Posts Tagged ‘SACD’

SACD Review : Pixies – Surfer Rosa (Mobile Fidelity Sound Lab remaster)

Saturday, September 11th, 2010

cover of surfer rosa mfsl sacd

Artist – Pixies

Title – Surfer Rosa

Format – Hybrid SACD

Label – 4AD

Year – 1988 (original) , 2007 (remaster)

When the topic of the Pixies comes up, I’ve actually heard some indie fans scoff and call it “entry level”. Fuck that opinion. Yeah, everyone’s seen Fight Club and we all know how Kurt Cobain admits he was basically ripping off the Pixies for most of Nevermind, but you can’t dismiss how pivotal this album was in the context of the 1980’s. Before this album, American indie rock was dominated by jangly R.E.M imitators, stodgy post-punk (yes, I know I just previously reviewed Mission of Burma), or hardcore bands that finally learned to play their instruments. Surfer Rosa defined the sound that carried through to the 90’s and was unfortunately beaten to death by the middle of that decade. The album isn’t perfect (“Tony’s Theme” is a painfully lame piece of filler), but the first seven tracks are unforgettable classics.

I’ve had this album on vinyl for a while but it has a really bad warp that affects the first couple tracks on each side. I figured I should get a more listenable version of it, so I went with the Mobile Fidelity Sound Lab SACD. For the uninitiated, a brief intro to SACD and MFSL: SACDs (Super Audio CD) are basically hi-resolution, dual layer CDs. Think Blu-Ray, but for music. The first layer contains the SACD recording, which is stored at a whopping 2822.4 Khz sample rate .The second layer contains the standard “Red Book” recording at 44.1 Khz, which works in any CD player and can be ripped to a computer. In order to get the improved sound of a SACD, you need a compatible player.

Mobile Fidelity Sound Lab has specialized in audiophile-grade remasters of rock albums since their inception in the late 70’s. They start from the original master tapes and produce an excellent new version true to the intended recording and not all compressed and shrill like modern attempts at remastering (louder=better!!!!111). There is currently a dearth of rock music on SACD, as most of it is classical and jazz, but MFSL is definitely filling the gap. Surfer Rosa is the first non-classical SACD that i’ve bought, as well as the first MFSL release.

So how’s it sound, Mike? Amazing. I started with high expectations which were more than fulfilled. Every song has a distinct sense of ambience and reverb, I really get a sense of the recording space. The drums sound like an actual drum kit and not a bunch of detached, percussive strikes. Joey’s guitar screams and squawks without sounding unpleasantly harsh, and Frank’s strained shrieks are maddeningly detailed. I heard little things that I hadn’t noticed on previous CD and vinyl versions; bits of feedback, string squeak, and a creaking chair during the studio banter at the end of “Oh My Golly!”.

Surfer Rosa SACD unpacked

The only letdown was the packaging. I had expected a plastic case but was instead served a cardboard sleeve (which at least had a protective slipcover for the disc). If you want to own a quality physical copy of this landmark album, I would definitely recommend this version. You can get it from Amazon for about 27 bucks. Even if you don’t own an SACD player yet, this is worth getting because you’ll still get some of the sonic benefits of the remaster on the CD layer.

Music: A-

Sound: A+

Vinyl review : Time-Life Great Men of Music series

Saturday, September 4th, 2010

One way to enhance your hipster cred is to feign interest in the high arts, so what better way than occasionally listening to classical music? Classical music on vinyl at that…

Time-Life Great Men of Music LP Boxsets

I own 8 out of the 13 pictured

Much of my LP collection started out as stuff my parents previously owned. Nearly all of the classic punk and new wave I own once belonged to my dad, but I also claimed the classical music he got via mail-order back in the early eighties. These were from the Time-Life Great Men of Music series, which consisted of 4 records each from all the major classical composers. Each set had the composer’s most famous works (e.g. Symphony No.5 for Beethoven, Rondo alla Turca for Mozart) but also had some of their lesser known pieces. The full series pretty much covered everyone from the Baroque to the early Modern period (Bach to Copland), but my dad only had 8 of the 30 box set.

