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Multichannel SACD Reviews - October 2001

Here is our first review of 13 multichannel SACD discs, and it will be just the first of regular coverage by AUDIOPHILE AUDITION. Playback was with the new Sony 775 entry-level multichannel/stereo SACD and CD changer, R.E. Design six-channel analog preamp and Genelec active home theater speakers. The latter two items will be reviewed next month. A powered subwoofer was also used, and comparisons of the two-channel mixes was made on a Sony 9000ES player. Bear in mind the advantages of producers being able to tweak their own special stereo mix on SACDs and not be confined to having the player to do the mixdown as with DVD-Audio.

 

TCHAIKOVSKY: 1812 Overture; Polonaise from Eugene Onegin; Capriccio Italien; March Slave; Waltz from Eugene Onegin; Festival Coronation March; Cossack Dance from Mazeppa - Kiev Sym. Chorus/Children's Choir of Greater Cincinnati/Cincinnati Pops Orch./Erich Kunzel - Telarc SACD 80541:

See my review of the DVD-Audio version of this release in the DVD-A section this month. As I mention there, I found little difference in a cursory comparison between the two formats' multichannel versions. The major differences are in the various extra features provided by the DVD-A version, its need for a video display, and the size of the case. However, this SACD does have one very useful additional feature: Surround speaker setup tones that last a good long time to allow for adjustments. They are introduced by a child's voice - a cute idea. These tones allowed by to set all five speakers to the same exact level using the very precise pots on the R.E. Design preamp and a Radio Shack digital sound level meter. I adjusted all for 75 dB at three feet away from the speakers. I was surprised to find when I moved to the sweet spot and pointed the mic on the meter straight up in front of my head that I got 70 dB from each individual direction. I had thought there would be a greater variation than that.

Anyway, this SACD is probably going to fill the same role in the new multichannel high-res world that Telarc's original 1978 LP filled in the (more innocent) world at that time.

Spyro Gyra - In Modern Times - Heads Up HUSA 9061:

The fifth album for Telarc's sublabel continues the very catchy, optimistic jazz fusion of the long-running Spyro Gyra. Jay Bechenstein's saxes - primarily the soprano - remain the centerpiece of the quintet, but there are a number of guests on this session. They include a couple of additional percussionists, trombone on one track, and three brass players dubbed the No Sweat Horns. There's a dozen tracks, they're all swinging with a vengeance, and the multichannel mix has some great fun with the surround channels here and there. The SACD actually omits one thing that is on the previous 44.1 "Enhanced" CD - a short and jerky video on the cross -platform CD-ROM portion.

- John Sunier

 

HECTOR BERLIOZ: Symphonie fantastique; Love Scene from Romeo et Juliette - Cincinnati Sym. Orch./Paavo Jarvi - Telarc SACD-60578:

While not specifically spatial in nature, this is a perfect work for multichannel since it is intended to create a dreamy (actually opium drugged) feeling of fantasy in listeners. The very transparent surround aids in that intent, communicating Berlioz' diaphanous instrumental textures and scene-painting. Jarvi produces an exciting interpretation with a great deal of forward impetus. The March to the Scaffold movement is a hair-raising Halloween experience in five minutes in this performance and surround sonics! The Love Scene from Romeo and Juliet makes a good chill-out from the high-tension Fantastic Symphony. (A little tip to headphone users: If you want to hear what it's like to sit in the balcony at Cincinnati's Music Hall during a performance, just run Channels 4 & 5 on this SACD into your headphone amp and put on your headphones. They were recorded binaurally using the Neumann dummy head mike system.)

