The Vinyl Anachronist
by Marc Phillips
Part XI: Great...er, Good Sounding CD's
Roksan Xerxes X. Rega Planar 9. Pink Triangle Tarantella. Rega Planar 25. Basis Model 1400. Yes, these are the turntables I currently covet. Within the next few months, one of these lucky products will be mine, all mine. As I mentioned last month in "Equal Time For CD," the synergism that has popped up between my CD player and my new speakers has forced me to confront the chink in my Rega Planar 3's armour. No, I don't take back what I previously said about the Planar 3 being the best front end, digital or analog, for under a grand. But since I bought the Spendor SP-100 loudspeakers last November, I am spending a lot more time listening to CD's than before, albeit on a CD player that costs nearly three times as much as the Rega.
No, not all CD's sound better across the board when you catch Upgrade Fever, like I have. For instance, any time you see a CD at your local Tower Records with a weird '70's rainbow-y sticker that proclaims "The Nice Price," chances are you have not discovered a sonic masterpiece. In fact, unless it's a brand new release that is not likely going to be available on vinyl, most of the CD's I purchase tend to be premium CD's that are either plated with 24K gold, or are mastered with some mystical mastering process such as XRCD or HDCD. Is it worth it to spend as much as $30 or more on one of these "special" CD's? Not always. Sometimes I feel like a real sucker, especially when I realize that $30 has just bought me the same sound quality on CD that only cost me $5 back in 1975 when I originally bought the vinyl version.
But sometimes yes... a CD can sound magical. Sometimes the sound quality can approach and even sometimes surpass the sound of its vinyl counterpart. This happens rarely, but some audiophile CD labels have definitely got their act together more than others. And, like most other digital technologies, the gap is narrowing between the sound of the best premium CD's and the best premium LPs, which can also cost $30 a disc or more. So for those of you who are still sadly dedicated to the CD format, here is the best of the best...
Mobile Fidelity Sound Labs
This label is the first, the biggest, and the most famous of all premium record labels. They first emerged in the mid-seventies, back around the same time we all discovered that not all turntables sounded the same. The Mobile Fidelity LP's were better because they were quieter (higher quality vinyl was used) and the dynamic range was much wider (they usually cut the discs right off the master tapes or lacquers). I bought one of the first ones released, Supertramp's Crime Of The Century (the first few titles weren't exactly in alignment with my taste in music). The album opens up with the sound of a harmonica, and as I sat in my darkened bedroom listening to my Dual turntable through Sennheiser headphones, I nearly crapped my pajamas. The sound was so real, so dynamic, so startling. I almost became a Supertramp fan thanks to that experience. I said almost.
Almost every MFSL LP I've purchased has been worth the extra dough. The later batch of releases that started up a few years ago and was sadly discontinued in late 1997 was even more impressive than the pyrotechnics of the seventies and early eighties. The Mobile Fidelity 24K gold CD's are more of a mixed bag, however. The output levels, for instance, are set alarmingly low; I usually listen to music with the volume control set at about 9 o'clock, but with the MFSL's I sometimes have to set the knob at high noon or even higher. This increases the noise floor of my preamplifier and as a result I can usually hear more tape hiss off the masters. So much for the velvety quiet of the MFSL vinyl releases.
Some of the Mobile Fidelity CD releases are absolute winners, however. The two Modern Jazz Quartet releases, Blues At Carnegie Hall and At The Music Inn are outstanding, and the sound of Muddy Waters' Folk Singer is almost legendary. Many of the pop releases are less than stellar...avoid spending a lot of money on The Police's Synchronicity or U2's The Unforgettable Fire, for instance. You're better off with the regular pressings. XTC's Skylarking is very good, though.
Retail on current MFSL releases are $30 (significantly more on the handful of 2-CD sets, obviously). Mail order houses sell them for as low as $22.99. I recently saw some at the local Tower Records... and they were charging $33.99, nearly four dollars more than suggested retail!
DCC Compact Classics
DCC is nearly as popular now as MFSL, with nearly as many titles. They also offer everything pressed into the 24K gold format (if I forgot to explain before, the purpose of the gold plating is to increase conductivity, which somehow improves sound quality). I like the choices DCC makes when they choose which titles they want to remaster; they are more likely to offer seminal records such as Band On The Run or Pet Sounds or Aqualung or Cosmo's Factory than MFSL's middle-of-the-road choices such as, well... Supertramp, or even worse... every single Moody Blues album ever made. (To be fair, however, MFSL remastered both Nirvana's Nevermind and Sonic Youth's Goo.)
