New gear and software provide latest solutions to the drawbacks of digital sound

DAVID MAIALETTI / Staff Photographer
DAVID MAIALETTI / Staff Photographer
Posted: April 03, 2012

FOR A WHILE there, it seemed like serious "hi-fi" sound was going down for the count.

Digital music players, stressing cutes and convenience, have made bulkier - but better-sounding - CD players and discs seem old-school. Low-fi, DIY basement recordists suggest it's cool to cut corners on miking and studio acoustics, minor details that add so much warmth, realism and connection between music maker and listener.

And don't get me started about the chilly artificiality of the whole electronica/dance pop scene. Madonna's new polished-to-imperfection album, "MDNA," often auto-tunes (and thus drains) all personality from her voice.

But as long as humans have ears, brains and the ability to discern the great from the merely fair or mediocre, good sound eventually wins out. Especially with new gear and software that's turning casual listeners into perceptive critics.

Much credit and blessings should go to the gang behind Beats Audio (Dr. Dre, Jimmy Iovine and, until recently, accessories specialist Monster) for making it fashionable to wear big headphones that deliver far better performance than your average $2 (wholesale) Apple earbuds. "Happily for all, headphones have become a huge part of our business again," shared Bob Cole, an executive at local chain World Wide Stereo.

Now every other hi-fi brand is jumping on this bandwagon, from Polk to Panasonic, the latter reintroducing the Technics brand on DJ-style phones with turntable-platter-aping endcaps.

Such fashion statements go hand in hand with the surprising resurgence in vinyl record sales and pressings - another endorsement of quality over convenience. Sales of LPs were up 70 percent last year. And note that most special-edition offerings for this year's Record Store Day (April 21) will be vinyl pressings, including an ultra-retro crop of 10-inch LPs.

Also noteworthy was this past year's CD sales count, nearly holding steady while digital downloads were way up. We must largely thank cross-generational wonder Adele for that, and Amazon.com. The online retailer continues to sell CDs by the truckload, said a supplier, although big-box retailers such as Walmart and Costco are doing their best to kill the beast.

Even some in the streaming/download world are waking up to the fact that discerning listeners want better-quality sound. Higher-resolution streaming has become a big selling point for the subscription music service MOG, noted World Wide's Cole, who's hosting a "Digital Living" seminar April 19 at the Montgomeryville store. Good sound is also driving Apple's newly tweaked series of "Mastered for iTunes" releases, selling for the same price as other digital content.

Sounding off

Now this Gizmo Guy hopes to lend a hand and his ears to the cause with a periodic roundup of new releases that aren't just good music, but good-sounding recordings that promise new insights each time you play 'em again, Sam. Most in today's batch are actually "special projects," themed affairs on which extra care was taken at every step.

"The Hunger Games: Songs from District 12 and Beyond" (Universal): Steered by T. Bone Burnett, this Billboard No. 1 smash collection doesn't just set a properly eerie tone for the film. It also functions as a sonically finessed primer in high-tone indie rock, from the Decemberists and Arcade Fire to a surprisingly cranked-up Glen Hansard (the Frames, Swell Season). Blessed with a big budget, tracks have been immaculately executed to underscore how less really can be more.

"Once" (Masterworks Broadway): Speaking of the Dublin, Ireland-based Hansard and his Czechoslovakian-born, Swell Season partner Marketa Irglova, their semiautobiographical sleeper of a film, 2006's "Once," has been transferred to the Broadway stage in an utterly charming production and original cast album. What's not to love about a Celtic-folk-attuned saga that suggests music can save your life? The album was recorded, as the show is performed, in a simple, sitting-around-making-music fashion. All but one of the 13 actors also function as the onstage, all-acoustic band, swelling up the vocals of the dispirited musician (and "Hoover fixer-upper") played by Steve Kazee and his angelic muse, Cristin Milioti (who summons up a great Eastern European accent though she hails from Cherry Hill).

Adam Cohen, "Like a Man" (Decca): Reedy-voiced romantic Adam Cohen left me pondering "nature or nurture?" as he often sings and pulls the ladies like dad Leonard Cohen did in his youthful prime. Patrick Leonard's equally flirty production drops in flurries of cooing female vocals, vibey organ, wispy horns and supple strings that tickle the ears, then vanish in a wink.

Anoushka Shankar, "Traveller" (Deutsche Grammophon): The label's reputation for audiophile-grade recordings is well maintained on Shankar's sizzling DG debut. A globe-hopping collaboration between the sitarist and acclaimed producer/guitarist Javier Limón, "Traveller" traces the lineage of flamenco from India to Spain, as carried by the nomads who became known as Gypsies. Shankar and friends improvise off the same themes in concert Thursday at 8 at Longwood Gardens (more at www.longwoodgardens.org).

Lionel Richie, "Tuskegee" (Mercury): This kindhearted project commandeers Richie's catalog for warm, natural-sounding country reshapings with collaborators like Blake Shelton ("You Are"), Rascal Flatts ("Dancing on the Ceiling"), Willie Nelson ("Easy") and my fave, "Hello," (with the fire-breathing Jennifer Nettles). The bonus DVD takes you inside a first-rate studio.

Ray Chen, Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra, "Tchaikovsky, Mendelssohn Violin Concertos" (Sony): Nothing shows off the responsiveness (or lack of same) of earphones and loudspeakers like a well-recorded, confidently performed violin showpiece.

Trained locally at Curtis Institute of Music, the now 22-year-old Chen won the prestigious Queen Elizabeth Competition with his rendering of Tchaikovsky's only violin concerto.

It's chock-full of fast-paced intricacies that blur on lesser headphones (like the stylish though bass-heavy Sol Republic Tracks) but kick major butt on the Blue Ant Embrace (also the handsomest set of on-ear headphones, ever) or Sony's sparkling, in-ear XBA-3iP mini-headphones, which, at $299 list, cost more than an iPod Touch.

Oldies but goodies

Ironically, three newly uncovered vintage recordings helped goad me into this "good sounds that sound good" theme:

Janis Joplin, "The Pearl Sessions" (Columbia Legacy): Out April 17, it boasts a bonus disc of 1970 studio outtakes and conversation among Joplin, her producer and bandmates so startlingly good, funny and realistic it's as if you're hanging in the control room, too.

"Big Bands Live: Benny Goodman Orchestra featuring Anita O'Day": The 1959 session, recorded for German radio broadcast and newly issued in the United States on the Jazz Haus imprint, underscores the great precision of Teutonic audio tech, starting with their microphones.

Pete Seeger, "The Complete Bowdoin College Concert 1960" (Smithsonian Folkways): America's troubadour has never ever sounded better, recorded here with extraordinary fidelity and dynamic range by the campus radio station.

But be forewarned, maintaining the right playback volume level is maddeningly difficult in a noisy car environment.

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