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A view on Blu-ray Audio discs by Daniel Lalla

Supertramp - Breakfast in America [Blu-ray Audio]  

 

  

  

 

Review by Gary Tooze

 

Producer: Universal Music Group

 

Disc:

Region: FREE! (as verified by the Oppo Blu-ray player)

Total Music time: 0:45:57.755

Disc Size: 5,675,238,901 bytes

Bitrate: Audio is encoded at 24/96 (24 bit depth and 96kHz sampling rate)

Chapters: 10 (one per song)

Case: Transparent Blu-ray case

Release date: October 30th, 2013

 

Audio:

LPCM Audio English 4608 kbps 2.0 / 96 kHz / 4608 kbps / 24-bit
DTS-HD Master Audio English 3653 kbps 2.0 / 96 kHz / 3653 kbps / 24-bit (DTS Core: 3.0 / 48 kHz / 1509 kbps / 24-bit)
Dolby TrueHD Audio English 3049 kbps 2.0 / 96 kHz / 3049 kbps / 24-bit (AC3 Embedded: 2.0 / 48 kHz / 640 kbps
)

 

Extras:

A foldout with photos and lyrics and extensive description of the recording process of the album. A paper with a code to access the Blu-ray disc digital downloads online
Produced By: Supertramp and Peter Henderson

 

Supertramp - Breakfast in America Track Listing:
1. Gone Hollywood (05:18.35)
2. The Logical Song (04:08.91)
3. Goodbye Stranger (05:47.93)
4. Breakfast in America (02:37.69)
5. Oh Darling (04:03.15)
6. Take the Long Way Home (05:08.89)
7. Lord Is It Mine (04:06.78)
8. Just Another Nervous Wreck (04:21.92)
9. Casual Conversations (02:57.01)
10. Child of Vision (07:27.07)

 

Comparison material:
Canadian CD (CD 3708, A&M Records) circa 1990
Japan SHM-CD Demo Disc from December 2008 "Have You Ever Been Experienced? SHM-CD Compilation Volume 3: Rock Edition” (UICY 91296) - This demo disc includes a regular CD and an SHM (Super High Material) CD which is supposed to have improved optical properties for better bit extraction by CD players.
Japan SHM-SACD (UIGY-9536)
UK Deluxe Edition from 2010 (0600753304389) includes a second disc with live songs from 1979, some not appearing on the live album Paris.

 

Bitrate:

 

 

Album:Breakfast in America’ is Supertramp’s sixth studio album: They were a band at the top of their game. The resulting 120 date world tour, double-live album (‘Paris’) and massive popularity of this record resulted in some conflict which was to result in a strained 7th album (‘…Famous Last Words…’) and an ultimate schism within the band. But what a record it was: it is sadly regarded as the ‘last great’ Supertramp album. Beautifully written, wistful. Wonderfully performed and recorded, I chose this as an album for review for DVDBeaver because of the intersection of (1) potentially wonderful source material and (2) a promising new Blu-ray Audio format.


RIAA Sales: Quadruple platinum.

Singles: 4 in the USA, 2 in the UK

Awards: 2 Grammys 1980 - Best Engineered Recording, Non classical and Best Album Package

Charting: Number 1 in the USA for 6 weeks. Number 1 in Canada, Austria and Australia.

Interesting trivia : This album is the best-selling English album of all time in France (and 3rd overall there) . Supertramp has always had a huge following in France as well as French-speaking Quebec. Their albums seem to chart and sell better outside of the UK. The Paris recording was apparently chosen for the live album release as a thank you to the French fans and apparently Montreal was also an option for that selection.

