Residential Systems #1 Ranked Blog of 2012

residentialSystemsLogoI was surprised to see my blog article about Blu-ray Music Concerts was the # 1 top-ranked story in 2012 for the readers of Residential Systems, the leading trade magazine Blu-raycatering to the high-end audio/video custom installation market.

This channel caters to the up-scale, affluent home-owner who wants centralized remote control via Crestron or Savant over his entire property, from the lighting and drapery to the home theater.  The story explains the evolution of recorded music from Edison’s 1876 cylinder to today’s digital media and why Blu-ray is the Holy Grail of High Fidelity, a bit for bit copy of the studio master recording.

Are 96/24 Downloads Better Than CD’s?

I ran across the following story on a site called Ultra High End Audio Video by Frank Berryman, it illustrates the difference between a CD and a downloaded but upsampled and reclocked version of the same thing.

March 24, 2012

Shown below are the waveform and frequency response graphs for the CD version of Hotel California by the Eagles.  Note that the peak level is -2.84dB.

For comparison sake, I have “normalized” the gain of the CD version, increasing the overall gain by 2.84dB so that the peak level is 0.00dB, just like that of the 96/24 download.   This is the equivalent of reaching over and turning up the volume control.

Now let’s take a look at the waveform and frequency response graphs for the 96/24 version of the same song downloaded from HDtracks.  Note that the peak level here is 0.00dB too, just like the normalized CD version shown above.

So, which do you prefer – wide dynamic range with high frequency response limited to 22,050Hz (CD), or crushed dynamic range and severe peak limiting with high frequency response which extends beyond 22,050Hz (96/24)?

I can’t hear above 22,050Hz, so I’ll take the CD version any day.  I’ve compared the two, and the CD really does sound better.

Note that by crushing the dynamic range in the 96/24 version, the advantage of 24-bit sampling – wider dynamic range – is completely eliminated.

Of course this is just one example.  Many 96/24 recordings will be superior to the CD version technically and/or by virtue of better re-mastering.  Problem is you won’t know until you have bought and paid for them. Life is so uncertain.

– Frank Berryman

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Blu-ray Music Concerts Feature Un-Compressed Audio, Bit-for-Bit Identical To The Studio Master

The other day I was on Amazon’s Blu-ray Music top 600 list and noticed the comments of a fellow music lover about the Mahler Symphonies 1-7 on Blu-ray:

Five Stars on Amazon.com   The Ultimate Mahler Cycle June 20, 2011 By Carl J. Weber       “After being dazzled by opera on Blu-ray, I have now come to realize how live concert performances in this medium can offer even more listener involvement in the music and the performance than audio-only. It is totally engrossing, totally enjoyable. Not only does it exceed the hi rez audio-only listening experience, but in some ways, it exceeds even live performance because of the deftly done, intimate close-ups on stage.   This set has smitten me to an absolutely unprecedented degree. And, I will be seeking out and collecting concert Blu-rays from here on in. It is truly a fantastic new dimension in classical music enjoyment in the home, with close-ups of conductor and performers. It gets us closer to live performance than anything in any medium to date“. 

Blu-ray combines native, un-compressed 1080p HD video and the un-compressed bit-for-bit original studio master recording together in one new format  for the most profound home viewing and listening experience in history. Serious audio enthusiasts who fail to adopt this new format don’t know what they’re missing. 

By definition, any audio or video content you get over the internet or off a computer is compressed, including all streams and downloads regardless of the file type, bit length, or bandwidth.  All these music files are created by making a copy of the original CD, upsampled and re-clocked.  The CD is compressed 4 to 1, much better than MP3’s 10 to 1 ratio, but still missing the dynamic range of the live studio master.  No amount of processing can increase the dynamic range of a datafile if its not in the CD to begin with and in most cases crushes the dynamics (see measurements)  If you’ve ever wondered why CD and DVD were not good enough for Neil Young, that’s it, they lack the dynamic range he hears during a live performance.

The Neil Young Archives are out on Blu-ray, that should tell you something. The picture on the left is SADE, from her new concert on Blu-ray, projected on screen in my living room in HD at 111″ diagonal with Final Electrostats in a 5.1 configuration with double subs.  This is audio and video nirvana right now, at least by my definition.

