Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Hugh Masakela and Sly and the Family Stone on Hybrid CD/SACD

Why do I keep buying SACDs when I don't have an SACD player? It sounds kind of silly, but it started happened by accident. Every time I attend a trade show, I try to buy something to play in my room while I'm there. At the New York Audio Show in May, I purchased Shelby Lynne's Just a Little Lovin' on what I thought was CD. I already owned and adored it on LP, but I needed something for the Unison Research Unico CDE player we had on display in the room. Halfway back to the room, I looked down at the little disc--yeah, I had already opened it up--and I saw "SACD" written everywhere. "This isn't going to play on the CDE," I said, slapping my forehead. "Now I have to return it, and I hate returning things."

As a Hail Mary I placed it in the CDE anyway, pushed the start button...and it played fine. In fact, it sounded spectacular. That's because it was a CD/SACD hybrid disc, which means that it has different layers of data and will work on machines that play either SACDs or CDs. I repeated my mistake at the Newport Beach Show in June with Ella Fitzgerald's Clap Hands Here Comes Charlie. It played as well.

For some reason, SACD as a digital format seems to be hanging in there, despite the emergence of competing (and possibly superior) formats such as Blu-ray Audio. One of the reasons it endures, I suspect, is because of the now ubiquitous CD/SACD hybrid disc. I'm proof of that--I don't care if I'm getting something I don't need, I'm grabbing the hybrid first. Although these hybrid discs received some criticism when they first appeared because the redbook CD layers often seemed to sound less than first-rate, those days seem to be gone. I've gotten into the habit of buying hybrid CDs because a) most of the "hot" audiophile remasters seem to be more easily obtained in this mixed format, and b) one day I might have an SACD player, and I'll already have some titles. It's sort of like my adventures with Blu-ray Audio, especially with the 2L label from Norway--sure, I have a cheap Blu-ray player to test out the new format, but I like listening to the hybrid disc on my CD player. It's convenient and it's easy.

So when I had the budget for a couple of new discs for the upcoming Rocky Mountain Audio Fest in mid-October, I started perusing the hybrid CD/SACD sections of Acoustic Sounds, Music Direct and Elusive Discs for ideas. I decided not to do vinyl--it's going to be a crowded little room and I want to keep it simple--so it's all about feeding the CDE with good recordings. And for me that means hybrid discs.

First I purchased Hugh Masakela's Hope per Colleen's request; she heard Bob Clarke play it at the Newport Beach show and fell in love with the song "Stimela (The Coal Train)." This has just been remastered by Chad Kassem and Acoustic Sounds, and it is undoubtedly one of the best live recordings I've ever heard. I've said this before but I'm not a huge fan of live recordings--the crowd usually sounds artificial and obtrusive, and the recording methods tend to be "on the fly" and not perfectly controlled. Hope defies my expectation with an energetic, explosive sound that really captures the excitement of the live venue while preserving all the natural timbres you hear in an isolated, first-class studio. I look forward to wowing the RMAF attendees with this one.

I bought the new ORG edition of Sly and the Family Stone's There's a Riot Goin' On for the coolness factor alone. This just came out a few weeks ago, and the audiophile community was instantly buzzing about it. Sonically this is the opposite of Hope; it's a purely studio creation that relies heavily of special effects and doctored sounds to get its message across. That means it lacks some of the live excitement and realistic portrayals of instruments you hear in the Masakela disc. But the music is, well, sensational on this landmark 1971 album, and the level of interaction among the musicians is clearly inspired. This is one of those instances where an audiophile remastering means that that a troublesome original recording has been made palatable, as opposed to a sonic legend being taken to an even further level.

In any case, I'll be playing both hybrid discs at RMAF--perhaps Masakela a bit more than Sly. It's all about wowing the crowd, playing things that make them wander in, slightly hypnotized from the hallways. See you there.


  1. If you don't have a SACD player, you could always rip the HDCD layer to FLAC with CUEtools or DBpoweramp. Then you can stream them on your network. ~SW

    1. I'm sure I'll wind up doing exactly that. We are finally going to start distributing DACs, so I'm going to have to give myself a crash course in the latest downloading techniques.