 

 

The Album:

Ironically, this album was to have been called ‘Hello Stranger’ and concentrate on the differing beliefs and contrasting styles of songwriters Davies and Hodgson. The album was to represent a back-and-forth dialogue between the two, also reflecting their habit of writing songs independently but with a mutually chosen theme. Instead, they chose for a lighter ‘fun’ look and feel. There are conflicting reports of Davies’ and Hodgson’s interactions during the recording, ranging from ‘friendly' and 'never-better', to quiet, non communicative and strained. We still don’t know all the relative contributions of each to the album, as they are contractually both listed as writers on all songs, but they refer to a rough 5 and 5 split. Like many classic bands, artistic contributions and differences seemed to make this album greater than the sum of its parts. The fun portrayal of the US on the cover and in some of the track material was not a dig at Supertramp’s American members but as a tribute and theme of sorts. If you are a fan of Supertramp, you know all of these songs. If you are new to them, you can do no better than to choose this album as a wonderful representation of their art. If your tastes in music run towards darker or more serious themes, perhaps ‘Even in the Quietest Moments’ or ‘Crime of the Century’ would be best. Critics have always derided the band for a degree of self pity in the songwriting, but the human condition does not lend itself to unbridled joy. On a personal note, this was the album of my 13th summer. I wore out a cassette tape that traveled with me everywhere, including my first trip to Europe. It was an excellent traveling companion. The cover’s portrayal of New York city before 9/11 is a bittersweet reminder of the WTC and what already seems like another era to most of our generation.

Audio: Audio reviewing risks always being highly subjective. I think it is nonetheless best to report subjective real-world impressions first and try to provide supporting data by analysis if possible. You work hard for your money and when deciding on innumerable formats I believe you should have the information to make an empowered decision. The record companies should also work hard for your dollars and strive to provide you with value and make good-faith efforts to use technologies available to offer you the best. This review will be slightly longer to illustrate a few points about modern digital audio.

On initial listening, as with many modern releases, Breakfast in America [Blu-ray] sounds bright and slightly louder than original CD releases. With prolonged listening however, it seemed slightly grating. Fan reviewers on Amazon had conflicting opinions. One reviewer went so far as to retract an initial impression and withdraw his approval of this release. I think that was telling as it was my exact reaction. So off to some analysis to try and discover the roots of my disappointments. For review purposes, I extracted the audio from this title to its’ 24/96 PCM track. First, I did some comparison using 2 versions: a totally uncompressed AIFF format as well as Apple Lossless Audio Codec, which, like FLAC, is supposed to result in a bit-perfect representation of the original .wav audio (uncompressed). The purpose of this was to see if the extraction to a lossless format mattered. As expected, the format did not matter - subjectively both still sounded louder and a little compressed compared to my original CD. Analysis of the audio loudness levels, dynamic range were identical. Some audiophiles purport to hear a difference between lossless formats and ‘pure’ formats like .wav or .aiff. The only way I can imagine this matters is if software of a computer is not up to the task of converting the audio back to the pure bit-perfect original data upon playback. Sufficient processing power, data buffering, and software that operates in a bit perfect mode should solve this issue, while permitting smaller file sizes. This matters for high resolution audio, since individual songs can be a quarter of a gigabyte!

I tried subjective comparison with what I assumed would be a high end CD release. The
Blu-ray was, however, still far better than the audio track from the Japanese SHM-CD demo disc “Have You Ever Been Experienced? SHM-CD Compilation Volume 3: Rock Edition” - UICY 91296. This special release included a regular Japanese CD and SHM-CD (Super High Material) version for the same 19 demo tracks for comparison purposes. Regardless of the format, both this Japanese CD and SHM-CD are terribly loud and compressed. A disaster, in my opinion for audio. Analysis with foobar2000 for windows with the Dynamic Range analysis plugin shows a miserable 7 dB (DR score 7) of dynamic range. The source for this material is newly remastered. Ironically, the original 1990-ish CD was superior in terms of dynamics, musicality and was pleasing to the ear, even on prolonged listening.

So how did they
Blu-ray audio fare by comparison? For similar tracks, the tracks reveal a dynamic range score of 10.