SHOSTAKOVICH: Chamber Symphony Op. 110A; ALFRED SCHNITTKE: Concerto for Piano and Strings - Constantine Orbelian, piano & conductor/Moscow Chamber Orch. - Delos SACD 3259:

The subtitle of this SACD could not be more appropriate or prescient in light of recent events: "Dedicated to Victims of War and Terror." In the note booklet pianist/conductor Orbelian - who is the first American to have a regular conducting post in Russia - dedicates the album to has grandparents, one of whom was murdered in a Moscow prison in l938 during one of Stalin's purges, and the other who spent a decade in a gulag prison. The Shostakovich work depicts the terrors of the 30s and 40s in Russia, in some ways better than any of the composer's standard symphonies. The piano concerto pits the sound of bells and Russian liturgical melodies against the horrors of war. The DSD recording was made at Skywalker studios during a U.S. tour by the orchestra, so the expected reverberation of a concert hall or church is not present, making the surround effect more subtle to my ears. An advantage though is the dead quiet background possible in this super-insulated studio. Some of the extremely low-level string passages would be compromised in many public venues. I haven't taken a shine to Schnittke previously, but found his piano concerto a striking work that communicates strong emotional content. I'm looking forward to more multichannel SACDs from Delos engineer John Eargle - including one coming up of solo harpsichord, which should be very interesting to hear.

- John Sunier

 

MOZART: Sinfonia Concertante in E Flat Major K364; Violin & Piano Concerto K. Anh. 56 - Midori, violin/Nobuko Imai, viola/Christopher Eschenbach, piano & conductor/NDR Sym. Orch. - Sony Classical SS 89488:

This is Sony Classical's first multichannel classical CD. They seem rather reticent about it, omitting the multichannel silver sticker they themselves printed up for other labels to put on the outside of their jewel boxes. Perhaps that is because like all other Sony SACDs, this one is SACD Only and not hybrid as state on the stickers. The first work is rather familiar Mozart and really a violin/viola concerto though not called that. The two solo instruments have equal roles in the work, concluding with a cadenza of intimate conversation between them.

If the second work here seems unfamiliar it may be because it hasn't been heard before. Mozart only wrote 120 bars of the first movement of this double concerto, and scholar Philip Wilby has completed it and reconstructed the second and third movements from the Violin-Piano Sonata in D, K306, which he believes was the working model for the planned concerto. It's a lovely work and the presence of the two soloists seems nearly palpable in the very detailed and spacious soundstage. Again, a broadcast studio was used so the ambient field heard on the surrounds is less pronounced than one would expect - you might even want to raise the level slightly. But not to the point of being aware of the surrounds, which you should only be if you mute them completely. While this is a very satisfying first release, I wonder why no one has yet issued multichannel recordings of music which was specially designed by its composers to be spatial in nature? Such as the Berlioz Requiem (coming soon on Vanguard), Gabrieli Canzonas or most anything by Henry Brant.

SAINT-SAENS: Cello Concerto No. 1 in A minor; TCHAIKOVSKY: Andante Cantabile; Variations on a Rococo Theme; MAX BRUCH: Kol Nidrei - Pieter Wispelwey, cell/Chamber Philharmonic, Bremen/Daniel Sepec - Channel Classics CCS SA 16501:

The first SACD from the enterprising Dutch label Channel Classics is a multichannel one. Soloist Wispelwey has recorded the Bach unaccompanied suites and other works for this label. These four works all share a strong lyrical mood. Wispelwey has exceptional phrasing and a very rich and velvety cello tone. In fact in the 44.1 layer of this disc his instrument sounds nearly electronic, with little indication off bow hairs on strings. Switching to the SACD two-channel layer brings out the more realistic feeling of bow and strings, and the beginnings and endings of bow strokes. The cello is also placed more palpably out in front of the chamber orchestra rather than imbedded in its sound. Moving on to the multichannel tracks the enhancement is very subtle, but now there is the added feeling of the German hall where the recordings were made. Also, the soundstage depth seems now to increase a bit more and different instruments in the orchestra to define themselves from one another more clearly. I should say this is probably the most perfect playing of the familiar Andante Cantabile I've ever auditioned.

