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Adequate sound is adequate: what matters is not being interrupted: thoughts on digital radio, SACD and the historic reissue business

I’ve just bought a new digital radio and it’s wonderful. Finally, I can receive BBC Radio 3 without analogical interruptions, which are perpetual where I live, in London SW1. You’d think that London SW1 would get good radio signals, wouldn’t you? But no. Too many towers? Too much electro-wizardry protecting the Queen and her Ministers? The weird weather conditions here in inner London? You tell me. (Truly, do tell me. We have a famously informed commentariat here.) Whatever the reason, until now I simply could not listen confidently to a Prom, say, without having to get up and fiddle with the damn radio every ten minutes, and as often as not all my fiddling would be powerless to stop the bonfire noises and the distortions.

But the new radio is fabulous. The sound is damn near as clean as a whistle, with no hint of an interruption. And it is especially fabulous when attached to my existing lo- to medium-fi CD playing system, thereby enabling me to tone down the treble and tone up the bass, which is how I prefer things. For some annoying reason, portable radios and CD players no longer seem to have treble or bass nobs built in to them. Is this the influence of the rise of Pop and the fall of Classical? (There goes another opportunity to distinguish yourself with a pertinent and informative comment.)

Talk of treble and bass makes me sound like a hi- rather than medium- to lo-fi-er. But so long as the sound meets my minimum quality threshold, I’m content, and my minimum quality doesn’t cost that much. The main thing is that treble/bass thing. I certainly don’t need to spend the many hundreds, thousands or even tens of thousands of pounds that you see mentioned in the review pages of hi-fi magazines, or in the hi-fi pages of the classical CD mags at the back, where loudspeakers look more like Daleks than the rectangular little boxes that I have.

The new radio is little handbag type object and it only cost a hundred quid, reduced by twenty at Dixon’s. It also has a built-in CD player, which means, what with my previous portable CD player having conked out, that I can now again play CDs quietly in my bedroom or living room, instead of having to switch up the main system in the kitchen whenever I want to listen outside the kitchen, and infuriate my neighbours. The treble/bass thing is a nuisance, but some kinds of music are more vulnerable to this limitation that others, so I’ll be fine. Harpsichord music, for example, doesn’t seem to worry about what would normally be too much treble.

So this is a quantum leap in my listening pleasure, like being given a vanload of unfamiliar CDs. And I also think that my pleasure throws light on three apparently rather separate sonic issues of the last few decades.

� First, hi-fi-ers were disturbed by what they regarded as the sonic imperfections of CDs compared with the old vinyl gramophone records.

� Second, the recording industry itself is infuriated by the apparent indifference of the public to the new Higher Figher formats like SACD.

� And third, there is the fact that the fastest growing sector of the music business is “historic” reissues on CD.

What gives? What gives is that when it comes to sound quality, good enough is good enough. What matters is not being interrupted. Speaking for myself, I can get used to mediocre sound pretty quickly. What I can’t ever get used to is serious sonic interruptions, whether in the form of scratches on an LP, or the nonsense white noises that routinely emerge from analogue radios.

This was what fuelled the Great Switch, from LP to CD. So what if the sound was, supposedly, arguably, a bit worse? The point was, you could depend on hearing it every time, and often as you could ever want. Is the sound quality of some gloriously anachronistic playing by Pablo Casals or Fritz Kreisler or of that magical first Menuhin recording of the Elgar Violin Concerto (with Elgar himself conducting) is way lower than the highest fi? So long as there are no bangs and scratches you can quickly adapt, like a cat getting used to noisy kitchen equipment, or children sleeping soundly right next to a busy railway line. It’s the irregular interruptions of a damaged record or an interfered radio signal that enrage, not the constrictions of pre-war mono or the alleged dryness of a lot of digital recordings.

A particular joy is that the many treasures hitherto buried in the world’s various radio archives are also being put out on CD. The BBC’s Legends series is wonderful. Every time a big name played in London, there the BBC would be with their microphones. And my absolute favourite recording of Beethoven’s Third Piano Concerto these days is not one of those carefully made and shiny recordings done in the West by Brendel or Schiff or Perahia, but a caught-on-the-wing live performance by a young Andrei Gavrilov done at a Moscow concert in 1981. The sound is okay, and the playing is fabulous.

