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35 Hi-Res Audio Reviews
April 2003 - Part 2 of 3 - Rock & Classical
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We start out this section with a hi-res disc lots of folks have been waiting for!
Pink Floyd – Dark Side of the Moon – Capitol multichannel SACD Hybrid CDP 7241 5 82136 21 US:

This is the most highly anticipated rock SACD of all time. Many people, including myself, feel that this is the greatest pop album ever made. Adult rock station KINK in Portland did a listener poll of the top 102 rock albums of all time. The listeners easily picked this one as the top album. It has appeared in many audiophile incarnations. The previous best was either the Mobile Fidelity Ultradisc CD or LP. The music is perfect for surround sound. There is a main band and lots of sound effects, which are even more effective in the surround channels. On top of that, the album has also been considered one of the best-sounding albums ever. Dark Side was originally recorded between June 1972 and January 1973, at the Abby Roads Studio in London. This release was to celebrate the 30th anniversary of its initial release. Doug Sax and James Guthrie remastered the album. The main question is whether the remastering can live up to the anticipation. I am pleased to say in my opinion that it is a great success. It shows us what can be done when surround sound is coupled with SACD.

From the opening heartbeats you can tell that there is something special here. The sound of the stereo SACD layer easily beats the Ultradisc of the album. The surround puts you into a whole new world. The sound effects being spread all around you make them more effective and give an ethereal feeling to the music. The bass is very defined and tight. The images, even in the surround channels, are very well placed. There is more dimensionality to everything in the music. I particularly noticed the alarm clock in Time had more dimensionality than I have ever heard before. You could picture a real alarm clock in a live ambient 3D space. The surround channels are handled with good taste and fit the feel of the music. The CD layer also beats the Ultradisc in sound, being crisper, cleaner, more defined and with much better bass. There is also a nice little booklet that comes with the disc. It has pictures of artwork that was involved with the album over the 30 years. A new cover is used for this disc. This is certainly one of the best sounding rock SACDs, if not the very best. It is also the best use of surround sound that I have heard for music. Another nice thing about the album is that it is cheap for such an issue. Some local stores had it on sale for $12. It is also being carried at stores that do not normally sell SACDs. This may be the album that breaks open SACD sales. I think this is an essential album for any audiophile, Pink Floyd fan, or anyone who loves a great album with great sound! Purchase Here

- Clay Swartz

Bruce Springsteen – Live in New York City – Columbia Hybrid multichannel SACD C2S 85490:

This is a two SACD disc set of his 2000 concert in New York City. It marked his reunion with the E-Street Band. Bruce is known for his high-energy impassioned performances. Many years ago he was billed as bigger than The Beatles. I laughed at this thought at the time, and have been proved right by time. He is a very good artist and has a number of worthwhile songs. He does well at energetic straight-ahead rock. But his creativity and songs are nowhere near the Beatles. Then again, nor is any other band. He has had only one Billboard top 10 single, that being “Hungry Heart”. The music spans two discs but leaves out a number of songs that were played at the live concert. The multichannel layer is only somewhat successful at recreating the sound of a live concert. Bruce’s voice is fairly well rendered. The backup instruments are sort of blurry and have little presence or definition. There is little sense of a rock band rocking out. There is a fairly good ambient sound field produced. There is no punch to the music. The bass has no power. There is no sense of forward motion in the music. The music is good but not very involving. The stereo layer is extremely flat sounding. It is like rock musak. The only things I would return to this album for are “American Skin”, “Born to Run” and “If I Should Fall Behind”. This album would have been much stronger with songs like “Thunder Road”, “Hungry Hearts”, “Dancing in the Dark”, “My Hometown”, “Glory Days”, and “Streets of Philadelphia”. Yes, I know that this would be just another greatest hits album, but that’s what I would like to listen to. This album is nice music, but not worth many returned visits. Purchase Here

- Clay Swartz

R.E.M.- Automatic For The People – Rhino Entertainment R9 78175 DVD-A and DVD-V

This is a reissue of a 1992 album by the alternative rock group R.E.M. The group consists of Bill Berry, Peter Buck, Michael Snipe, and Mike Mills. The band members wrote all the songs. String orchestration by bassist John Paul Johns formerly of Led Zeppelin, were used on a number of cuts. There are three chart songs on the album. They are Everybody Hurts, Man on the Moon and Drive. The disc uses what it calls Advanced Resolution audio. This is 48kHz/24-bit stereo and surround if you are using a DVD-A player. It has both DTS and Dolby Digital for DVD-V Playback. It is surprising they did not use 96/24. The sound of this album sort of ethereal, especially with the surround mix. On most of the cuts the surround is fairly well done, and adds interesting effects at times. The Snipe’s voice remains firmly in the front channels. The general mood of the album is introspective. The beat and rhythm is very catchy on a number of tracks.

