Using Roon Tools to Identify Your "Reference" Recordings

tmallin

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Prior Threads on Recordings for Judging Audio System Quality

It has been many years since I've listed recordings I've found particularly useful for making judgments about audio equipment. Prior threads in Tom's Corner listing such recordings and bearing on the issues involved include:

Component Auditions at Your Dealer: What Recordings to Use and How to Use Them

An Example of a Component Audition at a Dealer: Applying My Method and Afterthoughts

"You Are There" Absolute Sound: Can We Get There From Here? Part One

How Recordings Are Made vs. Concert Hall Realism at Home: Piano Recordings

"You Are There" Absolute Sound: Do We Even Want to Go There?

When You Only Want One: A Single Orchestral Test Disc

While many of these threads are about ten years old now, the examples and methods are just as relevant now as they were then. Granted, hearing equipment set up well at a dealer is a good deal harder to find these days and audio shows are on a pandemic hiatus. But anywhere you can actually audition equipment before buying it, or even after purchase, the recordings and methods I've mentioned in these prior discussions are, I think, still just as relevant.

I would make one clarification: The Rutter Requiem disc on Reference Recordings is the single most useful tool for using classical music to judge equipment that I know. If your interests in classical music go beyond mere orchestral works (the subject of the "Single Orchestral Test Disc" thread) then the Rutter Requiem on Reference Recordings has not only outstandingly fine orchestral sound, but also state-of-the-art recording of pipe organ and massed choral voices. Just make sure that the CD player, streaming service, or file you use has properly decoded the HDCD encoding of the original. These days this should not be a problem as long as Roon, Qobuz, or Tidal services are used for the audition or you bring your own decoded file to the party. If you put the original HDCD-encoded CD in a disc player these days, however, the chances are high that the player will not decode HDCD and the sound will not be anywhere nearly as realistic as it should be. Most current model players do NOT decode HDCD from optical discs. That functionality was dropped from many DAC chipsets several years ago as new HDCD releases became rarer, ordinary Redbook recording techniques got better, and DSD, MQA, and Hi-Res PCM came on the scene.

Changing Criteria: "The Absolute Sound"vs. Personal "Good Sound"

Of course, a lot has changed in the last decade with respect to audiophiles' belief in the relevance of the "absolute sound" of unamplified acoustical instruments as heard from a favorable seat in a good concert hall to how music should sound at home. Even ten years ago this was already a minority viewpoint carried over from the founders of The Absolute Sound and Stereophile. Today, most all reviewers seem to be striving for "good sound." however they define that term--that is, if they even bother to define it.

Because of the loss of "the absolute sound" as a paradigm for judging home audio reproduction, there is also increasing disagreement on whether the goal of home audio reproduction should be "they are here" immediacy of the group in your listening room or "you are there" transporting of the listener to the venue where the recording was made (if there even was such a venue--with multitrack studio assembled recordings there may never have been any real venue where the musicians were physically assembled to play together to be heard by an audience).

However, my purpose here is not to judge the state of audiophile standards of sound reproduction. My audiophile roots were primarily in classical music reproduction--thus the type of recording lists I've made and the issues I've discussed in the threads I've written discussing those recordings.

But even for me, I'm not ashamed to admit that in the past decade my musical tastes have broadened and my appreciation for other recording techniques has increased. My tastes are much more eclectic these days. I still don't appreciate a lot of current mainstream recordings. For example, most of the new releases on Tidal are examples of current musical genres which I just don't care to listen to. But my appreciation for pop, classic rock, folk, jazz, electronic, and country music has greatly increased over the past decade. And with that more eclectic musical taste I've also come to better appreciate the virtues of hearing closely miked or electronically captured music sound as though it is live in your listening room rather than more distant, as when you would hear it in a club or concert hall. Thus, for some music, I can now better appreciate the preference of many listeners for the "they are here" type of reproduction as the goal, rather than "you are there."

There are also new tools available these days which are incredibly helpful in the quests for great sounding recordings and recordings of music you love. Streaming services generally and Roon in particular are fabulous tools which make both quests more enjoyable and efficient.
 
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tmallin

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Roon and Streaming vs. Old Ways of Discovering New Music and Personal "Reference" Recordings

Think about it. In the old days you were limited in your discovery of new music and recordings by what you could hear on a few local radio stations, conversations or demos at audio stores or with audio buddies, magazine and online music and equipment reviews, and pig-in-a-poke chances taken by purchasing unknown new material at used record stores. Some people still love this sort of exploration. I just corresponded with someone who said they "just don't like digital streaming of any kind," period.

I don't really understand this view. Granted, a music program heard via digital music streaming might not sound quite as good as playback via the best locally sourced analog LP player, CD player or computer-based music file. But the differences will not be huge and the variety available via streaming far exceeds that available in even the largest private home music collections. Even the largest hard-copy music collections rarely exceed 50,000 albums, with most far smaller. Streaming allows access to 10,000,000 or more albums. And, in most cases, you can directly compare one or more digital versions of any analog programs you hold in high regard against other digital recordings of the same work, making for a more "apples to apples" comparison.

