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Reality Check -
Digital Systems & Solutions' RealityCheck™
Since I assume most of you have read a good deal of the hype and counter-hype about George Louis's new RealityCheck™ CD Audiophile Grade Duplicator RCCD-AG 2.2, rather than rehash it, I am going summarize how I'm told it works and then report what I hear on the RealityCheck™ CDs made from the three Redbook CDs that I sent to George to have copied. If you want more detail on the machine itself, there is a detailed review by Bill Gaw on Enjoy the Music. Bill actually owns the machine, which I do not yet, and has worked with it. I know absolutely nothing about the machine, beyond seeing the photograph of it above.
The Duplicator's chief role is to copy Redbook CDs onto CDRs, which have been pre-treated with three (two, if the CD is not dirty and/or has no other treatment on it such as Auric Illuminator or Vivid) proprietary audio fluids that come with it, thereby improving their ability to be read properly. Mr. Louis tells us that "the RealityCheck™ CDs are bit for bit identical with the copied discs," but through a process of "synchromatics," the time alignment of each note's fundamentals with its harmonics is achieved so that "its harmonics neither lead nor lag the note's fundamentals …there's no softening of the sound due to delayed harmonics or brightening and/or harshness due to the harmonics early arrival …Additionally, there's more space between instruments and voices because there's less smearing of the note's time signature…"
First you treat the original Redbook disc: ClearDisc™ for cleaning, ClearBit™ and RealDisc™ for optical impedance matching and static charge reduction. Then you insert it into the Duplicator's top drawer, insert a blank CDR in the bottom drawer, press a button, and voila, 15-20 minutes later (copying time is one-fourth of the CDs playing time), you have a RealityCheck™ disc, henceforth RCCD, of the original. Mr. Louis sells the machine itself for $795; the three bottles of fluid are included with it at no extra cost. He sells the recommended black blank CDRs for $1.25 each. The fluids are said to work splendidly on Redbook CDs without use of the Duplicator and are available separately. Most folks I've talked to, including Louis himself, feel the fluids are the critical piece of the process, though he claims that with the fluids and the Duplicator, you get the best his technology can deliver. "I consider the RCCD-AG 2.2 Duplicator part of an total synergistic package of the GslOnyx CD-Rs, the ClearDisc™ disc cleaner, and the ClearBit/RealDisc™ optical impedance matching disc treatments (OIMT) to be essential to making the best possible sounding RealityCheck™ CDs."
Haydn: Symphonies, Nos. 85, 86, & 87, Hanover Band, led by Roy Goodman, Hyperion. I put on my own CD version first and it sounded very good—smooth and crisp, as the records in this series always do. It has the CD sound I'm used to. Then I switch to the RCCD copy that George made from this CD. What I hear first, before I begin to analyze the difference, is comparable to what I hear when I move up a level with Audio Note dacs: the sound hasn't actually changed radically in character, everything simply sounds incrementally better. More immediate, more qualitatively interesting. I am more aware of instrumental timbres, and the performance is more airily buoyant. Low level passages feel clearer and more distinct: the accompanying harpsichord is more evident and has a natural sounding burnished glow to it. The recording is a better version of what it was before the change. When I switch back to the CD version to get my critical bearings, the music now feels a bit synthetic: the sound is closed up, a little blurred, instruments seem over-blended. Massed violins are more a single commodity rather than a chorus of instruments; and they have lost some of their identifiable timbre. When I hear 'live' violins playing together, it is as if the air has been combed: the sound is smooth but I am aware of individual strands of music. On the CD, there are really no strands; it is more as if the air has been ironed flat rather than combed. The highs are smooth, which is what I heard on the first listen, but they have a slight 'churrr' sound to them now. Moving back to the RCCD again, everything opens up a bit, becomes better defined, less generalized, and again more buoyant. One aspect of CDs that makes it easy to be distracted while listening to them, is that as a rule they tend to homogenize musical details so we get somewhat of an undifferentiated sound. We often have the sense that we are listening to a summary of a performance. It can be smooth, dynamic, clear, but also feels a bit monochromatic. And it seems more so now on the Haydn CD in contrast with its RCCD counterpart.
