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HTF BLU-RAY AUDIO REVIEW: Nine Inch Nails: Ghosts I-IV


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#1 of 9 OFFLINE   Michael Osadciw

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Posted May 11 2008 - 07:47 AM



Blu-ray Audio Disc Review



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NINE INCH NAILS
Y34RZ3R0R3M1X3D, Reznor has done everything without a meddling record company. Without this, as he says in the above quote, Ghosts probably would have never surfaced in its current form. After listening to the album consistently for a few weeks I can say that this is a great piece of work that stirs the imagination. After all, the instrumentals on Nine Inch Nails albums have always been amazing and the music itself lends itself to making pictures in the mind.


About the Blu-ray disc…

What makes Ghosts different than a few other BD audio-only releases is that it’s similar to a CD regarding final playback. You take the disc, put it in your BD player, and start playing without the need to have a video display (rather than starting automatically like a movie BD, I had to hit the “enter” or the "play" button on my Panasonic DMP-BD-10A, just as I would when starting a CD in a CD player. Other players may start it differently. There is also a video menu with HD stills as video content on this disc, should your video display be turned on.) The audio on the disc is 2 CHANNEL ONLY, and thank God for that! The disc uses pure 2-channel PCM with 24bit/96kHz resolution. There is no lossless encode/decode formats such as DTS-HDMA, and there is absolutely no reason to get that middleman in the way. This is, in fact, about as high-end a disc format can get. The material was created in PCM 24/96 and is delivered to you as such. What more could we want?

Some listeners may have been secretly wishing for a 5.1 surround mix. As much as I like surround sound for movies, I appreciate my music in 2-channel more. Besides, the sound quality of well designed two channel equipment far exceeds that of what any surround processor can deliver anyways, so in fact, the 2-channel version will always sound better. In addition to that, with the right recording techniques in place, the artist can deliver surround sound from a two channel setup as long as the user has their speaker system set up correctly and is sitting in the "sweet spot". I've enjoyed The Downward Spiral in "surround" well before any DVD-A or SACD multichannel mix. But I’m preaching to the choir on this forum so I’ll move on to how Ghosts I-IV sounds.


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AUDIO QUALITY: 5/5 htf_images_smilies_star.gifhtf_images_smilies_star.gifhtf_images_smilies_star.gifhtf_images_smilies_star.gifhtf_images_smilies_star.gif

I’m going to give it five stars – why wouldn’t I? It’s an absolutely amazing sounding collection of instrumentals. Trent Reznor has always put the effort in to deliver high quality sounding material. While albums of the past had such a multitude of tracks and needed to be compressed quite a bit, I feel there is a big relief when listening to Ghosts. I don’t think I’ve ever heard an album by what we can sort of classify as a “mainstream artist” that sounds so dynamic, so open, so unveiled, and so naked. Sounds float in the sound space so clearly I want to reach out and grab the instrument or electronic sound. This can be said for both the Blu-ray disc as well as the CD. There isn’t any glare, abrasiveness, or harness to the sound. Much of it sounds just as if I had the equipment used for the electronic sounds hooked right into my playback system. It sounds so raw and at the same time nicely polished.

The musical styles vary from track to track. The first track is quiet with Trent on the piano, but it is a very big piano sound as if I had my head right inside of it hearing all of the mechanisms of the piano striking and returning back to their original position. The natural instrument is then accompanied by electronic voice in an almost ghostly fashion; the use of higher tones suggesting something spiritual or an apparition. Of course, this is my mind's own vision while listening to the track. This continues through to Ghosts 2, but with the hitting of lower keys on the piano. The sound of the piano literally radiates throughout the room completely engulfing the listener. It’s mesmerizing.

Ghosts 3, 4 pick up the pace with a faster tempo. Ghosts 3 shares the sound of other Ghosts in that it sounds “cultural” (Middle Eastern, East Indian) and Ghosts 4 demonstrates the levels of dynamics this album delivers with loud sounds just cranked out cleanly above all others, with little sense of clipping or severe compression. I’d say that Ghosts 12 is one of my favourites out of Ghosts Volume I-II. It starts with a gentle piano piece that eventually has a duel with distorted percussion and guitar as they push each other aside, almost fighting to see which can stay at the front of the mix. Again, that’s how I interpret it and the point of this release is to imagine whatever we want.

Ghosts III-IV tends to pick up the pace a bit more and is somewhat different in style from the first two volumes. They are equally great and if I were to choose between volume as my favourite I’d have no idea. After a period of time, I did prefer listening to Volumes III-IV just a bit more, most likely because I found several tracks with a sound that mirrored events happening in my life. I could talk and talk about each piece but I'm not going to; that's not the point of this review. Let me not judge for you as I’m not going to write about every track. I’m going to encourage you to listen and imagine for yourself.


BD-CD Comparison & System Playback

This is the moment we’ve all been waiting for: how does a CD @ 16/44.1 sound in comparison to the same content on a BD at 24/96? Will there be a difference? Is there a large improvement? Is high resolution PCM worth the hype without all of this DSD or MLP baloney in between? The short answer is yes.

