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The joys and advantages of listening to music from multiple formats.

For many decades I was on a quest to find a single format that could offer all the music I love with realistic sound that was thrilling, enjoyable and an intense pleasure to listen to. During the 1970’s that one format was pre-recorded 7 IPS Reel to Reel and in the early 1980’s it was audiophile cassette.

Then in 1983 I was one of the gullible masses that fell for Sony’s ads with a picture of a beautiful concert hall and in large print proclaiming "Perfect Sound Forever". I impatiently waited for months until the first CD player; the Sony CDP-101 was available, dreaming about obtaining concert hall realism in my home, I was so thrilled! When I got it I bought the first Telarc, M&K Real Time and Sony/Japan CDs released. At first I really liked the Telarc and M&K Real Time CDs even though there was coldness to the sound, the lack of noise was impressive. However after a couple of months I started getting dreadful headaches and really started noticing the shrillness to the sound texture. After six months I quit listening to music altogether and traded the Sony CDP-101 in for a Denon receiver to pick up the FM simulcasts of MTV and HBO, this was before Stereo TV.

It was almost two years later until I got back into recorded music, I bought a turntable for the first time in decades. I didn’t go back to audiophile cassettes or reel to reel as both were dying. The only remaining reel to reel producer Barclay-Crocker had announced that they were going out of business listing competition from CD as the main reason. Analog tape was the refuge for those of us who disliked surface noise, pops and ticks etc. Now CD came along and offered another option to avoid these LP maladies. This also killed the audiophile cassette market, although the commercial major label cassette market continued to grow.

Fast forward to 2007. I have been in and out of many formats and only last year realized that NO format offered everything I wanted and each format has it’s pros and cons so I decided I wanted it all. Instead of format dedication it is format promiscuity I seek. There are things I love and dislike about every format, and music that sounds the best in each format as well. Basically I have found analog recordings to sound the best played on analog formats, and many digital recordings are only available on digital formats.

Analog Vinyl LPs

When done correctly nothing short of a real time duplicated Reel to Reel tape can sound as exciting, realistic and beautiful as a well made an analog LP! But less than 1% of LPs take full advantage of the format. Prior to the advent of CD the vast majority of LPs, mostly from commercial major labels were compromised to make pressing easier and lower the rate of returns from the average consumer who had cheap low quality turntables and cartridges unable to handle heavy modulated grooves. The deep bass was rolled-off and the remaining summed to mono to increase playing time. The highs were rolled-off to decrease noise and distortion extravagated by the poorly made styli used by most listeners of that time. Plus the dynamic range was compressed to make LPs sound louder and to make the added noise of recycled vinyl less noticeable.

The least compromised of the commercial LPs were make by companies such as Decca/London, Harmonia Mundi, Lyrita and a handful of others. Next came Direct to Disc in which we really began to hear what the LP format was capable of, the Direct Discs from Sheffield Lab and Crystal Clear to this day remain some of the best LPs ever made. Then came Telarc Soundstream 50kHz Digital LPs, with the infamous "bass drum" heard around the world. Telarc showed that deep, deep bass was possible on LP by accurately spacing the grooves and limited playing time to less than 23 minutes per side. To this day these remain some of the best digital has offered and many are available on SACD as well, the only real objection is the highs which are less transparent because of the use of a digital recorder. Next Reference Recordings showed us how deep bass could go in a pure analog LP in their famous "Pomp and Pipes" recording among many others. So nowadays deep bass is more common on audiophile LPs.

What I love about LPs is the cream of the crop, the 1% of the wonderful sounding ones. Most of my LPs are of the audiophile variety but I do have a few commercial ones I have retained from my thrift store visits. Many of my LPs are not available in any other format.

Analog 7 IPS Pre-recorded Reel to Reel

Reel to Reel at its best offers the finest and most thrilling sound from my stereo system, with deep, deep bass and usually extended high frequencies with superb soundstaging. My best sounding Reel to Reels are the ones duplicated in real time on mastering tape such as those from Sound Ideas. Also reels from the 1950’s – 1960’s from such labels as Bel Canto, RCA Living Stereo, Mercury Living Presence, London/Decca, Audio Fidelity and others, the earliest of these are also duplicated in Real Time.  There is a lot of great period popular music that never made it to stereo LP or any other format. That is because tape had stereo before LP and thus was released as a mono LP and when stereo made it to LP the titles were out of print making the Reel to Reel the only stereo version.

Most Classical and Jazz commercial major label’s Reel to Reel versions were not compressed, or rolled off like the LP versions. So 7 IPS Reel to Reel is the best way to get recordings from Decca/London, Deutsche Grammophon, Philips and Columbia.

Unfortunately most "Rock" Reel to Reels were recorded at 3 IPS and sound totally dreadful to my ears, especially overloaded distorted sound with rolled off highs. There are a few 7 IPS "Rock" reels and those sound excellent. The original price of the 3 IPS reels was $1.00 less than 7 IPS, I guess they figured that those who liked rock wouldn’t be willing to pay the extra dollar? I prefer rock music on cassettes.

