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Atmos Music: A World Beyond Movies

Atmos Music

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I recently came across an interview with Elliot Scheiner, a 5.1 surround mixing pioneer. He had some things to say about music in Dolby Atmos that caught my eye. For example:

There’s no way that anybody would consider 11 speakers so that leaves the listener with a Sennheiser or Sonos soundbar or Echo smart speaker. . . .

 

Dolby Atmos is great in a theater. You get a perfect picture of what Atmos is. They can’t convince me, just yet, that it’s great for music.

 

[Interviewer:] Yeah, it’s not accessible to most people yet in a way they can actually enjoy.


You’re right.

Reading this was yet another reminder of the general lack of awareness about the many home theater and media room installations that already have everything in place for playing music in Atmos. If you have 11 speakers (or 15, or maybe even more) plus subwoofers in an Atmos layout, why wouldn’t you want to listen to music that is specifically mixed for your setup?

 

The good news is that not all recording engineers feel as lukewarm about music in Atmos as Elliot Scheiner. Take for example Stefan Bock and his team at MSM Studio Group, who began mixing in 5.1 in 1994 and in Auro 3D in 2012. Stefan embraced Atmos in 2015 and has never looked back. He is also the developer of the Pure Audio Blu-ray format, which was introduced in 2009 and remains pretty much the only game in town for lossless playback of musical recordings in immersive formats such as Atmos, Auro 3D, and DTS:X. Out of a total of roughly 250 to 300 Pure Audio Blu-ray titles, there are currently around 75 that include an Atmos mix, usually alongside high-resolution 5.1 and stereo mixes, and that number continues to grow.

 

When I contacted Stefan for this article, one of the first things he said to me was: “In my opinion, immersive 3D audio formats can be bigger for music than they have been for movies.” Now that I have had a chance to listen closely to some music that was recorded and mixed specifically for a 3D playback environment (as opposed to albums remixed in Atmos from existing recordings), I think Stefan may be on to something. 

 

For starters, the added height channels in Atmos can definitely help to recreate spatial effects of reverberant and reflective spaces such as concert halls and churches with more fidelity than either stereo or 5.1 mixes. Atmos’ object-based audio, which frees artists and mixing engineers from being tied to specific surround channels, is also stimulating new approaches to music and therefore new listening experiences for consumers. Finally, there is the indefinable subjective response triggered when listening to a high-quality immersive music recording. Can Atmos do for music what Technicolor did for movies? The potential is there, but many hurdles must still be overcome before that potential can become reality. 

 

DIVING IN

For anyone who wants to experience how good 3D music can sound in their home, there are plenty of Pure Audio Blu-ray titles available in a variety of musical genres. To hear how a great Atmos recording can create a truly immersive soundstage where you can locate every instrument around you with jaw-dropping immediacy, listen to Alessandro Quarta plays Astor Piazzolla (the track “Jeanne Y Paul” was a particular highlight for me) or The Gordian Knot by Gordon Goodwin’s Big Phat Band. To place yourself in the midst of an incredibly lush-sounding string ensemble, try Reflections by the Trondheim Soloists (shown in the photos and video below)For a crystal-clear and intimate performance by a jazz trio playing in a church, listen 

Stage layout and microphone array for recording a performance by the Trondheim Soloists on
2L’s immersive album Reflections.
(Session photos and diagram by Morten Lindberg, recording
producer and balance, mix, and mastering engineer.)

to the Hoff Ensemble’s Polarity. To experience the spaciousness of a cathedral, try either The Choir of King’s College Cambridge on 1615 Gabrieli in Venice or Konstantin Reymaier’s The New Organ. To appreciate how object-based mixing can add to electronic music, check out Yello’s Point. If you are looking for video to go along with your music, try either John Williams Live in Vienna for a rousing concert recorded with superb attention to detail or Max Cooper’s Emergence for a combination of electronic music and science-inspired animation that seems made for a home theater.

 

Although it was easy to play Pure Audio Blu-ray discs through my theater system, I did need to raise the levels of my surround and height channels to match the front LCR channel levels at my listening position to get a more balanced immersive effect. This kind of adjustment may be particularly relevant for those who are starting from a calibration set up for playing music in stereo or if the surrounds and heights have been de-emphasized since they are typically used only for effects in movies. If you want to go one step further and you have a Trinnov Altitude audio processor with the latest software installed, you can

open the Atmos Object Viewer while you’re listening to get real-time feedback on the approach taken to object-based mixing for any given recording.

