one from (Or it could just be a scam to get your credit-card number so they can charge to it $5000 worth of mail-order-bride introductions.) So lo-rez and perhaps reg-rez are already good enough for some pirates; will more pirates emerge if there are master-tape clones for sale? One laughs ruefully, and hopes that people will be guided by the better angels of their natures.

There are two problems other than piracy with this nifty idea, though. Even at a retail price of $350 per hard disk, it's not really a moneymaker, when all is said and done and all the bills have been paid. And second, I think what the world of high-performance audio needs is a little less of the fetishization of a small number of anointed recordings, and more of a generalized exposure to a greater number of excellent new recordings from all genres.

Some of our equipment manufacturers could step up to the plate here. I think it would be really cool if all the dealers for a household-name American loudspeaker manufacturer were to open their mail one day and find a copy of Eric Whitacre's Cloudburst CD, which I rhapsodized about in the February 2007 issue, with a note explaining that it was a gift from the speaker company, and advising which tracks make for great demos. Do it four times a year. Or every other month. Label the discs with a statement that they're gifts from the manufacturer. If such a program got going, it might cost less than you might think; to get the exposure, any disc importer or distributor worth his salt would sell the discs at wholesale or even less. Might even sell them at cost.

If high-performance audio is in trouble, I think a good part of the reason is that we collectively began thinking that it was about being able to switch between triode and pentode modes, instead of remembering that it's about the music. And to fall in love with the music, a good CD is often good enough, and a good SACD should be all you need.

So as nice as it is to think about people listening to Songs My Mother Taught Me in 24-bit/352.8kHz resolution from a removable hard disk, I think the last thing high-performance audio needs right now is a profusion of incompatible formats—and it's "format creep" that has turned into the bàte noire of my current quest.

When I was a tyke, I sometimes but not always remembered to turn over the inner barrel of the phono cartridge to listen to 78s; then there were the mysterious inner workings of the 45rpm changer adapter; there was even open-reel tape, but that was off-limits. The more things change...

Peachtree Audio Nova USB integrated amplifier
All of which is a long prologue building up to: Seeing as no one has yet built the One-Box for All Seasons (and if they did, I bet most people wouldn't want it, as it would, by definition, have a function or three that some people would never use), could it be an equally valid approach to system simplification to design a box with the greatest possible commonality and the greatest possible flexibility?

Footnote 1: You did, John, though not at the time of writing this column. Oppo's BDP-83 Blu-ray/DVD/SACD/CD player was due for release in mid-June.—John Atkinson