The Living Stereo SACDs Revisited and the Belafonte-Carnegie Shootout.
Unlike that earlier report, I have chosen not to do extensive comparisons with either the original Shaded Dog or audiophile pressings on vinyl. Instead, I picked segments from each of these new reissues and made short comparisons only to the earlier CD releases. I also elected not to sample the CD layers on these new hybrid disks, thinking that after nearly six years on the market, audiophiles who would be attracted to the new medium had already made their decision to adopt it. If you are among the stragglers, then I hope there might be something here that will help you to reconsider making your move.
In each case it was a simple matter to identify noticeable differences between the new SACDs and the CDs of a decade ago. I can only speculate that some of these differences result from the fact that RCA chose to commission Soundmirror, an independent company, for these remasters. Others are, of course, the result of differences in the recording equipment used and in the new recording medium itself.
Perhaps the most well known of these among audiophiles is the Fritz Reiner--Chicago Symphony account of Rimsky-Korsakov's Scheherazade (82876-66377-2). It is my opinion that the new DSD remaster is a significant improvement over RCA's earlier Living Stereo CD (09026-68168-2) in several important ways. First, there is a more neutral, transparent rendering of the texture in clusters of instruments that is more like what we hear from the original LP pressings. The massed violins, for example, sound more like the collection of live performers that they are, and whose harmonic structure is much more apparent than on the earlier CD. That CD sounds a trifle muffled and veiled by comparison to this, as if the highest frequencies had been choked out or shrouded. In similar fashion, brass instruments display a throatiness that suggests a clarity we can't hear in the CD either. All of this comes to us without the slightest hint of the brightness so common in analog-to-digital transfers. There's an ease and palpability to the orchestra here whose sound field, in my listening room, has grown to realistic proportion. Here I find a recording that is substantial in all of the dimensions. This SACD transfer is as near to a perfect copy of the original tape as one could imagine, and it rivals the best of the Mercury Living Presence SACDs I've grown to respect.
I also sampled the famous Heifetz recording of the Sibelius Violin Concerto (82876 66372-2), the Wild/ Fiedler version of Gershwin's Rhapsody In Blue (81876 61393-2) and, the most stunning of all, Fiedler's unbeatable Offenbach: Gaite Parisienne (82876 66419-2). I'm simply amazed at how greatly the Offenbach betters its earlier CD counterpart. The sound stage is huge in every dimension, and there's a clarity and openness to the SACD that's almost non-existent on the earlier CD. While the other two are almost as good, I do have a nit or two to pick over the images projected of both Heifetz's violin and Wild's piano. They both seem to bleed out into the plane of the speakers, causing a slight smearing effect that's not at all noticeable on the earlier CDs. They are superior to the earlier CDs in every respect otherwise.
Here's an update of note on the Mercury Living Presence SACDs: I have one problem to report with the Starker/Bach Suites. A friend and I have both experienced TOC-read problems with this set. The one I received played the first disk perfectly, but would not load the second one at all. Neither of the two disks would load on the set that a friend purchased. We tried both sets in two Marantz SA-14 players (his and mine) and the results were consistent. I do not know if this problem is unique to this particular Marantz player, but I would advise interested readers to check both disks out on his own player as soon as he can. Some SACD players will automatically switch from the SACD to CD layer on a hybrid disk (such as the original Sony 777 and SCD-1), so if you own one of these two players make certain that your machine did not switch to the CD layer after it found the SACD layer unreadable.
And now, it's time for the great Harry Belafonte Live at Carnegie Hall shootout. If you aren't acquainted with this masterpiece of musical art and sound, you haven't yet heard what is probably the most wonderfully captured live performance ever to appear on record.
Six of my closest audiophile friends were invited to participate in a comparison of five different digital versions of this excellent album. I was interested in determining which of these, by consensus, was the most satisfying. The five versions include the standard USA budget copy, a British pressing on the Eagle label, the hybrid SACD version released by RCA Hong Kong, the 2-CD set from RCA Germany (which is one of only two digital versions of the complete concert that I know of) and the Classic Records gold CD release (the other complete concert version) that has been out of print for several years. Two of these participants were quite familiar with the album, and I allowed them to pick which songs from the set they wanted in this comparison test. The only provisions I made in their selections was that their choices would be common to both the complete and truncated versions of the album; I also asked that the participants not discuss their findings among each other. Since the complete concert contains four additional songs and an extended monologue introducing "The Marching Saints," I wanted to make certain that the subjects in this experiment would have a full set of five samples from all of the sources.