 

While Atmos has been available as a music format for several years, the pace of new releases has so far been sluggish. This may be about to change, however, as more music 

labels, including Universal and Warner, have jumped on the Atmos bandwagon, bringing welcome reinforcements to the original trailblazers, such as Grammy-winning Norwegian immersive music pioneer 2L. As a result, the number of Atmos music studios is increasing, with Universal’s Capitol and Abbey Road studios joining independent immersive mastering specialists such as MSM Studio Group and the newly rebuilt Coast Mastering. Although it is still in the early days and the quality of the end product varies, with more recording-studio infrastructure coming online it is becoming easier for artists and labels to start building Atmos mixes into their release plans.

 

DISCS ARE THE BEST OPTION—FOR NOW

What if you want playback options other than physical media for listening to music in Atmos? Unfortunately, the pickings here are still very slim, and those options that do exist are likely to disappoint anyone who has invested in a high-end audio system.

 

For example, Tidal Atmos relies on the lossy Dolby Digital Plus codec with a bitrate of 768 kbps. In contrast, Pure Audio Blu-ray employs the lossless Dolby TrueHD codec for Atmos, which I measured routinely delivering bitrates more than 10x higher when playing music from discs. The difference in sound quality between streaming and physical media is therefore much more pronounced for music in Atmos than for stereo recordings, which both Tidal and Qobuz can stream in high-res formats. Listening to Tidal Atmos tracks in my theater through an Apple TV felt like a tease. Once I raised the volume level 

(substantially higher than what is normally required for playing stereo tracks on Tidal), I could definitely hear the immersive mix, but I missed the vivid envelopment and the way I can pick out the crisp sound of each instrument when listening to a Pure Audio Blu-ray recording.

 

If there are currently no options for lossless streaming of Atmos music,

are there any straightforward solutions for downloading and playing lossless Atmos music files? For 2D surround music in 5.1, for example, it is relatively simple to download a FLAC file, add it to a Roon music library, and then use a Roon Ready processor such as the Trinnov Altitude to play it through a theater audio system. You can also use the processor decoders to upmix from 5.1 to Atmos or Auro 3D, but this doesn’t sound the same as playing a native 3D mix.

 

Downloading and playing Atmos music is a different story. First of all, Atmos content cannot be stored in a FLAC file because FLAC can’t carry the metadata with the location coordinates for the sound objects that are a core feature of Atmos mixes. There are a few Atmos albums downloadable in the MP4 file format, but these also use the same low-bitrate codec as Tidal Atmos so can’t match the sound quality of Pure Audio Blu-ray. Until a service like Roon supplies an elegant solution for lossless playback of Atmos music files through home AV systems, downloads are likely going to have only limited appeal.  

 

Sadly, Atmos support isn’t a priority for Roon, as evidenced by a reference in a Roon Knowledge Base article on multichannel support to “video/movie specific schemes that aren’t very relevant in an audio-only environment like Roon.” When I queried Roon about their plans, they confirmed that they’re likely to be more of a follower than a leader when it comes to enabling Atmos playback through Roon Ready devices. It’s therefore going to be up to another content-delivery platform to come up with a user-friendly solution for downloading and playing Atmos music. 

 

Since, for the time being, there are no viable options for either streaming or downloading lossless Atmos music, Pure Audio Blu-ray is in a privileged position for anyone who wants to experience how good an immersive 3D music mix can sound in a home theater or media room. Until Pure Audio brings a US distributor on board, the most reliable way to get your hands on these recordings is to go through the European Pure Audio Recordings online store. Some Pure Audio Blu-ray titles are also available on Amazon, but they may be mislabeled as Audio CDs.

 

Hopefully other Cineluxe readers will enjoy this novel listening experience as much as I have. After all, the more uptake there is for these types of recordings, the easier it will be to convince skeptics like Elliot Scheiner to take Dolby Atmos more seriously as a music format for the high-end home AV market.

William Erb

William Erb is a longstanding movie enthusiast, music lover & home AV tinkerer. He has been using his spare time, now that he is semi-retired after a career in banking and biotech, to renovate his new home in Los Angeles with a private cinema and a distributed audio system, both state-of-the art. William became a client of Sam Cavitt’s Paradise Theater in the very early stages of his renovation project. He was lucky enough to get the private cinema completed just before lockdown, and is glad not to need an excuse to stay home to watch movies and listen to music.