I’m a classical nut myself, but my pop friends tell me that the CD shops are also awash with clutches of old Frank Sinatra tracks, with the complete early recordings of John Lee Hooker, with obscure Surfer Group tracks and with collections of tunes by the early rivals of Louis Armstrong, often with excellent notes, and in perfectly adequate, cleaned-up-a-bit sound. This is where a large slice of the music business action now is.

Price certainly helps here. That you can get a hundred great early jazz tracks for the price of one latest pop CD certainly makes a difference. But I don’t think it’s only price. I think the bottom line is that music is what counts, not the mere sound of it. Remember that line in an old Flanders and Swan song, “I never did care for music much, just high fi-DEL-i-TEEE”? Well, it turns out that most people prefer music.

SACD, which stands, I believe (I only believe because I truly do not care), for “Super Audio Compact Disc” or some such thing, does no harm (and there’s another similar acronym along similar lines, I believe, which is likewise higher and figher than ever before, but which has made even less impact than SACD). SACD does not introduce interruptions, but nor does it remove any. It merely polishes up the sound a little. It is therefore superfluous to requirements. SACD, for most listeners and most definitely for me, is a classic example of solutioneering, which means the unleashing of a solution upon circumstances which are not a problem. Do I want to hear Barenboim’s Beethoven Symphony set in somewhat better sound than I do now? I can hear it fine already, thank you. Thus it is that in the still huge classical departments of the big London HMV stores, you can find vast arrays of Naxos historical releases of just about everything classical that is worth listening to that is now out of copyright, and over in the corner there is that forlorn little clutch of SACDs which is neither bought from by anybody nor added to by anybody.

I guess the idea was that SACD etc. would rescue the music industry by making us all go out and buy our entire collection of CDs all over again, like we did when CDs first arrived. It ain’t happening and it ain’t gonna.

Let’s face it, the Next Big Thing in the music industry is getting the whole Internet Thing sorted out.

And there’s another whole point, which I hereby add to all of the above as Point Number Four. Sound on most people’s computers and hand-held sound kits is likewise only so-so. Yet it turns out that so-so sound is okay sound. Hence the Big Internet Music Steal that the music companies rage against. That too is a hi-fi-isn’t-that-important thing.

16 comments to Adequate sound is adequate: what matters is not being interrupted: thoughts on digital radio, SACD and the historic reissue business

  • Dale Amon

    Yep. It’s also why any attempt at CD copy-protect is self-defeating. If Johnny Random-Teen can hear it, he can redigitize it into his own mp3 that is “good enough” and trade that with his friends. And they’ll want it even more since it saves them the wee bit of extra hassle the copy protect causes for them to set up their party “tapes” on their laptop for the beach party.

  • A couple of observations:

    First, I think the growing popularity of reissue CD’s has a two-fold backstory. The first is that people who were not quick adopters of CD players (probably mostly middle-aged and older folks in 1990) now have them, as the device has obtained ‘ubiquitous’ status. And now they realize that this device IS much more convenient than the cassettes they’ve been using. So they slowly increase their libraries with the music they like. The second reason is that the ‘recording industry’ is not putting out new releases. Their releases are dropping, somewhere on the order of down 25% from 3 years ago. Maybe they’ve run out of music? So it wouldn’t take much to be the ‘fastest-growing’ segment.

    SACD is one of those things that I can’t see how it’s going to be popular. ‘Solutioneering’ is a good description of it. It seems that the main point of it is to get those folks who still use vinyl for audiophile purposes to go to CD’s. But that’s really chasing after wishes. There just aren’t enough people, and the format’s just too unwieldy for it to work.

  • Jim

    Speaking as someone in that “middle-aged and older” category, I have to agree with your analysis. I have no interest in rap or hip hop or techno, nor in any of those in-synch-pretty-boys-in-da-hood groups and their teen slut female soloist counterparts. (And if I did ever want to listen to rap or techno, I have college student children.) But there are many albums by Johnny Cash and Bob Dylan and Joan Baez and Fats Domino and a variety of obscure fifties doo-wop groups (and many other artists from the 50’s and 60’s and 70’s) that are now available on CD for me to purchase. (Or, rather, there could be, but the R.I.A.A. has me so pissed off that I recently decided to stop purchasing CD — I realize that the loss of my one to two dozen CD purchases per year may not bring fear to their corporate hearts, but it pleases me.)

  • Bill Dooley

    So far as I can tell, my hearing is still pretty good. The TV commercials are as annoying as ever.

