The Vinyl Anachronist
by Marc Phillips
Part LXXXVII: Formats du Jour?
I watched the first Men in Black film a few weeks ago in preparation for the third installment, which had just hit theaters, and I was surprised that one of my favorite lines from the film was no longer as funny as I'd remembered. Tommy Lee Jones, aka Agent K, holds up a very tiny CD-like disc which has been based on an alien technology. "Guess I'm going to have to buy The White Album again," he sighs. I laughed out loud when I first heard it back in the '90's, and I chuckled once again when I mentioned it in this very column a few years ago. But when I saw it the other day, I thought about how Googie-ish and antiquated that joke has become. It's like watching an old movie set in a future that's already passed, and people are flying to work in their little jet cars like George Jetson.
We all know that physical media is on its way out, right? Music collections are contained on hard drives or in a "cloud" (try explaining that to a 1990s-era Agent K), not on a shelf in an oak entertainment center surrounded by plants in macramé hangers. Sorry, guys in black, but that joke just isn't funny anymore. With all of the music formats now available in 2012, and all of the crazy gadgets and workaround solutions that help you listen to that music, a CD the size of a quarter is about as practical as a rotary-dial telephone.
Sure, there are a lot of hold outs like me. I still prefer to do my listening with LP's, and I probably will for decades to come. Now that CD's are on the Endangered Species list, I've developed a fondness for them and even purchased a rather expensive CD player to enjoy them--despite the fact that five years ago I said in print, "I can't see spending any real money on digital playback anymore." I obviously changed my mind, especially since I'm receiving so many hi-rez titles on redbook CD these days that sound absolutely wonderful. I want to enjoy my CD and LP collections forever. I want to pull discs out of their cases and place them in the drawer and push PLAY. I want to clean records before I set them on a turntable platter, and then I want to lower a tonearm onto the playing surface and see the record spin round and round while I'm doing so. I want to play (note that is an active verb) music, not experience it passively. Most of all, I don't want to be permanently attached to a computer keyboard for the rest of my life, clicking and downloading and ripping and burning and transferring.
I always tell promoters, publicists and record company executives that I prefer to receive LP's and CD's when it comes to review time. I had to switch to FLAC and WAV files when I had a brief gig reviewing HDTracks for an online publication last year, and it was a major pain in the ass to get set up. I also had a good friend send me an iTunes download--which he paid for--so I could help him promote a musician friend, and I forgot about it for three months because a CD or an LP wasn't sitting on The Pile on my desk. So imagine my mild annoyance when I received a package a couple of weeks ago and found a Blu-Ray copy of Patricia Barber's Modern Cool.
Blu-ray? What am I supposed to do with this? I don't even own a Blu-Ray player; with my eyesight DVD is good 'nuff for me. Then I realized, wait, I do have a Blu-Ray player--in my laptop! All I had to do was use the DAC in my Sound Blaster external sound card to hook my laptop up to my sound system, a set-up very similar to the one I used for HDTracks. As I listened to Patricia Barber, I thought that it sounded quite nice, certainly as good as any hi-rez formats I've tried. Even with this minimalist set-up (the Sound Blaster is only about $120, so I assume much more performance can be extracted with a higher-quality DAC), I was easily satisfied with the sound quality. I also enjoyed the slick menu interface, accessible through my laptop screen.
The question "Why Blu-Ray?" was ever-present in my mind, but I came up with several answers. First, it's one more playback option for consumers who may already own a Blu-Ray player for watching movies. Imagine their surprise when they add it to their sound system and enjoy true hi-rez audio--without having to buy anything extra. Second, there are a lot of excellent universal disc players--the very popular Oppo BDP-95 comes immediately to mind--that play every disc imaginable, including Blu-Ray. I always wondered why some players would play CD's, SACD's, DVD's and Blu-Ray, unless people were integrating their audio and video systems into one big entertainment center (which is undoubtedly true). But then I noticed something written on the back of another Blu-Ray disc I received later. "3 hours and 19 minutes of music on 1 disc" it said. Aha! The storage capabilities of Blu-Ray are its main selling point. Three plus hours is a long time--if you're still committed to physical media. If your music is contained entirely on a hard drive, you may not be as impressed.
"Audio-only Blu-Ray is an emerging format," says Michael Friedman of Premonition Records, the label that sent me Modern Cool. "It's a bit of a long shot but I would love to see it gain a foothold." Evidently it has. No more than a couple of days after I reviewed Modern Cool and posted it on my blog, I received two more Blu-Ray discs in the mail from Morton Lindberg of 2L Records in Norway. Morton had already sent me two of the most amazing classical LPs I've heard, TrondheimSolistene's Souvenir Part I and Part II. These LP's are described as "DXD 352.8kHz/24bit Direct Metal Master 180 gram audiophile grade vinyl." In other words, this is hi-rez vinyl!
This reminds me of a comment made by John Atkinson of Stereophile some years ago when all these new formats started to appear, something like "We already have a hi-rez format...LP's!" Listening to the 2L recordings, however, will astonish you. They are dead silent, detailed and so extended in the treble they'll drive every dog in your neighborhood absolutely bonkers. While it may sound like I'm describing these LP's as bright, that's not quite what I mean. Whenever I hear hi-rez recordings that cross the 300 kHz threshold or so, I hear a treble that's incredibly sweet and delicate--which proves that frequencies outside of our hearing range can influence the frequencies within our hearing range, something most recording engineers already know.
The 2L Blu-rays (Thomas D. A. Tellefsen's Complete Piano Works, the aforementioned 3-hour disc, and Ola Gjeilo's Piano Improvisations) sound almost as extended and lifelike as the LP's--again, I suspect a DAC upgrade would tilt the scales somewhat. Just for kicks, I played the Gjeilo disc on my laptop alone, without the DAC and the rest of my reference system, and I could still hear a natural and convincing clarity, even with those tiny laptop speakers.
Again, I have to express continuing frustration with the wealth of choices when it comes to computer-based audio, and Blu-ray Audio is just one more wrench in the works. It may be the perfect choice for audiophiles like me who still like to hold and touch discs and still want that glorious and pure sound from the hi-rez formats. Then again, with LP's like the ones from Norway, do we really need silver discs at all? It's a tough question, and most of us know the answer (I'll give you a hint: Betamax). Until then, any music is good music, and I now have three Blu-Ray Audio discs in my music collection. Whether it will continue to grow (and inspire me to buy yet another copy of The White Album), and whether I'll invest in another equipment upgrade to let it reach its potential, remains to be seen.
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