- John Sunier

 

Multichannel Reference SACD - DMP SACD-16:

Tracks are: Ubi Caritas, from Guadamus "Sacred Feast"
Autumn Leaves, from Warren Berhardt Trio "So Real"
Shiny Stockings, from Bob Mintzer Big Band "Hommage to Count Basie"
Carioca Blue, from Joe Beck & Ali Ryerson "Django"
Bach's Lunch, from :Pilhofer Jazz Quartet "Full Circle"
Knockin' Myself Out, from Vivino Brothers "Blues Band"
Tsunami, from Hohner Percussion Ensemble "Far More Drums"
Test Signals for each channel using pink noise

A fascinating and useful disc absolutely indispensable to setting up a multichannel SACD system. The test signals are the same as those on the Telarc 1812. Tom Jung's approach, like Chesky and Telarc, puts the LFE channel to uses other than separately handling the lowest bass frequencies. However, his take on it differs from the other labels. It is suggested for optimum results that the LFE channel signal be fed to a raised-height center rear surround speaker near the ceiling - thus fulfilling some of the "ES" center-rear-channel requirements and at the same time providing some additional vertical spatial enhancement (provided by Chesky and Telarc's raised left and right side speakers). Alternately, the DMP note booklet suggests the LFE feed be used either for an actual overhead height speaker or conversely a center rear speaker located at the same floor level as the other speakers.

The overhead ceiling speaker (or speakers) would be the optimum method for playback of the first track on this sampler, since the a capella choir was recorded with an overhead mike in the chapel where they performed. I heard a demo of this with one of the Theil flat-mount speakers overhead and the result was really uncanny. The other tracks all utilize Jung's subtle and tasteful approach to multichannel, with natural ambience in the surround channels and no gimmicky pan-potting of instruments to either of the surrounds. The alto guitar and alto flute of Beck and Ryerson are just gorgeous on Carioca Blue. Even though both are amplified, there are only the two instruments in the studio and thus imaging is not as definite as with acoustic instruments, the multichannel reproduction brings one much closer to the rich musical tapestry they weave. Even with the height channel going to the subwoofer (since I don't yet have the height setup in operation) and being for the most part lost therefore, the palpability of the piano in both the Warren Bernhardt and Pilhofer tracks is so much greater than even the best of two-channel piano recordings. The rollicking Vivino Bros. Track demonstrates that you don't need dozens and dozens of mikes (especially on drum sets) to achieve a terrific sonic impact for hard-driving music. And the Hohner Percussion Ensemble track that closes out the music portion of the disc makes multiple drums much more interesting listening than any two-channel versions possibly could. You are aware of where each drum is located and can almost visualize them being struck.

Pilhofer Jazz Quartet - Full Circle - (Herb Pilhofer, piano/Gordy Johnson, bass/Michael Pilhofer, drums/Steve Yeager, vibes) - DMP SACD-14:

German pianist Pilhofer was a former partner of DMP's Tom Jung and was encouraged by him to record this quartet session in his home town of St. Paul. The dozen tunes include four Pilhofer originals and there is a leaning toward classical shown by the track used on the above sampler - Bach's Lunch - a Sorta Rondo which sounds inspired by Brubeck's Blue Rondo, and a marvelous version of Satie's First Gymnopedie. Vibist Yeager is tops in this live-to-six-tracks session.

- John Sunier

 

Warren Bernhardt, piano, with Jay Anderson, bass; Peter Erskine, drums - So Real - DMP-SACD-15:

Ditto for the above comments on the so real sound of Bernhardt's piano. His style is somewhat introspective and lyrical but not devoid of swinging. The drums are on the left, the piano on the right and the bass centered at the front of the soundstage. Monk's I Mean You is one of the gems among the nine tracks here, and Billie Holiday's Don't Explain is also a very moving treatment.

One wouldn't expect multichannel reproduction to add a great deal to a standard piano trio, but let me tell you it does. On material using DMP's subtle rear-ambience approach it is very important to have all five main speakers equidistant from you, and if possible all identical too. It would be nice if component manufacturers would give us a simple front/back balance control as in car stereos, since even a half dB too high level on the surrounds can bring about a focus on them which should not occur if you want to maintain that So Real playback.

