Garbage in = garbage out?

Things were stacking up in favour of another source upgrade. I was becoming increasingly irritated by my NAD T533's inability to play hired Sony DVDs. My old Marantz CD63SE also had a question mark hanging over its head as to its musical sound quality in comparison with more modern players. I was quite tempted by the hype surrounding the new Regas. I had also been shocked to be reminded how very much better vinyl sounds compared with CD via my existing disk playing equipment. I had enjoyed music CDs on the NAD DVDP for a while but had drifted back to the Marantz for a little more excitement. The NAD was silky smooth but seemed to flatten the music into a politeness of respectable glances from behind modest fan waving. Whereas the CD63SE was much more obviously grainy but injected a bit more life into all the music it played. Neither box could hold a candle to my Linn LP12 on sound quality. This, despite the obvious difficulties of playing records with my rack sitting on such a flexible floor. Just in case you are wondering I do know how it is meant to be done.

Buying a new CDP and DVDP with Blue Ray beckoning frantically from the wings could have been quite an expensive upgrade if housed in several packages. I'm not against spending money but hate having to judge whether heavy investment in yet more empty packaging makes the boxes they contain worthwhile. The music is the thing. Listening to music is supposed to be simply about enjoying music. The same goes for films. Film watching is supposed to be about enjoying films for their own sake. Not judging blacks, whites and everything else in between. If it looks right, it is right.

Equipment upgrades are terrible time-wasters because they get in the way of continuing enjoyment. Learning the foibles of a new box and in particular a new and ever more complex remote control is never a pleasant experience. It's not that I'm a beginner at this game. Just that I hate the over-engineered solutions to simple tasks. It's as if everything must be made as complicated as possible to maximise perceived VFM. Often this is reflected in a remote control which requires several terms of evening classes just to obtain every possible function without needing the follow-up course of Post Traumatic Stress therapy. If I needed more exercise it would be far cheaper to invest in more weights. Not in more expensive hifi equipment!

Assembly of an AV system requires perfect balance in all things. Upgrade the amplifiers and you are looking for trouble if the source is exposed as a can of worms. Upgrade only the source and the amps probably aren't transparent enough to expose the investment. (or so "they" say) Speakers are the worst thing to change. Everything they play can only ever be the sum of what the poor music signal went through before it finally reached the driver terminals. Are you really feeling that lucky? ;-)

I had already been enjoying a few FTA HDTV channels on my relatively new Fortec Passion HD satellite receiver. I'd heard about upscaling of ordinary DVDs by HD players. I'd looked at Blue Ray players and watched prices fall slowly then more quickly. And then rise again just as rapidly amongst the "heavyweight" [sic] players!

Many new films have dropped rapidly in price only a few months after release onto DVD. Should I go on buying SD DVDs at such low prices (even compared with hiring) if they would soon become as "old fashioned" as vinyl or even 78rpm records? There was no sign of Blue Ray discs arriving any time soon at my local hire shops. Meanwhile there was little evidence of HD films falling in price at the usual chain outlets. It seemed as if my own collection of favourites was simply being regurgitated onto Blue Ray disks. The problem is that they are still selling at brand new "blockbuster" DVD prices. When exactly the same SD DVDs had already dropped to bargain basement prices within a couple of months of release. Blue Ray is going to have to reinvent its pricing if they are to become really popular. If the Chinese start building "supermarket" models of the Blue Ray players then even one older Blue Ray film will be more expensive than their DVD players at current prices!

I had almost convinced myself that I needed a new DVD player. It had better play CDs well and it really it ought to manage Blue Ray discs to warrant the large potential investment involved. I was quite taken by a minimalist Samsung at the bottom of the price scale. I had looked at it and the amazing pictures it produced in various electronics dealer chains.

So there we were sitting in the car in a nearby city. I was so close to talking myself into the Samsung as a Christmas present to us both. . My wife likes films as much as I do provided there is plenty of deep bass and "things blowing up". The dealer was only one hundred yards away and still open for the late Christmas "rush" "Let's try another shop," she suggested. So we did. And another. And another.

In the end we came home with a Pioneer Blue Ray player from yet another dealer. We bought a couple of the latest action films in Blue Ray format too. Ouch!

While my wife cooked dinner I had quickly swapped my high quality Component cables over from my NAD and removed it from the rack to make room for the new player. The size and weight difference were not just my imagination. There was only just enough room for the "double height" LX70A to replace the NAD T533.