    I loved my Beatles LPs, but I pounced on the CD rereleases as soon as they were available, just to get away from the dust pops. I knelt before those LPs and swept them religiously with whatever new gadget was said to clean them. I put the little brush thingie on the tonearm. I prayed. Hah.

    I also go for Bach and Mozart, and Johann Ignatz Franz von Biber, so no nasty comments.

  • Crosbie

    The benefits of SACD are not clear cut, apparently.

    On the subject of music from the internet, this looks very interesting, but I haven’t bought one, yet.

  • Does this qualify as the ‘Blog post with the longest title’?

  • The Beatles reissues are something I’m extremely torn on. I bought a couple when they were first done (Sgt. Pepper and Revolver), but quickly learned that it’s nearly the worst music to listen to on headphones. The non-understanding of stereo mixing by them just seems a bit incompatible with the quest for greater channel separation in subsequent audio formats. But of course, they couldn’t have anticipated that.

    I’m not a big fan of streamed audio. The bitrates required for me to actually listen to it (my minimum required quality is at least equivalent to a 128kbps MP3, with no phase distortion). Therefore current streaming tech just doesn’t seem to cut it, even over broadband. I’m also not sure about a computer hooked up to my home theater, yet. But that’s gonna come along soon, I think.

  • some Latin American guy

    Great article! I never understood the hi-fi nuts’ rants against the CD’s anyway. After I switched to CD I never looked back. The kind of crummy CD player that I can afford sounds *way* better than any LP player that I could afford. Also, there is the issue of LP’s made in South America, which used to come pre-scratched and dusted for your hearing pleasure.

    Which takes me to…

    Re sorting the Internet Thing: one problem with selling bits is, in my opinion, that the Third World people will not be able to buy bits at First World prices. What one buys in the South is CD’s, cassettes, LP’s, etc., of (usually) slightly inferior quality at lower prices in US$. The CD’s are actually quite tolerable; advantages of the digital revolution I guess.

    But the bits? How are they going to price them differently for different markets?

  • Monsyne Dragon

    Yes, exactly. This is why I will NEVER buy a copy-protected CD.
    You see, CD’s have the sa-sa-sa-sa-sa<whack>same problem as LP’s. They don’t scratch *as easily* as LP’s, but if your lugging them around in the car all over the place, they are GOING to get scratched eventually, and it’s exceedingly annoying.

    This is why I rip all CD’s I get IMMEDIATELY. Thus when the get scratched, I can just burn a new “car copy” and not worry about it.
    Anything that stops me from doing that is going to be a show-stopper as far as me buying that CD.

  • Rob

    I haven’t heard it for myself yet, but digital radio could be very good as long as the sound isn’t compressed too much. The fear is that, as is often the case with digital TV, bandwidth gets allocated to more channels rather than higher quality.

    Vinyl _can_ sound as good as or better than CDs given the right playback equipment and proper care. The reason us hi-fi nuts want better-than-CD quality is that the dynamic range of CDs could be better (especially useful for classical music) and CDs don’t reproduce such high frequencies (although the effects of this are more debateable. Officially, you can’t hear above 22kHz, but some say that CDs sound lifeless because they cut off sound above this frequency).

    To hear the difference of SACD and DVD-A I think you’ll need very expensive amplifier and speakers, which only hi-fi nuts tend to invest in. It’s not surprising this technology is slow to take off, but I’m pleased some companies are trying it. “Good enough” means different things to different people. The best hi-fi sound can really take your breath away.

  • Kit Taylor

    “The best hi-fi sound can really take your breath away”

    Too true! The sad fact is that most people have never experienced the immense sensual pleasure of listening to a good recording on a good system.

    I feel despondent hearing the “good enough is good enough” line from a site that normally exults the good life. VHS was “good enough,” Aldi blue pop is near enough Krug and why have a delicious steak when a Big Mac will do?

    If you ever DO decide to give your ears and soul a real treat, the good folk of Pink Fish Media should be your first call.

  • Brian Micklethwait


    My piece began as a purely personal dissection of why my new digital radio was such a boon to me, of why it so massively increases the quality of my life, of why for me it is – radio-wise – that very step-up from a Mac to the best steak that you speak of. I then realised that if my tastes were widely shared, then that would explain a lot, and I proceeded to explain.