CD’s can store 700 Mb of data.  Since its introduction in 1980, the CD has had the widest bandwidth, lowest distortion, and widest dynamic range (90 dB) in the history of recorded sound.  Vinyl records do not include treble frequencies,  they are injected by active equalization from the RIAA curve (see image) and the dynamic range is limited to 60 dB.  Cassettes were no better.  This is why vinyl albums will never sound as good, they have limitations in the bandwidth and dynamic range, along with high surface noise, just like earlier generations of media did, shellac 78’s and 45’s and cylinders before that.

The DVD-A came out in the mid 2000’s, with 8.9 Gb storage capacity. Meridian UK created a “lossless” (still compressed 2 to 1) audio codec known as MLP (Meridian Lossless Packing) that increased dynamic range by 10  dB, signficant to be sure, but still not compelling enough among the record companies except for audiophle labels and SACD/DVD-A fans.   However, movies with the new increased dynamic range began to appear on regular DVD’s and broadcasters adopted Dolby Digital EX as well, audio started to jump out of my system, cleaner and more alive than ever before.   You can hear the difference today when you change the channels on your cable box.  Some stations are still using the old standard, but others are capable of much higher fidelity because they suffer from less compression.

In 2007, Blu-ray was adopted as the storage media standard for this generation of HD music and movies because of it’s 50 Gigabyte storage capacity for un-compressed HD content.  Adopting HD for both audio and video at home requires some upgrading in the way we pass the signal from the source to the AVR or Preamp/Processor and on to the display and speaker system.  The Studios, both record and movie (in some cases they are the same) soon realized they had a huge problem; if consumers could make copies of these new HD discs, Blu-ray would set off the largest piracy of copyrighted material ever.

The Studios asked Intel to create a new secure transfer protocol for protecting this content from piracy.  They call it HDCP,  which stands for High Definition Content Protection.  It requires “authentication”, a digital handshake between the source and the display as well as the amplifier.  Without this authentication, the pure digital throughput is protected against piracy and the highest resolution audio and video will not playback.  At the beginning of every Blu-ray disc, a process of verification takes place to confirm a secure connection that cannot be copied.  You need an HDMI cable to gain access to this content, the amount of data being transferred and its speed cannot be done over analog coaxial or even SPDIF connectors.

A unique new niche market has opened up for Blu-ray Music Concerts by the world’s greatest artists in native 1080p with studio master quality audio.  The audio is played back bit for bit identical to the studio master recording for the first time in history, providing the actual dynamics of the live recording, 120 dB, the holy grail of hgh fidelity.   You can choose between LPCM 2.0 stereo and Dolby TruHD or DTS MasterHD multi-channel, all un-compressed for the first time.  For those who own big systems and big power amps, the listening experience is jaw-dropping, the way you always dreamed it could be.

The artists understand this is a new palette for the live performance arts, using 4K Ultra HD video of their own creation projected on giant 40′ screens to tell a story along with the music, creating a new art form, stunning and compelling from the moment you experience it.  Roger Waters is touring with the new all digital projection version of The Wall, soon to be released on Blu-ray.  3D texture mapping can produce a realistic looking planet earth within the Birdcage Stadium during the Beijing Olympics, and artists are using these techniques in concert to convey their own stories.

Classical music by Mozart, Beethoven, Brahms, and the rest were recorded in Europe last year and now out on Blu-ray allow the listener to see the conductors face as he uses his hands and his eyes to lead his orchestra.  We see the musicians up close, feel their emotion;  you can’t do that at a live concert… its a new kind of listening experience, more involving and rewarding than simply listening.  Once you go there, you really can’t go back either, you can only go forward.

As of this post, there are over 4600 Blu-ray music titles released.  On Nov 19 the 2007 Led Zepplin Reunion Concert comes out on Blu-ray.  Its exciting to be an audiophile again, we have finally reached the promised land.

Lets go!  Here is a link to my current favorite Blu-ray music concerts.

 

My Favorite Blu-ray Music Concerts

The studio master quality of Blu-ray media is beyond anything you’ve ever experienced at home. Here are my current favorite Blu-ray concerts:

 The SADE Live Concert is without peer for staging, style, musicianship, a singular work of art by a tremendous talent.  Here is No Ordinary Love, this is no ordinary art, its mesmerizing.

 

 

 

  Adele’s live performance of her Album of the Year at Royal Albert Hall, the song Someone Like You has the power to stop you in your tracks and choke you up. When’s the last time a CD did that to you?

 

 

 

Hall and OatesHall and Oates are the best selling rock duo in history.  Combining jazz and soul with rock, they will sweep you away.

 

 

 

 

 

Robert Plant and the Band of Joy prove that great songs and musicianship need no props, at 64, he is still creating great music that will stand the test of time. 

