audiophile classical music record reviews

Audiophile author Thü
on audio quality and Hi-Fi equipment

For as long as I can remember, the reproduction of perfect sound in my home has always been important to me. It started when I was a kid, firstly with movie soundtracks and then moved on to the great orchestral works of Bruckner, Holst, Shostakovich and Mahler. I could not get enough of the heavy sound despite the rather mediocre equipment which was available to me in the 70's.

Thü was the art director of Macworld Magazine and Computerworld Newspaper for many years in the 90’s and later became a freelance illustrator and editor for Macwelt Magazine, Germany. His experience in the field comes from decades of creating multimedia content and writing reviews and tutorials about audio recording and equipment. He also has a small mobile recording studio and frequently produces recordings for ensembles and orchestras.
Visaton loudspeakers Solo100

In 2003, my first real Hi-Fi loudspeakers – the Visaton Solo100, with an exquisite single full range driver in the cabinet which I built myself.

I've always played an instrument including the piano, French horn, timpani and other percussion. Listening to instruments from close to and from within the orchestra is the usual perspective for me. Maybe because of that, I never became a frequent concert visitor; it's not the same from a distance. This is why I find Hi-Fi so fascinating: it lets me hear the instruments up close as I am used to do.

But, even a magnificent 10'000$ stereo equipment cannot make a meagre recording sound good. And you can have a world class conductor and orchestra playing on that record and it still is not a pleasure to listen to. So, in the end, it all comes down to the recording quality; nevertheless, there are three factors that have to be right in order to achieve real Hi-Fi stereo:

1) An orchestra that can play precisely and with the correct intonation under a conductor who interprets the work to your liking (tempi, expression, dynamics, etc), played in a room with the acoustics to match the style of the musical piece.

2) A high-quality recording technique that captures the fine detail of the instruments’ sounds with microphones that don't get overstrained at the orchestra’s highest dynamics but still catch any whisper in the pianissimos. Maintaining a good stage image with a balanced presence of the different instruments.

3) On the listener’s part: A high-quality uncompressed copy of the recording and proper Hi-Fi equipment: high quality DAC, amp and loudspeakers to play it on. The most important of these three is the loudspeakers. Buy the best ones you can afford and select their placement carefully in order to avoid too much interference from your room's acoustics.

Visaton loudspeakers Topas

Unfortunately, I had to leave the Solo100 behind when I moved, so, some time later I built the Topas from Visaton.

Some people deny that uncompressed files deliver a perceptible advantage over standard mp3 or the like. I have put this to the test and I can say, it really does make a difference, at least on Hi-Fi equipment. When I compress a pop song into 128kbit/s mp3, it is difficult to tell it apart from the one with 44.1kHz/16bit CD quality, while with a lower 64kbit/s compression it's evident. When I do the same with an orchestral piece from a Bruckner symphony, for some peoples ears there is loss of lucidity at 256kbit but at 128kbit it becomes so distorted anyone can hear the difference instantly. This is the same effect that happens with video compression: Portraits or a scene walking on the beach may be smooth and sharp but when you film a field of grass moving in the wind – still with the same compression quality – suddenly all becomes distorted and fragmented, it is just too much detail for the compression algorithm.


The differences of lossless and compressed can be seen above and heard from the examples below. You can see here exactly the same excerpt of the left channel from each of the two music pieces. Despite their being the exact same sample, the compressed "Klassik" looks totally different from the original because so much detail is lost. At 128kbit it becomes so distorted, anyone can hear it. The compressed "Pop" sample does not look so much different to the uncompressed. At 128kbit the difference is hard to hear but is obvious at 64kbit. ("Klassik" is from Bruckner’s Symphony No.9, Stanislaw Skrowaczewski, Yomiuri Nippon Symphony Orchestra ©Denon, the "Pop" is from Izzy Bizu, A Moment Of Madness, "Diamond" ©Sony Music) // REMARK: Better example here JAZZ / Kandace Springs / BlueNote / instead of Izzy Bizu POP //

Orchestra
compressed
mp3 64kbit
Orchestra
compressed
mp3 128kbit
Orchestra
lossless
96kHz/24bit
pop
compressed
mp3 64kbit
pop
compressed
mp3 128kbit
Pop
lossless
44.1kHz/16bit

Obviously, critics of the lossless debate are not into orchestral music. Sound waves of natural instruments, especially in large groups, are so complex and rich in detail that they really lose a lot and get distorted with compression. Whereas, electronic music like pop, rock etc., don't have so much detail that could be lost. In addition to this, small ensembles or single instruments are easier to compress with acceptable quality. The other problem is, you cannot compare sounds side by side, like you can with an image. If this were possible, you could recognize the differences between even mp3 with 256kbit/s and uncompressed 48kHz/24bit sound. But in the end, what counts is only that you like what you hear. When it is such a joy you can hardly bear to stop listening, when it fondles your ear with repeatedly surprising sensations so you can almost feel how the strings vibrate under the bow and see where instruments are placed on the soundstage, then it is a good recording. You wouldn’t really expect such sensations from a pop or rock song. They contain too many electronic instruments and special effects and are often recorded from loudspeakers and mixed for the masses of consumers in order to obtain striking, non-demanding sound even with poor to average equipment. This is not for the audiophile.

