Performance: 5/5 Recording: 4/5
█ UPDATE on 30 Nov 2014 █: I have now done some file, waveform and spectral analysis on Beethoven Symphony No. 5 first movement and Brahms Symphony No. 4 third movement on three CD versions. Details are posted in the comments section. The results based on hard evidence largely reaffirm my earlier listening impressions and reservations on this new remaster. In particular, the spectrograms of the previous versions with 'Original-Image Bit-Processing' look the best and better than those of this new remaster.
≡≡≡ THE ORIGINAL REVIEW ≡≡≡
This long review rather than going through the same old territory on Kleiber, his recordings or HD audio vs. CD instead offers something more original and tries to get to the truth behind the new remaster, based on real listening tests comparing different formats and versions where available (CD, SACD, DVD-Audio, Blu-ray) simultaneously and other evidence. 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.
≡ HISTORY OF PREVIOUS VERSIONS ≡
The previous major versions of the works in this set are (dates for Japanese SACDs on sa-cd.net are missing or imprecise):
BEETHOVEN 5 & 7
1974 (No. 5), 1975-6 (No. 7) analogue recording, LPs,
1985 digitally re-mixed CDs (one for each symphony), ADD
1995 'The Originals' Original-Image Bit-Processing CD
2003 new stereo and surround mix in 24/96, SACD
2004 ditto, DVD-Audio
pre-2010? SHM-SACD 2.0 (Universal Japan)
2014 'High Fidelity Pure Audio' Blu-ray 2.0 24/96
SCHUBERT 3 & 8
1979 analogue recording, LP,
1985 digitally re-mixed CD, ADD
1997 'The Originals' Original-Image Bit-Processing CD
pre-2010? SACD 2.0 (Universal Japan)
2011? SACD 2.0 (Esoteric Japan)
1981 digital recording, DDD, CD, LP and musicassette
1998 'The Originals' Original-Image Bit-Processing CD
2010? SACD 2.0 (Esoteric Japan)
≡ ADD AND DDD RECORDINGS ≡
What these designations mean (quote verbatim from the Schubert CD booklet):
DDD Digital tape recorder used during session recording, mixing and/or editing, and mastering (transcription)
ADD Analogue tape recorder used during session recording, digital tape recorder used during subsequent mixing and/or editing and during mastering (transcription)
≡ AUDIO AND VIDEO SPECS OF THE BLU-RAY ≡
The Blu-ray has stereo PCM tracks, 24/96 4.6 Mbps and 5.0 dts-HD MA. The menu is a static screen in high definition, 1080i60, encoded with AVC at 1.66 Mbps.
≡ LISTENING TESTS ≡
I have the Beethoven 'The Originals' CD (447 400-2), DVD-Audio (B0003116-19) and SACD (471 630-2). Unfortunately I no longer have the first CD releases (No. 5: 415 861-2; No. 7: 415 862-2). I also have the first Brahms CD (400 037-2) and 'The Originals' (457 706-2) and the first Schubert CD (415 601-2). For the performance, the Beethoven is among the very top and the Brahms is simply unmatched for the pacing, drive and energy, definitely dessert island discs. Even the first release CDs will leave you in awe.
I have done non-blinded comparative listening tests on similar excerpts on various equipment in two rooms (stereo and 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 (about 1s) but HDMI surround receivers incur delays of up to seven seconds to lock on.
The 5.0 tracks on the Beethoven DVD-A are louder than those on the BD by about 4dB (judging by ear) on the calibrated HDMI receiver. The stereo tracks on all the CD versions including the SACD and BD sets are about the same level; the BD stereo tracks are a little softer than the CDs (about 2dB). This immediately poses the problem of precise level matching for comparison.
The OIBP sounds a little fuller (as expected for 'The Originals' in general), perhaps louder than the others. Excluding the OIBP and volume differences, the new BD does not sound much different from the older versions. The Blu-ray surround tracks sounds similar to the SACD and DVD-Audio allowing for the volume difference. Overall the recording still sounds somewhat dry and limited in dynamic range and is recognisable as an old recording.
