Why aren't all CDs created equally?

The best part of my system upgrade, over this past year, is listening to music and hearing things (differently) for the very first time. You guys know the deal. I don't have to go there. What kills me, however, maybe more so now, then before, is that poor CDs are still poor--their inherent weaknesses even more highlighted. It's hard for me to get past the inadequacies of many CDs and just try to get into the music. I guess, the problem is, that after listening to, ie. Patricia Barber's CDs (which highlight what I've been trying to capture in my system) contrasted to a ho hum recording (which there are, frightfully, more) takes the wind out of my sails. I've paid a lot of money (for me that is) for those extended airy highs and, you know the rest, but they're just not there regardless of the system on many poorly recorded CDs. You can't listen to what's not there. The guys in the recording studios can't have tin ears, can they? Don't they hear what I hear? Perhaps the mass market really doesn't give a shit. I just don't get it. It's very frustrating. For older (jazz particulary) recordings and the like, I'm much more tolerant (though still frustrated by the poor sound), but new stuff? Anybody else relate? Can you suggest a good audio shrink to help me let go of this problem? Thanks in advance, guys...warren
P.S. And another corallary problem: when I get a shitty recording, (say, purchased from Tower Records) they don't let you return them anymore, due to the burning in thing. You used to be able, even after months, with a receipt, to return CDs. I get Beth Ortons new CD home, (Daybreaker-want to check her out) can't stomach the first four tracks. It's over. Her voice is so shrilly sounding and the music poorly recorded ( to my taste) I might as well chuck the Cd in the garbage. I'll give her a try again, but it's still very frustrating not being able to return it for an exchange. Anybody know where I buy CDs and return them, after being played, for credit toward other purchases? Sorry for all this rambling...
Warren, the more revealing your system becomes, the more it reveals the shortcomings in the software. This is one of those "double-edged swords" in that you can hear all of the good stuff in a great recording, but you also can hear all of the mediocrity in the others. The great sound greater and the bad sound worse.

This is true with any good revealing system, whether CD or vinyl is used as a format. A very good system will let you hear what is on the recording, and sometimes that isn't too pleasant.

A system that sounds the same with all CDs or records is at the lowest common denominator, and is not sounding really good with anything.
Thanks Tom. One response: and I feel better, already. I guess I should have remembered that, but still...When the discs are right my system soars, but, then again--there's just a lot of inferior software out there and my system like all of ours, just amplifies those crappy recordings. It can be horrific to my tympanics. It truly is a double edge sword. It's funny, but some recordings sound better, or at least more tolerable, on friends' stuff, because of the inferior quality of their system. Not a diss, but the facts. I guess it's like having a Ferrari in traffic. Man, is that clutch hard to depress. Keep the posts coming; I'm not quite cured yet...
About a few months ago, the same problem bothered me regarding inferior quality cds. It seems mass produced domestic US cds sounds worse than mass produced European and Asian cds. And, lets not even mention those BMG mail order cds.

I've purchased Meridian digital front end last year, and I really don't have the same problem anymore. Granted, Meridian aren't the most revealing cd front ends, but that might work in my favor. My previous front ends were CAL, and bad cds sounded very bad with that set up.
I agree the above comments,but would add that there are some incredibly effective tweeks that may influence your thoughts on CD(s). I suppose that I've tried most of them over the years with the most dramatic results coming from the Mapleshade group of items. Take a look at their web-site
and give it a try. If you've spent heavily to put together a great system it seems like a shame not to now maximize it.
First, read Twl's post again. Second, play the Beth Orton CD in your car, or on a boom box or compact system. I bet it sounds fine on a truly low resolution system. The current trend in mixing/mastering is to favor maximizing volume. Extremely aggresive techniques in limiting and frequency dependent compression are producing shrill sounding records. The engineers don't have tin ears, they actually know how bad the recordings sound, but commercial considerations are paramount as artist and record labels want that overhyped, squashed and loud radio sound.
brauser which mapleshade tweaks are you most wowed by ??
Hi Warren...I don't think all pop/rock engineers have "tin ears", but fidelity and resolution is not the main goal of most of them. They're after a "sound" and recording quality is not often a priority. Some really don't know and don't care...others are limited by budget, eqipment, artist's talent, etc. I think most audiophiles would be amazed if they knew what sort of systems many pop/rock albums are recorded and mixed on. When most studio monitors are discussed, I always hear "balanced" and "neutral" used to sell them..., but rarely "detailed" and never "resolving". Pop/rock albums are made using a whole different set of criteria which can, unfortunately, make them sound poor at times. In the end it's the music and what it communicates that matters most, and that's what most rock/pop engineers focus on.