How to Listen: Roy Orbison

How to Listen: Roy Orbison

Roy Orbison had one of the most magnificent and distinctive voices of all time. It’s been called “operatic” so many times as to become the go-to cliché when describing it, but it’s true. He could hit stratospheric high notes or sing in a near-whisper. I saw him perform live more than 10 times, and his voice could vibrate you. More importantly, no one’s singing had as much emotional impact. Just listen to magnificent classics like “Crying,” “It’s Over,” and “Running Scared.” If you’re not moved, you’re dead.

 

The good news: Thankfully, Roy Orbison’s early albums on the Monument label are wonderfully recorded in stereo, with his voice captured in all its glory by the masterful Bill Porter, who sadly passed away in 2010. (Orbison recorded a number of 

sides for Sun Records previously, but these were before his first hit, “Only the Lonely,” on Monument.)

 

Porter worked out of RCA Studios in 1960s Nashville and as such was one of the architects of “The Nashville Sound.” In addition to Orbison, Porter recorded Chet Atkins, Boots Randolph, the Everly Brothers, and many others, including Elvis, for whom he also mixed live sound. He was exacting and expert enough to install room treatment in the RCA recording studio upon his hiring when he thought the acoustics weren’t good enough, and to create new vocal recording techniques. (I was fortunate to have met him a number of times, and he was also one of the kindest people I’ve ever known and generous to share his knowledge.) Later, he also recorded at Monument Studios, where “Oh, Pretty Woman” and “It’s Over” were produced.

 

Orbison released four albums in his classic Monument period: Lonely and Blue (1961), Crying (1962), In Dreams (1963) and Orbisongs (1965), which contained his last big hit, the titanic “Oh, Pretty Woman.” There are also a few original Monument compilation albums: Roy Orbison’s Greatest Hits (1962), More of Roy Orbison’s Greatest Hits (1964), The Very Best of Roy Orbison (1966), and The All-Time Greatest Hits of Roy Orbison (1972, 2-LP).

 

After that he went to MGM and never achieved his past chart glories—nor his Monumental sound.

 

The sound created by Porter, producer Fred Foster, and engineer Tommy Strong is breathtaking—full-bodied, lush, enveloping, and detailed but not in any hyped-up “audiophile” manner. It’s simply some of the best recorded sound you’ll ever hear, with a perfect balance of Orbison’s and the background singers’ vocals and instruments along with the room sound and some added reverb. This is all the more impressive considering most (or maybe all—I haven’t been able to determine this definitively) of these recordings were done “live” in the studio with all the musicians and singers performing together. The dynamic contrasts are also among the widest ever captured during the era—“Running Scared” was recorded with an astounding 25dB dynamic range.

 

Not that the sound is perfect. On the first Monument recordings, RCA only had the budget to install studio reverb on one of the two stereo channels, but Porter used it so artfully that you’d never know without listening carefully, and even good stereo systems may not resolve this.

 

HOWEVER: There are so many re-issues and remasterings of Roy Orbison’s material on vinyl, CD and streaming/ download that it’s virtually impossible to keep track of them. And the remasterings vary significantly in quality. Some of the worst-sounding re-issues, like the shamefully flat, 

opaque, and bass-deficient 2013 The Monument Album Collection are available in 24-bit/96kHz Hi-Res Audio.

 

Which hammers home an even more important point: Just because an album is offered in high-resolution audio doesn’t automatically mean it’s going to sound better.

 

I know I’m going to sound like a vinyl snob here, but I’ve heard nothing that comes close to the sound of the original vinyl pressings and certain re-issues, like the out-of-print DCC Compact Classics LP remastering of The All-Time Greatest Hits of Roy Orbison, which ranks among my personal all-time greatest sounding Orbison discs. (And not all vinyl pressings sound the same—check the postscript from my friend and colleague Michael Fremer of Analog Planet and Stereophile.) The first three albums, on Qobuz in 24/96 Hi-Res Audio, lose some depth and sparkle, though they’re pretty darn good. (Orbisongs isn’t available on Qobuz.)

 

As a result, all the following comments are made with the assumption that you are listening using good source material.

 

A quick test to see if your system is any good: It may be hard to believe but on the earlier songs, Porter felt Orbison’s voice needed some strengthening, so he added a “slap-back” tape delay to beef it up. An example: On “Only the Lonely,” towards the end of the song where Orbison sings, “but that’s the chance/you’ve gotta take,” on the “k” sound of “take,” you should hear a distinct, quick echo. It’s faint but if you don’t hear this, either your system can’t resolve it or you’re listening to a lousy remastering. You can also hear this slap-back effect on “Blue Angel” and other songs.

