Melba Recordings

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Terry Lane


Back in 1963 the Deutsche Grammophon record company created a recording milestone with a complete cycle of Beethoven's symphonies performed by the Berlin Philharmonic orchestra under the baton of Herbert von Karajan.

The record set of eight LPs was nicely packaged in a handsome box and cost so much that I bought mine by instalment from Time-Life in 1970, the bi-centenary of Beethoven's birth.

The recording project cost DG 1.5m Deutschmarks and the head of a rival recording company predicted that the company was headed for a catastrophic financial collapse because they needed to sell an unprecedented 100,000 sets to break even. Within ten years they had sold 1 million boxes, including mine, and the recordings have never been out of the catalogue in the 54 years since they were first pressed. And they have been available in every recording medium that has been developed from the LP up to Pure Audio Blu-Ray, the version I am listening to as I write this.

Spread out in front of me I have all the symphonies on Compact Disc and Super Audio CD and, most miraculously, all the symphonies plus a rehearsal session of the Ninth on a single Pure Audio BluRay disc which costs about $25 and will play on any Blu-Ray player. There is also a recently remastered set of LPs for analogue-philes with a spare $250 in the pocket. The LPs come in a box which is a facsimile of the original 1963 release. The symphonies are also available in HiRes FLAC (lossless SACD quality) download for about $55. But no Edison wax cylinder, as far as I know.

This is an intriguing opportunity to consider the analogue versus digital argument. While most of us have been content with the little silver discs, the analogue true believers reasoned that we hear sound as waves that cannot be recorded and reproduced in all their subtlety by a system that turns the pure wave into a series of steps represented by numbers. The problem with compact discs was that the sampling rate was too low – there were not enough numbers to make for an approximation of a smooth curve. Nuances of sound, such as the feathery overlay of the strings or the reverberation decay of a fortissimo note were lost and the sound was artificial and metallic, “lacking air”. Or so the argument went.

That was then, this is now, where we have Super Audio CDs ($66 for the six disc boxed set) that are made with a higher sampling rate than the original CDs. In tech talk the CD is 44.1kHz/16 bit recording and SACD is 96kHz/24 bit. In the real world of listening can we tell the difference? It’s one of those moot points we hear about.

In September 2007 “the Audio Engineering Society published the results of a year-long trial, in which a range of subjects including professional recording engineers were asked to discern the difference between SACD and a compact disc audio (44.1 kHz/16 bit) conversion of the same source material under double blind test conditions. Out of 554 trials, there were 276 correct answers, a 49.8% success rate corresponding almost exactly to the 50% that would have been expected by chance guessing alone.” (Wikipedia) A later test showed that when the volume was increased significantly the correct answer rate rose.

The Blu-Ray disc is made at the same sampling rate as the SACD but has the “Pure Audio” treatment and it sounds splendid, as well as having the convenience and economy of all the symphonies on a single disc. Does it sound better?

 I can hear a slight difference between the CD and the Blu-Ray but this is not necessarily due to the disc quality. The CD is played on a player that sends the digital stream via optical connector to the amplifier where the digital to analogue conversion is done. The Blu-Ray disc is played on an expensive Oppo player and the DAC is in the player and the audio signal is sent as analogue to the amplifier. It is not strictly comparing like with like. I prefer the SACD/Blu-Ray experience, but this could just be because, being more expensive, it has to be better. Ridiculous, I know, but isn’t this how we treat all consumer products? We get what we pay for – we hope.

Which brings us back to the long playing vinyl records. Why are people (a few, anyway – called “retro adopters”) prepared to pay a premium price for old fashioned technology, sent to the scrapheap in 1982? The answer is complicated and I, as one of the back to the future romantics, have difficulty putting it into words.

There is something luxurious and voluptuous about an LP, well pressed and in pristine condition. No one wants snap, crackle and pop, but when the surface is perfect the old tech still produces a satisfying listening experience. It is certainly not as accurate and well defined as a digital disc but it has a beguiling warmth and airiness that is irresistible. Perhaps it is agreeable distortion and interchannel crosstalk that appeals. It is certainly not the nuisance and inconvenience of having to turn the disc over and then change it for another in order to hear the entire Ninth that we miss. In the end it comes down to this: I just like it.

It is a tribute to the DG engineers and producers who created the analogue tape master recordings that five decades later we are using them as the basis of a comparison of reproduction technology. The LPs have given me much pleasure over the years and drawn me deeper into the sound world of Beethoven, and I will return to them from time to time for auld lang syne, but from now on it will be the Pure Audio Blu-Ray or SACD disc that will be my preferred medium. So cheap, so convenient and such excellent sound.

ONE MORE THING: As splendid as the Karajan Beethoven performances are, when it comes to the Fifth and the Seventh there is another must-have recording for the collection. In 1975 and 1976, in the last days of analogue recording, DG recorded these two symphonies with the Vienna Philharmonic under the direction of Carlos Kleiber. In reaching for adequate adjectives to describe these stunning performances the best I can do is blazing and electrifying. The extraordinary thing is that, no matter how well you think you know the Fifth, hearing this recording is like hearing it for the very first time.

Technically the recording is a marvel and DG have released new LP pressings, a hybrid SACD/CD version and a Blu-Ray Pure Audio disc. Listening for the differences made by thirteen years of development of recording technology the obvious improvement is in the string sound. In 1975 the strings are smoother, feathery, without a trace of wiriness. Individual instruments are even more precisely defined. [I could not find the SACD in Australia and had to order it from overseas. Unbelievable!]


Amplifier: Rotel RA-1570 stereo integrated amplifier
Blu-ray/SACD/CD player: Oppo BDP-103AU
CD Player [digital stream output]: JVC XL Z232
Turntable: Luxman PD 310
Tone arm: Stax
Cartridge: Grace Moving Coil
Phone Pre-amp: Tube Box DS valve
Loudspeakers: TDL Transmission Line
Headphones: Sennheiser HD700