It seems like most fidelity-focused engineers seem to go into classical, jazz, or some form of acoustic music that records well. I'm not saying that there aren't great rock recordings out there...there are...but the more electronic, mid-range heavy, distorted instruments used, the harder it is to record with audiophile-quality fidelity. Listen to any decently recorded rock album and you'll see what I mean. The spare, acoustic-based songs will sound amazing and the busier, more distorted, heavily multi-tracked songs will often sound congested, less transparent, and less hi-fi. Consider that and the fact that many modern pop/rock recordings are made in small pro studios (or home studios), and it makes sense that the sound quality is not the same as the Patricia Barber album.

All technical stuff aside, Patrica Barber and her band are amazing musicians. I'm not saying that pop/rock musicans are bad at all...it's just that pop/rock doesn't usually require (or necessarilly even want) the level of precise musicianship that her type of music does. I think that's one huge reason pop/rock albums don't often sound as good. I've heard more than one experienced engineer say something like "give me a good musician, playing a good instument, and I will give you a good recording".

Like Onhwy61 said, mastering techniques have also become more agressive and over compression is all too common these days. Oddly enough, most of the mastering suites are set up with fairly nice, audiophile quality systems, but they can only do so much if the recording is sub-par and the record label wants it highly compressed.
Have you tried "treating" your discs? Here in England I use both REVEEL and RELEES together and have no problem even on a fairly revealing set-up (Krell KAV300/ARC LS8II/ Quad 405-2). Check out www.russandrews.com exclusively. The other thing is your CD Player output usually 2v. or more would be overloading your Pre-amp input sensitivity 300mv or worse at 120-150mv. Also discs have different recorded levels. Do you find you cannot make much use of your volume control? The answer is to use an attenuated cable - see the Site. I have no connection with this Company - just a satisfied customer. Russ and his crew are music lovers unlike recording engineers.
There is something to be said for having a well balanced system, where each component compliments the others. Maybe you should aim for a system that makes the largest percentage of your software sound the best.

I guess I don't go with the theory that the most revealing system is automatically the best. If it makes a large number of CD's sound terrible, then maybe it should be considered the worst system.

Even if you listen to vinyl, do you want a system so revealing that it clearly broadcasts every defect, and every microscopic spec of dirt or scratch on an LP? Not me.

I do agree that many CD's are engineered poorly; or are engineered to sound good played on a boom box. They sound terrible on a good system.
Great points guys. I understand much better, now. Now, to find those killer label/recordings. Thanks again. I'm at peace.... temporarily, that is..
Check out this first page article

Kind of a bummer.
I have a system that I would consider "ruthlessly revealing". My previous system is now our living room system is much less so although still pretty hi fi. It never called attention to how bad some recordings can sound but it also never created the sense of realism that the new system can. Overall, I guess I've chosen to take the good with the bad and listen to the best system the vast majority of the time.

One thing that has helped me deal with the huge amount of variability between recordings is trying to take apologists approach to listening. If I can, I try to categorize recordings stylistically. Here's what I mean:

Photorealistic: Instruments are life-sized, spread across a soundstage as they would be in a live venue.