How to Listen: Roy Orbison

The Porter sound gives you a wide and deep soundspace, though you will hear some hard left and right panning, as on “In Dreams” where the electric bass and rhythm guitars are in the left channel and the strings and chorus in the right. It’s a big sound. The strings on all the Monument material should have extended highs but never be steely. Orbison’s voice should always be pure, present, and rich, with no mistracking or stridency whatsoever, ever. Since this material was recorded live in the studio, the balances have a natural “feel” to them—you can really hear that everyone’s playing together.

 

“Crying” has one of the most demanding tests for system resolution I know. At the beginning, there’s an acoustic guitar, some softly-struck tom toms—and a ride cymbal with rivets in it. On a good system, you should be able to get a palpable sense of the rivets in the cymbal “sizzling,” and on a great one, feel like you’re hearing the individual rivets. Sadly, on some remasterings, even including the Qobuz hi-res 24/96 version, you’ll be lucky to hear this.

 

On “Dream Baby,” the sax should have body and weight, sounding closer to someone playing a real sax than a recorded facsimile thereof. In “It’s Over,” listen for the “rush” of the strings in the left channel as they go in and out—it’s a subtle but thrilling effect. That song, along with “Oh, Pretty Woman,” was recorded in a different studio (Monument) than the others (RCA) and you can plainly hear this in the drier, less reverb-washed sound. On “Oh Pretty Woman,” the drums have a great natural-sounding presence and tone, especially the snare, which irresistibly drives this beyond-great song. And listen for the

Postscript: Roy Orbison on Vinyl

I corresponded with analog expert Michael Fremer to get his impressions on various Monument pressings. He responded:

 

The original LP of The All-Time Greatest Hits of Roy Orbison is not great. The DCC Compact Classics reissue of that album is good. Then there was the Mobile Fidelity reissue. But I’m not sure if any of those are as good as the original Monument mastering of Roy Orbison’s Greatest Hits and More of Roy Orbison’s Greatest Hits—but, only one original mastering of each of those is really good and there are three different masterings!

 

I have multiple copies of the original Roy Orbison’s Greatest Hits (catalog number SLP 18000). They have the early laminated covers with the yellow ‘flag” on top. There are two versions, both with the same green/yellow label, but one says “Hendersonville, Tennessee” at the bottom and one says “Monument Record Corp, Made in USA.” That one sounds like nothing compared to the “Hendersonville” one! [I have other copies with different nomenclature. Guess Fremer and I are going to have to have a listening party. —FD]

 

More of Roy Orbison’s Greatest Hits (catalog number SLP19024) has “Hendersonville” on the label as well and sounds great! But there are also later copies that were mastered by Columbia Records with the “Columbia” stamp and those suck. STAY AWAY, even though the jacket is the older Monument one and looks similar, but it’s not laminated and doesn’t have the “flag” logo.

multiple electric and acoustic guitars, including a very subtle acoustic rhythm guitar that’s snuck in there.

 

Roy Orbison left Monument in 1964 and recorded many subsequent albums on MGM. As noted, he never had another hit while on MGM, or came close to the Monument sound. Or did he?

 

Original MGM LPs are seriously lacking in dynamics, transparency, and depth. However, in 2015, Universal Music/Roy’s Boys released Roy Orbison: The MGM Years, and it’s an absolutely superb remastering of every single album Orbison ever cut for the label. Where the original LPs range from mediocre to decent, the Qobuz hi-res versions are stunning—clear and detailed, with excellent depth and tonality. The comparison between the original vinyl and the new versions (available in various formats) is actually kind of shocking. Now this is an example of remastering done right!

 

The music ranges from some choice almost-hit cuts like “Crawling Back,” “Breaking Up Is Breaking My Heart” 

and “Cry Softly, Lonely One,” to satisfying country material such as “You Fool You” and a cover of Don Gibson’s “(I’d Be) A Legend in My Time,” to just plain awful, like “Twinkle Toes” and pretty much the entire The Fastest Guitar Alive soundtrack. Still, there are a number of gems to be found.