Finally we could sit down in great expectation to enjoy a film on our new toy. But! For the umpteenth time I could not even get a brand new, Blue Ray version of "Hancockup" to play! Aaaarrrggghhh! The new player just sat there ignoring all attempts to make it play. I'd twice hired this film as an SD DVD but could not get the NAD to play it either. Not even a menu! Ironically, the hired "Hancockup" DVD would play without a hitch on my computer. Though I never watch films this way. Nor incidentally, do I ever copy films. But don't tell Sony this. I'd hate to spoil their paranoia for their bottom line as they leave their oversized, fossil footprints all over the global consumer electronics market. It gives me some delight to discover that they are in trouble following the global economic nosedive. They might even have to reduce the price of Blue Ray disks to stimulate sales now that they have killed of HD-DVD.

Meanwhile, back at the ranch:

We watched Dark Knight instead of keeping it as a Christmas Day treat. This action film has the most amazing sound track with lots of silent LFE which had the floor moving in slow waves beneath our feet. The rest of the LFE was pretty amazing too. The Joker carried the entire film on his own twisted shoulders despite the supposedly "star" supporting cast. Batman hardly made an impression except for the amazing sound effects accompanying his very unlikely fist fights. There is plenty to enjoy at a second showing so I don't feel too peeved at the high price of this film in Blue Ray. At nearly 2.30 long it still seemed to pack endless action for the viewer to enjoy. Definitely "state of the art" in the bass department. Particularly towards the end of the film.

Just look at all those sockets! The next morning I had downloaded new firmware for the player from Pioneer's excellent support website. A quick check found that "Hancockup" would play perfectly after a very long pause for "Loading". The player had read the latest downloaded 50mB firmware update flawlessly in just a few minutes. I had inserted a DVD-RW which I burnt to the Pioneer support website's instructions. Not quite full marks though because a USB stick software upgrade is much quicker and easier as per my Fortec Passion HD Satellite receiver.

I could have run one of my 7 metre long HDMI cables but decided to stay with my specially imported Mark Grant Component cables running to my JVC LCD screen for the moment. The more innocent amongst us should beware of coppercore, cable porn in the following link:

Sunday morning (much like any other morning) demanded some organ music to test out the CD playing ability of the new Pioneer box. My favourite double CD of Franck's complete organ works started with plenty of clear insight into the great pipes. I tried switching back and forth between the Marantz and the Pioneer and was startled by the clarity and greater weight of the Pioneer. I didn't try matching levels exactly on an SPL meter but I believe the Pioneer is a little louder. The clarity of the pedal organ was stunning from the Pioneer with timbre, complexity, reverberation and weight all beautifully portrayed.

After listening to the Franck CDs all morning I think the dynamic range is also much greater with a more insistent and dynamic sound quality from the Pioneer. Rather like my Linn turntable the Pioneer demands one's attention instead of simply rendering endless muzak. It needs more careful adjustment of the volume control or it can easily become too loud. No real complaints there apart from finding my way around the rather "busy" Pioneer zapper and the slight delay between a button press and a resulting action.

What is remarkable about the Pioneer is the way almost subliminally deep notes can be heard so clearly. It plays tunes well down into the infrasonic with much greater clarity than the Marantz. Sometimes Franck drags a very deep drone anchor along beneath the music. Or plays very quietly in the lowest audible octave. The Pioneer makes these effects work beautifully instead of losing them beneath the 'noise floor' of the rest of the organ. Anything which makes the brain/senses work harder just to be able to hear some detail clearly is bad news in my book. Because it distances the listener from the music by dragging the attention away from the whole work and its performance.

A change of theme and I played Acoustic Guitar's "Arabesque" (Stunt records STUCD 02062) and was shocked at how realistic and musical it all sounded. With the imagery spread naturally across the sound stage there was none of that "singularity" where the player's image has no dimension in space. I am now listening to Garbarek's "Officium" with the Hilliard Ensemble. There is a new and remarkable subtlety to the playing with lots of what I call "micro-dynamics". The small but vital differences in loudness which can make reproduced music seem so exquisitely real. When the music swells it does not merely become louder but is more emotional and insistent. So far I am very pleased with my purchase. Celtic Circle 1 is playing now with superb results. Individual instruments seem to be more exposed in the mix, drawing attention to themselves for a moment. Rather than merely adding themselves to a whole, flat, musical picture. Voices are more realistic, articulate and emotional. The music seems to be giving them more room to express their artistry and feelings about their music. It all seems to make much more sense.

Constant differences in level compared with the Marantz are the most obvious changes. I have listened to the Celtic Circle series so many times yet here I am being repeatedly surprised. There seem to be more vocalists and instrumentalists on many tracks than I remember. Which has got to be good value as I have already paid for them. I keep wanting to stop typing this garbage and go and sit down in the hot seat. Loreena McKennitt is clearly portrayed as the mistress of breath control, purity of tone and exquisite expression. Yet her songs on the Celtic Circle disks aren't a patch on her original CDs. "The Book of Secrets" comes next in my listening order of CDs for today. But first I must shiver my way through the solo female vocal of Clannad's "Theme from Harry's Game."