Technicolor: Instruments sound real yet are embellished by a larger than life soundstage. An example of this is the piano being spread over a 15-foot stage or drum sounds being farther apart that a pair of human arms could stretch.

Impressionistic: Pleasant yet unfocused instrument sounds in a large soundstage. I like to have at least one real sounding instrument in the mix to add some kind of point of reference.

Weird yet appropriate: Nothing sound very realistic but everything works in some sort of musical netherworld.

Raw: Unpolished yet crackling with at least some kind of energy. These are the best of the garage recordings.

Background: Music that was never meant to be the listening focus. Also, some of the ethereal stuff to fall asleep by.

Shitty: Everything else.

It would be nice if nothing were ever shitty but that's probably never going to happen considering the mass-market focus of the music industry.
Sugarbrie; good post. Poor digital recordings are a fact of life for reasons given above. My stereo system is all digital and the components/speakers are capable of high resolution, so to partially compensate for the many lousy recordings of otherwise good music, I've actually gone to the extent of "de-tuning" my system to some extent, ie I use only high quality copper speaker cables, ICs, AC outlets etc-- no silver; carefully chosen NOS tubes in pre-amp etc. Vibration contol or modification can also noticeably affect sonic character.

My bias is towards a slightly warm, rich sound-- even a bit dark and rolled off in the highs. All the above things, and others, help tame excess digital brightness, edge, hardness, glare, and other digital nasties, and well recorded digital still sounds very good.

Finally, there are some good sounding digital recordings out there too. Hang in there Warren. Cheers. Craig
Allow me to offer a slightly different perspective: If you are focusing on the sound above the music, something's wrong. *Most* of what I play is not recorded to anything like audiophile standards. The day I require that, will be the day I lose most of my best-loved music. I would still rather hear a substandard or low-fidelity recording played back on a good system than on a boombox. True, the boombox *could* hide some flaws, but it will do so by literally losing a lot of the signal content, the good and important along with the bad and irritating. As I have repeatedly posted before, as my system has improved over the years, I have consistently found that I am less and less bothered by poor quality recordings. Yes, I suppose I am also more aware of bad mastering jobs, etc., but I am also getting more of the music in return. I feel I have almost nothing in common with the mythical audiophile stereotype of someone who's system is so perfect, they can only tolerate playing 3 equally perfect recordings through it. My advice: Make your system as resolving and accurate as you can, and then listen to music you enjoy and forget about the sound. No, it won't sound perfect, but it never will. Learn to ignore the imperfections in the sound, and concentrate on receiving the communication of the artistry in the performance.
Musicans seem more concerned with the message in their performance, then how their performance sounded. I'm not saying they don't care how their performance sounds, most do, only it is secondary to the message.

Audiophiles seem more concerned with how the performance sounds, then the message. If it sounds GOOD a audiophile will listen to it. This is why an audiophile will listen to a wider variety of music, and require the ultimate from his play back system. How many of you listen to jazz, rock, and pop, also enjoy rap, funk, hiphop, and classical??

Do the musicans know what we crave and why, and do we (audiophiles) understand what they are trying to share with us???

What this has to do with warrenh's post I don't know. Try beveling and greening the edges. Also Revel works great to remove the mold release agent they use to get the discs to come out of mold. Then your favorite optical optimizer (I use LAT internationals C-diamond, its also an antistatic agent). Don't forget to degauss when finished. If you don't have these resources at your disposal I do. I live in CT. short hop from NYC. Email me

Some see the glass half full. Some see the glass half empty. I think the FREKIN glass is just too big!
Thanks Maxcast for the tip. I read the article. Very disheartening. It, truly is a "double edged sword." After listening, tonight, to Patricia Barbers, Modern Cool; I wish all my recordings, including Coltrane, Davis, Parker and the like, could be of "that quality." I was talking to an audiogoner about "getting" female vocal right.---from miking to all the other technicalities that can make for a great recording. It's a jungle out there. That's another thing entirely. Speaking of another thing entirely:
Rather, than start a new thread, while I have YOU guys here: what are some of the absolute pristine, state of the art, what- we- want- a- CD- to- do, recordings, that do it for you?
Zaikesman...I agree with you. I purchase recordings based on the performance only. I have a (couple) good systems because I want them to sound as good as possible. Sounding good does not mean going for the highest detail, resolution, etc. Musical rightness is my goal.

