We love the holidays – they bring stress, commotion, travel headaches, and joyous times with family and friends. But they also bring exciting new products, music, and tools to soothe our transition to the new year. Here is a quick list of highlights from 2014 to consider as 2015 approaches.
High Resolution Music: This is a complicated question, because the proper answer is simply great music, no matter the file type. However, the number of remastered albums in high-resolution is growing daily. And some of them are substantial improvements that are audible to listeners. Here are ten highpoints we think that worth considering.
1) The Who: Quadrophenia, Blu-Ray Pure Audio™. Many fans consider Quadrophenia and Who’s Next to be the peaks of The Who’s discography. Quadrophenia has been remastered several times over the years, and portions were released in surround sound a couple of years ago with the Super Deluxe edition. Surround is a fitting form for this essential album, since it was originally recorded for the Quadrophonic LP format. However, it was clear to the The Who that Quadrophonic LP was a failed format, so plans were shelved. Finally, Universal has made a high-resolution Blu-Ray Pure Audio™ disc that blows away every version we have heard. With a choice of stereo or surround, the mix is wonderful, from the opening waves crashing on the beach to the last notes. This 5.1 remix of the original Quadrophenia (1973) album is the first single-disc Blu-Ray Pure Audio™ in its entirety for the first time ever. A must have for anyone who loves The Who and rock and roll! www.amazon.com
1b) Another amazing Blu-Ray Pure Audio™ release is the Allman Brothers’ 1971 Fillmore East Recordings. When I first put the first of three discs into our Oppo BD-105 Audiophile Player, I couldn’t imagine that I selected the proper source. I mean, who expects a 43-year-old live recording to sound like it was recorded yesterday with audiophile grade equipment? But for fans of the Allman Brothers, this recording and Blu-Ray release is nothing short of amazing. One suggestion: a good (yet not too cheap) bottle of bourbon should be on hand to allow you and your friends to really get into the mood of this release. I’m not sure if we should consider it audio archeology, audio restoration, or just a set of killer concerts, but no matter… if you are into the Allman Brothers, run, don’t walk, to this box set! www.amazon.com
2) Bruce Springsteen from HD Tracks: There are inherent mechanical issues that impact any analog recording; no matter how finely machined the recording equipment, how strict the quality control of the tape manufacturing, the process for all its strengths is subject to tape stretch, wow-and-flutter, dropouts, bleed-through, and other distortions. Using the Plangent Processes (http://www.plangentprocesses.com/) Playback System, many of those faults of the underlying technology can be corrected. Born to Run had a superb remastering by Bob Ludwig a decade back, but this time the tapes were remastered using the Plangent Process as were other tapes from Springsteen’s early career and the results are remarkable. The wavering of the opening piano on Thunder Road has been replaced by a steady, musicality relevant tone, true to the sound a piano really creates. The entire album is more open, tones are more transparent, voices and instruments are clear and yet the feel of the album is inherently true to its original LP release. It’s a must for any Springsteen fan. The same goes for other albums, and even the legendary Nebraska, recorded on a Fostex cassette recorder at his home maintains its gritty, Woody Guthrie-style feel, yet is clearer than ever before, and hits even closer to its dark, poetic soul, presaging much of Springsteen’s work to come. The River, despite being originally mixed to digital, is improved here as well, with a bit more warmth. Darkness on the Edge of Town is similarly improved, but like Born to Run, this version is a subtle but solid upgrade. The only issue will be figuring out which titles to purchase. All titles are highly recommended for the Bruce lover in your life! www.hdtracks.com
3) Led Zeppelin from HD Tracks: The Led Zeppelin remaster series is probably the most-hyped high-resolution releases of 2014, and is quite good. The ultimate versions are from HD Tracks, and we had previously covered the release of the first five albums. All the sound more open, the bottom end is less muddy and more musical, and for their most popular release, Led Zeppelin IV (OK, we know that it isn’t the formal title, but we take the populist route for its moniker) gains a new transparency. Keep in mind that these titles have been remastered multiple times in the past, with aficionados holding forth on the versions with the most and least compression, the best audio, SACD vs. CD, and more passionately held positions. We think that the high-resolution versions put most of those arguments in the past, and feel these are the best available. We found some of the tracks a bit too treble heavy, but a tiny bit of EQ on your system tames that pretty quickly. The albums released thus far do not convey as dramatic a difference from previous versions as the landmark remix and remastering of Jethro Tull’s Aqualung, or the new Springsteen remasters, but they are very, very good, and for the Led Zeppelin lover, a must-have. www.hdtracks.com
4) Joni Mitchell from HD Tracks: We admit it, we love Joni Mitchell, and over the past couple of years we have witnessed a steady stream of high-resolution releases from this iconic artist. From the youthful voicing of her early folk-based albums to the jazz-influenced releases of her mid-career, all the way through her Mingus album, Joni’s songs benefit from the care given to her work. These are monumental releases, important in their time, and seminal in their impact. As my bass player son Thomas reminds us, some of the best recordings of jazz great Jaco Pastorius are on Joni Mitchell albums. Highly recommended. www.hdtracks.com
