May 1999

Nathaniel Rosen - Reverie
DTS Digital Surround
John Marks Records ID4687JMDTSC
Originally released: 1996
DTS released: 1998

by Greg Smith

Original Quality ****
Remaster Quality ****1/2

[Reviewed on CD]It's hard to be taken seriously as an audiophile and a reviewer if you're listening almost exclusively to rock music. I personally get criticized for this on a regular basis. It's not that I don't like classical music. I'm quite fond of it -- just not at home. If I wanted to hear more classical compositions, my first reaction would be to order season tickets for the New York Philharmonic, not to buy more recordings. Frankly, even on the best audio systems, the illusion of reality on classical performances isn't very impressive. Meanwhile, a rock CD played at home usually sounds better than the same performers in concert, especially when you're talking about a big venue. Excessive volumes and poor sound reinforcement make it impossible to hear most of the rock music I'm fond of live. The fact that many essential performers you'd need are currently dead doesn't help either.

In any case, I was intrigued by the recent article published here by John Marks about his use of the Bruck microphone array for producing surround versions of a recording. So when offered a chance to hear the results, I agreed to take a listen, despite my usual trepidation at using classical pieces for review. Featuring cellist Nathaniel Rosen and Doris Stevenson on piano, the stereo version of Reverie: Romantic Music for Quiet Times has been well received by the audio press.

Since, when the discs arrived, my DTS system was out of commission due to construction, for the first few weeks I listened only to the stereo release. Romantic Music for Quiet Times is an accurate subtitle for this collection. Playing it makes me want to grab a drink, sit down for a bit, and unwind. The sonics of the regular CD are impressive, with an excellent tonal balance matched by considerable depth.

Starting with the opening track, "Intrade" from Desplanes, a reasonable facsimile of a piano and a cello playing were in the front of my listening room. Switching to the DTS surround-encoded version was a considerable upgrade. And I don't just mean that the disc gets played back much more loudly by default, even though it does. On sustained cello notes, the way the sound pressure was applied to my ears had an elusive quality that suggested more of an in-room presence than the stereo version. I sat through all three minutes without even thinking to stop the disc because I was so intrigued by how it sounded.

Interested to see what adding another instrument to the mix did, I forwarded to Beethoven's "Andante," where violinist Arturo Delmoni joins in. The stereo version had excellent spatial delineation of the instruments involved. Clicking on the remote and starting the surround version was a bit disappointing at first. Levels on my surround system had been fine-tuned by ear for playing other DTS music CDs, and they proved not quite right here. The violin parts were just a bit too audible from the rear. With other tracks, there was no sense of music coming from the back, just more of the overall room acoustic. Dropping the rear volume slightly (using analog level controls so I wasn't constrained to 1dB jumps), I got much better integration of the surround information. With Reverie, if you can clearly hear things as being in the rear, your system probably needs a bit of a tune-up. Once I cleared that up, I was impressed with how full-bodied all the instruments sounded. And again I noted that I was having a lot more fun listening to the DTS version of this composition.

The closing track, Strauss's "Morgen," is set apart from the other music here by its use of soprano Kaaren Erickson. After so much listening to this music, I was starting to get bored with the stereo mix by this point. Rosen and Doris Stevenson were doing their thing up front, Erickson was singing, and I really didn't care. My general lack of appreciation for their performance made the transition to DTS all the more sudden. From the first few notes, the richness and sense of space to the cello and piano parts were greatly enhanced by the rear material. Once things got going, I was hearing subtle directional cues that recreated a hall better than I've ever heard in my home. I hate to summon an overused cliché, but I did find myself turning my head around more than once, fooled for a second into thinking I was in a bigger space. I was shocked at how well the recording portrayed the reverberant bounce off the back wall of the venue.

I don't know much about Jerry Bruck, but I find myself wanting to hear more recordings using his microphone technique. Symphonic works recorded in surround are available from many sources. I have a DTS release of Holst's The Planets from Telarc [CD- 80466] that I've been listening to lately, and it seems typical for the form. Enjoyable, sonically impressive, I highly recommend it. But Reverie is a whole different animal. Its reproduction of hall ambiance achieves a level of realism that is, to borrow a sonic adjective Greg Weaver introduced me to, "spooky" to hear.

Anyone who has access to a DTS surround decoder should have a copy of Reverie around to get a peek at where the future of classical recordings is going. It certainly bears little resemblance to the mediocre "remixed for surround" material most people associate in their minds with four-or five-channel playback. And for those who haven't jumped into experimenting with modern surround playback, it's not as if the cost of entry is that high anymore. The DTS decoder I used for writing this review? No, not the loaded Lexicon DC-1 I normally listen to. A Technics SH-AC500D, purchased at a nearby Nobody Beats the Wiz for $287, was quite sufficient (it does a decent job with Dolby Digital as well). Add in a $25 copy of Reverie, and you'll find a budget combination with some sonic aspects unmatched by stereo-only components at any price. I'm suddenly glad the construction project that delayed my initial listening to this DTS disc involved installing four speakers in my bedroom, not just two.