Joe Beck & Ali Ryerson. Alto guitar & alto flute - Django - DMP SACD-13:

The comments above pretty much sum up this delightful disc. John Lewis' compositional tribute to the great gypsy guitarist is my favorite jazz work, and many years ago I put together a tape of all the recorded versions of Django - ranging from solo piano and guitar to full orchestra and all sorts of combinations in between.This version is near the top of all of them. The 13 tracks include some super choices: Chick Corea's Spain, the Brazilian O Barquinho, Miles' Nardis and the Beatles' Come Together among them.

- John Sunier

 

Mike Oldfield - Tubular Bells - Virgin 50733 2:

This was a kick to hear again as a stereo SACD after all these years. The original represented the epitome of the one-man home-based recording extravaganza, with Oldfield alone playing (almost) all the various and sundry instruments and sounds brought together via multi-tracking. Doing it as a four-channel recording doubled the efforts required. I have the original SQ LP and when played thru the Cantares SQ decoder the results are quite good. However, the two-channel SACD surpassed it in all areas except providing sounds behind one. It left me anxious to hear what the separate four-channel SACD mix would sound like.

So the very first multichannel music SACD I put on the Sony 775 player was this one - in fact it was one of the discs I used to break in the player for some weeks. Wow - what a treat! Nostalgia and the music reproduction system of the 21st century all at once. The preparation of the first Virgin multichannel SACD took some effort as well. A few sections on some of the instruments were missing entirely from the original materials, necessitating the producer to re-create some keyboard portions himself. Evidently the original quad mix was so dense or muddled that the missing portions went unnoticed, but now they stood out strongly. The second section (Sailor's Hornpipe) with Vivian Stanshall calling out the various instruments and effects coming up, is even more fun than it was on the original. Tape hiss is minimal but there is one section about six minutes in that seems to overload slightly. While this is quite different from the classical material that was recorded during the quadraphonic years, it shows that reissue of 4.0 sources in the new multichannel formats can be very successfully done. Let's have more of it! I understand there has been discussion of this at Sony but the feeling was that the costs of re-mixing and producing for the new medium might be prohibitive. Well, certainly not as expensive as a whole new recording session from scratch!

Omnibus Wind Ensemble - Music by Frank Zappa - Opus 3 CD 19423:

Receiving from Sweden this and a second Opus 3 multichannel sampler was quite a surprise. I knew that producer-engineer Jan-Eric Persson had been recording just about everything for his label using two-channel analog tape equipment and purist stereo miking techniques. Yet here were his first multichannel SACD releases - before those of many of the major labels who have been recording classical and jazz for years using six or eight-channel media! I also noticed that most of the selections on the sampler were already in my library in standard stereo versions - on both LP and CD. Both SACDs are really best-sellers from the label's back catalog.

Here's the rational for this quandary: Since its inception years ago Opus 3 has recorded all of their LPs and CDs with a single-point Blumlein-type mike setup. The combination of the figure-eight transducer that is part of this system (initially developed in the early 1930's) and companion forward-facing omni mike together preserve the ambient information of the recording space much more accurately than spaced forward-facing mikes of any type. So the ambient information that resulted from the carefully-chosen venues' natural acoustics (Opus 3 never uses studios) is right there in the two-channel recording, in the L - R or difference information. This was merely extracted and fed to the two surround channels. The result is necessarily 4.0 rather than 5.1 or 6.0, without use of either the center channel or LFE subwoofer channel. As with the quad-derived Tubular Bells disc above, it would be wise to feed either the full range signals or just the below-80-or-100Hz L and R front signal to your one or two subwoofers.

