ONLINE - ISSUE 16
The Biggest News
You May Ever Read (About Audio)
Two years ago, after first hearing ERS sheets (for information, go to www.stillpoints.us/1Pages/ers_products.html) at CES, I declared them The Discovery of the Decade, Already (www.positive-feedback.com/Issue5/cjdiaries.htm). Did I recognize what a dangerous, almost hubristic position that was? Hey, bring it on!
Now announcing: The Discovery of the Next Decade, Already! And it’s all about digital.
All kidding aside, kids, listen to me. Who has disparaged the CD more than yours truly? In 1983—1983!—some seventy braves joined me for the Boston D Party. On December 16, the 210th anniversary of the original party, we marched from The Listening Studio (my workplace) down three blocks to Boston harbor and tossed our drecky CDs into the briny deep, at the very site of the "Tea Party Ship." We carried placards ("Dump the D into the Sea!" "Processed Sound = Processed Cheese!" "Sink the Telarc!"), I made a wild speech, then we all returned to the Studio to drink mulled wine and watch the rushes. (The Boston D Party, available on video and DVD.)
Later I began discussing in print the really wretched sound on those nasty things, even as it seemed tout le monde was declaring them sonic manna. Hell, it hurt me just thinking about them. Then we slowly discovered that CDs could be improved ("tweaked") just like records. There were cleansers, there were polishers, there were edge markers, destaticizers, decoulombizers, mats, and even carvers. The necessary prep to make a CD sound okay was so elaborate that I started telling people, "We're trying to make CDs as inconvenient as records."
For the hardware, there was AC filtering and AC cords, feet, dampening materials, ERS sheets, and vibration isolation, all very helpful, too. Alongside these amelioratives came the realization that if the digital domain were as powerful as the AES types said, the fix could happen there. Instead, we soon had oversampling and upconverting, then whole new formats: DVD-A and SACD. All well and good, but it was possible to tweak a CD to sound as good as an SACD, and tweak the SACD to sound better yet.
Thereafter I began to evaluate digital gear on the unique basis of how it responded to CD tweaks. I reasoned that the less susceptible a unit was to tweaking, the better it was doing its job. Sure enough, the relationship held. When I stopped analyzing this parameter, the expensive NAIM CDS2 player had proved the best in my experience. Now there is a CDS3. But today comes a development so unexpected, so exciting, so truly excellent, that one may be excused for not having foreseen it.
A glimmer was had twelve, maybe fifteen years ago, when several semi-professional recordists noticed that their DATs sounded better than the CDs made from them. I'll never forget being present when this phenomenon was demonstrated to Peter McGrath. The look on his face! Peter does make some damn fine recordings, and I’m told he never again played a CD for serious demonstrations.
Another, broader glimmer was had when CD burners entered the market and enthusiasts took note of the odd fact that the burns very often sounded better than the originals. How could this be? As usual, such a finding was pooh-poohed by the newsstand press and academia, but it set me to thinking, once again, about how little we know about digital audio. Or, at any rate, digital optical audio. Bits is bits? I beg your pardon! Isn’t that a bit presumptuous?
The CD actually being an analog medium, I took to discussing optical parameters, having formerly been an optical physicist on remote-sensing projects. About the same time, designers were discovering the horrific demands that laser mistracking, bad pit edges, reflected light, etc., were placing on undermanned power supplies, creating terrible enharmonic intermodulation distortion. Clock irregularities were also discovered, then JITTER, at whose foot was laid the blame for the whole frikkin' mess—jitter and improper dithering.
Why? Because conventional engineers have these hammers, so all they can see are twelvepenny nails. The subtleties of sound evade them because they scarcely listen, and therefore remain unaware that a new variety of distortion, as yet unnamed and unmeasured, has been stalking the corridors of audio. But now all that is over, perhaps.
Unbeknownst, apparently, to regular members of the press, work has been proceeding apace at a number of undisclosed locations to extract more and/or "better" information from Redbook CDs. The VRS unit (go to www.vrsaudiosystems.com) has produced excellent, and similar, results at shows, but operates very differently from what I’m discussing, and moreover is rather expensive (see www.6moons.com/audioreviews/vrs/vrs.html for details). My connections have yielded three so far, on which this is the first report in a new series. These gentlemen offer quite different approaches to the problem, but what we’re talking about s a single-step improvement in CD playback that will force—nay, command—the mullahs and moguls and potentates of audio, from Sony to Linn, from Sound & Vision to TAS, to take notice and do something, preferably before the CD-buying public lynches them.