As I was preparing this review, my purchased copy of 'Breakfast in America' (UIGY-9536) on the purist’s dream format of
SHM-SACD arrived from Japan. The difference is audible and palpable. Once adjusting for volume levels, the SHM-SACD is clearly superior in dynamics and detail and lacks the harshness associated with the SHM-CD and, to a lesser degree, with the Blu-ray. As a hobbyist, I am able to analyze the DSD audio on SACD releases using the obscure PS3 method to obtain the tracks.
Once analyzed by foobar2000, they give a DR score of 12-13.

 

Analysis on the Mac using the paid version of ChannelD’s Audio LEq tool reveals the following for the 3 formats

(1) Original CD - even an old mp3 rip for analysis reveals full dynamics. Foobar2000 DR score of 13 ! As with many older CDs, even with volume adjustment, the frequency response subjectively seems a little flat (CD or Mp3).

 

 

(2) Japan SHM-CD Demo Disc with evidence of lots of compression. Foobar DR score of 7. Worst of all formats here.

 

 

(3) Blu-ray Audio - pushed to the limit with evidence of only very slight compression. Foobar2000 DR score of 11.

 

 

(4) Of note the Japanese SHM-SACD, played through foobar2000 with the SACD plugin also gives the DR score of 13. Since DSD audio is a completely different technology, it is not possible to analyze without conversion to some other PCM format first. The presence of the highest DR score would strongly argue that it is not compressed, however.

(5) UK Deluxe Edition from 2010 played through foobar2000 gives a DR score of only 8. It is visibly compressed

 

 

Ironically, 35 years after the release of this album, I have to pay about $60 for the Japanese SHM-SACD to get the full dynamics and detail of this wonderful recording. The original CD purchased around 1990 is the next best in terms of dynamics although the Blu-ray comes close. It does seem brighter and fuller in terms of frequency response subjectively but as mentioned, still slightly grating on prolonged listening. The Japanese SHM-CD demo is the worst of all the formats analyzed. Although the loudest and brightest on initial listening, it is over compressed and punched up. It represents just about everything that is wrong with modern music releases. If you Google ‘loudness wars’ there are many examples of classic recordings ruined by overly aggressive volumes/compression used on re-mastering. My best advice is don’t rush to throw out your original CDs but rather, get reacquainted with a good amplifier and its volume knob. Once you are comparing at similar volume levels, you’ll hear that the old ‘flat’ CD really has more dynamics and a fuller sound.

I think it is critically important to go to Universal’s statement on Blu-ray audio to see where my disappointment comes from. - The claim from Amazon’s website and found on numerous high end audiophile retailers (like MusicDirect and ElusiveDisc) says: Universal Music Group has gone back to the original master tapes to deliver fully uncompressed, high-resolution versions of many of your favorite albums on Blu-ray Pure Audio Disc. Mastered at 24bit/96kHz, Blu-ray Pure Audio Discs deliver the sound the artists originally heard in the studio when these classic albums were recorded. Recordings are transferred from the original master tapes and delivered in high-resolution 24-bit/96kHz audio. "No compression is utilized, and the sound quality is vastly superior to MP3 or standard CD. "

None of those things in the statement are necessarily true or false. While going to an original source is usually preferable and while Blu-ray is more than capable of delivering on these promises, in actual execution, decisions made during mastering can ruin the dynamics of a recording. In this particular case, they are right at, and probably a little past maximum on volume selection in this release. The SHM-SACD and original CD (ironically) would seem to support that. An initial analysis of Lenny Kravitz’s ‘Are You Gonna Go My Way’ strongly suggests that compression is used, even in that release which is 24/192. 24 bit digital audio has a theoretical maximum signal to noise range of 144 dB, compared to 96 dB for 16-bit CD audio. Most recordings in rock fit well within either paradigm but the additional headroom afforded by high resolution formats, to my mind, provide no excuse for compression.