The disadvantages of buying used Reel to Reel tapes includes the previous owners improper storage, playing tapes with magnetized heads, and laying the tapes on near magnetic fields. Plus some tapes made during the late 1970’s – 1980’s using backcoated polyester tape can squeal due to "shredded tape syndrome". I either bid low or look for money back guarantee. Out of over 150 Reel to Reel purchases I have returned three and have thrown another six in the trash due to this invisible damage.

My reel to reel collection is a real musical and sonic treasure and it is kinda cool watching the reels spin!

Analog Cassette

It’s no secret that this is my favorite format. Cassettes may not have the best sound every time but the shocker is how often the cassette version will beat the LP, CD, DVD-Audio and even sometimes the SACD version! And all this from an itty-bitty format that creeps along at 1 7/8 IPS!

The reason that faster tape speeds sound better is because there are more magnetic particles per second of music. Thus cassette makers using different tape formulas and more densely packing magnetic particles are able to get resolution surpassing 3 IPS Reel to Reel at only 1 7/8 IPS on a tape that is half as wide. To imagine what a miracle this is 3 IPS Reels have four times the tape surface area of a 1 7/8 IPS cassette.

The best of course are the audiophile cassettes but many commercial major label recordings also sound great though to a lesser degree.

And Cassette is the format where Rock music sounds the absolute best and it is the format in which I experienced the most goose bumps! I do have a Nakamichi cassette deck but it is only a 2-head unit, in which I keep the azimuth aligned. The deep bass, the liquid midrange, and the sonic realism on most cassettes is amazing, and the high frequency response is only surpassed by Reel to Reel and the better LPs and SACDs.

Pre-recorded cassettes are also the safest format to buy used; I have only bought one that had damage from a stray magnetic field. Plus no matter what label the cassette is on it usually sounds good, the only ones I reject are the ones in which I do not like the music. I play pre-recorded cassettes more than any other format.

CD

CD can and more often than not sound totally dreadful. I have finally gotten CD playback to an acceptable level where the best CDs are listenable and often enjoyable. But most CDs still suffer from incorrect timbres of recorded musical instruments coupled with gross upper midrange shrillness and rolled-off high frequencies making violins sound edgy and spiky and high percussion instruments sound subdued.

CDs from such companies as Telarc and Reference Recordings often sound very good. Now that I have acceptable CD playback it is nice to have the earlier Erich Kunzel recordings not available on SACD, also there are other CDs that I have added that are not available on any other format. CD is my least favorite format.

SACD

I love the sound of SACDs especially those PURE DSD one’s from Telarc’s classical division. This is the most analog sounding of all digital formats. But there are bad SACDs as well, for example the LSO Live SACD’s which sound as bad as the worst CDs and are recorded DSD. Some blame the concert hall and the microphone techniques. Many SACDs from low-resolution PCM masters also sound poor.

In the past I have left SACDs due to reoccurring "TOC" reading problems of hybrid discs. I am hoping this problem is solved now, I will let you know so stay tuned. For me SACD will mostly be for the Erich Kunzel and Paavo Jarvi recordings I can’t get in the analog formats.

I have my player set to 2-channel stereo and it picks the 2-channel program for me and starts playing as soon as I put in the SACD.

DVD-Audio

DVD-Audio can sound excellent as well although it is a pain sometimes to find the 2-channel problem as you usually have to turn on the TV and select it from the menu.

Most DVD-Audios are from analog masters which sound better on LP or Reel to Reel but there are some excellent original 24 Bit 96kHz ones from AIX.

How I find my music

It is databases that make collecting multiple formats possible for me. Since all these formats are different sizes they cannot be stored together. This is another reason I believe most people try to stick with one format as they are the same size and they can just arrange everything alphabetical and can easily find what they want to play.

It’s not so easy with multiple formats as they are all different sizes. So unless I remember which format a recording is in this can be frustrating. But not with a good database, I use MS Access Music Collection 1 modified for the information I want to save on each recording coupled with a MS Word document of all my Classical works arranged by composer and the record number they are on. Here is an example of my first entry:

ADAM, ADOLPHE (1803-1856)
  Le Diable A Quatre Ballet
    Bonynge, London Symphony Orchestra [4 Track 7 IPS RTR] London ffrr / Ampex LCL-80171
  If I Were King: Overture (1852)
    Agoult, New Symphony Orchestra of London [LP] RCA Living Stereo / Classic Records LSC-2134

By this I would know that the "Le Diable A Quatre" ballet is under Adam in my Reel to Reel rack. To find the "If I Were King" I would go to my Music Collection database and look up LSC-2134.

Title

Artist

Label

Format

Purchase Price

OVERTURE! OVERTURE!

Raymond Agoult, New Symphony Orchestra of London

RCA Living Stereo / Classic Records LSC-2134

LP

$14.18

Thus I would know it was under "OVERTURE! OVERTURE!" in my LP rack.

I would be lost without a database and likely unable to enjoy music on multiple formats. Since I have nearly every consumer format except 8 Track I have been able to find 99% of the music I love and because I also have high resolution digital formats I can discover new music and of course I am always discovering new to me music on the analog formats.

In closing multiple formats open up many vistas previously closed to me by concentrating on a single format. And in the end it is all about music isn’t it?

Teresa