Haydn, Quartets Opus 74, Quatuor Festetics, Arcana. This is already an exceptionally fine recording, especially good at getting the woody, bitter-sweet sound of the period instruments. The RCCD copy reminds me again that its improvements are incremental. On the RCCD, the instruments are a bit more of everything they are on the CD. The violins have more savour and more body along with their tangy sweetness. The viola and cello are a little huskier and woodier. The whole ensemble sounds more present in space. I find myself listening more to the music here than I sometimes do when I'm doing an audition. I'm staying with it because it sounds so appealing. But to be fair, the RCCDs superiority over the CD, while clearly evident, is not as dramatic as with the Hyperion CD. I expect this will be the case with RealityCheck™, depending on the nature of the music and perhaps also the quality of the CD copied.
Jacky Terrasson, Smile, Blue Note. The differences between CDs and RCCDs become more evident the longer I listen, comparatively, perhaps because I know what to expect. On the RCCD, the piano has lost the stark sharpness it has on the CD: it becomes in effect a significantly better piano. Terrasson is a wonderful jazz musician and the RCCD does make him seem appreciably better. The acoustic bass through the RCCD is also more convincing: it throbs less and sings more clearly; and the percussion is rounder sounding. Again, as with the Haydn quartet CD, the improvement here, while very pleasing, is not as dramatic as it is with the Haydn symphonies CD. As I reflect back on the changes in all three of these CDs, what is most clear is that all have become distinctly more appealing, which is a hard attribute to quantify or describe.
I should add to these notes that I not only heard all of these improvements on my system but also, though less dramatically, on my car audio system, which is good but not super good. For fun, I also tried one of them on my ten-year-old son's $50 Discman and it sounded pretty good and tracked perfectly.
The RCCD does not produce an analogue-like sound. It hasn't good analogue's body or its beguiling airy, lilting quality and live-like cushion of air, though it does have some of that—what I referred to above as buoyancy. It has all of digital's traditional virtues: clarity, speed, crispness, brilliance, contrast; and it has very little of digital's downside, mainly that unnaturally pure lucite quality and starkness. In sum, I would characterize these three RCCDs as better digital. Better digital than my experience of SACD, a medium that to me sounds like duded up or 'enhanced' digital. SACDs change the recordings, whereas RCCDs seem simply to improve them.
How much better digital? Better enough that it's worth contemplating buying Mr. Louis's machine and a huge pile of his blank CDRs and copying my whole collection of CDs? In other words, is it better enough?
This is the biggie, and it sends me back for another listen a few days later, this time with no A/B. Comparisons emphasize differences, making it difficult to focus on what each thing sounds like on its own. I have even found that I can't truly hear B until A is totally out of my head. All I can hear for a while is "Not A." I need to know if RCCDs can please me enough that I'll go to them often and without reservations to make this undertaking worth it.
So it's back to the Haydn symphonies disc again. My main impression this time is that it is easier to forget it's a digital recording than it usually is. Low level clarity is very noticeable. The double bass, even at a low listening level is very solidly present. I feel no tension in the performance. I sense space. There is more sonic and hence more musical delight. Haydn especially delights in piano/forte contrast and I am much aware of it here. The RealityCheck™ process seems very good at bringing out dynamic contrasts. Woodwinds playing together are wonderfully woody, luxuriantly woody. They don't just bark, which is easy for digital, they sing. How else to put it? No other way. The woodwinds sing, they are lyrical. And the violins are truly beautiful.
This is a legitimate analogue of a live performance. It has many characteristics of live music, just as an excellent LP has. Both in their somewhat different ways are clearly about the performance and not about the medium. Both induce me to forget I'm listening to a reproduction, a print of the original. What else could I want?
So yes, for me, to return to the big question, it is better enough. It is a significant overall improvement in digital reproduction. It makes Redbook digital naturally attractive to listen to. I can, I suppose, imagine even better digital, but given how good this sounds and what I know of the medium's basic limitations, I'm not sure there will be better. And perhaps most important, I can't imagine listening to digital now without it. Okay, George, you got me. Check's in the mail.
Digital Systems & Solutions
System used for audition: Audio Note: CDT 2 II transport, Dac 4.1 Balanced, M6 preamplifier, Neiro 2A3 monoblock amplifier, AN-E/SPx SE loudspeakers with Sogon, AN-Vx, and Spx cabling.
Bob Neill, in addition to being an occasional equipment and regular music reviewer for Positive Feedback Online, is also proprietor of Amherst Audio in Amherst, Massachusetts, which sells equipment from Audio Note, Blue Circle, Manley Labs, and JM Reynaud, among others.