Perhaps some just like the physical fun of the hunt for new recordings. They like finding and traveling to out-of-the-way second-hand record stores and digging around dusty bins of recordings; they like arguing the merits of different versions of a musical work with their audio acquaintances; they like investigating recordings based on mentions and reviews in magazines and online equipment and music reviews. But even if you find all those to be fun, you can still continue to look for music in those ways even if you add digital streaming to your arsenal of methods.

I think such blanket objections to Roon and other digital streaming services often boil down to perceived cost and property rights. A lifetime subscription to Roon currently costs about $700. To really expand your personal library, you should also subscribe to both Qobuz and Tidal, both of which are fully integrated with Roon. The combination of Tidal and Qobuz subscriptions will add as much as $500 a year to the cost of unlimited streaming. Yes, the cost is significant. If your new music budget is limited to what you are currently spending for new music, you'd have to forgo some new music purchases, especially in the first year after you purchase a lifetime subscription to Roon.

I think more important than the expense is the change in property rights which streaming entails. Many music lovers and audiophiles are by nature acquisitive. They want to collect AND OWN both equipment and music recordings. While streaming gives you the right to use and play any and all music within the system with no limits on such playback and no physical wear or chance of other damage to any physical media, all you have is the right to use the music. You don't own, and can't put on display, your acquisitions. If the streaming service should for any reason be discontinued, you stand to lose forever your access rights to those recordings. In contrast, once you purchase music media, you own that copy of the music and can keep it and play it forever, as well as convert the music to other media, allowing you and your loved ones and heirs continued access to the music more or less forever.

But note that you don't forfeit your existing music collection once you start streaming. You can keep your existing collection forever. You can also add to it if your financial resources permit. Thus again streaming is just another method to discover new music and high quality recordings. It is not something which needs to be undertaken to the exclusion of traditional methods of music acquisition.

Roon Streaming's Advantages

But assuming you are at least open-minded about digital streaming, let me suggest that digital streaming offers the best way yet developed to discover new "reference" fidelity recordings, great new music, and the best performances and recordings of familiar music. I will use Roon as an example of how you can relatively quickly make valid personal choices as to the best recording and performance quality among all the available versions of any particular song or musical work. There may well be other streaming services which offer similar opportunities, but I'll use Roon as an example, first because I'm quite familiar with it and second because most comparative reviews suggest that Roon has the best GUI and software for this sort of research.

This sort of research and analysis works because you never have to leave your audio sweet spot, you can comparison listen for seconds or many minutes to each version, there is no pressure to decide, and you never have to make a "final" purchase choice. Because the comparisons are so relaxed, I think you'll find them easy to make. The choices are completely personal to you; they're based on your personal sonic and musical tastes and your current audio system. You can always revise your choices later as your musical and sonic tastes develop or as your equipment changes. Your changed choices won't cost you a dime extra since streaming services don't charge based on how much music you listen to, how many favorites you pick, or how often you change your list of favorites.

If this sort musical and sonic quality research really works—and I most definitely think that it does—this vastly increases the value proposition of the money invested in Roon, Tidal, and Qobuz. For those still on the fence or even still against sourcing home music playback from streaming sources, this could be just the impetus needed to make the switch to streaming or at least to add streaming to your audio system sources.

Preliminaries

For the method I'm talking about to work well, you will need to have your Roon streaming control unit at your listening seat. I use an iPad Pro to control Roon (and Lumin) playback and this is always available right next to my chair for changing from one program to the next. For most of this work, you can hold it in your lap. For serious listening and determining the finer points of recordings and performance, you should put the iPad out of sight next to your chair since sonic reflections from it can seriously affect your perception of imaging and staging and somewhat affect tonality judgments.

However, for judging between the quality of most recordings, with a good system like mine, only a few seconds are required and most recordings are grossly inadequate compared to the best, so no fine judgments are required. While this may sound overly dismissive of the efforts of some musical artists and engineers, that's the way I hear it. This wide variation in quality makes the process more enjoyable and much less time consuming than you might think it would be.
 

tmallin

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Researching the Best Sounding Recording of a Particular Musical Work

For example, let's assume that you want to find the best recording in terms of sonic quality of a particular musical work. Let's say that you already have at least one version of that in your library or favorites, a version you've owned for a while on CD or otherwise and now have converted to an accessible music file. Go to that recording in Roon. Using Roon, you can then easily compare all the other versions of that work in both Qobuz and Tidal with your library version(s).

Let's say that Roon currently lists about 175 different versions of this work available via Tidal or Qobuz. Right away, the process of finding the recording with the best sonic quality may seem daunting. But actually, many of these entries are probably duplicative, being the same recordings in different releases or combinations. And, as I said above, most can be dismissed after a few seconds of listening as sonically inadequate.

If you have one or more versions of this work, you can play a bit or more of the one you think is best sounding first to get your sonic bearings. Then compare various other versions to the first one. If you find one you think sounds better than your initial reference, continue comparing other versions to your new "best" unless and until that new reference is dethroned in your mind by another.

