November 2001

CD Format Wars

I was talking to my old friend Tom the other day, a longtime jazz hound and former jazz DJ, knowledgeable about both the history of the music and the development of the technology of its documentation. Because of his dedication, I continue to tease him about having sold all his LPs (an amazing collection as I recall) and replacing much, if not most of it, with CDs.

“I used to feel burned,” he said, “when I bought early CDs and the sound was less than the marketing hype proclaimed it would be. Didn’t they say ‘perfect sound forever,’ or something to that effect?

“I can’t remember now how many times I had to upgrade a CD when a newer, remastered version was released,” Tom said. “It seems like Kind of Blue must have had at least five incarnations—I think the first was taken from an LP! [It was.] Then I discovered what a great job the Japanese were doing with the sound and the mastering. So I have replaced much of my collection with Japanese issues.”

We then looked back at the number of times jazz fans have been asked to replace their collections in order to improve the reproduction of their favorite musicians. First there was the Edison cylinder, then a bit later came the 78, which held its own for well over 30 years, then CBS’s LP, which dominated for around 35 years. Some of us have not given up on the hallowed black vinyl, but of course the reality is that most new recordings and reissues of classics are available only on the relatively new shiny silver discs that, as Tom remembered accurately, were promised to deliver perfect sound forever.

Unfortunately, that was not the case and audiophiles around the world, and even some of us regular Joes and Janes, were quick to recognize that the sound of CDs, especially the early releases, suffered from a number of distortions, both in the low frequencies and the high. In fact, they often were downright hard to listen to: I bought Atlantic’s first release of John Coltrane’s Giant Steps and could never get through the whole thing, it was that bad. (Tom told me the version he bought later sounds fine.)

So where was that perfect sound?

In the beginning, the audiophile press ranted about the CD’s lack of warmth, lack of smoothness, lack of soundstage, lack of depth and so on. At first, manufacturers seemed to be on the defensive, naturally enough; CDs were as good as it gets, they insisted. But the critics were relentless and more and more of the formerly converted began to realize that maybe digital was not all it was cracked up to be. After all, how could a relatively small sampling of a smooth waveform, translated to zeroes and ones and back again, ever accurately portray all the subtle nuances contained in that original, very complex wave?

The analogy I like to use is one familiar to photographers or anyone with a passing knowledge of graphic arts and printing. Consider a photograph taken with the finest Leica camera using the slowest, least grainy transparency or slide film you can buy, say 25ASA. When you look at the photo as it comes back from the lab you should see smooth continuous tones, deep rich color and a very pleasing sensation over all, maybe even comforting. But if you publish that same photo in even the highest quality magazine, say National Geographic, where presenting quality color photography is one of their hallmarks, the reproduction will never approach the original slide, or even dupes of the original slide. Why? Because the printing process demands that, in a sense, the photograph is sampled in order to be transferred, via tiny dots, to four printing negatives (one for each of the four additive colors, cyan, yellow, magenta and black) that combine on the page to create the illusion of a full-color image. But if you look carefully at the page, you will see the trickery at work: you will see the individual dots of each of those four colors scattered about the page in various densities which, when seen from a slight distance fool our eyes into thinking that we are seeing a smooth, full-color representation of that beautiful Wyoming landscape. But come on, where are the warm reds, the electric blues, the piercing yellows, the calming blacks, the emotion? Well, just as with a poorly executed CD, they are not there. The sampling rate and the method of translating that sample to paper (or to your speakers in the case of CDs) just won’t allow it.

And those pesky audio critics would just not go away.

So, in the past few years, the major equipment and software manufacturers have begun to see the light and we now have several different paths trying to reach the same goal: better CD sound. The current situation is a bit like the days of Beta versus VHS in the video realm, and the final verdict may still be a few years away, but the good news is that we will all eventually benefit when the original promise of perfect sound may be closer to reality, though we all know it will never be perfect—hell, the smoke at the Village Vanguard used to sometimes make me wish I was back up on the sidewalk listening from outdoors. Language that these cats used to make fun of—”soundstage,” “smearing of images,” “transparency,” “acoustic space around the instruments”—is now appearing in promotional materials for these new improved CDs.