Let's not omit the music part of the review along with those channels: In the Classical section this month you'll find a review of another Zappa classical collection, from a Finnish ensemble of amplified mostly Baroque instruments. There have also been entries from another ensemble in Holland giving serious attention to the music of the late rock icon. It all goes to show there's something about the sardonic, offbeat composer/performer that applies to a certain type of open-minded classical musician. And here's some more: Omnibus is a classical serenade ensemble usually found tooting away on Mozart, Schubert and such. Transcribing the often electronically-enhanced Zappa sounds to their acoustic wind instruments required four different arrangers, but the result is charming and not at all bizarre - at least not adding another layer of bizarreness to what Zappa already intended. There is a string bass and some added percussion instruments in the dozen-player ensemble. Some of the same instrumental Zappa hits as on the other CD are found here: Alien Orifice, Igor's Boogie. Peaches En Regalia is one of his quirkiest and it closes out the 14 wild tracks. An astonishing, thankfully shortened version of Ravel's Bolero continues the sardonic mood of the collection. The hall surround information is very subtle, but careful comparison with the separate stereo mix on the disc shows that the added two channels give the frontal soundstage a dimension, depth and clarity previously lacking.

- John Sunier

Bucky Pizzarelli, guitar - Swing Live - (with Peter Appleyard, vibes/Bernard Purdie, drums/Vallen Vache, clarinet; Michael Moore, bass) - Chesky SACD223:

Recorded live at a New York City jazz club, it is rumored that the original masters are B-format Ambisonic. (For some of us, that is the multichannel format that should be used for all new high-res surround releases.) How the four usual channels of Ambisonic - which preserve the various pressure patterns in the room or hall and are not specifically speaker-related - have been mixed to Chesky's alternate six-channel setup is not known to me. The sonic realism is extraordinary - superior to the other live multichannel recordings I've heard so far. The audience is there, but not annoyingly so as the one in Jazz at the Pawnshop can become at times. It's an intimate sound - doesn't sound like a large space. The seven tracks are all in the seven to ten-minute range in length, giving all five players time to stretch out and give us some great solos. They jump right in with Lester Leaps In, and continue with Sweet Sue, Dinah, Perdido, If I Had You, Too Marvelous for Words, Live House Blues. Can't wait to experience this one with my height channels set up!

Christy Baron - Steppin' - Chesky Records SACD227:

Baron is a jazz vocalist and her focus is mainly modern (rather than the Gershwin/Kern etc. classics) standards. Her album has a great variety of approaches in an effort to appeal to a wider audience than mainstream jazz buffs. Part of this is using sources such as the Beatles, Prince and Peter Gabriel. Another is using a funk or r&b-oriented touch on certain tunes such as She's Not There. The Beatle's Tomorrow Never Knows gives us a sort of world music-21st century version of the original tune's psychedlia, incorporating among other things a Tuvan throat-singer! A number of other guest artists add their contributions to this variety of approaches: a soprano saxist, a harmonicist, some back-up vocalists, and even an entire string quartet on Thieves in the Temple. Chesky's approach is similar to DMP's in using the back surrounds for ambience and not putting instruments back there. in general the multichannel is employed to draw the listener more into the music in the frontal soundstage.

NOTE: I was surprised that neither the jewel box nor note booklet made reference to Chesky's non-standard allocation of the six channels. This is a serious omission. As discussed before in AUDIOPHILE AUDITION, finding 5.1 inadequate for music-only surround, Chesky uses both the LFE and center front channels full range to feed a stereo pair of side/height speakers to be located midway between the frontal pair of speakers and the rear surrounds - allowing the rears to be further back if space permits. Chesky's web site has details on this and some discussion about it on their forum page. One user reported that simply feeding their special six-channel mix into his 5.1 system with subwoofer sounded weird, and therefore he felt it was not really compatible. David Chesky replies that Channel 5 - which he identifies as the center channel normally - becomes the left side speaker and Channel 6 (the LFE) becomes the right side speaker. My sources show that Channels 4 & 5 are normally the surround channels in 5.1 recording, so it appears that Chesky is also non-standard in the way they allocate tracks on their recording equipment as well as the way they allocate the speaker layout. In a month or two when I have my system all tweaked out at my new location I'll report on the various alternates to 5.1 in more detail.

- John Sunier

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