Here are some shortcuts you can try:

1. Sort the versions available in Roon by the most popular. They are usually popular for some good reason, and one of those is perceived sound quality.

2. Focus on versions which are on labels whose recordings you have found in the past to sound good to you.

3. Look for versions engineered by or mastered by a professional you respect in that musical genre. Roon lists engineering and mastering personnel under the Credits for each album. Each of these listings will be a link to a list of other recordings in which that technical professional has been involved.

4. Look for versions by artists whose works you think have been well-recorded before.

5. Look for versions favorably mentioned in paper magazine and online equipment and music reviews, especially if the reviewer involved is someone whose opinions you have come to respect.

Researching the Musically Best Recording of a Particular Work

The process is much the same. The suggested shortcuts become:

1. Sort the versions available in Roon by the most popular. They are usually popular for some good reason, and one of those is perceived musical artistry.

2. Look for versions by artists whose work you think has been musically sublime before.

3. Look for versions favorably mentioned in paper magazine and online music reviews, especially if the reviewer involved is someone whose opinions you have come to respect.

Researching the Recording With the Best Combination of Sound and Musical Quality

Finding such a single recording will be rare. There is still much truth to the old saying that the best sounding recordings are often the most musically vacuous ones. But, exceptions DO occur. Once you've determined the two or three best sounding and most musical recordings of a particular work available through Roon, it's a simple matter to compare those versions listening simultaneously for both qualities.
 
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tmallin

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Finding New Music Through Roon Live Radio Function

Here's a description of a new way to add new music to your library once you have a Roon subscription as well as Tidal and/or Qubuz.

One of the features Roon has incorporated into its software is the ability to quickly and easily find a high-quality version of a song you are playing via an internet radio station, play the high-quality version, and add that song or its album to your library. The whole process takes just a few seconds and a few taps of my iPad controller screen.

For many internet radio stations, Roon identifies the artist and title of the track being currently played by the station via Roon's Live Radio function. Whether Roon can show this information or not depends largely on the station itself, as I understand it. Anyway, if the information is available, just touch/click on that information near the bottom of your screen. A new screen will open also showing the name of the album that track is "On." Touch the title of the album and Roon will take you to the album containing that track either within your library or in Qobuz or Tidal. You can then immediately play the high-quality version of that track (it's highlighted by Roon within the listed tracks on the album). Or, you can immediately add that track or the entire album to your Roon library.

This is slick for audiophiles who wish they could hear that interesting new track in CD or hi-res quality instead or low-res internet radio quality. It's also slick for music lovers who want to add new interesting music to their personal library when they hear it for the first time on an internet radio station.

Even if an internet radio station does not show the tune currently being played, Roon still gives you a means of finding out and capturing that recording for your personal library. The station listing has a link on the screen to the station's website. Click on that link and you may well find that the station's site either shows what's playing now or has a link to its playlist which often has that information. Armed with that title, you can search for it in Qobuz and Tidal through Roon and often have it added to your library even before a relatively short musical selection is done playing live on the station.

Just so there is no misunderstanding, if you are not familiar with Roon: Your Roon library consists of a seamless integration of the albums you own (those you converted to music files from CDs or purchased and downloaded) and those you have rights to access via your subscription to Tidal and/or Qobuz. Once you pay for a Roon license and a Tidal and/or Qobuz subscription, there is no further payment needed to include any albums from Tidal or Qobuz in your Roon library. You merely click on the "Add to Library" button in Roon and Roon instantly adds that Qobuz or Tidal album to your library.

When you browse your Roon library, any Qobuz or Tidal albums you have thus added will appear seamlessly intermingled with the albums you own, displayed in the order you choose. If you have so specified in your settings, the album thumbnail images will also show whether that album is from Qobuz or Tidal and specify the resolution as CD, MQA, or some specific type of hi-res, such as "24/96."

Your Roon library can thus get as large as you choose with the method I described (adding albums found via Roon's Live Radio function) without paying anything beyond the basic Roon, Qobuz, and Tidal subscriptions. And since you aren't downloading the Tidal or Qobuz content to your local computer network, just streaming the content from the internet, adding a Tidal or Qobuz album to your Roon library takes only a second or two.

Finding New Music Through Roon's Credits Searching

As mentioned above, the technicians involved in any given recording are usually listed by Roon in the Credits section of the information about that album. The names of, for example, those involved in the engineering and mastering are listed and those names are links to other recordings in which those personnel have been involved. If, for example, you find that you like recordings in which Bob Katz has been involved in engineering or mastering, you can use this link from his name in Roon to a list of many of his other recordings available through Roon.

I use Bob Katz as an example since he is on record as opposing "the loudness wars" in mastering recordings. See, for example, Katz's Honor Roll of recordings engineered/mastered by others which he has identified as having measurably less compression than most others. If you value recordings with relatively uncompressed dynamic range, you also could do worse than to explore recordings of music in which he personally has been involved on the technical side.