This machine spends some time checking a disk before it decides it is ready to give its best shot. There are strange whirring, clicking and "computer effects" noises and gentle bleeps before it begins to play. Disks also come out feeling quite warm. Not excessively so and certainly not much warmer than the NAD. The Pioneer weighs a great deal and claims all sorts of technical details to maximise its performance. I think they have succeeded rather well going on today's experience of listening to my favourite music CDs. If I had an HD capable AVR I might wring yet more from its complex innards. Despite having only a hybrid stereo/IB system I feel no loss of sound quality based on the level of performance I am currently enjoying straight out of the box. I have had to turn the bass down on the IB's EP2500 amplifier to get a much better perceived balance compared with the Marantz.

Yeah, right! :-)

(Loud screech of tyres
as brakes are applied with a leaden foot!)

Another day and lot's more time to play with my toys in the cold light of day:

I have now listened to three CD versions of Clannad's "Theme from Harry's Game" repeatedly over several hours. Thanks goodness it's a pleasant listen! I tried every volume level up to seriously loud. All the while swapping discs around and listening attentively as I switched back and forth between different sources on the Naim preamp's selector.

I can now conclude that the difference between the CD disks themselves is greater than that between my old Marantz 63SE and the new Pioneer LX70A on analogue stereo. Don't worry dear subjectivists: Both players were using exactly the same quality, hand made cables from the same small British manufacturer. Each time I moved the disks between the players I found I preferred one player over another and so did my wife.

Clannad's 'electric folk' " Harry's Game" track is full of potential as a test subject since it is has a very exposed, very pure, solo female vocal lead, further backing voices and a large and rather brightly recorded (probably multi-tracked) mixed chorus. Plus lots of electronic music, breathing, echo and lip sounds. The "Celtic Circle" version pleased least with an irritating, almost buzzy, emphasis in the treble on the chorus. I preferred a remastered "Best of Clannad" over the original CD album and vice versa. Depending entirely on which player the disks sat in. I am not remotely bold enough to assume that even these findings holds true in a blind A/B/X setting. Though I had switched back and forth so many times it really was a blind test for us both by now.

The overall conclusion is that there is no real sound quality differences between my players on analogue CD replay. A quick listening test using my computer DVD drive as a source on the end of my dirt cheap 10 meter long, twin, analogue REW test cable was also inconclusive. It sounded just fine. Yet, despite this daunting setback for subjectivists with bottomless pockets the world continues to turn. Perhaps I had better drag the NAD T533 DVDP back in for a re-examination of its previously suspect SQ? Do you really think it would help matters now?

I am not greatly disappointed to have a shiny black and Blue Ray player sitting in my rack which seems to perfectly matches my now ageing Marantz on SQ. Though I suppose I ought to have been a bit peeved considering the hype surrounding so-called "high end" players. This was an expensive box at full retail price earlier in the year. I note the replacement models are very much cheaper at around half the price. Though Denon (and others) still have a range of HD players climbing into the stratosphere.

I half expected that there would be little or no difference between CD sources going on previously published blind listening tests. Though I very obviously allowed myself to be completely swayed by New Box Syndrome (or New BS if you prefer) in the diatribe above. I paid a very reasonable ex-demo price for a heavy and impressive box which solved my immediate needs for an HD player and a DVD player which could manage hired Sony films. That it doesn't shoot itself in the foot on CD replay is merely a bonus. There are "advanced" digital audio replay options which might excite those given to studying specification lists but these are denied me by my entirely analogue amplification. Would an expensive, stand-alone CD player have beaten the old Marantz or my shiny new Pioneer? Are you the owner of a pair of the fabled "golden" ears of magazine reviewers? Or just given to making very wild guesses? You pays your money and makes your choice, I'm afraid.

I could have been enjoying music instead of allowing my latest empty packaging to interfere in my usual listening habits. The music is the thing. Not what's in the box. Perhaps owning nice equipment is largely a status symbol? Whether any of it brings real improvements to the music itself seems not to unduly vex a vast global industry. Nor does it trouble its endlessly gullible customers.

Perhaps the psychological pleasure of equipment ownership is all that really matters in the end? The equipment nicely augments the personal pleasure of enjoying reproduced music. Even if it does so almost entirely by proxy. No wonder they can't measure any real difference between the pretty boxes or the silly cables. There (probably) isn't any difference. Except for the name, model number and (oh dear) the price tag. :-)