The Gold Standard Of Cds

Ever since compact disks were introduced 10 years ago, music purists have complained that the sound isn't all that good. Too crisp, harsh, and cold are the usual criticisms. Plus, many early transfers of classic albums onto CDs were disasters. Few engineers knew how to handle the new medium, and many CDs were made from poor-quality copies of the original master tapes. Sony and Philips, developers of the CD, scoffed, and CD opponents earned a reputation as wild-eyed audiophile fanatics.

They're not so wild-eyed after all. Sony Music is now rolling out a series of remastered classic CDs that, it proclaims, exceed the "limitations" of standard CDs to "reproduce music with unprecedented clarity and accuracy." These new CDs, called the Legacy MasterSound series, are plated with 24-karat gold--for cosmetic reasons only. They come in book-like presentation boxes and cost $30 each, compared with $14 to $16 for a standard CD.

REALLY BLUE. For the extra $15, you get Super Bit Mapping, a new Sony technology that squeezes all 20 bits of sound on a remastered analog tape into the 16-bit format required by CD players. Those extra four bits are usually lopped off by engineers as insignificant, but they add warmth and resonance to the sound that is lacking in regular CDs.

Sony has released 12 titles so far, including Pearl by Janis Joplin, Bob Dylan's Blonde on Blonde, the original Broadway cast album of West Side Story, and Miles Davis' Kind of Blue. It plans to release two to three more each month. To ensure that the quality is the best possible, Sony used the original master tapes and often the original engineers and producers. The result: Janis sounds as if she's in the room with you and Bob Dylan's voice is far less raspy.

The most telling improvement is with Kind of Blue. Columbia Records, now owned by Sony, botched the album and first CD of this 1959 jazz classic by mixing the sound at the wrong speed and pitch. On the reissue, Sony got it right. Davis' trumpet really sounds blue, and the ensemble playing is so clear you can hear the sax keys move.

This all may be annoying if you've shelled out a lot of money on new CDs of your favorite old albums. But if you haven't, and you don't want to pay $30, wait a year or two. Sony says it will use the technology to reissue standard-priced CDs of the same titles once current stocks run out. You just won't get the gold platting

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