    If, for you, Highest Fi is the meaning of quality, then fine, go for it. I wouldn’t dream of stopping you, and I get a patriotic buzz from the fact that Britain seems to be one of the leading hi-fi designers and makers. But for me, quality means, to say it again, not being interrupted, while I listen to great musicians playing great music. Good enough sound is, for me, good enough.

    I have heard super hi fi. It was pretty damn good. But, for me, it wasn’t nearly damn good enough to justify the huge extra expense of such kit, and of paying through the nose for these new format discs.

    I feel much the same about live concerts. The sound is often (though by no means always) very good. But the extra expense can be diabolical, and the quality of the music-making can be very average. I attended a performance of Beethoven’s Ninth at last year’s Proms given by a visitubg top US orchestra which was sonically excellent, and the instrumental playing was beyond criticism. But the performance, to me, sounded lifeless, and I sat there wondering how it was possible to make this music sound as dull as it did sound that night.

    Last night, in complete contrast and thanks to my new radio set-up, I heard a BBC Radio 3 performance of the same piece by the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra conducted by their new Lady Boss Marin Alsop, which really was as thrilling as the music itself is. The sound was, for me, good enough. And I was thrilled to the core.

    You and I don’t disagree about the importance of quality. We just have different definitions of it.

  • Brian has hit it on the head – as the father of three kids and two large dogs, I can tell you that it is definitely more enjoyable to listen to music of decent quality when there are no interruptions.

    On the other hand, the standard CD format is already capable of reproducing sounds that only my dogs can respond to, so why yet another format? Unless you have an anechoic chamber for a room and a very high end system, I just don’t see the point. I mean, I could put a $5000 stereo in my car, but with the road noise, it still sounds like crap.

    In regard to the LP folks, I have to disagree. Miles Davis took on a whole new dimension on CD. And Carmina Burana literally exploded. And this was on my inexpensive (relatively speaking) Yamaha system.

  • David Gillies

    CD was a compromise. Legend has it that the capacity was chosen so as to be able to hold a complete recording of von Karajan conducting Beethoven’s Ninth. That turned out to be around an hour and a quarter. Acceptable fidelity was deemed to be 16-bit stereo with a cut-off of 22050 Hz. This wasn’t perfect, but it was far in excess of anything that had been available to the consumer before. And it was doable at commercially viable prices with early eighties technologies (14 bit DACs converting at 44100 Hz, infra-red laser diodes, high-bandwidth piezo-actuated servocontrollers etc). Now we have blue lasers, cheaper DACs and so forth. You could up the quantisation to 24-bit, and boost the Nyquist frequency to 100kHz, apply a whole bunch of psycho-acoustical shaping stuff, etc. This is only four times or so the storage, and on paper it would be a big improvement. But really the specifications for CD audio are quite compelling. Wow and flutter are absent, dynamic range, S/N and channel separation are all >100dB, phase noise is minuscule, THD is below the threshold of perception, jitter largely mitigates quantisation noise, and oversampling/delta-sigma modulation allows very linear anti-aliasing filters to be used. There are lots of sneaky ways to master a CD that allows you to apparently increase the bit rate (SACD is one of these). However, outside a dedicated listening room with very expensive gear, basic CD audio represents essentially the limit of what can be perceived by the average person.

  • Kit Taylor

    Technical specs schmecs. The crucial stuff people don’t really know how to measure, the pace, rhythm, timing and pitch definition.

    Anoraks like myself the term “flat earth” to describe gear that does this well. Pink Fish Media is a flat earth forum. The terms hails from when designer Mark Levinson derided British hifi nuts as flat earthers for mocking his huge sounding, hyper detailed new fangled products as incapable of reproducing anything that actually sounded like music. Flat earthers use the term “round eath” easier as derision or to describe pleasant trait that are a bonus inessential to gratifying listening.

    The thing is how much funkier and rockin’ music is than on some plastic piece of Jap crap. The effect of good hifi is to tranform the nature of a piece of music, not to make it “clearer” or “more detailed.”

    And I mean good. Most commercial hifi, even the costly stuff, is shite, utterly bland and lifeless, and Brian right about not worth the money. Do you realise this stuff sells at 500-1000% markup on the cost of manufacture?

    There is lot of classic 20th century gear that can be sold for as much as it costs to buy 2nd/3rd hand though, so with a bit of cunning you can have essentially free hifi.

  • Kit Taylor


    The missing link for the PFM forum is


    I bid you adieu.