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The Holy Grail of High Fidelity

by Bob Rapoport There’s no doubt that technology is moving at a pace these days that’s virtually impossible to keep up with, and if you were not paying attention, you may have missed the biggest breakthrough in the history of recorded music. The history of the recording arts goes way back to 1878 when Edison invente

by Bob Rapoport

There’s no doubt that technology is moving at a pace these days that’s virtually impossible to keep up with, and if you were not paying attention, you may have missed the biggest breakthrough in the history of recorded music. The history of the recording arts goes way back to 1878 when Edison invented the first cylinder-based players.

The dynamic range and bandwidth were pinched to a tiny envelope, monophonic, nothing like a live performance, and so began the pursuit of higher fidelity. Breakthroughs in materials and recording science brought us 33 rpm stereo records in the 1960s, cassette tape in the ’70s, both with about 60 dB of dynamic range. These gave way in 1980 to CD, with 90 dB dynamic range, and DVD in 1996 offered 4.7 Gb capacity for movies and sound combined. Dolby Digital Ex and DTS Digital Surround ES both achieved lower compression rates in the last decade, expanding dynamics by another 10 dB on movie soundtracks. Not much music-only content was released on DVD, however, and CD has remained the standard music format disc till this day.

Blu-ray Enters The Picture
In 2007, Blu-ray Disc came along with its 50 Gb storage capacity. Clearly, this offered the promise of increasing the dynamic range to 120 dB. Both movie and music recording studios balked. They would not permit “one to one” copies of their studio masters on the street, fearful they would be copied and pirated. They forged an alliance with Intel, Dolby, and DTS to come up with a way to do it that protected the artists and copyright holders. Working with chipmaker Silicon Image, they created a new connectivity format called HDMI (High Definition Multimedia Interface).

Embedded in this HDMI technology was a copy guard called HDCP, or High Definition Content Protection. You could watch it, you could listen to it, but you could not record it at the highest resolution. This put a lot of people off. The studios had fought like crazy to stop cassette tape (VHS for movies) and lost, the Supreme Court ruled in favor of consumers and the Fair Use doctrine was established. If you owned the album, you should be able to make a copy to play in your car, boombox, or Walkman, so the logic went.

HDMI itself was evolving; this upgrade was a moving target that did not make life any easier. Within just two years, it went from v1.1 to v1.3 and many consumers were caught in between, suddenly owning a high-performance audio system that got separated from the newest content platform. The final evolution of audio codecs that allowed the listener to hear the next 30 dB in dynamics came out about four years ago. Dolby TruHD and DTS MasterHD Audio offers audiophiles a way to own a bit for bit copy of the studio master, uncompressed for the first time in history, a 100-percent digital throughput without DACs.

The main difference between Dolby’s and DTS’s method is called “bit sharing”; Dolby shares a lower number of bits per channel but on demand can send more bits to a specific channel by borrowing bits from the others channels, DTS dedicates a larger number of bits per channel for more headroom. We are now at the point where if you have a big system, you can really experience the dynamics of a live show in your own living room.

Many of us older audiophiles were skeptical of the whole thing. We thought Big Brother was going to take over our systems and tell us what we could do with our own property. It seemed “un-American” to many. In some ways that’s all true. The government actually backed them too, passing the Digital Millennium Copyright Act in 1998 that led to the Supreme Court over-turning the Fair Use doctrine in favor of the copyright holders. Game over, they won.

We Won Too
The promise of all that dynamic range got me. I couldn’t resist. I upgraded to HDMI, played by their rules, and am glad I did. The rewards of hearing this level of fidelity from the original recording has been the pursuit of my life, and I couldn’t suddenly give up because the rules of the game changed. I joined the team.

For an audiophile, there is no greater thrill than hearing your own system perform like you always dreamed it could. With 50-percent more dynamic range, my system was up to the task, like it had just been waiting for the challenge all along. Many of our favorite artists were heading back to record new albums, energized by the promise of the highest fidelity in history. Even Neil Young agreed and finally released a box set collection of all his recordings on Blu-ray.

After staying off the road for over 11 years, Blu-ray lured Stevie Wonder back. He assembled his best band ever and produced Live At Last on Blu-ray. The thrill of hearing Stevie perform Sir Duke live, at the top of his game, is reason enough to take this step.

The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame show at Madison Square Garden in 2010 featured Simon and Garfunkel playing a set that included The Boxer, Sounds of Silence, and Bridge Over Troubled Water. They may be older and grayer, but they never, ever sounded as good as they did that night, and Blu-ray made this possible. Adele (#1 selling Blu-ray disc) playing her first live show at Royal Albert Hall is a profound listening experience on Blu-ray. Here’s a preview from the her first live TV show coming on Feb 25.

We all want our favorite catalog classics done this way now, however there is little enthusiasm at the record labels to do that anytime soon. There are some great older concerts worth owning, like 1974’s Queen Live at Montreaux, 2001’s Concert For George, and Roy Orbison’s Black and White; it’s not all just newly performed material. However, the new performances by legendary artists calls attention to how rare and special they still are. Phil Collin’s latest project is a spectacular Motown revival in his Live At Roseland performance. It’s a show that reunited the original Funk Brothers band and created a masterpiece homage to all the greatest Motown classics from the ’60s. When you hear the opening bass line on Papa Was A Rolling Stone, you instantly know which song it is, and it’s just as you remembered all those years ago, and even better than the original studio version played by the same band. Watch the documentary first, so you can see the preparation that went into the project.

The Madonna 2009 show in Buenos Aires, played before 104,000 fans in a football stadium, may be the greatest live show of all time. In DTS MasterHD Audio with all the studio editing a live disc allows, Madonna turned Blu-ray into a new art form. For many, including me, it was a transcendent moment. Those who have seen it know what I mean. Even if you ‘re not a Madonna fan, you may agree that the sonic and visual performance (original 4K content on giant HD displays behind her) on this disc set the standard for what a live stadium show can be, and may explain why she was chosen to do the halftime show at this year’s Super Bowl. Nothing else I have seen thus far has used HD technology to its full potential the way she did on this Blu-ray. The only other spectacle to match or exceed it (visually if not audibly) was the opening ceremony of the Beijing Olympics.

So there it is. Up-sampled CDs ripped to FLAC files, with re-clocking DACs, still only have 90 dB of dynamic range. Regardless of what you do, you can’t squeeze more dynamics from content that never had it to begin with. Once you hear Blu-ray music, you will never turn back. You won’t find everything you love on Blu-ray, but there’s enough new content to satisfy you for many years to come. Opera, classical, jazz, and other genres are also on Blu-ray, all you have to do is look. Amazon sells the top 300, that’s enough to get you started!

After reading all the nonsense being published these days about streaming, FLAC files, DACs, and vinyl albums, with such compressed dynamics that you have to listen with headphones, I had to say something. The fact is that this all of this happened under the noses of the high-end audio dealers and trade press who mostly failed to understand it, let alone embrace it. They think Blu-ray is for movies in HD. The Holy Grail of High Fidelity has been hiding in plain sight for four years, and nobody noticed.

Bob Rapoport is a 40 year audio/video industry sales and marketing veteran. He pioneered the digital playback revolution for DTS and Dolby in the ���90s, holds multiple patents in the field of surround sound and won Innovations at CES Best in Audio category in 2002 for his wall-mountable Final Modular Electrostatic Speaker System. Interested parties can contact Bob at [email protected] or 727-866-0799.