Shortcomings of This Roon Methodology

While Qobuz and Tidal have many millions of recordings available for streaming, they don't have everything. In some cases the very best versions, musically and/or sonically, will not be available. Some labels do not have all or even significant portions of their catalogs available from streaming. For example, in the classical and jazz areas, two labels significantly underrepresented are two of the major "audiophile" labels, Telarc and (even more so) Chesky. (There is a monster playlist of Chesky titles on Spotify, but it is not CD quality, of course.) The same is true for many smaller audiophile labels such as FIM (First Impression Music). Thus, if you have such recordings in your personal library, make sure to keep them because if they are not already available they probably will never make it to the streaming catalog.

Another problem is that the streaming services often have the most recent remasterings of classic recordings, but sometimes (or even often) don't have older versions, much less the original CD masterings (forget about the vinyl versions in most cases). Especially in the pop/rock genres, this means that what is available for streaming is—in keeping with recent remastering trends—frequently brighter and more compressed sounding than the originals.

For example, many times I've heard good sounding jazz recordings on one of my favorite internet radio stations, KCSM, whose best sounding stream is only AAC 64 kbps—hardly close to CD quality. I've then used Roon's indexing to locate the Tidal/Qobuz versions of that recording in CD (or better) quality.

Sometimes, however, I'm disappointed in the comparative sonic quality of the Tidal/Qobuz versions. In these cases further research often reveals that the station was broadcasting from a copy of an LP or an earlier CD version, perhaps even on an old, now defunct or acquired label. Yet further research on Amazon or other music media purchase sites often shows that the older version, if available at all, is priced far above the normal cost of a CD, often for hundreds of dollars. When I find such a result, this is a clear indication that I was not imagining things—older is often better. Not only are newer versions perhaps remastered for more highs and compressed dynamics, but the sound quality of both analog and digital masters deteriorates over time. The earlier versions of recordings thus naturally tend to sound the best, despite the latest whiz-bang remastering efforts.

Despite these real shortcomings, I regard Roon—as an indexing system for Qobuz, Tidal, and internet radio—as a boon to both audiophiles and music lovers everywhere. The cost of these services is, in my view, far outweighed by the potential benefits in terms of increased sonic and musical enjoyment.
 
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tmallin

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Note that all my Roon comments above are based on my experience with version 1.7. It was announced this week that version 1.8 is rolling out next week with the promise of even more sophisticated music comparison tools as well as new algorithms to better match recommendations to your tastes based on what you have actually listened to on Roon. In addition, version 1.8 promises better indexing for classical music which has long been a problem with most streaming services compared to how they handle other genres.
 

tmallin

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Note that if you are trying to locate all albums on a particular label, such as Paula, one way to do this is directly from the Qobuz app. I know this does not work with Roon (yet, even with the newest version 1.8--I keep asking for this feature to be added!) and I can't find a way to do it with Tidal either. With Roon the label search function is limited to your own library so you will only find the albums you already know about.

But with Qobuz, just enter the label name in the search box and check the "Label" box and there you are. Qobuz will search for all albums available through Qobuz on that label. Very handy if you have found a label whose artists and/or sound you admire and want to find more.
 
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tmallin

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Speaking of labels, many are too young to have experienced the original Sheffield Lab recordings made via the Direct-to-Disc (LP) cutting process where the musicians played live and the recording bypassed any analog or digital tape recording, with the recording made directly from microphone feed to disk cutting lathe. At the time, in the 1970s, these recordings were widely regarded as among the very finest available. Most of the Sheffield Lab recordings are available through Qobuz and can be located by searching for the label Sheffield Lab as I described in my prior post.

Another thing which set the Sheffield Lab recordings apart was that many/most of them were recorded using a single stereo microphone in a manner simulating a Blumlein pickup pattern. This ensured great, solid stereo imaging and miking from a reasonable distance away instead of close up.

For example, some of the old Sheffield Lab recordings of Lincoln Mayorga captured the piano "at a distance" in real stereo, which means that the piano has a bloated mono image with some projection upward surrounded by hall ambiance. See, for example, this one of Brahms music.

Perhaps this is why most sound engineers long ago decided that a different technique was necessary, at least for solo piano. The solo piano, even a "large" 9-foot concert grand, becomes "small" and rather "uninteresting" on the stereo stage, even when surrounded by the bloom of hall ambiance.

Of course, that's reality, at least to my ears. If I close my eyes at a live unamplified concert of a piano and am sitting more than a few rows back, even a concert grand piano has basically a bloated mono sound with projections up and out plus hall ambiance. Of course, if a soloist moves around a bit and turns from side to side (e.g., solo voice, trumpet, violin), the up and out projections of sound from the more or less point source of the instrument or voice change directions and thus create an ever-changing pattern of projections and hall sound. But this rarely, if ever, occurs with piano recordings.
 

tmallin

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Here are some comments I first wrote long ago about Sheffield Lab, Blumlein recordings, and a few other minimally miked recordings:

Harry James Sheffield Lab big band recordings
Kodo Heartbeat Drummers of Japan (Sheffield)
LA Philharmonic/Leinsdorf Sheffield studio recordings (dry sounding)
Early Chesky JD discs, such as 1, 2, and 3
A few EMIs, including ones of Scheherazade, and Mahler 8

The Harry James Sheffield Labs Blumlein Recordings
3/31/05

I have just acquired (actually, re-acquired since I used to own the LP
versions) the CD versions of the three Harry James big band swing jazz
recordings made by Doug Sax and Sheffield Lab during the 1970s and 80s:
"The King James Version," "Coming From a Good Place," and "Still Harry
After All These Years."