 

 

 

Stevie Wonder Live at Last is without doubt the all time best concert by Stevie, all his hits, done to perfection.  Who else could even play Sir Duke?

 

 

 

Rob Thomas Live at Red Rock, a natural amphitheater in Colorado, a special place for a great band and artist to play their songs.  Thomas has a 20 year career full of hits, this show from 2008 is full of good feelings and songs.

 

 

 

Peter Gabriel’s Secret World was recorded and filmed in 1994, its remarkable still in HD, as Dont Give Up demonstrates, with Paula Cole

 

 

 

 

Madonna’s concerts in Buenos Aries set the standard for best use of technology and staging.  On The Beat features Madonna, with Kanye West and Pharrel Williams singing back-up on huge HD screens behind the stage.  The scale and degree of sheer artistry in this show is without peer, although SADE comes closest.

 

 

 

Simon and Garfunkel reunited for a short set at the 25th Anniversary Rock and Roll Hall of Fame show at Madison Square Garden, full of other wonderful performances too, but this one is special, the quality of their voices and harmony so good in HD, and the timeless melody of Sounds of Silence.

 

 

 

George Michael is still one of the greatest performers and Father Figure shows his virtuoso talents in London’s 02 Arena, full of fans who still love him because his music is timeless, his melodies haunting.  He uses large scale video to embellish his songs with beauty.

 

 

 

Concert For George was a special event in memory of our Beatle who will live on in his music.  Eric Clapton, Paul, Ringo, Jeff Lynne, Billy Preston, on stage with Dani Harrison, George’s son.  The resemblance is uncanny, the music inspiring for its muscianship.

 

 

 

Led Zeppelin’s Reunion show in 2007, celebrating the life of Ahmet Ertegun.  After rehearsing for 6 weeks, the band, proves their greatness is not deminished, for most of us, still the greatest band of all time 

 

 

 

 

 

The Holy Grail of High Fidelity, Part II

After posting what has now become “Part I” of this story a few weeks ago, I heard from a lot of audiophiles and old friends who thanked me for speaking up. It appears that many have been on the same path of discovery as I have, yet a large number of people also admitted that they had not yet discovered Blu-ray as an audio format after being put off by the impression that it was just meant for HD video.

 

After the format war with HD-DVD, which made people hesitate about adopting either HD-DVD or Blu-ray, nobody actually explained why Blu-ray was so exciting for music lovers. The fact that Blu-ray made it possible for audiophiles to achieve their life-long dream of hearing an identical un-compressed copy of the original studio master recording in their own listening room just never came up in discussion at the dealer level or in the audiophile trade press.

 

One reason for this resistance has to do with something called “the digital handshake.” For the first time in audio history, a two-way communication protocol has been implemented between the source and your system. Before you can see or hear the best audio and video content, you must first connect your Blu-ray source with HDMI v1.3 to your AVR or preamp/processor. The HDMI connection is required because the data rate and bandwidth (10.2 Gbps) are much too high for an analog connection. Instead, a new high-speed process called “bitstream” is used to transfer the data and check for security, so the data cannot be copied.

 

HDCP (high definition content protection) is an encryption and decryption technique developed by Intel and the studios/record labels to protect this new high definition content from being copied. You can listen, and you can see, but you cannot record this content. There is also the EDID (extended display identification data) signal from the source to the display to set the resolution of the display to match. It’s not just about protecting the content; the digital handshake is a necessity due to all the various display resolutions available today. Going digital can be a bumpy ride as a result, your system needs to be able to recognize the broadcast flags in the content so when you change programs or channels on your tuner, the picture fits the screen and the audio is decoded by the best available codec.  In broadcast applications today, thats Dolby Digital Ex.  The DTS version is Digital Surround ES.

 

Remember that vinyl discs, CDs, and DVDs are merely storage systems, and they can hold only so much data. Compression techniques are required for each to get the whole album or movie on the discs. A CD can hold 700 MB, a DVD can hold about 4.7 GB, and Blu-ray discs can store 50 GB. Clearly, with all that space, compression is no longer necessary on a Blu-ray Disc. The full dynamics of a live performance, 120 dB, is now available if you don’t mind making the changes required in your system.

 

 

Changes cost money. Simply put, many audiophiles had too much money invested in their 2-channel systems to simply discard them. The upgrade to HDMI, in fact, was not that expensive if you used an AVR with preamp outputs. Naturally, the AVR manufacturers stopped putting pre-outs on the least expensive receivers but the price of upgrading still only cost me $650 for a Pioneer Elite receiver with pre-outs. The Oppo Blu-ray player was $500 but worth every penny. Can it be done more affordably? Sure, but it can’t be done better.