The lyrics are very non-linear on most of the songs. If taken literally, they are almost meaningless. This probably promotes a lot of second-guessing by the audience of what they are trying to save. The DVD-A sound is about as good as a very good CD. The DD sound is very laid back and almost easy listening sounding. But it adds an interesting style to the music. Getting to DD or DTS, if you have a DVD-A player, is very hard. I never did get to DTS on my main system. On my bedroom system I compared the DTS and DD. The DD sounded bland and the DTS sounded bloated. The DVD-A sound was about as good as a very good CD. I some times preferred listing to the DVD-A stereo track. There is a 16- minute documentary, on the making of the album, which was worthwhile. A picture gallery of the different members of the band in every day life is included. I found this feature to be not very well done. Purchase Here

- Clay Swartz

Faith Hill - Cry – Warner Brothers Records 9 48001-9 DVD-A and DVD-V:

This album could be titled Faith Hill “Sells Out” or “Goes Rock”. The thing that makes country nice to listen to is that the singer tells a story. The emphasis is on the lyrics and feelings. On this disc the emphasis is on the rock presentation. In the surround mix, the listener is put in the middle of the band. Faith remains mostly in the front channel, but her voice is not well represented. There is no sense of a real person singing in front of you. The instruments all around you are just a distraction. The rock accompaniment is also a distraction. There are a few times when they let you hear what she does well. That is delivering a good song. At times I felt like I was listening to a Christine Aguilera album. Faith Hill is way better than that, if she keeps to her roots. The sound of the accompanying instruments is without detail. The stereo DVD-A version is much better to listen to, you hear more of her voice. But the sound is sort of bland. There is a video of her song Cry included on the disc, with pretty good picture quality. And it contains the best sound on the DVD-A. There are three other videos included on the disc. They are a back stage video about the making of the album, the making of the Cry video, and a conversation with Faith Hill - of only moderate informational use. But videos of this beautiful woman are never a bad idea. It was interesting to see her dressed down like a regular person. The sound quality of this album is not as good as a good CD. The surround mix is only useful as background music. The stereo mix is more listenable, but nowhere near audiophile sound. The music is generic rock. The lyrics with a different presentation might have come off better. As a paraphrase of the old quote goes “she probably laughed all the way to the bank.” As with the REM disc, getting to DD or DTS on a DVD-A machine is very difficult to do. Purchase Here

- Clay Swartz

BEETHOVEN: Violin Sonatas: No. 5 Op. 24 “Spring”; No. 9 Op. 47 “Kreutzer” - Anne-Sophie Mutter, Violin; Lambert Orkis, Piano - DGG 471 641-2 Multichannel Hybrid SACD:

This release is one of a number of recent SACD titles from Universal that, while a welcome addition to the catalogue, happens to be among several releases from DGG that have generated some controversy within the SACD camp. DGG has chosen to use existing 44.1/24 PCM masters to convert some of their discs to SACD, and this has a number of people quite upset. Philips (also part of Universal) has gone in the opposite direction, and their SACD releases have all received uniform praise for sound quality.

I’ve listened to all the discs in question extensively, and I’m in agreement to a certain extent with some of the complaints, especially when releases originally from analog masters are concerned. Without a doubt, the digital tapes used to convert these discs to SACD sound horrible, and DGG should be ashamed for not having gone back to the analog masters of these classic recordings (as Sony has done with all of their discs from the same period). Let’s hope they realize and correct their mistakes soon.

But I’m not so sure that such damnation is really deserved with the recordings of digital origin that were used for the SACD transfers. Of those recordings in question, including this one, I think the sound is uniformly excellent, and DGG has done a really good job with these discs in their multichannel presentation. The SACD is a striking improvement from the original CD release. Not only is the playing superb by both Anne-Sophie Mutter and Lambert Orkis, but the recorded presentation is great! The piano and violin both occupy the space closely in front of you, not quite a stage perspective, but very close to the players. Switching to the stereo layer collapses the soundstage and makes the performance generally less involving.