These are all single-point stereo recordings (probably Blumlein) made
in a large but dry sounding studio. The first two mentioned were
originally recorded direct-to-disk. The CD versions are taken from
analog tapes made at the same time. The last recording was recorded
live direct to tape with no overdubbing as a single take. That "Still
Harry . . ." recording was the last commercial recording Harry James
ever made. All capture the live feel of a big jazz band as few studio
recordings ever have, both because of the recording technique and
because of the way they were recorded in single takes.

And if you like big band jazz, as I do, these are musically very fine
examples of the genre. The first, "The King James Version," is
generally acknowledged (and I agree) to be the musically finest of the
three, and is a truly great swing jazz recording. You will want to
dance, at least if your system has the requisite PRAT. :)

These recordings are now all out of print, in the United States at
least. The ones I acquired are the original 16-bit digital transfers.
There are also 20-to-16 bit versions made later when that technology
became available.

The recordings, at least the versions I have, are not state of the art,
but still hold up very well because of the single-point stereo recording
method. There is a really coherent, very stable soundstage in front of
you and you are back a reasonable distance--no players in your lap.
There is space, but, as I said, it is a dry-sounding venue.

But the recordings are shy on mid-bass warmth, which robs the trombones
of the heft they should have, even though the bass extension and impact
is quite fine. The last recording is the best in terms of mid-bass
heft, but is, I think, the musically weakest. The treble on all of them
is a little bristly, given the early digital vintage of these transfers,
but not bad at all.

******

Also Blumlein and requiring near field listening with the speakers separated by 90 degrees are two Clark Terry jazz trumpet ensemble recordings, "Live at the Village Gate," Chesky JD49, and "Portraits," Chesky JD3. These are now "old" digital recordings, but ones I'm very familiar with. On a great system the Village Gate recording is truly stunning in its ability to capture the sound of a jazz combo at a live venue from close up with all the associated banter between musicians (how much you will hear and understand will vary a lot with the system), interaction with the audience, and miscellaneous club sounds.

"Portraits" was one of Chesky's initial three releases in 1989, but still holds up well. A little bright and light weight tonally, but very clean and irritation free with solid placement of instruments. Terry is quite forward of the group and to the extreme right much of the time, almost in a surround position. His trumpet sound varies with his playing and mutes from very subtle to blow-you-down powerful. The close-up sound of the trumpet is the thing here; the instrument's sound has seldom been captured this well as it sounds from close up and the dynamics will tax your system. Whether you WANT to hear it at the right volume is another matter . . . . A great straight-ahead jazz program. This is one recording which will reveal absolute phase settings of your system. It sounds best with absolute phase reversed.

****
The EMI Scheherazade is a wonderful interpretation and the sound is great, also, for a 1959 recording. I don't hear any of the HF emphasis of US Mercury recordings of that period, so either the mikes lack such peaks or they were EQed out. The woodwinds are particularly lifelike and differentiated from each other. Hiss is present, but, again, not nearly to the extent of Mercury, recordings of this vintage. The only flies in the ointment are a bit of pitch unsteadiness in the horns and, more unfortunately, more than a bit of pitch instability in the first violin solos. Not the pitch flatness one frequently hears from amateur high-string players, but a wavering up and down around the proper pitch. Not the rock solid playing of the Chicago Symphony under Reiner on this piece, but I find the interpretation more pleasingly "romantic." The overall sound is even better than the Reiner recording on RCA (that no slouch), both because of the Blumlein pickup and because of the naturally wide dynamics, natural frequency balance, even better low frequency solidity, and lower apparent distortion. The apparent distance from the ensemble seems just about right to me, but I'm sure some will find it too close up. Depth of field is large, from just in front of the speakers to way beyond the back wall.

The EMI Mahler 8 is a much more distant sounding recording with an abundance of hall ambiance. I would prefer less apparent distance and ambiance for home music listening, but perhaps this was necessary given the size of the ensemble, which tops 700. It is a live recording and there is a lot of coughing audible in the soft parts, with some of the coughs seeming at least as loud as what is going on stage at that point. This doesn't bother me, but for those who don't like recordings with a lot of audience noise, be aware that this audience of 6,000 seems to have at least as many upper-respiratory problems as the Russian audience in the Water Lily Mahler 5. This recording has extraordinarily low hiss for this vintage--I'm sure some modern processing was used. Again, the mikes sound fairly flat and wide range compared to what Mercury was producing at this time and distortion seems low. This recording has even sharper focus than the Scheherazade and is unmistakably a single-point stereo recording. This recording also has an unusually present height illusion from the choruses--the third dimension is definitely there. I don't hear any obvious gain riding and dynamics are quite wide; the climaxes are thrilling and both raise my hackles and send shivers down my spine.