The Schubert and Brahms CDs and the BDs are about the same in volume and sound and similar impressions about the Brahms OIBP version as above.
≡ THE NEW 24/96 REMASTER: WHAT IS NEW? ≡
A brief wiki article on audio remaster would be a useful primer of what it involves, particularly when making 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 and equilisation and the engineers involved), there are no notes on the remastering process whatsoever in this set or on DG's website. All the works have already been mixed and edited on digital tape. In the absence of any indication we have to assume it's merely a new digital tape transfer to CD and Blu-ray.
Note the movement timings of the Brahms in the new set very closely match those of the OIBP CD but not the 1981 CD. I don't have the Schubert OIBP CD to compare with but the timings are also different from the first release CD. The Beethoven Blu-ray timings match exactly with the OIBP CD and less closely but not far off with the SACD/DVD-A. Not sure what to make of these discrepancies.
The 2004 Beethoven DVD-Audio was already a 24-bit 96kHz remix and remaster (24/96 recording only existed around 1999/2000). The Schubert was already re-mixed on digital tape in 1985 in 16-bit. The 1981 Brahms was a digital recording, only in 16-bit and 44.1kHz or perhaps 48kHz. That is in the master tape, not in 24/96. A 16-bit to 24-bit transfer now does not make it true 24-bit (you don't need 24-bit or 144dB of dynamic range in the final delivery format anyway). Analogue recordings do not have that much dynamic range in fact. Likewise, a 44.1kHz or 48kHz upsampled to 96kHz does not make it true 96kHz. Think about it. I'm not against 24/96 mastering at all but it cannot make up information not already present. It has been routinely used for such a long time that it is the norm and should not be used as a selling point.
≡ THE EXTRAS ≡
There is some bonus material but apart from some 'rare photos' the essay, timeline and audio commentary are freely available on DG's website. Also there are already two DVDs/BDs on Kleiber's life and art.
≡ IS IT AN IMPROVEMENT? ≡
Most importantly, does it sound better than previous versions? The short answer is not really, nothing striking. The Schubert and Brahms surround mixes are new but like the Beethoven the surround channels are mainly ambience. I'm not sure how much effort was put in the surround mix as both the Dolby and DTS encoders can generate surround mixes. It's conceivable they have made some small changes (EQ, volume) here and there but there is little or no obvious audible difference and the proof of the pudding is in the eating.
≡ COMPARISON WITH 'THE ORIGINALS' CDS ≡
A reviewer on Amazon.com finds the Beethoven Pure Audio Blu-ray released earlier this year to be an improvement over 'The Originals' but we already know they are meant to sound different. These are remixed using 'psycho-acoustical principles': the 'greater presence' 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. Be wary of claims that a new remaster sounds a lot better without hearing it yourself or at least having examined the evidence critically.
≡ THE PACKAGING ≡
Fitting two discs on each plastic digibook holder is a little clumsy when trying to remove the bottom disc. The size and form factor of the set is similar to Martha Argerich Lugano Concertos limited edition. DG should stick to one form like this one because the Karajan Beethoven and the Strauss CD/BD sets are all different sizes. How are we supposed to fit them neatly on the shelves?
≡ THE AUDIO BLU-RAY FORMAT ≡
The issues are:
1. This disc takes a minute to load to the menu, a lot slower than CDs and DVDs because of the use of BD-Java. This is not ordinarily necessary but is required for the coloured buttons to work.
2. It does not resume play, again blame 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. It turns out the stereo tracks are the default and you can select the surround track by clicking the down arrow on the remote repeatedly or simply using the red button. It doesn't tell you that anywhere in the book.
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. You select a track by clicking on the 'tracklist', or trial and error or consult the tracklist on 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 27 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 don't have the older recordings then it's the best time ever to get this but you might still prefer the older versions. If you already have them, unless you want the surround mix on all the works, the extras nicely printed out, the studio master or you simply are a collector of these deluxe boxsets then no.
Time will tell if this is the start of another long series of 'remastered at 24/96' but my impression of this and the Karajan: Beethoven Symphonies 1-9 (1963) Remastered [5 CDs + 1 Blu-Ray Audio
] 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.