Did Redbook get it right?

I've always felt a tension between the narrative that a) the Redbook spec murdered music, probably in cahoots with greedy plastic vendors, and b) the great respect I've had for engineers I have worked with. I would think they knew what they were doing, considering the stakes and the state of their art at the time.

I leaned towards the murder/greed scenario, especially as my original Sony 520-ES CD player presented a fleshless corpse of Joni's Blue album, and the few high-end players of the time I tried, like the Enlightened Audio, seemed to fail at resurrection.

I've reconsidered. If I rip my CD's to FLAC, feed a Benchmark DAC over USB, and into my tube amplification, I am stunned by how good and satisfying many CD's sound. I have no desire to fire the Linn Sondek back up. I have no sense of things missing. Sure, there are many crap CD's, but is any of that stink coming from Redbook spec? Some newer CD's simply stun. I not into country, but something like the Mavericks' In Time CD is acoustically complete and fully fleshed.

I've been over to HDTracks and Acoustic Sounds to download hi-rez versions, and I can feel the pull to feed my rig the best I can buy. It's such a good story, easily embraced by the audiophile mind, but I'm increasingly wondering if it is all marketing razzle-dazzle...more, denser, higher...and in the end, Redbook got it right, and the new DACs finally do it justice.

Always with an open mind, and there's much better gear than mine, but I'm newly impressed by the original Spec.
I agree that Redbook as a format can deliver very high quality sonics. But it took years to develop the hardware that could read all the information on these disks so that Redbook could satisfy audiophiles.
Case in point, ARC has devoted their digital technology to getting the most out of Redbook.

So I agree with you, back in 1984ish the problem was not these shiny disks, it was the reproduction technology and the burning of CDs out of spec.
i personally think you are correct Electroslacker that redbook CD got it right from the get-go & that it's taken us 20-30 yrs to figure out how to make playback systems that can give us a high SQ without "digititis". Listening to a well made CD thru a non-oversampling DAC makes the point to me...
The engineers at the time knew very well that the spec was inadequate, but the Marketing departments ran the show. The amount of music that could be crammed on a disc was the deciding factor at the time.

06-03-15: Lloydc
The engineers at the time knew very well that the spec was inadequate, ....
Lloydc, on what basis do say that the "spec was inadequate"? thanks.
The way I remember it, when CD was developed, the directive was for it to be able to fit a whole symphony on one CD. It might have been even spec'd on Beethoven's Ninth. So they essentially worked backwards on sampling rate to figure out what was the highest rate they could use in order to still be able to fit the music on one disc.

If that directive wasn't there, they could have for example doubled the sampling rate with two CD's required for the same amount of music.

Way back in the early 80's, that was the story that was being told and there was a lot of screaming about how the 44.1khz rate was a big compromise.
I was only an entry level engineer back then, but I was also told that the mandate was to fit an entire symphony on one disk; Beethoven's Ninth being the longest running length.
There's nothing wrong with Redbook. If its good enough for Manfred Eicher, its good enough for everyone.
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>>"I was also told that the mandate was to fit an entire symphony on one disk; Beethoven's Ninth being the longest running length."<<

They never heard of Mahler?! :-)
Way back in the early 80's, that was the story that was being told and there was a lot of screaming about how the 44.1khz rate was a big compromise.
IIRC the origin of 44.1KHz had to do with the fact that digital masters were sent to the pressing plants on Sony 1630 U-Matic videotape, and 44.1KHz is a workable sampling rate for both PAL- and NTSC-format units to put three audio samples in each line of video.

But most of the early pro digital recorders and devices used sampling rates from 32KHz to 50KHz, in depths from 12 to 16 bits. In this, there's some great-sounding gear (a particular Weiss delay comes to mind), some horrible-sounding gear (I'm thinking of an early Lexicon delay), and some stuff that can go either way depending on how it's used (like the 3M Digital Mastering System). There was (and remains) no simple, constant correlation between the exact sampling rate or bit depth and the sound quality of the unit.

Personally, I think the Red Book standard hits a beautiful compromise on a whole slew of engineering criteria, especially when you consider all the challenges for the media and hardware manufacturing that had to be met for it to become adopted on a worldwide mass-market scale. It's easy to look with hindsight and think they should have done this or that differently, but one can do that just as easily (and brutally) with the LP format. The engineers of the time of course realized that it had its limitations, but they designed a music format that is remarkably durable, reliable, convenient, consistent, and economical . . . and if care is taken in the production and playback processes, it can sound really good too.

Suppose that instead the CD was i.e. 8 inches in diameter, and based around 88.2KHz/20bit PCM, extremely robust parity-based error correction with buffering, an S/PDIF interconnection standard with a separate word clock, etc. etc. etc. The question is, would this format be so good as to have completely avoided the whole "digital-vs.-analog" polarization?

I think the obvious answer is that it wouldn't . . . and as audiophilia is so rampant with binary (sic) debates, this was going to happen no matter what. The same personalities would get into the same arguments, and today be talking about how nothing stripped the "soul" from the music like that sinister conspiracy that brought us 88.1KHz/20-bit audio.
I was thinking exactly as Kirkus was - the 44.1KHz rate came from TV/video scan rates.
Good post, Kirkus.
So digital wasn't perfect right out of the starting gate. Was the first turntable?
I think we were lucky to get Redbook quality digital. At the time, the technology didn't exist to do things like lossy compression. If the industry waited to release a digital format, we may have gotten MP-3 instead.

In my view Redbook did get it right, but it's only fully realized when played with correctly implemented R2R Multibit Ladder Dac convertors running with todays far better I/V stage setups.

Not when Redbook is played through 1 Bit, Bitstream, Sigma Delta, or ESS convertors, then it sounds at best, average.