I highly recommend both of these Blumlein recordings.
*****
 
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tmallin

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Other great quasi-coincidently miked recordings from the past include some in which Mark Levinson the man was involved. I believe these are recorded with a pair of B&K microphones in ORTF style but with less than 110 degree angling of the microphones:

Somewhat more commercial, but now out of print, I think, are the recordings made by Mark Levinson, the man, between 1972 and 1978 using a customized Ampex analog open reel tape recorder at 30 ips, and two B&K instrumentation mikes in a semi-coincident pair (like ORTF, but with a narrower angular separation). Original mastering of the analog LPs was done by Bob Ludwig at Masterdisk in New York; he also did the later CD mastering. These recordings were available first as LPs and later as CDs through Cello Music and Film, the company Mark headed prior to Red Rose Music. They are on the Cello Acoustic Recordings label. To my way of thinking, these CDs have tonal accuracy second to none, and all the other things audiophiles listen for are not bad either. Take your pick:

Volume I: The Six Schubler Chorales (J. S. Bach) Myrtle Regier, Organ
Volume II: Lois Shapiro, Piano; Ravel Valse Noble & Sentimentale; Haydyn Sonata #49 in E flat
Volume III: Bill Elgart: A Life; drumkit; original composition by Elgart depicting the life cycle of man in percussion
Volume IV: The New Haven Brass Quintet; various compositions from classical to the Beatles
Volume V: The Art of the Fugue: J. S. Bach; Charles S. Krigbaum, Organ
Volume VI: Bach and Scarlatti: Elliott Fisk, Guitar

Also notable is Levinson's first digital recording using the Apogee UV-22 process, with the same mike set up, "The Notables," CAR 008, which records a strictly amateur choral group of high-school age males. A little brighter than the analog recordings, but with superior dynamics and even more live feel. Several of the numbers are quite good, despite the amateur level of the group. You don't have to go beyond the first number, "Ride the Chariot," to see what I mean.

Then there is the SACD "Mark Levinson Live Recordings at Red Rose Music, which IS still available. Same two B&K mikes, same set up, fed into a Red Rose preamp and then into a Sony DSD lab prototype recorder with no editing allowed. Again, the tonal balance is a bit brighter than the analog recordings, with less full bass, but that may have been the room in which the recordings were made. The tonal balance, as with The Notables, is still head and shoulders above most other commercial recordings. And the clarity is astounding. However, the piano sound is disappointing compared to the rest of the disk: it sounds lightweight and a little harsh. I have heard Mark's August Forstler piano live in Mark's old Cello New York headquarters. The piano there sounded ideal--iron fist in a velvet glove striking the strings with great clarity, resonance, and power. But the direct sound of everything else on this disk sounds spookily real, if a little close miked; there is little room ambiance since the recording venue is a "small" room at the Red Rose store in the Whitney Museum in NYC. But on one number the night crickets which accompany Kim Cattrall's voice provide very convincing ambiant information indeed.

*****
And finally I want to mention a couple of multi-mike jobs which I still think are extraordinarily fine recordings of acoustic jazz:

The other M&K RealTime recordings I have (only two) are also to this day extremely fine sonic references and have what I consider to be much better performances. Both are jazz recordings: Real Hot Jazz is a 1982 sampler of jazz big bands recorded digitally. The other is a double album, digitally (20-bit) remastered from the 1970s direct-to-disk sessions of "For Duke" with Bill Berry and His Ellington All Stars and "Fatha," Earl Hines Plays Hits He Missed. The "For Duke" session is right up there with the legendary Harry James Sheffield recordings in the big-band genre both sonically and musically; no, it's not Blumlein, but it is very artfully and tastefully recorded nonetheless
 
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tmallin

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Note well: For all Blumlein recordings you have to lean in closer to your speakers to hear them to best advantage. You really need at least 90 degrees of subtended angle between the two speakers, not 60. Either sit on the edge of your chair or, better yet, move your chair a lot closer to your speakers. If you don't take this measure, you won't hear the fabulous imaging and staging and spatially some may even sound a bit confused--which is just the opposite of what they truly are.

Just because the speakers are pointed at your ears does not mean the subtended angle between them, as viewed from your listening position is 90 degrees; it could be any number of degrees.

For 90 degree separation, if your ears are, say 80 inches from each speaker, then the centers of the speaker baffles should be 80/.707 = 113.15 inches apart. So, for 90-degree separation, divide the distance of ear to center of speaker baffle by 0.707 to get the distance between the centers of the two speaker baffles.
 
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tmallin

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I don't think any streaming service gives information about the recording technique. You have to find out from CD booklets, LP jackets, old reviews and just memory. Some of the Sheffield pop recordings were not Blumlein (e.g., Thelma Houston & Pressure Cooker: I've Got the Music in Me). I think most of the Sheffield Lab classical recordings which started out as direct-to-disc releases were single-stereo-microphone recordings; I'm not sure about the ones which are on the Town Hall label which Sheffield also owned or controlled.

