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Digital Hi-Fi

November 18, 2009 By Dennis Burger



Digital hi-fi never really went away, but it’s back and better than ever after taking a bit of a beating.

If your golden ears have shied away from the digital domain before, though, it’s time for another listen. Not only are old formats like SACD finally reaching their full potential thanks to pure digital interconnectivity, the new high-resolution audio formats found on Blu-ray are making access to eerily  high-fidelity music playback easier than ever.

Looking at the state of digital high-fidelity recordings over the past few years, is it any wonder that audiophiles by and large cling to the simplicity and stability of analog? Never mind the debate over which sounds better—with digital formats coming and (seemingly) going, competing standards, fussy connections, questionable bass management, woefully incomplete catalogs and the undeniable stigma of digital music being most commonly associated with poorly compressed, poorly mastered portable audio, analog is just so much easier.

But it's back, even though it never really left. And with these Show-Offs, you've got the demo material to prove it.

AIX Records HD Music Sampler (Blu-ray)
Best Track: “Henry’s Farm” by Carl Verheyen

AIX Records HD Music Sampler (Blu-ray)Longtime readers should already be well aware of my undying love for AIX Records. The company’s award-winning, multi-disc DVD-Audio/Video releases continue to be, without question, the most pristine recordings these ears have ever heard.

Enjoying them completely also continues to be an aerobic exercise, with high-resolution stereo and surround sound audio relegated to one side of a disc, and beautifully filmed studio performances (accompanied by compressed DTS and Dolby Digital audio) to the other.

Needless to say, AIX President Dr. Mark Waldrep was merely ahead of his time. Now, with the advent of Blu-ray disc, his high-definition, high-resolution audio/video recordings are finally getting the exhibition they deserve.

Customers who purchase OPPO’s new BDP-83 Blu-ray Disc Player w/SACD & DVD-Audio are treated to an early taste of AIX’s output on Blu-ray. A more comprehensive sampler should be available from aixrecords.com not long after this issue goes to print, with full releases quickly following. But no matter what package it comes in, you simply must experience Carl Verheyen’s beautiful solo acoustic rendition of “Henry’s Farm.”

Leave your display on and soak in the gorgeous video, or turn it off for a more proper high-fidelity audio experience—either way, from the very first note your head will be filled with visions of fretted ebony and phosphor bronze strings. The only way you’re going to get any closer to an actual guitar is to hold one yourself. The 7.1 channels of Dolby TrueHD audio aren’t packed with discrete sounds so much as diverse textures; every note is a four-course meal of timbres packed into a single bite.

The midrange bathes you, and the high end practically polishes the molecules of air between the speakers and your seat, as the piece builds to a passionate crescendo and quickly pulls back to a gentle whisper—as lovely a display of the dying art of dynamic range as you’re likely to hear on any recording anytime soon.

Jen Chapin: reVisions—Songs of Stevie Wonder (SACD)
Best Track: “You Haven’t Done Nothin’”

Jen Chapin: reVisions—Songs of Stevie Wonder (SACD)The advent of new formats doesn’t mean there isn’t a bit of audiophile life left in the old ones, though. In fact, the rumors of Super Audio CD’s death have been...well, perhaps not greatly exaggerated, but certainly trumped up.

As long as Chesky Records continues to breathe life into SACD with its immaculate recordings, the format’s plug will undoubtedly remain un-pulled—especially if they all sound half as good as this one.

From the moment you pop in this delicious collection of covers, the 5.0-channel mix transports you, body and soul, into New York’s St. Peter’s Church. And you can be sure that plenty of bits are dedicated to capturing the loping rumble of Stephan Crump’s bass, the dulcet tones of Chapin’s vocals and the growl of Chris Cheek’s saxophone (which, incidentally, seems unsatisfied with emanating from any particular speaker and instead oozes with frightening clarity out of some dimensional rift off to the far side of the front left channel).

But the beauty of this recording is that seemingly just as many bits are dedicated to capturing the space between the performers—the subtle nuances of air reverberating off of red oak, fabric and granite in one of New York’s most inviting acoustical environments. This disc is a lovely example of what music is supposed to feel like.

Will Dailey: Torrent Volumes 1 & 2 (DVD & CD)
Best Track: “Hands”

Will Dailey: Torrent Volumes 1 & 2 (DVD & CD)If you never hopped on the SACD bandwagon and haven’t yet upgraded to Blu-ray, don’t worry; you’re not cut off from digital hi-fi completely. Legendary producer T-Bone Burnett’s new ΧΟΔΕ (CODE) audio format promises to deliver studio master audio quality into the home with nothing more than a standard DVD player. And if this ΧΟΔΕ-Certified, roots-rock release is any indication, Burnett isn’t bluffing.

Unlike the offerings from AIX and Chesky, this 96kHz/24-bit two-channel mix isn’t attempting to re-create the feel of musicians performing live in the room with you. It’s undeniably supposed to sound like a recording. And oh what a recording it is.

My favorite number, the first of two bonus tracks, begins with luscious, fingerstyle acoustic guitar anchored firmly to the left and right speakers. Another set of strings quickly joins in, this time a few feet to the left and right, and a bit forward as well, adding depth and texture and setting the stage for Dailey’s voice to pierce right through the middle of the mix.

And so it goes for the rest of the track. Even after the percussion and chorus vocals have joined in, we’re left with a dense yet delicate arrangement that doesn’t stray far from your speakers at all, but is guaranteed to make them sound like a million bucks nonetheless.  

Mike Stern Band: New Morning—The Paris Concert (Blu-ray)
Best Track: “Chatter”

Mike Stern Band: New Morning—The Paris Concert (Blu-ray)Despite our willingness to travel down old roads that may be dead ends and new paths that might lead nowhere in search of uncompromising audio quality, it’s hard to deny that Blu-ray is the hi-fi superhighway into the future—especially when even tiny little live recordings such as this sound so sumptuous.

If the notion of moving pictures accompanying your listening experience ruffles your feathers, by all means give your display the evening off. You’ll still feel every ounce of atmosphere that Paris’ legendary New Morning jazz club has to offer.

My favorite cut here kicks off with Stern’s six-string cutting an ethereal swath through the room. Dave Weckl’s tight drums stab through the air with such ferocity that you won’t know whether your guests are bobbing and weaving to the beat or just trying to avoid a flying stick. Tom Kennedy’s bass then joins in and lays down a groove so sticky you’ll be wiping it off your shoes for weeks to come.

By the time Bob Franceschini’s sax hops into the pot, the whole mix is boiling and bubbling like a bowl of fusion soup. What I love most about this mix is how it allows the smoldering mélange to simmer, keeping each instrument distinct until the pressure builds and the temperature is right, and the disparate ingredients magically melt into a grooving gumbo so spicy and thick you’ll swear it could bend a spoon.

And if you dig that dish, be sure to check out the rest of the Paris Concert series from Inakustik. With offerings from Stanley Jordan, the Yellowjackets, Larry Carlton & Robben Ford and José Feliciano, every disc in the line is magically delicious.

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