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'Remastered at 24 bit/96kHz': Emperor's new clothes? Listening, file, waveform & spectral analysis: the truth exposed
on 16 August 2014
Performance 4.5-5/5, Recording 3.5-4/5
UPDATE on 22 Nov 2014: I have now done file, waveform and spectral analysis on one whole movement from each of the nine symphonies comparing up to four CD release versions. Details and URLs of screenshots of some results are posted in the comments section (two reduced sized images are now included below, a new feature to upload photos; for large images see the comments section). The results largely corroborate with my earlier listening impressions. Most importantly, the sampled files from the CDs from this new Blu-ray/CD set have IDENTICAL NUMBER OF BYTES AND RUNTIME down to 0.001s from those of the hybrid SACD CD layers and THEIR WAVEFORMS ARE IDENTICAL. File comparisons between these two versions show FIVE OUT OF NINE SAMPLED MOVEMENTS ARE BIT-FOR-BIT IDENTICAL. Spectrograms reveal FREQUENCIES ARE LIMITED TO 12kHz only at -70dB, well below human hearing and CD sample rate limits. I am now 99% certain that the new version is really using the same 24-bit/96kHz digital master as the 2003 SACD set with no further remastering in the majority of the symphonies and perhaps a minuscule amount in the rest.
THE ORIGINAL REVIEW
This long review rather than covering old territories like Karajan, his legacy or the HD audio vs. CD debate instead offers something more original and tries to get to the truth behind the new remaster, based on real listening tests comparing three formats and versions (CD, SACD, Blu-ray) simultaneously and other evidence. The more I look the more suspicious it gets. This release never claims to be a new analogue to digital transfer. The review also outlines some trade-offs of listening to Pure Audio Blu-ray compared to CD and SACD.
HISTORY OF THIS LANDMARK CYCLE
The previous major release versions of the complete set are:
1962 Analogue recording, 1963 LP
1989 digital remix, CD, ADD
1997 Original-Image Bit-Processing (Vol. 1 of the Complete Beethoven Edition)
2003 'stereo and high bit stereo remix', using 24/96 source, hybrid SACD (with No. 9 rehearsal excerpts on bonus disc 6)
What ADD means (quote verbatim from the Carlos Kleiber Schubert symphonies 3 & 8 first release CD booklet):
ADD Analogue tape recorder used during session recording, digital tape recorder used during subsequent mixing and/or editing and during mastering (transcription)
THE BLU-RAY AUDIO AND VIDEO SPECS
The new Blu-ray only has stereo tracks, as PCM 24/96 4.6 Mbps. The menu is a static screen in high definition, 1080i60, encoded with AVC at 1.66 Mbps.
THE LISTENING TESTS'
I have the 1963 recordings (reissued around 2000 as Collectors Edition: 463 088-2) and the SACD set (474 600-2) for comparison. This will always be one of the reference sets for a non-HIP recording.
I have done non-blinded comparative listening tests on similar excerpts on various equipment in two rooms (mainly stereo but also in a 5.1 set-up) using both stereo RCA analogue and HDMI connections. At any time I had three players running and switched inputs on the pre-amp. My stereo pre-amp allows quick input switching (instant) but HDMI surround receivers incur delays of up to seven seconds to lock on.
The new remaster on Blu-ray and CDs sounds a little louder (by ear) than the SACDs/CDs by about 0.5dB and the collectors edition CDs by about 1.5 dB. To rule out players' analogue output differences I swapped discs and the difference remains. This immediately poses the problem of precise level matching for comparison.
Allowing for the volume differences, the Blu-ray sounds the same as the SACDs. The collectors edition CDs sound a little thinner and drier than the others but the difference is lessened once volume is matched. All the versions are still recognisable as old recordings. Unlike some people's criticism of the first release CDs I find them quite listenable on decent equipment, in fact rather good for 1963 recording: there is very little background hiss and no distortion. The SACDs and Blu-ray are not a quantum leap step up.
THE 24/96 REMASTER: IS IT NEW?
A brief wiki article on audio remaster would be a useful primer of what it involves, particularly the distinction between analogue to digital and digital to digital transfer.
Unlike the EMI stereo remastered SACDs (which mention new analogue to digital transfer with restoration, editing, equilisation and the engineers involved), there are no notes whatsoever on the remastering process in this set or on DG's website. All the works have already been mixed on digital tape from previous releases. In the absence of any indication we have to assume it's merely a new digital tape transfer to CD and Blu-ray.
The 2003 SACD set was already a new digital remix and remaster using 24/96 source by Emil Berliner Studios (it says so in each booklet of the six SACDs) and this new CD/BD set very much sounds like it is merely using the same digital master. If that is the case (and also thought by some on Amazon.com) the only theoretical advantage (from the purist's point of view) with this release using PCM is it is the native studio master format without conversion to DSD. I say theoretical because the reconstructed analogue waveforms between 24/96 PCM and DSD are very similar and in practice the audible difference is non-existent.
Credits for the Pure Audio Blu-ray are given to MSM Studios (the CDs are still by EB Studios) and it could just be authoring, otherwise the CDs and Blu-ray would be different. It's conceivable they have made some small changes (EQ, volume) here and there to the 2003 master but there is no obvious audible difference and the proof of the pudding is in the eating.