Also the Sheffield classical recordings made in Moscow involved Keith O. Johnson of Reference Recordings and are not Blumlein, although they are quite fine sounding. I was looking at one of those recently on Roon and the engineers credited were Doug Sax (Sheffield's usual engineer), Keith Johnson, and Stan Ricker (of Mobile Fidelity Sound Lab Half Speed Mastering fame)--quite a distinguished group.
 

tmallin

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Blumlein recordings tend to appeal to those who want to reproduce at home through their two-channel stereos the closest recreation of a concert hall experience they can achieve. Such recordings are preferred by those who still hold "the absolute sound" of the concert hall experience to be the ultimate goal of home sound reproduction. Such folks may well hold the "scientific" listener preference tests of Toole and Olive in low regard since such preferences are not anchored in any way to the sound of real acoustic music in the concert hall; listeners are just stating preferences.

On the other hand, as Toole’s book on Sound Reproduction says, music recording is an art unto itself. The success of that art is in how tastefully the music is presented on the recording. Literal truth to what the music sounded like in the hall is not really what most people want to hear in their home listening room. They want something better than a concert hall experience. The “better” part is needed to make up for the fact that you can’t see the musicians playing and therefore your ears need surreal spatial effects to make the experience more “visual.” For example, wide stereo piano images.

How much the rest of the sound people "prefer" in Toole-type tests resembles a concert-hall frequency balance is open to endless debate. Most everyone seems to agree that the bass should be boosted a bit in home playback. And there is agreement that reflections of sound off the room surfaces is important to the sound quality. Disagreements abound, however, as to whether the response of the speakers above the bass should be flat, whether the highs should be rolled off a bit on axis, or whether the entire response of the speaker should slope down from bottom to top. There is also much disagreement about whether room reflections should be left alone, diffused, or absorbed. Much probably depends on listener preference, the polar pattern of the particular speakers, the size of the room, and the set up of speakers and listener in that room.
 

tmallin

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Many who care about frequency balance in their listening seems to bemoan the demise of the ordinary set of tone controls on modern preamps.

Yes, in Roon and other devices you can construct presets which would shelve up or down bass and/or treble. But implementing each one would not be nearly as simple as twisting a knob. In "the good old days" I had my Cello Palette Preamp on its acrylic cart beside my listening chair and I could twiddle those knobs to my heart's content without leaving the sweet spot.

In Toole-speak, audio's "circle of confusion" makes the need for adjusting for individual balance of recordings inevitable. I'm sure that at least 20 times in the course of his book Toole bemoans the lack of usable tone controls today.

Until someone implements truly easy-to-use digital bass and treble controls, that's why I keep talking about ideally using speakers that make as many recordings as possible sound plausibly balanced. That reduces the need to keep EQing for this or that recording. And given that I probably listen more quietly than the mastering engineers did when deciding on tonal balance and the fact that most mastering engineers seem to have more high-frequency hearing loss than I do, that means a "target curve" for the speaker which is up a bit in the bass and rolls off the treble a bit. That seems to be an almost universal preference for target curves; the only question is how big the "bit" is.
 

tmallin

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Toole talks many times in his book about hearing loss and the necessity of only using people in his subjective preference tests who can pass an audiometry test with "normal" results.

He does not believe that many sound engineers have normal hearing any longer since the job requires long exposure to loud music. He regards such hearing deficiencies as part of the cause of the audio "circle of confusion" since these pro-audio folks are just as averse to measurements as consumers and think their years of experience makes up for any hearing deficiency they might have. Many sound engineers thus select speakers and adjust balance through those speakers in ways which people with normal hearing would not do.

Toole actually doesn't think the passing grade on an audiometry test is good enough to perceive audio's subtleties since "normal" as defined in such tests just means being able to follow a conversation at one meter distance. He says workplace noise control measures don't go far enough since that conversational ability is all they are aimed at protecting, not anything more subtle.

Toole took himself out of his listening panel tests at age 60 when he found his ability to make judgements about speakers getting more difficult than it had been when he was younger.
 

tmallin

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I often appreciate artful creations by audio producers and engineers. I also agree that many such creations are "awful" in that they aren't to my mind very tasteful.

I think that most audio producers and engineers these days are not at all trying to make recordings which, when played back at home, are intended to sound like reasonable facsimiles of a live performance heard in a concert hall. The recording itself is intended as a separate art form.

This makes sense since most recordings are of events which never took place in a concert hall or never even could take place there since they are strictly studio creations. The exceptions are classical music recordings and live recordings of other genres.

But as to the live recordings of other genres, most of those live events would involve capturing sound from voices and electrified or electronic instruments either from the PA system, direct boxes, or mixers. There usually is no live unamplified acoustic music involved. It is up to the sound producers and engineers how to put all the live sound together for a recording. It is rare indeed for commercial recordings to capture live pop music concerts from a quasi-coincident two-microphone array placed in an audience location.

