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to Section One | to Arts & Entertainment
posted Friday, January 3 2014 - Volume 42 Issue 01
Stripping the veil off Jonas Kaufmann - Blue-ray Audio-only is a nearly perfect recording medium
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Stripping the veil off Jonas Kaufmann - Blue-ray Audio-only is a nearly perfect recording medium

by Rod Parke - SGN A&E Writer

Imagine you're making love with the person of your dreams. Everything is ideal, except that there's a veil between the two of you. You're so excited that you haven't noticed the veil until someone tears it away. Suddenly you experience your lover, skin on skin, with an immediacy that you hadn't known was missing. It's not like anything you've ever experienced before!

That's what happens when you hear Blu-ray Audio-only for the first time. Here's gorgeous Jonas Kaufmann in the same room with you! (Only trouble is, there are a hundred other people there, too: musicians, sound engineers, etc.) There's no video on these discs . . . all the better to encourage you to close your eyes and see this wonderful artist, his lips, his eyes, his curls, in the 20-20 vision of your imagination.

To explain why this audio is better than any you've ever heard before (other than in perfect seats at a live performance), requires a brief lesson on compression: frequency compression, dynamic compression, and data compression.

Frequency compression happened before the advent of modern high fidelity. Primitive equipment caused the loss of the lowest and highest sounds on a recording. Even after high fidelity LPs came along, the bottom notes (bass drum, bottom octave of the basses, etc.) were scarcely audible because engineers feared their high energy could cause the needle to bounce out of the LP groove.

Dynamic compression was purposely employed for the same reason, because background noise of tape hiss and record surface noise would mess up passages that were too quiet. Dynamic compression means soft is less soft, and the loud moments are robbed of much of their energy and excitement by being made less loud. Until digital sound, dynamic compression was used on almost all recordings. (I once said to the great Birgit Nilsson at a reception, 'Your voice has never quite fit into LP grooves.' She reached out and touched my arm and said, 'You noticed!' I was begging her to make some digital recordings before she retired and thus capture the true power of her incredible voice. She didn't.)

Data compression is used on all CDs so that more minutes of music will fit in this limited-capacity medium, meaning that a lot of the sound 'information' of the original recording was dumped. Ingeniously, just enough data was left so that the untrained ear would not notice the missing stuff. To the trained musician and some stereophiles, the sound lacked the warmth of LPs; strings sounded cold and grainy.

And now there's Blu-ray Audio-only. The amazing data capacity of Blu-ray discs allows, for the first time ever, ALL of the information from the original recording to be included. (SACDs, if you know what they are, come very close. But SACD is a medium that has not really caught on and may soon be abandoned by the industry.) Blu-ray Audio-only discs are just appearing on the market, but were offered at first only by companies you never heard of.

At last, the largest recording company in the world has released some startling Blu-ray Audio-only discs, and I'm going to review four of them on the Decca and Deutsche Grammophon labels. These labels have vaults of invaluable recordings by the world's greatest artists. And they have the marketing power to make this new medium economically viable.

Or, Blu-ray Audio-only will go the way of SACD (Super-Audio CDs).

Why would a nearly perfect recording medium go away? Because its glories can only be appreciated on a good sound system, preferably a surround-sound system. For someone listening on the puny speakers of their TV set, the improvement would be scarcely noticeable. I do not yet know the pricing planned for these discs; hopefully it will be no higher than the CD equivalent. If so, perhaps it has a chance to survive in the sonically unsophisticated general market.

At any rate, this is an exciting breakthrough in consumer sound reproduction. Next week, I'll review the merits of these two new recital discs plus two orchestral resurrections from mid-twentieth-century recordings.

Reviewer Rod Parke can be reached at rmp62@columbia.edu.

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