Saturday, October 6, 2012
The Hoff Ensemble's Quiet Winter Night on Blu-Ray...and LP!
Ladies and gentleman...tonight we have the most heavily anticipated match in audio history to decide the Hi-Rez Champion of the World! In one corner we have the defending international champ, an LP played with a precision-made $4000 turntable/arm combination that was designed in Italy and built in one of the finest factories in all of Europe, topped with an exciting new $4500 phono stage from New Zealand from one of that country's most gifted and beloved designers, all matched with a $4250 cartridge made in Japan by Zen masters...the Unison Giro/PureAudio Vinyl/Transfiguration Phoenix! In the other corner, the Killer from Korea, the challenger, a Blu-ray audio disc played $68 Samsung Blu-ray player which was purchased at my local supermarket!
I've been trying to get a fix on the ultimate sound quality advantages of the emerging Blu-ray Audio format, but as you can see I've been struggling with the hardware end of things. While I wait for a decent outboard DAC to arrive on my doorstep, I'm stuck with the Samsung. Then again, as I'm playing these Blu-ray discs on this modest player I'm struck by the musicality and often feel that I'm not too terribly far off the mark sound-wise. The sound quality of the Samsung isn't quite up to the detailed, warm and expansive sound from my Unison Research Unico CDE CD player, but it absolutely trounces the sound of a relatively modest Denon DVD/CD player I have on hand. These Blu-ray discs have a smooth, relaxed and pristine sound that might occasionally drift into a glassiness that might obscure detail, but the overall sound quality is the exact opposite of the harsh digital sound we experienced in the '80s.
Now that my Blu-ray Audio collection has expanded to five discs, I now have the opportunity to compare two of them directly with the vinyl version, thanks to Morten Lindberg of 2L Recordings. Not only has he sent me the Blu-ray version of his Souvenir recordings (reviewed here and here), he sent me both the vinyl and Blu-ray Audio versions of his new acoustic jazz project, Quiet Winter Night, as performed by the Hoff Ensemble. I received the LP about a week before the little silver disc, and as usual it's a--take a deep breath--DXD 352.8kHz/24bit Direct Metal Master 180g audiophile grade vinyl 33 1/3 rpm recording. So far I've been extremely impressed with these records. They're extremely revealing and detailed and will definitely not remind you of your warm, gooey RCA "shaded dogs." But if you have the system capable for that level of revelation, you'll hear plenty of new things you've never heard before.
Quiet Winter Night, on the other hand, is a slightly different animal. While both Souvenir recordings are a challenging workout for your ears, this album is meant to be enjoyed on, well, a quiet winter night with someone you love--or at least someone you like to snuggle with when you need to stay warm and toasty. The two classical recordings demand a more experienced and informed ear to determine all the unusual seating arrangements and resulting changes in the orchestration. This album is immediately warm, embracing and familiar, despite the fact that the six vocalists are singing in Norwegian. Then again, American listeners like me will marvel at the way the intonations, syntax and phonemics seem close to English, just barely beyond our comprehension. (This must be a Scandinavian thing--I noticed the same feeling when I watched The Millenium Trilogy, that I could almost tell what was going on without the subtitles.)
So, what does acoustic jazz from Norway sound like? Despite the presence of unfamiliar instruments such as a nyckelharpa, overleir and hardanger fiddle, it sounds just like acoustic jazz from the US. The Hoff Ensemble is basically a jazz sextet matched to another sextet of revolving vocalists. It's an even mix of songs and instrumental tracks, more pretty than edgy, and if you're too-cool-for-school you may not find these romantic, intimate songs enough of a challenge for your sharp-elbowed sensibilities. In other words, a casual first listen is not a good idea. Where Quiet Winter Night elevates itself is in the complex moods it creates slowly over time, how sweetness replaces the usual wintry melancholia, how the folk elements sneak in and take over. Remember the soundtrack of Fargo? Remember the main theme, and how the fiddle's melody seemed to say so much all at once? Throw in a few musical cues from Pat Metheny and Bill Melendez and that description will get you halfway to Quiet Winter Night.
Now for tonight's main event...the LP vs. the Blu-ray Audio disc. Well, Blu-ray is quieter, preternaturally so. These 2L vinyl recordings have been unusually quiet as a whole, with very little surface noise. But the music in the Blu-ray version has that superb sensation of emerging out of thin air, sort of like the feeling I had when I listened to my first compact disc back in 1983 (Prokofiev's Romeo and Juliet, for those who care). If you're a fan of analog, however, this perfect and unblemished sound might be perceived as slightly glossed over and lacking in resolution--and I wouldn't disagree with you. While I was surprised that the lower frequencies had the same depth and texture as in the LP version, I didn't detect the room interactions with those frequencies such as the way in which a double bass or the lower notes of the piano can really energize a room and show the listener where the walls and the ceiling are within the recording venue. (As per usual, Morton Lindberg has recorded this in yet another Norwegian church, this one in Sofienberg.)
I really don't want to make too much of these sonic differences. Until I can grab a digital rig from the likes of CH Precision, dcs or Esoteric, I have to blame the hardware. I have had people in the industry tell me that 2L's vinyl and Blu-ray recordings sound almost exactly the same. They should, considering they're sources from the same hi-rez files. If anything, the vinyl adds artifacts that are not in the original masters...pops, clicks, etc. But I still hear that added sense of spaciousness I love so much.
At any rate, I know I sound like a 2L cheerleader at this point. So far I've loved everything I've heard. I'm headed to the Rocky Mountain Audio Fest in a few days, and I'm definitely bringing all my 2L vinyl recordings to show off the Giro/Vinyl/Phoenix combo. No, I'm not bringing the Samsung. But after hearing just how good this lowly player sounds, I want to explore some new hardware options, whether it be just a DAC or an all-in-one player like the new Oppos. Maybe next year I'll be playing lots of Blu-ray discs at trade shows. I'm still intrigued with this new format, and we'll see if it's still around for RMAF 2013.