What I did is took the original Ghosts CD and played that back through my Meridian 508.24 CD player. It is connected with balanced outputs to an Ayre K-1xe, a dual-mono designed preamp. Each channel from the Ayre is connected balanced to one of two Theta Dreadnaughts operating as a monoblock (each Theta has the ability to switch off all of it’s channels except for the ones selected to operate in 2-channel mode, in my case only one of five 200w channels in each chassis is selected for this operation). The Ayre and Thetas are zero-feedback designs and all components are differential balanced from input to output. The speakers used are the Dunlavy SC-IV/A. The are highly regarded for their pinpoint accuracy, near-perfect measurements, flat response, time and phase accuracy and amazing revealing sound. …and revealing this test was!

The Blu-ray disc was played back in a Panasonic DMP-BD10A using unbalanced connections. The player represents the mediocre level of quality of what’s available to most consumers at this point in time, except for the Denon DVD-3800BDCI which uses higher quality DACs and internal components. I chose not to do this comparison of CD vs. BD entirely in the Panasonic because the Panasonic does not represent a good sounding CD player and the level of quality achievable from the format. It would be an injustice to the CD if done in this manner.

When volume matched, what is immediately clear is that the BD has a significantly lower noise floor. In fact the CD can’t even match it. The background of the BD is quieter, darker, and noiseless. The higher noise floor was audible when listening to the CD and its clear when making this comparison. We’ve been so used to it with every other recording that now, suddenly, it’s objectionable. Therefore quieter sounds became a bit more distinct, and it’s safe to say dynamic range excelled because of this.

Whether sitting in the sweet spot or standing outside of it, the sound of the BD is rounder around the edges of sounds. The CD sounds slightly brittle in comparison and the sounds feel less weighty. The midrange on the Blu-ray sounds more pleasing without being cloudy. The CD just doesn’t seem to have that extended resolution. Bass on both formats is respectable. The Blu-ray delivered just as much thump and definition as the CD did through the Meridian.

The area where the Blu-ray could not match was the dramatic presence of the CD. This is a hardware issue rather than a software one. All things aren’t equal in this comparison because the Meridian player is a much better audio component then the Panasonic is, but at the same time shows exactly what the CD format is capable of. The Meridian is designed to sound accurate and is exceptional in this regard. Therefore the soundstage felt bigger and more dramatic as the Meridian squeezed out as much of the 16bit res as it could from the CD. It's this that makes the sound impressive and holier than the Blu-ray. Can Blu-ray software deliver the same? Most certainly, but not until the hardware gets better as there is no high end Blu-ray equipment on the market that can squeeze out as much 24/96 resolution possible. I wouldn't even think the machine is outputting close to that. It’s quite possible that when BD Profile 3.0 hits the market (the audio-only profile for BD), this may change. I’m eager to hear a fully balanced BD audio only player that is put together with the highest quality parts. Then we can really hear what the format can truly deliver (when the market grows, I’m sure external DACs are also possible and would be linked to a BD transport via HDMI). I expect it to knock me out of my chair.

If you use your Blu-ray or DVD player as a CD player, or use a mass market CD player as your main listening source, the Blu-ray disc will be the better choice over the CD. If your CD player is of much higher calibre, at this poing in time the choice is bit more difficult to make despite the advantages of Blu-ray software; it may depend on the performance of your CD player regardless of price point, because as we know, not all high-priced gear translates to better sound quality. In my case, the $3500 Meridian is an excellent performer and the $500 BD player had a lot of challenges to face from it. Remember, it's a hardware and *NOT* a software issue.

Regardless of the differences, both formats did an exceptional job delivering the music because of the high quality recording. The better the original recording, the better it will sound on any physical media.


IN THE END...

Ghosts I-IV is an imaginative piece of work. Nine Inch Nails used the freedom from the record label to create work that would have otherwise never surfaced, and Nine Inch Nails has also given fans the freedom and creativity to create films of the music and post them on the official website. The music is brain food to listen to and is not some uncreative mish-mash of sound; in fact I’ve been enjoying listening to it on my drives to work and back everyday. Has it helped me daydream more? You bet. But what is really exceptional here is that once again, Trent Reznor has delivered his material in a high resolution format and has offered audiophiles and fans the chance to hear the music exactly as he hears it from the 24/96 master. In the past he’s dabbled with DVD-Audio and SACD, and his newest album, The Slip, also has a downloadable 24/96 WAVE version available. Concluding, I will say thank you Trent for creating exceptional and meaningful music and for taking the time and care of delivering it to us with the highest quality possible.

Michael Osadciw
May 11, 2008.

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#2 of 9 OFFLINE   KurtEP

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Posted May 15 2008 - 09:38 AM

Michael,

Thanks for reviewing this. I downloaded the sampler and didn't enjoy it enough to spring for the Blu Ray, but I was very interested in how well it presented the music. It sounds like it does the job quite well. I'm beginning to believe that this is the future of hi resolution audio, and I'm glad Reznor is on the leading edge. I can't wait for the opportunity to compare a Blu Ray music release to one of my SACDs or DVD-As, although I doubt I'll ever have the opportunity.
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#3 of 9 OFFLINE   Sam Posten

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Posted May 16 2008 - 08:15 AM

Don't shoot me, I only got the $5 downloads off Amazon =p

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#4 of 9 OFFLINE   Michael Osadciw

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Posted May 17 2008 - 03:56 AM

However you enjoy it, it's an interesting batch of instrumentals. I find the more I listen to it, the more I "get it". That was what happened with Year Zero. The first time I listened to it I wasn't sure how to respond. It was so different from With Teeth. But the second listen a light bulb popped on in my head and I finally understood the music.