The records come in sturdy, attractive boxes with anti-scratch sleeves and a booklet containing the history of the composer and notes on each included recording. Many of the recordings are sourced from the well-regarded RCA Living Stereo series. Internet research later backed me up, but I had originally suspected this when I first played the Living Stereo SACD of Van Cliburn performing Beethovens Emperor Concerto and found it…somehow familiar. Sure enough, they are the exact same recording.

The overall sound quality of the records is pleasant and mellow; as I write this I am listening to Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto #2, which flows smoothly from the speakers while demonstrating a well defined soundstage (that is, every instrument has a discernible “place of origin” emitting from the speakers that mostly corresponds to how an actual chamber orchestra is set up). Mozart’s piano works are crisp and believable , if not a tad bright, while Beethoven’s Fifth is immersive and effective. The recordings aren’t always perfect though, some of the tracks, like Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier, aren’t true stereo but are “electronically reprocessed” , which I personally don’t like but YMMV. Some of the speedy glissandos in Chopin’s Etudes kind of smear together, but I suspect this is a weakness of my system rather than the recording.

These boxsets are a great way to start a classical collection, and they seem like the kind of thing you could score from a yard sale, thrift store, or Craigslist. Amazon has just the Beethoven set starting at 22 bucks, but if you’re more of a completist then eBay has most of them, unfortunately sold separately.

Final scores:

Music: A

Sound: A- to C+, depending on each recording.

My current system and how I got there

Thursday, September 2nd, 2010

I first got into hi-fi in my senior year of high school. I had already been a bit of a video/home theater geek, so the extension came pretty naturally. My first setup was some hulking Aiwa minisystem and a Denon automatic turntable. I soon decided that the Aiwa’s onboard CD player was woefully inadequate so I hooked up some cheap Hitachi DVD player that had a 24/96 upsampling DAC (pardon my jargon so early in a beginner blog!) and used that to play discs. Overall, the sound probably wasn’t that bad, but in my mind it was still nowhere near hi-fi.

I eventually saved up enough to replace the weakest link in my system – the speakers. I went to the area hi-fi store and after laying out my budget and requirements, he left me alone in a listening room to A/B compare two candidates. I settled on the Energy C-1, a neat little pair of bookshelf speakers that I still use to this day. That summer after graduation, I managed to get my first full time job that I held for a few months before I started college. Instead of saving my money wisely, I went kinda nuts and put most of my earnings into building my system. The ugly, cheap minisystem I had used as an amp was replaced by a NAD C320BEE , the Denon was put away for a Pro-Ject Debut II, and the DVD was put back to DVD playing duties to be replaced by a Sony SACD changer.

Save for a few cable changes and vibration isolation tweaks, my system has remained mostly the same since then. And i’m pleased with the sound…mostly. There’s a lot more that can be done. My next big purchase will be speakers, which I feel are always the weakest link in any system. The Energys have served me well over the years, but it’s time to move up to floorstanders, mostly for the better overall frequency response, but also cause they look cooler! I’m thinking of the Polk Audio TSi400 , as it is nearest to my budget right now. When and if I get them, i’ll be sure to post a review.

It’s interesting to note that nearly every piece of equipment in my system is no longer manufactured. For example, the entry level NAD integrated amp is now the NAD C326BEE which is practically the same as mine performance-wise but has additional features like a line-in jack on the front for MP3 player hookup and a subwoofer connector.

Here’s a couple pics of how my system looks now (yes, my listening room is really bare right now, i’ll fix it, I promise!):

Full list of equipment used:

Amplifier – NAD C320BEE

Turntable – Pro-Ject Debut II

Phono Preamp – NAD PP-2

CD/SACD Player – Sony SCD-CE595

Speakers – Energy C-1

Vibration control – Vibrapods (under turntable), Vibrapod Cones (under SACD)