What’s on the horizon? Let’s take a quick look around.

HDCD (High Definition Compatible Digital), perhaps the first CD enhancement scheme to make major headlines, was developed in the late 1980s by Keith Johnson and Pflash Pflaumer to solve some of the problems they heard in CDs available at the time. They figured out a way to add an additional four bits of musical information to the normal upper limit of 16 bits.

Their solution encodes that extra information during the mastering process and requires a special decoding chip in the consumer’s CD player, but the resulting sound is fuller, richer, more defined and closer to what we expect from our source material. To date, more than 5,000 discs have been released using the HDCD format and there are new titles every day, while the selection of HDCD chip-equipped players now soars above one hundred and also continues to grow. Rotel, Adcom, Classé, California Audio Labs, Denon and many others are making some great HDCD-compatible CD equipment. The cool thing is, the filters involved in this process also make your regular CDs sound better, so if you are shopping for a new player soon, this is probably the safest investment to make, especially since it will not require you to run out and replace your current collection; in addition, HDCDs do not cost more than normal CDs.

Another entry in this alphabet soup, XRCD, is an improvement that will actually not require any new hardware, but the process and the cost involved in preparing a recording for release in this format will probably keep it relegated to the audiophile community, according to Joe Harley, one of the most active producers in XRCD and the primary producer for JVC’s XRCD reissue series. “XRCD will, because of the amount of time we take to master each release, certainly remain a specialty format.”

So what is this process? Harley explains: “It is a chain of events that starts with mastering and runs through the actual cutting of the CDs. It is the best you can squeeze out of 16 bits. What we did was not create a new mousetrap, but we created the best mousetrap. All we did was simply improve all the steps in the process by trial and error: we listened along the way and chose the materials and components that sounded best to our ears. Much of what is involved in the XRCD process could and should be done by every manufacturer but isn’t.”

The results are wonderful and anyone who has heard any of the 150 or so XRCD releases will agree. Jazz lovers will rejoice at the fantastic, unbelievable sound of the carefully chosen nuggets from the Prestige/Riverside/Contemporary catalogs. You’ve never heard such lush Coltrane, Miles, Bill Evans and Sonny Rollins, among others—classic work that has been greatly enhanced via XRCD’s new clarity and definition.
Is this a taste of the future?

Well, if Sony and Philips, who developed the CD originally and are now promoting SACD, or any of the many backers of the DVD-audio format have their way, improved clarity will be just one of the many improvements we can expect from our discs of the future: both of these nascent formats can provide surround sound, in addition to a normal two-channel mix, as well as text, graphics and video. The battle is on and one of these two contenders will probably become the next standard for every recording we buy within the next five years or so—a long evolutionary stride from those Edison cylinders. Just remember that the main objective should be the accurate reproduction of that smooth, sexy sound wave with no evidence of those nasty little digital samples.

The good news is that each of these formats comes pretty close to achieving that goal: we can expect a vast improvement over the average existing CD sound. The bad news is, Tom, you just might have to sell all those CDs you just bought and replace them with something else—that is, if you want to maximize your enjoyment. Luckily, SACD players and most DVD-audio players are backwards compatible and can play our current collections with ease. No, that old version of Kind of Blue might not sound as good as the new surround version Sony Music is releasing as I write this, but at least it will not be made obsolete by any new hardware in the foreseeable future.

Quickly, DVD-audio takes advantage of the tremendous storage capacity of the DVD disc (up to 17 gigabytes) and utilizes it to offer a higher bit sample (24) and higher sampling rate (up to 192,000 per second) than traditional CDs (which sample at 44,000 per second), resulting in a frequency range around four times greater—the upper reach is 96,000 hertz, a far cry from today’s standard upward limit of 20,000 hertz. It is in all this missing information that music subtleties hide.