What makes Ghosts so cool is that the difference between quiet and loud sounds can be quite a range and makes it a hell of a lot more interesting to listen to. That's a relief to hear as we don't get to hear that often with our favourite artists. The CD plays it back wonderfully. Whether listening to BD or CD, you'll enjoy it. I've never been a downloading guy (except for bootlegs/concerts/rare tracks - and virtually all of them are Pink Floyd) so I can't comment on that audio quality. So Sam, I won't shoot you until I have a listen. Posted Image

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#5 of 9 OFFLINE   Ralphie_B

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Posted May 19 2008 - 03:38 AM

Agreed, I love that Trent's releasing music with some dynamic range, unlike so many others these days.

Have you listened to "The Slip" yet? That album isn't all instrumentals, but it is excellent as well -- and FREE! I've been listening to it a lot lately... and now I can't get the groove/riff from 'Discipline' out of my head! Posted Image

#6 of 9 OFFLINE   Michael Osadciw

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Posted May 19 2008 - 04:09 PM

I have only downloaded the MP3 of the album. Every time I hear Discipline all I can think of is that animated video that was posted on NIN.com. Eeek!

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#7 of 9 OFFLINE   Steven Burke

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Posted May 29 2008 - 01:47 AM

Nice in depth review and really enjoyed the comparisons.
Two comments:
1) If the Blu-ray player is only being used as a digital transport, isn't the hardware difference removed from the equation?
2) The 5.1 SACD of The Downward Spiral is light years different than the CD, the two aren't even comparable regardless of sweet spot. The 5.1 mix from Trent and James Brown is the way this disc was meant to be heard and two channel reproduction will never sound like this. The only reason I haven't hocked my CD, is Trent signed the cover for me when I was DJ'ing in Toronto at The Opera House the night before the December 1st, 1994 show at Maple Leaf Gardens.

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#8 of 9 OFFLINE   Michael Osadciw

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Posted May 31 2008 - 03:37 AM

Hi Steven

I was not using the BD player as a transport. I was using the internal DACs and used the analogue outs to the Ayre K-1. There currently is no external DAC we can feed the 24/96 (or 24/192) PCM from Blu-ray. But even if so, any player cannot be used as a transport and still sound good. There are audible differences between transport designs too.

You are correct that the SACD/DVD-A 5.1 mixes are different than the 2-ch CD. They must be as there have been 4 more channels added! But I disagree with your assessment of the 5.1 mix being superior regardless of sweet spot. This is about personal taste. While the 5.1 mix does sound more breathable, I'm very used to the surround placement in the stereo mix and didn't find myself as willing to accept the changes in the new 5.1 mix. Sounds can be very channel specific and rely less on phantom imaging between loudspeakers. To me it sounds less fluid and immersive. The stereo version uses a lot of phantom imaging to make a huge soundstage. I'll pick on "Ruiner" as an example. The bass guitar is placed to the right of the right channel. It's not heard as "hard right" and it floats in the space to the side of the speaker. The other guitar is placed hard left. The drumming then starts right of the bass guitar and upon it's intro to the mix, each tom is banged on to the right of each other, so you can hear the sticks hit from front-right to rear-right. The percussion continues in the rear-right location. The vocals "you didn't hurt me, nothing can hurt me..." switch between rear-left and rear-right. This song isn't mixed the same in the 5.1 mix. It's different. I understand that it's Reznor-approved because he helped create it, and therefore it is the artist's vision, but the 2-channel mix is also the artist's vision working withing those boundaries. I'm just happy to have a choice between the two. When given the choice, for this album I choose the stereo version. With Teeth on the other hand, I choose the 5.1 mix.

Personal preference!

Mike

(BTW: awesome re: the autograph. I would have loved to have that opportunity. The most personal I've ever got was with the special Spiral performance during soundcheck.)

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#9 of 9 OFFLINE   Mattias_ka

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Posted June 15 2008 - 10:37 AM

Well, I don't really know what you are saying here:

"When volume matched, what is immediately clear is that the BD has a significantly lower noise floor. In fact the CD can’t even match it. The background of the BD is quieter, darker, and noiseless. The higher noise floor was audible when listening to the CD and its clear when making this comparison. We’ve been so used to it with every other recording that now, suddenly, it’s objectionable. Therefore quieter sounds became a bit more distinct, and it’s safe to say dynamic range excelled because of this."

The CD system have a noisefloor at -96dB, and if you have a REALLY quite room with low backgroundnoise, you maybe have 35-40dB backgroundnoise.
So to hear the noisefloor of the CD you must play it over the background noisefloor + the noisefloor of the CD. That's 131 dB. I would guess you didn't play that loud at all.