This is the one reason I have not gotten on the SACD bandwagon. I do not hardly any SACD software to my liking to justify the expense.
Zaikesman, I agree with your message and I don't mean to come off as an audiophile who can't be happy with anything but the best quality sound out there. But I think the common denominator of complaints against the quality of many recordings is that we know what's possible and it's frustrating that it is unattainable so often - especially when the performances are right on.
Since upgrading to reference quality monitors...I have become..for better or worse... more selective in my recent recording purchases...and have enlarged my jazz and string quartet collections...I dont expect much from big time commerical releases...they are geared for the average consumer...who is anything but an audiophile....
What are some of those pristine jazz cds?
The problem is that most people's boomboxes and MTX subwoofers can't play CD's clean enough for producers to bother making them sound good for the small percentage of people who have higher-end audio gear. I am especially aware of this because I listen to a lot more (dare I say) popular recordings. They also seem to have gone out of their way to cut off everything not in the 20-20k hz range on redbook CD's. This and the liberal use of compressors keeps the dynamics monotone, and the frequency range small. Keep in mind too that a lot of studio's can't afford the costs involved in doing all the extra work to make a recording sound really good to the 1% of listeners who can tell.
I can totally resonate with your experience - some CDs are so fine they tingle your spine, and others beg to be skipped over. I too have a high definition system and share your selection of Patricia Barber "Modern Cool" as one of my favorite high quality recordings.
I find that sometimes I am looking for an emotional experience triggered more by the quality of the sound, than the content of the composition. When this mood kicks in I reach for Barber, Krall, Cassidy, Allyson, Horn and Monheit and love every piece of equipment I picked that can bring it to me.
Other times I am interested in exploring a genre or an artist or a period and get totally absorbed in the mechanics and form of the music. At that point I could be listening to almost any system (OK, I'm sure I would draw the line well above a boom box) and still be satisfied.
Becoming aware of my listen intent helps me be more patient of the quality of the CDs. It might work for others as well?

TWL said it exactly!
This is the "curse" of hi-end audio! The better your system gets, the more intolerant you get of mass-fi CDs 'cuz the more your system reveals the flaws in the CD recording & mastering process. It is true, to a large extent, that the public doesn't care a damn about this & is happy to listen & enjoy (!) compressed digital audio.
2ndly, by embarking on this audiophile path, you have educated yourself about the nuances of sound, you are more aware about what to listen for in the bass, in the mids & in the highs. You probably go to concerts & pay close attention to how a drum sounds, how a trumpet sounds, how a flugelhorn sounds, etc & then you try to listen to it on your system & see if it can reproduce that same "live" timbre. The frustration must be high when the system doesn't oblige!
3rdly, and this is a general statement!, ill designed speakers can make your misery worse but creating extra phase shifts from their complicated x-overs. You know that music is NOT just about amplitude of the fundamental & its harmonics, right? It is EQUALLY about the phase of that fundamental & those harmonics. Minimum phase & time-coherent speakers allow you to listen to your bad & worse recordings with much more tolerance because you will be hearing *only* the bad CD recording & not the distortion of the speakers multiplied into that! If you feel that you can only play "pristine jazz CDs" - as your post above - take a long hard look at your speakers &/or their placement. They *could* be creating more damage than you are aware of.
Mmmmm I do agree to an extent on more popular releases but I buy a lot of new music albeit not usually mainstream than do seem to be recorded with a fair bit of care and attention.
I've also started another thread on a related topic that should appear soon.