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Monthly Editorial by Marc Mickelson
September 1999

CDs and Me

Have you heard any of the Blue Note Rudy Van Gelder remasters? How about the JVC XRCD2s? What about the discs from Groove Note? This list of recent CDs with terrific sound could go on and on, and this fact makes me wonder if there’s a correlation between improved CD sound and the new formats that will soon be available. I don’t mean to imply that CD makers are only now starting to give us their best effort because there’s something new looming, but rather that over time CD sound has improved -- and will continue to do so -- perhaps in part due to the advances brought on by trying to replace it.

Does improved CD sound affect the enthusiasm that audiophiles have for SACD, DVD-A and 24/96? It doesn’t seem to, but maybe that’s because we’re all looking ahead and not at what’s under our noses. I have six RVG remasters, and they are spectacular; I plan to buy a bunch more -- and more CDs from other labels. In fact, I wonder when labels like HighTone, Red House and Rounder, which bring out a lot of the music I like to hear most, will switch over to one of the new formats. I would say that a year would be too much to ask for, and there’s certainly a chance they may never switch. Why? They may not have to. There’s no guarantee that the CD is going anywhere. Just because something new is coming doesn’t mean that anything will be replaced. CDs offer the same utilitarian advantages of the high-rez discs -- portability, ease of use, no surface noise -- and will be much cheaper at first and probably stay this way forever because they will be considered inferior. Will mass-market buyers purchase something that’s cheaper? No answer needed.

Of course, it is the mass market that will drive the success of the new discs and players, not audiophiles. Oh, there’s no question that audiophiles can support a format on their own -- look at vinyl. But do you want to be limited to the selection of current-day vinyl, which is probably as diverse as it will ever get? I don’t, and so I’m about to say something heretical: I hope the CD hangs around for a long time. That’s right, I want labels to keep producing CDs so that every SACD or DVD-A disc won’t have to justify itself by having only music from big-name acts like Michael Bolton and The Dixie Chicks on it. (I shudder at the thought of hearing either on my system.) I want to know that new bands like Mulehead (review in the works) can still find an audience easily and that I’ll be able to buy new music that’s worth hearing. I don’t need another copy of Kind of Blue. The remastered CD sounds great to me, and even if the SACD sounds even greater, I won’t be buying it. Same for Billy Joel’s 52nd Street and most of the other titles that Sony/Columbia will roll out.

And I won’t buy any Bob Dylan on SACD either unless I know it’s been remastered diligently, and then I’ll spring for only a few titles. A new format can’t cure the ills of intrinsically bad sound, and this is yet another thing to keep in mind. The sound is only as good as the source, and no SACD of Dylan’s John Wesley Harding or Nashville Skyline, for instance, is going to sound like the demo discs that we’re hearing now. For some hypothetical fun, let’s say Sony does improve the sound of the Dylan catalog, or they release on SACD the remastered versions that have been rumored for a while. Am I going to hear a spectacular soundstage, immense depth, and delicate treble from The Basement Tapes? Not! Probably the best-sounding piece of Dylan software extant is Highway 61 Revisited -- not the standard Columbia disc, but the DCC remaster on gold CD. Steve Hoffman is responsible for the sweeter, more dimensional, more present sound with much better bass, and DCC has not formally announced that it will support SACD or DVD-A, but they do have some new CDs coming out.

I’m not calling for the downfall of the new formats -- heck, I’ve enjoyed the 24/96 discs I’ve heard so far, and I look forward to hearing SACDs and DVD-A software too. But I can’t accept a world where music is limited because of its format. So while I anticipate whatever is around the corner, I still plan to buy CDs, and lots of them. For some of us, there’s no way around it.

...Marc Mickelson

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