DVD-A will, of course, offer surround sound that will knock your socks off, placing you right in the middle of a concert hall or club, and new music titles are being released every month. Recently, BMG Entertainment, EMI Music, Universal Music and Warner Music announced their commitment to releasing recordings on DVD-A. And players are available from Denon, JVC, Kenwood, Onkyo, Panasonic, Technics and Toshiba, among others. Unfortunately, at least for now, this bandwagon is off to a slow start and only a handful of titles are currently available. But reports are that the sound is phenomenal.

But it might take the deep pockets of Sony and Philips to win this shootout, and these two giants are certainly positioning themselves and SACD for the long haul. With more than 400 titles available currently, this is certainly the format with the broadest and deepest catalog of music. Let’s face it, Sony Music has some of the greatest jazz recordings at their disposal: Miles, Mingus, Monk, Satch, just to name a few, and without question these recordings represent some of the milestones of the music.

SACD, like DVD-A, offers extended frequency range (up to 100,000 hertz) and increased dynamic range (120 decibels versus around 96 decibels for standard CDs), but Sony/Philips have opted for a slightly different approach. They are banking on their DSD (Direct Stream Digital) technology to carry the day. This eliminates the multi-bit Pulse Code Modulation encoding that is used by all other digital formats, including DVD-A. By reducing the bits to one, all sorts of distortion and possible interference (such as maintaining coherence with the rapid sequencing of the zeroes and ones) are diminished. And the sampling rate is an amazing 2,822,400—nearly three-million samples per second!

Jazzer and high-end equipment legend Mark Levinson sums it up like this in the introduction to his Red Rose Music sampler SACD: “I got into PCM digital recording because it was convenient, low cost and because almost everyone else was using it. I didn’t realize until many years later that, in large part due to the limitations of PCM digital audio, the enjoyment went away. I basically stopped both recording and listening to music. DSD has enabled me to connect to recorded music again.”

He was more emphatic when I recently asked him about new developments in the audio industry. “The industry has nothing new of interest to offer the music lover except SACD. This is a great development as it is a path away from PCM digital, which is killing the love of music. My advice: lobby hard for SACD or get out the old records, but enjoy music again.”

Pretty strong words from someone who has an intimate knowledge of music from the inside out. On a recent sunny afternoon, on a borrowed Sony DVP-S9000ES player, Tom and I did some comparisons of traditional CDs with some new Sony SACD releases—Miles Smiles, Monk’s Straight, No Chaser and a couple of others—and we agreed that the SACD sound was a marked improvement. I noticed a more fully developed “bloom,” as they say, more body and palpability to the image of individual instruments. I also noticed less background noise, which allowed more noticeable space around the instruments: it was more like a live performance than the comparatively two-dimensional sound of the standard versions we were listening to. If I could magically transform all my CDs to SACD I would do it, but that is the rub—until this format battle settles, would I be willing to invest in SACD or DVD-A?

The answer, for me at least, is a big maybe. And the reason for that ambiguity is that even though the sound really is noticeably better, there are so many questions up in the air as of this writing. Will HDCD continue to flourish if SACD becomes the default format? No, it can’t. Will SACD and DVD-A be able to develop side-by-side? No and yes. SACD players cannot play DVD-As, at least not yet, but some DVD-A players can play standard CDs and are being geared up to also play SACDs.

And there are inevitably other unsolved mysteries we are not even thinking of today. With a larger personal budget, I might consider adding SACD capability: Sony is introducing players under $400, and other manufacturers like Marantz, Philips, Denon, Accuphase and Sharp are turning out new models on a regular basis. I would not start replacing all my CDs, though; it’s too early to make that commitment. On the other hand, a good solid HDCD-capable player would tide me over until the dust settles a bit. Either way, you can make a worthwhile improvement in CD sound today if you are so inclined, but remember, this is still about music and its enjoyment, so do what you can afford and what you think will enhance your music listening experience. Have fun with it, even if you are still hand cranking those Edison cylinders!

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