 

After the MGM years, Roy’s popularity declined, until, as most of us probably know, his rediscovery and career resurrection in the mid-1980s. This is exemplified on the 1988 Roy Orbison and Friends: A Black and White Night DVD, now available remastered on Blu-ray, CD, and streamingHe released a number of post-MGM albums, although personally, I don’t find any of them sonically exceptional with the exception of one song, “Love s a Cold Wind” from 1979’s Laminar Flow (Asylum Records). This is late 1970s multitrack recording at its finest, a beautiful song beautifully recorded. His 1989 comeback album, Mystery Girl (Virgin), has (mostly) excellent songs served by good sound, with clarity and a deep soundspace, but the production is too “squared off” for my taste, with everything sounding like it’s locked to a grid. Sadly, after a life of personal tragedies and health problems, Roy left us all too soon in 1988 at the age of 52.

 

I am surprised that Roy Orbison’s life and legacy have not been honored with a definitive high-resolution remastering of the classic Monument catalog. Perhaps it will come.

—Frank Doris

Frank Doris is the chief cook & bottle washer for Frank Doris/Public Relations and works with a number of audio & music industry clients. He is also the editor of Copper magazine, a professional guitarist, and a vinyl enthusiast with multiple turntables and thousands of records.

How to Listen: The Firebird

How to Listen: The Firebird

Stravinsky: The Firebird

Mercury Living Presence (original LP & Qobuz 16-bit/44.1 kHz)

 

We haven’t yet done a classical LP in our “How to Listen” series, which many would consider an egregious omission—and I would agree. Aside from the considerable musical merits of classical, there’s arguably no better form of music to demonstrate what a good audio system can do—and perhaps no better disc than this 1959 recording of Igor Stravinsky’s The Firebird, performed by the London Symphony Orchestra conducted by Antal Dorati. It’s legendary, long-revered by audiophiles and classical aficionados for its sensational sound and thrilling performance. Simply put, The Firebird is a class in itself on what to listen for in an orchestra—and in a great stereo system.

Among Golden Age classical record labels, Mercury “Living Presence” and RCA “Living Stereo” LPs are the most acclaimed, with Decca right beside them. (Other labels like London, Everest, and Angel aren’t to be slighted, but among audiophiles and collectors, Mercury and RCA are the two most mentioned and re-issued.) Mercurys tend to be more dynamic and brighter, RCAs warmer and more lush-sounding.

 

The Firebird is a 1910 ballet (it’ll have its 110th anniversary on June 25!) about the journey of hero Prince Ivan and his encounters with the evil Koschei the Immortal, the mythical and captivating Firebird, and 13 captive princesses. As you might imagine, this is rich material for musical portrayal, and Stravinsky’s score is magnificently evocative—you really don’t have to know a word of the story to “get” the work’s emotional range. The music is energetic, colorful, impassioned, with a tremendous range of dynamics, moods, and tonal colors. Composer Sergei Rachmaninoff summarized The Firebird’s greatness: “Great God! What a work of genius this is! This is true Russia!”

 

The recording was engineered by C. Robert Fine and produced by Wilma Cozart Fine, two of the greatest figures in classical recording. The disc was recorded in half-inch three-track tape using three Telefunken 201 microphones. It was then mixed down to stereo. This simple, straightforward method of miking an orchestra yields remarkably natural sound, with the orchestra spread over a wide and deep soundstage, instruments accurately placed, and the natural ambience of London’s Watford Town Hall to be clearly heard—if your system is up to the task. The multi-miked recording techniques that later came into vogue gave engineers the ability to create instrumental balances after the fact and “fix it in the mix,” but also destroyed the phase relationships and hall ambience that make purist, simply-miked recordings sound so convincingly real.

 

And what a sound those mics and that tape captured. In particular, the dynamics are fantastic. Starting with quietly-bowed basses, the first few minutes sneak up on you. Set your volume control low, because this recording begins with a barely audible string passage, and then explosive orchestral bursts happen, beginning with the appearance of the Firebird in the musical story about five minutes in. If you’re wondering about the low-frequency capability of your 

system, the first time the timpani come pounding in, you’ll know just how deep and articulate your speakers are—or aren’t.

 

One of the many other striking things about this recording is its clarity. Instruments are reproduced with astonishing transparency and detail. The tonal colors and characters of each instrument are remarkably distinct and, on a good system, 

easy to hear. In fact, the ability to hear and differentiate between all the instruments is crucial to the full appreciation of Stravinsky’s often densely—and brilliantly-orchestrated score.

 

You shouldn’t just hear masses of woodwinds and strings—you should clearly be able to pick out the sweetness of the oboes as opposed to the timbre of the clarinets, the distinction between the violins, violas, and cellos, and other nuances. Percussive sounds are rendered with exceptional transient realism, with the pluck of a harp or the striking of a mallet instrument almost thrilling in their clarity. A real system test? In some spots the strings are playing some very fast, quiet bowed passages. They’re almost imperceptible at times—but they’re there. On a lesser system they’ll sound like one continuous bowed note—or won’t be heard at all.

