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Bob Dylan Hybrid Super Audio CDs
Sony and Phillips have been heavily hyping their new Super
Audio CD format since its inception almost two years ago. For most consumers
SACD and its competitor DVD-A have been non-issues because of the lack of
compelling software. Hardware manufacturers don’t seem to understand that
people only buy hardware so they can access software. Why attend a party where the
only libation is tap water?
Releasing the Rolling Stones’ entire catalog on SACD was a
first step toward making the SACD format worthwhile. Releasing Bob Dylan’s
entire catalog on SACD may finally put the SACD format into the “must have”
category. Of course, that depends on whether these new releases can add
anything to our understanding and enjoyment of these seminal recordings.
Perhaps I should take a step backward. Some readers may know
nothing about the SACD format. In short SACD takes digital recording to a
potentially new level of fidelity and accuracy. Unlike CDs, which use16-bit PCM
(pulse code modulation) digital recording, SACD is based on Sony DSD (direct
stream digital) technology. Instead of relying on sampling an analog signal
into distinct separate pieces, digitizing them and then reassembling them
later, the DSD system doesn’t use sampling, but instead digitizes a continuous
analog stream of musical information into a continuous digital stream. This
methodology eliminates the timing and extrapolation errors inherent in the PCM
process, which chops up, then reassemble a stream of data.
The biggest commercial hang-up with SACDs stems from the
inability of older CD players to successfully play this new format. Sony and
Phillips’ solution to this problem was to make hybrid SACDs, which have
separate SACD and standard CD layers on the same disk. Slap a hybrid SACD on
any older CD player and it will act just like a regular CD. The catch is that
you will be hearing the CD layer, not the new SACD format. Only when you play a
SACD on a new SACD player you will hear the SACD layer.
The cynics in the audience may be thinking “So what? Why bother
with SACDs?” Perhaps this is a good time to mention that SACD is a
MULTI-CHANNEL format that supports up to six channels (five full range channels
and one low frequency channel.) Why is this important? It means that older
two-channel recordings can be remixed as multi-channel and released via SACD.
By now the Luddites in the audience are brandishing their miniature wooden
clogs to ward away the potential desecration of their most cherished
recordings. Like any tool multi-channel remixes can be done badly. The Neal
Young multi-channel DVD-A remixes are a case in point. But they can also be
done well. A good multi-channel remix can expand the natural soundfield in a
way that makes the music more immediate and accessible.
This brings us back to the new Bob Dylan SACD recordings. Some of these releases are only two-channel,
while others offer both a two-channel and multi-channel mix. Dylan’s early
catalog up to and including Highway 61
Revisited offer only two-channel mixes, but beginning with Blond and Blond these SACDs have both
stereo and multi-channel mixes. If you don’t like or want to listen to the
multi-channel mixes you don’t have to. You can put your clogs down now.
Since the new format promises better sound and higher fidelity
the $64,000 question is whether the can actually sound better than the original
releases? Since I have original vinyl LPs in my collection as well as CD
copies, I was able to compare them all. The verdict? SACDs offer far more than
merely old wine in new bottles; they make most earlier versions of Dylan’s
recordings sonically obsolete.
To be fair when comparing LPs to CDs to SACDs requires a level
playing field. For my tests I used my major league he-man home theater system.
Just to give the LPs a home team advantage, my LP playback system was over
$2000 more expensive than the CD and SACD player, the Lexicon RT-10.
Audiophiles can drop me a line for the system minutia. With a list price of
over $65,000 for the entire kit and caboodle, even hardcore audiophiles should
accept that it was revealing enough to make my comparisons valid.
Since Highway 61
Revisited has only a stereo mix, comparing the LP, CD, and SACD versions
should have been fairly straightforward. It wasn’t. My CD version of this disc
is a special 24Kt gold plated version made by DCC compact classics (GZS-1021).
It has way more bass than either the original 360 sound red label stereo LP or
the SACD. Too much bass, actually. The bass is the aural equivalent of a furry
200 lb. Sheepdog who’s too happy to see you. Whomp – pow – and you’re flat on
your back. The SACD and LP may lack some
bass, but it doesn’t distract you from the rest of the musical spectrum. The
SACD wins in terms of detail and separation. On the LP all the instruments are
homogenized into a funky wall of sound. On the SACD you can actually tell where
one guitar stops and the other begins. Score one for the SACD.
For Blond on Blond I
had another original red label 360 LP, and another premium version of the CD.
This time the CD was a limited edition master-sound copy incorporating a 20-bit
SBM recording process. And, yes, it’s gold plated. Once more the SACD and LP
sounded much closer to each other than the CD. Their midranges had a more
natural and relaxed timbre than the CD, which sounded hard, dry, and at times
downright nasty. The CD did have more bass than the LP, but the SACD had as much bass as the CD.
Overall the SACD had greater resolution and inner detail than either the CD or
LP. Score two for the SACD’s
The surround sound mix on the Blond on Blond SACD does have some distracting elements. I’m not
sure I like having the organ and celesta tracks coming from the rear channels
on “Temporarily Like Achilles.” Fortunately on most cuts the rear channels only
supply some ambience and spatial expansion. Purists should opt for the
two-channel mix to avoid sonic peek-a-boo surprises.
The SACD of Blood on the
Tracks makes the spatial differences between the selections that feature
just Bob and his guitar with Tony Brown’s bass, verses those cuts with a full
band far more striking than on the LP or CD. The Bob and Tony duet cuts, such
as “Buckets of Rain” and “You’re Gonna Make Me Lonesome When You Go” sound
fantastic – so natural you’d swear you were in the room with them during the
session. At the end of “Buckets of Rain”
you can hear Bob heave a faint sigh of relief. The band cuts suffer slightly in
comparison. Again the surround sound mix has some of the instruments
prominently placed in the rear speakers. I’m not sure I like the mandolin
relegated to the back of the bus. Still the clarity of the SACD, even on the
full band selections far exceeds that of the LP or CD. Score three for the
Based on my semi-scientific survey of these three SACDs I have
to conclude that the new Dylan SACDs rock. Producer Steve Berkowitz, mastering
engineers Greg Calbi and Darcy Proper, mixers Phil Ramone and Elliot Scheiner,
and tape researchers Didier Deutch, Matt Kelly, and Debbie Smith have brought
Dylan’s most important recordings to a higher level of fidelity. If you are a
Dylan fan, a rock fan, or any kind of modern music fan, you NEED these new
SACDs. CBS Legacy would only send me three titles for review, so I’m going out
and actually buying the rest of the releases, that’s how much I like