I do not have the Beethoven edition with Original-Image Bit-Mapping (used in 'The Originals' re-issues) to compare with [EDIT: I later have Symphony No. 9 OIBP, see the update note above for details]. These are remixed using 'psycho-acoustical principles' and are meant to sound different. The 'greater presence' using OIBP results in a more fuzzy soundstage at the expense of clarity and instrumental separation. Whether you like it better than the other versions is a matter of preference. The non-OIBP versions are better candidates for comparison with each other.
According to the booklet, the CD movement timings in this set exactly match those of the hybrid SACD set to the nearest second but not the collectors edition. According to my player (no printed info is provided for the BD timings) the BD timings closely match the SACD to within one second. This is good circumstantial evidence that the 2003 24/96 master is used [EDIT: see update note above for further file analysis].
Beware of volume levels on sound perception. Be wary of claims that a new remaster sounds a lot better without hearing it yourself or at least having examined the evidence critically. Case in point: when 'The Originals' came out, many like it. Now the pendulum swings back and people like the new version better. The people who only had the OIBP CDs to compare with would likely also prefer the clarity in the first release CDs had they had the chance to compare them also. [EDIT: see update note above using waveform and spectral analysis to substantiate this point.]
The symphony No. 9 rehearsal is exactly the same as on the SACD/CD but only on Blu-ray here. It is of limited value if you don't speak fluent German to understand what Karajan said. This set has a new essay "KARAJAN BEETHOVEN SYMPHONIES LP set 1963" by Richard Osborne. Another short commentary "A Note on the Art of Rehearsing" is taken from the last part of a longer essay "KARAJAN * BEETHOVEN * SACD A note on recording technology and the art of rehearsing" by RO in the SACD set. Unlike the CD and SACD sets there are no notes (by RO) for each symphony.
The Facsimile reproductions and photos are new to this set.
This book format with cardboard holders for CDs is the first from DG that I have seen. The outer case is slightly larger than the SACD set, which is the same size as CD sets. The Kleiber and the Strauss remastered CD/BD sets are all in different sizes. I wish DG would stick to one form factor, otherwise how are we supposed to fit them neatly on the shelves?
THE BLU-RAY AUDIO FORMAT
The issues are:
1. This BD takes about one minute to reach the menu, a lot slower than CDs and DVDs. It is due to BD-Java which is needed for special functions like the coloured buttons, Picture-in-picture and BD-Live but none of these is utilised on this disc. I suspect it is needed for the pop-up track info, therefore it is quite unnecessary.
2. It does not resume play, a side-effect of BD-J. Once you stop the disc, it has to reload from scratch. If you don't want that, then use 'pause'.
3. A display screen is required to navigate at least the first time.
4. Filling up one BD with all the tracks does not allow for easy navigation. The tracks (or chapters) are laid out only by numbers like a square grid/table. The track info only pops-up when selected or when clicking 'tracklist'. Otherwise you select by trial and error or consult the the book first or fast forward one by one. Blu-ray players generally don't make direct access to tracks over 9 that easy and there are 41 tracks in all. So it is tedious even with the screen. Requiring a screen to navigate is a big turn-off, just like playing a DVD-Audio, especially in those with stereo only set-up not connected to TVs.
5. When using HDMI it takes longer to lock on and by then the first few seconds of the track is missing so you end up pressing '<< to go back to the beginning again.
6. For those with old non-HDMI receivers or external DACs high resolution audio from copy-protected Blu-ray discs cannot be passed via coaxial or optical cables without down-sampling to 48kHz.
For me, loading a CD or SACD is much more convenient all round. BD to replace SACD in the future? Not sure about that. I was an early Blu-ray adopter and therefore not against it or new technology in any way. Most of the points made above are not the fault of the format as such but rather the software design and authoring of discs. More consideration should be given to make it more user-friendly.
IS IT WORTH THE UPGRADE?'
If you already have the SACDs then no, unless you care for the new printed extras (who actually does?) or if you are a collector of these deluxe sets. If you only have the 1989 or 1997 sets then it depends on how much you like the performance, how important sound improvement (however incremental) is to you and how much you are prepared to spend (reasonable at £25 but not more).
There are many other superb choices in all formats to choose from. I collect many sets and single recordings: Beethoven's music has room for many different interpretations. My current favourite SACD cycle is Paavo Järvi and the Deutsche Kammerphilharmonie Bremen. The other sets I like are: Abbado and the Berliner Philharmoniker (on CD set or separate DVD-Audio discs, a native 24/96 recording, no longer available), and Barenboim and the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra on CD (their Proms cycle is excellent).
Time will tell if this is the start of another long series of 'remastered at 24/96' but my impression of this and the Carlos Kleiber: Complete Orchestral Recordings on Deutsche Grammophon box is more like a re-package rather than complete fresh start from the analogue tapes.
As in the film industry, music studios exploit the upgrade obsession of consumers. I won't rush out in the future to double or triple dip for another remaster on recordings I already have even if it is 24/192 or 32/384 unless the studios tell us clearly that it is a new analogue to digital transfer and what they do with it. If it is just a digital remastering then studios should come clean and tell us why and for what improvement to justify the expense for upgrade.