 

The reproduction of the hall sound is also superb. When a solo trumpet plays or a timpani strikes, you can easily hear the echo of the acoustic space, and if you have the appropriate speakers, you’ll get a sense of the size of the hall and its physical presence. There’s a vast spaciousness, width and depth. For me, the combination of orchestral and hall sound is perfect. It’s simply beautiful to listen to.

 

If there’s one quibble to the overall sonic splendor, it’s that during very loud passages, the sound can get more than a little bright. The upper range is never harsh or grainy, but this recording, and other Mercurys, certainly can’t be accused of erring on the side of mellowness. If your system is on the edge of brightness, this recording may push it over that edge. On the other hand, the bass is rich and authoritative and the midrange is spot on—not too lean, not

The Firebird on Qobuz:
Streaming a Vinyl Icon

 

The original Mercury Living Presence LP of The Firebird (catalog no. SR90226) has long been considered one of the greatest orchestral recordings of all time. It’s had a “Best of the Bunch” highest ranking on The Absolute Sound’s Super LP List for a very long time (a fact I’d forgotten about until doing this review). So . . . how did this iconic recording sound on a digital stream—a format that’s anathema to vinyl-sniffing purists? (Don’t get me wrong—I’m a vinyl aficionado myself.)

 

Well, I listened on Qobuz in 44.1k/16-bit on an extremely high-quality system and was impressed. It sounded smooth with good detail and not very “digital.” The wide dynamic range and tonal balance were there. It didn’t quite have the same richness or spatiality, and I think you need a good copy of the LP to get the “magic.” (There have been a few reissues of varying quality over the decades.) On the other hand, nothing can diminish the transcendent performance.

 

However, Qobuz gives the release date of this Decca Music Group reissue as 1991—jeez, can it really have been 30 years ago?—so this is crying out for a true hi-res 192/24 remastering.

—F.D.

too thick, just right. Instruments like violins and those oboes have a sweetness and expressiveness—the sound just gets out of the way.

 

You can truly hear Dorati’s hand—literally—in conducting the LSO, every nuance of control and relaxed grace easily heard. You feel as much as hear the ebb and flow. The performance of the orchestra is masterful. The musicianship is transcendent.

 

There’s not much more I can say other than to conclude with this: In writing the review, I listened to The Firebird multiple times. First to reacquaint myself and take notes. Then, having trouble tearing myself away, to simply bask in the utterly beautiful sound and performance.

Frank Doris

Frank Doris is the chief cook & bottle washer for Frank Doris/Public Relations and works with a
number of audio & music industry clients. He’s a professional guitarist and a vinyl enthusiast with
multiple turntables and thousands of records.

How to Listen: Kind of Blue

How to Listen: Kind of Blue

So much has been written about this most legendary of jazz albums that it seems kind of pointless to repeat the usual stereotypical commentary—that it’s the greatest jazz album of all time, that it solidified a new type of modal jazz playing, that its influence is boundless. (All true except arguably the first point—can anyone really anoint a Greatest Jazz Album of All Time when recordings like Bill Evans’ Sunday at the Village Vanguard or John Coltrane’s Giant Steps exist?)

One thing’s not subject to argument: The music is transcendent. Recorded in 1959, it features Miles Davis (trumpet), Bill Evans (piano), John Coltrane (tenor sax), Cannonball Adderley (alto sax), James Cobb (drums), and Paul Chambers (bass). The music was recorded with the musicians having no preparation beforehand, making it all the more remarkable when you hear the empathy between them.

 

The sound quality is excellent—not without its flaws, including the fact that, because of a problem with the tape machine, the pitch of the original production master tape is about one and a half percent too fast. (Later re-issues corrected this subtle but perceptible anomaly.) But the recording has a natural tonality and dynamic shadings that capture the ebb and flow of that masterful empathy between the musicians.

 

On a good system, you’ll feel them playing live in the studio: Columbia Records’ 30th Street Studio in Manhattan, considered by some to be the finest-sounding recording studio of all time. Not to trivialize the magnificence of the music, but this quality alone, of feeling like you’re there listening in the moment, makes Kind of Blue an essential album for evaluating a music system’s performance.

