Audiophiles are going for the gold 24-karat CDs cost more, sound better

January 31, 1993|By J.D. Considine | J.D. Considine,Pop Music Critic

There you are, flipping through the Eric Clapton section of your local CD store, when suddenly you notice something funny about the copies of "Slowhand" there in the bin.

One looks just the way you expect it to, with a 5-by-5-inch version of the album cover framed in the top half of the package, with a shiny silver disc showing in the bottom. But the other looks, well . . . different. For one thing, the CD booklet places the original cover art in a black-and-gold striped border, with a banner across the top announcing "Original Master Recording" -- whatever that means -- while the disc itself is black and gold, with the phrase "24kt GOLD PLATED" printed on the rim.

But the oddest thing of all is the disparity in price between the two. Although the silver-disc version of "Slowhand" is marked at $12 -- fairly normal for back-catalog -- the "Original Master" edition goes for a whopping 30 bucks! And that's for the exact same songs, at the exact same length, as on the $12 version.

Stunned, you stare at the gold disc in disbelief. Could one CD really sound $18 better than another?

Well, yeah. It could. Compare any gold disc to its standard-priced silvery cousin, and the golden one will invariably seem richer, deeper, clearer -- better. Maybe not exactly $18 better; obviously, it's hard to assign a dollar value to listening pleasure. But there are plenty of audiophiles willing to pay that much if it means they'll get more from the recordings they love.

Maybe that's why there's been something of a rush toward gold CDs lately. Although Mobile Fidelity, the California-based sound lab responsible for the golden "Slowhand," blazed the way for super-fidelity compact discs when its first gold "Ultradiscs" were unveiled in 1984, it no longer has the field to itself. Over the last 12 months, gold disc reissues have been released by both the tiny DCC (another California remastering operation) and the mighty Sony Music.

Not large, not cheap

As these things go, the gold disc market is neither very large nor terribly cheap to enter. As Mobile Fidelity chief Herb Belkin puts it, "We are making small numbers of releases available to a very small number of people, slowly, and very often without regard to expense." At the moment, the Mobile Fidelity catalog boasts a mere 52 Ultradisc titles; DCC has a dozen; and Sony half that.

So why do these companies bother?

Because people like Belkin firmly believe that there's more to be heard on most albums than the average compact disc delivers.

Shocked? Don't be. The shortcomings of CDs have been a popular topic among audiophiles since before the format was introduced in 1982. Some of them feel that digital sound doesn't sound as "natural" as the analog sound of a good LP; others complain that it's too easy to lose sound and add noise while making a digital master. And there are even those who maintain that the format itself is inherently limited.

Belkin, for instance, recounts a Stereo Review interview with one of the engineers who developed CD technology. "He said, right in the article, that digital was at best mid-fi medium, and that people shouldn't be confused about its capabilities," says Belkin. "That was a great reaffirmation of our belief that there were certain inefficiencies in CD technology."

That doesn't mean CDs can't be improved, of course. Indeed, the very goal of these gold disc companies is to squeeze as much of the original sound as possible into the ones-and-zeros of the CD bitstream.

Moreover, their engineers will go to any length to add to the disc's sonic potential -- even if the cost is high and the advantage seems almost theoretical.

Take, for example, the use of gold in making the discs. Although it may seem little more than a marketing ploy, it in fact has a basis in audiophile theory.

Compact discs are essentially sandwiches, with a piece of foil stuck between protective layers of vinyl. Once mastered, the foil has tiny pits which are read by a laser as ones (or zeros, if there is no pit), providing the bitstream that is processed into digital sound.

Most CDs use a thin piece of aluminum, which is malleable and cheap but prone to oxidation and microscopic surface irregularities that can cause loss of data. Granted, little data is lost -- barely enough to tax the error-correction of even the most basic players. But because audiophiles would rather not risk a single bit, super CD manufacturers rely on gold, which is far less prone to oxidation or surface irregularities.

Sonic majesty

But the rewards can be stunning, particularly when the restoration process brings out the sort of sonic majesty few fans ever knew was there in the first place. Steve Hoffman, DCC's director of A&R and engineering, cites the Cream album "Wheels of Fire" as a case in point. "In no way could that be considered an audiophile record," he says. "But there's a surprising amount of information on the master tapes that were not even translated to the LPs."

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