In an article in the September '84 issue of Hi-Fi for Pleasure, Tony Horkins (he of IM&RW) made the very pertinent comment that the race for audio perfection that hi-fi buffs are always at such pains to pursue is somewhat at odds with the reality of the average studio situation. The undeniable fact of the matter is that many rock instruments don't actually have an authentic bone in their body, which makes the search for the authentically reproduced snare sound somewhat dubious. Come to that, the journey from synth or digital drum machine to vinyl may be so circuitous (in both senses of the word) that the latest audiophile fad for removing tone controls (eg. the new Rotel RA820B amplifier) is probably about as meaningful as porridge on a hot summer's day.
What raises these thoughts is primarily the fact that I've just succumbed to the delights of the Compact Disc by splashing out on a Marantz CD73. Now, this is a truly wonderful machine, it really is. Indeed, with all around saying things like 'price for price I don't think that as of now this can be bettered' (Hi-Fi for Pleasure, July '84), I was sure I'd made the right choice.
But then along comes some other reviewer with a different machine and rather different comments: '(Linda Rondstadt) with the MCD (Meridian Compact Disc) the reverb behind the voice was clearer than via the CD73... bass via the CD73 also seemed more stodgy... (Handel) an open, clear sound with the MCD. The CD73 produced a coarser sound with a droning ill-defined bass line which confused the string bass playing and seemed to rob the whole performance of life, verve and energy... (Joan Baez) slow and muffled on the CD73 while via the MCD you could clearly hear the chords being played.'
Get the picture? Makes you sick as a parrot, doesn't it? But the story doesn't end there. The point about the Meridian Compact Disc player is that it makes use of 'psychoacoustics in audio design'.
Good word, psychoacoustics. Lots of advertising mileage to be made out of it. But there are psychoacoustics and there are psychoacoustics: the Aphex Aural Exciter, for instance. What Meridian have done is to take a standard Philips CDP101 player and then re-design all the analogue circuitry, including the post-DAC filtering, output cables, power supply cables (yes, power supply cables!), and a good deal more besides. And what's worrying is that it's just those changes, rather than anything to do with the laser tracking, error correction, or DACs, that led to the critical differences quoted above.
If all this is valid, various questions beg to be asked from our side of the mixing desk: what about all the digital keyboards, drum computers, and computer music systems being produced - are we really missing out on their inherent sound quality just because of the wrong routings of power supply cables and inadequate low-pass filters?
But jokes at the expense of the audiophile apart, don't you think something's a mite unbalanced if hi-fi critics carp on in such a finickety way about the technology that all of us are so eagerly taking under our belts? Is it merely that we're too preoccupied playing the things to really listen critically?
Come to think of it, isn't it somewhat bizarre using the 16-bit resolution of the Compact Disc standard to sample drum machines and digital synths all beavering away with just a paltry eight bits?
Now that's what I call over-sampling!
Editorial by David Ellis
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