Sunday, January 6, 2008

Perfect Sound Forever?

Electronics giants Sony and Philips introduced the compact disc or C.D. to an unsuspecting consumer electronic market back in 1983 to supposedly replace the vinyl LP with claims of “perfect sound forever.” Does this claim still hold true in 2007, or is this just a triumph of marketing?

By: Vanessa Uy

Perfect sound? As like a bunch of musicians playing in front of me or with me…Well? As a bunch, we audiophiles are no fools. This is evident on why we are always mindful of our “investment” after parting with our hard-earned cash. Even though I’m still a novice in this hobby, my experiences so far, both good and bad haven’t yet disappointed me. As the last three years of being seriously involved in hi-fi, I’ve taken it upon myself to become an audio tourist of sorts. Visiting various camps and schools-of-thought of varying degrees of disparity and of hospitality always interests me. The vinyl LP community was a fascinating revelation since I only own seven LPs. The major bulk of the music software I own are the 500+ CDs and MP3 downloads. In the audiophile universe, LP lovers are extremely influential. I’ve tweaked and set up my CD player to sound as close to a US$1,000 LP turntable as possible to achieve “investment satisfaction” i.e. musicality. Today (to audiophiles it’s synonymous to the phrase: from1989 onwards), we judge a CD player’s performance by how it mimics vinyl LP’s musicality. Isn’t this the most ironic of anachronisms?

Since the release of CD in 1983, experienced audiophiles armed with their golden ears have always doubted on CD’s claims of “the perfect sound” after an extended audition. At the risk of sounding “philosophical”, CD’s shortcomings can be blamed on how Sony and Philips, the two corporate giants who developed CD. To me it’s because first and foremost these corporations are run, by: bureaucrats, as opposed to musicians, who are by- and- large artists. In my experience bureaucrats doesn’t acknowledge that a problem exists unless there is already a solution- at- hand. So that is why during the late 1980’s to the mid 1990’s, Sony and Philips made a concerted effort to explore the shortcomings of the digital “code” that runs CD or any other digital audio processing system then in existence since these are more or less the same. The race is on to better the “perfect” sound.

Toward the end of the 1980’s, audio engineers discovered the root cause of CD’s shortcomings namely jitter. Audio engineers who worked the development of digital audio processing at the end of the 1970’s thought that the effects of jitter cannot be heard by the human ear, so this phenomenon is only of academic interest. Anomalies that then were discovered that affected CD sound quality can only be objectively analyzed by expensive (new ones start at US$1,000) and “specialized” (they don’t play DVDs or make your stereo sound better) equipment like jitter analyzers and harmonic distortion meters. But this does not mean that we can’t hear these problems on a good audio system. Using one’s own pair of ears, a CD player with high levels of jitter manifests itself when a recorded snare drum doesn’t sound quite right. I’ve done this using LP and CD versions of Eric Clapton albums. If the drum/percussion parts sound as if they don’t have the right impact or rhythm or “groove”, then jitter is to blame. The often quoted almost zero percent harmonic distortion of CD only holds true for audio signals near the maximum level allowable i.e. loudest part of the music. I’ve heard this mostly on classical piano recordings. When the music piece are filled with parts that indicate “piano” (small p) on the sheet music or “play this note at 40 decibels sound pressure level" (as loud as someone speaking in a normal voice 50 meters away from you), these notes invariably end up sounding glassy on CD. Compared to Glenn Gould playing Bach on my old CBS LP. The near silent notes, even though almost swamped by LP surface noise, still sound natural compared to CD.

That’s why during the early 1990’s, CD sound quality was “improved” by Sony’s Super Bit Mapping. A digital processing scheme that alleviates the distortion of the low- level signals i.e. quiet parts of the music. Generally this made CD sound less “hard” and “glassy.” Other techniques introduced around this time to improve the “perfect sound” of CD were Pacific Microsonic Incorporated of California’s HDCD. This process makes CD sound as if it has more bandwidth .The 44.1kHz.sampling rate specification of CD means it can’t record sounds whose frequencies are above 22.05kHz. HDCD also has lesser distortion on low level signals (fault of CD’s16 bit data width that makes it unable to reliably record sounds below 40 dB. S.P.L.). Philips also developed their own signal processing technique like dither and noise shaping to make “16bit CDs” sound smoother and more ”analog.” The latest generation of CD players, are designed to have an inherently low measured jitter for better sound.

In my own experience, I swear that these techniques used to improve the sound of standard 16bit CDs does work. I'm fortunate enough to acquire music CDs in both standard (these are likely released during the 1980’s) and “improved” versions whether SBM or HDCD versions (usually mid to late 1990’s re-issues). HDCD have a smoother sound and more realistic bass compared to their standard CD counterparts while SBM versions are more widely available despite of HDCD’s more analog and LP like sound quality. The good thing is that all of them makes CDs sound more focused, more “rhythmically correct” and louder than their unimproved counterparts. The bad thing is they require serious money to acquire.

If I can make a wish, the consumer electronic powers-that-be should improve digital audio by using a specification that is vastly superior to the standard CD’s 16 bit 44.1 kHz. sampling rate like DVD audio’s 24 bit 96 kHz. sampling. What good does it do if I can hear sounds up to 80 kHz. and not enjoy the pleasure of having this ability? What about SACD? Why don’t the consumer electronic powers-that-be use their massive marketing campaign like they did on 16 bit CDs back in 1983? Are these companies too busy being involved with the United States’ Department of Defense on their “War on Terror”?

Even today majority of the public don’t know that better than CD sound quality exists, or that there are still people who enjoy listening to their vinyl LPs on a daily basis. Since high- resolution digital audio was released to the market back in 1998, the consumer electronic powers-that be should have exerted more effort in marketing it because in the end, they would be giving their customers the privilege of what is technologically possible. In short most of us don’t live in a recording studio or are close to musicians that we really like.

Downloadable music and recording your own CDs on your personal computer may be de rigueur to a majority of today’s music loving teens. I’ve experienced first hand the sound quality of these “clones” and I can safely say I’d rather go to fishing. The Music Industry are bemoaning about the incidents of on-line music piracy for almost ten years now. Could this incident be avoided in the first place by campaigning on “good sound quality” or releasing “good to excellent quality reasonably priced music software” to the public and making these widely available? As I witnessed on the ease of “burning” or “cloning” music CDs on your PC, maybe Sony and Philips should change their slogan on CD from “Perfect Sound Forever.” To “Consistent Sound Forever.”

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