 

I minimized the out-of-pocket expense to get v1.3 HDMI knowing that it will evolve further over time and I may need another one in two or three years. High priced audiophile preamps excel at 2-channel audio, but are now obsolete because they can’t play Blu-ray Discs. Blu-ray Discs also contain LPCM 2.0 soundtracks for audiophiles who are intent on remaining 2-channel listeners; you are not forced to listen to the multi-channel codecs, but you still need an HDMI connection to access even the 2-channel content if you want to hear the highest resolution version outside the record studio vaults.

 

Last but not least, the implementation of HDMI was sloppy and chaotic. Instead of plug and play, from the start it was plug and pray. Even now, there are times when I have to reboot my system because the two-way communication did not authenticate the system protection. Simply switching sources sometimes requires a reboot. At first, I was put off, but now I consider the inconvenience more than worthwhile, the bliss of hearing the true dynamics of the studio recording more than overcomes the pain of dealing with HDMI’s protocols.  Understanding the changes required is the first step to audio nirvana. Nobody actually explained it to me, so I had to figure it all out on my own from available information and personal experience. I am sharing the story so those of you who didn’t know have a shorter learning curve and can start enjoying your systems as never before.

 

If you live in a condo or don’t have a system with the high-level playback capabilities, don’t bother. Your neighbors will never tolerate you playing your system this loud. But if you have the privacy, amplification, and speakers, you should go for it. The new Sade Live just arrived Saturday,  it’s another stunning example of what Blu-ray can do when recorded by the world’s greatest artists.

 

The Holy Grail of High Fidelity

The Holy Grail of High Fidelity

Blu-ray Music Offers Audiophiles Uncompressed Bit For Bit Identical Copies Of The Original Studio Master Recording

There’s no doubt that technology is moving at a pace these days that’s virtually impossible to keep up with, if you were not paying attention, you may have missed the biggest breakthrough in the history of recorded music.  The history of the recording arts goes way back to 1878 when Edison invented the first cylinder-based players.

The dynamic range and bandwidth were pinched to a tiny envelope, monophonic, nothing like a live performance, and so began the pursuit of higher fidelity. Breakthroughs in materials and recording science brought us 33 rpm stereo records in the 1960s, cassette tape in the ’70s, both with about 60 dB of dynamic range. These gave way in 1980 to CD, with 700 Mb storage and 90 dB dynamic range, and in 1996 DVD offered 4.7 Gb capacity for movies and sound combined. Dolby Digital Ex and DTS Digital Surround ES both achieved lower compression rates in the last decade, expanding dynamics by another 10 dB on movie soundtracks. However, not much music-only content was released on DVD and CD has remained the standard music format disc till this day.

In 2007, Blu-ray Disc came along with its 50 Gb storage capacity. Clearly, this offered the promise of increasing the dynamic range to 120 dB. Both movie and music recording studios balked. They would not permit “one to one” copies of their studio masters on the street, fearful they would be copied and pirated. They forged an alliance with Intel, Dolby, and DTS to come up with a way to do it that protected the artists and copyright holders. Working with chipmaker Silicon Image, they created a new connectivity format called HDMI (High Definition Multimedia Interface).

Embedded in this HDMI technology was a copy guard called HDCP, or High Definition Content Protection. You could watch it, you could listen to it, but you could not record it at the highest resolution. This put a lot of people off. The studios had fought like crazy to stop cassette tape (VHS for movies) and lost, the Supreme Court ruled in favor of consumers and the Fair Use doctrine was established. If you owned the album, you should be able to make a copy to play in your car, boombox, or Walkman, so the logic went.

HDMI itself was evolving; this upgrade was a moving target that did not make life any easier. Within just two years, it went from v1.1 to v1.3 and many consumers were caught in between, suddenly owning a high-performance audio system that got separated from the newest content platform. The final evolution of audio codecs that allowed the listener to hear the next 30 dB in dynamics came out about four years ago. Dolby TruHD and DTS MasterHD Audio offers audiophiles a way to own a bit for bit copy of the studio master, uncompressed for the first time in history, a 100-percent digital throughput without DACs.     DTS_Codec_Overview_PDF   Neil Young finally agreed to issue a collection of all his work on Blu-ray because for the first time he could finally hear the dynamic range of his live shows, that should tell you someting.