5) DSD Recordings from Blue Coast Records: We spent many a night downloading titles from Cookie Marenco’s Blue Coast Records. Some labels can’t be separated from their founders; Berry Gordy comes to mind when we think of Motown, and when I think of DSD contemporary music, I think of Blue Coast. Even though “contemporary” might not evoke the singer/songwriter/classical, largely acoustic repertoire that Marenco is in love with, and not all of their recordings are DSD in origin, many are traditional analog recordings mixed and mastered in the analog realm and distributed as DSDs. Increasingly though, Blue Coast is releasing native DSD recordings, and we were able to listen to these natively using the Korg DS-DAC which provides native decoding, as well as with the Oppo Digital HA-1 DAC/Class A headphone amplifier. We can’t place our hand on a bible and swear that we can hear a difference between a high-quality DSD recording vs. PCM, but even a cursory listen to Marenco’s recordings reveal a music lover who is passionate about the musicians, technology, and final result with recordings of warmth and accessibility. If you feel that too many high-resolution recordings are overly sterile, and the artists long in the tooth, take a listen to these selections. Blue Coast Records come highly recommended. www.bluecoastrecords.com
6) David Chesky is one of contemporary classical music’s leading lights. That said, “classical” would be too narrow a box in which to confine Chesky, since it would seem to indicate his oeuvre and influence is narrow in scope. With recordings and compositions that range from jazz, to pedal-to-the-metal rock, and even fusion recordings where everything collides, it does him a disservice to confine him to one genre, and we urge listeners to check out all of his work. Along the same line is his involvement in Chesky Records, which, unlike its corporate cousin, HD Tracks, isn’t involved primarily with the releases of legacy and contemporary titles recorded by others. Chesky has long recorded its own stable of artists, with varying styles, content, approaches, and genres. Many of our favorite recent titles are drawn from their Binural series, which are recorded and mixed for headphone or earphone use. We have covered some of those releases in the past, and recent releases consistently remind us of their native musicality, and sonic beauty. According to the release notes, “Over the last few years Chesky Records has used a B&K 4100 D Binaural ‘head’ that has microphones where a listener’s ‘ears’ would be.” Since we test audio gear and innovations, we especially loved the Dr. Chesky Ultimate Headphone Demonstration Disc, which combined a set of superbly recorded musical selections, as well as some revealing (brutal?) audio samples to help understand your choice of headphones, software, amplifier, and DACs. It has quickly become our go-to disc when testing new products, and also as a reality check to fine-tune one’s own audio perceptions. Like an actual tintype compared to a digital scan and print of the original image, a reference disc like this can serve as an audio restorative, helping the listener to hear the music, and not the technology. Look for an upcoming review of other Chesky recordings that come highly recommended.
For more information David Chesky visit: www.hdtracks.com
For more information the The Ultimate Headphone Demonstration Disc visit: www.hdtracks.com
7) AIX Records: Dr. Mark Waldrep walks a high-resolution audio tightrope. To some he is an agent provocateur, pointing out issues in the advertising and sale of “high resolution” audio content. To others he is an extraordinarily gifted engineer and producer of some of the industry’s highest quality recordings. Either way, to listen to one of Waldrep’s recordings is to experience the outer limits of recording technology. Another label that bears the unmistakable imprint of the founder, Waldrep has pioneered releasing titles in various formats, with different mixes for choice of placement, allowing the listeners to take their performance preferences to a new level. If you want to sit in the middle of the band, you can choose that mix; if you prefer to sit in the audience, there might be a mix for that. Want to hear Albert Lee tear up a guitar as only he can? AIX is there with an extraordinary recording. I had the pleasure of spending time with Waldrip in his studio, demoing tracks, different recording technologies, and talking everything from perception to myths, all the while punctuated by amazing performances that are astonishingly well recorded. As much as we like and need the major labels and their roster of platinum certified artists, we really love small labels whose lexicons don’t contain the word “compromise.” Waldrep’s blog (RealHD-Audio) is a must-read for anyone interested in high-resolution audio, and befitting a faculty member at UCLA, it is serious, enlightening, and opinionated, and lots of fun. AIX Records comes highly recommended. http://aixrecords.com/
8) George Harrison – The Apple Years 1968-75 is the second remastered compilation of the former Beatle’s oeuvre. While it was available as a high-resolution recording from HD Tracks, we were content to listen to the full set of recordings sent to us by Capitol/Universal Music, and they proved a revelation. I’ve owned copies of Living in the Material World, and All Things Must Pass, that dated from the first year they were released on LP, and I always found All Things Must Pass a wonderful if somewhat murky, unintelligible recording in parts. It’s a delight to finally hear the recording with the range and depth that it possessed all along. The work is available as solo releases, or as the entire set which we think is the way to go as there are a slew of overlooked gems in the full set, which consists of Wonderwall Music, Electronic Sound, All Things Must Pass, Living In The Material World, Dark Horse, and Extra Texture (Read All About It), it sheds light on the opinion of many critics that Harrison had one of the most important solo careers of the former Beatles, one that was underrated by many. The catalog is uneven at times, but to finally hear All Things Must Pass without the various audio afflictions it has suffered over the years, and tracks like Beware of Darkness is to hear Harrison at his best. Highly Recommended for the Beatles and George Harrison lover! www.amazon.com