Overall, I think DCC wins in the sound quality sweepstakes, although often I feel that they choose really crappy sounding recordings such as The Doors' first album or Derek and the Dominoes' Layla and merely elevate them to "acceptable" levels. I recommend The Cars' first album (really, it sounds great!), all of the Nat King Coles, and The Doors' L.A. Woman.
DCC's run about the same amount as MFSL... about $22.99 mail order, and at outrageously inflated prices at you-know-who's.
These are hands-down the best CD's I've ever heard. Every one I've purchased, through Bill Evans' Everybody Digs Bill Evans and Duke Ellington's Duke's Big 4 Quartet, to even The Steve Miller Band's The Joker sounds incredibly live and dynamic and exciting... all the things the digital format promised those many years ago. These are not 24K gold pressings; the differences are mostly in the remastering processes, which are more extensive, and with much tighter manufacturing tolerances. And to make things better, JVC has just introduced XRCD 2, which promises even better performance!
The only downside is that JVC seems to be concentrating on jazz releases. So far there are only two pop releases (the Miller Band album and Tina Turner's Private Dancer--hoo boy!), and I have yet to see any classical releases, although I read somewhere that they already did something with the music of Erik Satie... though I have yet to find it in anyone's catalog. But they have done something remarkable in releasing Three Blind Mice's entire catalog (the best Japanese jazz performances ever recorded), and they also seem to be releasing most of Audioquest's now-famous blues recordings.
JVC's XRCD recordings also come with extraordinary packaging (no jewel boxes here) that tend to resemble little hardcover books. They run about the same amount as MFSL and DCC releases...about $25.99 from some of the mail order houses.
HDCD is not an actual label, but a process. HDCD (High Definition Compact Discs) are specially-recorded titles that work in conjunction with an HDCD chip that is available on most high-end CD players. You can listen to an HDCD disc on a non-HDCD player, and it will sound better than a regular disc. You can listen to a regular disc on an HDCD player, and again it will sound better. If you listen to an HDCD-encoded disc on a CD player with an HDCD chip... look out! This is considered the best that the CD format has to offer, almost as good as the best analog.
I do not have a chip in my Naim CD player (Naim is an idiosyncratic audio company and didn't believe in HDCD until a few months ago), but I do have several HDCD discs and they all sound really good. One stand-out is Paula Cole's This Fire. Tony Levin's Chapman stick bass on the opening cut "Tiger" is downright subterranean- perhaps the deepest bass I've heard yet from CD. If you go through your current CD collection right now you may find you already have several HDCD-encoded discs. And you may say to yourself, "Hey, this is one of the best-sounding CD's I've ever heard!"
Buying a CD player with an HDCD chip might prove a little more difficult, however. The cheapest players with this feature hover just under the $1000 mark. But like many new technologies, the price is coming down, so hold on.
Chesky has been around for a long time, producing much better-sounding records than the Big Guys. One advantage to Chesky is that they are premium-sounding CD's for around the same price as regular CD's. The downside is that Chesky is not remastering existing titles. They are a recording label, and the artists are people you've probably never heard of. That shouldn't stop the more adventurous of you out there, however.
I recommend the following artists: The Fred Hersch Trio (jazz), Badi Assad (Brazilian jazz/pop), Paquito D'Rivera (Afro-Cuban jazz), Babatunde Olantunji (whom many PSF readers will recognize as one of the great percussionists of all time), and Dave's True Story (lounge lizardness in the vein of Esquivel, Stereolab and Astrud Gilberto).
Again, great sound at a normal price. The Audioquest stable of performers tends to run a little stranger than Chesky's with an emphasis on experimental jazz and a lot of contemporary blues performers, which isn't exactly my thing. (I find it mildly disturbing that the demographic nowadays for listeners of blues music is white males aged 35-50 who make over $45,000 a year.) I haven't explored this label in a while, but they are very highly regarded in audiophile circles and are worth checking out.
Here is a partial list of smaller labels that I've had more or less good luck with: M-A Recordings, Mapleshade, John Marks Records, Opus 3, Pope Music, Proprius, Reference Recordings, Telarc, BIS, and Clarity Recordings. I'm not recommending that you blindly pillage through the catalogs of each of these companies, but rather if you are faced with a buying decision such as which version of Beethoven's "Moonlight Sonata" will bring you the most joy, Deutsche Grungaphone's or Pope Music's, go with the pontiff.
So go forth and spend wildly. Support some of these smaller labels, especially when it comes to classical music. The classical recording industry is traversing through some very dire straits right now (if you're not a chanting monk or one of the Three Tenors, you're screwed). And me? I've got to cut back on orders to Audiophile International and CD Now. There's a brand-spankin-new Rega Planar 25 out there with my name on it!
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