• 2009 CES Notes: Part IV

    Old school analog and new school digital were definitely coexisting and thriving at CES 2009. This was never more evident than in the TAD suit where high resolution music was playing back from a music server and a tape machine. There were also suites dedicated to each playback method. For example Winston Ma's hospitality suite featured a MacBook Pro with Amarra and Sonic Studio's FireWire hardware. On the opposite end of the spectrum was the J-Corder suite that featured nothing but custom reel-to-reel tape machines. Both methods of playback were equally as impressive and enjoyable in their own right.

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    Old School Analog

    As you'll see in the video below the J-Corder suite was really groovin' and served as an island in a sea of Diana Krall, Patricia Barber, and a plethora of classical music. Not that I don't like the aforementioned music, but four days of it playing nonstop in somewhat pretentious environments gets to be a little much. J-Corder features the creations of Jeff Jacobs, who has over 35 years of experience with these machines. The coolest part about J-Corder and its products is the creativity that goes into each one and the assurance that each one is 100% unique. With all the tape machines around these days you'd hate to walk into your neighbors house only to find a tape machine identical to your own! Only kidding of course. As someone who appreciates quality and uniqueness I would love to have a J-Corder reel-to-reel in my listening room. I'm afraid double-clicking on a tape from The Tape Project wouldn't really do much in terms of playback :~)





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    New School Digital

    Winston Ma of First Impression Music used a MacBook Pro, with Computer Audiophile installed solid state drive, and the complete Sonic Studio software and hardware package. As the video shows, Winston had his MacBook Pro sitting on top of the Sonic Studio Model 305 FireWire DAC and the Amarra application running with iTunes on OS X. Winston also had an iPod Touch handy for navigating his library of very special music. What makes this music so special? The files Winston was playing back came directly from his mastering engineer via FedEx on a hard drive. The files were never resampled and never burned with an optical drive to a physical disc. This is quite special in my opinion and could be the future of digital music delivery. If you're not familiar with how music makes its way to a physical disc that can be purchased and ripped by consumers you may find this interesting. Note - I'm certainly no expert in this area and am just relaying what I've learned from several mastering engineers and music labels. I'm sure there are many deviations to the method described below.

    Very high level look at music made into a redbook Compact Disc:
    1. Music is recorded and sent to the mastering facility.
    2. The mastering facility either transfers an analog recording to digital or starts working with the digital source material. ADD versus DDD.
    3. Upon completion of mastering a DDP file is created.
    4. The DDP file is then used to create a Glass Master at the replication facility.
    5. The Glass Master is then used to stamp physical Compact Discs that end up in our homes.

    Here is some interesting information about the Compact Disc creation process from Wikipedia:
    "Replicated CDs are mass-produced initially using a hydraulic press. Small granules of raw polycarbonate plastic are fed into the press while under heat. A screw forces the liquefied plastic into the mold cavity. The mold closes with a metal stamper in contact with the disc surface. The plastic is allowed to cool and harden. Once opened, the disc substrate is removed from the mold by a robotic arm, and a 15 mm diameter center hole (called a stacking ring) is removed. The cycle time, the time it takes to "stamp" one CD, is usually 2–3 seconds.
    This method produces the clear plastic blank part of the disc. After a metallic reflecting layer (usually aluminum, but sometimes gold or other metals) is applied to the clear blank substrate, the disc goes under a UV light for drying and it is ready to go to press. To prepare to press a CD, a glass master is made using a high-power laser on a device similar in principle to a CD writer. The glass master is a positive image of the desired CD surface (with the desired microscopic pits and lands). After testing, it is used to make a die by pressing it against a metal disc.
    The die is a negative image of the glass master: several are typically made, depending on the number of pressing mills that are to be making the CD. The die then goes into a press and the physical image is imposed onto the blank CD, leaving a final positive image on the disc. A small amount of lacquer is then applied as a ring around the center of the disc, and a fast spin spreads it evenly over the surface. Edge protection lacquer is also applied before the disc is finished. The disc can then be printed and packed."

    Once all of the above processing is done consumers must still rip the Compact Disc to their music libraries. In my opinion it would be so nice to skip all these processes between mastering and home playback. Just think, all the discussions about which application rips CDs the best would be moot. It has been known in audiophile circles for some time now that not all Compact Discs are created equal. In fact discs from separate processing plants can sound different. Many audiophiles have done the home test pitting a standard stamped Compact Disc against a slowly burned CD-R of the same material. The results have been the subject of several audiophile articles and each article appears to say the CD-R sounds better. I know it may sound funny that a CD-R burned from material originating from a stamped Compact Disc can sound better than the Compact Disc so I encourage everyone to try this for themselves. It will be a very inexpensive test to conduct and could improve the sound of your favorite recordings. Anyway, I can imagine a world where mastering engineers hand over the DDP files to music labels or artists and the DDP files are made available for purchase via download directly to our listening rooms. I hope this envisage is not that far from reality.





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    In addition to First Impression Music there were other notable new school digital suites from Weiss Engineering, Esoteric, and Chord. Daniel Weiss is widely known as one of the best minds in digital audio in the world. If you've ever been into a recording studio or mastering facility you've no doubt seen a lot of Daniel's gear and heard nothing but fine compliments about Weiss Engineering. At CES Daniel had a couple silver and black Minerva DACs on display and a Vesta FireWire to AES converter. Daniel was using iTunes and Amarra with his Minerva DAC to impress all who entered into the suite. Daniel gave me a demo of the new volume control in the Minerva and a few other very nice features that have been added since I reviewed the DAC in 2008. A clear sign that the Minerva is one of the DACs to beat is that it was used in other manufacturer's suites at the show. If you haven't demoed a Minerva I highly recommend talking to your local dealer about such an arrangement. Also on display in the Weiss suite was the Roma music server. The Roma runs on Linux and is a work in progress for Weiss. I'll be in contact with Daniel and bring everyone the latest news on the Roma as it's available.

    Since there have been some serious discussions in the Computer Audiophile forums about Esoteric and the D-05 DAC I knew I had to stop by the Esoteric suite. As usual Esoteric had an awesome display of extremely well engineered components. While I was in the suite the D-05 was connected via USB to a music server and the sound was really nice to say the least. In addition to Esoteric there have been discussions about Chord and the new products it has released to interface with computer sources. I stopped by the Chord suite to have a look around and found some pretty flashy components. Due to another listening session in progress I wasn't able to listen to what I wanted so I can't really comment about the sound quality. Please excuse the blurry video. The lighting conditions are less than ideal for an inexpensive tiny MinoHD video camera.





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    Comments 2 Comments
    1. radar2886's Avatar
      radar2886 -
      I could not agree more about digital downloads being the future. I am still a vinyl guy at heart so I do not mind buying records but CDs seem like a waste of resources to me. I get it home rip it to my computer put it on a shelf and never look at it again. I swear the albums I have purchased from HDTracks sound better than any of my CDs I have transfered to my computer.
    1. Innertuber's Avatar
      Innertuber -
      I almost bought one of his reels last year, it's still quite tempting. They aren't inexpensive, but they sure are gorgeous. I learned about them when I was pondering building a Bottlehead amp. Then I got a pair of used VRD's. I may bite yet.