9) Real World Records: If the term “World Music” seems normal to you, then you can thank Peter Gabriel. When many folks think of Genesis they often forget about the cutting edge avant-garde boundary breaking albums like The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway, or Gabriel’s seminal solo work. If albums from the Blind Boys of Alabama or Portico Quartet on the same label seem incongruous, think again. Real World Records seems to have had an almost evangelical mission to free the world of musical boundaries. Between issuing new titles, rereleasing older titles (Real World Gold) to remind listeners of how large the world is, while asserting that music is probably the only force that can erase borders, language difference, and let us revel in the human potential for self-expression. For me, listening to the recently released Real World 25 a three disc set commemorating the 25th anniversary of the label is essential listening. As one might expect, the release isn’t solely the work of Gabriel, the collection showcases classics and forgotten gems, as well as a third disc of track selections voted upon by fans. “We've always been vibrant, alive, and kicking,” says Peter Gabriel of Real World Records, the label he launched in 1989, just a few years after he established the WOMAD (World of Music, Dance and Arts) Festival. “We worked hard to create an environment where the artists felt respected and supported, so that they were able to deliver extraordinary performances.” The box set is a small lovely affair, a 28-page booklet, three CDs, and 48 tracks, all at an affordable price. What else can you say about a label founded by the recipient of the 2008 Man of Peace award (a title bestowed upon him by a panel of former Nobel Peace Prize Laureates), and of Amnesty International's 2008 Ambassador of Conscience Award, except to say that we can all learn from Gabriel and support his efforts. If music is an affirmation of our humanity, then Real World 25 is a potent reminder of its power. www.realworldrecords.com
10) Society of Sound: Back to Peter Gabriel … some years ago, not content with the audio quality of most digitally distributed music, Gabriel partnered with Bowers & Wilkins (more commonly known as B&W), creators of the some of the finest loudspeakers on the planet, to found a new online music service featuring a slowly revised list of recordings, which might be around for a year, or maybe not. A subscription service, Society of Sound tries to release about two tracks every month, with one selection a classical music title, and the other inevitably drawn from others such as World Music, jazz, and gospel. Some artists you have heard of, many you haven’t yet but will soon, and be glad you did. The recordings are usually available in three formats, including high-resolution FLAC files and AAC files or Apple Lossless, that are easily imported into iTunes. Occasionally Society of Sound will include a bonus release such as titles from Peter Gabriel himself, but the music is beautifully recorded, imaginatively curated, and always enlightening. One gets the sense that no one is making much money at this, but instead it’s a labor of love. Subscribe now! www.bowers-wilkins.com
11) Music Software: If there were to be an 11th Commandment, it might be “Thou shalt carefully consider the software you are using to listen to music.” As popular and convenient as Apple’s iTunes is, it is far from the best software to actually listen to music with. First of all, it won’t play FLAC files, a deal-breaker for many fans of the open-source FLAC file format, which is also the most popular file format for most fans of high-resolution music files. And from its initial beginnings as a clean, easy-to-use, and fast application, it seems that each release makes it more difficult to use, sort music, and set up a preferred GUI. And, although critics keep warning that Apple is just waiting to flip the switch to turn on high-resolution content and knock all the vendors of high-resolution content out of business, it hasn’t happened yet, despite predictions. Either way, most audiophiles agree that there are many better-sounding software solutions out there. We have used a variety of them, all of which are first-rate performers, because let’s be honest, when comparing a Mercedes to a BMW, the similarities in performance are pretty even, albeit with differing aesthetics and priorities that define the user experience. The same goes for most music players we have tested. From the shareware-priced and well-regarded Decibel from Steve Booth, to bundled software mated to hardware like AudioGate 3 from Korg for their Korg DS-DAC but which is now available for free in a limited form. For us Amarra 3 from Sonic Studio and Pure Music 2 from Channel D define the high-end. Both offer a significant amount of control and customization, both can interact with iTunes as a file manager or source for Playlists. But the GUIs or the approach taken for use couldn’t be more different. One nice surprise that recently arrived was Amarra SQ 2.0 which made an instant improvement in streamed audio, no matter the source. Frankly, this came as a surprise, since we didn’t have any expectation that streaming sources, which are generally highly compressed and degraded audio to begin with, could sound much better, but wrong we were! We think Amarra SQ is one the most interesting approaches to an improved audio experience with online streaming sources such as Spotify (which has overtaken Pandora in our house, as well as the homes of most people we know) that we have seen. An additional set of features according to Sonic Studio is that Amarra SQ "also bypasses core audio as Amarra does and uses the Amarra engine to pass data through and has multiple dither settings available on the Preferences window." If you regularly listen to streaming audio we reccommend that you take the new Amarra SQ for a spin.
