mastering vs room and synergy of equipment

Let me just say as a music fan and an audiophile on the digital not analog side, I had some preconceived notions that certain cd were mastered well and some were mastered poorly. I have recently built a listening room and changed my equipment around and have discovered almost startingly that many of the cds whose mastering left me uninvolved and unable to listen for years are now good sounding and quite enjoyable. Now one can still tell that the cd could sound better and then be great but it sounds real nice.

My theory is that for some mediocre mastering, the quality of the room and the quality and synergy of the equipment used can make even mediocre mastering enjoyable. While the adage is that high quality products reveal the source limitation, I would remark that high quality products with synergy in a neutral not harsh sounding room provide a transparent, real sounding soundstage that can be accurate and warm sounding with no fatigue.

I am fortunate in that my choice of preamp and amplifiers now are tremendously transparent with a great deal of warmth. The dartzeel preamp and amplifier connected with a bnc cable is simply stunning especially for vocals and midrange detail. the most important thing when combined with the new reference marantz cd player 7sa-1 is that it sounds so organic and harmonious. I also purchased the wonderful evolution acoustic speakers with their own built-in amplified woofer so to allow the amp to just focus on the mid-range and not have to do the heavy lifting of the low-end too.

Anyway, the cds that I tested were the following:

1. First, I tested Prince - 1999. As far as I know this has never been remastered. Previously, the cd sounded flat and muddy. Now, the cd sounds lean and mean. Sure, I can easily imagine it sounding better with a proper remastering but its very listenable now.

2. Second, I tested Radiohead Bends. This is a fantastic album that has never been remastered. Its not that old but frankly some of the more rocking tunes did not sound that great before. The ballads and mid-tempo songs sounded great. Now one can still hear limitations but wow it really rocks.

3. Franz Ferdinand - self-titled. This is a great indie modern album that must have been produced and mastered on the cheap side. However, now its not sounding digital and compressed. It still would be nice to have full dynamics but very enjoyable.

I will be trying the flat sounding neil young harvest compilation to see how that fares next.

It is likely that there are some recordings that if they are badly compressed past some point that they will not sound good but so far so great.

Perhaps my equipment now has some of the warmth of analog without the glare of digital and has made in a relaxed neutral room the ability to just make almost anything sound good.

My point is that while modern mastering does appear to be getting worse and worse, we can still do things at home to make even the new releases sound good. I would urge people to make sure that reflections off windows, walls, floors, and ceilings are not exacerbating the poor mastering of recordings. I would also encourage people to find equipment that has an accurate but warm sound. Don't believe the hype that all digital is the same. Sure you can go all vinyl but lets face it, its more expensive to buy high quality vinyl and even with more offerings it still is lacking compared to availability of cd titles. Lets not even start to consider how much more expensive a great turntable, tonearm, and cartridge is and the need for good vinyl cleaning tools. Plus the cartridge needs to be replaced every few years. So if you got the bucks for both, do it otherwise don't give up on cds. The dacs and players have become so much better in the last couple years. Remember cd players have only been around since the 80's and record players have been around for a long long time.


Mike, could you tell us about your DAC and transport. A friend (Ric Schultz) told me that you replaced your EMM equipment with something new that's a stunning advance.

I'd like to read all I can about the best in hi rez digital. I've been relatively heavy into vinyl, but last fall I bought a 5.6 mHz DSD recorder that stunned me with it's accuracy on playback. I'm now seeking that for my CDs, SACDs and DVD-As. I've made some big steps forward, but I think there's a level left to explore. Ric thinks that you're one of the guys truly exploring the limits.


Oh, I forgot, do you have a link to your system description?

A poor choice of room can indeed make for a muddy fatiguing sound - I quite agree. You can also lessen the harshness from bad mastering by depressing the midrange and playing at lower volume levels. Some "hot" overcompressed CD's initially sound good and snappy at low volumes - it is when you increase teh volume that the distortion becomes more evident.

Great the you are finally enjoying your CD's. I like Franz Ferdinand for the music but only in the car as it was badly bad as Arctic Monkeys, IMHO.

I sold the emm labs primarily to finance the purchase of the dartzeel preamp to use with the dartzeel amplifier. Since I needed a new cd player but with a limited budget I bought the reference marantz sa-7s1 cd player. Its well built, quiet, and very natural and organic sounding. I like it alot. I am not sure its better than the emm labs but its certainly a quieter transport. I would say the emm labs is a little more digital sounding but a little more detailed. Of course, hard to tell since I changed the preamplifier and cable (bnc) that connect to the amplifier.

If my budget could be stretched, I would try the mps-5 which just came out from one of the architects of the emm labs original dac/transport. Its available through Jonathan Tinn and Chambers Audio. According to Mikelavigne its easily bests the emm labs and hopefully will have none of the transport issues that the emm labs has had. For a more limited budget especially used though the marantz is probably near impossible to best