The performances are also excellent, and should place this disc on a short list for these works. Hopefully, DGG will decide to release the remaining Beethoven Sonatas from the already complete recordings. Very highly recommended! Purchase Here

-- Tom Gibbs

We have a Handel on yet another DVD-A vs. SACD comparison here...
MARCELLO, HANDEL & VIVALDI = MARCELLO: Oboe Concerto; HANDEL: Organ Concerto No. 13 in F Major; VIVALDI: Sinfonia No. 1 in G Major; Sinfonia No. 2 in C Major - The George Enescu Philharmonia Orchestra/Cristian Mandeal - AIX Records DVD-Audio 81002:

Another of the fine multichannel programs recorded in 96K/24-bit/5.1 by AIX during their whirlwind visit to Bucharest, Romania, but without the session videos provided on their domestically-recorded DVD-As. They continue their offering of just about everything else that can be crammed onto a DVD-A, including both DTS and DD encoded tracks, a straight un-MLP-ed stereo PCM track, and both “audience” and “stage” perspectives, depending on the format choice (the only MLP 5.1 option is “audience”). Adrian Petrescu is the oboe soloist in the Marcello concerto, and the organist in the Handel concerto is Nicolae Licaret. The two Vivaldi three-movement sinfonias didn’t sound overly familiar - a good thing. Performances and sonics are uniformly good throughout. The Handel organ concerto is just one of a set of 9 that has been recorded previously as a complete set, and it is not identified specifically on the AIX disc - an unfortunate oversight.

The review below is of the complete set in the competing SACD format. The overarching difference heard between the two versions of the Concerto No. 13 is the pitch; seems to be the same different practice between accuracy to the Baroque norm or modern useage. The Pentatone masters date from 1975 and early music practitioners have become greater sticklers for accuracy since then, so this newer AIX version must be using the lower pitch. It is also a more sprightly but less note-perfect performance than on the Pentatone set, so I would also recommend the complete set of concertos. Purchase Here


HANDEL: Organ Concertos Nos. 1, 2, 3 & 4 - Vol. 1 - Daniel Chorzempa, organ/Concerto Amsterdam/Jaap Schroder - PentaTone Classics multichannel (4.0) SACD PTC 5186 103:
HANDEL: Organ Concertos Nos. 5, 6, 8, 11 & 13 - Vol. 2 - Daniel Chorzempa, organ/Concerto Amsterdam/Jaap Schroder - PentaTone Classics multichannel (4.0) SACD PTC 5186 104 (Distr.by Telarc):

Two more of the excellent four-channel made-for-quad masters from the mid 70s, as issued on SACD by this new label founded by some former Philips execs. Handel specialized in oratorios for some time, and wanted to offer his audiences some musical extras during the oratorio performances. He began with organ improvisations which eventually grew into the new organ concerto form. These are nine of the 16 which are extant today. Most follow a four movement pattern of slow-fast-slow-fast. The organ Handel was stuck with was a single manual without even foot pedals, so the solo parts are kept rather simple, but there are many brilliant passages and fine interplay with the orchestra. The lack of a center channel is not missed in the least. The aural perspective is more distant than with the AIX organ concerto above, with more of a feel of the church interior. No one would downgrade any of the PentaTone series for dated-sounded sonics. Purchase Here

- John Sunier

DOMENICO SCARLATTI & BEETHOVEN / Woodwind Quintets = SCARLATTI: Six Harpsichord Sonatas transcribed for woodwind quintet; BEETHOVEN: Quintet Op. 71 for flute, oboe, clarinet, bassoon and Fr. Horn - The George Enescu Wind Quintet - AIX Records DVD-A 1341AX:

More music from the Bucharest journey by this enterprising DVD-A label. As on the others in this series, there are four different recorded versions of the works - DVD-A MLP 5.1, hi-res PCM stereo, a Dolby Digital 5.1 “audience” mix, and a DTS 5.1 “stage” mix. 12 pairs of stereo mikes were used for the original 24-track pickup. One can navigate thru many extras on the discs, including technical details, information on the AIX label, and an excellent test-tone section. There have been many varied transcriptions made of the various 550 odd Scarlatti harpsichord sonatas, and this is not the first I have heard transferring the perky little sonatas to woodwinds, but it is unfortunate the transcriber is not given credit. The Beethoven quintet is a lovely work that somehow sounds less like Beethoven due to the airy instrumentation. The players are spread around the listener in a sort of horseshoe arrangement with a close perspective, although the DTS “stage” mix puts them closer yet. Sonics are superb-present and detailed in every way. Purchase Here

- John Sunier

BACH: Brandenburg Concertos No. 3 and No. 5; Air on the G String - The George Enescu Philharmonic Orchestra / Christian Mandeal, Conductor - AIX Records 1338AX - DVD-Audio:

The AIX Records website contains a statement prefacing all their new releases that essentially states that their discs are NOT attempts to document live recordings of orchestras, but instead are “explorations” of high-res recording and mixing techniques. For me, personally, right out of the gate, this approach smacks of gimmickry and is against what I tend to look for in high-res recordings (especially of classical music) – naturally miked and recorded surround sound, with no gimmicks – so I have to admit that I had some serious misgivings prior to hearing to these discs. The proof is in the listening, though, as these discs really only offer two different seating perspectives (though in several different formats) and are really well recorded, and nothing at all like the debacle offered by Tacet’s Brandenburgs on DVD-A (with at least five different seat perspectives).

