Chesky SACDs and DVD-As

Chesky SACD227 (hybrid stereo and multi-channel SACD)
Chesky CHDVD 216 (6.0 channel DVD-Audio)
Chesky SACD225 (hybrid stereo and multi-channel SACD)
Chesky SACD223 (hybrid stereo and multi-channel SACD)
Chesky CHDVD222 (6.0 channel DVD-Audio)
Chesky Records – bless ’em – never shirks from the challenge of a new format. Brother Norman is a canny businessman who doesn’t want to miss a sale, while Brother Dave is the musician who loves playing with new technologies which might make sound reproduction in the home that much more realistic. It is this open-mindedness that has enabled Chesky to be among the first of very few record labels prepared to allow us to compare the two new formats – SACD and DVD-A – with the same titles in both forms.

But don’t think for a moment that it’s clear-cut. My own problem in comparing SACD with DVD-A stems from not having one of the few ‘universal’ players on the market, so I don’t know if any differences I’m hearing are due to the formats or the players. I use a Rotel RDV-1080 for DVD-Audio and a Philips SACD-1000 for SACD, both machines fed (full time!) in multi-channel mode through the amazingly useful Sony P9000ES multi-channel pre-amp. Setting up the discs to the second and switching from one to the either via remote is as good as it gets, but you can’t escape the fact that one is via Philips and one is via Rotel. Oh, to have two Pioneer 747s!

It doesn’t stop there. Not discounting the slight output difference – SACD seems a touch louder – the Chesky titles aren’t exactly ‘perfect’ for demonstrating one format against the other because they’re optimised for Chesky’s non-standard multi-channel array. While I’ve heard it to great effect in Chesky’s fabulous studio, I am not prepared to rip apart my system, ditch the centre channel, move a few massive Martin Logans, just for a handful of CDs. So I played these through a classic 5.1 array. Sorry, Dave.

There’s more which mitigates against using these to help you determine which format is better, at least in multi-channel terms. Because the Cheskys are purist audiophiles who loathe gimmicks, they employ the rear channels as they should be employed for music (if not for feature films). Simply put, the rear channels in Chesky sessions are there for ambience, not for sound effects beloved of pot smokers and acid droppers. In fact, the David Johansen disc, which I don’t have yet on DVD-A, is so subtly enhanced by the rear channels that switching from stereo to surround yielded so little a change that I wondered if the rear speakers were even on.

But that’s as it should be for a gutsy, blues-based studio session…unless you’re of the school which suggests that the listener should sit in the middle of a performance. But the extra channels do open the sound and help to fill the room convincingly – with atmosphere rather than sound. This applies, too, to the rather eerie Christy Baron disc, the sort of title aimed at those who love female jazz vocalists not afraid to go out on a limb. Baron likes to experiment – I didn’t even recognise her take of ‘Tomorrow Never Knows’ as the Beatles song I’ve adored for three-plus decades, nor any of the other standards – but it is captivating and not for the faint-hearted. Here I preferred the SACD, but only marginally. This disc is not the one to help you decide which format is better or which machine to buy. Rather, its presence allows you to buy either – oh, if all titles were released in both forms!

I suspect, though, that the Bucky Pizzarelli will be the disc to find the greatest number of homes, and two copies in each. That’s because this tribute to Benny Goodman does what the title says: it swings. You have a magnificent live recording featuring the drumming of Bernard Purdie – never sounding better nor carry so much weight and moving so much air. The music, though not something to satisfy Sun Ra crazies, is utterly infectious in a Jazz At The Pawnshop way. Hell, it’s the best example I’ve heard of an old-style ‘audiophile disc’ in a couple of decades.

But will it end the format wars? No. This disc actually sounded a shade cleaner in DVD-A form, warmer as an SACD, and just as satisfying as a 2-channel CD. Could I choose between them? Not until I tried them on a universal player, at the very least. But with discs such as these, both SACD and DVD-A sound viable. Looks like we’re back to Square One, then.

(Audiophile Sound, 2002)