I’ve enjoyed getting to know Tony Gray over the last few years so when he approached me about writing for Angstrom Loudspeakers website I was flattered. However it has taken me some time to find a point of connection – not because I would have trouble writing about Hi-Fi, I’ve been doing that for over a decade just down the road from Angstrom at The Inner Ear Magazine - the difficulty here is in choosing topics to write about. As a Hi-Fi writer for an independent magazine I’ve maintained a neutrality writing about different manufacturers products, and since I’ve always tended to focus on things that interest me personally I wasn’t quite sure how I would fit in.
But then an idea hit me – we all have things we love so here at Angstrom Loudspeakers I’m going to write about things that I think are great – sort of a recommended list of ‘stuff’ with some thoughts and opinions mixed in. So that’s the intro, now here goes with “David’s Hi-Fi Opinion’s #1. It’s called: SACD (is dead), Bob Dylan (is not) and the art of (re) Mastering Digital Audio. Apparently SACD is dead. Isn’t it obvious? At least that’s what I keep reading. The format seemed to survive for a few years as most mid-to-high end DVD players included the decoding of SACD and it’s rival DVD-A format to go along with the small segment of SACD-Only players and transports. However, none of today’s Blu-Ray manufacturers are including the SACD format in their new units (except Sony’s PS3 software decode) and for every half-article I read about something new in SACD I probably come across 5 full articles that state the obvious: SACD is dead.
But perhaps in a perverse sort of way the exclusion of SACD at this critical juncture of Blu-Ray development will ultimately become beneficial. Perhaps it will be looked at as a moment when the Universal Player, a component like no other in the world of Hi-Fi, that strives to play all-possible audio & video formats except BETA but really only excel at one, started to lose its luster and consumers and manufacturers alike moved back to products that are designed for one singular purpose. Simplicity after all, is a highly regarded tenet of audiophilia.
To this end, lately I’ve read great things about Bryston’s new BDC-1 CD-only player – the focus being on the quality of the Class-A analogue section to go along with quality internal D/A conversion chips. I also drool whenever I come across one of Ed Meitner's EMM Labs designed SACD player(s). I was also impressed by the relatively inexpensive stereo SACD/CD player from Pioneer a few years ago, and I’ve seen that Sony is releasing a stand-along SACD player that includes HDMI v1.3 for DSD audio transmission – that looks good. Marantz & Denon (aren’t they one and the same?) continue to support the format with both high-quality and high-cost players and it seems like more and more discs show up at the specialty retailers like Acoustic Sounds or Music Direct (sorry if I’ve left others out).
So maybe SACD isn’t dead. I hope it isn’t. But more importantly I think Steve Berkowitz hopes it isn’t too. Steve Berkowitz is the Engineer behind what I consider to be the most significant occurrence in the history of SACD music - Bob Dylan’s SACD Box-Set. Produced in 2003, the set includes 15 albums and 16 total discs and represents the highest level of accomplishment in audio mastering for digital sources. Meticulously produced, each disc consists of a CD layer, a stereo SACD layer, and in some cases a multi-channel SACD layer. The 3 layers are all different, with unique mixes optimized for the playback format, each offering a slightly different perspective into the music.
As far as I’m concerned this box set justifies the existence of the SACD format all on it’s on. In this collection you get the best of what Bob Dylan has to offer (most of the best anyway, he’s got a lot of albums out there). And I would dare to say that even if you are not a Bob Dylan fan, this set might just tilt you in his direction. It did for me.
You see, when this set arrived at my door I wasn’t a fan. I knew or cared little about either the man or the music. But I’d met this girl. She was. She’d followed him around North America on a couple of occasions, troubadouring around the countryside without a care in the world and dancing on-stage beside the man himself in one of those center of America towns of Akron Ohio.
So what was a Hi-Fi boy to do with such a girl? Well obviously seek out the best of Bob Dylan! But what started out as a grand gesture to her ended up as a momentous gift to myself as not only did I get these SACD discs, I also began a journey of discovery deep into the depths of the Dylanesque, that beautiful place where music meets poetry meets art meets genius. These transverse elements collide with great force all along these 15 discs – whether its early on when Bob was just a boy singing about how A Hard Rain’s Gonna Fall; or when a rebellious Bob began to turn away from his folk roots savior-of-a-generation image, crashing into electric rock with Maggie’s Farm or Like A Rolling Stone. What comes later, as the young man matured is as diverse and challenging as Rock-&-Roll is allowed to be. From Blood on the Tracks through to the modern Oh Mercy, this music will take you on a ride if you are ready to commit, to participate and allow the music to be a part of you.
There’s more – when you get on this trip you also get the hear the genius of Mark Knopler, Johnny Cash, Emmylou Harris, Mike Bloomfield, Robbie Roberson, Rick Danko, Levon Helm, Garth Hudson, Richard Manual, Al Kooper, Mick Taylor, John Hammond, Bob Johnston, Tom Wilson, Daniel Lanois, and finally Steve Berkowitz. And just so you don’t feel alone out there I’ve been sharing this Bob Dylan stuff for a while now - spinning, talking, ripping, burning - gifting the music to whoever passes by. A favorite example occurred recently in a Hi-Fi store when the guy in the store leaned over and said, “wow, I’ve never heard Bob Dylan sound like this before.” We were listening to ‘Ring Them Bells’ from Oh Mercy.
Now there is a good and bad to this long-winded story. First the good - If there is one thing SACD has given us it’s a greater attention to the mastering of the CD disc. 20+ years into digital audio and many of our mastering engineers are taking a 2nd crack at their work, and the current generation of CD’s on the market are vastly better than the original transfers produced when the CD first started in circulation. Now I know some of you might be bitter at the idea of sweeping out all your old CD’s, but if you see a re-mastered version chances are you really should give it a try.
The new discs, whether SACD produced or not, are quite simply substantially better than the 1st generation discs produced in the 80’s. This isn’t a marketing con designed to get your to spend again (& again & again). The engineers are just better, they’ve been at it for those 20+ years and the digital equipment they are using has improved tremendously. Think of it like this – you wouldn’t consider putting a 10 year old 2 gig hard drive into a new computer – everything digital has just gotten better. I’ve got a long list of new (old) CD’s including Leonard Cohen, Miles Davis, John Coltrane, U2, Marvin Gaye, Pink Floyd, Living Stereo Classical, Wes Montgomery and the Montgomery Brothers, The Band, the list is long, old is new and new is old so get along for the ride and (re) discover the genius of what’s out there.
Now the bad - The Bob Dylan SACD box set is a Limited Edition. 5 years in and it’s very hard to find. Acoustic Sounds might have some, but otherwise you’re scouring e-Bay. I think the discs are collectable individually at most CD stores, but the set is really where it’s at. When I visited Tony at Angstrom to talk about my first column he asked if I could track down two sets but I can’t find any. I’ll keep searching but if I find them I might be buying up yours, so get to it fast, after all SACD is dead.
For those who crave more info and as long as the link is still active there, is a great report on the Bob Dylan discs, SACD mastering and an interview with Steve himself available from Crutchfield Advisor: