"Basically, we try to pick things we think would sell," laughs Andy McKaie. McKaie's job is to decide which titles get rolled out into SACD and, now, DVD-Audio. "It's basically an upper demographic thing, people who would be prone to buy something that's a little more expensive and are more audiophile-oriented."
Though that's just one A&R person's opinion on how to pick titles, it seems to be a guiding philosophy for the new formats. Most releases -- SACD or DVD-Audio -- are reissues of justifiable genre classics or classical and jazz titles. Some are somewhat unexpected choices that benefit greatly from the increased fidelity and the expanded capabilities of the formats. In some cases, this means a title might get the treatment twice.
Queen "The Game" (DTS DVD-Audio)
Although DTS is actually a company -- Digital Theater Systems Inc. -- the acronym has become synonymous with multichannel sound reproduction in theaters and home audio equipment. Accordingly, their small but vibrant "label" division has delivered mind-blowing surround-sound releases. The most impressive is this year's reissue of Queen's hugely popular 1980 album. (The standard caveats apply to the DVD-Audio 5.1 mix and the PCM stereo mix: The sound is magnificent, the surround effects perfect.) The gem here is the DTS 5.1 remix of the album. Rather than simply expand the spatial parameters to fit the larger sound field of 5.1, this remix completely revisits the album. Vocal parts are lifted out of the back of the mix and scattered around the room, unheard guitar lines are pushed to the fore; the version of "Coming Soon" uses an entirely different set of background vocal tracks to stunning effect. With the original album intact on the stereo mix, purists should have no problem enjoying the new sounds, and for longtime fans, it's a brand-new experience.
Flaming Lips "Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots" (Warner Bros. DVD-Audio/CD combo pack)
Leave it to the Lips to embrace the combined possibilities of surround sound and synched video images. Vibrantly remixed into 5.1, Yoshimi ends up delivering what Zaireeka must have been conceived as. Sounds are flying, and effects float above you. The accompanying video treatments flicker on the television, expanding and contracting with the music -- exactly the sort of immersive experience this format is best at delivering.
Peter Gabriel "Passion" (Geffen SACD)
Although only mixed into stereo, this odd album out of the Gabriel canon is also the one best served by the increased fidelity of SACD. This otherworldly soundtrack to The Last Temptation of Christ is a sonic wonderland, with Armenian melodies, Egyptian rhythms and multi-culti improvisations all swirled into heightened awareness.
Fleetwood Mac "Rumours" (Warner Bros. DVD-Audio)
The Fleetwood Mac catalog sounds like complete ass on CD, which is a crying shame. The magnificent 2001 DVD-Audio edition (two surround sound mixes and advanced resolution stereo) is probably what shamed Warner Bros. into scheduling CD remasters for early 2004. After being numbed by substandard playback of Rumours for years, when the first notes of "Second Hand News" come sliding out of your speakers, you'll be asking yourself where DVD-A has been all your life.
Miles Davis "Steamin'" (Mobile Fidelity Sound Labs SACD Hybrid)
Although MoFi is getting back on their feet after their distributor went out of business a few years back, their limited slate of releases is unsurprisingly fantastic. This "blowing session" from Miles was one of a hurried series of contract-busters, but somehow this particular session was possessed of a peculiar magic and the high-powered Steamin' is a whole lot more inspiring than the modal snooziness of Kind of Blue. Steamin' has been repeatedly the object of remastering and new formatting, but leave it to MoFi to up the ante once again: The sound is wondrous, blessed with a warmth the sonic Nazis have long accused 5-inch digital discs of being incapable of achieving.
Midori "Mendelssohn & Bruch: Violin Concertos" (Sony Classical SACD)
As the leading force behind SACD, it's no surprise that Sony's releases just keep getting better. Everything about this disc was done with SACD in mind: It was recorded, mixed and mastered using DSD technology, and it very much shows. Two Berlin concerts -- from June 2002 and January 2003 -- pair violinist Midori with the Berlin Philharmonic, and the material is quite demanding from a sonic perspective. Subtly blending Midori's fluid playing with the beefy conducting of Mariss Jansons, these two pieces blithely shift from subtle to overbearing. Somehow, the SACD keeps up with all of it and decently reproduces the warm dynamics of the concert hall. Beautiful.
Rolling Stones "Beggars Banquet" (ABKCO SACD Hybrid)
Of all the Stones titles to get the SACD treatment, Beggars is the most rewarding. Although all of the group's early ABKCO material was in dire need of remastering, the dynamic shifts between the acoustic numbers and raunchy rockers on Beggars resulted in uneven pressings for years. With the spaciousness of SACD's soundfield, the entire album opens up and breathes like never before, which means "Sympathy for the Devil" and "Street Fighting Man" sound as spectacular as "Jigsaw Puzzle" and "Salt of the Earth."
Maurizio Pollini "Chopin: Polonaises" (Deutsche Grammophon SACD Hybrid)
Originally recorded in 1976, these recordings set a high-water mark for the Polonaises, and remastered onto SACD, Pollini's commanding style shines through brilliantly. Crisp and sparkling.
Megadeth "Peace Sells ... But Who's Buying?" (Capitol/DTS DVD-Audio)
Sure, better sound quality on a great metal record just makes it louder, right? Wrong. DTS not only infuses Peace Sells with an organic thickness even the original vinyl didn't have, they tack on the original multitracks of "Devil's Island" so you can just listen to the drums, or just Dave's guitar or whatever. And there's videos, too!
The Who "Tommy" (Geffen SACD Hybrid)
As mentioned above, there's a DVD-Audio reissue of Tommy in the pipeline with some added video features, but this SACD hybrid disc, sans commentary, will do just fine. With an entire bonus disc of demos and outtakes (as with all Universal "Deluxe Editions"), it might actually be too much Tommy, but the true genius behind this album really comes through in the warm density of Townshend's meticulously layered arrangements.
Ali Akbar Khan "Indian Architexture" (Water Lily Acoustics SACD Hybrid)
These analog recordings from 1992 were stifled by their compressed presentation on standard CD, but with the benefit of DSD, Khan's delicate sarod mastery (and the subtle tabla work of Swapan Chaudhuri) has plenty of atmosphere to fill your chambers.
Aerosmith "Toys In the Attic" (Columbia SACD)
No, really. You wouldn't think there would be any revelations left in this old warhorse, but both the surround mix and the stereo mix breathe new life into songs you thought you were way tired of hearing.
The Beach Boys "Pet Sounds" (Capitol DVD-Audio)
In addition to seven bonus tracks, lyrics, pictures and session film clips, there are five -- yes, five -- different mixes of this classic album. Three "Advanced Resolution" DVD-Audio mixes (5.1, stereo and the mono version), a DTS 5.1 mix and a Dolby 5.1 mix. Ironically, the mono mix is still the best.
John Coltrane "Blue Train" (Blue Note SACD Hybrid)
Rudy Van Gelder, the Blue Note engineer whose remastering has been responsible for the exponential sonic improvements in the Blue Note catalog, mastered the stereo mix of this influential album for SACD and CD. Both versions are on this hybrid disc, and a quick comparison makes it very clear just how much better SACD sounds.
Yes "Fragile" (Elektra/Rhino DVD-Audio)
Dismissed by hardcore Yes fans as a remnant of the band's poppier origins, Fragile is indeed an accessible album. It's one that easily uses intricate hooks to point the way toward upcoming prog monsters such as Tales From Topographic Oceans. Appropriately, the multiple mixes on this DVD-A (advanced resolution 5.1 and stereo for DVD-A players as well as Dolby and DTS 5.1 mixes) make it even trippier than it did when your dad was rolling joints on the gatefold sleeve back in '72.
Riccardo Chailly/Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra "Mahler Symphony No. 8" (Decca DVD-Audio)
Mahler's gargantuan "Symphony of a Thousand" is a heroic undertaking, masterfully handled by Chailly's conducting and the powerful assistance of four choirs and Jane Eaglen's lead soprano. It's an overwhelming work, perfectly suited to the advanced capability of the format. The two surround mixes completely overpower the still-intoxicating stereo version, plopping you right in the middle of this tour de force.
Sarah Vaughan "Sarah Vaughan" (Verve SACD)
The sumptuous intensity of this recording has suffered through many a substandard reissue. A CD version from 2000 finally corrected the situation, but this SACD version ups the ante. Simply and beautifully recorded in 1954, Vaughan's voice wraps itself around the material and the dynamic chops of a top-notch band (Clifford Brown, Paul Quinichette and Herbie Mann were in the lineup) are perfect accompaniment.
Bob Dylan "Blonde on Blonde" (Columbia SACD Hybrid)
The concept of "sonic density" wasn't one Dylan explored too often and, despite the improvements in the Columbia reissue series, most of the early Dylan albums aren't production masterpieces. Blonde on Blonde is a different story. This rollicking double-album set buzzes and crackles with life, and the fire that Dylan's band had in these Nashville sessions is as potent as the songs themselves. It's still a somewhat straightforward record, but it sure sounds a whole lot better.
Aimee Mann "Lost in Space" (Mobile Fidelity Sound Lab SACD Hybrid)
Aimee Mann is nothing if not persnickety. Accordingly, all the effort that went into the production of Lost in Space certainly wasn't going to be lost on the limited fidelity of compact-disc technology. When looking for someone to handle this audiophile edition, Mann went to the best in the business. If nothing else, Lost in Space sounds extraordinary on this SACD version, revealing a dense and thoughtful production that almost makes me want to forgive the whiny artist's one-note tirades. Almost.
Gus Black "Uncivilized Love" (Immergent DVD-Audio)
This indie singer-songwriter has crafted a thick sonic adventure that puts him somewhere between Radiohead and Rufus Wainwright, and the multichannel treatment, video extras and low price make this disc a great way to introduce yourself to a new artist.