Tannoy Revolution xt8f and Marantz HD-AMP1

Because of a somewhat limited low range, the Visaton Topas does not cope very well with a big orchestral sound, so generally with these, I mainly listened to ensemble records. That was what lead me to my current equipment and the first Hi-Fi loudspeakers I did not build myself: the Tannoy Revolution xt8f. The DAC and the amp is a Marantz HD-AMP1. And they do not disappoint; it doesn't matter what I throw at them, I have yet to discover any weakness.

I chose my actual equipment based on audio data delivery via my Macbook, no CD player needed. Most of my files are uncompressed FLAC with 44,1kHz/16bit or better. I used to play my records with an app called Vox that was very simple and was easily operated by double-clicking an audio file. Unfortunately, the new versions of Vox have been inflated with unnecessary functions, so I stayed faithful to the older version. Up to this point, I had always found that high-res audio (like 96kHz/24bit) did not sound any better than normal CD quality audio. Then I tried out alternatives to Vox and to my surprise, suddenly high-res audio sounded distinctively better. That's how I discovered that Vox, iTunes and other standard player applications, even with resampling and other options deactivated, do not really deliver the original audio-data directly to the external equipment but go through the OSX Core Audio framework to eventually mingle with audio from other applications. So, I am using Audirvana now (free version 1.0), which can be set to circumvent the system’s core audio and deliver directly to the DAC (in integer or exclusive mode). Attention: If you play my high-res samples and think "why does he praise this so much, it doesn’t sound any better or is perhaps even less good" then chances are that you are sending the audio stream through the system's resampling, or your loudspeakers are simply not good enough. Also, some people have criticized a very transparent recording such as Handley's Planets as too sharp and harsh. I suppose they have a DAC, amp and speakers combination that is already on the sharp side and when combined, then really may become too extreme.

equipment connections and the way of the audio data stream

Next comes the way in which digital audio data gets delivered from the computer to the DAC. I have always preferred an optical fibre connection to prevent any electrical interference from the computer. But, I am using USB now, because my DAC offers higher sampling rates for that input port. Once the data stream leaves the computer unaltered, the DAC converts the digital data into an analogue signal. Usually the computer’s integrated DAC does a good job creating an analogue signal for everyday use, but it is still far from the quality a dedicated DAC can produce. That signal is then amplified and sent to the loudspeakers. I am happy that I found a high-quality amp that possesses its own DAC. They are perfectly coordinated with each other and spare me the hassle of dealing with even more cables and connections. Loudspeaker cables are another hot topic amongst audiophiles. I never tried to see if fancy and expensive cables make a difference, but I am sure tiny thin wires are of little advantage, so I prefer something really thick, just to be sure.

audio folders and covers

Since I copied all my compact discs on to my laptop's hard disks and have only bought downloads ever since, my music collection is entirely stored and organized in folders. I never cared for ID tags, iTunes, libraries or the like. Why struggle with an additional, complicated, invisible organizing system, when the folder and file structure is already there and has to be used anyway? But, as visual attraction is also important to me, after years of looking at plain folder lists, I missed the impression a cover of an album or compact disc gives to a record. I began to carefully set cover images on each album folder and arranged the view accordingly.

Now, the reason as to how I came to producing this magazine and writing record reviews is that it became quite difficult to find good enough records for my super Hi-Fi equipment. Unfortunately, not many reviews in other classical magazines mention the audio recording quality. And then, one would think nowadays it has become so easy to compare different recordings online. You do not have to walk miles anymore, to find a record shop that has a large enough collection. But even online shops with high resolution audio only offer samples with compressed audio files and on high fidelity equipment, this does make a big difference. You may compare these samples regarding the interpretation of a work, but not for audio quality – therefore, only after the purchase of the high-res audio file will you know how it really sounds. And, I got picky, especially with Holst, Bruckner, Dvorak and Rachmaninov and spent a fortune on records that had been well reviewed but then resulted in sounding disappointing. Due to this, the idea of a review magazine, recommending the particular recordings of certain works in the best audio quality, was born.