 

Kind of Blue has been issued countless times (Discogs lists 377 versions, and that doesn’t count hi-res downloads and streaming), so it’s impossible to recommend a definitive version. But I’ve heard a number of excellent pressings, including the original Columbia “Six-Eye” catalog number CS 8163, a surprisingly good “The Nice Price” 1970s Columbia issue (PC 8163), and versions from Classic Records. There are plenty of audiophile pressings from Acoustic Sounds and others. Google is your friend. I also listened on Qobuz in 96/24 Hi-Res Audio.

 

Let’s get the audio imperfections out of the way. Typical of jazz recordings of the era, there’s a lot of hard-left and hard-right panning, with Evans and Coltrane in the left channel and Adderley and Cobb in the right, leaving Davis and Chambers in the middle. As a result, you’re not going to hear that expansive “3-D” soundstage that audiophiles prize so much. The drums are often spatially flat and distant, the piano somewhat less so but certainly far from up front.

That said, the feeling of room ambience, of the musicians playing in a live space, does come through, partly the result of mic leakage (such as the reverberant bleed-through of Coltrane’s tenor in “”Freddie Freeloader”) and partly because the tonal

balance and dynamic presence of the horns is so authentic. Coltrane’s and Adderley’s saxes sound positively creamy and full-bodied.

 

The audibility of the piano is a test of how good a system is. When I first started listening to Kind of Blue in the 1970s, it was on crummy stereos and the piano was so faint I could barely hear it. I thought it was a shame the recording was so “bad.” As my systems got better, the piano got louder. On a good system the piano is plain to hear.

 

Davis’ trumpet—it’s astonishing. Front and center with thrilling presence. On a good system, the nuances of his playing come through with startling clarity. It really does sound like there’s a human being playing a real instrument in real space. You can

Kind of Blue

hear the absolute genius of Davis’ infinite variations in note shading, attack, breath, and dynamics. The trumpet sounds like an instrument with air blowing at you, not a thin two-dimensional simulation. It’s spooky.

 

There’s really no need to do a track-by-track dissection, but some highlights: On an inadequate setup, Chambers’ signature acoustic-bass opening riff to “So What” will be hard or impossible to hear. On a good one, you’ll hear a full-bodied bass with plenty of harmonic richness. “Freddie Freeloader,” the second track, features Wynton Kelly rather than Bill Evans on piano, and you can distinctly hear Kelly’s more aggressive playing and blues-laden style compared to Evans’ more delicate touch and utterly distinctive harmonic approach.

 

Blue in Green” finds the musicians laying back, and Davis is first heard using a trumpet mute. If anything, his individualism and seemingly endless variations in conveying each note are heightened even more. His phrasing and dynamics are hair-raising. Again, the trumpet should sound like a real instrument with body, not some feeble kazoo-like approximation. The minimalist atmosphere of this piece should let you hear everything that’s right about the music’s stark beauty and clarity.

 

In “All Blues,” Cobb’s brush work on the snare drum is more prominent. Playing the brushes is deceptively simple to do right (try it sometime) and you should be able to hear that Cobb is an absolute master here. Then he switches to drumsticks in a seamless sleight of hand—I still haven’t been able to pinpoint the exact moment when he does it. And the players take a 6/8 time signature—usually reserved for waltzes—and make it swing! Listen for the distinction of the tap of Cobb’s stick on the ride cymbal behind Adderley’s solo, followed by the cymbal’s after-ring.

 

The album closes with “Flamenco Sketches,” and it’s spellbinding. If everything’s right, you can walk into the lushness of the acoustic bass. Listen to the beauty and restraint of the playing. For a couple of minutes, there are no drums and then they sneak in almost imperceptibly at first, something that will be completely lost on a lesser system. Listen for the decay of Evans’ piano notes—sublime. Coltrane’s balladic playing here is heart-stopping.

 

For those who might ask, “Why high-end audio?,” hearing music like Kind of Blue the way it was meant to be heard is why.

 

Frank Doris

Frank Doris is the chief cook & bottle washer for Frank Doris/Public Relations and works with a
number of audio & music industry clients. He’s a professional guitarist and a vinyl enthusiast with
multiple turntables and thousands of records.

How to Get Audiophile-Quality Streaming

How to Get Audiophile-Quality Streaming

There are many ways to listen to high-quality, great-sounding music but not everyone knows about the multitude of wonderful options that are readily available these days. Some of you well might be enjoying the resurgence of vinyl and turntables. I am certainly into those (always have been!), and yet I am also a fan of high-resolution surround sound music from Blu-ray, SACD, and DVD Audio discs!