Cheers George
The technology simply had to catch up with the format. Isn't that just about true with all things?

All the best,

Correct, I/V stages going back in the days of R2R Ladder Multibit dacs, were opamps with negative feedback, no matter how good the opamp was, the negative feedback couldn't handle the very high frequency glitches noise and other rubbish that came out of them.

Today we now know to use active I/V stages that don't use feedback, and they then can make these old R2R Multibit dacs really come to life.

Passive I/V resistors for R2R Multibit are ok, but they kill the output too much, so the next stage has be amplified too much to get anywhere near 2v, trouble is that the noise and crap gets boosted along with it and you end up with it on the output.

The best Multibit dac with good I/V stage I've heard is the PCM1704 followed by the PCM1702 then the TDA1541

Cheers George
George, what DACs that you know of use multibit chips and no negative feedback, old or new. I have two digital sources right now that use PCM 1704 but not sure whether or not they use negative feedback.

I too like the TDA 1541 and also the PCM-63PK.
Hi Clio, I use a Cary 303/200 which has the 24bit R2R Ladder PCM1704K chips, and it also has the PMD-200 HDCD filter as well as (switchable) copy of the DF1704 in DSP form.

It also used OPA627 I/V which had feedback, but I completely gutted the I/V, filtering, buffer and XLR opamps.
And now I use the I/V stage that I started a thread for over here (linked). It was also used earlier but I believe not fully exploited and slightly differently by Peja Rojic of Audial and Charles Hansen of Ayre. I also implemented a golden oldie for the output buffer, a BUF03 pure class A zero feedback unity gain stage.
The whole setup is now dc coupled and feedback free from the PCM1704 dac's outputs to the output rca's of the cdp.


Cheers George
It's right if you get a good recording. I don't listen to much digital anymore, but this morning I was listening to MA Recordings Bach Cello Suites on my EAR Acute CD player and I was shaking my head on how good it sounded.
Listen to a CD. Then listen to the same piece on cassette. Case closed.
I agree now with my current set-up that Redbook got it right from the outset. That said, it took me about 20 years to get the hardware right! How did I realise this? - let's consider some nirvana points.

1. When the glass ceiling that seems to stop musical notes from soaring to as high as they should simply disappears
2. A magic coupling of a holographic soundstage plus airy/sparkling highs, with solid instrumental body/colour/tone - before nirvana, you can't seem to have too much of one without too little of the other
3. A very natural organic cut-from-the-same-cloth continuousness to the music
4. Utterly musical - you 'get' the artistry and message of the musician by being able to feel the ebb and flow of the music that constitutes the core of "musicalness"; your head bobs or sways, your feet tap reflexively, uncontrollably - the PRAT thing.

When all the above 4 elements conjoin - it's nirvana! And you will know it when that happens simply because you have been in this hobby long enough to tell. The good news is you do not need hi-res to achieve this.

Yes, the best of Redbook can indeed equal the best of hi-res.
Cheers! J.
Your last statement - how can you even think of that? The audio gods will be so mad at you!
But hey, enjoy your music in any case ;-)
That last statement was made in the context of my current set-up which is a pairing of a high end transport with a "low end" hi-res dac. I can only imagine what a high end hi-res dac will do for hi-res material.
The point is that redbook hardware technology has improved so much today that one can truly enjoy redbook without replacing it all with hi-res.
Meanwhile, I shall patiently wait for that dream high end hi-res dac that comes with a spdif input for my high end transport and a usb A-port for a portable solid state drive, with no need for any of the computer/streaming paraphernalia.
Cheers! J.
Milpai, I say Jon2020 has got it right.
Especially if one has got it right using a Dac with old school R2R lader Multibit dac chips like the PCM1704 d/a convertors, not these far cheaper to manufacture bitstream (Deta Sigma, ESS ect) type of dacs that are used today

Cheers George
Yes, George, the Marantz NA8005 uses the multibit delta-sigma CS4398 chip :-



Cheers! J.
But Jon, your Esoteric K-01 is contributing greatly to the terrific sound of your digital setup. The design of this unit to accurately read the disk cannot be understated.
This is what we've been talking about; the evolution of playback gear to get excellent SQ from Redbook. I'd love to hear your system.
Yes, Lowrider, the retrieval of data by the transport has been said more than a few times by those in the industry, to be more important than the processing of data by the dac(garbage in, garbage out, I guess).
And yes, you are certainly welcome to my humble home for a listen. The only problem is that I live on the other side of the globe but if you happen to drop by, it would be my immense pleasure....
Cheers! J.
From my system and the nature of my post it should have mde you aware that I do enjoy my digital rig a lot. I don't care for the medium or the formats nor their resolution. If at the end of the day, if a CD gives me more thrill than a SACD, then so be it.
Currently don't have time for that. Maybe in a few years I will become that :-)))
Thanks for the informative comments.

ZD542: Yes, we probably dodged a bullet by lossy compression coming after Redbook.

Jon2020: Your description mirrors my own experience. For me, I gasped when the individual instruments had air around them in a 3D sound stage.

George: Thanks for technical viewpoint.

The only point of diversion is that in my system, the sound improved markedly when I moved from a (rather old) Wadia transport to sourcing from computer memory. Technically, I think computers can be a better source, and would never buy another CD spinner as the playback source.

A happy ripper.


Agree with you about not buying another CD spinner. For me, I will use the K-01 as transport until it croaks and that's it. Replacing parts would most certainly be a costly affair. When that happens, I will probably go for the Antipodes DX server which comes with a slot for ripping. The server connects to any usb DAC. So, it looks like I will be furiously ripping in the near future. :)

Here is a great review of the Antipodes DX :-