Both Amarra 3 and Pure Music 2 had serious upgrades this year. I’d struggled a bit with Amarra 2 at times, mostly with issues involving preferences and sampling rates with specific DACs, and was delighted with the Amarra 3 upgrade, which looks more refined with a gentle set of tweaks to the interface, and has proven less finicky with differing DACs, and preference settings. Audio quality was first-rate in the previous versions, so it’s difficult for us to ascertain a significant audio difference, because at this level of engineering the subtleties are well … so subtle it’s often hard to pin any perceived differences to the software, and even attempts at blind testing proved almost impossible to ascertain. Still, I wouldn’t hesitate to take Amarra 3 or Pure Music 2 to a desert island, provided they had a kick-ass system and a cleanly filtered AC power supply along with fully stocked bar of small craft beers from breweries not yet owned by Budweiser.
Pure Music 2 also earned kudos in our tests, providing superb audio quality, also with a rich set of options to tweak the preferences to one’s heart’s content. Where Amarra 3 seems happy as a standalone application, Pure Music 2 loves its relationship with iTunes. Our first introduction to Channel D came via Pure Vinyl, which we consider one of the most interesting, and best-sounding vinyl LP reproduction software we have tested, but until I was in a suite during an audio show with Robert Robinson, the chief bottle washer and coder, I really couldn't grasp what he had created, and few products have revealed what an LP record is capable of reproducing in the right hands. Geeky, yes - a simple cartridge to pre-amplifier to amplifier path, and speakers it wasn’t. Using a computer to apply the RIAA curve to a non-equalized pre-amplified signal was an approach I’d not encountered before. Channel D provides a matrix to compare Pure Music 2 to Amarra, and Amarra Symphony, and accordingly you can judge how important the differences are to you such as Internet vs. non-Internet based activation for example, tech support policies, activation limits, etc., however we would urge you to visit both manufacturers websites to get the most current information.
Naturally the feature sets differ, but the one thing both apps have in common is best-of-class sound. Pure Music was the first software we tested in the past to decode DSD audio, which placed it in its own class. But with the advent of apps like Korg’s AudioGate 3, and Amarra 3, DSD files are now easier to handle, more commonplace, and an increasing number of apps can handle them including the donationware XLD X Lossless Decoder that was recently updated to work with DSD files. With Sony announcement that they are slowly converting their entire back catalog to DSD, one can only wonder if there will be a sudden onslaught of DSD titles. However it doesn't take much imagination to understand the impact of increasingly better freeware solutions on the industry, forcing innovation, looser licensing and tech support terms, and feature sets.
There are other core differences between the apps in terms of the user experience, most notably the ability for Amarra 3 to run as a standalone app without the need for iTunes, which Pure Music requires, and the EQ headphone presets offered by Amarra 3 and SQ. The licensing is different, which might impact your choice, especially with the rise of portable DACs with laptops, with 2 included licenses for Amarra, and unlimited licenses for Pure Music. Not be overlooked is Amarra Hifi which adds Amarra to iTunes at a bargain price. Both companies have brought some price equity to each other’s offerings, and more flexible purchasing options. The apps are so rich in features, that until you spend time with them, I doubt you can really grasp the possibilities. If streaming music is important to you, Amarra SQ is highly recommended, especially for $29.
Our suggestion is to download both, take advantage of their free 15-day demo period, and see which app strikes your fancy and meets your needs. You can’t go wrong with either. Great listening awaits!
Harris Fogel and Nancy Burlan, Posted 12/24/2014
For more information on Decibel visit: http://sbooth.org/Decibel/
For more information on XLD visit: http://tmkk.undo.jp/xld
For more information on Korg Audiogate visit: www.korg.com
For more information on Channel D Pure Music visit: www.channld.com
For more information on Sonic Studio Amarra visit: www.sonicstudio.com