The main difference between Dolby’s and DTS’s method is called “bit sharing”; Dolby shares a lower number of bits per channel but on demand can send more bits to a specific channel by borrowing bits from the others channels, DTS dedicates a larger number of bits per channel for more headroom. We are now at the point where if you have a big system, you can really experience the dynamics of a live show in your own living room.

Many of us older audiophiles were skeptical of the whole thing. We thought Big Brother was going to take over our systems and tell us what we could do with our own property. It seemed “un-American” to many. In some ways that’s all true. The government actually backed them too, passing the Digital Millennium Copyright Act in 1998 that led to the Supreme Court over-turning the Fair Use doctrine in favor of the copyright holders. Game over, they won.

We Won Too.  The promise of all that dynamic range got me. I couldn’t resist. I upgraded to HDMI, played by their rules, and am glad I did. The rewards of hearing this level of fidelity from the original recording has been the pursuit of my life, and I couldn’t suddenly give up because the rules of the game changed. I joined the team.

For an audiophile, there is no greater thrill than hearing your own system perform like you always dreamed it could. With 50-percent more dynamic range, my system was up to the task, like it had just been waiting for the challenge all along. Many of our favorite artists were heading back to record new albums, energized by the promise of the highest fidelity in history. Even Neil Young agreed and finally released a box set collection of all his recordings on Blu-ray, a real testament to the breakthrough that Blu-ray represents.

After staying off the road for over 11 years, Blu-ray lured Stevie Wonder back. He assembled his best band ever and produced Live At Last on Blu-ray. The thrill of hearing Stevie perform Sir Duke live, at the top of his game, is reason enough to take this step.   The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame show at Madison Square Garden in 2010 featured Simon and Garfunkel playing a set that included The Boxer, Sounds of Silence, and Bridge Over Troubled Water. They may be older and grayer, but they never, ever sounded as good as they did that night, and Blu-ray made this possible. Adele (#1 selling Blu-ray disc) playing her first live show at Royal Albert Hall is a profound listening experience on Blu-ray.

We all want our favorite catalog classics done this way now, however there is little enthusiasm at the record labels to do that anytime soon. There are some great older concerts worth owning, like 1974’s Queen Live at Montreaux, 2001’s Concert For George, and Roy Orbison’s Black and White; it’s not all just newly performed material. However, the new performances by legendary artists calls attention to how rare and special they still are. Phil Collin’s latest project is a spectacular Motown revival in his Live At Roseland performance. It’s a show that reunited the original Funk Brothers band and created a masterpiece homage to all the greatest Motown classics from the ’60s. When you hear the opening bass line on Papa Was A Rolling Stone, you instantly know which song it is, and it’s just as you remembered all those years ago, and even better than the original studio version played by the same band. Watch the documentary first, so you can see the preparation that went into the project.

The Madonna 2009 show in Buenos Aires, played before 104,000 fans in a football stadium, may be the greatest live show of all time. In DTS MasterHD Audio with all the studio editing a live disc allows, Madonna turned Blu-ray into a new art form. For many, including me, it was a transcendent moment. Those who have seen it know what I mean. Even if you ‘re not a Madonna fan, you may agree that the sonic and visual performance (original 4K content on giant HD displays behind her) on this disc set the standard for what a live stadium show can be, and may explain why she was chosen to do the halftime show at this year’s Super Bowl. Nothing else I have seen thus far has used HD technology to its full potential the way she did on this Blu-ray. The only other spectacle to match or exceed it (visually if not audibly) was the opening ceremony of the Beijing Olympics.

So there it is. Up-sampled CDs ripped to FLAC files, with re-clocking DACs, still only have 90 dB of dynamic range. Regardless of what you do, you can’t squeeze more dynamics from content that never had it to begin with. Once you hear Blu-ray music, you will never turn back. You won’t find everything you love on Blu-ray, but there’s enough new content to satisfy you for many years to come. Opera, classical, jazz, and other genres are also on Blu-ray, all you have to do is look. Amazon sells the top 300, that’s enough to get you started!

After reading all the nonsense being published these days about streaming, FLAC files, DACs, and vinyl albums, with such compressed dynamics that you have to listen with headphones, I had to say something. The fact is that this all of this happened under the noses of the high-end audio dealers and trade press who mostly failed to understand it, let alone embrace it. They think Blu-ray is for movies in HD. The Holy Grail of High Fidelity has been hiding in plain sight for four years, and nobody noticed