 

Curiously, in these 21st Century times, downloads are fast becoming retro technology, especially as high-quality dedicated, computer-driven streaming audio services have become a strongly viable option for many listeners.

 

And I’m not talking about just pulling up some random advertising-riddled audio-videos on YouTube, which often are quite awful sounding with no information as to what you are hearing. A lot of people do this. In fact, YouTube has grown so popular

for music listening that Billboard is now counting it in their tracking of the album charts.

 

It’s a thing, as they say . . . But, you know, tinny sounding monaural AM radio was also once a thing.

 

We can do better than that, fidelity-wise!   

 

I’ve tried several of the popular modern internet streaming services. While Spotify gets points for its sheer volume of titles, to my ear it has never sounded particularly good nor especially high fidelity. Fortunately, there are some real fine genuinely “HiFi” alternatives. For the past couple of years, 

I’ve had access to two of the premier high-resolution, subscription-based streaming-media services, which deliver fidelity at a minimum of CD quality and often much much higher: Tidal and Qobuz.

 

These are especially good when you stream music in their respective high-resolution formats: MQA (aka Master Quality Audio) and Hi-Res. Both services offer thousands of albums new and old to stream. Any albums in Tidal’s catalog marked with an “M” have the potential to play back in higher 24-bit depth, many at 96 kHz and higher resolution. I reviewed one title

streaming at 352.8 kHz that sounded fantastic!

 

The upsides to Tidal and Qobuz are many, but there are some crucial connections you’ll need to make to get the most out of these services. While your installer can likely help you integrate streaming into your current sound system, here are some of the basics you’ll want to understand.

 

First and foremost, you will probably need a digital-to-analog converter (DAC) to 

help integrate music streaming into your home entertainment system from a computer or mobile device. The DAC essentially handles the quite significant processing muscle your computer would otherwise be required to do in order to deliver high-resolution audio to your system. In a loose sense, MQA is to high-resolution internet streaming as DTS and Dolby are to surround sound, compacting large audio files for delivery to you that get unpacked when decoded locally in your home. 

 

If you want to stream in MQA format, make sure your DAC is compatible. Alternately, if you don’t want to bother with a DAC and a computer, there are very cool new stand-alone products on the market that may be more appealing. Last year at a preview event here in San Francisco, I heard (and reported on) NAD’s M10 systema beautiful-looking piece of modern hardware designed purely for streaming.

How to Get Audiophile-Quality Streaming

NAD’s M10 BluOS streaming amplifier

How to Get Audiophile-Quality Streaming

Mytek’s Brooklyn Bridge streamer/DAC/preamp

When using these systems on a day-to-day basis, it is important to understand that Tidal requires a bit more finesse to use, settings-wise, so you might want to ask your installer to help you dial that in. If you don’t want to mess around with the settings, Qobuz is probably the easiest one-click solution. Just hit Play, and the DAC recognizes the “Hi-Res” album you have chosen and plays the music. 

 

There are trade-offs. When comparing identical albums on each platform, there are some sonic differences you might notice. To my ear, most times the MQA versions on Tidal tend to sound best—something to do with how it handles the music and presents it to you sounds more appealing to my ear. Again, this also depends largely on a variety of variables, including the quality of your DAC, the pedigree of the recordings the streaming services received from the music labels, how the music was transferred to digital for streaming purposes, and what resolution files were provided to the service for streaming. That is another discussion for the future and a reason to look for my reviews here and on Audiophile Review.

 

Streaming services can be a rabbit-hole adventure as you compare the sonic differences between titles—many times, you’ll find an album in both CD and high-resolution versions on these services, so it can be fun to compare and contrast.

 

Basic use of each service is easy: Just search for titles you want to play and then mark them as “favorites” if you want to add them to “your” collections. You can also build playlists, which are fun and handy.

 

So, what recordings should you stream? In the weeks and months ahead, I’ll try to make recommendations of cool albums to check out. Most everything you might want to hear is up there, from Abba to Zappa, quite literally! 

 

Happy streaming!

Mark Smotroff

Mark Smotroff breathes music 24/7. His collection includes some 10,000 LPs, thousands of
CDs & downloads, and many hundreds of Blu-ray and DVD Audio discs. Professionally, Mark has
provided Marketing Communications services to the likes of DTS, Sony, Sega, Sharp, and AT&T.
He is also a musician, songwriter & producer, and has written about music professionally for
publications including Mix, Sound+Vision, and AudiophileReview. When does he sleep?