The methodology was simply devised, and everyone involved agreed to the terms I proposed. Since several of us had at least one CD copy of this historic concert (I own three of the five myself), each of us who owned a version was requested not to refer to his copy for any kind of comparison. I further stipulated that the several participants who are particularly savvy with such PC programs as Cool Edit should not be inserting the test disks I provided to them into their computers. After the songs had been chosen, I digitally extracted them to my computer's hard drive and then placed them onto two CD-R disks for each participant.
I did make one concession to the group: I had originally intended to use a random order when burning each version of a song to disks, but the consensus was that I should keep the order consistent--meaning that the first of the five samples would always be from a particular source as would all of the others in succession. What the participants didn't know was, therefore, what the origin of any sample might be. The disks were sent out in early January with a request that reactions and preferences be emailed back to me within three weeks.
The results were fairly uniform in favor of one particular release, but there were only two participants who preferred all four songs from that single source. Counting myself as the seventh participant in the experiment that single source had a commanding lead after all possibilities were tallied.
The one track on which a single sample garnered the most votes was "Danny Boy." Five of the seven of us concluded that, as one participant opined, "the gulf between [it] and the others is wider" than any of the others. Another noted, "I would tell you that there is one version that I MUST have ... the other four versions would make nice drink coasters. One version stands so clearly head and shoulders above the rest that I was quite taken aback." Your humble correspondent was among the five who chose this version, but who sympathized with the views of one of the dissenters who wrote of another track, "This track had, subjectively, the highest emotional content and even brought tears to my eyes."
Next in succession were "Jamaica Farewell" and "Mama Look A Boo Boo" each with four of the seven votes for the favored version. One of the dissenters wrote of "Jamaica Farewell" that "Track#5 was the most heavily filtered and was basically lifeless compared to Track#1 and Track#3 which were similar to each other. Belafonte's vocal was positioned center right in each of these three tracks. From a standpoint of detail, Track#4, in my opinion, clearly bested them all." For this song, I was torn between the leader of the group, and the one identified as Track 4 as was this dissenter.
The remaining song in the comparison test, "Hava Nageela," offered the greatest variety of opinion among the group. Not counting my own vote, the version leading overall merely tied (with two votes) with another version. In fact, that other version received its only votes for this song; the other two votes were split with what was to become the runner-up and the disk that finished tied for last place. The group comments were similar to what had been said of the other three songs, with some noting a greater degree of detail or dynamics than the others.
I have been purposefully keeping the reader in suspense as to what the winner was because I wanted to make a few comments about all of these versions before I revealed the winner. As most audiophiles will know, their fellow hobbyists are often prone to exaggerate, and with this in mind I felt that these five actually sounded a lot closer to each other than the votes would show. What intrigued me most, however, was that the winner among these five CD/SACD versions could have such a commanding lead over the others. This is indicative of several things to me, most important of which is that educated listeners (as these six participants have ably demonstrated they are) can hear minute differences in recordings, and can do so on audio equipment of varying levels of quality. So, here are the final rankings.
Starting at the bottom, there is a three-way tie for last place. The RCA Hong Kong hybrid SACD and the German and American releases each received 2 votes out of 28. There are more similarities between these three than there are differences. They all sound essentially the same, but the participants were most critical of the CD layer from the Hong Kong SACD. The irony of this is, of course, that the SACD version has the highest retail price. In my opinion, both the Hong Kong and USA versions appear to have been pressed from the very same original CD master. The German version is the most recommendable of these three because it is a 2-CD set of the complete concert, while the other two are truncated.
Coming in second is the UK pressing on the Eagle label. With 8 out of the possible 28 votes, it was still well below 50% of the vote tally. Despite this, I find the Eagle remastering to be markedly superior to the other three discussed in the last paragraph. It shows none of the digital shriek common to them, giving the music a more relaxed, analog-like sound, and approaching the Classic Records winner by a closer margin than the votes indicate. What's even more impressive about this is that it often sells as cheaply as any of the other versions. These routinely appear on ebay in a seller's 1 cents auctions. Judging by its timings that differ slightly from the American, German and Hong Kong versions, this one might have been mastered to digital using a different source. Although this version is also truncated, I am not reluctant to recommend it over either the Hong Kong or American versions, but would opt for the German pressing since it offers the complete concert.