But first, what do we hear? Greatly enhanced clarity and dynamic range, higher image specificity and palpability, more tape hiss (with older analog originals—this is good), tighter bass, more tunefulness and toe-tapping quality. In fact, the whole audio kaboodle—everything you might want except corrected polarity. Ladies and gentlemen, we're talking master tape-type quality from Redbook CDs. Yes, like the ones you already own. As it turns out, there was as much hidden information on CDs as there was on LPs, just waiting to be disgorged.
Only one hitch: Each must be re-recorded. No CD player or transport currently available is able to overcome the inherent design flaws of mass-produced CDs, although I am not saying that’s impossible once they get their act together. Meanwhile, blame Redbook.
And now I give you RealityCheck™ CDs, It’s perhaps not the greatest name in the world. Maybe you prefer BetterBit Technology™, BetterBits for Better Sound™, NanoBit Ultralog™, or Reprocessing with Bezier Curve Re-Algorization™? All those are employed by the discoverer of this phenomenon, who is nothing if not careful to tie up loose ends. He is—George Louis (no relation) in San Diego. At present you have two options:
1) Send him your CDs to be done at $25 a pop. You get back the original and the copy postpaid. I say that’s too expensive, but maybe the price will come down.
2) Buy a reprocessing unit from him for $525 (details below).
There is a third, actually. For Positive Feedback readers, I have negotiated a trial offer of $5 to do just one CD of your careful choice. Anyone halfway, or even quarter-way serious, should avail himself of this opportunity. Do it soon, because I think poor George will be swamped.
Repeat. Listen to me: Here we have the most astonishing single improvement in sound I have ever experienced. Not even a grand new pair of speakers can do such a trick because it's accomplished at that most critical place, the source.
Caveats and Disclaimers
No SFVs (Standard Female Vocalists) were included in these tests.
I have only two discs burned by George (none yet from either of the others, but they will be coming soon): Test Record One (small ensembles) and the Mercury of Kodaly’s Hary Janos Suite, a bright recording from the get-go and immensely subject to digital harshness. The differences were clear on the former and breathtaking on the latter. It may be that the more complicated the texture, the better the result, because of this process’s ability to decongest the sound.
Both original CDs were fully tweaked already.
Evaluations were performed on two really excellent systems, both with expensive CD players (for what that’s worth), and one with a computer drive as well. On my own more modest, temporary system, the differences were not as stunning, yet they were perfectly audible.
We created several types of burns from both discs, but none of these sounded nearly so good as George's CD-Rs. Nevertheless I shall explore this field in a future installment.
There you have it. Why wait? You can call George at 619-401-9876 between 8 AM and 11:30 PM Pacific time. Or you can write him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Or you can mail him your CD at:
Digital Systems & Solutions
A word to the wise: Unless you have cheap minutes and extra time, I recommend not calling. Five dollars gets you a taste of what we should have had all along, these twenty years, had the industry and its craven apologists in the press listened to the high enders’ objections, or to their "tweaks."
I asked George some questions:
How did you discover (stumble upon?) this technique?
Roger Sutor, an audiophile friend of mine, invited me to his home to hear his latest homebrew speaker system, and he played a CD-R copy of the Fairfield Four CD Standing in the Safety Zone that he'd made on his computer. We compared his original disc to my original disc, and for reasons I may not want to speculate about, we both agreed that my original disc sounded considerably better than his original disc, but his CD-R sounded the best. This got me thinking about the differences between original stamped CDs and CD-Rs. As the inventor of Finyl: The Digital Solution™, a surface and edge treatment for CDs, I realized that pit shape and its influence on the read mechanism might have something to do with the obvious sonic differences. A CD-R playing surface consists of different areas of reflectivity areas that, unlike the pits (bumps) on a stamped CD, don't deflect the laser light to the inner or outer edges of the CD-R and then back on the photo diode. Edge treatments thus have little effect on the playback quality of a CD-R, other than possibly reducing their static charge, because most of the laser's light is read back without secondary reflections.
What is your background?
I have a B.A. in mathematics and a certificate in software engineering from San Diego State University. I was also a physics major for a time, and I studied optics in order to produce Finyl™. All this, plus a natural scientific curiosity and a love of music, contributed to my interest in improving the sound of CDs. I also happen to be an attorney.
