The Vinyl Anachronist
by Marc Phillips
Part CXXI: Hi-Rez Vinyl?
John Atkinson, editor of Stereophile magazine, once replied that we already have a high-resolution analog format--vinyl.
As I wrote this sentence, it suddenly occurred to me that I've mentioned this before. Looking through the Vinyl Anachronist archives, I found that I made the same reference in my August 2012 column, "Formats Du Jour," where I started talking about the Blu-ray audio discs I'd been reviewing as well as another example of hi-rez vinyl--2L Recordings' DXD 352.8kHz/24-bit Direct Metal Master LP's. These LP's were taken from very hi-rez digital files yet cut right off the masters, which makes them very different than today's glut of LP's that are merely sourced from a digital transfer (which means they sound just like the CD equivalent, but with an awesome dollop of surface noise added just for authenticity).
Six years later, we live in a very different world when it comes to formats. LP's are still going strong, of course, but now everyone's into streaming when it comes to their digital fix. Streaming technologies, by the way, have clearly matured. Ever since Tidal started streaming with high-resolution sampling rates and MQA a couple of years ago, hi-rez has become quite common--even if you don't know you're listening to hi-rez digital sources, you probably are. I'm friends with plenty of non-audiophiles who use Tidal and Spotify and other streaming services and have no idea what DSD or MQA is, or what a DAC does. But they do know one thing--musical reproduction, especially in the digital realm, sounds better than ever. It sounds amazing. Even I have become a fan.
That brings up an interesting question. Can vinyl LP's still compete with the finest digital recordings available today? Does analog need to up its game somehow with a new technological breakthrough that will allow it to retain its arguable position as the King of the Mountain when it comes to ultimate sound quality?
A couple of weeks ago, PSF editor and publisher Jason Gross sent me a link to an article on a new generation of hi-rez technology for vinyl LP's. "'High Definition Vinyl' Is Happening, Possibly as Early as Next Year" is an intriguing article from Pitchfork, and it discusses a new Austrian company that has secured $4.8 million to "have HD vinyl in stores by 2019." I felt a certain déjà vu while reading this because we've been promised this sort of innovation for many years now. Of course we've already been through some compelling innovations in the past--we know that thicker slabs of vinyl (180-220 grams) provide a more stable platform for the grooves, and that other decades-old recording methods such as half-speed mastering can yield definite sonic improvements. I'm not even going to bring up the improvements made in the playback equipment, since I've been discussing that right here for more than 20 years.
Rebeat Innovation, the aforementioned Austrian company, is working on new cutting technologies that can increase playing time per side, more volume (if that's really a necessity) and "higher audio fidelity." This is accomplished by lasers that use hi-rez digital files to create a more complex 3D topographical map for the grooves, providing more information for the stylus to read. While Rebeat assures that the new technology will be compatible with current "ordinary" turntables, I do suspect that this type of innovation will work even better with a phono cartridge that has been optimized for the new software. After all, monaural recordings can also be played with an ordinary stereo stylus, but we audiophiles have discovered that dedicated mono cartridges can create an even more compelling sonic presentation for old records. The same goes for old 78rpm recordings, as I've discussed in the past.
Since we're more than a year away from these first LP's hitting the market, I truly wonder if it will change the analog landscape. Like the 2L Recordings LP's, these are sourced from digital sources, albeit high-resolution ones that have been culled from an entirely new process. But I have to remind myself that I've heard both master tapes, the first-generation analog source we've grown to adore, and the vinyl masters that are cut right from those priceless tapes.
This is another oft-told tale from my vinyl adventures, but about a dozen years ago, I was fortunate to sit in on a remastering session at RTI where mastering gurus Steve Hoffman and Kevin Gray let me listen to the original master tape of James Taylor's Sweet Baby James, with Taylor's handwritten notes right on the box. They cut a vinyl master from it and allowed me to compare the sound using a rather modest playback system in the studio using a Technics deck and a Shure V-15VXmR cartridge and I was stupefied by the fact that the sound was ruthlessly faithful to the tape. That made me rethink the role of the turntable in the playback chain, and just how important the pressing could be when it came to ultimate sound quality.
I still remember that experience vividly. The master tape was lifelike and incredibly natural, a living and breathing organism. So was the first-generation master, for what it's worth. Can Rebeat improve on this? Can they pull something extra from the digital file that wouldn't normally be there on a traditional pressing? I'm intrigued, and I will try to listen to their hi-rez vinyl as soon as it is available to the masses.
There's one more obstacle to overcome, however. I've been dipping my toes into the reel-to-reel world, and recently I had a chance to review some master tapes released by singer Lyn Stanley for Positive Feedback Online. Lyn has become a huge advocate for ultimate sound quality in her recording--she often attends trade shows and she lets attendees compare her own live performances to the recordings she has made. She has released some of her albums on LP using a process she calls SuperSonic One-Step. This means they take the original tape masters and then produce a lacquer from it, and then the LP is pressed from that master. She has kept these releases to runs of just 2000, which ensures the quality of the pressing. Although these LP's, which are also 180 gram 45rpm pressings, cost about $125 each, they sound utterly incredible in every way. They're worth it.
But wait, there's more. Lyn has also started issuing these recordings in several different versions on reel-to-reel tape--both Lyn's Signature Series Mastered Copy Tapes and a special series that has been mastered by audio legend Bernie Grundman. These tapes are very expensive--they start at $450 each--but again they are even closer to the original master than those exquisite LP's. I've been able to review these two versions on two different systems, and I've never heard a recording sound so vibrant and live. When I listened to these tapes, I immediately thought one thing.
"Can it get any better than this?"
Well sure, it can, but I suspect having Lyn come to my house and perform these jazz standards in person might cost a bit more than $450. But my point is this--how will hi-rez LP pressings from hi-rez digital files sound better? I'm skeptical, to say the least. Curious, but skeptical.
There's one way in which Rebeat can make a cogent argument for this new technology, and that's to make it really affordable. I'm not talking about the $30 to $50 dollars we currently pay for most "audiophile" LP's these days--that would be unrealistic since they have to pay off that $4.8 million loan. But if the Rebeat recordings are priced anywhere near the cost of this new generation of reel-to-reel recordings from Lyn or The Tape Project or IPI or Mobile Fidelity or Analogue Productions, the whole project could be doomed from the start. Great sound shouldn't be a millionaire's conceit.
I don't want to see that happen. I'm looking forward to the Rebeat LP's. I don't think there's such a thing as too many great-sounding recordings, no matter the format. Do you?
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