Of course, that is why bootleg recordings of such concerts can sound as concert-like as they do; they frequently sound more like a live concert than the studio creations. If someone is recording near the live sound mixing desk and hearing more or less what the live sound mixing engineer is hearing, the bootleg recording will capture pretty much what the live sound engineer intended the audience to hear. Most such bootleg recordings are made with some sort of stereo microphone capsule or head-worn stereo mikes. The Grateful Dead used to actually encourage such recordings and had a section reserved down front for recordists. Many of those recordings have found their way to public consumption through internet concert archives and the Grateful Dead channel on Sirius/XM radio.
 

tmallin

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Regarding playback volume: Whatever is comfortable for you in your home is how you should listen. How loud the sound is in a real concert varies a lot with the room/hall, the type of music, and where you are sitting. HP in TAS (in his review of the Beveridge electrostatic speakers) wrote that he was astounded that his measured sound levels at Carnegie Hall were seldom over 80 dB. Many people say that they don't like to listen as loud at home as in a concert hall because loud sounds in a small room can get annoying. This can be combatted, in my experience, by using room treatment to tamp down the early reflections and by using speakers with narrower high frequency dispersion.

However, I think it's clear that recording and mastering engineers typically listen at considerably higher levels than peaks at 70 dB. Let's assume (although this is unlikely) that they are using Harbeth or other speakers with a rich sounding low end. If they adjust the playback to sound correct to them at the levels they are using for monitoring, the Fletcher Munson curves mean that you will be hearing much less low end at 70 dB peaks than intended. You will need to equalize your system to add more low end.

Even enlightened mastering engineers (that is, those who advocate for monitoring recordings at less than ear-bleed levels) like Bob Katz advocate for average (not peak) monitoring levels of about 83 dB. See Katz's discussion at https://www.digido.com/portfolio-item/level-practices-part-2/

Besides bass, by listening at lower levels you may be missing low-level recorded information like the sound of the room between notes I was talking about, or subtle recorded sounds like lips parting, breathing, chair squeaking, etc. These sounds are actually on the recording, of course. They are not imagined. They are there in force because for most recordings the microphones are much closer to the instruments than you are in a concert hall seat.

Whether it's important to musical enjoyment to hear such things is a matter for you to decide. Many may just find such sounds annoying and not realistic given what they typically hear from their favorite concert hall seats. But if you want to listen at 70 dB peak levels, you likely will need to turn up the bass a bit to hear what the mastering engineers intended.

Note that one reason Harbeth speakers are balanced with a rich low end is that Alan Shaw is very much aware that many home listeners, and indeed some professional monitoring folks such as those at the BBC, don't want to listen at high levels all day because this can be fatiguing. He is on record as saying that Harbeth speakers are thus balanced to sound fuller and thus better balanced than other speakers at lower levels.

Especially for listeners who aren't comfortable with high SPL at home, it is indeed important to have your system warm balanced, either through your choice of speakers (Harbeths are a good place to start, I think, given the stated design goals of Alan Shaw and my own experience with the brand) and their set up in the room or an equalization target curve that boosts the bass a bit, or both.

I think many listeners--and I am certainly one of them--in picking the correct volume level for a familiar type of music like a symphony, will tend to turn it up until the tonal balance seems correct. (Of course "seems correct" assumes you know roughly what symphonic music should sound like unamplified in a decent hall.) This is mainly a matter of getting the bass to sound strong enough relative to everything else. Thus, if your speakers are warm balanced and/or your EQ favors the bass, you won't have to turn it up so loud to sound correctly enough balanced. Not only is such playback easier on the ears, it is also easier on your amps and speakers since the lower the average SPL, the less distortion there will be.

With speakers that are less warm and listeners who refuse to apply tone controls or equalization, the tendency of many listeners is to keep turning up the volume in a desperate effort to achieve that "right" bass balance. Sometimes it won't happen because at such high levels the amp or speakers will be distorting or, more likely, their ears are overloading or the room itself is getting nasty sounding because various resonances are being excited and higher frequency reflections are getting more and more obnoxious.

The ability to play louder comfortably is indeed significant for those who, like me, want to listen to a very eclectic mix of music genres and who like to listen fairly loud (85 dB or higher on peaks) on a regular basis. The difference between the loudness capabilities of, for example, the Spendor SP1/2 and Stirling LS3/6 is quite significant for listeners like me. The earlier speaker, while tonally just as excellent (although a bit different) seemed uncomfortable, particularly in the bass, when pushed to higher than what I consider moderate levels, even on challenging Romantic-era classical music--not to mention other modern genres such as electronic music.

As to the importance of proper loudness for proper bass balance, readers may want to read Linkwitz's Conclusions on this issue (and many other speaker design issues): Conclusions (linkwitzlab.com) See the sixth bullet point.

On the other hand, even among the primarily-pop-music crowd, there are apparently many people who are very undemanding of SPL in their home music systems and who apparently don't much think about bass balance in their playback volume selection. See Steve Guttenberg's recent discussion of playback loudness in his Audiophiliac Daily Show vlog and the hundreds of viewer comments. Many seem to listen at 75 dB max and proper bass balance is not mentioned much, if at all, by Steve or his viewers:
How LOUD (or QUIETLY) do you LISTEN?? - YouTube
 

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