As to the Classic Records version, it was awarded 14 out of 28 votes, making it the clear winner. I thought that the comments of one of the participants summed its distinction over the other four, so I am quoting it here with just a few corrections for typographical errors.
"I was going to write you then but I thought I would listen again tonight to confirm that which was so obvious to me. Steve, this version is so much better that I truthfully cannot listen to the other 4 versions and make a judgment about them. All I can think of doing while listening to any version other than this one is to immediately switch to it. It is that distracting. Therefore, I do not feel it is fair to compare all 5 versions at the same time and I have decided to compare only [the first] 4 and leave out the one that 'smokes' the others, hence the need for Part 2 of the evaluation. So tomorrow night I will make the Herculean effort of plodding though the remaining 4 versions--which, in IMHO compared to this version, are simply "variations on a theme."
"Now, back to this outstanding version I refer to. In some earlier emails there was a short discussion referring to PRAT (pace, rhythm and timing). Well, this version might just be able to confer the idea and feeling [of this concept] better than any words I can use. After listening to this version of "Harvey and Sheila" [your humble correspondent's tip of the cap and homage to the great Alan Sherman version of Hava Nageela] and going back to ANY one of the other four versions, they sound like a turntable that is about 5% slow!! In fact, the other versions sound like a rehearsal for the real thing where everyone is trying to get their timing and adjustments correct ... including the sound engineers. The soundstage characteristics of this version are simply fantastic and the horns ... OH MY God!! Steve, you won't believe them when you hear this on my system. [Correspondent's note: this contributor's audio system is one of the most natural sounding I've ever heard and without, GASP, a single vacuum tube in sight] ALL the other songs were similar in respect to soundstage, dynamics and emotional impact. I simply MUST have a copy of this version ... The version I refer to is ... Cuts 5 and 10 on both disks, the one with the lower volume. I don't know which one it is, but it is the one I want...."
Of course, one of the reasons that the Classic Records version exists at a lower overall volume level is that it isn't as compressed as the others are. On systems capable of recreating the wide dynamic range or recording the quality of this one, the lower volume level is necessary in order to avoid clipping at the listeners's end, and limiting during the recording session. For the most part, I must congratulate and thank all six of my participants for arriving very convincingly at what is, as of this date, the best available digital version of Harry Belafonte Live at Carnegie Hall; too bad it's out of print.
It would be totally unfair of me to stop here, though. Having had a chance to hear the Classic Records vinyl reissue compared to an original RCA 1/S copy in addition to all of these digital transfers, the ultimate nod has to go to the analog original from RCA. The Classic Records vinyl version (which is still in print, by the way) is superior to the company's CD version, but does not quite have the life and utter sense of being there that the original has. If you've got the time and patience to wade through the dozens of copies that go up for auction on ebay every week, you may well be rewarded by getting one of these cheaply, as did one of the participants. What I would like to see happen is that RCA would choose to commission Soundmirror to remaster the entire album in the Living Stereo SACD series. This might accomplish two things: it could right the shameful wrong of deleting four songs just to release the album on a single disk, and it could possibly offer a digital version of the recording that outdoes the out of print Classic Records version.
Finally, just as I was getting ready to send this off to our editor, Audio Fidelity sent me its two newest releases. I am unaware of the reasons that the small boutique labels are having trouble getting licenses to reissue recordings in the SACD medium, but it is a fact of life that both Audio Fidelity (formed by Marshall Blonstein, formerly of DCC) and the new Mobile Fidelity have suddenly reverted to the practice of releasing gold CDs for the audiophile market. In keeping with the AF tradition of providing real value, their first two gold CD releases have a suggested list price of $19.98, and they are still mastered for the company by the redoubtable Steve Hoffman. Like their DCC predecessors, these gold CDs come in cardboard sleeves reminiscent of the DCC sleeve; only the new ones are black instead of white. These two also feature HDCD encoding. They are, The Doobie Brothers' Minute By Minute (AFZ 025) and The Faces' A Nod Is As Good As A Wink (AFZ 026) and they sound as good to me as I've ever heard them.
If you have any questions or comments about the content of this column, I would be happy to have you email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.--SGB