All of the AIX discs offer four different “Group” settings; the default setting is the DVD-Audio “Audience” perspective, placing you in the theoretical best seat in the house. Other available settings include a 96/24 high-res stereo mix, a Dolby Digital 5.1 “Audience” mix and a DTS 5.1 “Stage” mix, which places you among the players. The two latter mixes allow the disc to be listened to on players that don’t support DVD-Audio. The default setting for the discs is the one I used for most listening, and makes for easy access for those without a monitor or TV as part of their set-up.

The music is well-suited to the musical forces employed here, but the level of the playing is all over the board; really refined music making frequently gives way to rather pedestrian passages. The Tacet Brandenburg disc, in contrast, offers all six Concertos on a single-sided disc, and although the recording is just as much an experiment as what’s found here, the performances are spot-on, and excellent value to boot. The AIX discs are generously featured, but the performances are lacking, and with really stiff competition in these works, unless you’re especially looking for the playback options offered here, you could do much better than these recordings. Purchase Here

-- Tom Gibbs

STRAVINSKY: Firebird Suite (1919); RAVEL: Bolero - The George Enescu Philharmonic Orchestra / Christian Mandeal, Conductor - AIX Records 1339AX - DVD-Audio:

Being an Atlanta native I’ve always been partial to the Telarc/Shaw/ASO recording of the Stravinsky Firebird – it may not be the final word based on performance standards, but it offers enough of a good balance between the playing and sonics to make for a really enjoyable listen. It has translated well to SACD, and even though that early Telarc signature bass drum comes across with tremendous visceral impact, the music making is also very satisfying. So there it is, I have a really pronounced bias when listening to any new recording containing this work.

My biggest complaint with the AIX disc stems mainly from the performances – unfortunately, this disc falls squarely into the category of audiophile recordings that offer good recorded sound, but just don’t measure up otherwise. This applies equally to both the Stravinsky and Ravel pieces; while the orchestra’s playing can be quite beautiful in certain passages, it isn’t sustained throughout, and passages that should be really dynamic in nature tend to be less than impressive. Towards the end of the Ravel Bolero the brass is particularly unmannered and more than just a little rough around the edges – and that just about sums up everything here.

Both pieces face very stiff competition from numerous catalog entries (too many excellent versions to recount them), and although it’s good to have them here in hi-res sound, this just isn’t a disc that will spend much time in my player, because the performances are lackluster and not very involving. Purchase Here

-- Tom Gibbs

MOZART: Symphonies No. 26 and No. 41 “Jupiter - The George Enescu Philharmonic Orchestra / Christian Mandeal, Conductor - AIX Records 1337AX - DVD-Audio:

With this disc of Mozart symphonies we finally get the right symbiosis of recorded sound and excellent performances by an orchestra that is well-suited to music of a much more sympathetic ourve.

The default, hi-res surround track offered the most convincing and lifelike presentation of the orchestra here – switching to either the DD 5.1 or DTS 5.1 gives you more of a stage perspective on the orchestra, with much more activity coming from the surrounds. The 96/24 stereo mix is quite good also, but unless you can’t access the hi-res surround mix, why bother with either compressed or stereo mixes? AIX needs to stick with discs like this (or perhaps solo artists or chamber music recordings), where the orchestra is better matched to the repertory. Purchase Here

-- Tom Gibbs

MOZART: Variations on a Theme of Duport in D; SCHUMANN: Fantasie Op. 17 - Matei Vargas, Piano - AIX Records AIX81003 - DVD-Audio:

This disc of solo piano music from Mozart and Schumann may very well be the best of the bunch, with splendid playing and excellent recorded sound. Listening to the default hi-res surround setting, the piano fills the soundstage perfectly, with just the right amount of ambience coming from the surrounds to give the listener more of “live” perspective. Switching to either the DD 5.1 or DTS 5.1 group setting gives the piano an unnatural, bloated perspective that I didn’t care for at all, and the 96/24 hi-res stereo setting collapsed the soundstage and made the experience more two-dimensional.

The pianist (Mr. or Ms.?) Vargas does an excellent job with both the Mozart and Schumann pieces – a little more information from AIX (either on-screen or in the booklet) about the artists would be really nice in the future. Overall, this is a very nice recording and highly recommended. Purchase Here

-- Tom Gibbs

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