I also don’t wish to give the impression that a DR score is all that it takes to evaluate music. This would be perilous. Some music has little dynamic range, inherently. Other times, a compressed version taken from a batter master with new remastering techniques will clearly best original CDs. One example is the Sam Cooke track ‘Another Saturday Night’ from an older compilation ‘The Man and His Music’. Although the original CD has dynamics by analysis, it sounds terrible; almost like an AM radio recording with respect to frequency response. Conversely, the SACD release ‘Portrait of a Legend 1951-1964’ has less dynamics on analysis, but sounds like a different recording altogether. Part of ABKCO’s DSD remaster series, it sounds like it could have been recorded today. It is being reissued on Blu-ray audio, and I can’t wait to compare it to the other formats. One thing I have learned is that generalizations must be avoided. Each recording and reissue must be taken on its own merits.

 

The Oppo has identified it as being a region FREE disc (like CDs) playable on Blu-ray machines worldwide.

 

Extras :

A foldout with photos and lyrics and extensive description of the recording process of the album. A paper with a code to access the Blu-ray disc digital downloads online
Produced By: Supertramp and Peter Henderson

 

BOTTOM LINE:
My recommendations are therefore as follows: Since as of the time of writing this review the only high-resolution formats for ‘Breakfast in America’ are the Blu-ray audio and SHM-SACD, the Blu-ray represents reasonably good value in terms of providing a good listening experience with full frequency yet somewhat muddled dynamics. The downloadable files allow you to listen on a music server or via a portable device easily. In this day and age of music servers, high speed internet connections and sites like HDtracks.com I would recommend to Universal that a 24/96 or greater high resolution download become part of the Blu-ray audio program. I think it would support sales strongly. Furthermore, they could include the option of uncompressed and compressed versions either for download or on the discs (which have tremendous capacity). It is not without precedent: HDTracks has done so for Paul McCartney’s 24/96 releases, all of which are offered in compressed or uncompressed versions.

Sadly, I must warn you to be wary of just about all CDs produced in the last 10-15 years as they risk being overly compressed. Read reviews first. For example, the only reason I can recommend the 2010 2
CD Deluxe Edition is if you must have the live tracks from 1979 or are a Supertramp collect but caveat emptor RE sound quality. Surprisingly, the Japanese SHM-CD format is the worst of the lot, with extreme compression. I can’t recommend a release that gives me a headache - this degree of compression might do well in specific environments, like radio play, a waiting room, or a car stereo, but it fails miserably for what is marketed as an audiophile SHM release. The message here is that mastering is much more important than the format these days. There are contrarian opinions about this trend but I vehemently disagree, especially when the technology could easily give us both versions.

However, if you have SACD playback capability and want a definitive digital version of this album, I cannot say enough about the
SHM-SACD, which is already getting difficult to find. If you can afford it and love this album as much as I do, I cannot recommend the Blu-ray over the SACD. I think it's worth the premium for a recording of this quality and popularity.

 

Summary: Worst to Best

Format / Release: DR Notes:
Score:
Japan SHM-CD remaster 7 Terribly loud and compressed
UK Deluxe Edition from 2010 8 Loud and compressed. Only recommended for bonus live material
1990 Out of Print Original CD 13 Full dynamics, frequency response slightly flat
2013 Blu-ray Audio 11 Mild compression, nice frequency response, includes CD quality download
**WINNER: Japan SHM-SACD** 13 **Hands Down BEST. Best sound & dynamics. Audiophile reference quality**

  

Daniel Lalla

March 19th, 2014

  

  

 

Tools Used:

MacPro with iTunes 11 using AudirvanaPlus.
XLD used for all file format conversions where needed.
AudioLEq Version 3 (paid version) for analysis and histogram
Output through TEAC UD-501 USB DAC (driverless in Mac OSX) with direct DSD support
Parallels Windows partition with Foobar 2000 with SACD and Dynamic Range plugins, using TEAC ASIO driver
Some album information is drawn from Wikipedia and other sources on the internet.

Daniel Lalla

 

     

 




 

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