That explains all the ™s, but what do you think about others finding this process independently?
Many others have made improvements to CD sound and will continue to do so. Roger Sutor read that some CD-R copies of CDs sounded better than the originals, so he made some copies on his computer. (He was not alone! Ed.) I expect that others may indeed independently develop some of the same techniques once my results are heard, but my research is always a work in progress. Because the art always leads the science/measurements, there's a certain amount of aesthetic judgment involved in my choices for the algorithm codes. Real progress requires one to know what counts as higher-fidelity sonics. So yes, someone else may, after hearing what I've accomplished with the RealityCheck CDs™, be stimulated to try to duplicate or improve upon my work. More power to them, I say. That's what competition and free enterprise are all about. I welcome any improvements others may make, because that will keep me from resting on my laurels! As if the urge for a closer emotional connection with music wasn't already more than enough. Reverse engineering can only take one so far, thus I am confident about retaining the lead, at least for a while.
What equipment and what method do you use?
Well there's the JVC XDR CDs, HDCDs, Sony's Super Bit Mapping, jitter reduction, reclocking, and upsampling/oversampling, just to mention a few of the upgrades to the straight Redbook specs. However, when a CD is played back, it must be in the Redbook format to be playable. Recent improvements fall into two general categories. First are those implemented during the recording process, where the original sound is in the analog domain. A-to-D conversion with higher sampling rates and more bits translates into gentler anti-aliasing filters that produce less audible ripple and other anomalies in the audio band. How well the upgraded digital master is then re-converted to the Redbook standard decidedly affects how beneficial those technologies are to the fidelity of the final CD. Second are upgrades in two subcategories—those that are applied to the CD (dampers, surface treatments, and edge treatments, including beveling), and those that are electronic, such as reclocking, upsampling, and oversampling.
What I do is somewhat different. I don't add any bits or oversample the data. I form the existing bits into better bits, hence the name BetterBit Technology™, or BetterBits for Better Sound™. I've further named the technology NanoBit Ultralog™ Reprocessing with Bezier Curve Re-Algorization™. I believe that the potential of Red Book CDs, when done right, is fine enough for the highest fidelity playback that the best systems are capable of. As presently realized, I don't feel that SACDs or DVD-As are the equal of Redbook CDs done right. I'm not willing to go into more detail at this time because I'm considering applying for patents.
I hope this is of at least limited help to your readers, but further details of my equipment and methods will have to wait until any patent applications are granted or denied. But I certainly welcome any further questions, and I'll do my best to answer them within the constraints I set. I sell the discs and CD-R duplicators and ClearPower™ power supplies to those that wish to make their own RealityCheck™ CD-Rs, which is another reason that I'm presently holding my technology as a trade secret.
Perhaps you could explain what exactly comes to one for $525?
You get a stand-alone CD duplicator that has two top loading drives, a CD-R drive, and a CD-RW burner. It burns at one of two rates, 8X and 16X, and permits the making of compilations in its stand-alone mode. It also has a USB 1.1 computer connection that allows for 32X burn speeds. It comes with an external 12 volt switching power supply, but one can also power the unit on a 12 volt battery for even better sound. TheRealityCheck™ firmware has been downloaded to the duplicator to enhance its performance. If and when I upgrade the firmware, I will offer all owners a copy of it on a CD for $10 plus mailing.
What company makes the hardware?
The manufacturer of the package of firmware and duplicator (which I assemble, and both are required to make RealityCheck™ CD-Rs) is my company, Digital Systems & Solutions. The brand of drives that I employ is subject to change as drive technology evolves. It was only relatively recently that the performance of combo DVD-CD reader-and-burner drives exceeded that of CD-only drives. One manufacture I use is Alesis, but buyers can speak with me first, and be told the manufacturer's name ahead of time. If it's important to them, they can decide if they find that manufacturer acceptable. The manufacturers are generally computer parts companies, and will vary depending upon availability and quality. If it would help, I could put a label on the machines that states "Made for Digital Systems & Solutions" by the company whose name is on that unit. I doubt the name would interest most buyers, but they'll know it before they buy.
There’s a one-year parts and labor warranty from both the manufacturer and myself. And I make the following disclaimer, as do many other companies: Specifications and performance are subject to change, but not without notice prior to sale.